Four friends, coming together from four different spiritual traditions, divergent backgrounds, and lifestyles, had one thing in common: an experience of serious illness not as a battle but as a spiritual journey.
As the four of us deepened our friendships, we began to recognize that despite the apparent differences between us, there had been some strikingly common landmarks in our journeys through breast cancer. We began to name these landmarks as steps along the way: five psychological and spiritual stages that we had all encountered during the course of our relationships to our disease. Each step was initiated not by answers, but by questions.
We called this model: "A Pathway to Spirit: The Five Stages of Transformation." These stages are not discrete, but overlap and revisit one another, spiraling, deepening, and transforming at every turn. We first shared these stages in our book " Speak the Language of Healing,
" addressing in depth the issues and questions common to each step of the journey. We hope you will be intrigued enough by these brief descriptions to revisit this site over the coming weeks, as excerpts from our book shed some light on how it is possible for life-threatening illness to be a spiritual path.
The Stage of Impact
Did I create this?
This is the point of entry, the initiation that is heralded by the words "You have cancer," the dark night of the spiritual journey. You will often feel as though you are the only one who has ever been in this place of shock and disbelief. You may feel abandoned and alone. When others come to offer support, they will often bring with them unsettling theories about the origin of your cancer. Did you create this? Did you contribute? You may feel guilty and ashamed.
Although you may be used to calling the shots in your life, now control is gone; your deepest beliefs will be called into question.
There is advice, even for this stage: embrace it all. There is no one right way to do this thing. Anger, shock, grief, loss and fear as well as courage, self-love, acceptance and eventually, humor and joy will also be felt at one time or another.
The Stage of Chaos
Does death mean I lose?
Will God help me or am I on my own?
Things may seem to get worse before they get better. The status quo--your old ways of being--are falling away. You may clutch tightly to the way things were. But is it possible that even as old parts of you are dying, new possibilities--new ways of being in the world--are birthing?
In the beginning, everything is chaotic, unformed. You are the most free you have ever been to let go of old beliefs and patterns. But there is discomfort in your deepest questioning.
What metaphors for healing will work for you? Are you a fighter engaged in battle? Or are you an initiate encountering the deeper mysteries?
The Stage of Choices
Is treatment war or initiation?
Do I hold on or do I let go?
Do I trust the medical establishment or put my faith in alternative and spiritual healing?
Since the cure for cancer and many other serious illnesses is unknown, you must learn to make decisions with less than full knowledge. There are demands on you on many levels. Sooner or later, you need to take action: and even inaction is a conscious choice.
In the midst of uncertainty, in what can you place your trust? In what environment is your optimum healing most likely to take place?
The choices are never easy. Even people with well-developed religious lives can fall into spiritual pitfalls when faced with their own mortality.
The question that must be confronted at this stage is: How is it possible to do everything you can within your power to live your life to the fullest, and
to put your destiny in God's hands?
From whom must I learn to receive?
From whom must I learn to protect myself?
When you are first diagnosed, your illness is a rip in the fabric of the community. As the all-encompassing urgency of acute treatment recedes, you are faced with the challenge of finding your way back into ordinary life.
For many people, the end of active treatment would seem to be a time to rejoice. But treatment, no matter how dreadful, is a kind of support system. After you are cut loose, a supportive community can make all the difference.
But not all offers for support and friendship will further your healing. You have changed as a result of all that you have endured. You must learn to make good decisions about who you let in to help and how, and also to help friends, family, and acquaintances find the right words to truly be of service.
The Stage of Spirit
How can I find peace of mind when I'm living my life over the edge?
What have I learned?
If one goes deep enough, one encounters--seemingly unbidden--the stage of spirit. Here is integration and meaning, inner strength, hope, and most of all, an appreciation for the sacredness of life. Whatever happens to us, whatever our prognosis, is
our spiritual path.
In the Stage of Spirit, we realize that by learning to operate in the unknown, we have developed skills that will continue to serve us, both within and beyond the realm of serious illness. When we learn about ourselves in relation to life-threatening disease, we have the potential to ask and answer the biggest questions. We gather the gifts of our journey and begin to reach out to others. And so the journey continues.