Cancer Lessons


Passing by
Silver and gold sari
Covered corpse
Hip 20 year old
Dharamsala girl
“Tibetans say
When you see dead
It’s good luck.”
“Makes people pray.”

-Rick Fields

I got to hear Rick Fields only once.  It was at the Buddhism in America Conference in Boston in 1997, two years before he died of lung cancer.  The above poem is from his book entitled Fuck You Cancer and Other Poems, published by Crooked Cloud Projects in 1999.  (Rick was also the author of a history of American Buddhism entitled How The Swans Came to the Lake.[1] You could always count on Rick to come up with a good book title.)  I admired Rick’s openness and courage in his writing about his battle with cancer.

Many of us are able to go forward each day maintaining our illusion of immortality, but I have the good luck to have biannual mortality reminders.  Every six months I return to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to have my oncologist prognosticate about my future.  Last week he again gave me a clean bill of health.  I asked him about the risk/benefit ratio of continued chest x-rays every six months, and he advised me to continue them, reminding me I had a 20% chance of metastasis to the lungs.  I should have been happy that my odds for remaining cancer-free were 80%, but instead my mind glommed onto the 20% figure.  My glass was 20% empty.

Five years ago my first wife began the one-year cancer journey that would take her life.  I had the gift of spending that year in her intimate company.  I was fortunate that my job allowed me family leave to accompany her to her surgeries, chemotherapy and radiotherapy visits,  ER visits and re-hospitalizations, and in the end, when she could no longer be alone, to be constantly by her side until she died peacefully at home.  We were never as close as we were in that last year.  It’s as if the “I” disappeared and there was only me in service of her.  Despite the agony, drama, and tears, there was a genuine happiness to be able to be there for her and make her journey as easy as possible.  She was ready for death when she finally passed on; going on living was a torment.  And I was ready for her to go too.  How could I wish her to go on given how things were?   She died surrounded by family and friends.  Our daughter, an artist/musician, brought her band members to sing to her mother as she lay in coma, and later to sing at her funeral: “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

My formal meditation practice took a hit that year: no time for retreats, no ability to keep a regular schedule.  But being mindful of each moment together and focussing on meeting her needs was my Buddhist practice.  I didn’t need anything else.  It felt like all the years of practice up until then had been preparation for meeting that moment with equanimity, no complaints, and a good heart.  Do what is necessary in the moment.  Each moment.  Every moment. Moment after moment.  It’s all good.

Now I have my own cancer journey.  A year and a half ago I was diagnosed with a rare cancer, a liposarcoma.  My journey is easier than my first wife’s, my surgery just a walk in the park compared to hers.  So far no recurrence, no chemo, no radiation:  Just watchful waiting.

What do I do with my glass 20% empty?  It’s a blow to my ego.  There’s a heavy feeling of sadness in my chest that goes along with it.  There are questions I push out of my mind because now it is not time for them: “What would I choose to do if there was a recurrence?”

But cancer has a lesson to teach: “Don’t waste your precious human life,” it says.  Do what is necessary in the moment.  Each moment. Every moment. Moment after moment.  It’s all good.

This is the Dharma, plain and simple.

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  1. [1] Fields, R. (1986). How The Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America.  Shambhala: Boston.

Working with Fear

My wife and I just spent two weeks traveling the Colorado Plateau, that astonishing five million year-old uplifting of sedimentary rock that makes Southern Utah and Northern Arizona (as well as parts of Colorado, and New Mexico) so amazingly unique.

We toured some of the National and Tribal parks that dot red sandstone country: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Mesa Verde, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.  Those of you who have been there know words are inadequate to describe the awesome natural beauty of the high desert plateau with its myriad canyons, arches, windows and hoodoos.

A few days into our journey my wife and I decided to trek down into the Bryce Canyon amphitheater to get a closer view of the erosion-formed hoodoos at its bottom.

As we started snaking down the switchbacks that led to the canyon floor I became aware, for the first time in my life, of an overwhelming fear of heights.  I was terrified of the closeness of the trail rim and the precipitous drop that lay to my right.  My knees weakened and when I couldn’t see around a narrow stretch of switchback I became fearful I’d trip and fall, and refused go any further.  I apologized to my wife, who was enjoying the descent, and told her I had to turn back.

Now if you look objectively at me beginning down that trail (see below) you’ll see the trail is really fairly wide, but that I am nevertheless clinging to the left side of the trail where there’s a high wall and no drop off.  If I’d tripped and stumbled there’s no way I’d have plunged to my death.  I’d have skinned my knees at the worst.   I was suffering from a sudden case of acrophobia.  I was mystified!  Climbing up ladders or doing housework on the roof had never been my favorite activity, but I’d always been able to do it.  Young children were hiking that trail without any difficulty, for heaven’s sake!  I felt thoroughly ashamed!

