Learning to Enjoy Every Sandwich

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!

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8 responses to “Learning to Enjoy Every Sandwich”

  1. psychevida says:

    My (young) partner has a terminal diagnosis with less than a year to live. He has not accepted that likelihood.

    I am grateful to have found your blog with insight about how to fully live in the face of death… Thank you for this, and for the reading list. I hope they will be helpful for both of us.

    • Barbara says:

      I’m so sorry to learn of your and your partner’s struggle. I know that reading about other people’s hard-earned wisdom really helps, and the reading list is a fantastic place to dig in deeper. I’ll be following your journeys and wish you both all the best!

  2. Dalai Lina says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It was a great clip and I loved your summary. I admire his peace. Can you imagine if everyone help that level of love and peace in their hearts?!?

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks for reading, Dalai Lina. For the record, I’m a huge fan of your blog, and I’m really sorry about your college roommate.

      What a gift Lee left behind for the rest of us. I think we all have that kind of love inside, but we’ve got to go about revealing it and that takes hard work. Yoga, meditation, constructively thinking about mortality are some of my favorite ways to do it, but, boy, it can be hard going sometimes! Keep up the great work!

  3. Misty Dahl says:

    Beautiful video! Thanks for sharing, Barbara. I’m going to re-post it. I was googling us–our journey from a few years ago–to check in with you. I’m happy to hear you’re doing good (as of January). Lately I’ve been reminiscing over the “year to live” project and find myself drawn to it again. This time I want to explore my feelings within a novel. I’m not sure if it’ll play a big part or a small part in the context of the story–I’m still growing my idea–but I know that it’ll play a part. In my daily practice I’ve really learned how to savor each moment, each sandwich and each hug with mindfulness. I’ve also learned how to laugh, a lot. Sending you big hugs!

    • Barbara says:

      Great to hear from you, Misty! I know 100% what you mean about how the “year to live” project draws you in and becomes a part of who you are. Even a couple of years later I am a changed person, mainly in subtle ways that are hard to quantify. I hope you do get your feelings into a novel. I’d love to read it! Can you keep me posted? xo Barbara

  4. betsy aaron says:

    So lovely to meet you, so wonderful to read your words.
    I hope our conversation continues.
    I am inspired by your hospice work and am going to look into it.
    to be continued, I hope.

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