It was with great shock and sympathetic fear that we learned, yesterday, that a person close to us has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer—this only after hearing from two other close friends who have shared a similar predicament. Knowing that words are cheap and that “advice,” when proffered, can be both unwelcome and presumptuous, I still felt the need to put down some of my thoughts and feelings about this distressing news; and to ask myself how I myself might hope to react when confronted with such a diagnosis. I would need to call upon fifteen years of meditation practice to strengthen heart, mind and body for the difficult time ahead.
The first piece of work would be to bring to mind—and to maintain, once there—the thought that diagnosis is not prognosis, and that “rare” does not equate to “untreatable.” Besides, there are forces of nature more powerful and mysterious than those understood by science or medicine, and we know that these forces can be activated by the human mind. I am not one to believe in prayer, or that prayers will be answered. But I do believe that the mind is our most effective weapon in every circumstance, and that it is fully capable of directing energies in the body.
That said—and, yes, with the understanding that the forces of fear and confusion might easily prove to be formidable enemies—I would hope to be able to find the strength of mind to have it work in my favor, rather than against me. I have begun to learn, and continue to work at learning, that it’s possible to sit outside the body and observe its workings with a kind of equanimity, and with the realization—in the words of my favorite mantra—that “this is not me, this is not mine, this is not whom I am.” I would hope, then, to be able to dissociate from the physical dysfunction, and not allow it to define or take ownership of me.
I would ask a blessing of the small sitting group of which I am a member: would they gather with me to sit for a while in the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen? This is a challenging practice that involves the breathing in of powerful negative energy, and then processing and purifying it in the heart so that it can be breathed out again as, now, a healing energy. I have tried practicing this in the past, in my beginner’s way, and have found it to be at the very least a soothing and effective way of sending out good thoughts and healing wishes to friends I know to be suffering from physical or emotional distress.
So much for mind and body. Then there’s the heart. Knowing how much I would need its strength in such a circumstance, I would want to be sure that it is in good working order and functioning at its optimum. The best way I know to assure this effect is to direct it, first, inward, and then outward. The practice of metta teaches that the first recipient of my compassion must always be myself; for unless I can find it for myself, I have none to share with others. The first thought, then, must be: May I be happy; may I be free from stress and pain; may I look after myself with ease. And then those thoughts spread out to close family, to friends, to other beings whom I do not even know…
And along with those thoughts, the actual practice of generosity. I would wish, in the face of such a diagnosis, to find the generosity in my heart and to work on that in the most immediate and practical of ways. I believe that the act—and practice—of giving without stint or expectation of return would bring me great release from suffering and an inner contentment that I would need to fight the battle ahead of me with integrity, patience, and persistence. It would provide me with the armor I would need against the sense of injustice and the pain.
These thoughts, then—these wishes, really—for myself. I have no way of knowing how I would be able to put them into practice, and readily concede that I might well not be able to find the necessary strength of mind. Fear and confusion are powerful and subtle enemies, and can easily overwhelm the best of my intentions. I still have plenty of work to do before coming to terms with the prospect of my own mortality. But that, I tell myself, is what this work is all about.