Living Inside of a Koan

“If you want to be my friend in my dying, I want you to forget I am dying.  Second, you must never forget I am dying.”  Well, alright then.  No problem, right?

This quote is from another cancer patient, Karen Speerstra, from The Divine Art of Dying.  I resonate deeply with her impossible request. This book pissed me off, though, because hey, I am not dying anytime soon.  Yeah, we are all dying, at different rates… blah blah blah.  Except that I have these two tumors, maybe lots more, and an oncologist who just looks sad when I see her, because there is nothing she can do for me.  And at the same time, I am very aware that I am not, in fact, going to die anytime soon.  I intend to live and live well for a long time.

So I am living inside of a koan, a Zen Buddhist practice that I have successfully avoided for 30 some years, fearing failure I suppose.  Now my very life depends on finding my way along a tightrope over what feels like an abyss, seeking a way through.  To something.  A road to somewhere.


In other words, I need to embrace two realities at the same time, which seem to be in separate realms, in opposition to each other.  That is, in my limited understanding, precisely the essence of a koan.  And it is not easy to do.  I fall first on one side, and can feel my death coming, and prepare in various ways.  And then I fall on the other side, and feel how much life and love I still have inside of me, and pick up my life again.

What I cannot do often, or easily, is to do both at the same time. To balance.  And it appears that I am now called to do exactly that.  That is the thread that will lead to a way out.  Although what I mean by “out” I don’t know for sure, except that it will hold a kind of joy, and a shimmer.

People send me things now, and I pay attention.  Some friends gave me a book entitled About Blady: A Pattern out of Time.  A Memoir by Laurens Van Der Post.  This is probably the most amazing, most fascinating, most sophisticated book I have ever read.  In part, he deals with cancer and says “Judging by the failure of a century of research to discover what cancer is, this special affliction of our age might even have its cause and origin in the spirit, or in the dimension of the great unknowable where terms of mind and body, spirit and matter express merely different points of observation of a phenomenon which transcends all.”  Zowee.  Nails it.

If it has its cause and origin in this transcendent place, then I presume that healing cancer would also reside in that same place.  From all that I am reading and pursuing, from all that I have gleaned in life up until now, I am betting that it does.  At least for some of us.  Surgery, radiation and chemo work for some, and that’s a blessing.  But sometimes it’s not enough, or treatment is not possible.  Western treatment, at any rate.

Van Der Post again – “I was certain only that the hypothesis on which all the research into the phenomenon of cancer, and all the dedication devoted to discovering a cure was based, was totally inadequate. ” Not wrong, exactly, but inadequate.  For him, it leads to dreams, and what it is that dreams through humans.  And ultimately, to love. To the Source.

For my political friends, he takes it further.  “And whenever I looked at the city I saw – and still see- cancer in concrete: in the sprawl of the city and the way of life that went on like a recurring decimal…”-  the body politic.   It is manifested in the unsustainable ways of human life on the planet, a metaphor for cancer itself, killing the host.  In my case, that’s me – the body personal.

Around the time of WWI and II, TB was the disease that was killing most people in the West.  Chemical warfare in the form of various gases filled the air.  Van Der Post says that shifted with the expansion of US power after the Wars, and cancer began to kill more people.

If we find a way to cure our cancers through resolution of this koan, working in the indescribable and awesome realm of spirit or beyond, could we also then find a way to turn around the “cancer in concrete” that is killing us all?  A cure, metaphorically speaking.  I wonder.  Maybe there are multiple cures and ways to go about this.

And for those of you who have actually struggled with a real zen koan, if I have this concept fucked up here, please do let me know.  I’m a Tibetan Buddhist, not a Zen practitioner. Sort of.


5 thoughts on “Living Inside of a Koan

  1. Hi Susan, I just stumbled upon your blog this evening and read some of your postings. I want to thank you for sharing your journey and your knowledge. Reading your postings tonight has made me realize that I haven’t visited with or listened to my soul in such a long time I’m not sure what he sounds like anymore.

    Thanks for reminding me there is beautiful soul living in this body. Sending you healing prayers from Indianapolis.



    1. Dear Bret, I am so pleased to hear this! If this is the only gift of writing my entire blog, it is well worth it! May you find the quiet time necessary to listen deeply, and the courage to trust your own soul. I return healing prayers. May you be well. Susan

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dearest Susan,

    Thank you so much for telling me about your blog! I just devoured it in one gulp. Your wisdom has always been such a blessing to everyone whose lives you have touched, and of course it’s a blessing to you, too, dearest friend.

    Riffing on Davichon’s charming comment, I’m reminded of the line from “Anthem”: “There is a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in.” Cancer is one of those cracks through which light can get in. And in your case, it also lets the light inside you shine out to the rest of us more brightly than ever.

    With love and gratitude to you always,



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