I would like your attention for a few moments while this physician/surgeon shares with you how he sees that cancer is a living metaphor for fear; and how a simple instruction in second year medical school led to the discovery of a powerful and effective means of confronting fear–peacefully–through the power of hope and love.
In medicine, I was taught that cancer was a cellular disease caused by deep distortions of the cellular blueprint that made it a stranger in the body of its host. It then grew without any regulation or control of the growth. It was able to bring blood vessels to itself to give it oxygen at lower than normal levels. It came under attack by the body’s immune systems, and learned to defend itself against them. It developed ways to spread itself, hiding in dark corners in the host body, compromising the life of the host and ultimately causing the death of the host and itself, all the while being unaware of the fatal nature of its behavior.
In the beginning of the second year of medical school at McGill University in Montréal, the class was told in very simple terms that our responsibility to our patients was to inform them of the nature of their disease according to their ability to understand, and, if it was life-threatening, we were to advise them to get their affairs in order and get on with their lives. Then we were told we were to promise them that we would do our best to help them get on with their lives. That, to me, was a life–affirming–and–changing oath that I remember and swear to, to this day, creating a context for all of my service.
In order to help a person get on with her or his life, I had to learn to ask for a life–story and listen to it when it came. I found I had to give it back to my patient; so they could know I’d listened, thus creating a solid relationship with her or him. Having no training in this, I had to work to develop the skill that it required. After about four years of simply doing my best to help my patients get on with their lives, I was introduced to the work of Earl Nightingale – arguably the world’s greatest student of success. He defined success as “the progressive realization of a worthy ideal,” and went on to stress that every one of us is born with just such an ideal, but that circumstances of life not uncommonly caused us to forget it. He went on to advise me that the greatest thing that anyone could do for self and others was to recall that worthy ideal and focus on serving it. I quickly learned to incorporate this into my practice… to the benefit of my patients and me.
Earl went on to teach me that the power to make that shift in consciousness was a function of the “gold mine of the mind,” the key to which was a single word… “Attitude”. He taught that attitude is always chosen, and if the attitude we saw in the world around us could be seen as a reflection of what we were projecting, we could choose again were it not what I wanted. Shortly after learning this from Nightingale, I was introduced to the work of Bernie Siegel, M.D, which focused on helping cancer patients develop healthy attitudes by working together in support groups. Within a month of becoming a student of Siegel, I was introduced to the work of Gerald Jampolsky M.D, a child psychiatrist who was running support groups for life–threatened children that stressed what he called “Attitudinal Healing”.
For these two physicians, the two attitudes that healed were hope and love. They were also the two attitudes, which, according to the Viennese psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, M.D, were the two attitudes common to all survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. (He was incarcerated in four of them from 1942 until liberation in 1945!) Incredibly, those horrible conditions led him to be able to say, “I found the meaning of life in Auschwitz.”
In early 1987, after 12 years of study and application of what I was learning, I was called to start a support group for five of my cancer patients. We chose to name it H.O.P.E, standing for “Healing of Persons Exceptional”. For us “Healing” was becoming whole; “Persons” included all of us humans; and “Exceptional” implied that no two of us are alike – all without anyone being superior or inferior to any other. The groups focus on their participants helping each other find hope, which Vaclav Havel described as the discovery that “things can make sense regardless of how they work out”. It was clear to participants that the work was work of compassion and forgiveness… an attitude and an action that together comprise a pure function of love.
Now, after more than 5000 H.O.P.E. Group meetings, the work has been beautifully summarized by an expression I’ve learned from a woman raised in the Ojibwe healing traditions, “Be present, and let go of all fear.” From her and many others of indigenous and Eastern traditions, I have come to see that fear is an illusory projection in time to a time that does not exist. Similarly, anger is an illusion of projection in space to a space that does not belong to the angry one, and guilt is an attachment to a time that no longer exists; so it, too, is an illusion.
As I look at the world around me through very much the same eyes that have been looking at it for the last 40+ years, cancer is certainly far more than a cellular disease. It is a disease of the soul that prevents us from recognizing our spiritual nature. It lies behind all forms of violence – violence between two individuals or two million. Do love and hope help heal a physical cancer? Yes. Is it possible that they help heal the spiritual cancer? Yes, it, too.
All right – “How,” you may ask. Please note that the key word behind all illusions is “projection”. Projection is a form of attachment; so how do we free ourselves from projections and attachments? It is a simple yet challenging process called forgiveness! Forgive literally means “give away”. How to we give away our attachments? Through the practice of compassion! Compassion means “suffer with…” transforming the suffering into peace. How does one effect this seemingly impossible transformation? The Tibetan Buddhists do it with the breath – a practice of taking in and letting go called “Tonglen”. What happens when I let go of my fearful attachments? I become aware and live in the present moment… my anger projections? I come home, and become present… my guilt? I become responsible for my mistakes. All in all, I become centered.
I learned all this nearly 30 years ago from two Tibetan Buddhists: Sogyal Rinpoche in his wonderful book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Harper, 1992) and Pema Chödrön in a 1990 Sounds True audio cassette production (Boulder). They are both wonderful teachers: the Rinpoche founded Rigpa in 1979 to present the tradition of Tibet, and Ani Pema Chödrön who today is the abbess of the Gampo Abby on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Tonglen begins when I give myself permission to be present to the suffering of myself or another. I imagine it to be like a cloud around the object of my concern. I see myself breathing that cloud into the space around my heart – the lungs, of course. Pema describes the heart as being the “noble heart”. I hold the cloud in the space around that noble, loving heart for a long moment, letting my heart transform the cloud into peace – nothing but peace. I breathe the peace out to the object of my concern and repeat as needed until I start feeling more at peace. Yes, I need this, too!
That’s it. Simple. Transformative – the power of love.
Try it. It works. It may be the only thing one can do in the face of the deepest suffering….
I end with the physician’s injunction: “First do no harm,” to which Pema added: “Do some good. Help someone.”
Consider for a moment the power in this practice….
Peaceful blessings be….