(Disease . . . )
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.