Fear of Dying vs Joy of Living

 

More and more, I will get well not out of the fear of dying but out of the joy of living.

More and More I can understand that I can heal myself and live or I can heal myself and die, my physical condition is not an indication of my wholeness. – Belleruth Naparstek

Lately, I have thought more about these affirmations from the  Health Journey Guided Imagery to Fight Cancer.  Today they express the same sentiment as when I got sober years ago.  When active in my alcohol addiction, I knew I was dying a little bit more every day.  When I finally checked into a detox unit, I did so not from a fear of dying, rather, I saw a glimmer of hope in being able to live.  The past three decades proved a phenomenal witness to that hope.

I have come to the same understanding today with my cancer diagnosis.  I discussed with Emma, my wife, that I do not fear death – in fact, if it gets to the point where I can no longer get out of bed to sit on the back porch, then I am no longer interested in treatments.  And today, I seem a long way from that point.  My back and neck are less painful than one year ago.  I am finishing a round of stomach infection antibiotics that restored my appetite and relieved a good bit of stomach upset.  An endoscopy procedure this past week recovered tissue that might prove useful in developing a genetic-based treatment for my cancer instead of the eventual chemotherapy.

So yes, life is good today.

I realize the goodness is the reason for some of my pushback from the seemingly endless array of medical tests.  I was in a funk the couple days before the recent endoscopy procedure.  When my blood was drawn a week ago, I had a visceral reaction of disgust at being poked at one more time.  But I know the process is necessary.

I seem a bit of a schizophrenic these days.  There is the medical end of things.  And then there is riding my bike to the medical appointments; my Wednesday morning School for Contemplative Living group where we practice centering prayer and are now reading The Book of Joy; my Friday morning book discussion of It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again with a group of dear friends; spending time with Emma at our shop and home; serving the underserved at the Open Table; and much more, including sitting on the back porch with my dog writing this post as a steady rain pours on my winter crops in the back yard.

So yes, it is a joy in living that has sustained me through years of recovery from my alcohol addiction and today is my hope of a life with Stage 4 cancer.

Thin Places in Recovery

My Chair for Practices, Casma, Peru

I am a creature of habit.  My current morning practices include journaling, writing a note to someone, recovery step work, meditation and composing a gratitude list.  For the past three weeks and through the first of August, I am in rural Peru.  Before leaving on the trip, I was certain to pack all of my necessary supplies, take into account the likely lack of internet service so that I could continue these practices.  All has gone well and I foresee no problem in maintaining my routine.

A couple of other recent practices I knew I could not continue during my trip.  Since moving to New Orleans last year, every Sunday morning I have come to enjoy walking to Rayne Memorial and participating in the service.  Obviously that was not going to happen while in Peru.

Another practice I picked up over the past several months is my Wednesday 11:30 AM meeting with my fellow pilgrims in the School for Contemplative Living.  At these gatherings we have a 20 minute centering prayer/meditation and discuss a spiritual text for an hour.  I committed to my friends that at 11:30 am each Wednesday, I would join them in spirit in a 20-minute centering prayer practice from Peru.  That has gone well.

I have come to understand that a good part of the experience of my Sunday and Wednesday morning practices has more to do with being in community and relationship with others than just the physical process of the practice.  That has been a meaningful insight for me in the same ways that I was never able to get sober just by reading the literature or thinking about my addiction, but by being in community and relationship with others.

This past Wednesday I sat down for my centering prayer in the courtyard of the house where we are staying here in Casma.   I had Russian Orthodox chant music playing in the back ground.  I am a novice at this sort of thing and generally tend to just try to focus on my breathing.  I often become rather restless about half-way through the 20-minute practice.

This past Wednesday, I quickly got into the rhythm of the breathing – the Spanish/Quechua voices from next door replacing the sounds of traffic at my regular practice space in the States.  Trying to empty myself as best I could and focus solely on my breathing, I was filled with a sense of well-being.  Knowing too that my fellow pilgrims in the US were practicing at exactly the same time came into my head and I emptied that as well.  The chanting caught my attention like never before for the sheer beauty of words of which I knew not the literal meaning but spoke to me fully.  A cool breeze flowed through the yard, as I continued to empty myself of all thought.  My eyes felt wet and I could feel tears moving down my face.  I entered a thin space.  And then I was back again.

I liken these thin spaces to pink cloud or mountain top experiences in recovery.  I have come not to expect them, but by putting one foot in front of the other, and following the next intuitive step on a path to true self, I can be ready to absorb the experience, the liminal space, when presented.  In the same way that the mountain top experiences of recovery can never be taken away, so to these liminal or thin spaces remain as well.  As certain as the “aha” moment when I realized that it was not that “I could not drink alcohol today” but that “I did not have to drink alcohol today” so too my Centering Prayer experience in the dusty courtyard in Casma, Peru, is now forever a part of me.  I am grateful for this gift.

