How to Perform Heart Surgery for Dummies

The Man with Diminished Humor.

My marriage—our eighteen-years of for better, for worse—was, on its surface, a castle with exquisite gardens and the most elegant façade. A walk-through of the interior exposed the true state of our union: spider-vein cracks, chipped paint, and mold. Our house clung to its secrets, infidelities, and unforgiveness. This was my second marriage, and after my first, there was one thing I swore—I would rather die than go through another divorce.

Eighteen years later I filled in the blanks of ‘simple’ court forms. No endeavor is more deceptive than simple court documents. I called the divorce attorney from my first marriage. I asked if there was a two-for-one discount. I entertained a leap from his office window, but he moved to a much larger space in a strip mall. I asked myself, why should I be the jumper and not her? Could I get away with Uxoricide? (The Latin Uxor is wife plus the suffix cide is to kill.) In the screenplay Double Indemnity, Edward G. Robinson plays the unrelenting insurance investigator: “You’ve never read an actuarial table in your life. I’ve got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by poisons, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide subdivided by types of poisons, corrosive, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth.”* Suicide by firearm can leave the shooter a vegetable, or paraplegic, instead of dead. Many have survived suicidal leaps from the Golden Gate Bridge. Suicide by cop, by hanging, or by overdose may result with a traumatic brain injury. (Search: “When Attempted Suicide is the Cause of Brain Injury.”)

Clearly, I preferred thoughts of suicide and homicide over a second visit to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse Family Law Division. Yes, it is possible to have your masculinity legally removed. Twice. (I wasn’t overflowing with machismo at the outset.) My two-bit, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ tip: Never surrender your rights or purpose in family court and trust your wise and fair advocate-friend. Like my father I stayed married until my girls left for college. This may sound familiar to the few who also thought it best to stay married for their kids—and to the three of us I say, “Bravo!”

The Path to Less Enlightenment.

Seven years after vowing to have and to hold, my job had allowed us to accumulate many things: a house in Studio City, two cars, and fifty-five-dollar drawer knobs from Restoration Hardware. My wife collected shoes, cashmere sweaters, and poetry that overflowed into my space on our antique bookshelves. We both feigned happiness but moved covertly toward our separate desires, as moths to flame. We did share an attachment for pizza and our local bookstore. The girls read their books in the most comfortable children’s section, my wife rarely strayed from the poetry section, and I found Zen in religion. It was The Art Of Mindful Living by Thich Nhat Hanh. I was fascinated with his Flower Fresh meditation. Breathing in, I am a flower. Breathing out, I am fresh.

The less passion in my marriage, the more I sat in meditation, detaching myself from my unhappiness. After several months, I was all consumed, meditating for an hour in the morning and an hour after dinner. I was aware of my obsession, like the man or woman who exercises to the impossible perfection of their body. My obsession was spiritual: therefore, healthy. After eleven months, I expected transcendence, nirvana, something tangible like a reward. My reward was loss of concentration along with raging self-criticism. I was so miserable even my golden retriever held me in contempt. I needed a break from meditation.

I bought a Precor elliptical for my home-studio. I loved that machine; it produced buckets of sweat-happiness and endorphins. I wanted to feel that same elliptical-exercise high after meditating but needed to learn from a teacher-master. I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s U.S. tour schedule on the Plum Village website. August 27, 2001, to September 2, 2001: he was coming to San Diego for a seven-day retreat.

I asked my wife if she wanted to go on a little Buddhist holiday. She liked Hanh’s published poetry, was neutral toward Buddhism, and she knew how to ‘Namaste’ from the few Yoga classes she attended. I hoped that by spending time away from our young girls, and as equal partners, we might heal some of our deeper wounds. My notions of reconciliation were like a wino with a used lottery ticket. To be fair, a silent retreat doesn’t seem like the best atmosphere to talk about your troubles.

Tuesday. August 28, 2001.

Monday, August 27 was a travel day. I begin writing on Day Two. It’s 5:15 a.m. I wake to three merciless bells just outside our dorm. I sit on the edge of the bed pulling at the small window curtain. One adamant star melts into the corona of blue and yellow dawn. I watch the bell-ringer monk float to the next dorm. He strikes his thunder-clapping bells. I’m no lover of Buddhist mornings. In the darkness I glance at my wife who appears to sleep. I remember to be mindful, which is a Buddhist oxymoron. Mindfulness is an awareness of oneself while in the present moment. This is my mindfulness of the mundane: Arise. Dress. Wash face. Brush teeth. Leave dorm. Use toilet.

