Disease As A Spiritual Path by Frederick Mills
"According to the wisdom of the Bhudda, we can actually use our lives to prepare for death. We do not have to wait for the painful death of someone close to us or the shock of terminal disease to force us to look at our lives. Nor are we condemned to go out empty-handed at death to meet the unknown. We can begin, here and now, to find meaning in our lives. We can make of every moment an opportunity to change and to prepare–wholeheartedly, precisely, and with peace of mind–for death and eternity." Sogyal Rinpoche
In spite of some occasional long absences over the years, my friendship with Peter Moore, co-founder and editor of Alternatives, has grown from the time I first met him at the Breitenbush Community near Detroit Lake, Oregon in the late 1970’s. I’ve been going to Breitenbush since that time for personal retreats, and to attend growth workshops.
Since last September, Peter and I have been pondering the question of how life-threatening disease can be an opportunity for spiritual growth. He asked if I would write an article about my own experiences as a cancer survivor. After a great deal of consideration, I’ve decided to do so.
I’ve written various articles about cancer, but I’ve never been asked by anyone to write publicly about my spirituality, and cancer. Far from being an expert, I’m still deep in the throes of my own spiritual seeking. I’m sure there are many, many others who have more gracefully integrated a life-threatening illness into their spiritual quest.
The spiritual “path” I refer to here is just a snapshot of my own walk through, and is not represented to be the “right” way. After all,“spirituality” is really an intense curiosity–with a lot of heart thrown in. With that caveat, my prayer for this effort is that it will help fan the flames of, or perhaps rekindle, your own spiritual fire, in whatever form it takes.
Just remember, one doesn’t have to wait for disaster before embarking on a path of personal discovery.
In September of 1991, at age fifty, I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. Surgery did not cure it and the medications I’ve taken since only served to place me in temporary remission while at the same time giving me severe side-effects and other problems. I went off medication in July, 1995 to rest my body, and disease progression began shortly thereafter. Earlier this year I tried a natural remedy of Chinese herbs but was forced to stop, also because of the side effects.
Although I‘ve led a pretty exciting and tumultuous life, I can tell you that nothing prepared me for a diagnosis of cancer. As a Vietnam veteran and former police officer, I’ve been exposed to life at its worst, and its best. Typically, perhaps, I always thought things like life- threatening diseases were something that happened to others, not to me. When I was diagnosed with cancer I was absolutely devastated. Me? Cancer? ...NOT! What the hell’s going on here? I thought I’d worked too hard on myself over the years–I thought I’d unloaded my childhood “baggage” and other traumas over years of counseling sessions; I had read hundreds of books, I had found my spiritual path–and now, CANCER? Why? What have I done to deserve this? I was furious, I was sad, I was terrified. I felt I had faced too many dragons, and frankly, this one really got to me. It was a challenge I didn’t feel ready for, and even though I’ve picked up the gauntlet, on occasion I fall apart. Disease as a Spiritual Path is easy to say, not easy to do.
But it’s hard for me to talk about disease as a spiritual path without describing some of the physical and psychological components of my own experience; to me they are all connected. Don’t take this as my feeling sorry for myself (which I certainly do on occasion) but only as an example of what’s been happening since diagnosis. To begin with, surgery made me impotent. I felt I had lost my “manhood” forever. After surgery I was incontinent and had to wear diapers. Even today I have to be careful. If I’m tired or when I exert too much pressure on my bladder I might wet my pants, especially when I laugh, or cry, too hard. Later, I learned that with an advanced cancer such as mine, having surgery was an exercise in futility and only served to compound my problems. As the cancer progressed, the medications I took to hold the cancer at bay suppressed my sexual desire, caused osteo-arthritis, violent mood swings, disorientation, and other problems. I’ve been hospitalized three times since diagnosis. The latest evidence is that the cancer continues to progress, so each new pain, or ache, or other symptom, is suspect for the beginning of the end-time. If what the doctors say is true, this means I can expect that the cancer could at any time get into my bones, spine, lungs or brain and I may die a slow agonizing death. This has all had a profound effect on my daily psychological and emotional outlook.
