Monthly Archives: July 2021

Desire Isn’t Our Friend – What is Life All About?

Pacing the sideline at the James Lick Invitational Tournament – 1988

2nd Noble Truth of Buddhism: The root of all suffering is desire.

“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might get what you need.” ~ Mick Jagger & Keith Richards


I was in the 6th grade the first time my dad took me to the James Lick high school Invitational Basketball Tournament. It was a neighborhood institution that kicked off the holiday season. The gym was packed. I was mesmerized watching players run back and forth in a choreographed ballet to the soundtrack of basketball shoes squeaking on the polished maple floor. Cheerleaders jumped, chanted, twirled, and fired up the crowd. The whole scene was intoxicating.

I’ll never forget the excitement I felt watching the winning team cut down the nets as a souvenir and seeing the all-tournament team clutching trophies at center court as the crowd cheered. From then on, one of my dreams was to play in the tournament. I looked forward to someday standing on a ladder to snip a little piece of the net as a champion and imagined holding an all-tournament player trophy of my own.

Six years later, I had my chance. As a senior at James Lick, I was co-captain and starting shooting guard for the varsity basketball team. We won our first game on opening night. I had a good game and earned a top 10 spot on the all-tournament vote tally. So far so good. For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to want something really bad. My stomach churned with excitement and anticipation.

After the game, a bunch of students celebrated the victory at the neighborhood Round Table Pizza. My teammates and I walked into the place like conquering heroes. On the way home, my friend lost control of his car and crashed it head-on into a telephone pole. A few hours later, I was sitting in the Kaiser emergency room as a doctor stitched the deep cut on my forehead. My dad looked at me with his signature furrowed brow of disapproval.

The doctor said no to basketball for a week. I was miserable the next day at school and the day after. It felt like my dog had died all over again. I suffered sitting on the bench wearing jeans and a letterman jacket watching my team lose the next two games. Something that I had wanted since the 6th grade went up in smoke right before my eyes. There would be no nets to cut down, no all-tourney trophy to hold at mid-court, no cheering crowd.

Eight years later, I had another chance. I was pacing the sidelines in my second season as the head varsity basketball coach at my high school alma mater. My team was playing in the championship game of the tournament. I wanted to win that game so much that I could taste the silk net that we would cut down when the game was over. The other team had different plans. At the end of the first half, it was still a close game, and then it wasn’t. We lost by a wide margin.

My insides literally ached from disappointment. I couldn’t sleep and barely nibbled at mealtime. Each time I walked into the gym in the weeks after the tournament, I second-guessed my losing game plan and rehashed the visual of that car coming face-to-face with an immovable object 8 years earlier. Wanting high school basketball glory had been so intense that the letdown was brutal.

Looking back on the events of 1980 and 1988 seems so quaint now. My intellectual journey of spiritual and philosophical discovery has opened my eyes about what causes so much pain and suffering in our personal lives. Throughout history, sacred texts, philosophers, and psychologists have told us that temptations and cravings are sure paths to unhappiness and sorrow. 

According to Hebrews 2:18 “he himself has suffered when tempted.” While sitting under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha realized that desire leads to suffering. Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it bluntly, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it.” Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said, “Desire without forethinking gains much but keeps nothing, therefore his desire is the source of constant disappointment.” The bottom line is that desire isn’t our friend.

Even though we have 2,500 years of wisdom to turn to, we keep making ourselves miserable. I was so tempted by the romantic illusion of cutting down the net in front of a cheering crowd as coach and making the all-tourney team as a player that my craving to achieve these desires was more powerful than the game itself. In the end, the pain and suffering I brought upon myself wasn’t caused by the game. It came down to not getting what I wanted.

Read that paragraph again.

It’s an eye-opening realization that’s worthy of deep reflection. Was I distraught because we lost the game or because I wanted to win so desperately? Those two thoughts might sound the same, but they’re different. Looking back on many of the darkest emotional chapters of my life, I’ve come to accept the universally recognized philosophical truism that desire and temptation cause suffering.

Last year’s Covid pandemic is a perfect example of this belief. Nearly every conversation with friends and family shifted to frustration, impatience, and unhappiness about having to wear masks and not being able to have a “normal” life. The desire to see friends, go to a restaurant, visit loved ones in the hospital was overwhelming. The CDC reported that “40% of U.S.adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse” last summer

As the classic Rolling Stones song goes, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might get what you need.” We tied ourselves in knots over things we wanted to do, but we needed to stay alive and out of the hospital. Most people who tried to follow the guidelines are still here. Can you imagine how less complicated life would’ve been if we accepted the restrictions without the emotional damage we inflicted on ourselves? 

Does that mean we shouldn’t have desires or want things? Do I want to live my life without having to focus on transplant issues on a daily basis? Do I want to drink lots of beer and have a bunch of Mark’s hot dogs? Do I want to walk my daughters down the aisle? Do I want to live long enough to spoil grandchildren? The answers to these questions are yes, yes, yes, and hell yeah! The reality is that God commanded the first 2 wants and He will dictate the last 2 as well. 

If I had my way – which I’ve clearly learned that I don’t – I would eliminate the word want from my vocabulary. When the thought pops into my head, I try hard to think it through before I say it, even to myself. Life is a tough gig. If these very smart dead guys are to be believed, we bring emotional pain onto ourselves. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. 

There’s a story that’s often attributed to the Buddha that shows up in all kinds of inspirational and feel-good memes. There’s like a 99.9% chance that he never uttered these words. Whoever said it brings clarity to what I tried to say in the last 1,100 words or so. Take some time to think about it. It just might give you a different perspective when desire takes over your mind, heart, and soul.


A man asked Gautama Buddha, “I want happiness.

