This is a story of triumph and a new phase of life.
The preacher handed me a pamphlet. He told me that his name was Mr. Desmond, and he was 96 years old. Although he was using a walker, the old man looked terrific.
“Are you saved?” He asked.
At that exact moment, I had what’s known as “the thousand mile stare.” I closed my eyes for just a moment, and composed myself. Mr. Desmond looked at me with those steely blue eyes. Few things are more formidable than an elderly Christian of strong faith – not that I was looking to debate, but it seemed as if I might actually need to do shakubuku.
It seems very important to this narrative that I now describe how the great hero Shakyamuni Buddha, led me over the long, grueling, and perilous road to the respite of Phantom City, then on to the moment of grand awakening.
When I arrived at the VA, in April 2011, I was a feeble old man in both body and mind. Even my spirit felt trapped like some ancient critter being sucked under in the Le Brea Tar Pits. The universe body slammed me, then put me in a figure-four double grapevine until I cried uncle. Although I had just turned sixty, my body was wracked with intractable pain, leaving me to get around with a walker. There is much more to share, my friends. As it is said, – ‘the Devil is in the details,’ but I have found that the demons are in the omissions. In my writing, transcendence is in the meter, while bliss is in the blossoms that spring from intention. It may seem redundant for me to revisit my challenges, yet, after much consideration, it seems to me that the bones must be ‘Clovis-cut’ from the flesh, deeply scored, then milked of their life giving marrow, if we are to truly know the “cause and conditions” of our situation. Allow me to proceed now without embellishment, in order to give hope and good tools to those facing their own impossible moments and circumstances. The great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, describes “the hero” (of a thousand faces), as one who gives up all they have and all they are, gaining everything, without a single thought of recompense. One goes through an initiation – a sort of death in order to realize salvation. The dawn of awakening is in that singular moment we keep stressing, yet is so very hard to know that moment, and even harder to maintain it.
My twenty-five pound, fat cat, Casey, taught me his feline form of focus. Casey’s practice of “Be Here Now,” Cheshire Cat Zen, is a method more interesting and humorous to me than seeing twenty-three gyrating gurus in a conga line, dancing through a packed Crystal Cathedral. Oh poor reverand Robert H. Schuller! When finally transitioning out of the rabbit hole at super luminal velocity, then to the privy of this saha world’s burning house, we then discover that there really is “no moment,” much less a singularity.
After a lengthy battery of tests, a neuropsychologist determined that my cognitive skills were fully intact, but PTSD had laid waste to more than eighteen months of recent memory, and “it” had profoundly impacted my short term memory. The closest visual description I can give of PTSD is that of a pulsar in space, that throws off light like a spinning laser. All the experiences of my reality tunnel, which is another term for “rabbit hole,” had rendered recollection into mere shadows and feelings, devoid of substance, like a dream within a dream. Reclaiming my memory was like trying to catch the Cheshire Cat.
There was no rising moon to illuminate my path to salvation. At the VA, as lieutenant Dan told good old Forrest Gump, “It’s Jesus this, and Jesus that.” There was nothing to cling to. My only desire was for the Lotus Sutra, like an infant crying out for its mother. The words of others were garbled sounds, uttered deep underwater. I couldn’t understand what others wanted me to hear, and I was not interested in what anyone had to say. “Jesus this, and Jesus that.”
Neuropathy had numbed all of my limbs as if they were partially-asleep, with a sensation of electric waves, flowing from hand to hand, and foot to foot. Needle sticks stung me like fire ants. My favorite foods became repulsive almost overnight, smelling and tasting like the iron in my blood. Nausea swelled and quelled with tidal force.
Peaceful and wrathful deities appeared in my mind as rising and falling waves. My awareness conjured up mirage after bloody mirage on some hot, distant pavement, visually existing, yet unreal in every way. From this repeating, of successive forty-nine day confinements in the acid-tent, that spanned two years, Charles Atkins, emerged as what can best be described as a 120-year-old Jinyo Bosatsu, transformed in body, mind, and spirit – an ancient entity that appears wherever Shakyamuni Buddha preaches the Lotus Sutra, to endure and transform all fear and obstacles, for the sake of annutara-samyak-sambodhi. I had finally become, Gakkoren. Today, my pain level had dropped from a 7 to zero. I put my cane and walker in storage. Mentally, I have gone from PTSD victim to resident sage here at the VA.
