A particularly rewarding issue of Shambhala Sun (July 2013) came my way this week. There were well met passages from several articles. But one in particular invited my deeper personal consideration and comment. I excerpt here the final paragraphs of “Sickness” by Stan Goldberg. It appeared in a set of four essays: Birth, Old Age, Sickness and Death. For brevity, I probably could have excerpted from this excerpt, but for clarity of context, I trimmed little. He is describing his experiences with chronic disorder (sleep disturbance) and progressive disease (cancer). I’ve put the most cogent passages for me in bold type.
As the philosopher Alfred Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory.” The writings of renowned Buddhist thinkers provided me with a map, but it didn’t reflect my territory. I took no solace in the concept of “letting go” or the ancient adage “draw closer those things you fear the most.” I couldn’t get any closer to my cancer; it was so close that I couldn’t possible run away from it. And contrary to what I read, living in the moment wasn’t enlightening–it was emotionally and physically painful. I preferred thinking about a past pleasant experience rather than the pain emanating from the incision. Drawing the pain closer only resulted in needing more morphine. In the past, I’d been able to derive comfort by unquestioningly following the words of great Buddhist teachers. Why not now?
… For me, it had to do with the severity of what I was experiencing. Though letting go of a publisher’s rejection of a book proposal wasn’t pleasant it was manageable since my life didn’t revolve around writing. But the stakes were entirely different when I would momentarily forget where I was because of the sleep disorder or exhaustion from the cancer treatments. Without asking me for permission, my body and mind had changed the rules for how I had lived. I appeased them by no longer going into the wilderness alone and relying on my iPhone for remembering even long standing, reoccurring appointments. Unfortunately, my cancer and sleep deprivation decided to be cute and began stripping away other components of my identity that I’d hoped were untouchable. Over the fifteen years I’ve lived with the sleep disorder and eleven years with cancer, I’ve learned that progressive illnesses are open-ended and dynamic. Just when you’ve accepted on change, another one occurs, then another, and on and on.
It’s natural for those of us who are ill to add guilt to our load when we believe (or hear others say) that it is possible to isolate our thoughts from the physical effects of illness through meditation and other techniques. Despite practice, I’ve found it difficult getting beyond the effects. “Trying harder” hasn’t made it easier to remember an appointment or play a better game of handball. Maybe committed lifetime practitioners or someone with an occasional headache can send the effects of their illness to the back room of their consciousness. But for others, life isn’t that simple. Illnesses change identities. As mine progresses I ask myself, “Am I the person today I was yesterday. And who will I become tomorrow.” It doesn’t help hearing or reading that the “core” of my being is unchangeable. I interact with the world dressed in a history of experiences that’s as thick as a winter coat. I am in a what I do and believe. That’s my identity. It’s an amalgam of values, embarrassments, unskillful behaviors, defenses, triumphs, defeats, etc. Together it’s as complicated as a Texas Chili.
Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to die, at least not soon,…I thought I had two choices: graciously accept the loss of my abilities as just another part of living or remain miserable without them It took me years to realize there was a third way: adaptation. Trying to find a direct substitute for the abilities or experiences that I could no longer enjoy wasn’t usually successful. Going to a nature preserve, for example, did not diminish my longing for wilderness. The thing is, I wasn’t grieving the loss of a specific activity but rather the feelings certain activities created. I discovered that if Icould pinpoint the emotion a lost activity had generated, I could often recreate it in a totally different way. The feeling of serenity from being alone in the wilderness for instance was almost replicated by playing the japanese bamboo flute.
My life is different now than it was before I became ill, and this reminds me a little of the Buddha’s experience. Within the confines of his father’s compound, he thought the world outside the walls was similar to what he experienced in the palatial estate. But when he left, he found that it was a very different place. Those of us who move from relatively good health to living with chronic or progressive illnesses gain a similar awareness. Living with an illness is very different than what we thought it would be.
Reading Stan’s essay stirred plenty in me. There was the comfort of solidarity and also the recognition of a person’s natural and tenacious attachments to certain states, feelings, and references, even to this life as we know it, and an identifying with the body. I had impulse to shed light on where wisdom gleaned from my own experience shone on assumptions hidden in his words( but not acknowledged verbally). However, experiences with the the cascade of conundrums that is my own situation temper such presumption and stay my hand.
Still, for myself, leaning into my own wall. I wanted to comment. In what Stan described, I wondered if there wasn’t still a persistent insistence on maintaining certain aspects of control or identity when one brings the fear or pain close. Those, of course, are the natural, primal roots of ego, wired for survival.
In my own similar investigations, I would drop into the center of the pain and allow it as best I could to lose all meaning and interpretation, be returned to a phenomenon of pure sensation or energy. The eyes might roll back in the head and the body shudder and sometimes grip. But the observer was not attached (nor, though, was the observer distinctly separate from it, either, ; the former contained or pervaded the other). This practice, at times, yielded respite from the pain or fear’s clutches. It created space. I continued this process for years, and I discharged plenty. Yet, there was still an agenda, and therefore, someone with the agenda, directing this inner work. It was still motivated by the preference for something other than “what is,” even a notion that my interpretation of “what is” might be the faulty.
Moreover, sanskaras and thoughtforms persisted, and certain fundamental ones still loom and whine, throb and recalcitrantly resist dissolution, like a sandbar or ancient wreck in the murky depths at the core of me.
So, while much has cleared, what is there has a feeling of permanence, impermeability, invincibility, and anger. And it fills the field with a sort PTSD fog that makes it hard to function, especially where I’ve let go of so much healthy identity.
And, yes, having had chronic affliction or aberration for a long while, what identity remains seems quite molded to it. A part of me won’t or can’t allow that change is possible; the mind does not know how to trust, nor to not expect certain symptoms, which, if they fell away tomorrow would likely be called back by the mind abhorring a vacuum.
In meditation, this can all be witnessed in perspective, but, as Stan alluded to in his piece, negotiation of mundanities of day to day functioning are wired to an identity, which, when engaged, wakes the beast, wakes old story, wakes the pain, fear, and resistance that lurk in the tissues and neurotransmitter balance.
I can beat myself up with thoughts like: This is not who you are, or This is an intransigent addiction to victimhood. But what good does that do? The subconscious material still rooted in the identity of separation will not be redeemed with such judgements. Instead, it would seem that acceptance, compassion, surrender and patience–the four virtues most shunned by the defended ego or a traumatized self– are the only recourse, the only unguent within reach. And the healing process feels asymptotic at best.
There is a gap between the prodigious wisdom of the Tao-body, of the higher wisdom we cultivate through intellect and certain fair-weather practices, and the shrieking flakstorm of the wounded one, personal or collective, that lives in our tissues and is unleashed by trauma, illness, and other disruptions of our delicate, homeo-static house of cards.
I appreciated Stan’s honesty in his professions; it milked from me compassion for both of us.