Glory and Turbulence-The Mystery and Cancer By Sarajoy Marsh
Last week I asked my students to finish the phrase: "The essence of yoga is". I encouraged them not to search for the "right" answer, but to allow whatever spontaneous answer arose from their heart.
On that very morning, in my own meditation, I was profoundly focused on the Mystery of life. So much is Unknowable! Yet ours is a world that prostrates to "Knowing". And if "not knowing" is thought of as the absence of "knowing", we can feel paralyzed, empty. I can reconcile this starkness only by viewing the unknown as an adventure of the heart, coursing through the Infinite. Then "not knowing" has a richness and depth that draws my heart to awe and suspends my mind in wonder.
On the morning of my question, the answer arising from my own pondering heart was Courage. The essence of yoga is Courage—to live in the Unknown with a full heart, despite the Mystery that lies ahead. It is the courage to stop postponing life, to stop contracting the heart around beliefs. It is the courage to turn inward and discover that, in essence, we not only observe the mystery, we are the Mystery! And finally it is the Courage to Love this Mystery in all its Glory and Turbulence.
I first fell in love with the Mystery backpacking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was there that I was introduced to yoga by the awesome view, the spacious mind, the free and powerful body, the release of duty to the world and the turn inward to spirit. Later, in the Philippines, I fell in love yet again, with adventure and with life being bigger than my own small set of concerns. These were my introduction to glory.
Years after I passed through these gates of glory I was to discover how the gates of turbulence also open me up to the immensity of the unknown. In 1995, I found myself living with breast cancer.
The Gateway Breast cancer was a springboard into the questions of living and dying, of acceptance and resistance. I found acceptance came easily, naturally, with the urgency of the illness. I allowed myself to dive into the deep end, and to swim with my questions for as long as I needed, not seeking answers. It was hard to find my resistance to the diagnosis, though everyone said it must be there! Many people were far more upset about my situation than I was. They gasped: "You are so young! So healthy! You live in the mountains. You do yoga. You eat well. You meditate!" (Inside of all that, one hears, "But you are doing everything right, how can such a wrong like this occur? We, too, should be more frightened of our own death.")
There were those who needed answers more than I did:
"Have you tried this protocol? Have you dealt with your issues surrounding your father? Have you tried acupuncture, herbs, tinctures, meditations, etc. Have you been re-birthed?" Little did they know, every moment was a re-birth for me. I laid around for hours some afternoons, gazing at the sky, wondering delightful little thoughts like ‘how intensely beautiful the sky is’, and ‘I’d miss the trees the most . . .’, and ‘Wow!’ And ‘what is it that beats this heart’? And ‘does that die too’?
One afternoon, heading back up Highway 22 to Breitenbush, I was transfixed by images of all the thousands upon thousands of women who had gone through the moment in their cancer that I had just faced in mine: The Diagnosis. Here, a young mother who would not be able to breast feed, and the aging grandmother who could not rest her grandchild’s head on her bosom. There, the stripper who regretted having so little respect for her breasts, and the mother of three who would say good-bye to her children before they left middle school. And the professional woman in a suit and tie taking measures to hide her mastectomy. I thought, as Mary Oliver wrote, What is my name? And, I am so many!? And what is the name I would give to Cancer? I tried out several names during my intimate conversations with the mass growing in my breast:
Welcome. Now. Touch. Unbounded. Love. Sarahjoy. Woman. Heart. Truth. Yes. Grace.
Truthfully, it was one of the peak experiences of my life. I fell in Love, over and over again. The Mystery was huge, vast, uncontainable, yet it started to be palpable, it had a taste and a feel, like a lover. And I wrapped myself in its arms as fully as I could. I was willing to let go to wherever the cancer would lead. But I was not willing to go there without Love.
Occasionally now, I find myself longing for the intensity of that time—the peak high, the immense ground, the wide open, no postponement, authentic, transparent heart, the freedom of the call to God.
The Turbulence And now, at 33, in the year of resurrection, I find myself living with cancer again. This time, I am older, my life more settled, with more responsibilities. I have more commitments, and a few more dreams. I own, direct and teach at a yoga studio in Portland. I cherish my students and am cherished by them. My body moves with grace, ease and power. My heart is quenched by tastes of the Mystery which arise spontaneously. A full heart, an intelligent mind, a healthy body, a loving community. And cancer. Cancer knows no boundaries. It comes seemingly uninvited. Makes its home inside. And breeds.
When I got the news recently, the first echo in my heart was “Time to STOP. Time to Stop postponing, to Stop being anything less than Truth, to Stop being anything less than Authentic, Honest, Merciful. Time to be Bold. Time to Speak Up. Time time time time time.” (What is time and how much do we get to have?)
I am frightened, mad, jealous, ashamed, embarrassed. I feel like I did something wrong to bring this on. I might be looked at as inadequate. “She hasn't done her spiritual work or this wouldn’t happen.” I might be thought of as dirty, shameful. “There is a disease growing inside of her.” I might be thought of as fragile. “She has (whispering) “cancer!” I might be thought of as needy. “She’ll need more permission to be grumpy, mad, insecure, weepy.” I might be thought of as brave. “Wow, so young, and still so radiant in the face of it all. How does she do it?” I might be thought of as someone’s hero. “She is handling that so well.”
But, Hey, Wait A Minute Here!
