In May of 2009, nephrologists informed me they wanted to drill into the bone marrow of my shin, they wouldn’t say exactly why.
“Just routine,” one of them explained.
But the image of someone mining my bone marrow with a sharp, whirring instrument hardly sounded routine to me. So a few days later I showed up for an appointment with my own GP, who had always been forthcoming and sensitive. When I asked him about this bone marrow procedure, he stared at the report sent by the nephrologists for a few long moments, then looked me in the eye.
“Apparently they’ve dismissed everything but two possible causes for your fatigue, Charlie.” I could see him cloud over behind his glasses. “Bone marrow cancer or leukemia.”
At that moment, I pictured my life flickering out faster than a candle in a typhoon. Instead, my 25-year-old meditation practice came to the rescue.
This is that story.
My background is that I’m a writer, hiker, runner, naturalist, exercise nut, secret baseball buff, Buddhist of no particular school, and avid disciple of Henry David Thoreau. I’ve been meditating daily since 1984, beginning with TM, which I dubbed “Transcendental Medication” because of its peaceful, lulling, stress-reducing effect.
Meditation kept me sane while I led a footloose and foolhardy lifestyle based on a chronic case of wanderlust. Over the years I gradually became a Buddhist, at first practicing what I whimsically called “Buddhist Lite” as I adopted a few of the practices. Later, after I finally settled down in the charming New England college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, I became a more serious Buddhist, sponging up the works of the Dalai Lama, Lama Surya Das, Thích Nhất Hạnh, poet Gary Snyder, and others. I also replaced TM with several powerful Buddhist meditation techniques.
When I think about my meditation practice, I’m often reminded of the sign I pass on a woodsy trail I often saunter along; a winding path which hugs the murmuring Amethyst Brook in my hometown of Amherst. Some kind-hearted stranger has put up a bench overlooking the brook. Hanging over the bench is a handmade sign, its words burned lovingly into the wood: “Stop here, traveler, and find rest for your soul.”
That captivating notion, in fact, tells me all I need to know about meditation. Find rest for your soul.
Goodbye Kidneys, Hello Anemia!
Then, in the fall of 2008, I discovered that my kidneys were quickly losing their ability to filter blood. Blood tests showed I had suddenly lost 50 percent of my kidney function. My kidneys were apparently failing, and failing fast, nobody knew why.
Soon I developed a mysterious and debilitating case of anemia, which turned my coordination into a slapstick comedy, boggled my mind, crippled my 50-year-old running regimen, and forced me to collapse every evening like the bones scattered by a witch doctor.
For the next six months, my energy, my spirit, my very life, were all sucked dry. Hardly functioning became dysfunctionally hard. My work as a science writer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst threatened to crash and burn. I was transformed from a graceful athlete into a stumblebum. Simple concentration became an exercise in futility.
In response to these alarming symptoms, my kindly GP sent me to a group of kidney specialists in a nearby city. These well-intentioned doctors undertook to diagnose the cause of my kidney dysfunction and sapping anemia by employing all the wonders of medical science. But the results made me wonder if medical science was as dysfunctional as my kidneys.
During my first appointment, sitting in a modern, faux-Motel-6 waiting room, I gazed around me at my fellow patients. I had to shift my eyes away from the elephantine ankles, painfully red and swollen, of the woman across the aisle. Someone behind me wheezed air leaking from a broken carburetor.
Those patrons who weren’t grossly overweight looked frail enough to break into twigs. One tottering older man shuffled in with the aid of a walker and settled uncomfortably into a chair with upholstery the color of a skin rash. Soon his name was being paged by a medical assistant, and he was asked to step inside. For several disturbing seconds, the poor man struggled to rise from his chair as though it were a wrestling opponent pulling an illegal hold.
Finally, he bawled, “These freaking chairs are built too freaking low!” It was a voice crying in the wilderness filled with outrage, desperation, despair.
He made me want to scream as well. So did the whole scene. I pictured myself in this same waiting room a few years into my intimidating future. Or even a few months.
