I’m sitting in a dark, empty concrete room with a single small, dirty window.  My hands are tied to a heavy, old wooden chair in the center of the room. Two uniformed guards with automatic weapons are behind me on either side of the chair.  In front of me, a tall, mustached man with a worn, hardened face paces back and forth staring at me out of the corner of his eye. He carries a wooden club in his right hand.  His has a frustrated look on his face. He finally speaks to me with a foreign accent. I’m not sure If it’s Canadian or New York (I always get those mixed up).

“It’s just a matter of time before we get you to tell us what we want to know. Why not save yourself from all this suffering and simply answer me now?  If you don’t tell us, things will only get worse for you.”

“No,” I say my voice cracking after hours of interrogation.  “I have nothing to say to you. I’ve already spoken to my wife earlier today.”

“Why not just tell me what you told her?  No one else has to know,” he says pretending to soften his voice.

“I can’t,” I claim.  “I made a promise.”

At that moment, my overly-dramatic mind is jolted back to reality.  The fourth and fifth fingers on my right hand are relatively numb. They’ve been like this for six weeks – a condition known as neuropathy.  I can’t tell if it’s getting better, worse, or just staying the same. Because I’ve been playing piano on stage twice a month, I find this condition quite frustrating.  I want to mention this to my wife, but I already spoke to her several hours ago about some other health problem. So I used up my “ticket” for today.

At the beginning of July, I got off the phone with a friend.  We spoke for about 30 minutes. We spent 28 of those minutes talking about our health and our body problems.  In the aftermath of that conversation, the realization of how I had used my time, energy and attention hit me with great force.  I’ve had a series of health problems over the past three years that have involved a great deal of discomfort, pain and self-care.  The problems range from a bike accident where I landed on my head, to an injury that left me with chronic pain in my left arm, to a melanoma-that-wasn’t, and . . . well I won’t list the rest.  

Many of our health issues come with the territory of getting older.  In the year 1900, the average lifespan for a man was about 49 years. Now it’s over 80 years (longer for women).  We have body parts that weren’t designed to function past a certain point. Like an old car, the parts don’t work as well as they did when the car was new.  So we replace parts (knees, hips), compensate for defects (eyeglasses) and sometimes just accept and coexist with dysfunctional parts (enlarged prostates).

What disturbs me, however, is how much of my remaining life energy I seem to be using to discuss my health problems and dysfunctional body parts.  I teach workshops that warn about the suffering we create through an overuse of self-focused attention.  I often use the metaphor of a prison – the Prison of Self-focused Attention. Imagine my surprise when I realized that I was incarcerated in my own mental prison of body issues.  I don’t like being in prison. I don’t like the food. I prefer freedom.

So I embarked on an experiment in which I would only speak about my health and body once per day.  It seems simple and straightforward. I can raise some concerns with my wife in the evening, or speculate on possible treatments or solutions for problem X.  Or I can have that phone conversation with a friend. Or with a doctor or acupuncturist, if I’m in an appointment. If something comes up after I’ve used my once-per-day opportunity, I simply wait until the next day – unless I need emergency medical attention.

This “practice” has been an eye-opener for me.  For the first week, I noted how often my mind would create a body-problem message that was ready to be sent out through speech.  I had to guard the speech channel with great vigilance to prevent the message from slipping into the airwaves. There were moments when I failed, simply speaking out of habit.  Habit! What a frightening discovery. I had developed a “habit” of talking regularly about my body problems. This happened most often with my wife, who is usually a sympathetic listener, and with friends who had lived for more than a half-century and were genuinely concerned about my health (and often their own).  

But this isn’t a habit that I value.  I want to develop the habit of noticing that there is a new blossom on the begonia that I planted in the flower box.  I want to develop the habit of playing a smooth blues riff on the piano in the key of A. I want to develop the habit of writing more frequently, meditating more consistently and giving money to street musicians. The habit of talking about my health and body problems is not something that was on my desirable habits list.  But, apparently, since I turned sixty, it just snuck up on me. And now I have to deal with it.

So if you call or email me and ask me about my health, in general — or my knee, back, fingers, sleep quality, eyesight or teeth, specifically — don’t be surprised if I just offer a brief, generalized response, like, “I’m reasonably well,” and change the subject to the two rose-breasted grosbeaks that were at the bird feeder this afternoon.  Don’t take it personally. It’s just my own personal practice.

Of course, if you press me, interrogate me, or even torture me, I might succumb to your tactics (particularly the torture part).  I don’t have such a high threshold for pain.

But I don’t want to talk about that right now.

Maybe tomorrow.




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