The Unlikeliest Gift

Above my meditation table, I have a printed photo of a Tibetan monk. I don’t know his name, or the particular lineage of Tibetan Buddhism he represents. The picture was sent to me years ago from a friend who thought I would appreciate it. The monk in the picture is holding his hand up to eye level and laughing. A small bird is perched on his hand, a mere foot from the man’s face, looking right back at him. Evidently, this happened out of the blue. As he was walking with a few other people, the bird simply landed on his hand. Someone nearby captured the moment, and now it sits above my meditation table.

The fact that this monk can be so calm, peaceful, and present within himself that a small bird would not only not fear him, but would come and LAND on his hand, is remarkable, regardless of circumstance. But what has always struck me even more about this photo is that this is a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He is in exile, and has undoubtedly seen tremendous destruction and harm done toward his homeland.

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Now, I know I’m wading into political territory here, and I really don’t want to. Whether you agree with what is happening in Tibet or not, the point here is that the Tibetan Buddhist monastic community has felt robbed, hurt, and betrayed by what has happened in their country. And that is all we really need to know. Because what I find so remarkable about the picture is the ability this man shows to find joy in something as small as a songbird. You can see it so clearly on his face — in that interaction, nothing else matters, he is thoroughly engaged in the joy of that moment.

I often think about living with diabetes when I see this picture. I see that picture as a blueprint for how we can live, and how we might come to see diabetes as not just a “problem we have to deal with,” but in some important ways, an unlikely gift.

The Tiger and the Strawberry
There is an old Zen story. A man is being chased by a tiger toward a cliff. He runs to the edge, and slips off. Halfway down he catches a branch that saves him from falling to his death. As he is hanging there, he looks down. Another tiger is waiting for him below, while the first tiger paces back and forth above him. He has nowhere to go. Then he hears the branch begin to strain, crack, and give out. He knows that it won’t hold, that very soon he will fall. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he sees a strawberry growing along the rock. He reaches out and plucks the strawberry, and smiles, enjoying the sweetness of the strawberry as the branch breaks.

Different people draw different ideas from this story, but here’s my takeaway: We are ALL hanging by that branch. Everything in all of our lives is temporary, including our very lives! Nothing, either good or bad, will last forever. As the old joke goes, “no one here gets out alive!” In the face of that impermanence, we have a choice. We can worry, struggle, and surrender ourselves to hopelessness. Or, like the man in the story, and like the monk in my picture, we can understand that all we ever have is this moment and we can engage directly in it, enjoy it, and not waste it!

Diabetes, I believe, is like the tiger that pushes the man to that fundamental breakthrough in understanding: It pushes us to let go of the need to control everything (we all know that diabetes doesn’t always follow our commands or the pattern we think it should). It reminds us that our lives are short — that, in fact, even with good control our lives may be a bit shorter than they otherwise would be — and that every single minute we have ought to be cherished, appreciated, and lived fully in the moment, not wasted in anxiety. It puts perspective on all of the little irritations and reminds us that pouring our energy into them is a useless practice.

Diabetes is a Zen teacher, the kind that raps us on the knuckles when we lose sight of what’s important. It’s sometimes harsh, and not always pleasant. But it can be a remarkable teacher, and if we learn how to listen to it, it can push us to live lives that really matter. It can push us to be present. And in the end, that’s all any of us can ever do.

  • KC

    Thanks for offering such a positive point of view for dealing with a chronic illness.

  • David Spero RN

    My auto-signature used to be, “Illness is the best teacher. Awareness is the best medicine. Self-care is the best care.” You seem to have all three of those going for you, Scott. How sweet that strawberry tasted!