Denise Thornton: the Dharma of Cancer.

Via on Sep 2, 2008

Do not pursue the past.

Do not lose yourself in the future.

The past no longer is.

The future has not yet come.

Looking deeply at life as it is.

In the very here and now,
the meditation practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.

We must be diligent today—to wait until tomorrow…

…is too late.

Death comes unexpectedly!
How can we bargain with it?

The sage calls a person
who knows how to dwell in mindfulness night and day
‘One who knows the better way to live.’

~ Bhaddekaratta Sutra

editor’s note:  This article was written for elephant by a wonderful Buddhist friend, Denise Thornton. Denise Thornton is/was one of those people who everyone loves. She made everyone feel heard—she is/was fully in the moment, cheerful, and yet has a sense of modesty and humor that grounded her beauty in the reality of being human. 

Her cancer has now advanced to the point where she may not have time to see her article come off the presses…her good friend Fleet Maull had asked to show her the article, so we’re posting this now so she can see the article, and her friends may hear from her one last time. To any friends of Denise who wish to practice in support of her last days (you will not be able to see her), Fleet Maull says: “We have set up our dining room as a shrine room for people to come over and practice from 1pm to 7 pm each day. Please feel welcome to come over and practice.” Complete instructions have been copied in comments, at the bottom of this post. You can email Fleet at fmaull@gmail.com but please do so only if necessary. Please do not call.

~ ~ ~

The Reality of Death, by Denise Thornton.

I was a healthy 49 year-old. I loved my career, exercised regularly (even on the road), and ate well, mostly organic. There is no cancer in my family and both my grandmothers lived to be at least 95. I thought this was my path too. Life had other plans.

Sitting down now to write about my journey with terminal cancer, my heart wells up with intense feelings, both happy and sad. I reflect on the depth and poignancy of these past three years shared with family and friends, the pain and surrender of working with an intense illness and the opportunities to practice the Buddhadharma so completely. 

But what stands out most vividly….. ……is the joy, the appreciation I feel for every moment. I would never have chosen this journey. Nonetheless, I find myself filled with gratitude for the clarity and freedom embracing it has brought me. 

It’s heartbreaking, now, to see so clearly how we get in the way of our own happiness when death is just some distant possibility for us. We try so hard to maintain and defend ourselves, spending so much of our energy and missing so much of life trying to hide from the fact that death is real. Until we are fortunate enough to awaken to this truth, we tenaciously live in denial of the one thing that, if embraced, brings us real freedom. As I look around with new eyes, it seems to be a common experience most of us share.

I’m grateful for how 30 years of Buddhist practice and taking the teachings to heart prepared me for this cancer journey. Working with this illness and terminal diagnosis has been a daily, moment-to-moment practice of yielding and surrendering to “what is.” I’m no longer in control. It might seem like it at times, because I still have some choices. But despite the importance of the choices we make in life, our choices don’t ultimately put us in control of our lives. 

When I got sick, I said to myself, “I haven’t practiced with death and impermanence for 30 years so that I’d be surprised it could happen to me.” So, when I got a cancer diagnosis, I was ready. Now I have to say, it surprises me that people are so shocked when impermanence comes knocking at the door.

Above and below photos by Elaine Logan.

Between the love I received from my parents and the love and blessings I received from my teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, I learned to trust in myself and to have confidence in my basic goodness. This has served me well in dealing with cancer, the long treatment journey and the nearness of death. Why not trust in our basic goodness and learn to like and appreciate ourselves…what better friend could we have? When it’s our time to leave this world, this trust and confidence will be a great ally. 

If we can live even one moment completely and fully, right now, one complete moment of presence, openness and trust, we will have lived completely. Life is not about how long we live, or merely about what we “do”—it’s about how fully we live, how deeply we are touched by our world. 

If I would recommend anything, it would be, “Take death to heart.”

It’s not so morbid as we might think. For me, it’s been the path to joy, appreciation and gratitude. The Buddhist teachings ask us to think about our own death at least three times a day. We know death happens to others. We see it all around us, but we still don’t think it will happen to us, somehow, at least not now.

As we contemplate our own death, we won’t be so frightened by it. Normally, we continually guard our sense of permanence, some continuity of “me.” Without realizing, we expend energy warding off the reality of change—of death. We live in fear, treating impermanence as a continual threat—be it old age, sickness, death, or just a moment of empty space or boredom. 