This event reminded me of another time in my life when I’d experienced significant irrational fear.  I was on my second ten-day meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts.  My first retreat had been heavenly bliss, so naturally I expected my second to be a repeat of my first.  Oh, dread beginner’s naiveté!  Beware of expectations!  They always come back and bite you!

A few days into the retreat I developed a paranoid fantasy about one of the other yogis, an eccentric individual who kept showing up at the outdoor spots I’d picked for my walking meditation.  Only he wasn’t doing walking meditation.  He was doing his own thing.  He’d stand motionless for ten minutes, then take off running towards me at full speed, then suddenly stop a few feet in front of me resuming his previous stillness.  I was baffled and unnerved, and began thinking that his intentions were malevolent.  Perhaps he was a serial killer and he’d selected me as his next victim?

He seemed to be everywhere.  I’d go for a walk around the loop of roads circling IMS after lunch and hear someone clearing his throat behind me.  I’d turn around, and there he was!

My paranoia intensified.  I was wearing  a baseball cap with the name of my daughter’s college written on it.  What a mistake!  After he killed me, he could go after her!

A part of me recognized that this thinking was seriously disturbed and I tried using logic to derail it, but to no avail.  Another part of me thought that my meditation had made me super-sensitive and that I could read his energy or thought waves.  I wasn’t being paranoid, I was just tapping into his aura!

This paranoid episode lasted for several days, and I was thoroughly miserable.  Then one evening one of the teachers at the retreat gave a talk about fear.  How perfect! How excellent! How well timed!  When the pupil is ready, the teaching appears!

The teacher, Michael Liebenson Grady, discussed his own fear of unleashed dogs on the loop around IMS.  Once when confronted by a growling dog, he recalled the tale of how Ajahn Maha Boowa recited metta verses to a tiger he encountered during his nightly walking meditation.  Maha Boowa had escaped unscathed.

Ajahn Maha Boowa

Michael decided to try the same method on the dog by reciting the metta verse “May you be happy!”  The dog bit him.  Michael quipped that perhaps that was what made the dog happy!

On a more serious note, Michael went on to say that the only way out of fear is through it. Instead of trying to argue the fear away, he suggested being mindful of the physical sensations and fear-generating thoughts, just watching them without any effort to change them.  That evening I tried Michael’s suggestion, and the fear magically dissolved and melted away.  It became completely insubstantial.  I was amazed!  I was at ease with my would-be serial killer for the rest of the retreat and saw him as just a harmless eccentric. The retreat ended with yogis being invited to share parting comments.  One older woman singled out my killer for praise, commenting on his great kindness to her during the retreat.

Several days later on the Colorado Plateau my wife and I went on a hike to see the petroglyphs that an ancient Puebloan had inscribed on one of the sandstone bluffs at Mesa Verde.  Our trail guide rated the hike as “easy.”  About fifteen minutes into the hike, however, the narrow trail began following the canyon rim with a precipitous drop off to my right.

Once again my knees weakened and I began to feel the fear I’d experienced at Bryce Canyon.  There was even one point when the trail went up 90 degrees over sheer rock.  One had to put one’s right foot onto a toe-hold off to one’s left and then pull oneself up the rock.  It was worse than Bryce!  They had to be kidding!

This time I was going to go about things differently, however.  I mindfully noticed the weakness in my knees as sheer sensation, and my thoughts of falling as just thoughts.  I also did some stimulus avoidance, trying to keep my eyes straight ahead and slightly to the left to avoid staring into the abyss off to my right.  Once in a while, however, when the trail widened a bit, I’d sneak a peak and appreciate the grand vista off to my right from a safe distance.

I wish I could say my fear totally vanished like it had during my IMS retreat.  It didn’t.  But it was manageable in a way it hadn’t been at Bryce, and I now look back on the petroglyph hike as one of the highlights of our trip

Ancient Puebloan Petroglyph

Behavior therapists say that exposure is the best cure for phobias, but the exposure has to be lengthy for it to work.  I guess the two-hour petroglyph hike was long enough for exposure to work some of its magic.

A few days later my wife and I walked part of the rim trail around Grand Canyon.

I was able to walk it comfortably, although I didn’t walk as close to the edge as my wife did.  There were some intrepid teenagers walking the same trail who stood on the rocks and ledges on the canyon’s edge posing for pictures, fearless as mountain goats.  How I envied their courage!  I wasn’t totally over my new-found phobia, but it remained manageable, and I enjoyed the hike.

