Category Archives: Cancer Trilogy

The Big Impermanence

This is another blog post in what has become a Cancer Trilogy and the most difficult of them to write. What helped me to finally step into this realm was a quote by Larry Rosenberg, the American Buddhist teacher who founded Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts. “We harbor a huge amount of unfelt fear about sickness, aging and death, and that fear robs us of vitality, partly because we expend so much energy avoiding and repressing it. Bringing up this fear and facing it [—] is a great enhancement to our lives.”

There are many lessons to be had about impermanence. I’m not talking about day to day changes or even shifts in the larger circumstances of our lives. I mean the Big Impermanence – the final shift away from what we know.  Or at least from what we think we know.

Often I believe when we experience events on the continuum of sickness, aging and death, we see ourselves as victims. It may seem that there is no other option, however, there is some choice in this. Being a victim takes away not only a sense of responsibility but causes us to collapse in on ourselves. It’s often a place from which the seeds of anger and bitterness can easily grow. When early on I shared my cancer diagnosis with others, many times the response was to suggest that what I must be feeling inside was, “Why me?” And I would find myself thinking in return, “Why not me?” Did I really believe that I wouldn’t get sick or old or die? While it may not have been part of my plans for the near future, I might have figured that, at some point, one or all would certainly show up.

What we generally feel in that experience is a form of shock that takes us out of our mode of business-as-usual. Facing unknowns has us then falling from the shock platform into anger or fear, both of which revolve around wanting our situation to be different. If there is no one to blame for what’s happened to us, no answer to the question “Why me?,” then we are left with the fear.

Fear is a slippery creature. Even when you check in with the bodily sensations that accompany it, assigning the label “fear” to what you notice can be scary.  In our culture we are supposed to handle fear, push through it or close the door on it – turn the energy of fear into productive action.  Even those who exhort us to turn and face the fear generally seem to assume that we will power over it. They don’t actually mean to invite fear in and give it a seat at the table.

Yet that is exactly what we must do. Fear is a part of who we are, like it or not, so why not get to know it better. Especially if fear is the lens through which we anticipate the changes that accompany old age, sickness and particularly death. In these instances, fear is the inhibitor who clings to the way things were. The stronger the fear, the more enticing is the desire to hold on to what was. So how do you let go and allow the shift into what’s happening now?

How do you open to fear without being attached to or overpowered by it? I believe the only way to open sufficiently is to turn away from the judgments about what’s happening and and allow compassion to hold the fear. Compassion has a steadying influence when we face the unknown and when that door leads beyond aging and illness to the possibility of death.

I  find the more I allow fear to sit beside me, the more I can see past the fright to the point where what I receive are in fact gifts and opportunities. Qualities of richness are present and a chance for me to be fully who I can be at this point on my path toward the Big Impermanence. And that makes me smile.

 

 

 

 

 

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Moving Forward

Lately I have been feeling as if I have a label tattooed on my forehead that says: “Fragile: Handle with Care.”  Perhaps it’s actually that I feel the need to alert others to my fragility.

When I walk down the street, the process has been “one step at a time” for months. I cannot be focused on my destination because I have to summon the energy to take the next step. I can’t worry about whether I will get to where I am going; my whole being is taken up with moving my foot forward. It could be that the label seems an extra layer of protection since it wouldn’t be obvious to anyone looking that my self-experience is the way it is.

I have been slowly gaining strength over the past few weeks. But still the layer of vulnerability remains strong. That may sound like an oxymoron, yet vulnerability can be a powerful force. It can affect the interface between taking in experience and engaging in action. It feels like a cloak that I have been wearing without ever consciously having put it on. Now I can’t take it off, though as I write this, I am aware that it won’t come off until I am ready to move forward without it.

Such a way of being seems particularly at odds with the need for resistance in the face of current political and world events. Every day I feel called to act to help counter the actions that are feeding social injustice, isolationism and climate change denial. I feel diminished in myself as I see what others are actively doing. I am called to meet energies fueled by fear and anger, but meet them how?

How do you take a stand when standing in itself is sometimes more than you can manage? I remember past experiences where I was recovering from some trauma and impatient for wholeness. Always there was the issue of how much to push; how many steps forward can you take before being caught by as many steps backwards? It comes down to how to be with vulnerability in a way that holds the intention of standing up and being strong.

