Why is it that when life gives you a kick on one leg someone or something always seems to come along and have a go at your other leg? I’m a Buddhist so I have to say I did something to create that event under the law of karma. In short I caused it myself and I should be glad it’s happening now as that means I’ve got it out of the way: it’s hard to remember that at the time it’s happening though!
Category Archives: Buddhism
I think the second Buddhist meditation I was taught was one on finding my “I”. In essence one tries to identify just where one’s”I” is: is it in your body, if so whereabouts? If you lose your finger, a hand, an arm etc is the “I” still within your body, has it gone with the limb or has it ceased to be? This meditation came back to me very powerfully the day my hair came out in the shower and I subsequently found myself looking into the mirror at a head the shape of which I simply did not recognise! Suddenly me head had ceased to be mine! The face was sort of familiar, but the head shape very definitely wasn’t. Since then the same has happened with my body as the chemotherapy takes its toll of my body hair, fat and muscle. Similarly my brain and thought processes are often as ephemeral as gossamer. There are times the only thing which seems to continue to be me is my own sense of identity and yet even that seems to be up for grabs on many a day when the chemo claims payment for saving my life by draining all the energy from me or takes away all power for sustained (i.e. longer than one minute) thought. I may look as if I’m listening. I may sound as though I am listening. I may even have been listening to start with, but, that doesn’t mean I have the faintest idea of what is happening right now.
So, who am I? That sounds like a really important question, but I think a more important one is, ‘Who am I about to become?’ It occurs to me that the cancer/chemotherapy process can, and possibly usually is, seen as a destructive process, but, perhaps, one should think of it instead as a time of metamorphosis, a time when the old me will turn into the new me, rather like a caterpillar entering its cocoon and leaving it as a butterfly. The question is, what will this new-look me actually look like? That sounds such a simple question doesn’t it? The answer is a bit scary as I really don’t know. Oh, I know that I want to be compassionate, loving, honest, a good husband, father and friend, but then I wanted to be all of those things before I discovered I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. During the chemo treatment I’ve discovered my emotions have come to the fore on many occasions when I’m sure they previously wouldn’t. It’s not unusual for me to have tears in my eyes and on my cheeks several times a week. When I read the blogs of other cancer sufferers it’s not at all unusual for me to have tears streaming down my face as I realise how very fortunate I have been and just what strength many of you out there demonstrate as you get on with your life and plan for a future. To start with I found it difficult to deal with crying in this way. It’s not something I’ve done. I’m reasonably sure that I would like to keep the ability to empathise and to have my compassion touched so easily, but I’m not sure I want to have tears springing from my eyes unexpectedly in this way.
Any thoughts on the kind of butterfly I should try to be when I leave my cancer cocoon?
This is likely to be a controversial post so, if you have strong religious beliefs and/or are offended by comments about God then this is probably a good place to stop reading and to go and do something more interesting.
Since coming to the US I have been very surprised by the number of people who are religious. I don’t mean in the sense of just going to church so that the vicar will be able to speak about them personally when he conducts their funeral (as was the case with my late mother-in-law), but in the very real sense of believing they have some personal link with the divine creator and determiner of this world. Prior to coming to the US I only knew one person who was like that and he turned out to be a duplicitous liar willing to harm others for his own advancement – hope you recognise yourself Derek! (Just to avoid confusion this isn’t Derek who taught me so much about kayaking.) The people I’ve met so far in the US who profess a genuine faith in the Christian God don’t strike me in that vein at all, but, rather, as honest, sincere people of good will who try to do the right thing. Similarly in politics. I was with “the British people [who] have long appeared cautious, if not downright suspicious, of politicians who claim to be motivated by faith“. Yet, over here in the US, where it seems government and religion are, at least in theory, strictly separated that doesn’t seem to be the way of it all, with people like Mit Romney and Rick Santorum going to great lengths to flag up their Christian credentials in order to drum up the votes. What I am trying to say is that, here in the US, I have been surprised by the extent to which faith in the Christian God plays a part in both public and private life.
Reading the cancer blogs I’ve been surprised by the number of people who believe that praying to their God will remove the horrible affliction of cancer from them. Now, this, I just don’t understand at all. If your faith is such that you believe your personal connection with your God is such that He has a personal plan for you, then, presumably, you have to accept that His plan included you having cancer, and, that being the case, why would He change His mind. I mean, if God has such a detailed plan then it’s not really possible for an omniscient being to miss the little details, such as your family will miss you when you die in your twenties because He chose to give you cancer: or am I missing something? Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for anyone who can say, “the being who created me, and has power of life and death over me and all beings, has given me a disease which will kill me years before I would otherwise be expected to die, and yet I still trust him totally to remove this death sentence if I (and other people) ask him to do so”, despite the evidence that Christians die from this disease all the time. I have no wish to challenge the faith of such people, I just don’t understand it.
