Death and life: living with a future

Category : Asanas (Postures), General advice, Philosophy 27th July 2015

Inside Yoga 139

In 2013 I posted a story about Wilco Johnson, the guitarist with Dr Feelgood, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, with just 10 months to live. At the time he declared that he had accepted his fate with a calmness and clarity – it was refreshing to see how someone had turned bad news into a way of living more fully in the present.

Two years have passed and he is still alive! When he was told he had months to live he set off on a farewell tour.
“One of the ways I dealt with it was to absolutely accept it, and think: ‘Right, they’ve told me this thing is inoperable – if I’ve got 10 months to live, I just want to do it, I don’t want to spend 10 months running around after second opinions or false hopes.’ In a way, it was a kind of comfort zone, accepting that I was going to die and all the questions of mortality had been sorted out for me. I dunno, if that communicated something positive for people, that’s marvellous, but I didn’t intend to,” says Johnson.
Still alive, he went on to record an album with The Who’s Roger Daltrey, called Going Back Home, which went gold. Then one of his fans, who happened to be a doctor, saw Wilco playing and wondered why he wasn’t “either dead or very, very ill”. So he referred him to Emmanuel Huguet, an oncologist at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge. Huguet announced that Johnson’s cancer was operable, albeit with only a 15 percent chance of his surviving the operation. They removed a tumour “the size of a baby”, as well as of his pancreas, spleen, part of his stomach and intestines, and then a succession of “very painful” secondary infections and a period of convalescence followed after which, in October Johnson was told he was cancer-free.
Wilco says, “It’s so weird and so strange that it’s kind of hard to come to terms with it in my mind. Now, I’m spending my time gradually coming to terms with the idea that my death is not imminent, that I am going to live on.”
Wilco Johnson
Wilco has gone from a person who is facing imminent death and living every moment, not afraid of death, to a person faced with uncertainty of the future and all the anxieties that this state of mind throws up – like most of us.
He explains in a Guardian interview: “I’ve found myself back in the land of the living, and it’s kind of difficult to adjust my consciousness back from the idea that death is a terrible thing in the imminent future.
“The idea of death, now, to me, is just as dreadful as it was before. Really! Obviously, I have to go for regular check-ups and things. Everything’s all clear so far, but it sometimes crosses my mind: ‘What if they said it’s back and there’s nothing we can do?’ I mean, it gives me the horrors. I can’t think: ‘Oh, that’s all right, I’ve done that before, I can handle it.’”
He adds: “I was faced with my imminent dissolution, and you can’t fake that. You’re either really, really faced with death or you’re not. And now I’m not, I’m looking on all that like a dream, and thinking, ‘Yes, I remember that intensity.’ I hoped I’d brought something with me, but I feel like I’m parachuting back into the land of the living and looking around thinking, ‘Oh well.’”
What I found interesting in the interview is that when faced with imminent death Wilco did not suffer from depression, something he had had problems with prior to the cancer, yet now that he has recovered it has returned. It is a strange human condition that when given the space and time we will worry ourselves, perhaps needlessly, but if given something finite, such as terminal illness, we shake ourselves out of this because we don’t have the time to waste on negativity and sadness.
In both Buddhism and yoga, and most spiritual traditions, this human trait is highlighted as something not to indulge, to shake off and not give space to, and one technique used to achieve this is to meditate on the impermanence of life and the proximity of death – live now and not in the future.
After a lifelong struggle with depression, Wilco found the illness evaporated when he thought he had 10 months to live, but now it’s back. He explains: “For instance, since coming out and recovering, I’ve started grieving for my wife, Irene, again. It’s nearly 11 since she died, and I never, ever got over her. I’m still in love with her. And it hurts now, to think of her. During all that year, I dunno, if you’ve got no future, you do think, ‘Well, I don’t have to sit here and think about how I’ve got to go on for years without her.’ So perhaps it receded a bit, just thinking about her every quarter of an hour instead of every minute. Now I’m recovered, I do find myself sometimes… Oh man, it hurts.”
And looking on a brighter side, he adds at the end, “I do think since my illness, I have become a lot more tolerant and easy going,”
To read the Guardian interview, click on
To see my first blog about Wilco, Death can make us live, from Inside Yoga 82 (15/7/13), click on
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