Contemplating death brings clarity—how to proceed in life, what’s important and what’s not. Mostly we get caught up in our expectations of life and the doing of things…projects and more projects. What feels more important to me these last few years is just being. We’re here, we’re alive and we have this precious opportunity to truly touch and be touched by others; to communicate our love, joy, pain, sadness and fears; to share our hearts and humanity. What feels really important to me at this point is not to get more, but to give back, to give something to life and to help others if we can.

I invite you to start practicing with impermanence. Take the reality of death to heart. Let it pierce you. If you can open and surrender to your own mortality and vulnerability, you will discover a fundamental, unconditional source of strength and confidence. 

The realization of death is a real blessing. It brings joy, freedom, genuine appreciation and the ability to fully live our lives, right here and now. Knowing my time is limited, I’m grateful just to appreciate the life I’ve lived, the teachers I’ve studied with and the love I’ve been given and received.

Denise Thornton, M.A. Gerontology, from Naropa University, Boulder, was diagnosed in 2005 with end stage liver disease at the age of 49. She spent 15  years working in Long Term Care as Regional Marketing Director. A student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche since 1976, Denise teaches Buddhist and Shambhala programs. She has a 23 year old son, James.

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21 Responses to “Denise Thornton: the Dharma of Cancer.”

  1. elephant journal admin says:

    Hi everyone,
    Well, after sleeping and/or possibly being awake but unresponsive all day, Denise kind of rallied a little around 6 pm this evening. She open her eyes and saw and acknowedged the group of 6 or 7 family and close friends in our bedroom sitting with her at that moment. So we all did the Avalokitesvara Sadhana and then the evening liturgy together with Denise clearly present and following along silently. Then we hung out a while longer sitting with Denise, mostly meditating, talking a little, a very sweet time. She whispered a few things here and there. After folks left, I read for her the pith practice instructions for dying again, which she already knows by heart, and she was clearly listening and following with appreciation.
    Good night,
    Fleet

    From: Fleet Maull [mailto:fmaull@gmail.com]
    Sent: Monday, September 01, 2008 4:16 PM
    Subject: Denise Thornton Update

    Dear Shambhala Sangha,
    Things have shifted further today for Denise. She is significantly less responsive today than the past 3 or 4 days. She had a little juice and melon this morning after waking, but has been resting peacefully and sleeping ever since. The hospice nurse visited this morning and assessed that Denise’s passing would like occur this week. Each new shift like this brings another wave of grief for our family, Donna, James, Denise’s parents, Susan and Ched who have been here for 5 or 6 days now, and me. Our home is basically a practice center at this point and we are all on retreat, practicing continually with Denise. Practice is holding my mind amidst the waves for grief. Denise’s has been so generous with her practice mind that it has been possible for me and others to join her where she is clearly resting, the inseparability of mind and guru, beyond meeting and parting.

    Today Acharaya’s Judith Simmer-Brown and Dale Asrael visited and we did the Sadhana of Mahamudra and Dharma Sagara practices together in the bedroom with Denise. Denise has said many times that one of the blessings of her protracted illness is that she was able to fully complete her life and her friendships, and that she feels complete with everyone in her life. So there is really no need for last minute good byes, but please do keep Denise in your practice, holding Denise and her root guru, Trungpa Rinpoche, and our lineage inseparably in our hearts and minds. Her core practices are tonglen, Werma Sadhana, Dharma Sagara and the Avalokitesvara Sadhana, which Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche wrote inspired by Denise’s wholehearted embracing of her journey as the blessings of her guru.

    We are all so blessed by our incredible teachers, lineage, the Dharma and our wonderful Shambhala sangha. I know Denise would want us all to appreciate these Three Treasures as much as possible with or warrior’s hearts of genuine sadness and joy as she has done without restraint or holding back in any way.

    Love and blessings,

    Fleet, Donna and James

  2. elephant journal admin says:

    Dear Shambhala Sangha,
    We just sent out a new update on Denise’s journey to sangha-announce. We would like to invite any sangha who are friends of Denise, Donna, James or me or who feel a particular connection with Denise to come and practice in our home. We have set up our dining room as a shrine room and many of you have been practicing here daily. Only family and Denise’s very close circle of sangha caregivers who have been in her care circle these past three years are practicing in our bedroom with Denise. It is ever more important at this time to keep Denise’s immediate environment in our bedroom very stable. These are Denise’s wishes. So please do not ask to enter the bedroom. Denise is markedly less responsive today and her death is clearly approaching in a matter of a few days.

