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.
And which you wrote during your illness!
That's right. I think it's possible without training, if you have the intention, to sit down, quietly close your eyes, and go inside and just be present with yourself. I would counsel someone who was going through cancer to make an attempt to do that. There are a lot of benefits for one thing: It helps you deal with the anxiety--if you can just be still, even for a minute, in the midst of your panic it can take the edge off.
It helps us make decisions, too, such as in a hospital or doctor's office. If you can hold still and say, "No, I don't have to make that decision now. I'm going to sit here for 15 minutes, or maybe I'll wait two days," when you make the decision, you'll be in a much better place. Also, in a larger sense, I think it helps us connect with that healthy part of ourselves.
Would you say a little more about the idea of the healthy person inside?
I believe that as ill as anyone is, there is always a healthy part. But how do you access that? Maybe for some people, it's through music, through movement, or through being with friends or an intimate partner who knows you and the healthy part of you. But you can also access it when you sit still and really honor yourself, your deepest self. That can be very helpful, and you don't need a Zen master to teach how to do it.
You write at one point in the book that there are perks to being sick--that it can be calming. How is that?
I think there's a luxury in being ill, because so little is required of you. People don't expect much of a response from you or things like that. There you are in bed or the chair, and you really can't live your active life. But you have your imagination and you can plan all sorts of fabulous plans and vacations. I would imagine riding down the Ganges on a boat.
Did getting sick change your practice or your approach to Buddhism?
It didn't necessarily change what I did, but it did help me to get viscerally some things that I had only understood intellectually. For instance, the whole business of how we live in separate moments: I could see what had seemed like a "bad experience" was actually five minutes of terror and then three minutes of neutrality and then a couple minutes of just comfort and then there is some delight because someone you like just walked in the door. We tend to generalize, to say, "I'm feeling terrible today and everything is terrible." But it's really not. It's hundreds and hundreds of sensations and thoughts flowing through the mind.
Do you see the illness as having been kind of a gift to your practice?
Oh yes. At one point, I had the sense that I was irrevocably changed, and I didn't quite know how. I couldn't really discuss it with anyone because it just felt so--so intimate, so interior. But there was this one night when I sat up till 3 in the morning. I was just looking at my own death. Yes. Period. Here it is, it's going to happen. That made a huge change in me.
You've talked about the relative inevitability of getting cancer again. But if you could die anyway you wanted, how would it be?
I'd like to be conscious, so that I could say good-bye to people, tell them what they had meant to me. I could give away my things to actual individuals in the moment they came to see me. And I would like to be able to write about it too, whether it was cancer or something else. I mean, we all have to die of something.