In 1995, Seeds of Unfolding published “A New Reality‚” an article based on my experience of cancer.1 Fifteen years later‚ I find the raw freshness of the original article hard to edit. Like looking back at a remembered moment‚ the impact of the experience cannot be recaptured in the context of now. To be clear‚ I have the remnants of cancer and cancer treatment to remind me and the lymphedema of my arm is evident. But perhaps most powerfully the years of surviving allow for an authenticity that only comes from a lived experience.
I would have to honestly tell you that even at the time of writing the article‚ I had no idea I would live to now and be writing an introduction to that original piece. While the immediacy of surviving is dulled as time passes‚ the necessity of a method to live inclusively is more evident to me. It is more challenging to keep the immediacy of living alive when life matches our expectations. And the basic message sent to “the me” of today is the same: to exhale‚ you must first inhale. We must create space within ourselves to live this moment in this moment.
What follows is the article of 1995‚ beginning from the first encounter with the knowledge that my body had somehow betrayed me or that I had betrayed my body … whichever‚ it ended an illusion or expectation. I am here now with an awareness of how transitory the shattering moment is … yet that moment of shattered illusion is the most freeing moment as it strips to the core of one’s values of living. To keep that opening in front of oneself requires a tremendous effort that only living can breathe into life.
Silence‚ absolute‚ interior silence. The plans for the day‚ the worked–for future with my husband and sons‚ the importance of my thoughts … the wonderful horror engulfed me and fell away‚ silencing the demons of my illusion‚ opening the awareness of this painfully conscious moment. Silence. Stillness. The implications gathered life around me.
My initial thoughts were painfully personal. Narrow‚ dense and heavy in perspective‚ I was quickly pulled into the shared reality of another. It did not take long to have the human aspect of the disease confirmed. The doctor’s phone call had made me late for a veterinarian appointment. I knew the vet and her staff well because I go there frequently for my cattery. I explained to them why I was late and was amazed at the response. My vet had had breast cancer five years before. I had known her and had not noticed. It struck me how little we know of each other’s pain. Suddenly‚ this cancer was not mine; it was shared by many. This broader perspective made the experience not possessed by me alone but connected to the human experience. Somehow‚ this made all the difference.
The Difference between Exercise and Reality
I had meditated on death many times. As an ascetic practice‚ I had visualized the rotting tree blown down in the storm‚ the decaying wood enriching the soil for the new plants and trees‚ imagined freedom from the dense mass of the physical body‚ recognized the change in physical form as we grow older‚ imagined the gradual weakening of life‚ practicing in my mind the reality I now faced. I felt like a performer who had prepared for the high–wire act a safe two feet above the ground‚ and now I was high over the bottomless void‚ with no safety net in sight. Death had been easy to consider in a healthy body‚ but now I could not deny my position. The high wire could be traversed only if I applied the knowledge and experience of what I had learned. My life was the testing ground for the validity of what I had practiced as a spiritual exercise.
The Need for Method
Even though we know the certainty of dying, we so often deny the fact of its personal reality. Our minds easily escape the fact and we do not see what is evident all around: our existence on earth is temporary. Though I have pondered death philosophically over many years‚ it looks quite different up close and personal. You stand naked and raw in front of death. There is no pretense of who or what you are. Death has no judgment of good or bad; it simply is.
A method is needed to move within this vacuum. It gives a way of moving in this space that roots you to yourself and gives you a solid base on which to live.
A method is a way of using tools. Like the use of utensils when eating‚ the tool for delivering the sustenance is not an end in itself. One does not believe in the fork; one uses it in different ways to convey food. It is a tool within the method of eating.
A method of life is used to bring the sustenance of life–the moment–into consciousness. Anything can be a part of a method‚ and the tools can change with the situation. I was very fortunate to have had “amateur status” in the use of tools‚ because now my standing was to become “professional” as I verified their usefulness first hand.
Meditation is a tool that is taught as part of a method of life in Cafh. Meditation teaches the mind to reflect on itself. Like a mirror‚ meditation reflects the inner workings of the mind and reveals them to our consciousness. There is a difference between the exercise of meditation and the state of meditation‚ but the lines are not so clearly drawn and one supports the other. I am using the tool of meditation as an exercise. The seven effects of the meditation exercise I use in fact are what best describe the relationship I established with cancer. These effects are: abhorrence‚ desolation‚ disattachment‚ election‚ consolation‚ joy and rapture.