It was September 8th, 2012, when my samadhi took me into the realm of awareness and awakening, where the past and future became the moment, this very moment. Perhaps this realm could be considered the bastion of the akashic record, where the inner connection of the multiverse is apparent, and you are the center, just as here is the same as everywhere or anywhere. “Indra’s Net,” begins and ends in the atoms of your being. It doesn’t make sense, but you are the universe, the beginning and the end.
From that day forward, every intention I have conjured, has taken perfect form. From the mighty Abyss where duality is dressed in saintly robes, and hell is the fear of green in an English garden. Love has delivered me from the greatest pain I have ever known.
I had just finished a grueling six hour vigil in palliative care with a veteran who had left instructions in his “advanced directive,” that we should read him passages from the Bible, and pray for him at his bedside. My patient, Mr. Joe, had finally “given up the ghost,” after about ten agonizing days in a coma. Terminal patients don’t follow some sort of linear decline that leads to their final death. Yes there are five stages in the dying process, but dying plays out like blackjack, out of sequence and the house eventually wins. Patients who wear a DNR bracelet, may fight and cling to life, even when living on only means more pain, more suffering, more fear, and more morphine. It is in our DNA to fight for life.
Over the course of a week, I sat many hours at Mr. Joe’s bedside, holding his hand, speaking gently to him, and reading his favorite Psalms. It’s only natural that one gets attached to their patients. I spend many hours with the veterans. It is said that hearing and touch are the last senses to go. For those who have never shared someone’s final times, no two experiences are ever the same, as each person faces death differently, even when their minds seem eclipsed by coma, or pained by fear or regret. Some face death with stoicism, some grow so depressed, they just want to be left alone to try and figure out what’s it all about. One can never tell what’s in another person’s life and mind. For that reason, as an Angel Wings Volunteer, one must be sensitive, in the moment, and responsive to the dying person. Leave your baggage at the door, and give meaning to the moment you are sharing with another soul. Trying to bring forth tranquility is the sitter’s main goal. Creating the ground of eternally tranquil light is not some idle, intellectual goal. For me, I start with a deep breathing method known as pranayama, to let loose my tension and manifest a state of deep relaxation. My spirit is to pour pure love and an all-embracing calm into my cup of psychic medicine that I call “Soma Qi.” This healing starts within my spirit as compassion, touching the patient with mercy.
Spending time with the terminally ill sounds like a wonderful idea, except for a couple of important matters. First, doing so. is heart breaking. I am most often called upon because far too many of those veteran’s have no relatives or friends to be with them as their lamp oil runs out. Second, the work is beyond exhausting, leaving the sitter both energy depleted, and shaken. That’s because when a person dies in “real life,” it’s not like the movies, where that person rides off into the sunset. And third, when a volunteer feels a “calling” to sit with the dying, they are often working through their own issues with death. The palliative care vetting process attempts to address such issues, but they can be well hidden, especially when the volunteer needs to use palliative care to work out their own past failures in dealing with death. Perhaps the most delusional reason a volunteer seeks out such servitude is that others will think of you as “wonderful.” The sobering truth is that one finds out rather quickly that volunteering in a hospice may in fact garner one attention for their apparent selflessness, but the sheer weight of that self-deception will crush one’s self-respect. One must assume the role of sitter with a sense of mission and will soon learn that one receives far more reward for their altruism than they put into their work.
As a spiritual healer, I have learned from my mistakes in palliative care. One of my first patients, Mr. Mann, was an eighty-two year old veteran in the final stages of cancer. I sat with him, holding his hand and quietly chanting for his well being. The next day, I came back to sit with him and was shocked to see him sitting up in bed, alert, with a finished eating tray! Old Mr. Mann stayed in that vital rebound stage for a full two weeks. Was Mr. Mann’s rebound just the natural order of things, or could it have been jump started by my poorly phrased prayer?
