2010 is my year. While it would be easy for some to agree, pointing out that I’ve graduated from undergrad, will begin my MS this fall, and am turning 21 in August, none of those things have had the impact on my life that two other events have: jaw surgery and reading Eckhart Tolle‘s book A New Earth.
The two events have a lot in common and by happening in tandem, taught me much more than either of them would have alone. On the surface, jaw surgery seems a bit cosmetic, if not shallow. However, for me, I have had a significant underbite for much of my life, one that caused me to bite most of my food around my canine teeth, since that was the only place my teeth came together. While this is not a life-threatening condition, doctors told me that I could have significant jaw and bone problems later in life if I didn’t have an operation, so I did. On May 24th, 2010, I had both my upper and lower jaws cut, moved, and screwed back in place.
My jaw, post-op, with 27 titanium screws.
Reading A New Earth lasted much longer than my surgery did, and for a good reason. It is not a book I would recommend anyone read through in one sitting. Each chapter feels like a lesson, one that you want to take time to process, meditate on, and come back to later. I started reading A New Earth in March, at the suggestion of a friend. After finishing the book earlier this week, I’m glad that I took as long as I did. There were many things in my life that were coming together around the time I began the book. I was coming to a new place of peace, becoming more aware of myself and my feelings, and significantly more able to savor each moment. I credit much of that to Buddhist readings and discussions with my advisor, Dr. Nathaniel Cordova. ANE deepened many of these feelings, and began to articulate what it was that I couldn’t; things that I felt but did not quite understand. While I don’t want to dive too deeply into ANE in hopes that you read it, I will explain how it related to my surgery (and ultimately, my recovery).
For those of you who have had surgery, I’m sure the recovery process was not something that you looked forward too. I had never been to the hospital prior to this surgery, aside from having an asthma attack or too, but that is hardly the same. Going into this, I had no idea what to expect, but I also did not want to have any expectations. I approached my surgery with the idea that “what happens, will happen” and I will be great. That is more or less how it went.
As you can see from the image above, my surgery was not very simple, and it left me eating via a syringe for a significant amount of time. I also took more painkillers than I ever want to again, and slept in very uncomfortable positions. But all of these got me to think about how fortunate I am in my life, having never been seriously challenged in my daily activities. While I’ve been allowed to solve difficult problems, write papers that took significant academic focus, or play games that challenged my physical strength and resolve, I have never been disabled, and that was what surgery did to me.
I was disabled because I had to learn how to move my jaw all over. I had to learn what my bite felt like and I had to teach myself how to eat and chew from day one. My parents told me that it was like watching a baby learning to eat from the beginning, just with teeth. That was pretty close to what I imagined. For nearly 6 weeks, I became tired or discouraged of eating far earlier than I ever became full. My bones would become sore and my stomach would still growl, but that was how it was. Yet I overcame it, with Tolle’s help. What ANE emphasized to me was the power of now – the necessary energy and attention that we need to give to simply being in this moment. So as I ate those meals with difficulty, I thought to myself, “Here I am, alive and breathing. I have loving parents who are taking care of me, friends who are visiting me, and no worries.” I was (and still am) thankful for what I had. I spent less and less time getting discouraged of my physical challenges, and more aware of my condition, first accepting it, then enjoying it, and finally embracing it.
Together, surgery and ANE taught me discipline. I slowed down my life – all aspects of it – and began to truly live. I was awakened, and each breath became much longer, each smile had more power, and this moment was the only one I knew. If you are going to do one thing for yourself this year, read A New Earth (mostly because I think it will be more beneficial than jaw surgery). It has changed my life, and I will guess that it could change yours.
Note: I have to also acknowledge the third life-changing event this year – my friendship with Emilie. Emilie walked with me as I journeyed through A New Earth having already read it herself. Her thoughts, her questions, and ultimately, her smiles, were so important in my journey, and I could not have done this without her.