Zen, COPD and Roses

The author James Barrie, whose works include the memorable Peter Pan, once wrote, “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”

The phrase is not only beautifully evocative but also brings with it a serenity of the soul that involves images of brightly-colored flowers dancing in a breeze, damp from the morning dew.

I was reaching for those roses one night as I lay in bed wide awake past 2 a.m., straining to move away from the darkness that had been clouding my mind and intruding on my sleep.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the emotional punch in the stomach I had received three years ago, when a persistent shortness of breath was diagnosed as COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). I kept re-living the moment.

“It’s progressive,” I remember the pulmonologist saying. “You won’t be able to walk from room to room.”

He described it as a combination of bronchitis and emphysema, and sometimes asthma. It was probably caused by cigarette smoking, air pollution and God knows what else. I left his office with a handful of prescriptions for drugs designed to keep it under control.

Since then, I have been in the ER a half dozen times when my windpipe has shut down, leaving me gasping for air like a trout left to die on a fisherman’s boat. I carry a little red plastic device meant to “rescue” me from the effects of an attack. I have a compact portable machine called a nebulizer that blows medicated steam into my lungs as a preventive measure.

COPD is the third-leading killer disease in the United States. More than 125,000 Americans die from it each year. The term “progressive” is a way of saying its effects will increase until it takes your life. There is no cure.

When I complained to my doctor that I couldn’t sleep thinking about where the progression of the disease was taking me, he said, “Try a little Zen.”

He was right.

I began searching deep inside me for the enlightenment that the ancient belief promises, a peace of mind necessary to absorb the troubling thoughts that prey on one’s sleep. It doesn’t banish COPD but it does ease the fear that the disease brings with it.

At some point I came to realize that my visualization of James Barrie’s roses was in itself a form of Zen. I was reaching for a chromatic flash of flowers that lined my path toward inner serenity .

Now it’s my prescription to those of you suffering from both the angst and discomfort that comes with COPD: Seek the dream of untroubled nights that Zen produces. Be at peace with your fate.

Think of roses.