As medical director of the famed Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Lee Lipsenthal helped thousands of patients struggling with disease to overcome their fears of pain and death and to embrace a more joyful way of living. In his own life, happily married and the proud father of two remarkable children, Lee was similarly committed to living his life fully and gratefully each day.
The power of those beliefs was tested in July 2009, when Lee was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. As Lee and his wife, Kathy, navigated his diagnosis, illness, and treatment, he discovered that he did not fear death, and that even as he was facing his own mortality, he felt more fully alive than ever before. In the bestselling tradition of Tuesdays with Morrie, told with humor and heart, and deeply inspiring, Enjoy Every Sandwich distills everything Lee learned about how we find meaning, purpose, and peace in our lives.
Here are excerpts from Chapter 18 called Living and Dying Outside the Box.
“We create the world we live in. Some of us have large comfortable homes with room to grow, and others have tiny, boxlike apartments that keep us feeling small and confined. When I was younger, I lived in a Neuroimaginal box of depression and anxiety where smart people became doctors or lawyers and relationships were like those idealized stories presented to me daily on television and in movies: Good people get good things, love is pure an romantic, and bad guys always get it in the end. At that time, I believed that was all there was to life. I had no way of seeing outside that limited worldview. it was my truth.
When I lived in such a small box, I couldn’t imagine any other world or life. I reinforced my limited world over and over by surrounding myself with people who shared my views, passions, and opinions. I defined myself by the world I had created.
I had no desire to leave the little box I lived in, because there was enough comfort, security, and success for me to believe that everything was fine. I came up with justifications for why I couldn’t change. I had responsibilities to my wife and kids, to my work. I had invested so many years to build this life and career that the fear of change was greater than my desire to change. Maintaining the status quo was just enough to get by, and I told myself good stories of a successful life to avoid thinking about change. I had solid defense mechanisms.
I was a physician with a wife, children, and a thriving practice. Everything was supposed to be great, but a restlessness began to grow inside me. This restlessness became anxiety and dissatisfaction, and although I wouldn’t have used this terminology then, my soul began to call out to me for what it needed: a new self, a new world, something larger. My desire to change began to exceed my fear of change.
I started to explore other options and ask other people about their experiences. People around me who had changed their worlds told me, ‘Oh, it’s easy; I did it. And look how happy I am now. All you need to do is…’ I thought that they just didn’t understand how hard change would be for me. I was a successful doctor. They hadn’t lived my life; they weren’t me.
In retrospect, these people had made substantial changes in their lives, but in doing so they forgot what it was like to be stuck in a world of limitations. For them, changing their world seemed so easy, a no-brainer, and of such great value that they wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Birthing a new life, scratching your way our of a confining box, is very much the same; the freedom and expansiveness at the other end make you forget how traumatic and difficult the work of escaping was. Today I can’t imagine living my old life, but I can say that leaving it behind was not easy. I have not forgotten totally the pain of delivery.
But pain always seems to push us until vision starts to pull us. In my thirties, the pain of living in my depressed and anxious little box finally surpasses my desire for safety, and I began to scratch away at the lining of the box in which I was stuck. For years, I didn’t even know where I was going. I just knew that my old world wasn’t enough. I scratched away at that box with simple tools: meditation, exercise, rock’n’roll, love, and therapy. I had no idea what I would find outside the walls of that box. I only knew that it was too painful to live inside it anymore. I was living the life I was supposed to live, but my soul was withering.
So I scratched away each morning, each evening, and each and every day until a small streak of light started to shine through. The wall had become just thin enough for me to know that there was something outside this prison of my own making. After I could see that small glimmer of hope, the effort started to feel worthwhile and change became possible. Inspired, I scratched some more.
After years of scratching, struggle, introspections, and disruption in relationships, the thin opening in my small box became wide enough for me to step out. What I found was scary, unknown place where all my old emotions and thoughts lived but where they were now accompanied by a new worldview in which thoughts and emotions were just of the moment, not the definition of myself.
This new world I had entered, this new home, was a place of transcendence, anger, depression, and joy , and I had to deal with it all. There was no shield expect love. Somehow, without being aware of it, I had created a new home for myself. It was a safe place both to grow in and from which to venture out into the risky unknown. From this new home, life became and adventure in which difficulty was just something to dive into. Every time I did dive in, I came out stronger than before. I came out refreshed and renewed.
This new house of my own creation has changed and now has many rooms. I have built it over many years with my practices of meditation, prayer, therapy, and journeywork, and it continues to expand.
This home has a room called depression where I can sit after struggling to walk up our small hill because my postradiation lungs are burned, coarse remnants of the pink, healthy tissue they once were. In this room I sit and listen to Jackson Browne’s ‘Late for the Sky’ and acknowledge what I’ve lost.
This house has a room called anger where the frenetic energy of punk rock pushes me to flail about until I collapse, usually of exhaustion, expunging anger at those who have hurt me.
This house has a room called joy, where Patti Smith’s ‘People Have the Power’ is cranked up to eleven on the volume dial, where I laugh, jump, and let tears of pure happiness flow.
