I, we, all beings are of the nature to experience illness.
There is no way to avoid experiencing illness.
I, we, all beings are of the nature to die.
There is no way to avoid death
I knew as soon as my family doctor called to tell me that my PSA had jumped from 4.3 to 6.8 in one year, so I wasn’t surprised when my urologist called on April 13th with the results from the biopsy I had undergone the previous week to tell me that I have prostate cancer. While folks, commenting on my youthful appearance over the years as well as the longevity of my folks (dad died at 98 and mom at 92), would remark that I had “good genes,” those same genes made me twice as likely to have prostate cancer since dad had had it as well.
All my life I have been blessed with a “strong constitution,” rarely experiencing colds or any other illnesses. Until I was in my mid-50s, I had had only two surgeries; a tonsillectomy when I was 4 years old and another at 18 for a deviated septum. I have had only four stitches for a head injury when I was in elementary school and I’ve never broken a bone while the only prescription drugs I’d ever taken were antibiotics.
So when I was first introduced to the Five Remembrances, the second one regarding the reality of illness was the most difficult for me to practice. I had internalized some of the new-age notions about health that added an element of shame on top of the illness because I believed that if my practice was “good enough,” it would prevent me from falling ill. I had also absorbed the “wellness and wholeness” notion propagated by new age thought, as well as the Ayurveda I had studied, that the natural state of the body is one of homeostatic health and wellness. Yet, the reality is that interbody conflict is not confined to pathological conditions or simply some kind of mistake, but part of how the body conducts its normal business. For instance, microphages, the “big eaters” of the immune system actually abet the metastases of cancerous cells and the body’s own immune cells have also been implicated in the development of coronary heart disease… not to mention the number of auto-immune disorders so many suffer from!
The call from the urologist came on a day while I was teaching in Kentucky. I had just finished six hours of lecturing and practice, and that afternoon session included guiding the group in the Five Remembrances. The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate. As part of the lecture, in order to explain the thin conceptual line between "wellness" and "illness," I mentioned how all our bodies are constantly generating cancerous cells, but only some of us develop what can be called "cancer."
My urologist gave me some homework, mentioning some resources, and that night I started downloading pdf files from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, the Prostate Cancer Treatment Research Foundation, the Prostate Cancer Foundation, ZeroCancer.Org and Us Too, a prostate patient support organization and community.
Earlier that evening, I had joined a group of teachers and students for dinner and I remember feeling the situation somewhat surreal: my life’s trajectory had just been shunted down a completely different and unexpected path and here we were dining, drinking and laughing. What's really changed? I wondered.
When I began to tell some close friends, I was asked "What are you feeling?" Well, perhaps this is the fruit of so many years of practice – but while everything I read directed to newly diagnosed cancer patients spoke of the shock, anger and fear that is the normal reaction to the diagnosis, I can honestly say I felt none of that. Why should I feel shock when it is the nature of bodies to experience illness? As my Kabbalah teacher, Rabbi Gelberman said when confronted with anything good or bad: “Why not me?” And anger? What could I be angry about? And with whom? Fear? Well, to be honest, I did recognize the real probability that I’d be soon experiencing pain and discomfort through whatever treatment I decided upon, and that provoked some anxious and fearful thoughts, but I don’t fear death itself.
That day I received the diagnosis, after dinner when I was back in my room alone speaking to Monica, my ex-wife and the mother of our daughter, Giovanna, the only time I felt emotional and got weepy was thinking and speaking of Giovanna. Only a few weeks prior, while we cuddled at bedtime, she had said to me, “I hope you live at least as long as your papa.” And yeah, I want to be here for her for as long as possible for her; at least until she’s an adult. And that is the bottom line.
Then, a kind of sadness moved in for that first week. It was a kind of sadness I had first felt while I lay alone in the biopsy room, waiting for the doctor to come in. I was lying on my side, naked from the waist down, covered in a thin paper sheet and the aloneness felt shatteringly cold. While I know that ultimately we all are "alone" even with others, this sense of aloneness felt primal. All the grief around the ending of my marriage four years ago arose fresh and pungently biting. The mind generated thoughts: “I’m alone with no partner to help see me through this,” “This isn’t how it was supposed to be; I thought we’d be there for each other till death” while I ruminated on how all the other men in the waiting room had had partners with them.
But this kind of thinking didn’t last long. First of all, years of satipatthana has taught me not to believe every thought that passes through the mind. Secondly, Monica has shown me support and accompanied me to the urologist for the consultation that would determine my path forward, and other friends have been supportive, offering to accompany me as well to the various doctor appointments and procedures that were being added to my schedule. And actually, just knowing they are there, I felt fine going to see the radiologist, the surgeons, and to have an MRI by myself.
One night after dinner, while washing my daughter’s plate, I realized that while in one way everything’s changed – something that hadn’t even been on the radar is now the central factor directing my life – in the most essential way, nothing has changed. Before the diagnosis I was – like all beings – living/dying. And now, after the diagnosis, I am living/dying. Because fundamentally, living and dying are not two different, separate realities. We, all of us, have been living/dying since conception. It’s not like we are living until some day we begin dying. Only conceptually can we separate these two aspects of existence.
And this is the most important point that my practice has drawn home to me: all who are alive are also dying. The Earth is one great hospice, and we are all the patients living with a terminal disease. No one gets out of here alive. The Buddha said that if we truly, truly understood and internalized that insight, we would treat each other kindly. I noticed when my mother was in hospice that indeed, everyone around her was kind and patient with the knowledge that she was dying. But again… we all, each of us, is living/dying.
Perhaps the major impact on me – this being backward America – is financial. I’ve been in the Cobra program for health insurance after losing coverage through divorce, paying almost $600/month. And even with that, between the relatively high deductible and the 20% co-pay, for the first time in decades, I am in debt. And to top it off, Cobra benefits are only good for three years and I literally received the notice that my insurance will run out Oct 30th the day after I received the diagnosis!
So, I am deeply humbled and so grateful, filled with love and appreciation that my dharma brother and sister, Ted Grand and Jess Robertson, the founders of Modo Yoga which has grown into an international sangha since its genesis in 2004, have created this Go Fund Me fundraiser for me.
If you can share anything, please know that it will be deeply appreciated.
The soundtrack for this blog post is from Green Day.