© 2008, David J. Bookbinder
Dark to Light Suns (view larger image)
This post is not so much about art and healing/transformation, though art has played its part, but about the transformative power of the spiritual imagination.
About a year ago, I was stricken with a gastrointestinal bleed. By the time it was identified, I had already lost about two pints of blood, and I was also rapidly losing weight. Fourteen years before, a similar scenario had brought me within minutes of death. The present situation seemed serious to my physician and gastroenterologist and frightening to me. I underwent a battery of tests, beginning with simple ones — testing for occult blood, measuring hemoglobin and hematocrit counts — and, as the bleeding continued, endoscopy, colonoscopy, and an abdominal ultrasound..
Much to my surprise, the gastroenterologist had never mentioned the relatively benign explanations my physician had offered for my still-undiagnosed problem (bleeding polyp, anal fissure, hemorrhoids), and instead cited more serious conditions, a set of “C’s” including Celiac disease, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and the Big C, cancer. As each round of tests ruled out one set of damaged organs and by implication ruled in the remaining set, the problem area eventually narrowed to my small intestine, which could only be imaged, without surgery, by my swallowing a small camera known as a PillCam. The PillCam procedure required insurance company approval, and that took ten days.
Ten days is a long time to wait when you are bleeding internally.
In the interim, I found myself feverishly scanning the Internet for information on all the illnesses my gastroenterologist had mentioned, and for any other maladies that could explain my symptoms. Nothing I found was simple or likely to get better by itself. I fantasized about a repeat of the botched surgery I had undergone following my 1993 bleeding incident, imagined fatal outcomes, feared the unknown.
And then, with the help of a Buddhist friend’s intervention and an act of Imagination, I stopped fretting.
My friend e-mailed me a Buddhist verse on using wisdom and courage to deal with acceptance of sickness. It’s intention is to help us regard sickness, health, long life or early death as, equally, gifts from the Universe, all to be welcomed equally, all to be transmuted into service to other sentient beings. It is described as a way to transform suffering into enlightenment. Here it is:
I rely on you, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,
Until I achieve enlightenment.
Please grant me enough wisdom and courage to be free from delusion.
If I am supposed to get sick, let me get sick,
And I’ll be happy.
May this sickness purify my negative karma
And the sickness of all sentient beings.
If I am supposed to be healed, let all my sickness and confusion be healed,
And I’ll be happy.
May all sentient beings be healed
And filled with happiness.
If I am supposed to die, let me die,
and I’ll be happy.
May all the delusion
And the causes of suffering beings die.
If I am supposed to live a long life, let me live a long life,
And I’ll be happy.
May my life be meaningful
In service to sentient beings.
If my life is to be cut short, let it be cut short,
And I’ll be happy.
May I and all others be free
From attachment and aversion.
The exhortation that introduced this verse instructed me to read it many times a day. I did so, and each time its effect was calming. The continued readings also had a cumulative effect. I stopped looking things up on the Internet. I returned to my work as a therapist. I began to make art again, a practice that has, for years, been soothing and healing. And I began to have a different relationship with time. “Whatever it is,” I found myself thinking about the damaged parts of my innards, “it’s already there.”
Whether I would live or die; whether I would get better by myself, with dramatic interventions, or not at all, was already out there in my future. Just as my diagnosis was out there, waiting for me to arrive, so was the impact of whatever they would find. I didn’t have to fret. I didn’t have to plan. I just had to move forward in time, until I arrived at the moment when my course of action was clear, and then move forward from there.
The idea that “it’s already there” has, since, become more general. When I think about relationships, the fates of people I love, the trajectory of my career as an artist or therapist, I am relaxed by the thought that it, too, is already there — that the seeds have been planted, the tendrils that will become the plants that will become the fields of flowers are already sprouting somewhere in the future, and that in that future they have already either found the nourishment they need, or they have not, and that in either case we will all arrive at our future and continue from there.
This is not pre-destination. This is not resignation to my fate. This is not just “que sera, sera.” This is something that, while I can’t fully explain it, feels like the most liberating realization I have ever had. It’s already there. I don’t need to fret about it. I don’t need to fuss and plan and push. I just need to live my life to the best of my ability, and, of the infinite possible futures, I will inevitably arrive at the one that is mine.
I can handle that.
Anxiety has, for me, always been about fearing what will be. Or, more precisely, it’s about the fear that I won’t be able to handle what is around the next bend. I still get anxious about this kind of thing. But since this “already there” realization, I often catch myself fretting and, instead, give myself a kind of grace. The grace that whatever situation I will encounter, I will handle. That I do not need to prepare for it. That I need, instead, to trust that when the moment arrives, I will be ready as, by virtue of the fact that I am still standing, I must have been ready for everything that has come before. It’s already there. It really is. All I have to do is keep putting one virtual foot in front of the other and I will arrive.
I already have.
It’s Already There
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