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Lions Roar : January 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2009 87 A particularly pernicious form of unskillful thinking is the belief that if we have an illness or physical condition, we are somehow to blame. This mis- conception is a second disease, because it makes us feel worse by setting forth a welcome mat for guilt or shame. Did we “cre- ate” our illness? If so, shouldn’t we be able to “un-create” it? Ob- viously, thoughts and emotions co-arise with physical condi- tions; however, when we turn this fact into a distorted version of causation, we’re assuming that our tiny ego rules the uni- verse. Sadly, such notions reflect self-centeredness and a corro- sive lack of compassion. Another unskillful mind-set is the belief that our state of mind is primarily determined by our life circumstances. This is clearly not so. Don’t we all know people who are healthy yet chronically unhappy? Through hospice volunteering, I’m fortu- nate to meet people in dire straits who remain capable of grati- tude and equanimity. Prior to my surgery, I started practicing an interest- ing meditation that involved greeting the cancer cells and inviting their input. They didn’t seem to have much to say, and eventually I let them know that, even though they were going to do what they were going to do, their continued proliferation would eventually send all of my body’s cells, cancerous ones included, down the tubes together. I mentioned that an eviction party was scheduled, on the day of the surgery, and that my hope was that they’d vacate. This meditation made something strikingly obvious to me: the cancer cells were my children, since they undeniably took birth in this body of mine. How could the cancer cells and breast that were re- moved not be part of my very self, no matter where they were now? The eviction party has passed, yet there’s no guarantee against future cancer. If a body produces cancer once, it can do it again, and that’s a fact, not a catastrophe. The markers following sur- gery indicate that the margins and lymph nodes are cancer-free, good news that can readily precipitate yet another deluded dis- ease: the disease of turning being currently cancer-free into one more branch to grasp at, even though we’re all up to our necks in the quicksand of impermanence. My current cancer and surgery pilgrimage is one small exam- ple of why Zen practice has to take us where we don’t necessarily want to go. If it’s not clear what’s required in order to be pres- ent during difficulties, practice might just fall flat when we need it most. Once again I’m grateful to Stephen Levine, the first teach- er who helped me see the value of greeting life’s inevitable jolts with charitable awareness. In one of his retreats, he spoke of a cancer patient who said, “Can- cer is the gift for someone who has everything.” At the time I couldn’t imagine ever un- derstanding such a thing, but guess what? I have everything! Zen assures us that we are one with everyone and everything. In that case, how could cancer be excluded? Losing a breast is a tangi- ble reminder of what matters most. This means that, as a central component of spiritual practice, we must continually investigate our ego. We must learn to understand the reactions we add to the present moment and nurture loving-kindness. As practice goes deeper and we become less preoccupied with our me-stuff, the balance shifts, and more of reality gets in. Hope- fully we realize that we’re the lucky ones. We, after all, have the opportunity to walk the path of awakening—detours, precipices, and all. I know of no more direct route for accepting Thich Nhat Hanh’s invitation: “May the door of our hearts be left open—the door of compassion.” Ezra: MY WIFE, ELIZABETH, AND I were on a wonderful retreat-vacation in the beautiful and peaceful area of Lake Como, in northern Italy. We spent hours walking through the idyllic towns of Bellagio and Va- renna, eating pasta at almost every meal, meditating in a different church each day, and appreciating how lucky we were to have the health and resources to share our life together. Then, shortly after our return to San Diego, Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer cells were my children, since they undeniably took birth in this body of mine. How could the cancer cells and breast that were removed not be part of my very self?