The vetting process to be a “sitter,” in a VA hospice, is quite formal and strict. The mission of Angel Wings is to ensure that “No Person Dies Alone.” One may need to sit there for hours, starting at 3:00 a.m., just to be close to someone who may not really want you there. It can be awkward. The VA is fully staffed with highly experienced and compassionate clergy, who take turns ministering to inpatients. But, a sitter learns early on, that it is not necessary to call the nurses when death is eminent. The clergy come in after the veteran expires. You are there to offer comfort, support, and help guide the dying person.
One develops their own style as a sitter. I am a chameleon, becoming whatever that veteran needs me to be to help guide them through their final stages of the dying process. The VA has very strict rules and a very formal clerical hierarchy in terms of what the non-clerical, medical staff can and cannot do, as well as equally strict guidelines for the volunteers. For example, one cannot go around trying to “save” the patients, nor can they “preach” their gospel unless the patient had formerly requested in writing, in their advanced directive, that such death bed ministering can and should be done. Many of the patients I have attended to, have formal requests for prayer and reading of Bible verses. As a Buddhist, I find no conflict whatsoever reading Bible verses to someone who is dying. I even had one veteran whose family were very “New Age,” as was he, and I was asked to use acupressure on his feet, as well as to use mantras and meditation at his bedside. The family was so elated by their loved one’s appearance of peace after I had sat with him for a few hours, that they requested that I stay there bedside, and help guide both them and their loved one into the next world. That particular experience was most fascinating, because all four of us attending the loved one, had an unmistakable metaphysical near-death experience. We all simultaneously drank from that cup, seeing and feeling what the patient was experiencing, including all of us catching his light body lifting from him physical body, and catching a brief but unmistakable glimpse of the spectral light.
In my earlier mention of Mr. Joe, he was described to me as a strong Christian who actually served as an unofficial volunteer, who spent almost a full year as an inpatient right across the hall from palliative care. He read the Bible and chatted regularly to the vets in palliative. The head nurse knew all about Mr. Joe. He was a highly respected elder in his church. She described him as an evangelist who could recite from memory, large sections of the New Testament. According to the head nurse, Mr. Joe had requested bedside prayer, and reading him the Bible. He was very sociable – just a sweetheart to the staff.
Mr. Joe had gone into a coma, and I sat with him, holding his hand, and reading him passages from his favorite scriptures, which were clearly marked in his Bible, along with notes that emphasized key points. The first few nights were a breeze, but all of that rapidly changed. When I arrived late one night, Mr. Joe was highly agitated. He had fallen into a coma, and his eyes were wide open. He had gone from a gregarious guy into a frenzied state. I didn’t know if his obvious panic was due to pain or fear. I know that death carries with it, its own natural, latent fears, so I read him some beautiful Psalms and other verses that he had marked. As a side note, I became more and more perplexed by the harsh, fearful words of the Bible, wondering how anyone could feel uplifted by what I was reading.
By the end of my shift around 5:00 a.m., Mr. Joe needed a relaxer, as he was shaking with fear. There were no other signs of eminent death, so I told him, I would be back around the same time the next day. Over the next several days, Mr. Joe had some kind of paranoid dementia surging through him, even though he was comatose. He began to moan like a ghost, getting louder with each hour until the charge nurse came in and gave him a couple of different shots to calm him down. Mr. Joe’s eyes were now glossed over like he had cataracts. He never blinked. By the time I left around 3:00 a.m., he was writhing in some kind of agony and terror that I can only describe as frightful to anyone, no matter how hardened they might be in the face of death.
I got a call the next evening, long before my assigned hours, to come right away, because Mr. Joe was about to die, or so they thought. After four hours of horrific suffering, the nurse urged me to compel Mr. Joe to die, to “let go.”. This is a very common practice, as the dying person seems caught up in some kind of clinging or attachment to their world. An important part of my work is to guide people from fear and attachment into a more peaceful state of mind. Mr. Joe just kept getting more and more panicky. He reached out and grabbed my wrist and damn near broke it. Mr. Joe had gone hysterical in a coma, and the nurses needed to put his wrists in leather restraints. I never saw the clergy. I must admit that I was surprised by how much the good lord let one of his disciples suffer in his last days. If Jesus paid for the sins of Mr. Joe, there may be a refund due.
