To Be Really Sick…. Crisis Or Opportunity?
Dr. Stephen Fulder
We all dread the moment when we are diagnosed with some serious disease. It can strike any of us at any time, and all the supplements in the world may not protect us. A life-threatening health problem, such as cancer, is one of the most severe challenges we can face. The mind is besieged by fears, worries about what will happen, concerns for our children or family, plans and strategies for fighting the disease, and intense questions about causes. We also often blame ourselves for the problem; we may be angry at life or at others around us (such as the medical system) and jealous of those who are healthy. All of this creates emotional turmoil, confusion and despair and makes the struggle for health seem sometimes impossible.
And then, if someone (or a book) comes along and tells us that a disease can be an opportunity, a turning point in our lives, and it is not all as bad as it seems, it may sound absurd, unreal and irritating. Yet there is a profound truth in it, which often cannot get through to us because it is presented as words, and not experiences, and because we are so overwhelmed by our suffering, that there is no room to listen.
So firstly we need to give ourselves a little space, room to look directly at our situation and not at all the projections around it. Then, with a little wise reflection, an open heart and some persistence we can open new channels in us to messages that actually we long to hear, and that will transform the situation.
To illustrate this I would like to discuss a recent intensive weekend, organized by the Israel Insight Society (www.tovana.org.il), which I taught with two other teachers in the north of Israel, for those with major health problems. There were 50 participants, most of whom suffered from cancer, fibromyalgia, and other diseases, some severe.
At the beginning, the despair and confusion was palpable. The room was heavy with the personal stories that each person carried, and shared, the tears flowed and it seemed impossible to lighten the load. Yet something miraculous happened during the time together and at the end of the short weekend there was laughter, and lightness, there was hope and hugs, there was deep gratitude, and most of all, the participants felt truly alive, in some cases for the first time in a long time. I would like to describe here the methods we used and how they worked.
There were some underlying values that helped to clear the emotional ground. Firstly there were no professional agendas. There were no promises that ‘professional others’ would fix, cure, treat or lessen the disease. Secondly as teachers we did not come over with a system, a belief, or even a special status. In some way we tried to show that we are all the same, the situation of human suffering is universal, that there were not sick and healthy people there, but just people, all with different issues. Thirdly we made sure the weekend was inexpensive and not-for-profit, to create an atmosphere of trust, and of giving rather than getting or exploiting.
A basic tool was mindfulness meditation, using breath and body as the main focus. We taught this in several sessions throughout the 2 days with plenty of real time guidance and imagery. One of the main images that went along with the meditation was that of coming home, of finding a genuine refuge within us rather than expecting it to come from the changing and often distressing conditions of our lives. Steadily, moment-by-moment, all of us worked together to develop the sense that there is a deep home inside us that nothing can steal from us.
Mindfulness meditation not only expands our awareness but also brings it back to the immediate lived experience, creating a sense of wholeness and intimacy with our life, which is quite beyond the disease. Being in touch with the feelings, sensations and activities of our mind-body, helps us to see that all our projections, fears of the future, scenarios, memories, and worries are in the end just chains of repeating thoughts, however loaded they seem. Experienced for event short moments, it takes some of the weight off.
Resting in the experience of the natural flow of breath and sensations in the body is not only a safe place but also a place in which we discover that there are messages within us of healthy lived experience. The disease is shouting so loud we cannot usually hear other quieter voices within us. For example we usually don’t know we have a head unless we have a headache.
Taking the disease down off centre stage and replacing it with our lived experience creates a profound shift in attitude. Our situation lightens, we can become a participator in our fate and not its victim. The power of this intimacy with present moment experience to take us to a place beyond disease is illustrated by this quote from Treya Wilbur, in the book: ‘Grace and Grit’, written by Ken and Treya Wilbur. She was dying from cancer at the time:
‘If I do become well for long periods of time, will I lose this deliciously keen knife-edge of awareness I now have?…new creativity pours forth under pressure of this illness, I would hate to lose that…there are moments when I feel practically ecstatic just sitting on the veranda and looking at the view at the back of the house, and watching the puppies play. I feel so blessed in this moment. Each breath is so incredible, so joyful, so dear. What am I missing? What could be wrong?’
