Last month I pointed out how the theme of renewal serves as turn in my forthcoming chapbook, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts. Zen practice is another strand moving through this memoir-in-verse. I did not attempt to write a dharma book. In fact, I’d very much prefer the genre label of Breast Cancerto be poetry or memoir-in-verse, if there must be one at all. However, I do have a Zen practice, such that it is, and I can’t help it when Zen themes creep into my work.
During the course of breast cancer treatment, I held on to a number of lifebuoy rings: yoga, movies, friendship, short walks, gardening, and most of all, the couch. As I’ve studied Zen for the last twenty years—ten with the late Charlotte Joko Beck—I also continued to make an attempt to practice with what was happening to me. Life as it is.Joko encouraged a daily sitting practice for most of her students. She also urged them to learn from ordinary life—the worldly stuff they encountered as they went about their days. While she is not named in the book, her influence on the speaking agent is present. She wanted her students to be with their life as they were working or driving or spending time with loved ones. If she’d been alive in 2016, I’m guessing she would have coached me to be the drama of breast cancer.
During my time with Joko, I learned to how stay with difficult mind states, to turn into them, watch them move around, play out—hurt even. I learned how to rest in the middle of pain or anger or fear. In time, I found even the toughest emotions and sensations do not hold firm. I would ask questions like: What is pain (physical or emotional)? What is anger? What is fear? In watching what my own mind was doing, I started to see how nothing is fixed, including what I felt. I also began to notice how being attached to any particular sensation, emotion, or drama held me back, tying up my life. Of course, this all sounds well and good, but it is far from easy. I can become attached to little scenes or big ones (little hurts or big ones)—like everybody else.
I did not sit every day as I moved through eight months of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, though I did pull out my meditation bench on occasion. When I could muster the effort, I worked on being present with my daily life. This proved to be a lot more difficult within a cloud of “chemical hum.” Yet even during chemotherapy, there was a place for Zen practice. My nurse practitioner actually encouraged me to structure my days during this difficult time. The couch was allowed and expected, but she also wanted me walking and coming up with an abbreviated schedule. Anything that reduced stress was encouraged. My nurse practitioner liked the idea that I had a meditation practice. As for being with life as it is, I found I was better able to be present as I underwent radiation therapy.
Now, when I look back on those months, I can still enter the darker emotions I experienced—the crazy fear that came over me when I first learned I had a suspicious mass, the days that called for holding on. Yet I do not feel I lost my life during that year. In some ways I moved more deeply into it, and the simple pleasures came to mean more. I can recall the fullness of them—many of my cancer memories remain illuminated. Some of these moments in are depicted in this poem.