So here’s a recipe for coping with fear: One part mindfulness, one part exposure.  Instead of believing the fear-talk, see it as mere thinking.  Notice the weakness in your knees as mere sensation.  Don’t get caught up in being fearful of the sensations and believing the thoughts. (“Oh, no!  My knees really will buckle and I’ll tumble into the abyss!”)   Don’t try to make the fear go away, but just mindfully observe it in all its manifestations. Mindfulness is itself a form of exposure: one accepts and explores the fear rather than pushing it away.

Lastly, do the thing you fear, don’t avoid it.  Expose yourself to it for a sufficiently long time (at least ninety minutes!) without avoidance.  I cheated a bit by avoiding looking to the right when I was climbing the Mesa Verde petroglyph trail.  But I was only cheating myself.  Who knows?  If I’d forced myself to look I might have become one of those courageous teenage mountain goats posing on the Grand Canyon ledge!

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Two Truths: Causation and Choice

An earlier version of this post was published in Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings [1]

Trying to reconcile the objective truth of causation with the experiential truth of choice is exceedingly difficult.  Buddhism insists, however, that we find a middle way between these irreconcilables, and that dismissing the reality of either causation or choice is an error.

Our everyday functioning requires that we talk in terms of choice, but the language of choice doesn’t yield the deepest understanding of the way things are.   The experience of choice is like the computer “desktop” metaphor: we can talk about “desktops,” “folders,” and “files,” but at a deeper level there are only photons or electrons that either change state or don’t in a binary fashion.  The desktop is semi-real: one can see it and do things on it.  At another level of discourse, however, there is no desktop.  This is similar to the disjunction between our everyday perception of common objects and what physicists say about them.  They appear solid, but at the atomic and subatomic level are mostly empty space.  Our everyday perception is good-enough for most purposes, but the physicist’s description of reality opens up powerful new ways to see and use the world.

Many of our actions occur without our being aware of either the actions themselves or our reasons for them.  We mostly operate on automatic pilot.  A moment ago I noticed my hand rubbing my eye.  I didn’t “choose” to do it.  Some part of my brain must have registered some irritation around my eye, and my hand was there in an instant.  Most of the time that my hand is touching my face I’m not aware I am doing it.  Similarly, I don’t usually “choose” to swing my arms when I walk, or decide what to look at and notice while walking.  Our experience of most behavior is that it “just happens.”  When we retrospectively try to come up with the reasons why we did one thing or another, our answers are often only guesses based on what we think we must have been experiencing.  Our guesses are often no better than an outside observer’s guesses.

When do we become aware of “choosing” our actions?  When a snafu has developed in the automatic pilot program; when our usual way of resolving a problem non-consciously is not working and a metaphorical warning light blinks on.  Perhaps there’s a conflict between two equally strong action tendencies, or an awareness that the action we’re about to engage in has had painful consequences in the past, or an awareness that what we’re about to do conflicts with a high priority goal.  When that warning light blinks on, the brain allocates more workspace to the problem,  putting more of its computing power in service of a solution.   The brain does this because when conditions like this occurred in the past, allocating more resources led to a happier outcome.  As a fuller range of associations, memories, and acquired problem solving algorithms are brought to bear, we are more likely to succeed.  This is the process we experience as “choosing” which feels so different from our automatic pilot behavior.  But the main difference between “choosing”  and “automatic” is the greater degree of resources involved, not some newly acquired freedom from cause-and-effect.  A bigger computer is being used to solve the problem, but the solution still relies on the structure of the brain and our past experiences.

One reason why the experience of “choosing” feels “free” is that we’re unaware of most of the antecedent processes that go into making a “choice”. The brain doesn’t receive feedback from most of these antecedent processes, and their final product just seems to pop into our heads from the void, uncaused as far as we’re aware.

While our internal decision-making process isn’t free from causality it can be relatively free in other senses of the word.  For example, it can be relatively free from the salient pushes and pulls of the immediate stimulus context, or from the influences of parental, social, or religious authority, or from short-term self-interest.  Our capacity to have larger segments of our brains go on-line as part of the process of  “making decisions” makes these kinds of relative freedoms possible, and these freedoms are the most crucial freedoms from the point of view of ethics and morality.

So we don’t have to choose between causation and choice.  There is an experiential process of choice which feels real and suffices for everyday understanding, and a “deeper” process underlying it which is based on causation.  I use the term “deeper” with trepidation, because the word implies one reality is more true than another, whereas they are really just two different levels of description of reality,  just like chemistry and quantum physics are two different levels of description.

