“Pain, Love, and Happiness”

On Labor Day, I drove down to the University of California at Santa Barbara with Nancy Aberle, Gail Teehan’s friend from the Feldenkrais for a six day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh.  We made the trip in about six and one-half hours, and enjoyed getting to know one another.  I imagine that she is a wonderful Feldenkrais teacher.

I was truly amazed at the turn out for the retreat, and how well organized it was for so many people.  I was placed in a dorm with an 85 year old gentleman, J. G. from Laguna Beach.  He was truly marvelous the whole six days.  It was wonderful to see a wealthy old Jew be so taken by Thay (a nickname for Thich Nhat Hanh).

Our meals were taken in silence in large tents set up by the dorm.  The food was strict vegetarian for the entire six days, and it was remarkably good.  I think I might have even gained three or four pounds!

The days began with walking meditation with Thay to and along the beach that runs at the edge of the campus.  With each step, there is one inhalation and one exhalation.  Naturally, I used “healthy…, free…” the whole time.  After about thirty minutes of walking, Thay would sit on a dune practicing sitting meditation for about twenty minutes, and we would all join him.  Then we would walk back to the central part of the retreat in the same manner as we walked to the beach.  On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I walked and sat with three feet of Thay during the period of walking meditation.

After breakfast, there was always a dharma talk – a talk about the teaching of Buddha and the practical application of them in a life of engaged Buddhism.  I was familiar with about ninety per cent of what he spoke about, but the look on his face, the excitement in his voice, and the presence of his being are well worth the time spent.

Following Thay’s talk, one of the monks or nuns led us in mindful movements, which I later learned are related to qi gong.  I was especially interested in them because of my workshop plans with Gail Teehan on “Mindfulness and ART in Healing.”

The schedule called for sitting meditation after the dharma talk, but it usually changed because of an extra long talk or other events.  When I sat, I noticed that I was not obsessing about next week’s diagnostic tests – a biopsy of a mass in my thigh, and a cystoscopy.  I found myself able to maintain a degree of mindfulness that kept me pretty much in tune with the present moment.

The afternoons were filled with special interest groups, dharma discussions, and supposedly a period of sitting meditation.  I attended a special interest group on death and dying led by Joan Halifax, Ph. D.  Joan is an ordained Zen teacher in the line of Thich Nhat Hanh, Seung Sahn, and Bernie Glassman Roshi.  She is the founder of Upaya and resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The first time we met, she spoke about being with the dying person without trying to fix them.  If they were open to teachings about mindfulness, we should speak with them, otherwise, we should just be there with our mindfulness engaged in “loving speech and deep listening.”  The next morning, I had a private interview with Joan.  I wanted to discuss my practice as it related to healing the cancer that was in my body.  I could tell that she was deeply moved by my story, and she had me tell it again to a small group of her special interest group in the afternoon.

Following the special interest groups, there were dharma discussions.  The first day, we had a tea ceremony, which was lovely.  The other days, we spoke about Thay’s dharma talk, the “Five Mindfulness Trainings“, and other topics which people brought up.  I found myself speaking a lot and sharing my story with this group also.  We seemed to get very close in a matter of hours.  I expect to continue my friendship with several of the people I met in my dharma discussion group.

The schedule called for sitting meditation after the dharma discussion groups.  One afternoon, the thirty-four monks and nuns that were traveling with Thay from Plum Village were invited to demonstrate some of the chanting they do in their practice.  The chanting was so wonderful.  It seemed as if they all had wonderful voices.  Thay, himself, introduced us to many of the monks and nuns.

On that same afternoon, Nancy came to visit me.  After the chanting, we took a walk on the beach and I talked her into staying for dinner.  She did not stay for the evening program.