Besides, learning to reconnect with the present moment of breath and body is a great help in coping with stressful and painful situations such as hospitals and treatments. One or two conscious aware breaths and the anxiety fades and we are in a different place. In addition, as is well known, meditation is a tool that can be used to help support our healing and the life force in us.
Another important element of the weekend was sharing and discussion in groups. Here there was a chance to ventilate fears and experiences, including issues of death and dying. It was a chance to listen to others and feel the support. The first morning’s groups were indeed full of tears and the most difficult stories, but as the retreat progressed, the dialogue shifted – towards inquiry into the meaning of being ill, towards illness as a personal journey. Several times, participants, for example, raised the issue of control. Do we have control? Is it better to fight even though that may bring expectations and anxiety, or is it more helpful to surrender? The groups helped to cut the ‘demons’ down to size, reducing the denial and avoidance, which generally increases the suffering. On the second day the groups were actually like alchemical vessels in which change happened because of the intensity. New insights emerged into how life could be lived, new directions were realised, joys were shared, and there was laughter at the absurdities of hospitals and the discomfort of acquaintances.
A further exercise that we used was to open the heart to ourselves and to others, by means of several guided visualisations. We cannot easily ‘befriend our cancer’, but we can be friends to ourselves. We can bathe in soft appreciation. We can feel gratitude for those ordinary moments, which are in fact quite miraculous. We can experience softness in our belly, softness that can hold all the pain. We can feel compassion to ourselves and to all others who suffer. We can feel the preciousness of ourselves and of each other.
And behind the veil of ordinary life, were the realizations that were always ready to emerge and surprise us. It was about the truth that the experience of the disease is not the disease. The consciousness is freer than we think. We can be bigger than the problem. We need not be drowned in an ocean of despair when we truly discover our vulnerability. Our vulnerability itself can help us to live fully, live on the edge, live with uncertainty, and surrender to the unpredictable nature of life.
To illustrate this I would like to describe an extraordinary 3 year journey with Liora, who had had cancer for 9 years by the time I met her in 2005. We started our monthly meetings in a coffee house in Jerusalem with the existential and practical question: what is my real experience and how is it different from the world of fears, projections, struggle and despair. The long struggle with her illness and the constant sense that death was not far away over the horizon created a sense of urgency, a thirst for meaning, a deep curiosity about existence and a commitment to unfold spiritually. Mindfulness meditation practices became a refuge and also a fascinating new territory. Gradually this territory took shape. Instead of being a victim, she became a courageous and wise explorer into awareness of the moment. And it was not death that was being explored, of course, but life: moments of grace in the early mornings, the joy involved in writing her thesis, the fun and games with her young daughter, deep peace when finding meditative concentration, the flow of living messages and intimacy with her body – the healthy parts with their healthy messages and the sick parts with theirs, the compassion and sympathy arising spontaneously when meeting other patients or the doctors.
Cancer, for her, became a label, a definition, a concept, that in the flow of experience no longer held power. In the same way, pain, confusion, physical and mental limitations, etc., when unpacked or deconstructed by an inquiring and meditative mind, lost their solidity, their terror. When she needed to take morphine for a long period, I remember how we worked together to convert the dream-like qualities produced by morphine into inner work with changes of consciousness.
In our dialogues we explored the fundamental issue of our human fragility and the transience of our life and all experience. A deep sense of her vulnerability became the cracks in the prison wall that let in the light. There are few that have this blessing. Liora herself more than once thanked her illness for bringing her beyond ordinary life into a place of depth and meaning. Liora holds an enduring memory for me - and what shines out is her example in converting the struggle for life into a deep and rich awareness of truth.
We do not need education, degrees, money or medicines for this. We only need to have a genuine interest in our experience, and the courage to be authentic rather than go with the herd instincts, which are mostly around anxiety. It is a shift in attitude and when it happens, even slightly, something irreversible occurs. We can never be quite so drowned again. There is always a little voice to remind us that a serious health problem need not be pure crisis. It can be our opportunity. Whereas at first we may be circulating like a moth around the candle of our catastrophe, we can gradually come to realise we are like a moth circulating around the candle of our mystery.