"Whatever takes us to our edge, to our outer limits, leads us to the heart of life's mystery, and there we find faith."--Sharon Salzberg

Monday, March 29, 2010

What Springs to Mind

Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.
Rainer Maria Rilke

I marked the return of spring and warmer weather in an unusual manner recently. I decided to feel sorry for myself. Until just the other day, the world outside the window where I receive chemotherapy was rather cold and gray. That felt about right. Then, suddenly, the sun crashed through the window like a brick with a note tied to it that read, "What the hell are you doing in there? Get outside! It's spring!"

Thus began my first chemo-related pity party. While it's true that misery loves company, pity is not afraid to go it alone. Hand it a bucket of worries and you're ready for an all-nighter. To my credit, I did not let this go on into the wee hours. Still, there it was in all of its non-glory pushing me closer to the edge of "I can't do this anymore." While this was happening, however, there was a part of me that was able to observe where this was leading me and ask, ever so quietly, "Do you really want to head down this path?" "Yes," cried the chunk of brain that was still in control of most of my senses, "you do want to go down this path. Look at it outside, this is fishing weather; you could be on the boat hauling in a trophy-size bass!"

I decided to break this inner dialogue by mentioning it to my nurse, who had already shared with me that she had gone through her own cancer treatment. Quietly and with clear understanding, she said, "You're gonna feel that way, just take it one day at time." I didn't share with her that I was way past "one day" and was knee-deep in one minute at time. However, her words clearly came from that deep place inside her that had squared off with the same demons I was wrestling with now, and that helped pull me out of my thoughts. My mindless wandering interrupted; I was able to return to the practice of mindful breathing.

In this state, I reminded myself that one need not corral the runaway mind and, in fact, attempting to corner and trap it only makes it more dangerous. Through meditation and other present moment experiences, one learns to simply let thoughts be as they are. No longer fed by endless attention, thoughts move on into their own silent void. As the Tao Te Ching says, "No fight, no blame."

I would be stretching things a bit to suggest that the next warm, sunny day I'm in the chemo recliner or on the radiation table, I will be one with the universe. I will, however, use my mindfulness techniques to keep from going into my mind and into the empty caverns of "poor me." This way, I can save the pity party for a true spring ritual; having a monster bass jump off my line before I get him in the boat.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Humor Me

Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”
William James

My older brother, who created all of the original artwork on this blog, thought it would be humorous to Photoshop a picture of what I might look like should I lose my hair during chemotherapy. He started with a picture of me, circa 1966. I wish I still had that impish look to go with my beard! I laughed hysterically at the picture and my wife loved it so much she put it up as our screensaver.

While he could have expressed his concern for what I'm going through any number of ways, my brother knew intuitively what I needed at the time. I can picture him working on the photo, smiling and probably laughing to himself as he put on the final touches. I feel fortunate that he would use his God-given talents to try and bring comfort to me during these trying times. I hope he knows that paybacks are a bitch and that I have an album of old family photographs just waiting next to my scanner.

We are told that keeping a sense of humor is critical to making it through difficult times, yet it's often one of the first casualties. All too often sarcasm and gallows humor take the place of true laughter as life literally begins to feel heavier. Surrendering to seriousness and cynicism, we rob ourselves of a natural healing method of which the worst side effect is that our sides ache, or if it was really funny, we pee our pants.

Scientific literature is filled with studies about the positive benefits of having a good laugh. Just a few of these include:

Enhanced respiration
Increased number of immune cells and an increase in immune-cell proliferation
Decrease in cortisol
Increase in endorphins
Increase in salivary immunoglobulin type A concentrations
Lower blood pressure
Fewer repeat heart attack

It seems that nature gave us a funny bone so that we might assist in healing ourselves.

In the mindfulness world there are even laughing meditations, "laugh clubs" and laughing yoga to help rev up what we could consider our seventh sense. Humor heals because in order to find something funny we have to be able to shift our mindset from something we are worrying about in the future or past to the here and now. It doesn't work to say, "Yeah, that will probably be funny to me in about a week, ha, ha." It is the spontaneous dropping of the ego's defenses that opens the door to the healing effects of humor. It feels good to laugh because the soul is nourished when it basks in the moment of what is.

My first day of radiation treatment I was handed a card that had my picture on it and a list of the number of treatments that I was scheduled to undergo. After the treatment the tech initialed a square on the card. I took a stab at lightening the moment by asking, "Do I get a free sandwich when I fill this up?" Not a bad one, I thought, considering the circumstances. The tech, not missing a beat, responded, "No, but you do get a toaster." I knew I was in good hands.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Stare Master

The cause of your misery is not in your outer life;
it is in you, as your ego.
Ramana Maharshi

A coworker recently commented that she sees me staring out the window a lot these days. “I’m meditating,” was my knee-jerk response. However, that wasn’t totally honest. I have a regular practice of meditation, and staring mindlessly out the window is not part of the practice. The operant word here is mindless. While mindfully staring out the window—simply being the observer of the world detached from all judging—would be helpful, mindlessly staring is nothing but trouble waiting to happen.

