A Cornucopia of Lessons
It was November 2011, and I had just finished leading a week-long retreat in Bali.
I was scheduled to return to Los Angeles, but I was too sick and incapacitated to fly all that way. Instead, I flew to the much closer Australia, where I had lived from 2005 till May 2011.
I was experiencing chronic and acute pain in my back. I was progressively losing leg strength. I could stand only on crutches. Lying down, I could not lift my legs and barely wiggle my toes. From various chiropractors, physical therapists, and other holistic healers, I had received a general diagnosis of spinal disc problems. No therapy relieved the pain or symptoms.
On Christmas Eve 2011, I was flooded with the awareness that something was truly wrong and that I needed to go to a hospital immediately. A few hours later, I was admitted to the emergency room of a local hospital.
A few days later, I was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. My doctors explained to me that my spine, pelvis, and hips were ridded with tumors, that my spine was in danger of collapsing, and that the tumors were putting such pressure on my spinal nerves that I was a day or two away from irreversible paralysis. I was rushed into a series of tumor-dissolving radiation treatments, which relieved the pressure on my spinal nerves and prevented me from losing my legs. That was the good news. The other news was that, statistically, I had maybe six months to live, perhaps nine. I was discharged from the hospital in mid-January 2012 and flew to the U.S., being extremely mindful to carry nothing heavier than my passport and to walk, move, and turn slowly and carefully. I was aided along the way by wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and kind and compassionate flight attendants.
Inasmuch as I am still here, it is clear I have exceeded the shelf life prediction of the doctors. I am quite happy about this; not so much because I am still alive, but because I always take delight in doing what I’m not supposed to do.
I thought this a good time to share some insights that have come to me since my diagnosis. I do not attribute these insights to cancer; rather, I attribute them to my response to cancer. I will thank cancer for being a catalyst to accelerated growth and learning, but otherwise I’ll thank my own spirit and the generosity and kindness of those wise forces which are beyond the reach of my intellect. I always considered cancer to be just another marker in my life, admittedly more significant than my bar mitzvah, my high school graduation, and various birthdays, a bankruptcy, book publications, marriages and divorces. As a catalyzing event for growth and learning, I put it below the spiritual initiation, shaktipat (transmission of spiritual energy), I received from my teacher, Swami Muktananda, in 1973. Cancer is an event that has occurred in my life; it is not my life nor is it me. I never let cancer become bigger than me. I never fell into cancer such that I became a cancer patient or a cancer survivor.
With the above as prologue, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned, seen, and felt — post-diagnosis. Please be clear that I am not offering advice, teachings, or universal truths. I am simply sharing my personal experiences, observations, and realizations, something I’ve been doing my entire adult life. This story may have relevance and resonance to people with cancer or other chronic conditions. It may have the same for ones in good health. I hope it serves in some positive way.
In paragraph four, I mentioned my “statistical” rate of survival. The lesson? You and I are not statistics. In 1972, I got a job with the Israeli Air Force, building ammunition bunkers in the Sinai Desert, a few miles from the Suez Canal. Do you know what the employment statistics were for the Sinai Desert in 1972? Neither do I. But I got a job there, in the desert. And I am alive today. To submit your life to statistical analysis and prediction is folly and foolish. You and I are not statistics.
Cancer is the leading cause of death in the Western world and the second leading cause of death in developing countries. This world includes hundreds of thousands of cancer patients of all ages (and their families and friends), government agencies, medical research institutes, nonprofit foundations, insurance companies, lawyers, hospitals, clinics, books/DVDs, workshops, blogs, dietary regimens, publicists, doctors, nurses, inventors, quacks — it is a vast, layered, and complex world. Several hundred billion dollars flow through the veins of this giant industry every year. Whenever this amount of money is involved, Tony Soprano and his cousins are bound to be lurking in the shadows. But so are many sincere, dedicated, and caring people. The lesson? Be careful and develop a discerning disposition. Question everyone and everything until you are satisfied.
