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Disease As A Spiritual Path, Part 2

(Disease . . . )

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).

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