The first point was that experiencing cancer from a human perspective made it manageable and allowed me to respond. Moving beyond the personal begins with the awareness that your reality is not Reality‚ it is only an interpretation. Anything can move you from the limited perspective. For me it was cancer. For you it will be something else. The one lifetime guarantee we have is that there will be something in Life that moves us from our limited‚ personal perspective.
Once you look around and see that your limited perspective is not where you want to be‚ you must gather your strength to move on. The first step is abhorrence: you gather all the energy from what you do not want and allow that energy to move you into a different perspective. Moving into a new perspective leaves you on the “high wire” above the abyss. You are alone‚ desolate. You find within this desolation the core of who you are: a human being. You need a method for moving into this new realm. You need a method to support you as you dis–attach from your old habits and replace them with better ones. In my case‚ instead of thinking‚ “I am going to die!” I would think‚ “I am going to die. I must live this moment.” Disattachment.
In writing about the people in concentration camps in his book Man’s Search for Meaning‚ Viktor Frankl expresses the next step beautifully:
They may have been few in number‚ but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.2
Somehow we know that this is true‚ but in everyday living it is difficult to apply. I used to jokingly say‚ “I can live my life really well‚ but Life keeps getting in the way.” Perhaps it is because we feel no urgency to fulfill our life task‚ our vocation‚ until something gets in the way. We tend to be too busy trying to keep pace with the demands of day–to–day living.
Cancer “got in my way” and I had to pay attention to Life‚ not just to living. It created a sacred moment–to–moment approach to living‚ and everyday tasks became extraordinary. It seems the very urgency of the situation forced me to apply what I had learned‚ when—I would have to honestly say—I ordinarily have not so consciously chosen my responses. Cancer became my concentration camp. It concentrated me on a single point and I had to find my own freedom‚ to choose my response: Election.
At moments the closeness of this reality would awaken a raw terror within me‚ and I would repeat a mantra–like prayer: “Let nothing disturb me‚ let nothing frighten me. Only God exists.” I had learned this from a longer prayer of Teresa of Avila.
Let nothing disturb you
Let nothing frighten you
All things pass away.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.
The use of prayer would allow me to breathe; much like a deep inhalation‚ it would enlarge my point of view… permit the space I needed interiorly to take shape. I gathered force and strength as I took in more and more of the truth. Waiting‚ pausing‚ grasping the truth … then exhaling‚ releasing the personal‚ opening up and propelling the limits of self. I found the panic subsided when I remembered to pray. It felt correct‚ and I found consolation. I was finding my way. I was far from perfect‚ but I was exactly who I should be in this moment.
I would like to be able to tell you that I behaved with the enthusiasm Joseph Campbell reveals when he speaks about “seeking your bliss” in his course‚ The Power of Myth. He suggests responding‚ “That’s great!” to any situation offered by life. Well‚ I did respond that way‚ but there are many ways to say‚ “That’s great!”‚ and not all of them are with awe and sincerity! The most difficult task for me was to say “That’s great!” when accepting the assistance of others.
I was no longer the one taking care of everyone‚ making sure everything ran smoothly. I was suddenly the one in very real need of assistance. It was a tremendous step within me to realize that by allowing people to assist me I was permitting them to be strong and needed.
One day my mother‚ who was living with us‚ said that she was feeling so guilty. She is such a pure‚ compassionate person and had been with us off and on to help with the family during my treatments. She had to work hard taking care of my two teenage boys and husband‚ assorted cats and kittens‚ and the house‚ let alone watch her daughter. “How could such a soul feel guilty?” I wondered. It seemed that since my dad’s recent death she had been feeling at a loss for what do. She had been with my father for 50 years and had cared for him the last few years as his health failed. Now‚ with me‚ she found herself needed again‚ not in just a causal way but in a very real way. She felt guilty that she should feel so fulfilled by being needed because of the suffering of her daughter. Her words allowed me to accept the assistance others‚ not just for myself‚ but for all people. We really do need each other. In order to help‚ one must find someone willing to be assisted. We create these connections by accepting life with openness: Joy.