When word circulated about my diagnosis to my network of students, clients, and friends, I was inundated with hundreds of good-wish messages along with as many well-meaning suggestions as to how to fight and beat cancer. Even if I’d had a team of researchers with unlimited time and funding, we’d never have run down all the leads. I received tips about diet and nutrition, emotional clearing, physical cleansing, European and Mexican clinics, cannabis oil, breath work, oxygen therapies, psychic intervention, chakra clearing, vitamin and herbal supplements. Along with what to do were as many suggestions as to why and how I had become home and haven for a collection of cells-gone-wild. An overwhelming and ever-changing amount of information is available about cancer — how, why, and what to do — from the credible and useful to the outrageously absurd. However, each person stamps his or her favored bit of information with elevated status. The lesson? Be open to everything, but don’t go into overwhelm. Stay calm and clear-minded. Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road; make your own way through the traffic and watch out for road rage and drunk drivers!
In all the messages I initially received, it was clear that no one wanted me to die. That was nice to find out. On second thought, maybe a few people did but didn’t tell me. Everyone who wrote wanted me to fight hard and defeat cancer. Many suggested that to fail to defeat cancer would be a failure of my spiritual prowess (of which I never thought I had any to begin with). Many urged me to fight and win to help validate and verify that the powers of mind and spirit could overcome cancer. I never felt that I should go to war and battle hard to survive. I was at peace with the prospect of moving on, even in some ways relieved. I was never afraid of dying, nor angry about this sudden turn of events; after all, I had just published my eighth book, the one that I was truly excited about, the one that represented the distillation of a life-long pursuit of self-knowledge and wisdom. I let go of that almost overnight. In many decades of spiritual work and experiences, I had experienced different kinds of death. I was not shocked when I thought I was going to depart. The lessons? Everyone has an opinion, but it’s your own that matters most. Find your true center and live from that. Also, in whatever way you can, befriend death. Love life, and befriend death.
I will certainly admit that I was apprehensive about the prospect of dying a slow and painful death, as described in numerous accounts of death by lung cancer and confirmed by one of my oncologists. So, I managed to get together a “self-termination kit,” which would allow me to be self-determining as to when enough was enough, and not leave it to state and federal laws, doctors, institutions of any kind, or anyone else. I realized how important it was, and is, to be pro-active and self-determining to the degree that you can; do not let others determine your process or fate without your consent.
If someone could tell me with certainty why or how I contracted cancer, then I would list those causal behaviors and attitudes that caused cancer. Though others have more definite opinions as to why and how I contracted cancer, I personally have no such certainty. Maybe it was caused by diet, environment, life style, genetics, wrong thinking, bad luck. No one really knows. I have my guesses like everybody, but I really don’t know. Ramana Maharshi, the Indian sage who lived until 1950, had cancer. Many people guess that he was up to something spiritual, like taking on the karma of others. No one has yet suggested that is why I have cancer! I did review various aspects of my life, saw some things that had escaped previous self-inquiry, and realized that I would live, is some ways, differently that I had. But I did not fall into self-condemnation or regret about how I had lived. In fact, partially due to the great number of messages I received from people, I came to a deeper appreciation for how I had lived and for what I had done.
As to why I am alive today — I don’t really know for sure. Others have told me why, which include radiation, chemotherapy, targeted medicine therapy, emotional clearing, reiki treatments, crystals on my altar, prayers and love from many people, metaphysical exorcism, destiny, karma, the blessings of saints and ascended masters. I really don’t know for sure. It is my opinion that being open, unafraid of dying, not warring against cancer, and spending nearly two years in almost constant, 24/7 stillness and silence is why I’m here. I really don’t know for sure.
This may not at first glance seem to be a fruitful attitude: I really don’t know for sure. Actually, it is an orchard of fruitfulness, because I don’t really know for sure opens a huge space of possibility. I don’t know for sure, so let’s find out. Let’s experiment. Let’s be creative. Let’s not exclude anything. Let’s try this and that and that over there. Maybe I come up with something unprecedented. Let’s not get stuck in one idea, attitude, POV. Let’s not give our life over to dogma.
