How to Appreciate Good Health Without Taking Ill

Matthew MacKinnon '15
Matthew MacKinnon ’15

“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I was seven days old my parents had to bring me back to the hospital.  I was listless and my breathing was shallow. Over the next few days I continued to deteriorate.  After a prolonged investigation, the doctors were left with a mountain of negative test results and no ideas as to what was making me sick. The decision was made to conduct exploratory surgery if I didn’t turn the corner by nightfall.

According to my parents, my clinical picture began to improve twenty minutes before the doctors were scheduled to wheel me back to the operating room.  They canceled the surgery and over the next few hours my condition improved.  Puzzled but pleased, my parents took me home from the hospital.

Whatever had brought me to the precipice of surgical exploration seemed to have retreated. Over the next year I would have periodic screaming fits but this was chocked up to being an irritable baby.  It wasn’t until I became a toddler that I could articulate my stomachaches.

To call these experiences “stomachaches” is to call a lightning bolt a static charge.

My belly would fill with the molten lead of viscous pain. The pain would run so deep that it seemed to dance in my spine. The agony lasted anywhere from two to twenty-four hours and never had an obvious trigger.

About once a month, from the age of two until the age of twenty, I would experience these thunderclap stomachaches.

In the beginning, my parents would rush me to the emergency department. They would have to watch as their only child, face ashen and taut with exhaustion, writhed in pain on the gurney. But time after time all the tests would come back negative. And after a few hours of twisting and moaning in the emergency department the pain would vanish without any treatment or explanation.

Over the years we stopped going to the emergency department. I had so many negative tests over the years that we grew to believe there was nothing to be done. I began to think that maybe I was simply hypersensitive to pain and that these were normal stomachaches experienced in an abnormal way.

I taught myself how to ride the waves of pain. The thunderous buildup from trough to crest would cripple my consciousness, sending me into a black pain filled void. But from the black I would be reborn anew on the other side of the crest, dipping down into another trough. I learned to love the troughs.

When I was twenty years old a stomachache came that possessed me so deeply that it seemed to strike my very soul.

I awoke at four in the morning to a blast of pain that deafened my nerve endings with its intensity. The dark pain sprinkled my vision with black stars and I vomited green bile. I called my parents and told them that I needed to go to the emergency room.

The doctors looked over my extensive file and scratched their heads for nearly twelve hours as narcotic after narcotic failed to take the edge off my raging pain. Finally, a CT scan with contrast was ordered and I found myself on a metal table with a donut-shaped device imaging my belly. The cold steel beneath my back made me contemplate the slab that might wait in the morgue, so intense was my pain.

I was wheeled back to my room in the emergency department to await the results. Barely ten minutes passed before a doctor, a nurse anesthetist, and two orderlies burst into the room.

“We have to go now,” the doctor said breathlessly.

I was so exhausted from the pain that I had no energy to form words; I simply began to cry.

They wheeled me back to the operating room within minutes, and I woke nearly ten hours later with the surgery complete. After the anesthetic had cleared my system the doctor came and told me what they had found.

I had been born with a congenital malformation of my intestines. My intestines were arranged in such a way that they would shift periodically and cut off their own blood supply. The doctor described the pain as being like the ischemic pain of a heart attack.

The doctor went on to tell me that this condition was extremely rare and that most children do not make it out of toddlerhood without having it discovered.

The contrast CT scan that finally revealed my condition had not been done at previous visits because I had always refused to drink the contrast. The nauseous agony of my attacks prevented me from consuming the sickly sweet contrast agent, but the intensity of my last episode finally forced me to overcome this revulsion.

I am now a 4th year medical student going into psychiatry and I have experienced seven blissful years without even so much as mild heartburn. But I will never forget the lessons my pain taught me.

As children, we want what we do not have; and very little changes as an adult.

In kindergarten we were happy stacking our own blocks only so long as we didn’t notice our neighbor’s crayon set.

The corollary of wanting what we do not have is that we are never satisfied with our current state. This principle is exemplified in the way we relate to “good” health.

Health is treated as a baseline state. Most of us think of health as equivalent to oxygen: something to be taken for granted. Each morning when we rise, we do not thank the atmosphere for providing us the sweet 21% oxygen that greets our nostrils. In much the same way, when we awake without pain, we take this pain-free state for granted.

The problem lies in our inability to appreciate negative states. Our sense organs evolved to detect positive changes in our environment. We hear the knock on our door but not the silence from which the knock emerges. We feel the doorknob in our hand but not its absence once released. We focus on the face that greets us in front of our door but not the background of sidewalk, trees, and cars from which the face materializes.

The closest we come to registering negative states is when they contrast with positive states. In this way, my childhood stomachaches acted as a profound contrasting agent for me.

Good health is like an invisible man whose shadow is cast only in the blinding spotlight of repeated physical suffering. My recurrent stomachaches revealed the outline of the invisible state of good health.

Mindfulness provides a shortcut to revealing this shadow of the negative.

Our bodies are an infinitely complex Rube Goldberg machine. The state of good health is really a numberless series of events that occur in perfect harmony without our knowledge, day in and day out.

With mindfulness practice we can become aware of this symphony without needing the contrasting agents of disease or suffering.

For example, when we sit in Zazen (sitting meditation), we follow our breath. We are mostly unaware of our breathing throughout the day but during Zazen we become profoundly aware of this unconscious, life-sustaining process.

The practice of mindful attention can reveal many more examples of the largely unconscious bodily processes in our daily life that are equally awe-inspiring, not to mention the unbelievable complexity of our environment, the Earth, and the larger universe.

Mindfulness starts small and focuses on our senses to act as an entrance point to larger perception. We feel, listen, taste, and smell our breath so that we can see beyond its seemingly simplistic nature. Once we examine these simple bodily mechanisms for long enough we approach a sixth sense: knowing.

Knowing is a Gestalt of all of our other sense perceptions.

Knowing does not use words or concepts. Knowing does not attempt to partition experience; it embraces totality.

Mindful knowing is as close to a complete understanding as we can achieve. This is because knowing does not require concepts, explanations, or description. It is a direct communion with what is.

Knowing reveals that the duality of good and bad health is really a unity of experience. Knowing shows us that the normal is the profound. Knowing provides the doorway to transcendence.

This post was republished with permission from the author. Read more of MacKinnon’s posts on the Mindfulness, M.D. blog.

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