A few weeks ago, a dear teacher friend of mine died after having been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer just a few weeks before. He had been ill for quite a while by the time he was diagnosed, but no one had been able to figure out why. He was a playful, joyful ambassador for Chinese medicine and Taoist practice. He was a life-long seeker and a playful joke-teller.
Hours after I heard of his death, still digesting the news, I ran into my neighbor. As I told him about my friend, his eyes got wide. "Wow," he said "and with all those years of practice he didn't feel something was wrong?"
I, too, have wondered this. But the truth is, he probably did know something was wrong. Only maybe because of all of his years of practice he didn't feel the need to try to "do" something about it.
Just like many yogis and meditators, I got involved in spiritual practices in the hopes that it would make me better somehow. Over the years I've often found renewed passion for practice when things go wrong. But the truth is that yoga, meditation, prayer... all of these practices are not about rescuing us from death. Or even about helping us feel better. At their heart, they are fundamentally practices of uncovering our human-ness. And that is very different from fixing us or saving us.
Humans hurt. Humans err. Humans love. Humans feel. And ultimately, humans die.
I had my own dance with cancer when I was 32. It was papillary thyroid cancer, an extremely treatable type that often strikes young women (although my dad had also had it when he was 32). By all accounts it was THE cancer to have -- and I'm hoping that it counts as my share of cancer for this lifetime. I went through about six months of wishing it away and throwing everything that I could think of at it, but in the end, I decided to go with the tried and true modern medicine approach to curing it. After my surgery and radiation treatment I had the good fortune to spend time at an Ayurvedic treatment center in India. My official cancer journey lasted less than a year, but the roots of my disease (and the aftermath of the western medicine battle I had been through) had left me in need of something that went deeper than the knife of my surgeon.
In the same week as I had heard the surprising and fateful words of my diagnosis over the phone, a friend of mine had received hers of breast cancer. She was not so lucky. Her battle raged on for 5 years and treatment protocol after treatment protocol, including at least two trial studies. After the last of those treatments had failed her, I received a call, asking me to join her in Peru, where she hoped to find the healing that had eluded her with a shaman healer she knew about. She lived in Canada and had an incredible, loving community there, and I lived in California, so I didn't understand, at first, why she wanted me to come with her. She wanted someone, she explained, who wouldn't put too much pressure on her to get better. Someone she wouldn't have to take care of as she tried to care for herself.
When she opened the door to our shared hotel room in Lima, I had to catch my jaw before it fell to the floor. Hunched over in front of me stood a shell of my vibrant, joyful friend. Exchanging few words, we climbed into bed and tried to catch a few hours sleep in preparation for our flight the next morning to the smaller city where her healer lived. I lay awake that night, and many more, attentively hanging on her every breath, terrified that the next wouldn't come.
Over the next two weeks, we visited the home of her healer frequently and carried out detailed instructions in between. I often felt irritated by the intensity of her need and the graceless way she demanded my help, in this time when she could barely muster words at all, much less a "please" or "thank you." In my best moments, I turned my gaze on my discomfort and re-doubled my resolve to open my heart and hold her in kindness and love.
A main component of her treatment was a beautiful ritual offering performed for her every day. For me, though, the most poignant moment of each day occurred when I bathed her in a bath of flowers and herbs in preparation for her ritual. She seemed to get lighter each day. In these moments I was reminded of her vulnerability and the great gift she shared with me by inviting me into this space with her.
There is no miracle turn to this story. At least, her cancer didn't go away. After her two weeks in Peru, she returned to Toronto, where she never took the herbs that filled her spare suitcase as she left the shaman's home for the last time. A few weeks later, she passed away, surrounded by friends, peacefully and with no struggle. My grief mixed with relief and many, many questions.
A few weeks after her death, still with much to unpack from the experience of our time in Peru, I applied to volunteer at a hospice in San Francisco. In our volunteer program, we had a pre and post-shift meeting each week where we discussed what came up for us as we sat with the dying. Unsurprisingly, sitting in that space brought up lots for each of us. One longtime volunteer gave voice to a beautiful image.
He had us imagine each person as a vinyl record with grooves etched into it -- each groove representing deep impressions incurred over a lifetime of experience. He described how as death approached, the surface of the record started to get worn away. As the surface thinned, the less deep grooves were smoothed out and only the deeper ones remained. This, he explained, was why some people seemed to retreat into anger and others into sadness at the end. Some, though, expressed a deepest imprint of love. His goal, he declared, was to deepen the "love groove."
In a very real way, this is the goal of meditation, yoga and prayer (and many other practices out there). It's wonderful if you get the side-benefits of better health, a calmer mind, better sleep, great sex. But those things are really not the point.
I have seen too many pretzel-bendy yogis who don't have the patience and softness to offer real compassion -- even to themselves (maybe especially to themselves). And I have seen so many people who wouldn't know their eka-padasana from their elbow who exude natural kindness and patience. Maybe the two don't have so much to do with each other. (People are born at different levels of capacity, yoga moves you in the right direction and sets the stage for these things but can't necessarily make it happen -- without the special ingredient of humility, yoga might not do anything.)
Our old habits are ruts. And habits of thinking and feeling can be just as dubious and damaging as habits of activity. The wheels of our "check-out cart" slip into these habit ruts when we stop paying attention. And it's usually so much easier to stop paying attention.
It's hard to dig a new groove. It's like drawing a line without a ruler or trying to bend a new fold in a piece of paper that has been folded many times before. Your tool wants to go into the rut. It's easier. Even when it's painful, and sometimes especially then. But as the new groove deepens, it requires less and less vigilance to help yourself choose love.
Maybe the highest spiritual practice (and the most human one) we can hope for is to deepen our love groove and help others deepen theirs. I think maybe that's what my friend was doing those two weeks in Peru. Washing away the surface, deepening the love groove. These days I am able to forgive myself for not imposing my wish for her to keep on living upon her dying heart.
Now I try to let this be my litmus test. In every choice I make, I can ask myself: "Does this deepen my love groove or my rut?" I could just as easily say "In which direction does more freedom lie?" Because that's what love is. Freedom. And the more practice you get choosing freedom, the deeper your love groove gets and the less likely your cart wheels will fall into a rut.
It's really just a question of practice.