Sunday, December 12, 2010

day +1209

One weekend ago, I was reminded of what someone once told me: you can always walk around the block and start again.

Meditation practitioners are encouraged to take retreats or extended periods away from the normal grind of life in order to reinvigorate and deepen their practice. These retreats can be as short as one weekend or as long as several months. Some travel as far away as Bhutan or Nepal to find both inspiration and the peaceful space needed to work with themselves. Then, there are folks, like myself, who try to do the same amidst the frenzied bustle and honking horns of Manhattan.

The focus of last weekend's retreat was what in Buddhist-speak is called tonglen, which translates as "sending and receiving." It is a particular meditative practice that works on cultivating compassion for everyone with the aspiration for all people to be happy and free of any suffering. In tonglen, the practitioner visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering (whatever it may be) of others on the in-breath and on the out-breath giving happiness and well-being in return. This willingness to open and feel the pain of others is an incredibly powerful and courageous practice. The aspiration that your efforts on the cushion are helping to alleviate that person's suffering also brings great joy.

In the practice of tonglen, practitioners are encouraged to send gentle kindness not only to others but also themselves. Ultimately, this is where a practitioner or any person should begin their journey to improve the world. It begins with ourselves. This retreat, consequently, came at a poignant moment for I too needed to be more forgiving and compassionate to myself.

For the past several weeks, I have felt increasingly unbalanced, unsettled, tired, and run over. Between Halloween and Christmas, work is intense. Activities and papers, reports and meetings fill up the calendar. Between long hours at work and my habit of going to bed late, I began to bypass my morning workout in favor of that coveted extra hour of sleep. I confess: I procrastinated at times too, which contributed to these longer hours. With deadlines to meet, on the weekends I wasn't even able to hang out with my friends or photograph the city landscape, a deep passion of mine. The plain and simple truth is that I had just fallen into a rut, a ditch along the road. My struggle for equanimity, therefore, was in part due to the fact that both my mind and heart were not in sync.

The popular ideal, I think, that many people have of survivors is that after their cancer experience life is somehow smoother or free of most if not all of our normal, everyday struggles. Somehow the pages of the past are turned and the challenges that one struggled with before their diagnosis just disappear. The survivor is enlightened now. This perception of survivorship as a win all, zero-sum game has its roots perhaps in our cultural consciousness, which tends to view a cancer diagnosis as a call to arms. With very specific militaristic language, we use words such as "fight," "battle," and "war" to describe our cancer experience. In this language of aggression, which is symptomatic of our society's relationship to itself and others', there is only victory and defeat, life and death. Using this language, there is no room or openness for any other possibility. There is just aggression towards the self. So, what happens when the patient emerges victorious but still hasn't addressed his or her own insecurity, confusion, addictions, regrets, or habits that preceded the diagnosis? Is this still a victory?

To be clear, certainly, cancer or any life-threatening experience softens our sensitivity to the preciousness of our uncertain existence and that of others. Having smelled the scent of Death, we, as survivors, do cherish deeply our restored hope and new lease on life. We lead more invigorating lives. But we are still human! We still find ways to do stupid stuff.

The greatest gift of cancer may be in reminding us of what truly is important in life. It is in this spirit of courageous hope and possibility that we begin to view cancer not as an all-out enemy but simply a challenge, a difficult experience of a specific manifestation - albeit lethal - to be overcome. (I know this is easier said than done especially in the midst of the stress of treatment.) In what we hope will be a long and rich life, we acknowledge that our journey will be filled with moments of pain and joy, suffering and happiness. Cancer just happened to be one of these moments.

Meditating on the cushion during the retreat, our instructor told us that if we had difficulty visualizing sending loving-kindness to our subject to feel our heart center. Feel, press your heart, he said to us. I put my hand over my chest searching for the beat of my heart. "Ahh! There it is." Its beat is raw and unfiltered. It is nature at its most elemental. It is life. Yet I could not recall when I last had taken a moment to feel its sweet sound.

I immediately felt more grounded and relaxed. At this moment, all was right with me and the world. "This is it. This is what it's all about. Nothing more." In sync with my heart center, I began to send wishes of happiness and well-being to myself having been reminded that regardless of what I felt or did before, I can always come back home and start again.


Comment Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:31 PM  
Comment Anonymous EFG said...

wow enlightening and so glad you are taking care of yourself!

6:48 AM  
Comment Blogger Jamison said...

Wonderful post. Meditation is an important topic.

The practice certainly is in the moment, whether it's formal or otherwise. Whenever I'm mindful of my mind wandering I gently bring it back to the present moment.

In this way, I can make any place my home.

7:15 AM  
Comment Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post! Thanks for taking the time to share this.

9:19 PM  

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