From Hell to Eternity
By Frederick Mills
For Tigerlilly, a fierce teacher of my heart. Thank you.
The first article I wrote for Alternatives was entitled “Disease as a Spiritual Path”, in the Fall 1997 issue. In that essay I talked about how a diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1991 had profoundly changed my life, and how, in the years following diagnosis, I’ve used the experience to broaden my view about death and dying.
It is fitting this piece has made the Spring edition. Like new crocus, daffodil and tulip, I am in renewal, emerging from a long period of chaos, joy, and emotional and physical pain. Through it all I’ve been able to maintain a spiritual path even while dealing with a life-threatening disease, not to mention the everyday sleepiness of such a beginner as I.
As far back as I can remember I’ve had a bit of a spiritual bent. But as I look back on life I see that it was more from the pain of emotional suffering than from any spiritual impulse that I started to wake up. I am attracted to hell, it seems, and I don’t let go very easily. It was only in the early eighties that the two, spirituality and suffering, came together. Emotionally bottomed out and tired of endlessly repeating old patterns of behavior, I began practicing Buddhist meditation.
In their book, Embracing the Beloved Stephen and Ondrea Levine relate a story about a Tibetan Monk who, on his deathbed, was surrounded by his students. He woke up out of a coma to hear his students praying that their beloved teacher would be reborn in heavenly realms. The teacher said “Stop, I don’t want you to do that! I want you to pray that I be reborn in hell.” His worried students said, “But master you deserve to be reborn in heavenly realms.” But the teacher said “No, I pray that I be reborn in hell. Where is loving kindness more needed?”
Indeed. Hell is where love and forgiveness are most needed. But we don’t need to die and be reborn in a hell realm to do that spiritual work.
We each experience our own personal hell right here, in this life. All of us suffer in one form or another everyday—illness, depression, pain and tragedy, and for a growing number worldwide, war and starvation. The truth of suffering is hell.
You don’t have to be a Tibetan monk to give loving kindness to those most in need. Hell is the very place to start to unravel our confusion and pain. I have come to believe that the place to start such work is with oneself. Consciously noticing repetitive discomfort can be a tool to begin to turn toward our pain instead of running from it. In that turning we may get closer to the truth of freedom than we ever thought possible.
Like most people, I routinely look at the surface of a thing, not seeing into the essence that lies just beyond my idea of it. I think it was Joseph Goldstein who, on speaking about this, said, “We look up at the stars and see the big dipper. We say, oh yeah, that’s the big dipper. But the big dipper is only what we see from here. Closer inspection reveals that the big dipper isn’t even there.” What is there is the vast miracle of the cosmos.
But we make the snap judgment. We have an idea of something and automatically dismiss the bigger picture, not looking any further. Habituation, conditioning, or, as Stephen Levine says, “Robot-like, we scratch sometimes, even before we know we have an itch.” Sooner or later, tired, weary, full of pain, perhaps we finally begin to ask questions. What’s going on here? Why am I in pain? Why can’t I be happy? How can I change my life to make it better?
Hell Is Preferable to the Unknown
As a police officer I remember finding and removing a horribly abused child from a doghouse in a backyard where he was tied up. As the child was being carried away by a woman detective, he was screaming, reaching in vain to his mother.
Why did the terrified child reach out to the person who abused him? I think it was because the hell that this child knew at home was preferable to the unknown he now faced.
I think most people are like that boy. We hold on tight to the hell realm that we’re used to because our terror of the unknown is even greater.
The story of this child is an extreme example, but it serves to remind me that the process of human suffering begins with some of our earliest experiences. As a parent thinking about my own children, and my responsibility to protect and nurture them, this is a difficult one to accept. Yet underlying my parental role was my life as a child, and I can now see clearly how my whole life was influenced by the conditioning of my earlier years.
In the end, whether you had a happy childhood or an abused one, or something in between, you will carry with you and be influenced by the decisions you made at an early age. Those decisions, and the consequences that flow from them, may not serve you well once you’ve grown up, but they are an old habit and, if they go unexamined, they will continue to exert their influence.
Finding My Way
If what I hold on to causes my suffering how can I let go of the old ways and begin to unravel the ties that bind me up? How can I start to explore the “I” that seems so real and solid?
It was my own personal hell that got me going to answer these questions. Even though I was practicing meditation prior to my diagnosis, prostate cancer afforded me plenty of extra opportunity to explore my fear of dying, and maybe more to the point, my fear of suffering.
For years I’ve cycled on and off prostate cancer medication. This particular medication is called a hormonal block, but I experience it as a three part chemical castration, really. It serves to keep the cancer in check, but there are a lot of side effects, and one of them is impotence. Fortunately, I’ve been able to stop the meds now and then over the years in order to rest my body from their influence.
Now, a person not confronted with this disease might not think too much about all of this, and I understand why—I remember the days when I took my health and my body for granted. But when you’ve got the disease it changes everything, and, believe me, when I go off meds and my body starts to come back, I’m reminded real quick of the powerful effect of hormones.
On meds I’m very emotional, and at times I cry at the drop of a hat. I have night sweats, and other problems. But when I’m off meds I regain some degree of normalcy, except for the fact that I have to monitor my blood to ascertain whether or not the cancer is becoming active again, and how quickly. There is this constant concern about numbers, and how long I’ve got before I have to return to the medication regime.