For most of the time in dealing with this I’ve been alone. There are many reasons for this. Mostly it’s because I’ve been too afraid to come out. Sometimes when people have learned that cancer is in my life their original interest has tangibly waned. Others whom I’ve known over the years, even loved ones, are still holding so tight to old hurts they are unwilling to support me. While I understand this to a degree, it hurts. In spite of these times, cancer has shown me I have the strength of my own faith. Even when I’m reeling in disbelief that I’ve let some misbegotten communication or action occasionally leave me on the wrong side of the people I love, I’ve discovered a deep well of forgiveness and compassion for myself and others that is unflinching and very tender. This is of great benefit. It reinforces my faith, and gives me the strength and courage to go on.
Everything I’ve described here is what Ram Dass refers to as just “grist for the mill.” Each part of me that clings to how I think it should be, or what I think I can’t let go of, or what I think I don’t have, is the grist that, when ground up in the process of my own opening, will become the flour that will become the bread that sustains me. Fighting the process or holding on to old patterns leaves me brittle and only serves to add to the armoring of my heart and my feelings of separation. Only when I’m able to let go enough to be broken open can I then begin to discover the broader dimensions of myself. Cancer and all that has come with it leaves me with lots of questions and lots of opportunities.
After all, what are we really? Perhaps in asking the questions: Who am I? What am I? Where am I going?, I can begin to understand. I’ve asked myself, “Who is it behind these eyes?” “What is this body?” “Where do I go?” “Who is it that has tasted the joy of life?” “Who is it that gets sick?” “Who is it that has felt the pleasure of an understanding touch?” ‘What is it that feels?” “What is it that is moved to tears of sadness and despair?” If I took any piece of my body and tried to follow its “composition” from a closely knit bunch of cells right down to sub-atomic particles, and beyond, I would find mostly space. The same goes for everyone and everything else–at least as far as we can tell. So if we’re all mostly space, then who is the “I” or “we” all of us get so concerned about guarding and protecting? What’s it all about, Alfie? Fascinating, yes?
For many years I’ve been a spiritual seeker. I’ve read books and attended workshops dealing with death and dying. I’ve traveled extensively. Much of what I’ve identified with and found helpful concerning this topic has been through studying and experiencing the works of Stephen and Ondrea Levine, Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, Sogyal Rinpoche, and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Certainly, I’ve read other works, but the work of these individuals in using all of life’s events as a path to growth have been a daily inspiration to me. So, after all that, imagine my surprise when shortly after my own diagnosis I realized it was me I’d been reading about all those years. It was I who now had to somehow find the courage to plumb the dark recesses of my own fear in order to come to grips with the many implications of these new developments. I, who was now faced with the foreboding reality of my own mortality.
My spirituality was first fueled as a child through the ritual and discipline of Catholicism, which sustains me to this day. I’ve also found a surprisingly long lasting spiritual component to the discipline and rigors of Marine boot camp, an experience I’ve been able to tap into when life gets particularly rough. In fact, a spiritual acquaintance and author, Dan Millman (Way of the Spiritual Warrior, and others), once told me I ought to start a spiritual corps using a boot camp-like focus and intent. I thought I might call it the United States Meditation Corps (USMC). I’m sure my drill instructors would get off on that! Anyway, in the late seventies and early eighties, I explored a plethora of spiritual disciplines and in mid-1984 I chose to follow a Bhuddist meditation practice known as Vipassana (Insight).
In 1993, I was reminded of the first couple of times I had been exposed to the Bhudda and Bhuddism. I found an old photograph I had taken of a Bhuddist shrine when I was in Vietnam in the mid-sixties. Someone had shot several holes through the center of his chest, and a piece was missing from his neck and right leg. He was covered in birdshit. Yet I was touched by a certain dignity about the statue that somehow remained undisturbed. Without knowing really why, I later went back and took a picture of it. It’s now in a frame on my altar and serves as a symbol of our human condition. By this I mean that, at some time in our lives, all of us have been shot through the heart, have experienced pain and suffering, be it through the death of loved ones, divorce, the breaking up of a relationship, or through receiving the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease.