So, it’s fair enough to answer the question about my own belief and faith. I’m a Buddhist. Having begun attending Buddhist meditation about 16 or 17 years ago I found that the philosophy made sense to me. I was encouraged to question everything and only accept that on which I could satisfy myself. There are different Buddhist schools but my understanding is that the essence of Buddhism is the Law of Karma, of action and consequence. One explanation can be found here but there are many others. In Buddhist philosophy I have cancer not because some omnipotent being decided that I should be punished, but simply because, somewhere along the way I have given rise to a karmic action which is being resolved by my having cancer. What that action was I may or may not know. What the purpose of that action is I am not certain, but, I think I now value life more highly than I have ever done previously. I have always been aware that people die, that lives end and that much is left unfinished, but, maybe, I now see the personal value to life and how much my life means not only to me but to other people too. Maybe I realise now more than ever just how fortunate I am to have a human life and how important it is that I don’t waste it. Hopefully I will have the opportunity, thanks to the skills of many, many researchers down the years and to my medical team, to live a long and beneficial life.
I wrote earlier about the dull background pain coming from my lower back as the Neulasta coaxes my bones into producing the white blood cells my body needs if it is to have a fighting chance of coming unscathed through this period of all out attack on its immune systems. Well I no longer have a dull background pain – it hurts!!
The problem really is a very simple one but, naturally, it’s not all simple. It’s easy to take pain killers such as Tylenol to dull the pain but I also keep running a temperature anywhere between 98.8 and 100.4 today, and, of course, if I take Tylenol that will reduce my temperature but not address the underlying infection. What is the underlying infection? I don’t know but I do have a sore throat again. We were undecided about a trip the ER tonight but are both so exhausted that a trip to the ER is the last thing I want to impose on us if we have any other alternative, so, I took a couple of Tylenol which have dulled the pain to somewhere around racking and I keep having sweats and feeling clammy. My hope was the Tylenol would bring everything under control but I don’t think it is doing and at the moment I can’t get sufficiently comfortable to sleep, so, here I am.
There’s a famous Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Han who has written many books full of good ideas. The first of his books which I read started with the words, “If you are a poet you will see the sun and the moon in this page”. He went on to develop an argument for the creation of a new verb “to inter-be”, but he also developed a chain of causation about the page in the book. Without the sun and moon the tree which was turned into paper could not have grown. Without the men who felled the tree it could not have been turned into paper, without the parents, grandparents and great, great grandparents etc those children would not have been born and the tree would not have been felled. Similarly for the workers in the paper mill, the type-setters, the delivery drivers, the shop-keeper and so on. A whole chain consisting of many thousands of people over an uncountable number of years just so that I could stand in Waterstones that day and read those words. Amazing isn’t it! Well today I had similar thoughts about cancer treatments. I expect to live because some bright researcher came up with a solution. I’m receiving more than one drug so there are four times that number who worked on the drugs. Then there are the people who did the research on which these researchers relied in developing the solution and so on back I don’t know how many years. Then there are the parents, grandparents, great, great grandparents and so on. The animals on which I imagine the drugs were tested without being consulted and their families stretching back into the dawning of time. Sadly, there will also be patients who volunteered for trials which weren’t successful I imagine. Throw into the mix all those people who trained these researchers and their predecessors. The people who helped to fund the research and their families shouldn’t be forgotten either. Suddenly I don’t just have to thank my doctor and my family for the their support. Instead I need to thank untold millions of people and animals going back to the dawn of time for the life I will lead post-cancer.
Thank you to all those unknown beings for giving me life.
Yesterday I came across the blog oldermanyoungerman which touched me enormously, so much in fact that my wife asked why I was sniffing so much. Naturally, as a bluff, hale, no-nonsense Yorkshireman, I couldn’t admit to the tears which were about to gently roll down my cheeks, but the words which I’ve quoted below really got me thinking:
“Tomorrow I will lie on a table that will convey me, like an auto body part on a conveyor-belt in a factory, into a tube where I will be photographed and analysed. Not “I” but the body that I am, because the imaging will not record my terrifying thought that the cancer may still be there, nor will it pick up the sinking feeling of someday having to leave behind the man I love, nor the prayers I send up to St. Anthony and St. Michael–though I never pray that way on a normal day.