I didn’t want a wake up call right now. My life was going along just fine, thank you. I don’t want to be interrupted. I just separated from my partner of six years and the yoga studio is settling into a groove where I don’t have to be hyper-vigilant. I am relaxing back into a relationship with myself, and I just don’t have the time for this!!! I want to sit out under starry night skies in my new hot tub thinking how beautiful and uncomplicated this life is!
But I have been interrupted.
A few days later, a familiar energized feeling arises. A light goes on in my heart. I am going to beat this.
I know too much sometimes. I know it’s more valiant to take this attitude. I know that this is a learning experience, a spiritual awakening. I know I should accept everything that comes in life as a gift, as a treasure to be unlocked. I know the body is impermanent, but the spirit lives on. Know, know, know, know, know. Isn’t that what gets us into trouble in the first place? Somehow the light stays on in my heart. Love is bolder, brighter, than cynicism!
We can’t know anything, yet they say there are paths to knowing God. Well, if it’s true, then cancer is one of them. But it’s not really about knowing God, it’s about getting comfortable with the untouchable, palpable Mystery. Cancer breaks down the barrier between myself and others, just as a cancer cell breaks out of its wall and intrudes on other cells. You see, I can no longer measure whether I am getting this life right or wrong; the standards just went out the window. No longer can I evaluate where I am on the so-called path compared to others. With cancer, everyone is an equal. I see billions and billions of cells swimming in the oceanic Mystery, some rising up as the heart that beats in my chest, some as my new lover’s beautiful hair, his steady gaze, others as the rain pouring down, and some, as rebellious teenage cancer cells. What if everything were perfectly in its place? Would we be overcome with laziness, apathy? Or might we, on recognizing it, bow down to the Mystery?
Bound, Boundless and In Between I want to handle this well. As always, a straight A student, a well-behaved daughter (don’t ask my mother though!).
But, shit. What does it matter how I am handling it, if it takes over and I am gone in a few weeks? Why live those last few weeks trying to make a good impression on others? Are they going with me when I leave? How many times have I lived my life to be what someone else wanted me to be? How many times do I act in a way that tries to calm someone else’s fear, or the fear I anticipate in them? How often do I move through the world assessing what others might need, and what they might need from me to supply their need? Or paused before acting, speaking, moving . . . Just as Cancer in my body is a replication of cells without boundaries, these compulsions (to impress others, to be other-oriented, to confuse boundaries with contraction or limitation) are the cancer of my personality! They drain me mentally and exhaust me spiritually. I have learned that, deep within such behaviors, there is a lack of trust—in the true expression of my heart, in the intelligence of the other, and in the intelligence that moves between us.
Breast cancer taught me about the unbounded heart, the heart that innately and unequivocally trusts the Mystery. Cervical cancer is teaching me the fine art of boundaries, and about a heart that can trust the inner earnestness and beauty in Humanity. As I always say in yoga, stillness arises out of dynamic opposition. Similarly, freedom arises out of the dynamic play between knowing oneself to be the Infinite, and knowing the bounds of one’s own humanity. Who would have guessed that strengthening a commitment to boundaries would make my heart more free?
As I reflect on illness, aided by the cancer in my body, I have become less concerned about how long this existence will go on, and more intent to be here fully in the existence that is now happening. It is about healing me from self-diminishing habits, habits that deny my grace and power from being expressed in the world. It is not about curing the cancer so that I can exist, it is about fully existing for the sheer sake of that—spontaneous, vital existence. To make the overflow of love in my heart sustainable and nourishing, I need to know where the banks of this heart’s river are, and strengthen them to carry its current to the ocean., whatever, wherever and whenever that may be.
Getting it Right or Surfing the Mystery I don’t know what the right, or spiritual, or politically correct response to cancer is. I suppose I could be mad at the state of our society, in which illness is on the rise reflecting some deeper core issues that we as a culture are not dealing with. (I get to be one of the lucky role models.) Or I could be mad about the state of the environment and the way we keep replicating our terrible impacts upon forests, rivers, oceans, wildlife. (We humans, the very cancer of the earth). Or I might take a feminist stance, pissed off that women everywhere face disease without the resources, education, support, medicine to deal with it effectively—they’re second or third class citizens, with voices unheard and suffering unacknowledged.
But I’m learning that there isn’t a right response. I’m learning that if you can drop your self image, where premeditated responses come out according to how you would like the world to perceive you, then any kind of response is likely to arise. True freedom is in the spaciousness to allow room for these responses. Some days I feel entirely quiet and content. Other days, I feel I have a right to be mad.
Most days, what flows is compassion, forgiveness for myself, mercy for the many ways in which I have not lived with reverence, nor trusted the Mystery, nor found forgivness in my heart for others. And there is a Stopping—as I catch the mental habits of living in repetition, of living in contraction, of living in accordance with what others think.
Admittedly, most of my waking hours are spent in wakefulness, in spontaneity, in endearment towards people, awe for nature and knee-dropping gratitude for this life. But, as in yoga, even the smallest misalignment can drain the energy from the pose, or from the heart, or the life. To really live with a Courageousness of heart, I align myself with grace, with the miracle of the intelligence that orchestrates this heart’s unfolding. This is living in the Unknown. There is no other ground to stand on.
SarahJoy Marsh is founder of The Sanctuary, A Center for Yoga, Dharma and Healing Arts, in Portland, Oregon. She is “dedicated to the heart’s awakening through yoga and meditation”. SarahJoy can be reached at 503-552-9642 (552-YOGA).