Buddha said, “First remove I, that’s ego, then remove want, that’s desire.

“See now you are left with happiness.”

Finding Meaning – What is Life All About?

“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche, 18th Century German Philosopher


June 27, 2021 – 2:12 PMKaiser Santa Clara Medical Center, Room 3365

A little more than 72 hours before I started writing this post, I was at home making a bowl of oatmeal and blueberries to start the morning. Life was settling down after a physically and mentally challenging year. The hardest days of my heart transplant recovery were behind me. Walking 4-plus miles everyday, doing light strength exercises a few times each week, and working on a couple of mentoring opportunities filled my time.

After enjoying a few spoonfuls of the creamy and fruity breakfast, a phone call I had expected from the heart transplant clinic came in. I was waiting for the results of a quarterly blood test that determines if the medicine needed to protect my heart from rejection was working. Usually, the test results are good and the call is a quick 2-3 minute chat about staying the course. This time was different. 

The 30 minute conversation began with the nurse practitioner telling me to report to the hospital as soon as possible to be admitted. My body’s immune system was preparing to wage a battle against my heart to reject it. This is the most common cause of death for transplant recipients.  Just like that, the wave of comfort, peace, and happiness that I had been riding for a while came violently crashing down on the shore of uncertainty. 

A heart transplant isn’t a cure, it’s a way to live longer and improve the quality of life. It’s so easy to think that a transplant is just a few snip snips, put in the new heart, a couple of stitch stitches and the patient is good to go back to a “normal” life. In reality, it’s a daily grind of staying on top of anti-rejection meds, eating healthy food, exercising, and keeping regular cardiologist appointments. Infection, rejection, and other calamities wait in the wings.

The good news is that the transplant team caught the rejection before it damaged my heart and put a plan in place to fight it. I will get high doses of steroids, a dialysis-like treatment to clean antibodies out of my system, and an infusion of proteins. The bad news is that I have to be in the hospital for at least 11 days to complete the treatment 

That means wearing one of those light blue cotton gowns with an open back for 11 days. That means sleepless nights in a tiny hospital bed for 11 days. That means lousy-tasting food for 11 days. That means hearing the monitors and the sounds of sickness in the hallways for 11 days. That means getting poked to draw blood a few times every day for 11 days. That means not knowing what will happen next for 11 days. 

Lying alone in the dark as a monitor beeps and displays a green line dancing to the heart’s rhythm, I surf social media to see people preparing for 4th of July festivities and frolicking in Cabo, Lake Tahoe, and fun places near and far. Watching people celebrate their freedom from Covid’s loneliness, sadness, and hopelessness plays havoc on the psyche, especially one with an uncertain future. In the darkness of the hospital room, my mind wanders from bemoaning my misfortune to digging deep into the soul to reflect on the meaning of life.

During the height of the pandemic, people were upset that they couldn’t have a normal life. Not being able to go to dinner with friends, visit family, enjoy a ballgame, and much more caused widespread suffering for many people. I thought about St. Paul the Apostle languishing in a Roman prison for years and writing about hope, faith, and love. It reminded me that being a slave to our desires isn’t the pathway to personal peace.

Almost 2,000 years ago, Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius wondered if there was more to life than just “marrying, raising children, getting sick, dying, waging war, throwing parties, doing business, complaining about their own lives.” Sounds familiar, right? That’s what most of us live for. Is life all about sipping a glass of wine in Napa Valley at a posh resort and posting pics on social media to escape the drudgery of daily existence? 

Or is it about surviving “to find some meaning in the suffering,” as German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said. Over the past 11 days, I’ve had a lot of time to think about Nietzche’s perspective. Since there was no damage to my heart, I feel good and energetic. I had to find some way to cope with the fact that 11 days of restricted confinement was my fate on the very weekend that Americans declared independence from Covid restrictions.

Here’s the thing: Just because I felt good when I arrived at the hospital doesn’t mean that all is good. Antibodies were assembling the troops to attack my heart. There was no time to take the holiday week off. It was time to call on my own troops to fight yet another battle. Medically, doctors immediately began executing their plan. Mentally, I was resolved to stay in the moment, use skills I learned in psychotherapy, and put into practice my understanding of Stoic philosophy. It was game on!

Marcus Aurelius also wrote that, “the obstacle on the path becomes the way.” He meant that we must face and work through life’s challenges instead of complaining about them. My diseased and now transplanted heart is the obstacle in my life. Working with it is the way. I decided that I’ll try to have fun while in the hospital. Sandra has been here everyday. The girls trade off being here with her. It’s just like being at home with my family, just not so comfortable.

From the healthcare aides to the nurses, cleaning crew, and nutrition staff, I tried to get to know each member of the hospital team that came into the room. They’re from Nigeria, Kenya, Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, and a few from the east side. We talked about politics, hoops, family, their home countries, and empathized together with the victims of the collapsed building in Florida. 

Believe it or not, this hospital stay has been a rich experience. Have I come any closer to understanding what life is all about? Not a chance. But, I’m learning that taking each moment for what it is and enduring tough times with a little sunshine goes a long way. I’m becoming more convinced that doing fun things from time to time only serves to temporarily soothe the suffering of everyday problems. I truly found meaning in what could have been 11 days of suffering.

July 5, 2021 – 10:36 AMKaiser Santa Clara Medical Center, Room 3365

My cardiologist just left the room. She’s part of a great team of amazing doctors that have cared for me for more than a decade. The news is good. The last of the treatments will be complete by late afternoon and I’ll be discharged later in the evening. I’ll need to do additional blood tests to determine if the plan to rid my body of the heart rejection demons was successful. Until the results come in, I’ll get back to my home routine and just take it a moment at a time.