From the moment you found out you had colon cancer, you brought your practice to bear on it--whether it was imagining what your teacher would say to just following your breath. But was there ever a time when you couldn't access your training?
Well, there were really difficult, painful times. But even after the hospitalizations, when I was really sick from the chemo and could not do sitting meditation, I could still really make an effort to pay attention to what I was doing. "I am now cooking the oatmeal, I am now sitting in my chair, now I'm drinking my tea." Even that was a practice.
And how did it help?
It kept me grounded in the present, which is so important--not spinning out into terror, into fear, into future-thinking.
"Hidden Spring" is such an honest, revelatory book. What was it like to write it?
Hard. It was extremely painful material, and I hadn't looked at any of my notes from the time of the illness. But when I got the contract for the book, I realized, "Oh no. Now I have to sit down and read this stuff." I would write for three hours and then lie on the couch and sob.
When you're in the midst of cancer, you're working to save your life essentially. In the crisis of illness, you don't go fully into your feelings of loss because you need to stay focused: I've got to take these pills, I've got see the doctor, get chemo--and all that. Writing the book gave me an opportunity to grieve, because there are so many losses in cancer, from very, tiny, subtle losses to huge ones. And there are 15 of them a day, so you can't be grieving all the time.
What's a tiny one and what's a huge one?
Not being able to take a walk if it's a beautiful summer day. Not being able to go swimming or go out in the evening. And then I lost my home and my relationship and my health [laughs]--though I did get my health back for now!
You wrote a lot about your cancer support group. What was its role in your recovery?
Cancer support groups are so good because you are not going to scare people. There was one day when I was in really bad shape, and I said to a friend who was driving me somewhere, "I'm really pathetic today," and she said, "Oh, no you're not." But I could walk into the cancer support group and say, "I'm really pathetic today," and they all would nod their heads! Finding someone you can talk to who doesn't fear your condition is extremely important. I think sometimes that our intimate partners are not the ones at all; they're terrified that they are going to lose us.
Sure. Let's say I'm in a relationship with someone, and I think I'm going to lose them. How do I protect myself from that fear? Sometimes by making this huge distance between them and me. People do it all the time and its terrible, but it's very hard to be the partner of a cancer patient. You feel so helpless to make a difference in their situation.
|If you can just be still, even for a minute, in the midst of your panic, it can take the edge off.|
You had an extraordinary support network of people who cared for you.
Not everyone has as much as I did, but everybody has some support. The key is you have to be willing to admit to being vulnerable and having needs. If you are going to try to be independent and go it alone and be proud, probably no one can find a way to help you. You have to be willing to receive. That was something hard for me to learn.
One of things I did was send out letters every two to three months, so I kept communicating with people and letting them into my process. I didn't necessarily want them to come over to my house and talk to me, and they understood that. But anybody who sent me anything, even a card, or came and did something got a copy of my letters--that's how I learned what my community was. Everybody has some kind of community, whether it's family, workmates, people from church or the grocery store. There were people at the grocery store who gave me food half price, because they knew what was going on!
What do you recommend for somebody who's facing serious illness but doesn't have that kind of spiritual training and resources you had?
[Laughs] I guess I should put in a plug for my book "Opening the Lotus," which is a primer on Buddhist meditation and has very basic instructions.