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  1. [1] Segall S. (2003). On Being a Non-Buddhist Buddhist: A Dialogue With Myself in Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

How many schools of Buddhism are there?  There were the eighteen schools of early Buddhism: Saravastivadin, Sautranika, Dharmaguptaka, etc.  There are the three vehicles: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.  There are the various schools of Japanese Buddhism: Pure Land (Jodo-shu and Jodo-shinshu), Shingon, Tendai, Nichiren, Soka Gakkai, Soto and Rinzai Zen.  There are the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakyu.  There are the diverse forms of  Theravada: Thai Forest, lay Burmese, the various state Buddhisms. There are the ten schools of Chinese Buddhism: T’ien T’ai, Chan (Northern and Southern), Ching-t’u, etc.  We haven’t even gotten to Korea or Viet Nam!  I’m sure I’ve left out a lot…

Which one of these is the True Buddhism?  You could argue, as Joseph Goldstein has [1], that they are all outward expressions of One Dharma, but they are really quite heterodox and heteropractic.  The more one learns about Buddhism, the more one becomes aware that there is no one thing called Buddhism, but a diversity of cultures of awakening inspired and informed by the teachings of the Buddha.

It’s the same with all religions.  Judaism has always been a broad stream of competing interpretations of tradition.  Today that Judaic stream includes such diverse forms as Hasidism, Modern Orthodoxy, Conservativism, and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.  Similarly, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the mainline, fundamentalist, and evangelical branches of  Protestantism, Unitarianism, Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses all coexist under the broad umbrella of Christianity.  Which is the true Judaism?   What the true Christianity?

Religions are not static entities, but evolving, pluralistic networks inspired by the ideas of their founders, who in turn were inspired by traditions that preceded them.  Christ  emerged from within the Jewish tradition, the Buddha from within the Indian śranmana movement.  Religions are, as Buddhists might say, conditioned phenomena that are impermanent and have no self-nature.

We have no way of knowing precisely what the Buddha said.  The teachings of the Pali canon were written down centuries after the buddha’s parinirvana.  The Mahayana sutras, most written centuries after the Pali canon, also claim to be Buddhavacana, the Word of the Buddha, just as the Bible and Qur’an claim to be the Word of God.

Even if we knew exactly what the Buddha said, there’s no reason to assume everything he said was true.  He may have been Enlightened, but he was still just a man:  a man who grew up within a particular historical era, socioeconomic class, culture, and gender.  His knowledge of the world was limited by the cosmology, science, geography, biology, economics, psychology, and politics of the time.  He didn’t know about quarks, quasars, molecules, bacteria, evolution, neurobiology, macroeconomics, or North America.  He grew up within a culture that believed in devas, brahmas, ghosts and demons, and that assumed Mount Meru was the center of the geographical world.  Whenever we approach a Buddhist text, we can’t help approaching it as twenty-first century inhabitants of our own contemporary cultures.  We must use our own knowledge base, our ability to reason, and our own lived experience of Buddhist practice to reassess the value, meaning, and intention of Buddhist teachings and texts.

It always saddens me when one school of Buddhism assumes it is The True School and denigrates others.  This has happened throughout Buddhism’s history, just as it happens in all religions.  Nichiren vigorously attacked Zen in the 13th Century, and Mahayana has historically denigrated Theravada as a “lesser vehicle”, while Theravada has complained about Mahayana and Vajrayana revisionism.  The various Buddhisms have always been marked by reinterpretation and attempts to reinstate orthodoxy.

It also always saddens me when people I respect and admire attack each other. The impetus for this post is B. Alan Wallace’s recent attack on Stephen Batchelor’s views In Mandala, the FPMT official publication.  In that essay, Wallace states that Batchelor offers a “false facsimile” of the Buddha’s teachings and his writings are a “near enemy” of Buddhism.

Wallace and Batchelor were monks together in India and Switzerland.  I’ve had the pleasure of having spoken to and attended talks by both of them over the years. They are both thoughtful, challenging, and inspiring teachers, and I’ve learned much from each of them.  I understand where and why Wallace disagrees with Batchelor, and while my own views are much closer to Batchelor’s (this Blog is called the Existential Buddhist, after all!) I think Wallace makes some valid criticisms.  It’s a big leap, however, from saying one disagrees with someone else to saying they are an enemy.  There’s a lot of room for interpretation in Buddhism.  We’re a big tent.  Let a thousand flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend!  Lighten up, Alan!  In the words of the famous contemporary American philosopher, Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

  1. [1] Goldstein. J. (2002). One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism.  HarperSanFrancisco.