The evening programs were varied and wonderful.  Monday night, Thay gave an introductory dharma talk.  Tuesday night, Sister Chan Khong offered “Five Earth Touchings”.  The five earth touchings consisted of acknowledging our physical ancestry, and our spiritual ancestry, along with honoring the ancestors who made freedom possible in our corner of the world.  The final two touchings were to people we love the most and people we love the least.  I was moved to tears by most of this experience.

I spoke with Sister Chan Khong the next day before lunch about the “Five Earth Touchings”.  I also told her about my illness and how I used mindfulness as a healing tool.  She shared with me two stories about people who also used mindfulness with their illnesses.  I then told her about “healthy cells grow all by themselves,” and she said, “With your wisdom and Thay’s teachings, you are going to be fine.”

On Wednesday evening, there was a presentation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings offered by several people in the Order of Interbeing.  I found this quite helpful, as I planed to take them along with the three refuges of the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (group of people in the practice of the dharma).  In other Buddhist traditions, the Five Mindfulness Trainings are known as the Five Precepts for lay people practicing Buddhist meditation.  I am going to try to get permission to put the text of Thay’s Five Mindfulness Trainings on this site, but for now, I’ll simply summarize the intent of each one.

  1. Respect for life – non-killing
  2. Respect for property – non-stealing
  3. Avoidance of sexual misconduct
  4. Respect for others – loving speech and deep listening – telling the truth
  5. Avoidance of intoxicants – drugs, alcohol, certain TV programs, etc.

I have been practicing most of these precepts already, and the formal presentation was quite interesting.  I took all five mindfulness trainings on Saturday morning when they were offered by Thay.

On Thursday evening, Sister Chan Khong presented the “Three Prostrations”.  These involved our relationship to time, space, and the whole stream of life.  Once again, I was deeply moved.

The last night consisted of questions from the sangha and answers from Thay.  He responded spontaneously to many wonderful questions.

The whole retreat reminded me of Thay’s description of the life of the Buddha in Old Path White Clouds. The walking meditations suggested Buddha’s travels in what is now India and Nepal.  He walked everywhere with a sangha of about 1500 bhikkhus and lay people.  The silent meals reminded me of how the bhikkhus would beg for food in the villages and towns and return to the forest to eat their meals together.


Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha
My Favorite Book

Thinking Things Over

February 24, 1997 – Thinking Things Over

I did not feel too well today. I had to go to Dr. Neuwirth’s office today for them to take a urine sample and an hour or so later, to Dr. Slattery’s office to have my teeth cleaned. While neither of them was terribly unpleasant, the combination was exhausting. At the dentist’s office, I experienced teeth cleaning with ultrasound. It seemed to go faster and easier. However, I chose “laughing gas” as an escape, after which I felt a bit nauseous. At home, I took a nap and started to feel better.

Having finished Love, Medicine & Miracles the night before, I started reading Cancer as a Turning Point. It became clear to me that there are several aspects to mind-body healing. First of all, there is the necessity of a positive outlook on life and your illness. Without these, there is no place to begin. One must therefore have something to look forward to and a desire to survive. According to Dr. Siegel, in his chapter on “Becoming Exceptional,” Dr. Al Siebert identifies the following indicators of self-motivated growth (and I quote):

  • Aimless playfulness for its own sake, like that of a happy child.
  • The ability to become so deeply absorbed in an activity that you lose track of time, external events, and all your worries, often whistling, humming or talking to yourself absentmindedly.
  • A child’s innocent curiosity.
  • An observant, nonjudgmental style.
  • Willingness to look foolish, make mistakes and laugh at yourself.
  • Open-minded acceptance of criticism about yourself.
  • An active imagination, daydreams, mental play, and conversations with yourself.