I recall some years ago being in warrior postures during my yoga practice and noticing how vulnerable I felt. This sense showed itself in an energetic backing off from a full expression of the poses as if the attitude and the physical postures were incompatible. At some point my awareness shifted to where I could see that vulnerability and strength were like two sides of the same coin. They can exist simultaneously in a person – in me! It doesn’t have to be just one or the other. I realize that insights can often appear to be simple as this one does but still represent a deep shift in attitude.

Going forward, I am hopeful that I can bring this insight to bear in meeting the events that are happening now. If I can remember the experience of being both vulnerable and strong then I can show up in a way that appreciates the soft underbelly of those who appear strong in opposition to the values I hold dear. This may help in preventing me from responding purely out of anger or frustration. Perhaps it will allow for some deeper listening on my part so that my response will be not be intentionally antagonistic. Maybe coming forward with this attitude will invite an openness that leads to dialogue instead of intransigent positions. I don’t know for sure, of course, but I am willing to see this as a next big step.

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Cancer and the Language of War

When we talk of cancer and its treatment, we speak the Language of War. There seems little way around it. We talk of the “fight” against cancer, the “battle” to win, treatment that will “destroy” the cancer cells. We use chemical warfare to eliminate the enemy and radiation to kill the invading troops, both of which involve much collateral damage to other parts of our bodies, not to mention the emotional toll.

If you’ve ever experienced these treatments, then you know what if feels like to have a battle raging inside your body.  There is no point at which it feels good. It’s an experience to get through or endure, hoping to come away a survivor. And often both the cancer and the therapy feel like enemies in the way they leave us depleted and beaten.

I understand the motivation that leads us to live this as a life and death battle. I appreciate what’s required to stand up to an assault on our bodies. But I also understand the power of words to affect us. The rage that we direct toward the cancer cells doesn’t act like a laser focused on a specific target; it affects other cells as well. Its energy invades our being in ways that we don’t control. The effect of the cancer and the ammunition used to fight it can definiteIy be compounded by our words, thoughts and attitude.

I spent weeks after being diagnosed trying to get away from the language of war. I summoned up alternate images thinking a kinder replacement might provide a stronger support. I tried to see the toxic medications as Negotiators of Peace in confronting the cancer cells. I tried to envision them all at the table but had difficulty seeing past that image. I couldn’t see a reason that cancer would even show up to negotiate.

Then I thought of the Survivor Tree – the one that made it through the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on 9/11. I thought about how it was cared for and nurtured to allow for new growth and finally returned home. But I couldn’t get past the horrific destruction that had caused it to nearly die as well as the death of so many individuals. No, this wasn’t an image that could serve me in shifting my relationship with cancer and chemotherapy.

I was beginning to feel defeated in my attempts to move past the Language of War, and, as a result, feeling bad in my body. Increasingly I was experiencing a shift in my relationship with my physical self. I was mistrustful of its ability to be well again, triggered by a sense of betrayal in allowing me to think I was healthy and suddenly discovering that I wasn’t. I was on the path to distancing myself from my body and taking up a judgmental, self-righteous stance. And not feeling good about where I was headed.

In my meditation practice I decided to spend more time on Metta or lovingkindness. Since I was already experiencing this separation from my physical body, I felt it important to direct the practice of Metta toward my body. My focus included the cancer cells as well as the parts of me that were healthy. My meditation practice in general had become one that was done lying down, since sitting often required more energy than I had. So, with my hands folded across my abdomen, I would repeat, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from harm, may you live with ease.”

How much more sense it makes to cultivate a loving attitude rather than taking up arms and waging battle. It may seem a small point, and I’m sure there are those who prefer the image of vanquishing the enemy on the battlefield. For me, however, Metta seemed the perfect practice to strengthen and support the health and well being of my body.

The good news, now that the chemotherapy is over, is that the cancer is gone.  And while I notice some impatience to move on, I appreciate that deeper levels of healing are happening. I continue to practice Metta and probably will for as long as I can.

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Filed under Cancer Trilogy, Mindfulness