Twenty years ago Life challenged me to wake up to a fact of life. It was a time when circumstances converged with my bad attitude to create a perfect storm of stress. I had a high powered job at Stanford Medical School butting heads with world class egos, at the height of my career to that point, and one day the world came crashing down on me. The chairman of my department and I didn’t see eye to eye and I got fired. Nine days later I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I was married with four children and had a large mortgage payment that unemployment insurance couldn’t possibly cover.
Then, in the middle of it all, I had an epiphany. I describe it in the Prologue to my book, Mystic Cool.
- I was trying to hold things together and over nothing my wife and I had an argument and said things that were demoralizing to both of us. I went out on the deck to get away from it all and my mind began to run away with me, imaging all the dire things that could happen. These fearful thoughts quickly eroded the fragile ledge of safety to which my sanity clung, dropping me into a hollow that spiraled down and down, into a dark cavern of the mind. The more I fell, the darker it got. The darker it got, the more frightened I became until I was lost in panic. It was a nightmare into my sanity disappeared.
- Then, at some point, my conscious mind returned like the phoenix rising out of the ash, came back to life. I felt emptied and spacious, like the soft sky after a storm. For the first time in a very long time, I was at peace. I relaxed into it completely, the way we relax into the relief of pain. Gradually, my mind widened and, as it did, the future stretched out in front of me with wonderful possibility.
- When I opened my eyes and looked around, the first conscious thought I had was that I was OK, followed by the recognition that I would always be so, if I could just be at peace. When my personality was back intact, I did a reality check. Do I have a brain tumor? The answer was yes. Is the prognosis still the same? Again, yes. Am I about to join the ranks of the unemployed? Yes. Is my marriage on the rocks? Yet I still felt I would be fine. I felt at peace inside, despite the difficult circumstances.
- The experience stayed with me; the following week was peaceful. I did not think much or talk much, and I did not worry. My anxiety was gone. I went back to work. I had been offered a month’s extension to help transition the department, which initially I had turned down. Now I wanted to return to the office to put things in good order and leave with a good feeling. The usual stressors no longer bothered me. I worked right up to a few days before the surgery, and during that entire time, as I recall, I did not entertain one negative thought.