Dr. Siegel also identifies Al Siebert’s indications of a person reaching synergistic functioning (and I quote):

  • Empathy for other people, including opponents.
  • The ability to see patterns and relationships in organizations or equipment.
  • Recognition of subliminal perception or intuition as a valid source of information.
  • Good timing, especially when speaking or taking an original action.
  • The ability to see early clues about future developments and take appropriate action.
  • Cooperative nonconformity: refusing to be controlled by improper laws or social standards, yet choosing to abide by them most of the time for the sake of others — unless attempting to change them. In other words, and avoidance of empty gestures.
  • Being comfortable in complex, confusing situations that others find bewildering and frightening.
  • Keeping a positive outlook and confidence in adversity.
  • The ability to absorb new, unexpected, or unpleasant experiences and be changed by them.
  • A talent for serendipity: the ability to convert what others consider accidents or misfortunes to something useful.
  • The feeling of getting smarter and enjoying life more as you get older.

Although these are laudable goals, it is important for me to keep them in mind, but continue to make progress on my own. I am particularly interested in “keeping a positive outlook and confidence in adversity”, as this seems to be the most difficult area for me. “Cooperative nonconformity” also sounds good to me!

In line with these observations, Dr. LeShan talks about his psychotherapeutic methods, which focus the healing energies on directing our lives towards the needs of our individual structure and what provides us with the maximum excitement in life, rather than the traditional questions of, “What are the symptoms? What is the hidden lesion that is causing them? What can we do about the lesion, or failing that, how can we teach the person to compensate for it?”

So really, our job as patients is to find our own true nature and not let anyone cause us to deviate from our path. This means that we have to be blatantly honest with our feelings and forget being nice, at all costs. We have to take our lives in our own hands and find out where our bliss is. We need to follow our bliss all the way to complete health and remission.

This is no small task! It requires strength and courage to confront your deepest regrets and allow them to disappear. We have to get involved so totally in our lives that we forget our illness and allow our immune system to illuminate it on its own.

Cancer as a Turning Point

>>> Next…

Practice What You Preach!

February 22, 1997 – Practice What You Preach!

Today was an interesting day! I was feeling kind of down from hassling with the catheter. Taking a shower was a major production. I listened to tapes from Cancer as a Turning Point and read a lot in Love, Medicine and Miracles. But the turning point for me was when I decided to put everything down and create a fresh “mind story” to repair the wall of my bladder.

In this visualization, I envisioned a gap on the floor of my bladder where the cancer had been removed. Then I watched my cells construct first a bridge across the gap, and then I saw the gap fill in. The image was very real and I attribute this to an interesting episode of Nova in which a foot bridge was being constructed across a gorge through which a river ran in the country of the Inca’s somewhere in modern Peru, perhaps. The interesting thing about the Nova presentation was that the whole community turned out to build the bridge, and it was made entirely of grass ropes that everyone contributed to! So here I was, bridging the gap in my bladder with new cells constructed from grass roots of a concerted effort between all of my body resources.

When I came out of the mind story, my bag was full once again, and I felt one hundred percent better.

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Another TURBT

February 19, 1997 – Another TURBT

I went into the hospital early this morning to have another TURBT procedure done by Dr. Neuwirth. I was taken into the operating room about 75 minutes early, along with Dr. Rossman’s pre surgery tape! This time, I was not given the opportunity to have an epidural. Instead, I had a general anesthetic. Luckily, I did not experience any side effects from the anesthetic.

My recovery was a little uncomfortable this time, probably because of the catheter, but maybe from the anesthetic. I was rolled up into my room about noon time and immediately started drinking. I wanted to flush out the disease from my bladder as soon as possible. In between visitors, I spent the afternoon comfortably doing “mind stories“, listening to tapes by Dr. Keith Block and Dr. Carl Simonton, and reading Love, Medicine and Miracles. Later that evening, E. M. and D. F., two of my favorite tennis partners, came by. It was so nice to speak with them about how I use tennis as a spiritual practice and introduces them to visualization and guided imagery.

My wife is very clever! She talked Dr. Neuwirth into letting me spend the night in the hospital, which is not normally done after a TURBT. I was grateful for the overnight stay because I don’t have to deal with a catheter until Tuesday.

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