5:35 a.m. I don’t like communal toilets, army latrines, and, especially, porta-potties. I contemplate our home bathroom, 135 miles away. Someone pulls on the flimsy bathroom door. Its plastic latch keeps the door locked, but this person rattles the door again. After the next OCD attempt at rattling the door, I feel like yelling, “It’s occupied!” It is a silent retreat, so I say nothing. I am relieved when I hear the vanishing footsteps. I wait another half-minute and then flush the toilet. One of my public bathroom phobias is letting anyone hear me flush.

I step into the half-light of the fall chill, peer pressured into walking meditation. Good Buddhists never hurry. Walking meditation is so gradual a cop would mistake it for loitering. My first choice? A large cup of coffee at Starbucks with a corner seat—not walking meditation. I follow about two hundred head of sheep, or an organically diverse group of followers. There are the amateurs (me), advanced learners, goofballs (me again), and a handful of professional Buddhologists. We all follow a high-ranking monk who moves at the enthusiastic pace of a dying snail. Of walking meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When we walk like this, with our breath, we bring our body and mind back together.”

I resist the walking exercise. I want to cut through the enormous line and enter the dining hall for a cup of joe. Inhale, want coffee. Exhale, want coffee. Inch by inch we move like gridlocked traffic on the 405. A second line appears from the opposite direction; everyone (not me) is Buddha-polite at the entrance to the dining hall. I see those people on the opposite side not as Buddhists, but enemy soldiers. A double latte of frustration rises to the top of my brain. Observing the rise of that emotion within my brain is mindfulness.

“Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we have sovereignty over ourselves, that we are not drowned into forgetfulness,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Being Peace. I stand just outside the door to the dining hall, examining the flower-fresh faces like my job is TSA airport security guard. I would like to slap the fake smiles, but somehow I calm myself. Whether their smiles are sincere doesn’t matter; I am hypercritical. I can’t do a pretend smile. I’ve stood awkwardly in front of a mirror contorting my face into something that appears happy. I am least fond of posing for photos. The line inches forward, but I am so close to gaining entrance I can actually smell the coffee.

They appear from nowhere, lacking the brown robes worn by our Plum Village hosts, these interlopers wear freshly shaved entitlement with their flexible Yoga bodies. They have cut into the line, ignoring everyone else. I feel the sudden urge to roundhouse their Namaste grins. Five-hundred dollars says at least one of them drives a Mercedes-AMG with handicap placards. I want to whack them like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo—and watch them forage for their heads, exactly like beheaded chickens. The first Thich Nhat Hanh dharma talk is, wait for it, about Non-Judgement.

Wednesday. August 29, 2001.

Day Three. I set my alarm to 4:30 a.m. Arise. Dress. Wash face. Brush teeth. The wife sleeps in. I skip the bathroom and move a little too fast for walking-meditation. I slow down outside the dining hall entrance. There is no line. I criticize myself for my hypocrisy. The vegetarian breakfast food is good; the coffee is great. We eat in silence. I watch a woman hold the handle of the toaster to avoid the spring-popping noise of her toasted-toast. I suppress an urge to laugh. People eat so delicately in a chorus of fork to dish the only thing missing is Nurse Ratchet and her Mantovani recording of Charmaine.

After breakfast we enter the auditorium with its seats removed for sitting meditation. I sit with the Sanga, a group of six hundred. Thich Nhat Hanh sits in the center of the auditorium with his eyes closed. In 1967, Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Prize. He is a prolific writer of books and poetry. He is beloved around the world. In 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam and moved his monastery home to France.

Dressed in a brown monastic robe, Thich Nhat Hanh, or ‘Thay,’ speaks slowly in his Vietnamese accent of perfect English. Never in search for a word that even his pauses are musical silences. In 1963, Thay watched his seventy-year-old friend self-immolate in a busy Saigon intersection. Cars drove around Thích Quang Duc who sat perfectly still while two novice monks poured gasoline over his head. Thích Quang Duc lit the match that engulfed him in flames. The monk was protesting war, in a torch of compassion. He remained in his lotus position as flames besieged him. The disturbing image won a Pulitzer for photographer Malcom Brown.