The next evening I was called in early to attend to him. He was now being injected with large doses of morphine and relaxers, but it was like Mr. Joe had fallen into the wood chipper. I violated the rules by telling Mr. Joe, I was a minister and asked him if he had any sins to confess. I know he could hear me and ordered him squeeze my hand if he heard me/ After a couple of strong requests, he gripped me like his Bible. Of course he was comatose, but I spoke in a formal, priestly manner, and gave him what I thought was pretty damn good version of “The Last Rites.” Elmer Gantry would have winked at me. I anointed his brow with lotion, making the sign of the cross, telling him this was holy oil. My holy water was from his sippy cup. Next, I read him the Twenty-Third Psalm. I told him Jesus was waiting for him. He could now experience the love of God and Christ, but he must now let go. I spent the next hour with him, trying to give him a sense of peace by softly singing “Joy to the World.” When I left, Mr. Joe looked like he was hanging on to the edge of a high cliff with hell waiting to swallow him up. I went home, drained, and I cried.
The next day, I asked the Buddha for help. I brought my juzu, and my sutra book. Mr. Joe was, in my opinion, in a state of hell. “Enough with these pitiful expedient means!” I quietly began to chant daimoku, and then recited gongyo. If I were caught, I would be sent home and probably warned that if I did anything like that again, I would lose my volunteer status. To me, Mr. Joe’s peace of mind was more important than anything to me at the moment. I chanted and touched his head like the old gojukai ceremony, sending the vibration of my prayer into him. I stopped and said,
“Mr. Joe. It’s time for you to rise above your fear and pain. I give you these heavenly words, Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. There is only suffering here. Your spirit shall now merge with the light. Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, Namu-myoho-renge-kyo.”
With my index finger, I touched between his eyebrows, imagining that white tuft of hair that was a distinguishing mark of the eternal lord Buddha, Shakyamuni. I chanted three more times, and quietly meditated until the morning. It was just before the day shift began. Mr. Joe had grown quiet and still, and his hands were icy cold. His legs showed signs of marbling. The death rattle quietly echoed in his throat. Mr. Joe’s mouth opened slightly, exhaling one last time, and he then went limp. I got the nurse, then said my goodbyes. The charged nurse asked me if I would come back in an hour. They would clean him up nicely, put him on a gurney, and drape it with an American flag. We service members saluted, others put their right hand over their heart, and openly cried.
I headed for the Canteen for some morning chow. Every nerve in my body was electrically charged. Every particle of energy inside me spiked. I just needed to sit down. That’s when I crossed paths with 96-year-old Mr. Desmond.
“Are you saved?” he asked, while handing me a religious pamphlet.
“Why, yes, I am saved. I’m Buddhist, or more properly, I AM Buddhism.”
“You look like Lutheran,” he said with a laugh. “It’s only through Jesus Christ that you’re saved from your sins,” said Mr. Desmond.
“Of course you would say that. Why shouldn’t you claim that? You don’t know any better. Most likely, you don’t know about Buddhism or any other teachings outside of your Christianity,” I said, in a most understanding way.
“Jesus died for your sins. That’s the only way to enter the kingdom of heaven,” he said.
“I grew up a Lutheran. I was confirmed. I’ve studied the Bible from Genesis to Revelations, and I’ve yet to find any religion in it. Please don’t take offense, sir, but in the words of the great professor, Joseph Campbell, the mythology of the Bible is little more than childish fantasy. It’s a myth that none of you really understand. Even as a child, I was a non-believer. Buddha taught that one must work out their OWN salvation with diligence.”
“It’s only through the lord Jesus Christ, who shed his precious blood for the sins of mankind, that you might enter the kingdom of heaven,” he said with a twinge of frustration in his voice.
“I recite the words, Namu-myoho-renge-kyo. This is the source of salvation. With all due respect, it’s not logical for you to expound your religion when you can’t even make distinctions between metaphors and the literal text in your own faith. What’s more, you’re not knowledgeable of the other religions or spiritual traditions.”
He looked at me as if I were doomed. He said, “It might be too late for you.”
I don’t know where it came from, but with great compassion and respect, I touched his hand.
“Bless you my son,” I said, without the slightest bit of disrespect. Even though this noble senior was thirty-three years older than me, he was like a school boy to me.
“Bless you my son.”