Writing this particular post for months. It’s a tough one, for me and probably for anyone brave enough or bored enough to read it, too. It’s about meditation and confession and humility and becoming friends with ourselves and vulnerability, just for starters. I’m willing to bet that there is a common thread, however, for those of us who are on borrowed time, and know that down to our bones. Here goes.
Almost every cancer patient is given or finds a list of things we can do for ourselves as we make our way through cancer land. Meditation is often not only on the list but if not at the top, nearly there, for pain control primarily and as a way to deal with anxiety and depression. Buddhists teach meditation and mindfulness as a way to “make friends with ourselves” and to develop skillful means as a spiritual path. Quakers know that when we are silent and listen deeply, we can hear the “still, small voice of God” within. Sounds great, doesn’t it! Yup. It is. Mostly. Except when it isn’t. Great, that is. It can be excruciatingly difficult, also.
This starts with a little story. When I was working full time, providing therapy for others on multiple levels decades ago, I used to take a silent retreat every 3 months, for at least one week, with a group of Zen Buddhists who were also Catholics. We sat in complete silence for 8-9 hours a day, not making eye contact, not reading, not speaking, just sitting in meditation with walking meditation every half hour, all day for about 7 to 10 days, with mass in the morning and a zen talk every evening by our roshi who was also a priest.
One day, I was noticing my own mind – because what else was there to do, really? No TV, just my own mind unrolling movies in front of my awareness, my witness. I noticed that day that I was impatient, irritable, judgmental and stubborn. I could see this as I played out little movies of memory or thoughts, in my mind, and began to name what I saw. Great. Next half hour, I noticed I was scheming, anxious, smug and opinionated. Yup. The list got a little long, so I went upstairs to my room, and started writing these darling traits down so I could remember, in between our sitting sessions. It went on that day: domineering, victimized, possessive, suspicious, snide!
Truly, I was horrified! Shocked. I’d run upstairs and add more to my growing list, hoping no one would ever know. Next day, same shit: self-righteous, angry, pushy, manipulative, aloof, greedy, evasive. After more of this: insolent, bitter, arrogant, conniving, seductive, snotty… I started to laugh! It just got so funny! Maybe you had to “be there”, but it was hilarious! Still makes me laugh. Sort of. Fussy, fearful, murderous impulses (way down, hidden from sight, but I saw it like a flutter of something scary in the dark forest) grandiose, snobbish, rash, self-absorbed… on and on. To this day, I am still adding more charming aspects of my own being, my own history, when I catch them; being prejudiced about one thing or another are especially hard to see, elusive.
Some might say, “Hey wait, Susan! You are much more than all that, what about all your positive traits, too?!” Wanting to somehow dilute these insights, perhaps, or to make me feel better about myself, to take away the sting. Maybe this makes some uncomfortable. I have a page of positive traits, too, not to worry. But this part of the meditation process doesn’t exactly get a lot of press, as far as I can tell. Wonder if the doctors really know what they are recommending. Want to bet? Because this is what eventually happens if you actually meditate. A lot. Probably different lists…
But here’s the thing. I have finally made friends with myself (Did I say sullen, severe, scattered, punitive?) and in the doing of that, joined the human species, warts and all. Does all this lower my blood pressure any? Not so as anyone would notice. I wonder about AA and their thing about “taking a fearless inventory”. Perhaps this is what they are referring to. Certainly this has aspects of the great sacrament in the Catholic church, confession. If done with mercy and humility, there is wisdom there.
So, if this is such great medicine for cancer patients, how do I transform the internal horror of such a freaky show into something inspiring and useful? In other words, why in the world would anyone want to become so vulnerable? Why fucking do this!!! (Using bad language, undisciplined, cutting, intolerant) (Rebellious)
That question, dear ones, is why it’s taken so long to write this post. (lethargic, procrastinating, making excuses) (Judgmental) Here are some answers that have emerged in the past 3-4 months.
William Stafford has a great line in one of his poems: “If you don’t know the kind of person I am, and I don’t know the kind of person you are, a pattern that others made may prevail in the world.” Right now, we have others prevailing in the world who are basically insane, so it’s becoming more and more urgent that we not only know who others are, we also know who we are, at the deepest level. I believe this to be so urgent, I’m willing to share this story. It is from the very bottom that we are able to create and describe our own internal moral compass. Handy when there are no maps. Or when our so-called leaders have no morals at all. Or when our own teachers are no longer around or it just gets too hard to cobble stuff together anymore. And there is death, lurking. Time is running out for all sorts of things, not only for me and perhaps for you, but for the planet and all beings. Developing the capacity for wisdom and compassion is needed.
Pope Francis has a new book out, titled “The Name of God is Mercy“. Pope Francis is the real deal. He has this to say: “Justice on its own is not enough. With mercy and forgiveness, God goes beyond justice, God subsumes it and exceeds it in a higher event in which we experience love, which is at the root of true justice.” If we are longing for true justice (not vengeance) and if we cannot accept ourselves with mercy and forgiveness, how can we offer that to anyone else? Or even to conceive of what justice might be? Or care?
For Francis, the teaching is that we must be involved, we must be moved, we must feel compassion. “This kind of compassion is needed today to conquer the globalization of indifference. ” And meditation is a great tool to develop that compassion. Which leads to wisdom, and developing a moral compass that is trustworthy and sane, a profound equanimity.
I am just learning how to embody this. Mostly I fuck up and stumble around. But the thread is strong. Kidney cancer is riveting and debilitating, but its also a great teacher, keeping me focused and aware.
After decades of meditation and other practices, and getting to know death pretty darn well, at times there is a moment, an opening, and I see through all of this, the whole thing, and see and feel the shimmering grace that’s always there, the supreme joy.