I can no longer follow the dharma talk; it’s like reading the same paragraph, over and over. I scan the faces in the crowd. I stare at a Plum Village Nun. Her face is the radiant incarnation of Michelangelo’s Delphica. I remind myself that I’m unhappily married, and I have two beautiful girls who might ask why their father moved to France to be with a supermodel nun. Thay dissects the Eight Realizations: “More desire brings more suffering.” His words propel me from my absent mindfulness. I turn my attention back to the center. The Third Realization: “The awareness that the human mind is always searching outside itself and never feels fulfilled.” Is the Zen master looking directly at me or just in my direction? I absolutely feel the guilt of desire. I feel a large knot in my stomach. At lunch I find a monk and write him an absurdly long question about Guilt. As he reads the note, I want to tell him I feel guilty for taking up so much of his time. He smiles and writes, “All wrongdoings arise in the mind. It is through the mind that guilt can disappear.”

Thursday. August 30, 2001.

Day Four. I play hooky until an hour before lunch. Thay gives a mini dharma talk about food and how the very act of eating is a form of meditation. We go to our small groups led by senior monks and nuns. I choose to practice slow-motion Yoga, which happens to be led by the nun whose likeness lives on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Our class is a kind of tai chi-Yoga-pilates meditation. I take a position in the back row; otherwise I will be caught staring at the supermodel nun again. The class reminds me of a time between my two marriages when I took private Yoga classes just to ask the instructor to go on a date. The movement class is dismissed by the lunch bell. I feel energized.

It is the late afternoon free period. I wander aimlessly staring at the ground. My mind drifts to the too-pretty nun. I feel compassion or perhaps a hint of understanding that striking beauty must prove itself in every circumstance because the mere mortals are always watching for a fall. I find a hand-sewn finger puppet embedded in dried mud. Mindfully, I excavate my treasure like a terracotta army of one buried with the first Emperor of China. Held to the light, this child’s toy reminds me of my girls. The paradox of seeking Zen’s inner peace while forgetting my girls strikes me with a downcast blow. I haven’t seen my wife, except for her sleeping. The finger puppet mocks me. The distant ringing pierces my absent-minded mindfulness. I emerge to the better presence of the dinner bell.

At dinner I poke fun with a Tour D’horizon (brief review) of Thay’s afternoon dharma talk. It’s about staying present (mindful) while eating. It’s about vegetarians requiring less water, and less violence for the food they eat. It’s an awareness of climate change. The teachings encourage mindfulness in everything we do. I choose to poke silent fun at our Zen Master. He chews each bite thirty times until each bite is liquefied; he sees the sun, clouds, blue sky, the earth, rain, the farmer, potato pickers, and everyone who brings this potato to market. I imagine it takes a couple of hours just to finish his mashed potatoes. When I was five, my mother wouldn’t excuse me until I finished dinner. I’d sit stubbornly pushing food around my plate until my mother couldn’t take it any longer. Perhaps it was early training for eating meditation. I wonder if Thay has ever been to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Unenlightened, I see the farmer and his lovely never-been-married, forty-two-year-old daughter. In a rebellious mood I chew half as many times and sneak bigger bites.

Saturday, September 1. 2001.

I skip Friday’s diary. Saturday morning I review my six days of silent self-mockery, forgetfulness, hypercriticism, and generally bad Buddhism. But I am aware of one heightened reality—a miniscule and highly unworthy taste of enlightenment. I can hear very low-decibel sounds of whispers, distant trucks, birds, and ants digging their underground colonies. I greatly exaggerate about the ants, but this hearing ability makes me feel like a Marvel super hero. My cheap yet irresistible joke is that the retreat left my wife wordless for an entire week.

Day Seven. The Folded Note of Hypocrisy and Forgiveness.

