A New (Old) Spin on Things


Life is change… suddenly sometimes… slowly other times… but changes for sure. I work with change, assisting others to make changes for the better, in their relationships, personal, and work lives. I face my own changes each day as I look in the mirror, as I engage with loved ones and friends. As I move through my day I think I have a good and mindfully informed relationship with this fact of change.

A few weeks ago on an ordinary morning as I was a few minutes away from leaving my house for the day, my husband told me he was having some shortness of breath which at the time didn’t seem alarming as it was the only symptom he was having. Without fully understanding, I knew I needed to change my plan and decided to stay home. 30 minutes later he thought he needed to get it checked out. The shortness of breath seemed to be getting worse and I took him to the ER. How fortunate a decision this was! He was in the middle of a very serious health event – a large pulmonary embolism in the main artery leading to his lungs. The medical staff that cared for him was surprised he survived. Well, that put a new spin on things.

At first we couldn’t quite grasp what had happened as there wasn’t any warning or advance symptoms and he didn’t appear or feel ill. His only symptom had been shortness of breath which was familiar to him whenever he had some anxiousness (fight/flight reaction) or over exerted when exercising (reaching physical capacity). He had this checked out with his doctor and nothing dangerous was indicated.

And yet on this morning, it was the only marker that something very dangerous was happening. Of course, this is not unusual. Many people experience sudden unexpected change. But one of this sort was new to us and taking it in needed specific attention. This reminded me that denial (which often gets a bad rap) is a way that the psyche starts getting one ready to take in the reality of an experience. I needed a wee bit of help with this and fortunately I got it from his 6-day hospital stay.

I came home each evening to an empty house and let myself feel into the reality that my husband could have died and my life would be irrevocably changed. Again, this is not unusual, and this wasn’t a new thought for me, but this direct experience seemed to have shattered a shield I didn’t know was there – a shield of false protection – that somehow I would be spared the inevitable goal of life – it’s end. Lines from Jennifer Welwood’s blunt poem, The Dakini Speaks came to me:

Let’s stop pretending we don’t know the deal here.

Or if we truly haven’t noticed, let’s wake up and notice.

Look: everything that can be lost, will be lost.

It’s simple—how could we have missed it for so long?

Let’s grieve our losses fully, like ripe human beings,

But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.

I now feel deeply grateful for this whole-body, whole-mind wake-up call. While my husband is doing very well, returning to normal activity slowly, I seem to have new eyes in looking at each day as a pure gift, seeing all my loved ones even more as precious jewels to be treasured and held close.

Each morning, to begin our meditation practice, we say the verse of the Han. In Japan this is a Zen verse that calls monks to the temple for morning practice. We’ve been saying it for many years with intellectual acknowledgement of its truth. Now it is in the cells of our physical and relationship body.

Great is the Matter of birth and death.

All is impermanent, quickly passing.

Awake, awake, don’t waste this life.

May your wake up calls all be friendly and kind and may you heed them with respect and gratefulness.

About the author

Suzanne Kilkus

Suzanne Kilkus is a Soto Zen meditation practitioner and teacher and has practiced as a therapist and counselor for over three decades. She is dedicated to assisting people in expanding their capacity for giving and receiving love, and for recognizing and expressing their basic goodness in everyday life. Her path to live with wholehearted compassion and care is an invitation to everyone. She is a teacher with Open Door Zen Community in Madison, WI.