This house has a room called love where ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys plays 24/7 and where I sit and feel the petals of gratitude in my pocket.
This house has a room where my family dances together to Johnny Clegg’s ‘Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World’ and I hold my daughter while hearing Joseph Arthur’s ‘In the Sun.’
This house has a room called peace where I meditate and Tibetan bowls ring in their sweet, harmonious tones and overtones, incense burns, and the world of today disappears in the silence of all that is bigger than me.
This house has a room called busy-ness, where a playlist of Springsteen, the Stones, the Beatles, John Prine, the Replacements, NRBQ, and many others are my welcome sound track to a life of doing.
This house has a kitchen where my friends and family gather and create warmth. My dad sings Sinatra as we make sandwiches together — many breads, many fillings, much love.
This house has a room called death where some day –maybe this year, maybe in five years, maybe when I am seventy-eight — I will go to lie down and this body will stop and some version of ‘I’ will rest at last. But the music will play on.
I built this house with practice, experience, and love. It took years of work. It didn’t exist before me, and it may not be there once I cease to be.
You too can build a house of your choosing. Like any labor of love, it takes time, patience, and practice. Even if you only have time left to redecorate one room in your existing house, it’s worth the effort.
If you are confined inside four small walls, it is impossible to see what lies outside. When you are inside a box of pain, scratch away at the walls. When you are inside a box of depression, scratch away. A box of perfectionism, scratch away. A box of self-pit, scratch away at those walls as if your life depended on it. Because it does. You won’t know where you are going, or how to get there, or what it will look like on the other side. But if there is pain or worry or unhappiness, scratch away at the walls that imprison you–scratch away with prayer, meditations, yoga, exercise, laughter, art, movement, gratitude, acceptance, and love. Scratch away with the knowledge that there is so much more to life that what we imagine it to be. There is so much more to death than what we imagine it to be. And there is so much more to living and loving and being than can be seen from inside our little walled-in world.”
“We all have this capacity, we can all learn the necessary tools, and we all have God or Spirit and the shaman within us. We just need to begin to practice, to scratch away at the old Neurimaginal world we have created and build ourselves a new home.
Patti Smith was right. People do have the power.
Facing my mortality, chemotherapy, radiation, and especially the inability to help those whom I love has made this the most challenging period of my life so far, but simultaneously, I have felt more gratitude and more freedom and peace and life than ever before.
Someday you will face your own mortality. At that moment, I hope you see that your life has been well led, that you hold no regrets, and that you have loved well. On that day, I hope that for you, it has become a good day to die.”
Questions to ponder and maybe answer
1) Author Lee Lipsenthal states “We create the world we live in.” What are your thoughts on this statement? Are you satisfied, content, happy in your current world? If not, what changes do you want to make to it?
2) If you are living in the world you want and envisioned what took place to get there? Was the journey difficult or easy?
3) Lee describes his new life in terms of building a new home. He then goes into detail about all the different rooms and because music plays an important role in his life he even shares the soundtracks that play in these rooms. Consider the various rooms he names: depression, anger, joy, love, peace, busy-ness and death. He also mentions a room where he and his family dance and of course the kitchen, where family and friends gather. Think about your own life and how you would describe the rooms of your home. Which rooms already exist? Which rooms might you add on? If you are a music lover what songs would be playing in your rooms?
4) On a deeper level what did you take from that whole section about rooms?
Lee Lipsenthal, MD, ABIHM, was an internist, trained in the prevention of heart disease and in integrative medicine. A popular and acclaimed speaker and author, he was the medical director of Dean Ornish’s Preventive Medicine Research Institute for a decade and has also served as president of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine. Lee died September 20, 2011, just months before his book was published. He and his family had grow hopeful over the course of two years that he had overcome the aggressive esophageal cancer. Yet when he learned it had returned the prognosis was that he had only six to eight months to live.
In August of 2011, shortly before his death, he wrote an article for the Huffington Post called Dying Awake. Here is an excerpt:
“It may seem peculiar that I am calm while others in my life are suffering. I can assure you their suffering makes me sad; I wish this weren’t happening. Yet after almost 30 years of meditating, I have learned to embrace optimism, gratitude and the knowledge that I am not in control over my life or death. Instead of being mad at the hand of fate, I am focused on what is going on — mentally, physically, and emotionally — with myself and those that I love. In spiritual language, I am awake.
I have no bucket list of things to do. I have been living my bucket list for some time now, and when I was first diagnosed, it came to me that the real list in my life was not the places I wanted to see, but the list of friends in my life with whom I want to spend my time.”
Here is one last piece by Lee on “Living Fully” as it appeared in his article The Noetic Change Model – Living Life of Meaning
It is not wanting more of the experience.
It is not buying the right clothing to remind you of the experience.
It is not telling the world that you are the experience.
It is asking “How does this experience inform my life?”
It is asking “How does this experience help me to serve others?”
It is doing the work of love without being seen.