Sunday, September 2, 2001. We spend the morning in free time. We pack our bags and lock them in the car. We keep a comfortable silence as we stand in the lunch line. I am sometimes more aware of my lack of awareness. I observe joyful faces and those hardened by suffering. I’ve heard the whisperers break their silence. All week, I’ve watched the regulars cut into the breakfast line with clockwork predictability. I am undisturbed by everything else, except those selfish queue-jumpers. I jot a note to a monk who dines at a nearby table. “Dear brother-monk. How do you deal with hypocrisy?” He glances, gestures for my pen, and writes, “First I forgive myself, and then I forgive my brother.” I carefully fold his note into my wallet.

When you leave a silent retreat, you don’t say goodbye. Thay says, “To join our hands in a lotus bud is to offer the person standing before us a fresh flower. But we have to remember not to join our palms mechanically. We must be aware of the person we are greeting.” The world’s most powerful search engine returns nothing but adoration and respect for this Zen Master.

We come home in the late afternoon to a glorious reunion, hugging the girls while sharing tail-wagging smooches from our golden retriever. Yet in nine days, at 8:46 a.m. EDT, our seven-day retreat evaporated into near nonexistence as if airbrushed from memory. The airspaces of the United States and Canada closed. The surreal air silence lasted three days and was strangely reminiscent of the peaceful silence that now felt like a dream. The new world embedded itself in the violent televised images for years to come. Perhaps the most iconic photograph by National Geographic’s Robert Clark was the wide shot of lower Manhattan with the north tower of the World Trade Center framed to the right as it spewed black smoke from the 93rd floor. In the far left of the frame sits Deutsche Bank. The Brooklyn Bridge is in the foreground. And United Flight 175 is frozen, a split-second from exploding into the 77th floor of the south tower.

One Year Later. Winter 2002.

I think she wanted me to find her emails, those charming letters full of poetry to a man so beneath her affections. Hurt and angry, of course I felt those emotions, but I knew this shadow of a man, this pseudo-intelligent coward, would never leave his wife. I wouldn’t have felt so lost if she had fallen for a good man. I knew this empirically: My first wife fell for a better man than me. They married and remain the happy couple to this day. My hardheaded decision to stay for the children would haunt me in eleven years. We attempted to move on. I know she tried, and this will sound like a country song, but she just never loved me. Even if she had, I couldn’t forgive her.

July 2013. The Stanley Mosk Courthouse.

According to the Holmes and Rahe’s stress scale, divorce is the second most stressful life event. (I could have told you that.) I remember one argument that started in the kitchen and ended in the front yard as both of us yelled in a simultaneous rage of hatred. I was mortified, especially when our youngest daughter had to tell us to “go outside.” The only way to create neutral territory was to leave the room. I took the dog out for very, very long walks.

My wife asked that we try “divorce-therapy,” which stipulates that its participants (patients) agree in advance that divorce is preordained. The psychologist then acts as our navigator who impartially guides us through our anger. Only in Los Angeles can you find such twaddle. I went twice, lost my temper and never returned. I told my friend about divorce-therapy. He’s from Kashmir, and he is a man who knows more than he lets on. He’s hinted about earlier days as a criminal; he’s a scholar of world religion, drives for Uber, makes custom jewelry, and once made Kashmiri Gosht, which he stirred for five hours. “Do you think she ever loved me?” I asked. He told me, “If you must ask, haven’t you always known?” I stare at him, wishing I wasn’t such a half-wit. “One day you will untangle the tangled and discover your true intentions for what they were—the small accumulated acts of love. It doesn’t matter whether she ever loved you back.”

I carried that monk’s note on forgiveness until my wife washed my wallet and pants. “First I forgive myself, and then I forgive my brother.” I’ve been practicing the first part—forgiving myself. It sounds
deceptively easy, and maybe it is for others, but not for me. When it’s working, this forgiving myself, I have written, “There are days I can see the beautiful poet, the mother of our children and my sincere hope for her to succeed. Many good days pass where I see nothing, but she still has the foregone ability to push my buttons like a jukebox. And I, once again, like the notion of uxoricide.”

One of my favorite films is Dodsworth, starring Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor. Made in 1936, the movie is based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, adapted by Sidney Howard and directed by William Wyler. The story is about a long disaffection of a seemingly healthy marriage. The last line of dialogue is the sweet, fictional victory of my dreams, “Love has got to stop somewhere short of suicide.”


* Screenplay by Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain.