“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”- Sarah Williams
So I start my cancer treatment today. In fact, I’m sitting in a chair right now in a room full of people at least 25 years or more older than me and we are all plugged into IV bags of chemicals connected to our chests.
Some of us are bald. Most are asleep. All have been very nice. Soft, even. Not that I touched them all, you creeper! I just mean their energetic vibe is, well… tender.
There is no display of power in here.
Just Presence. Its calming.
Matter of fact, the interesting thing about this whole experience so far is how calm I’ve been about it. I have certainly spent more time making other people feel better about my cancer. I hear this is super common. But let me say this anyway. It is my blog, after all.
The week I found out about the mass in my chest, I spoke at my friend, Heidi Green’s memorial. It was surreal to be up there talking about her life, and about our lives, and the human search for meaning within uncertainty… all the while knowing I had some crazy shit in my chest that nobody knew about. I talked to a lot of people that night who I knew well, some I just met, and some I hadn’t seen in years… but each interaction felt a little out-of-body to me.
I was just stunned at how beautiful every person was. Astounded really at the preciousness of their unique imprint. I lamented how it’s so difficult to notice this in normal life. But, I get it. We’re busy, and all that stuff, but no matter the reason, the experience of seeing everyone as the children of this miraculous Universe was overwhelming. Sometimes I had to fake a cough to not cry just looking at people.
What a world. All of us are such miraculous achievements of creation. The cosmos coming to awareness. Each of our bodies, and hearts, and souls all cradled and held together – in the same way billions of galaxies are – by a mysterious “attraction” or “gravity”.
You know, gravity is mostly just a word for “we don’t know”. Seriously, we still don’t know why everything in the universe is the way it is, but that it’s due to this fundamental mystery of this 14 billion year old creation; that the first principle of reality is that all things are held together in this “allurement”, this “attraction” to one another. And without it, everything – literally everything – would disintegrate. Amazing.
The week I found out I had cancer, I was halfway through a class I was taking on Raja Yoga. The class was just over 3 hours a week and included Hatha as well as a meditation and teaching portion. That week, our affirmation was this: “I accept whatever comes my way as an opportunity for growth”. I loved it. I was reciting it all the time. I even remember doing the Fonz thumbs in the mirror during the week…
So yeah. I really liked that one.
Haha. Well buckle up, buckaroo.
Later that week, as I hung up the phone with the word “Lymphoma” ringing in my ears, the very next thought that popped into my head – well I’m not ready to talk about that yet – but the thought after that was the mantra.
“I accept whatever comes my way
as an opportunity for growth”.
I had been repeating it all week …and as it popped into my awareness, I relaxed. I am telling you, that was shocking. It was like I disassociated with my body and just observed myself, and what I saw was a deep calm which surprised “observer me”. I didn’t freak out, I didn’t tear up, I didn’t scream… It was a total surprise to me, but I felt super calm. It was, for me, a profound experience of what the Christian Tradition calls the ‘peace that passes understanding’. In fact, while the affirmation ran through my head again and again, tons of other sacred scriptures came to my mind.
These are just a few:
I thought of Jesus’s teaching “do not worry about your life”.
I thought of James who wrote “ Consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. ”
I thought of how the Buddha taught “the cessation of suffering is non-attachment”
I thought of Lao Tzu who said “surrender to life”
Which reminded me of dear Fr Thomas Keating’s line “The real spiritual journey depends on our acknowledging the unmanageability of our lives.
I’m not even going to pretend to have an ounce of the wisdom of those people above, but what I understand it all to mean is as simple as this;
Let. Go. Open your hands, your heart, your desires… Release it all.
Don’t cling. Not to your security, not to your health, not to a particular outcome, not even to your life.
Not because I should resign myself to death,
but because clinging to life IS a kind of death.
Its funny to me that the James passage came to my mind, because previously, I had a hard time seeing the relevance. Like it was some sort of Pollyanna verse where we were expected to put on a bogus Barbie smile and thank god for sending all these personal calamities and bubonic plagues to test us.
But this time I took notice of the word ‘consider’. It doesn’t say ‘experience it pure joy’ it says ‘consider it pure joy.’ This is all about perception.
We can choose how we interpret (perceive) the events of our lives. Every viewpoint is simply a view from a point, and you can choose yours! This is why you can have two people in the same situation and one of them is grateful and one is bitter. The difference, to me at least, is that one person is pushing against ‘what is’ while the other person has embraced ‘what is’. The one who pushes against ‘what is’ (or reality) can never move forward until they have changed ‘what is’, whereas, the one who embraces ‘what is’ (or reality) can move forward and even then ask, ‘what is now possible’? (Personally, my absolute favorite question for accessing the creative evolutionary impulse within us)
And that posture produces strength and courage, or as the verse says, ‘perseverance’.
STRUGGLE IS PRODUCTIVE.
The last few years of my life have been quite a paradox. They have simultaneously been the hardest, most painful, isolating years I can remember. And yet, I wouldn’t trade them for anything because they have also been the most beautiful, redemptive, rewarding, transformative years of my life. It’s like what Imogen Heap sings in the song “Let Go”… that ‘there’s beauty in the breakdown’.
The breakdown of the last few years was beautiful.
I lost friendships…
but I experienced my closest friendships at levels of intimacy I didn’t previously know existed. Over the years, Michelle and I would make a short of list of who we’d say our friends were. (If this sounds weird, consider that being a public person makes it hard to discern who really loves you from who just loves having access TO you, or the arrow of your friendship in their social quiver) But these past few years have clarified that exercise for us in beautiful ways, and what was many times a painful exercise in asking ourselves if anyone really knew us, has become quick, easy and heartening. We KNOW who we are and we KNOW who loves us.
I lost my religion…
but I received a much more expansive, astounding, wonder-filled way of being in the world. One that activates me to live faithfully instead of just believing in ideas… one that reminds me the dark night of the soul is where you actually discover you have a soul, and that inside the cloud of unknowing is the only authentic way of knowing anything.
I felt forsaken, rejected and wounded to my core…
but tumbling down to the bottom of that hole showed me that Divine Presence is felt down there in ways that only suffering can illuminate. And that coming to trust that Presence in the midst of isolation gave me the courage and safety to actually look at myself in the mirror. I did so with honesty but also non-judgment… with a critical eye for reality, but also compassion. I could see who I was, how I had changed, and what was next. It was in many ways the beginning of my faith and a deeper identity.
In religious language, it was the crucifixion – not the resurrection – that became my salvation. And that’s an important point.
I grew up hearing that believing in the Resurrection (meaning: agreeing that it happened some day in the past) was the path to salvation, but my experience of salvation went differently. It’s about actually surrendering to the pattern of crucifixion (suffering and death) that ultimately redeems you. Resurrection is merely the living proof that something has been raised. The first flower of spring. New life beginning.
Guys, I really wish it was possible to get the good side of transformation without the difficulty, but in my limited experience, that’s just not the way things work. It just isn’t.
We all know the cliches.
No pain, no gain.
No mud, no lotus.
No pressure, no diamond.
I’ll add my own… No crisis, no evolution.
Pain is an invitation to awaken. And like a 14 year old kid on a Monday morning, we humans take quite a vigorous shaking to come into conscious self-awareness. Because waking up and growing up require little deaths along the way. Death to an old way of being and an old way of seeing.
But we hate death so much.
In fact, that’s basically what is killing me.
The cancer cells are immortal – and that is what is wrong.
Every healthy cell in your body is in an endless cycle of death and resurrection. The ones that never engage this pattern of our universe are called ‘cancerous’ because they just stack up, stay put, never change… and try to kill us. Haha. Sounds strangely familiar.
The point is, we can resist pain, mud, pressure, crisis and the like, if we choose to. But that only keeps us stuck, aimlessly circling this same way and level of being, forever. Ironically, that kind of clinging is a kind of death anyway. You still die. Turns out, chasing immortality sucks the life out of ya.
But to let go! To allow. To stop clinging… that’s where everything opens up. You simply surrender. Yield. Let life have its way and fall into the flow of Reality.
You let God (or whatever the fundamental principle is for you) to fully possess you. You give total authority to Life – even though the ego small-self within you is throwing a tantrum because it hates feeling out of control. Ego is super helpful for keeping you alive at all costs, but it is wisdom challenged . As my friend, Bruce Sanguin says, “<Ego> does not know when to stand down in the face of a Higher Power.” Your radiant Spiritual self (your eternal essence) has to be in the driver’s seat when things require insight and wisdom and courage. A greater True-Self that is never threatened, always tender and gentle… full of peace.
But be warned, like a mini King Herod, the ego small-self is always terrified when a more powerful Spirit is born in the manger of your heart. A Child-King who isn’t motivated by fear at all. So little Herod does everything he can to snuff out this budding life within you. But stay the course. The pain and confusion, the agony of giving birth to new life in the midst of this struggle is always worth it. And the wise Magi impulse within us, always on the lookout for the crackle of the new, will follow the signs and give honor to what is bound to eventually rule your heart’s kingdom.
Whew. That got super mytho-poetic. Let’s turn the dial the other way now.
New Study: “Fucking Cancer might give you cancer”
I like the bumper stickers that say “FUCK CANCER”. Those stickers and that hashtag have a way of uniting us as a species against a common enemy. One who has stolen from all of us in small and large ways. I like how we all get to say together that we support each other and we see each others pain and we won’t give up on each other. All of this is beautiful to me.
I think I may stop saying the phrase because of a nuance, one I don’t think anyone would disagree with, but I’m just saying it, to say it.. because it makes sense to me and I believe it’s a healthy adjustment to make energetically.
I WELCOME CANCER.
Or at least the process and pain of healing from it. 🙂
Look, I don’t want cancer.
I would prefer to not have cancer.
But I have cancer.
So I’m not going to spend any energy hating and resisting that reality. Instead, I accept the invitation to go inward and know myself more because of it. To learn as the ongoing student of life that I am. Slowly. I’m in no rush to miss the lessons along the way. I simply adore how Integral Philosopher Ken Wilber puts it,
“A person who is beginning to sense the suffering of life is, at the same time, beginning to awaken to deeper realities, truer realities. For suffering smashes to pieces the complacency of our normal fictions about reality, and forces us to become alive in a special sense—to see carefully, to feel deeply, to touch ourselves and our worlds in ways we have heretofore avoided. It has been said, and truly I think, that suffering is the first grace. In a special sense, suffering is almost a time of rejoicing, for it marks the birth of creative insight.”
I accept what has already come my way as an opportunity to grow.
To grow in authenticity.
To grow in patience.
To grow in vulnerability.
To grow in gentleness.
To grow in compassion.
To grow in strength.
To grow in love…
To grow in connection to Spirit and in depth of Soul
…And all the ways I have yet to see!
So, Dear Cancer, I welcome you. Pull up a chair. Or a podium! My posture is open-armed and open-hearted. I say YES to cancer’s lessons. I sit expectantly before my new guru. I listen attentively to my teacher. And I am grateful for the growth in maturity and wisdom that now becomes available to me because of cancer.
“Wisdom is nothing more than healed pain” – R. Lee
Richard Rohr says that two main things grow us; great love and great suffering. This excites me, because cancer has already shown me how transcendentally gorgeous Universal Love is… and I also hear I’m about to suffer a bit. Either way, things will unfold. Which reminds me of this Taoist parable:
Once there was a farmer who worked his poor farm together with his son and their horse. When the horse ran off one day, neighbors came to say, “How unfortunate for you!” The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
When the horse returned, followed by a herd of wild horses, the neighbors gathered around and exclaimed, “What good luck for you!” The farmer stayed calm and replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”
While trying to tame one of wild horses, the farmer’s son fell, and broke his leg. He had to rest up and couldn’t help with the farm chores. “How sad for you,” the neighbors cried. “Maybe yes, maybe no,” said the farmer.
Shortly thereafter, a neighboring army threatened the farmer’s village. All the young men in the village were drafted to fight the invaders. Many died. But the farmer’s son had been left out of the fighting because of his broken leg. People said to the farmer, “What a good thing your son couldn’t fight!” “Maybe yes, maybe no,” was all the farmer said.
Well, you have heard it said, “Fuck Cancer”.
But I say to you, “Maybe yes, maybe no”
What if things are going just right?
And what if the self that awaits on the other side of this experience is more than I can imagine being today? Well, based on my last few years, I’m betting on it.
You can too.
What do you need to stop resisting? To accept? To allow? To let go of? To forgive?
That’s probably one of them, isn’t it?
Trust that there is a truer you behind your little Herod who needs blood.
And then let’s just walk each other home
on this road I can only describe as real FAITH;
And we’re not going to worry.
We’re going to consider it pure joy.
We’re going to release our attachments.
We’re going to surrender to the flow.
We’re going to admit this is unmanageable.
And we’re going to enjoy the journey.
Because we grow when we hurt…and you can’t gaze at the stars, until the lights have gone out.
So cheers to you, Cancer…and all the gifts you bring.
PS: I’m still gonna kill you.
PPS: I’m probably gonna get a sticker too.