Pain and suffering reveal our inner attitude and our compassion for others; they make us truly individual by stripping away the mass–concept mentality. Pain and suffering open and create space for living. I would visualize myself as a door‚ working to be open‚ full of peace. I was a doorway. Passing through the door were the suffering of others before me‚ the suffering of the flesh that life will give to all‚ the realization of the human condition‚ the work of accepting with love all that life offers‚ the prayers directed toward me that I offered to those before and yet to come‚ the compassion awakened in souls and demonstrated with their assistance. Rapture. Connecting with the whole of life by actively accepting all: an open door‚ allowing free passage to all.
The Role of Silence/Waiting
It was helpful to visualize these seven basic steps as a wheel. The spokes—abhorrence‚ desolation‚ disattachment‚ election‚ consolation‚ joy and rapture—were the connections between perception and action. They radiated from the center of the hub (consciousness) to the outside rim of my life. When aware‚ I was the hub at the center and as long as I was living in the moment‚ silent and conscious‚ I could observe the decision‚ see the consequences‚ and choose my direction. When I could not be silent interiorly‚ it was too overwhelming‚ too personal. Thus my effort was to be silent and conscious. I invoked the consciousness‚ inhaling the awareness … and then waited‚ in silence‚ for the response.
What always had seemed a theory became a reality‚ for all the movement of the mind‚ all the need for activity‚ stopped and fell short when measured by the absolute silence of death. It left me where I always was but had not recognized as my reality: present‚ in the middle of infinity. What was in the future came from this moment … and the evolution of humankind had brought me here. It made the moment alive and more real than ever before.
I was to have many moments in which I was not present. I can “horrible–ize” with the best of them. “Why me?” “I have so much to do!” “I am needed.” “This is not fair.” These feelings of anger and disbelief are real and should not be denied. But they don’t have to be the theme of life. They can be exactly what they are: momentary stampings of the feet in the refusal to continue. They are real‚ they have energy‚ but after awhile‚ one gets tired of stamping feet!
I found myself accepting responsibility for my life: the responsibility for living to be the best person I could be. Not in an idealized way‚ but with the beautiful flaws that make us the individuals we are … the flaws that breathe life into us. When you cannot recognize yourself physically because your hair is gone‚ your skin is greenish–yellow‚ you are bloated and can’t see that well… you find that you are still there. What you had identified as self is not as fixed as you thought.
Awareness of the nearness of death makes one raw‚ as if life had rubbed away the layers that protect consciousness from the enormity of the moment. This rawness makes it easier for us to be available for life’s lesson‚ more available to learn. Pain and suffering teach patience and perseverance: if you cannot change what is … accept it. That is what I term “active acceptance.” Do everything you can‚ discover any possibility‚ act cleanly‚ wait patiently‚ and accept the result. Our action is the consequence of our thought and perception.
Interestingly enough‚ I think it is far easier to have a clear adversary–antagonist–than it is to live in our day–to–day existence. Cancer united everyone behind me. We knew that I had to be made free of this disease in order to live. I knew what I had to do‚ and everyone was there for me‚ focused on the same issue. I had enrolled in Life’s Accelerated Learning Class‚ and I was fortunate to have the right tools to work with while there. It is more difficult to live day by day‚ keeping alive the intensity of the moment: the need to be present. So‚ though losing one’s health is not what I would recommend to anyone‚ it can be a wonder–filled experience.
Health is taken as such a universal right that the lack of health is seen as weakness‚ until one’s own health is compromised. Then it can be the most isolating‚ devastating experience one goes through or the most freeing‚ loving experience. One’s exterior freedom is limited when faced with life–and–death decisions. But one is totally free to choose how to respond.
The Five Remembrances3
(1) I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
(2) I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill–health.
(3) I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
(4) All that is dear to me and everyone that I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
(5) My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
1 “A New Reality‚” Seeds of Unfolding‚ Vol. XII‚ 3‚ 1995.
2 Viktor Frankl‚ Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press‚ 1992)‚ 66.
3 Thich Nhat Hanh‚ The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (New York‚ Broadway Books‚ 1998)‚ 123–124.