My response to all this in the latest go-round was to grab at life in fits and starts. I tried to hold on to having a normal (off meds) life again because I was afraid of losing it forever. I held on tightly to my imagined self, the one that was so healthy and strong for so many years. But at last, exhausted, and with a great deal of fear that the cancer might be spreading to other organs, I finally relented and began meds again. I’ve been back on for three months.
The bottom line is that I was trying to forestall dealing with death. I wasn’t accepting what the cancer markers were telling me. NO! I was going to be normal again, no matter what—able to make love, able to think more clearly, able to have my body functioning more normally. I clung to the idea that I could keep it that way.
That clinging kept me in a lot of emotional pain. The normalcy I was trying so desperately to hold onto only led me deeper into a personal hell realm.
Each time I go off meds it’s symbolic of rebirth, and each time I have to return it’s symbolic of death. Symbols are powerful, so it’s no surprise that my unconscious pattern is to cling to the former and reject the latter.
But I am working hard to get and stay conscious these days. The more I’ve been able to let go into the what-is of the situation instead of clinging to how I want it to be, the more accepting and expansive I’ve become. Death in its many forms is around us all the time, it is part of our process and we get plenty of opportunities to practice letting go. Like birth, death connects us all. How much better off will I (or any of us) be if, in the last breath of life, I can release openly, with love and without reservation?
My usual reaction when I lose focus in meditation is fear of losing spiritual ground. I’m afraid that if I’m not faithfully practicing all the time, I’m a failure. But deep down I know it’s OK to wander off-track once in a while, and maybe even necessary, from time to time. I mean, where are we going, anyway? But even at my worst, there is seldom a day goes by that I don’t in some way connect with my inner being on some level, even when things are gloomy and dark. There is a tremendous amount of reassurance in that fact.
A few years ago at an intensive meditation workshop on Death and Dying led by Stephen and Ondrea Levine, Stephen talked about the ebb and flow of a spiritual path. He said that once the spiritual fire starts burning it never goes out, and told us not to be discouraged or afraid that “we’re losing it” if the intensity wanes to a small ember. Sometimes it burns brighter than other times.
In other words it’s just something else to observe in the passing show called life. We’re provided another opportunity to open our hearts even more, we observe, and perhaps we lean in a little, breathe, and relax into the fear. I’ve always remembered this and it has been very helpful, especially when life gets crazy.
Even though I know I ‘should’ meditate and practice mindfulness on a daily basis, I’ve gone from sitting for as much as two or three hours a day for months down to a few minutes, or less, for long periods. I’m now back to meditating about an hour each day. Spring has sprung and I feel like a sapling starting to peek out looking for the sun!
Jack Kornfield says that meditation is nothing more than practicing intimacy. When we can learn to be intimate with ourselves we lay the foundation for being intimate with others. We begin to turn in, or toward, instead of away, and closing up. We practice forgiveness and mercy for ourselves and begin to extend it to others as well.
While meditation has played an increasingly important role in my life there are lots of other ways to begin the process of opening to life, if only for a few minutes a day. How many times have I said, “Ah hell, I’ll get on to that next week, or next year, or whenever”? I get so caught up in my daily life, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a quality spare moment alone. How often have I just sat in quiet contemplation of an uplifting book or a poem I’ve just read, or given myself a little time to think about the beauty of a certain work of art?
We think we have all the time in the world and that someday we’ll get around to paying attention to that little voice within that reminds us there is more to this life than busy-ness and watching our favorite television program. It’s difficult, especially when there’s work, kids, school, schedules, house cleaning, all the stuff of everyday life.
But what alternative is there, really? We have to use our daily life as food for our growth, or else we’re just spectators till we die. Unfortunately for me, and maybe this is true for lots of people, I am so stubborn that I often wait until life is screaming at me through emotional and physical pain, pleading for me to attend to myself, before I come to grips with it through spiritual practice.
No one is perfect. Fact is, our hearts just aren’t open all the time. Knowing this, it becomes the basis for our work. When I’m unskillful in the ways I treat people, I know it. I try to get better. When I am able to spend quality time in being with myself, whether in meditation or some other form, I start building on a foundation for freeing my spirit. I start, or restart, the adventurous trip from little mind to big mind.
We don’t have to be so addicted to our suffering that we’ll do anything to preserve the hell we know rather than experience the unknown territory of who it is behind these eyes, this heart. It takes courage and determination to engage every aspect of our lives as openly as we can.
I remember the spirit of the warrior described in Sogyal Rinpoche’s work The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “Although we have been made to believe that if we let go we will end up with nothing, life itself reveals again and again the opposite: that letting go is the path to real freedom.
Just as when the waves lash at the shore, the rocks suffer no damage but are sculpted and eroded into beautiful shapes, so our characters can be molded and our rough edges worn smooth by changes. Through weathering changes we can learn how to develop a gentle but unshakable composure. Our confidence in ourselves grows, and becomes so much greater that goodness and compassion begin naturally to radiate out from us and bring joy to others. That goodness is what survives death, a fundamental goodness that is in every one of us. The whole of our life is a teaching of how to uncover that strong goodness, and a training toward realizing it.”
May all beings everywhere be happy.
Fred lives on his boat located in the south Puget Sound. He has worked with various service groups assisting cancer patients and is a founding board member of the National Prostate Cancer Coalition. You may reach Fred c/o [email protected]