W.H. Auden wrote, in his poem “The Art of Healing”, “Must all diabetics contend with a nisus towards self-destruction?”
Well, W.H., that’s a good question.
Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease. The immune system, which is meant to protect you from foreign molecules, such as those in viruses and bacteria and/or other toxic substances, mistakenly attacks and destroys the beta cells that produce insulin in the pancreas.
Insulin is crucial to life. Without it, glucose cannot move from the bloodstream into the cells of a human body to provide them with energy to function. When a pancreas fails to produce insulin, glucose levels in your bloodstream start to rise and your body can’t function properly. Over time, the high level of glucose in the blood may damage nerves and blood vessels and the organs they supply.
When I first started noticing I was getting sick it was because there was no way for food to be absorbed into my body. It didn’t matter how much I ate, drank or exercised. Without insulin, my body was starving to death. What happens when a body is starving? It begins to use its own fat for fuel. In the four months that led to my coma, I lost 45 pounds, wasting away via ketoacidosis. I went from 117 to 72 lbs. My body was at war with itself and there was no winner.
To answer W.H. Auden’s query, I was self-destructing.
What does this have to do with ending up at Randy McNamara’s house?
In 1982, I participated in the est training. After resisting the “enrollment techniques” (as I perceived them) from my dad and his lady friend. I finally signed up when my high school girlfriend suggested I take the course.
The things I do for love.
I don’t remember that much about those two weekends but I did discover three things about myself:
- I am not alone in my fear of losing love, being ashamed, or being powerless to make a difference in the world.
- My mind is a stimulus-response machine whose primary job description is to be right..
- I am not my fear or my machine mind.
My est training was led by 20 different trainers. It was called a “train the trainer training”. est always had a way to add alliterative and syllogistic phrasing to its ontological presentations, as well as its course descriptions (e.g. “I used to be different, now I’m the same.” Or, “You know what you know, you know what you don’t know but you don’t know what you don’t know, the knowing of which would make a difference.”)
Randy McNamara was the man in charge of training all the trainers.
The Sunday of the last day, the San Francisco Forty-Niners were playing the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game. As Dwight Clark was picking a desperate heave into the back of the end zone, a pass that seemed like Joe Montana was just throwing it away, that somehow ended up in Clark’s outstretched fingers, later to be known as “The Catch”, I was “getting it” in the back of a hotel room in San Jose, California.
Cut to: 32 years later. Randy is looking for some artwork for his home in San Francisco. He is now “Forum Leader Emeritus”, semi-retired from Landmark Education. He was part of the team that changed est (erhard seminars training) into “Landmark Forum” when Werner Erhard left the scene. Between Erhard’s original teachings and Landmark’s upgraded, kinder, gentler delivery of “the work”, 2.1 million people had gone through the program, in one form or another. I wasn’t in the gallery when Randy came in but he met Steve who worked as a sales associate at the time, and, since Randy didn’t find the artwork he wanted, Steve suggested that the gallery could bring over a few pieces to show him how they looked in his home. A few days later, we were holding up paintings and various stretched-on-canvas photographs while Randy and his wife Suzy made their decision. Then, Randy said, “Let’s try that photograph of the ocean upstairs.”
In his third-floor home office, next to the map of the world with pins stuck in to memorialize Randy’s world travels, I saw the Landmark brochures. I had not remembered Randy McNamara until that moment.
We both realized that we had been in the same est training 32 years ago, As I caught up with Randy, and what he had been up to, I dropped names like Stewart Emery, Carol Augustus, Laurel Sheaf and asked where and what they all were. I was making chit chat but I knew I desperately needed a refresher. Enlightenment is never ‘”once and for all”. (In fact, there is a saying at Landmark, “Yesterday’s transformation is today’s ego trip.”) And I was stuck in a rut of automatic thinking that was killing me. I knew it, even as I wasn’t admitting it. I was irritated, angry, thwarted in my life, not even aware of my dreams, much less living them. And righteously pissed off at being a Type 1 diabetic. I recalled those 20 trainers back in 1982 taking turns yelling at me for a day and a half, “Your life doesn’t work!”