The pictures, when they are sent to the oncologist, will not show my dreams for the future, my plans for spending my days, for sitting in the sun reading, for playing with the dogs, for holding Mike tight to this too fragile heart.”
I found the images created by the blog to be as powerful as the images which may, by now, have been created by the PET scan. I’ve lain on the PET scan table where I felt more like a piece of luggage going through security at the airport and wondered, just as I’ve done at security, “Will they see something I’m unaware of? Something which appears to be a threat that I don’t know about?” Stupid thoughts at the airport where I’ve knowingly complied with all the restrictions but not on the PET scan table. Unlike the author of oldermanyoungerman I didn’t distinguish the “I” from “the body that I am”. I should have done that: I really should have done that. I accept the teachings of the Buddha and try to live according to the Dharma. In many ways, such as in this instance, I fail to achieve what I would like to achieve but there’s a teaching in there too, I think. Anyway, the reason I should have distinguished my “I” from “the body that I am” is because in Buddhism there is a meditation, which I’ve done many, many time, based on trying to find the “I”. I’ve tried to find something on-line which would explain it clearly but have been unable to do so, so, here goes. In essence the meditation involves considering your body as your I and asking yourself the question “If I lose a finger am I still my body, is my body still me and what is the missing finger? If I lose a second finger am I still my body?” and so on until the body has been thoroughly explored without at any time discovering just which part of your body contains your “I”, thus leading to the conclusion that “I” and “my body” are not the same thing at all. I’ve explained this extremely badly and can only apologise to Steve, and to Gandon “but my mum still calls me Malcolm”, for not being better able to express their valuable teachings, for which I was, and continue to be, very appreciative.
The part of oldermanyoungerman’s blog which perhaps got me thinking most was “The pictures, when they are sent to the oncologist, will not show my dreams for the future, my plans for spending my days, for sitting in the sun reading, for playing with the dogs, for holding Mike tight to this too fragile heart.” This, naturally, got me thinking of my own dreams. Of the future with my wife for which we’ve both waited for seven years while I tried to support my mum as her dementia worsened. (I think I actually heard my wife threaten to kill me before the cancer could if I was going to die and leave her behind after all this time spent waiting, but perhaps I misheard). Of my dreams of spending time with my daughters who have both given me so much support and so much to be proud of down the years and sharing, vicariously, in their future achievements. Of spending time with my grandchildren and delighting in their activities and their achievements. Of seeing my step-children go on to achieve success in their lives. Of discovering more of America – I’d love to do the Dave Gorman unchained trip across the USA – this really is possibly the funniest thing I have ever read (reading it on a trans-atlantic crossing my seat-buddy just had to know what the book was that was literally causing me to laugh out loud). Of walking once more on those fabulous Pennine Hills which have surrounded me for pretty much all my life and in which I’ve spent a fair bit of time walking, mountain biking and kayaking – if that makes me sound like Action Man you should immediately lose the image! I dreamed of sharing these pleasures with my grandkids and watching them take-off on their own. Those are my dreams! I was tempted for a moment to write “those were my dreams”, but I think I was correct the first time: they still are my dreams, however, oldermanyoungerman got me thinking how sad it must be for people who, for whatever reason, do not have dreams. Perhaps they have no dreams because they are so isolated, and this cancer thing can be very isolating even in the middle of a loving and supporting family! Perhaps they have no dreams because they know their life won’t extend that far. It was this last thought which really made me sad, and thoughtful, as I began to wonder what I would feel about losing my dreams if I were to be told, “Sorry, but you only have x months left to live”. That ‘x’ might, or might not, be enough time to go on a world tour and fit in everything I’ve ever wanted to do, but if you aren’t going to be able to remember the dream is it worth living it? In the strange and seemingly random manner in which my mind often seems to work (if work is indeed the correct verb!) my thoughts then jumped to Hamlet with his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy which includes the words “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come“, and this made me wonder just what dreams we might take with us into, and perhaps even through, death? It also made me think of a book I’ve recently re-read by Philip K Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”
I can no more answer Philip K Dick’s question than I can Hamlet asking what dreams may come in death, but I do know that my dreams are important to me, and I know that having them will help me to come through this with the help of the medical profession and my loved ones (though not necessarily in that order) and that I will go on to dream more dreams and live them too.