Throughout the spring of 2009, I went through a chicken-in-the-barnyard routine as technicians pricked, prodded, and poked me looking for hard evidence explaining my woes. But my woes were hardly explainable. By the following May, after countless vials of my blood had been squirted through a set of humming Rube Goldberg machines, my doctors believed they had eliminated all the possible causes but two. The lucky finalists were a couple of our deadliest cancers.
Which brings me full circle to that alarming appointment with my own GP, when he reported that all the usual suspects had been narrowed down to leukemia and bone marrow cancer.
After hearing my apparent death sentence, I sucked in my breath. “Fine,” I said. “They want to drill into my bone to see which disease is about to get me first. Should I choose the lady or the tiger?”
“Personally,” my doctor added, “I don’t believe you have any kind of cancer.”
Neither did I. Instinctively, I knew better. There had to be a better answer than losing my life force like some junkyard clunker getting its spark plugs pulled. So I politely cancelled all my remaining appointments with the nephrologists, swore never to report to their waiting room again, and took matters into my own hands.
When a Voice Comes out of Nowhere
A few weeks later, I was doing my morning breath-counting meditation. I use a meditation bench because of an old knee injury, and I’d been on my kneeler for about 20 minutes with my shins tucked underneath.
While I was perching in front of my little Buddha altar and focusing on where my breath whispers through my nostrils, a thought floated up and glided by like a fluffy cumulus cloud. It told me for no apparent reason to take massive doses of vitamin B-12 to cure my seemingly life-threatening anemia.
Wow! At first, the idea sounded absurd. I was already taking more than the daily recommended allowance of B-12 supplements, and all my blood tests indicated that my body had a perfectly ample supply of the vitamin. The possibility of a B-12 deficit had never even come up in any of my doctor’s visits. The very suggestion seemed irrational. So I set aside this cheeky thought for the rest of my meditation.
But afterwards my mind wouldn’t let me drop the notion of B-12. The thought kept gushering up.
I remembered the time when I was a 17-year-old, high school quarter-miler, and a long season had left me sorely fatigued. To treat my rundown condition, my family doctor had administered a concentrated shot of vitamin B-12. The very next day, I was running on an all-star team competing at West Point Military Academy, and I made what track coaches call a “pop!” I suddenly cut 1.5 seconds off my personal record, a huge chunk of time in a quarter-mile sprint.
That’s precisely what I needed today, nearly 50 years later: a pop big enough to save my life. As the B-12 brainstorm kept resurfacing, I also recalled what a 90-year-old Trappist monk named Brother Bob had once told me about receiving his religious vocation. He thought he’d heard a voice in a lonely redwood forest tell him to give away everything he owned and become a monk.
“When a voice comes out of nowhere and tells you what to do,” as Brother Bob concluded, “you’d be a damned fool not to listen!”
And so I did.
I don’t really understand or believe in religious locutions, but I do believe in the power of meditation to awaken our intuitive nature. And so, listening to my inner voice, I began to consume mass quantities of vitamin B-12 each morning.
I felt the results at once. Within hours, these mega-doses began to ease my symptoms, and I felt a little better every day. I had more energy while running, the acid test for my anemia. I regained my vigor. I could focus again. I began to regain my coordination on the basketball court. By the fall of 2009, I was feeling quite up to snuff again.
Mind you, I don’t recommend this treatment for anyone else, nor do I know why it worked for me. What I mean is, “Don’t try this at home, kids!”
Vitamin B-12 is really beside the point. To me, the moral behind my story is that you can rise above life’s slings and arrows through the simple act of meditating. Meditation is the tool for awakening your pure consciousness, vocalizing your internal voice, resurrecting your buried you. Meditation is the gateway to intuition.
In other words, meditation brings out your own common sense, which, as Mark Twain pointed out, is uncommonly uncommon. Alfred North Whitehead put it another way: “Common sense is genius in homespun.”
Why not try it yourself? Just let meditation spin a true yarn for you that weaves a bolt of your own homespun genius.
Charles Creekmore is a widely published poet and freelance writer and the author of Zen and the Art of Diabetes Maintenance. His e-book, Back to Walden, is posted complete and free of charge at backtowalden.com. Creekmore has written for the New York Times Syndicate, Psychology Today, AARP and many other periodicals.