Randy invited me to an introductory event so I could find out about the course. My mind comforted itself by thinking that maybe this would be just the trick to get Randy to buy the $8,000 painting I had recommended even as I knew, from a deeper place, that I was going to sign up for the next available Landmark Forum as soon as the first of a roomful of smiling graduates asked, “So, do you want to register?”
Being in that room at 75 Broadway, in San Francisco, in the environment created by a Landmark Forum leader and all of the graduates and guests, I felt the rarefied air of no BS truth telling that is presented as “distinctions” at Landmark. And, indeed, I did sign up that evening. I needed a place where I could tell the truth. I also knew what was in store on Sunday afternoon.
During the course of the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the Forum, I raised my hand and volunteered to “share” in front of the group. A lot. I did all the homework, including calling my mom, my ex-girlfriend Angel, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my dad, trying to undo a lifetime full of blaming and sharing my irritation and complaints. And both felt and expressed how much I loved and appreciated my family and friends. I looked at my behaviors, decisions and stories with the relentless Forum leader never letting us blame anyone else or point to what happened to us as the reason why.
“Story” became distinct from fact. Yes, things happened to me. My mom yelled at me and hit me. She packed Greg and me into a car and ran away from my dad. I became a Type 1 diabetic, and had to give myself shots or wear an insulin pump ever since. All of that happened. In this Landmark Forum of October 2014, I clearly saw how I had been telling myself stories about those facts, and what I made all those stories mean about me and about my family and friends. And how I chose certain behaviors because of those stories. Some of those behaviors actually worked. They became my “strong suits”. When I woke up from my coma in 1974, and found out about my disease, I immediately decided that I have to handle this all on my own. I became a strong, independent loner. No one would ever have to be burdened by my illness. I had learned how to “cope” but never accept help. I gutted it out but never was fully committed to being healthy. And I thought, somehow, I deserved to be sick.
God, I decided, was either a malevolent all-powerful jackass or non-existent. There are a plethora of choices available to make real when faced with a powerful life event. Those were some of mine, as equally valid and ridiculous as any other.
On the Sunday of my Landmark Forum, October at 4:52 PM, using the distinctions created by Werner and the founders of Landmark Education, ontology explained to the masses, but feeling more like magic, my mind stopped. Oh blessed relief! My constant companion, my ever-present judgements, evaluations, comparisons and right vs. wrong thinking just gave up in the clear presence of my Self seeing the mind for what it is: an already always listening machine. It gave up trying to convince myself that it was real. That it was me. Because I could clearly see that it was not. In the existential chasm created by that awareness, my mind just gave up and stopped.
Oh sweet liberation!
In the absence of thought, love became present. Inspiration was available. The future was no longer tied to the past. The future had NOTHING to do with the past. There was only the present, and in the present was nothing. And everything.
There was no such thing as “I’m not worthy”. That was just a thought invented by a five-year old with no other choice available. Thoughts like “I’ll never have romantic love again”, “Life is not fair”, “I’m going to lose my feet” all lost their power. All the stories I told myself about why I wasn’t, didn’t, or couldn’t were now seen for what they were. Lies I had made up and then made real by acting them all out. One perfect, self-perpetuating system of thought creating reality then using that reality to justify thought.
Poof! Gone. And in the empty and meaningless space now created between those invented thoughts and the self that was now aware of them, was a possibility. No, there were infinite possibilities.
These are the ones I chose:
This is it. Life is perfect. From nothing, who I am is the possibility of love, inspiration and health.
Just as my life, my being and my soul were fully present without the restrictions of the past and as I realized that my future had nothing to do with my past, I was able to invent a new future. One in which everything, including the memory and stories I told myself about my body, could be transformed. I was not doomed to self-destruction.
W.H. Auden be damned.
How my T1D occurred to me was a poem I had written myself. And my body had listened and responded to poetry’s alluring seduction. I put down the pen and took a stand. I would live into a new story, and write it as I went.
“My Project” was born.
Was it coincidence that Randy McNamara walked into my gallery and I ended up in his house? The next few months of my life suggest otherwise. But regardless of either dumb luck or divine Goddess intervention, I was opening up to a cascade of possibilities, including meeting Sheila Wagner and the impossible-yet-real woman who introduced me to her.