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The following is an article written by Master Eric Heintz. It first appeared in Tae Kwon Do Times magazine
in March of 1996. In this article Master Heintz discusses his experiences with a serious digestive illness
which eventually led to the removal of his stomach at the Mayo clinic in Minnesota. It is reprinted here with
the permission of Tae Kwon Do Times.
By Eric Heintz
During most of 1995, illness has prevented me from performing my duties as Editor in Chief of "Tae Kwon Do Times." I have been ill with an obstructed digestive tract. Surgery was performed in July at the Mayo Clinic and complications ensued, necessitating an extended recovery period. Recently I have been able to return to Tae Kwon Do teaching and training. During my absence of almost eight months, I received such an outpouring of support and love from my family, students, friends and "Tae Kwon Do Times" staff that a number of acknowledgments are in order.
During these past months, the Eric Heintz Black Belt Academy schools were ably directed by my wife, Master Kaye Bair, and the senior black belts who have trained there for years. They did a superb job of teaching classes, maintaining the facilities, and doing all the business tasks requiring attention. The survival of most businesses would be threatened by the owner's extended absence but our schools have flourished with our black belts' attentive efforts. I am very grateful to all of my students for their generosity of spirit and unflagging loyalty.
To my students, friends, and the staff at "Tae Kwon Do Times," I offer a very hearty "thank you" for the flowers, letters, telephone calls, visits, greeting cards, prayers, love and support during this period of time. Your warmth and encouragement have been a source of great comfort to me. My family's presence and aid have been immeasurable during this year. I am very blessed to be surrounded by such caring people.
While I would not have chosen to spend 1995 as I did, I am grateful for the experience. If given a choice, most people would not normally opt for pain, discomfort, hospitalization, surgery, and separation from family and friends. Sickness undermines teaching, training, and meditation routines, creates uncertainty for business concerns, and generates anxiety about the likelihood and speed of one's recovery. However, life has its own rhythms which often do not resonate with our superficial preferences. Since this illness limited my activities drastically, I was presented with the opportunity to pursue a very quiet practice of sitting or lying down, attending to each moment's thoughts, sensations, and perceptions with the method of conscious breathing. Facing this illness, and truly living it day-by-day, hour-by-hour, moment-by-moment became my sole focus. I realized that if I did not face it directly, this sickness would become two--a physical illness plus another consisting of worry, anxiety, and yearning for a different condition, "a better situation".
Early in this process, as I sat facing the pain and uncertainty, it became clear to me that this was really no different from Tae Kwon Do training itself. Just as judgments, aversions, comparisons, and desires interfere with martial arts training, attempting to avoid my sickness by distracting myself would keep me from experiencing my life as it unfolded each moment. Chasing after pleasant experiences and hiding from unpleasant events cheats oneself. The pleasure we seek evaporates in our grasp and the barrier we erect to protect us from negative situations creates an overwhelming sense of fear. So, if I became caught up in my own mental construction of anger, fear, regret and worry, how could I see, hear, and feel what was before me right now? Just as the dancer becomes the dance, as the martial artist becomes the form, I realized that I must truly merge with the sickness so that it became me and I became it.
How does one "become one with his sickness?" Each of us spends a lot of time and effort seeking to avoid pain and discomfort. The prospect of embracing months of physical discomfort offers little solace. But that is just another idea about pain, about what life should be, another desire for a better alternative. Turning to my breath as an anchor, I breathed in and out and noted the sensation of each breath as it traveled through my nostrils, filling my abdomen and out again. At the same time, I noted the sensation in my body. If painful, where was it located? Did it seem hot or cold? Did it have a color, a texture, a size, a solidity? Following the breath, did those perceptions of color, texture, size and solidity change? Over seconds, minutes, and hours, feelings and sensations come and go, rising and falling away just as one's breath does. Whether lying, sitting, standing, or walking, one can follow one's breath and be mindful of the thoughts, sensations and desires floating by like fleecy clouds in a summer sky.
Breathing in and out, following thoughts, perceptions, and sensations as they arise and fall away provides an anchor of silence, stability and spaciousness. Recognizing the pain for itself took the suffering away. It was just an ache in the head or the abdomen, present but not overwhelming. Living each moment mindfully with my breath as guide, mentor, and foundation allowed me to rest in a spacious silence, watching the ebb and flow of pain, my life at that moment. While I watched and breathed, my life took good care of itself.