Wherever we go, there we are. Jon Kabat-Zinn said it and wrote a book about it, and it feels apt as I write about trust.
I was diagnosed with stage 2, grade 2 breast cancer a little over two years ago. I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction, and though I was given a 91% chance of no recurrence, I found myself anxious about that nine percent, nonetheless. The younger you are at diagnosis, the (theoretically, at least) longer you have in which cancer can recur. After all the medical interventions, I was left with a scarred body and a deep distrust for whether it could fight cancer off in the future. I didn’t feel I really knew without any doubt what had caused it, and I didn’t know whether all the supplements, lifestyle adjustments and medical interventions would stop me from dying a premature death from cancer. I carried a deep sense of dread that all the early life trauma I’d experienced had so damaged my nervous system and my body that there was nothing I could do to undo that and its ripples in my life.
I teach meditation, something that I restarted after cancer. Given a clean bill of health by my doctors but still deeply anxious, I realized my greatest enemy wasn’t cancer but my own mind. I couldn’t tell you how many days, months or years I had left to live, but I could tell you I wasn’t present for my life now because I was too caught up in anxiety. So I returned to seated practice, to various somatic (body-based) practices to help calm my anxiety, and I recently attended a week-long meditation retreat, including four days of silence, in order to support my practice and my work as a teacher.
I shifted two aspects of my practice, based on the instruction at this retreat, which was based on mindfulness meditation.
- Rather than observing sensation in the body as if one were standing on a river bank watching the river (which I had done previously), work to be in the flow of the river itself, experiencing the sensation moment to moment.
- Practice compassion and welcome toward whatever arises. I’d previously practiced non-judgment, but this shift involved cultivating a sense of warmth and kindness toward the experiences that I had.
On a retreat, we have a rather intense opportunity to observe ourselves without distraction to an extent that is generally not possible. Without electronic devices and social interactions, I had the opportunity to be social with myself.
As we sat in meditation, and I began to doubt that all the work I was doing really had a purpose, our instructor (Fleet Maull) encouraged us to trust. He asked us to consider who might need us to “deepen,” a shift of perspective that helped me immensely. Who in my life could benefit from me deepening my consciousness, my compassion, a shift out of reactivity? I could think of many, and it buoyed me.
I returned to my practice, and I found so many arguments arise, though. Trust? Why should I trust? Life feels inherently unsafe. Spiritual, medical and intellectual leaders betray us all the time. I don’t even trust that there’s a religion that has answers; each religion seems to get in its own way at some point, taking a good message and using that message to control people and further an agenda that seems far from God. I could say more, but I think this was representative of my arguments against trust, representative of my fear.
So I sat with my fear. I felt it as it coursed through my body, twisting my intestines, creating a sharp pain in my upper left chest (right in the spot where my cancer started). And every time I became aware of it, I met it with compassion. I welcomed it. I “invited it to tea,” as Tara Brach suggests.
Silent sobs wracked my body. I went back to childhood and infancy in my mind. I felt my mother’s profound disconnection from me; as a paranoid schizophrenic, she was utterly incapable of seeing my needs as what they were – normal, human, baby/child needs for attunement, care, nurture. As I felt those childhood wounds, the pain in my chest resonated in response: yes, here is where that pain wounded me. I held it with all the intensity of a mother holding her wailing, inconsolable child. Every mother who ever inspired me with her example of tenderness (and I have been blessed to learn from many good mothers in my life), was with me now as I held that younger self and soothed her. I witnessed her suffering with compassion and tenderness. I acknowledged the depth of her suffering.
I don’t know how long this took, how many days of sitting passed with the waves of this process coming up, receding, returning, receding. Eventually, they calmed. I could still see that child in my mind’s eye, and I continued to honor her experience, but she receded, as well. She became smaller and less central to my awareness. Fleet told us at the beginning of the retreat that we would have “front row seats” to our own minds, and I envisioned it as a circus. The wounded child was in her own ring of that circus, but others began to arise in my awareness.
At some point, I found myself asking who I was before the abuse and suffering of my early life, and immediately an image of my earliest self appeared in my mind’s eye: a radiant being with wise eyes and an easy smile. Oh, that’s who I am! I thought. I was also flooded with warmth and love for my mother, something that had been twisted and flattened by the tortured years of our relationship. I loved her so much! Of course, I internalized all that pain – what else could I do? I loved her and protected her, and we both did the best we could. I was also inundated with gratitude for all the people and resources who had given to me over the years: examples of loving kindness, of generosity, of teaching, of mentorship. What had seemed like not enough for decades shifted to feeling abundantly filling and satisfying. As this process unfolded, the pain in my chest ceased, and I felt a shift in my body’s energy and my alignment; I envisioned a stream of river that had been diverted to the left side of my body by trauma. Now it was back to the center and flowing upward from there.
I saw one other thing: I saw that I had never been separated from the fabric of the Universe. I lost my bearings and felt I was separate from God, from others, from myself. The analogy we hear in meditation instruction is that of the ocean and the waves: our thoughts and emotions are the waves, and we can feel that they are real. However, if we drop below the surface a bit, we find the stillness and calm of the ocean. In my practice, I’ve begun to contact that ocean and to realize it’s much bigger than my own experience. It is the nature of God Himself/Herself, and I am never disconnected. I may become distracted by a lot of shiny objects, but I can awaken again and again and again to this connection.
I began this blog talking about trust and restoration of trust after cancer, and this process has been key for me personally. The biggest fear I had after diagnosis was that I would die soon, and that I would leave Isaac without a mother. The terror of him going through that pain was unbearable to me. What I didn’t see two years ago and for awhile beyond was that cancer was giving me a chance to re-explore the wounds from my childhood – the terror of separation from Mother and all she represented – and to heal. To find my place in the fabric of things, and by extension, Isaac’s and everyone else’s place in that fabric. The deep anxiety in my gut that is very tied with real fears in my childhood is no longer necessary; it has permission to soften, to relax, to allow others to have their own experience. I no longer need to control that, or control my own experience. I am inherently safe and inviolable.
Though I do not agree with everything the Apostle Paul said, his letter to the Romans (Chapter 8, verses 38-39) came to mind during my meditation, and I felt the truth of the words in a way I struggled to for decades after I first read them:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (New American Standard Version)
I don’t know what anyone else’s healing looks like, and I can’t recommend that everyone do what I have done. But I share my own story to give others hope that deep healing is possible; that cancer and its terrors and pain are not forever or all-encompassing; that healing is more than recovery from the cancer, surgeries and medical interventions. We are more than our suffering. May we all find our way home.