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Lions Roar : January 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2009 85 Elizabeth: IN APRIL 2008 I SPOKE AT Zen Center of San Diego about how fortunate we are if we begin Zen practice before an unwant- ed diagnosis is staring us in the face. A month later I was called about a mammogram that showed dubious calcifications in one breast. A biopsy confirmed early stage breast cancer. The diagnosis wasn’t on my wish list and—being literally at- tached to that breast—my first reaction was aversion and fear. But a cancer diagnosis isn’t awful, unfair, or tragic. Thinking that it is, is an emotional reaction—an addition that we bring to the situation, based on our personality and predilections. Unexam- ined, reactions sap aspiration and vitality, and sour our disposi- tion. Thich Nhat Hanh’s comment, “I arrive in each moment, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope,” reminds us that Zen training isn’t about floating unaffected above life. That’s usually premature transcendence. Considering the location of the cancer cells, the best option in my case seemed to be a mastectomy rather than a lumpec- tomy. It was difficult to face the idea of losing a breast, given that many cultures, including ours, have a veritable fetish for breasts. Concerns about desirability and appearance regularly overshadow concerns about natural functioning. Over one-third of women report dissatisfaction with their breast shape and size, and breast-augmentation becomes more popular every year. One ironic symptom of our preoccupation with breasts is that while magazines featuring semi-naked women are available in many supermarkets, women may feel unwelcome to breast feed, even at family functions. Two diseases are at work here: the breast fe- tish, and the epidemic of chronic dissatisfaction. Unlike many men, Ezra—my practice and life partner—isn’t pre- occupied with breast size, or even the absence of a breast. His atti- tude has eased the process of adjusting to a mastectomy, as have two particular practices: loving-kindness meditation, and the ability to distinguish between skillful and unskillful thinking. Skillful or clear thinking is the kind that sees situations objectively and determines appropriate courses of action. Unskillful thinking includes the emo- tion-laden, egocentric if only’s, poor me’s, and why-why-why’s. ILLUSTRATIONSBYKATHERINESTREETER What Matters Most When Elizabeth Hamilton is diagnosed with breast cancer, she and her husband, Ezra Bayda, learn the real value of life, love, and holding our attachments lightly. Here, both Zen teachers recount their experiences of Hamilton’s illness and recovery.