Centering Prayer & People & Recovery

Today I was sitting on a bench by the pond/lake up at Audubon Park in New Orleans.  There seemed a whole bunch more ducks than usual, making a lot of racket.  I was reading the Divine Dance by Richard Rohr for a book study with the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  I read a portion equating the Christian concept of the Trinity with the Indian concept of sat, chit, ananda.  I was struck by this is something to think about for a bit.  And I thought of the practice we do before the book study of centering prayer, which in my rather unsophisticated level, I equate to meditation of some sort.

So I set my cell phone alarm for 20 minutes, sat upright, eyes closed, and started with the inhale/exhale with the Indian words, and that was not quite working, so I reverted to the words I had used before our book study inhale/exhale – be/long – and that worked for a couple of minutes, and then I just focused on the birds and the ducks and swishing of water, and got into the zone, as it were, focusing on the squawks and the water swirling, and I came into the middle of it all with the sound completely surrounding me and the folks on walking/biking path maybe 20 feet behind me blended into an indistinct murmur and the it was all ducks and water coming from all sides – and then the cell phone alarm went off after the 20 minutes and brought me back. Bang.  I opened my eyes and adjusted to the light.

Sitting next to me now on the bench was a young African-American woman – early 20s.  I don’t know when she sat down in the 20-minute period.  It seemed odd.  There were lots of other benches along the pond that were empty.  She had on a pink biker’s helmet with her bike pulled along the side of the bench.  My bike was in front of me.  She was fidgeting in her backpack, pulling out stuff, putting it back, then she got out her cellphone and started taking pictures, stretching out to the right and so I thought perhaps she sat down to photograph the ducks, but then I saw her reflection in the cell phone and realized she was taking a selfie and then thought perhaps she was stretching to such an angle to get the 64-year old white dude sitting prone on the bench into the frame, for some study in contrast.

I reached down and pulled the Divine Dance back out of my backpack.  I broke the conversational ice and said something like “lots of ducks here today” to which she replied “Yeah, I don’t know why, maybe because of the rain yesterday” to which I said “so do you come here to watch the ducks” to which she said “well I really just stopped here for a rest from biking.”  And then the conversation took off – so she is a Biology senior at Loyola on the other side of the Park.  She had an old clunky bike but a friend gave her the one she had now which was good and she wanted to ride more.  She was from the Virgin Islands and we talked about that and how she can vote in Presidential elections because she has lived as a student in New Orleans for the past 4 years.  I asked her questions about the logistics on voting and the status of the Virgin Islands as a U.S. Territory, and she replied as she could, and then on a couple of points she did not know, smiled and said that was a good question.  I raised the possibility that she could have a couple hundred of her friends from the Virgin Islands come to the New Orleans, register to vote, and she could then get elected to some local council position, which she thought about for a second, before she got my sense of humor.

She then introduced herself as Revel and I said my name is Robert.

We then went from my poor aptitude for natural sciences and how I had used my 5th grade “All About” books so that I could understand college genetics which led to discussing Young Adult Novels and I could not think of the title of a particular book I had really liked in the YA genre, but she offered that by just doing keyword searches in Google I could probably find it, and I did Made You Up by Francesca Zappia and she made a note in her cell phone because it sounded interesting.  We talked about what she was going to do when she graduated, how she enjoyed doing service work.  She then asked if I came here often to which I said I either come here or go to the Fly when I have our dog because she would not be able to deal with all the people at the Park, plus there are benches at the Fly to sit and watch the sunset on the Mississippi.  She then asked where the Fly was that she had heard about it, and it was on her bucket list to go to before she left New Orleans, and I explained it was only on the other side of Magazine St. between the River and the Zoo.  I thought to say, I could take you up there now as it is less than a 10-minute ride, but thought better of it, for some reason.

Our conversation went on about as long as the centering prayer had.  She then got back on her bike and headed toward Loyola, said she hoped to see me around the park again – and have a Happy New Year, to which I replied in kind.

What does this have to do with recovery?

  • I find that I really am interested in things outside of myself and enjoy engaging in conversations with others.  Everything from an extensive conversation with our nextdoor neighbor on her cat that disappeared for a couple of days and came back with a clipped ear and whether that was a sign some animal rights do-gooder had the quasi-feral cat spade as a clipped ear is supposed to be a sign of same – to a convo at the P.O. with the fellow there on why he put different size stamps for the same amount on two packages I brought in that weighed the same and he smiled and explained that to me and seemed to enjoy that I was interested in a humorous sort of “this guy has a lot of time on his hands to worry about that” and he smiled too.
  • I had finished up writing a report I had struggled with for quite a while earlier in the day and rewarded myself with the afternoon off and a bike ride – instead of a 6-pack of Dixie (do they even make that anymore?) which would have led to much more.
  • In my life today, I read not just to get data in my head, but to have good things to think about and mediate on.

All of which led to a fine Friday the 13th afternoon in New Orleans, for which I am grateful.