In the cancer world, there is a great hunger and demand for certainties that, in my experience, do not exist. The intrusion of cancer into an individual’s life, a family’s life, a community’s life can bring much fear and sadness, even as it can inspire faith and courage and love. In all of this, people want to know things definitely. People’s fear wants to be soothed. What can I count on? Will this treatment work? Will I die? How can I pay for this? What will happen to my children, my spouse? My current oncologist, at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, said that he did not know why, when, or how I developed lung cancer. The particular type of lung cancer that I have, which about 10% of lung cancer patients have, is rarely caused by the common culprit of smoking. In fact, 80% of those with my type of lung cancer contract it from “environmental sources” — which number in the hundreds. When I asked him why I was doing so well, he said he didn’t know. Bless him for that. He doesn’t really know. I really don’t know. Perhaps one day we will.
My oncologist insisted I receive chemotherapy treatment. I was already familiar with those many voices that say chemotherapy is ineffective at best, and a death sentence at worst. I had to decide. I simply put the opportunity of chemotherapy on the alter of my deep listening, so I could come to a decision that was my own. I did not consider whether it would help me live longer. I simply “meditated” on this and waited for a simple yes or no. I got yes. I had three rounds of a four-round protocol. It lasted for three months. I could not eat. I lost forty-five pounds. I could feel my body glow with toxicity. However, during this same period, in which I spent twenty-three hours a day in bed, I also was taken on numerous journeys to . . . I don’t know where. I called them pony rides to oblivion. I would simply notice my consciousness go farther and farther away from anything that was “me.” Each time I would come back, I came back without some of what had begun each journey. One time, nothing came back. I am reluctant to say much more, because I don’t want to “spiritualize” what I experienced. I don’t want to create a false impression. However, as a nearly life-long student of mysticism, I can say, simply, that I ceased to exist in the way I had existed up until that time. This process of taking pony rides to oblivion produced an effect that I had not been able to produce before. It was the death of all the various aspects of who I had been: self-image, desires, goals, aspirations, fears, hopes and wishes — it all went. I have not heard of this happening to others undergoing chemotherapy, so I’ll just report the synchronicity of these two things and leave it at that.
A Cornucopia of Lessons
Since my diagnosis, much has happened. I’ve spent months and months dwelling in deep stillness and silence. I experienced a kind of death and a freedom from the fear of extinction. I experienced the dissolution of ambitions and weird compulsions. I witnessed the dismantling of time. I saw the collapse of language as a medium of my reality and experience. I watched all that I thought I knew disappear: page by page, the linear history of my life was shredded. It’s been a customized master class in the nature of self and reality.
Here is a bit more of what I’ve learned and embodied.
- My life span is now. Right here and now is where I play my game, show my game, or lack of one. It’s time for skin in the game, all out, no holds barred self-expression and engagement.
- Stop hiding. This may mean different things to different people. For me, it is just that: stop hiding, you chicken shit. Bring it out, bring it on. But don’t intend to hurt anyone.
- I’m not meant to be “like anyone else.” Authenticity has become more than a word, more than a book title, more than a calling card. It’s the essence of life. Better to be real than right.
- Living in “I don’t know” is a very truthful place to live, and its openness is staggering. A million artists live there, inside your own I don’t know center. You’ll be blown away by what that allows you to say and do.
- A sense of humor: if you don’t have one, get one. Don’t sell your life or your soul for money. If you get some, give most of it away. Live simply. Learn to touch the skin of physical existence. Kiss the surfaces and then the depths of everything. It’s okay to be vulnerable. You can say “I love you” to anyone at anytime. You can cry. You can be silent. You can stop to admire beauty wherever you see it. Make sure you are kind to kids, and give them plenty of attention. Don’t hold grudges. Your body is smart. Listen to it. It knows.
- Don’t be afraid of deep emotions. Don’t spiritually side-step them. Speak your truth. Say it. Your life depends on it. Rip your skin off and let your guts pour out into the world. Be fiercely loving of life. Live it. Be kind, thank people, help them out. Do what you can.
- Have confidence in your own being. You are a child of Existence!