The next time I “stumbled” into Bhuddism came during a combat operation in Vietnam located about thirty miles south of Chu Lai. We had set up a defensive perimeter on the grounds of a Bhuddist temple. About 4:00 a.m. the next morning we were alerted that monks would be moving in the vicinity of our positions headed for prayer. Even though they were behind the wire we were warned not to get “spooked” and fire on them. A little later, during a beautiful star-filled moonlit sky, I heard the melodic chime of bells gently drifting through the jungle calling the monks to prayer, then watched as a ghostly breeze of saffron moved toward the temple. This so-called hardened Marine sergeant was deeply moved, and I remember sadly thinking to myself how ironic that such simplicity and beauty should be in the midst of so much destruction and human violence. Now I see there is no escaping the paradox. Beauty and devastation exist together, and it’s our noble challenge, and opportunity, to use these events, and everything in between, as fuel for our own process of waking up.
Even though I’ve learned a lot through my own quest over the years, I haven’t always done a very good job of applying what I know to my own experience. However, one of the best ways I’ve found to learn more about helping myself is through helping others. Since early 1993, I’ve been involved in counseling patients and their families all across the country. I’ve counseled men who were dying alone without the companionship or assistance of loved ones or friends; patients who were left to sit alone in waiting rooms sometimes for hours without apology or concern; people who were thrown out of their doctor’s office for asking too many questions. I’ve listened to the horror stories of men and their families dealing with the after-affects of inappropriate or even unnecessary treatments; I’ve talked with the women in men’s lives who, if not for their love, courage, and devotion, would leave many of us men not able to understand what’s happening to us or even to know which medication or what kind of action to take concerning our disease. I know of men who, when they’ve learned of their diagnosis, have pushed their loved ones away and retreated from life, feeling their life as a man was over, and not worth living. Such pain. Such suffering.
On the other hand, I’ve talked with many people who credit a cancer diagnosis as the benchmark event that began their path to a more meaningful life. These people have found their way through the initial devastation brought on by their disease. They report having discovered a whole new dimension to themselves and their relationship that they were not aware they had, or thought they had lost. They have become more open to their mortality and, in doing so, have become more open to their lives. They have found a new spiritual awareness and thrive on the challenge brought to them by their disease.
In all of these cases, how much harder it will be to die unhappy or unfulfilled, don’t you agree? When we are in this space it seems to me, life and death are no longer polarized. The whole thing becomes a loving process of opening.
When I was first diagnosed, I went through a period when I thought my life was over or that I could never regain life as I thought it should be. Depression still occurs when I become fearful, lose my balance, and close up. There are times when I curse the day I ever heard the words, “you have cancer,” but I can’t deny that cancer has helped my spiritual growth, even though there are those times when I’m feeling so caught up in my own drama that I think I’ll never find my way out. These are the times when I’ve had to find the courage to get up and keep going, to remember I have my spirit light with me and that I can use it to help me regain my footing.
All of us get so caught up in our lives we don’t take the time to really appreciate, or take in, the full beauty of life. Unfortunately, we seem to come to our growth out of pain rather than through the joy or celebration of life. We choose to hide behind our perception of ourselves rather than risk being exposed to the truth. We play at happiness and end up boxing ourselves into the false protection of our imagined selves rather than risk exploring the “edges” of our being in an honest search for the truth. My pain shows me the extent of my own holding on to how I want things to be rather than how they truly are. By holding on, I deny myself an opportunity to grow and transition into the truth.
Kabir, an Indian mystic poet of the 12th century, relates:
"Friend, hope for the truth while you are still alive. Jump into experience while you are alive! . . .What you call “salvation” belongs to the time before death. If you don’t break your ropes while you are alive, do you think ghosts will do it after? The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic just because the body is rotten–that is all fantasy. What is found now is found then. If you find nothing now, you will simply end up with an empty apartment in the City of Death. If you make love with the divine now, in the next life you will have the face of satisfied desire."
Everything is food for our growth if only we begin to wake up to it. We don’t have to wait until life is screaming at us through our emotional or physical pain, pleading for us to attend to ourselves. We can begin now. I’ll look for you along the Way! In the meantime:
May you be filled with loving kindness, May you be well, May you be peaceful and at ease, May you be happy.
Fred Mills has co-founded two national organizations, the National Prostate Cancer Coalition and the Education Center for Prostate Cancer Patients. He counsels people locally and internationally on the subject of prostate cancer. Fred lives and may be contacted in Salem, Oregon.