To the degree we can embrace our mortality rather than deny it, we can live that much more completely and joyfully.

– Dean Ornish, MD

Some time has passed since my Year to Live project came to an end, but my interest in reflecting on death as a way of truly living continues on.  I’m happy to recommend a book called Enjoy Every Sandwich to anyone else who isn’t afraid of the conversation!

A quick read, Enjoy Every Sandwich is a spiritual memoir written by Lee Lipsenthal, a young physician who learns he is dying of esophageal cancer.  It reads a lot like Tuesdays With Morrie, flowing with insight and the beauty of human connection.

Here are my main take-aways:

1)  Accepting uncertainty and relinquishing control

We all have some form of magical thinking when it comes to dying.  It’s how we attempt to gain control over our fears.  My particular brand of magical thinking is that if you eat well, exercise and meditate, you will most likely have a long and healthy life.  I know this is not entirely rational, and Lee himself is my myth-basher.

Lee is only 52 when he learns he has a 90% chance of dying in five years, and that it won’t be an easy or painless death.  As the director of Dean Ornish’s Preventative Medicine Research Institute, eating well, yoga, meditation and exercise are an essential part of Lee’s profession and his lifestyle.  He teaches thousands of patients struggling with disease to overcome their fears of pain and death and to embrace a more joyful way of living.  And yet he still dies.  (He died on Sept. 20, 2011.)

Am I going to stop being a vegetarian or give up doing laps at the pool?  No, but I should do these things because the are in line with my values and make me feel good here and now — not because I think they are really going to hold the final say when it comes to my mortality.

2)  Living a life of gratitude (and showing it!)

Lee calls gratitude “a small practice with a big payoff.”  One of the things that keeps Lee from getting bent out of shape about dying is that he’s incredibly appreciative of the life he’s already had.  He’s happily married, he obviously loves his two children and is enormously proud of them, he’s had the career of his dreams, he’s well-traveled and lives in a beautiful place.

Every day for the past 20 years, he thought and jotted down the things that he was grateful for.  To him, the gratitude practice led to a new understanding of the Native American expression that “today should be a good day to die.”

My take – it’s not just about giving thanks for 2 or 3 things every day, but also about showing it!  Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote this Sunday    that showing affection to young children lessons the “toxic stress” they carry with them into their adult lives – a stress that 20 years of scientific research proves is linked to a life of crime and poverty.  Give the gift of hugs and undivided attention to the people in your life, young and old!

3)  Being open to something out there bigger than this life

This might be the hardest piece for me to grasp, coming from a science-oriented family that has demanded empirical evidence to explain just about everything in the world.

Lee writes about a couple of out-of-the box experiences that cause him to connect with the “bigness of the universe.”  One involves a past life experience; others involve uncanny premonitions.  At first, Lee is as freaked out by these moments as any of us would be.

He writes about the “God Spot,” a region of the brain (technically the right angular gyrus and posterior right temporal region) that is triggered by stimuli like prayer, sensory deprivation, starvation and psychoactive drugs such as mushrooms used in shamanic journeys.  It doesn’t matter whether the God Spot was put there by a higher power or developed physiologically as a result of body chemistry and experience — the effect on our lives and behaviors is the same.

As a generous gift at the end of my Year to Live journey, a friend with years of training offered me an astrological consultation “rooted in open-mindedness.”  Since I was open to pretty much anything that year, and since I trust this guy inherently (he’s really not woo-woo, though he always struck me as somehow tapped into the wider understanding of why things unfold the way they do), I accepted.  What happened in our hour and a half over the phone profoundly opened my mind and showed me that our paths to fulfillment are nonlinear and not necessarily under our control.  I gave myself more permission to let things evolve organically, and I was extremely grateful.  (You can learn more about his work here.)

I’ll leave you with a short passage from Enjoy Every Sandwich:

In my old reality, you grow up, you have kids, you become a doctor, you practice medicine until you are too old and feeble to continue, you retire, and then you die.  Any time any of this becomes uncomfortable, you suck it up and move on.

In my new reality, past lives are possible, death may be a stop along the way, meditation is essential, and love is the juice that fuels it all.  There’s room enough for many emotions, thoughts, and beliefs, and it’s all part of my human experience….

Fearing the unknown seems like a waste of time and energy.  Knowing this may not be our last sandwich helps us not to regret that with each bite the sandwich slowly disappears.

Carry on, friends!