One of the biggest problems facing many people with a major health problem is what to do with the mind machine. How do I stop the incessant parade of facts, dark fantasies, and just pure fear stirred up by the mind? What do I do when the soundtrack in my head is like a hyper-kinetic version of Meet the Press? Why, for the love of God, can’t I just look out the window, see the rebirth that is spring, and sense the smell and feel of the warming air rather than think “I'll bet I’m going to glow in the dark by the time radiation treatments are over.”

The core difference between mindfulness and mindlessness is where the little troll known as the ego resides during the process. When we practice mindfulness, which Jon Kabat-Zinn defines as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” the ego takes a back seat. All of the ego's cries of "Are we there yet?" are simply treated with benign neglect. When we are in a mindless state, the ego is not only in the front seat, but behind the wheel, drunk, with the GPS turned off. Mindlessness is characterized by a glazed look that says, “I know I'm lost, but there's no way in hell I'm pulling over to ask for directions.” When one is in a mindful state, however, there is generally a look of peace and a half-smile on one’s face. Quite the contrast.

My ego has been hit hard by this cancer diagnosis. It asks a lot of questions these days, and in the absence of what it considers good answers, it takes to looking off into the distance, as if this staring contest with the world will force some sort of sense out it. “I have ways of making you talk," it seems to be saying to the world, "and I will continue to look at you this way until you tell me what I need to know." The world, for its part, simply goes about its business knowing that the true answer is beyond the ego's grasp.

I have learned to wrestle the steering wheel out of the ego's tight grip by turning my attention to my breathing. This works like the snap of the hypnotist's fingers to bring me back to the here and now. If I'm in really deep, I'll even throw in a mantra for good luck. Two of my currents favorites are "The Kingdom of Heaven is now," and "Guru Guru Wahe Guru Guru Ram Das Guru (Oh Divine Guide, Divine Guide who carries me across the troubles and turmoil of life. How grateful I am for Your greatness, Divine Guide. You have taken form as the light of Guru Ram Das. In that form, guide me always.) These act as lullabies to the ego, thereby allowing me to get some well-earned rest. Not while driving, of course.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Acceptance Speech

Acceptance of what has happened
is the first step
to overcoming the consequences
of any misfortune.
William James

“If I had just gotten the news you did, I’d be on my knees praying every night,” my friend said as we talked about the fact that my biopsy had confirmed a diagnosis of cancer. “I have been praying a lot lately,” I responded, “but mostly for acceptance and the strength to handle whatever comes.” I sensed that he was somewhat baffled by my reply. To be honest, so was I, to some extent. It is certainly in my religious make-up to believe that if I would just ask God with the right amount of humility and devotion, he would make this cancer nightmare go away. However, this no longer fits with my current view of all things spiritual.

My mind, ever since the cancer diagnosis, has been busy trying to sort out a plan for getting around the painful anxiety that is bound to worsen. Praying to God to spare me this ordeal has been top on the list of things to do. In my heart, however, I hear the recent quote of Eckhart Tolle, “The world is not here to make you happy, it is here to wake you up,” as well as the words of Jesus, “Pick up your cross and follow me,” and the wisdom of Nisagardatta Maharaj “Accept life as it comes and you will find it a blessing.”

That‘s where I want to be; right smack in the middle of the peace that comes from surrendering to whatever life throws my way. However, I find that my reflexive response to a crisis is to reach for the old tools of denial, anger, depression, and bargaining. These are well worn and within easy reach. Acceptance, on the other hand, feels awkward due to lack of use, and there is a gnawing sense that if I’m not careful with it I could hurt myself.

All of this takes me back to my prayers. Sure, it would be miraculous to have an illness cured, a suffering taken away or a burden lifted. But perhaps the true miracle is to experience the hand of God in whatever we are given. Real peace comes not from the absence of life’s upheavals, but by experiencing them at very core of the true self.

This is not to say that I have developed a fearless, “bring it on” attitude. To the contrary, I’m a long standing member of the “be careful what you ask for” club. Nor have I entered into a state of complete flow where my moods no longer ride the rough and tumble waves of uncertainty. No, I’m still an ocean of emotions, and the pending trips into chemotherapy and radiation treatments are my own personal tsunami. But in the depth of my heart, I believe my prayer for strength and acceptance will be answered, and that I need only turn down the noise of resistance to hear that answer clearly.