My Buddhist Practice Meets the Spectre of Death by Cancer

Standing in the shower I look down and notice a lump. My left thigh is not quite the same shape as my right. I move around and check it out. Yup, it’s a big lump. Feels like there is a golf ball shoved deep into the upper part of my thigh. Believe it or not, at this point I just think, “Getting old is so weird” and forget it.

But like the cat that came back, so did awareness of the lump. It started to become uncomfortable to sit in certain positions. And every time I got naked, there was that lump. After about a month, I thought I better see a doctor. The doctor got me an appointment with an oncologist (cancer specialist) that very week. Within two weeks I had had a CT scan, MRI, X-Ray, ultrasound, blood tests and was scheduled for surgery the following week. What’s the hurry guys?

Thus I felt for the first time a new presence in my life. Not the presence of some romantic angel of death, of which I as a poet have written, but the presence of a cold and suffocating embrace that engulfs one like a greatcoat soaked through as you lie shattered and dying in the mud of some WWI battlefield, knowing for the first time the visceral experience of terror and horror.

In the face of this presence, my Buddhist practice of ten years, like some army jeep with the driver shot, immediately veered off the road, crashed and burst into flames.

I found myself steadily sliding into depression and despair. I live in the corner suite on the fourteenth floor of an apartment overlooking the harbor of our small island town. Although I sat on the edge of my bed looking out at the panoramic view I was really seeing a panoramic view of my life and seeing it with a perspective and clarity I had never before experienced. I said out loud to myself, “So this is how it ends. My entire life has been nothing but a series of random events to which I in some way reacted. The illusion of control I now see was just that, an illusion. A series of random events. And one of them is death.”

Unlike Siddhartha in the face of Mara’s onslaught, I did not maintain my equanimity. Instead Mara’s coils passed through all my defenses and unleashed in me their poison of suffering. And there I stayed, at the bottom of the pit of nihilism, until after the surgery.

The surgery removed a tumor seven inches long by three inches in diameter that extended from my upper thigh into my lower abdomen. The incision was twelve inches long and the surgery took four and a half hours.

I awoke from the surgery singing. I am a singer/songwriter and have been singing since childhood so this is not too odd. People under or coming out of anesthesia say all kinds of things. I found myself sitting up in the recovery room, quite happily singing a song from my childhood.

When I was just a little boy
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be happy, will I be sad
Here’s what she said to me

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.

I am convinced that the same aspect of our minds that directs the dreams of sleep is also responsible for some of the songs that we find randomly running through our mind when we are awake. If we have not heard the song lately, it is likely our subconscious trying to communicate with us, to break through the tangle of thoughts we are lost in and awaken us to the simplicity of our true feelings. The dream builder had found this song from my childhood and the window into my heart was wide open.

Over the next few days, as the drugs and trauma wore off, I was aware that I could once again allow myself to slide into depression and despair. I had a terrible wound I had to care for alone. I would be bedridden for many weeks. The surgeon had had to cut major nerves to get the tumor out. I would walk with a cane, perhaps for the rest of my life. My new career, my fledgling Buddhist group and the many other projects intended to get my life back on track after an emotional blow a year earlier were now all up in the air. It would be so easy to listen to the negative voices whispering in my mind. How very reasonable they sounded.

However just as I recall sitting on the edge of my bed looking out at the panorama of my life, I recall at this point being again in my apartment after the surgery and asking myself if I wished to return to the mindset of that past moment. The answer was no, simply because I was very clear that the depression and despair really had no power to help, to alter reality, but only made my life hell. This time, Mara failed.

The quality of our life is not determined by what happens to us, but by how we respond. We resist the reality of our lives in many ways when we don’t like what is happening and we do so because we imagine that the resistance may change things for the better. We believe that if we stop resisting we will have given up the only tool we have to change things, so we cling desperately to our resistance of what is. We imagine that if we stop resisting we will have no further opportunity for choice, but will have resigned ourselves to our fate. The tragedy is that it is the very resistance that causes our suffering, not the circumstances or situation we find ourselves in. The irony is that acceptance is the very state we need to liberate us from the nightmare we feel trapped in and that enables us to see that we do in fact have choices.

At this point I still did not know if I had cancer or not and would not find out for another four weeks (the kind that kills you – surgery or not). Eventually I did find out that the tumor was benign. Death was postponed. Death by cancer at any rate. However the fact made no difference to me any more.

I went back and pulled that jeep out of the ditch, loaded it up on a flatbed and restored it nicely. It gets me around just fine again now and, in retrospect, I see that the spirit of that vehicle was with me the whole time. The dream builder had found in my memories the closest thing it could to reminded me of the central premise of Buddhism; resistance to reality is the cause of suffering and acceptance is the key to release from that suffering.

What will be, will be.


Posted January 21, 2012 by Rick Bateman