    Please do come by an practice with Denise and all of us, for now, any time between 11 am and 10 pm. Please do not block the driveway. Please leave your shoes outside and simply enter without knocking unless you find the door locked. In that case do ring the bell. The shrine room is on the first floor, second room on the right as you enter our home. Please bring a water bottle and whatever you need for your practice. We have zabutons, gomdens and zafus. The practices we are doing include samatha-vipashayana, Werma Sadhana, Sadhana of Mahamudra, and the Avalokiteshvara Sadhana, which Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche wrote inspired by Denise’s devotion. We have copies of the Avalokitesvara Sadhana in our shrine room. If any of you would like to practice the Vajrayogini, Chakrasamvara, or Vajrakilaya sadhanas that would be wonderful, and you can do so in our second floor shrine room, where there are three puja tables with cushions.

    Please help us maintain a shrine room/post meditation hall decorum in our home, and reserve the family room-kitchen area primarily for the family and caregivers to use. We will of course continue practicing here in our home after Denise’s physical death until her body is taken to the Boulder Shambhala Meditation Center, where the Sukhavati service will be held. Denise’s cremation will be at Shambhala Mountain Center the day following the Sukhavti.

    Our home is two blocks east of 75th street on Clover Basin Drive (5618 Clover Basin Drive) just east of Turin and the north side of the street. From Boulder, take the diagonal to Niwot Rd. Go left on Niwot Rd. 1/4 mile west to the stop sign at 73rd st. Turn right on 73rd and go about 2.5 miles north. 73rd goes through an “S” turn and becomes 75th. Continue down the hill until you see Clover Basin Drive on your right.

    Please do not call. Just come on over, and please feel most welcome in our home.

    Many thanks to all of you who have been practicing with Denise and all of us these days. It is a joy to practice with Denise and all of you.

    Much love,

    Fleet Maull
    5618 Clover Basin Drive
    Longmont, CO 80503
    Email: fleetmaull@comcast.net

  3. Sarah Gurganus says:

    Thanks for sharing this–I’ve been practicing way down here in Alabama for Denise and Fleet.
    Sarah

  4. Amelie Bracher says:

    Thank you so much for posting – while on retreat, I’ll celebrate Denise’s splendid aliveness in my practice. Sending much love to Fleet, James, Donna and all of you, Amelie

  5. Gayle Van GIls says:

    Thank you, Waylon for posting this essay.
    Denise’s example over the last three years continues to be piercing and on the dot. I know that I have not faced my mortality as Denise so wisely advises, and I am in immense gratitude to her for this teaching. Denise, I love you now and always.

  6. Jeremy Ragland says:

    To date, Denise is my favorite Shambhala teacher. Though the words of her teachings were profound, what she said mattered little to me as compared to her immense presence – sweetness, honesty, innocence, clarity, and fearlessness, come to mind.

    Her presence gave me tears of joy in those moments that I allowed myself to let go of my barriers to the extent that I could be … within the space that she so compassionately created and held for others. These are the moments in which I feel most alive, and grateful to be here.

    You, Denise, more than any teacher I’ve ever known, reminded me, in those moments, of what it means to live fully – as you wrote,

    “We’re here, we’re alive and we have this precious opportunity to truly touch and be touched by others; to communicate our love, joy, pain, sadness and fears; to share our hearts and humanity. What feels really important to me at this point is not to get more, but to give back, to give something to life and to help others if we can.”

    Thank you for truly inspiring this message with the way that you lived.

    I, too, love you now and always.

  7. Nichole Nurenberg-Miller says:

    Thank you for sharing this online. I have just arrived in Leh this morning; I read this news in my hotel room in the light of the evening sun. I offer my practice and prayers up for Denise, for Fleet, for the family and for the caregivers. My kindest sentiments,

  8. elephant journal admin says:

    Dear Noble Sangha,
    Denise passed beautifully today at about 3:30 pm Mountain time. We were with her and followed all the instructions in supporting her. She died like the buddha in the lion pose. Denise passed gently, clearly consciously letting go in some way. Her circulation was still strong. The hospice nurse had seen her an hour earlier remarking on how strong her heart and circulation was and how normal her pulse was. I was up all night guiding Denise. No doubt she is resting in the nature, the Dharmakaya, inseparable from her root guru, Trungpa Rinpoche. It is especially important for all of her family, friends and sangha to have confidence in this at this time.
    Love and blessing to you all. Please hold Denise and Trungpa Rinpoche inseparably in your hearts. We are all practicing her with Denise. Denise’s sukhavati will be at the Boulder Shambhala Center Saturday evening, and her cremation at SMC on Sunday.
    Love,
    Fleet

    Denise Thornton Update Sept 1st

    Dear Friends,
    Things have shifted further today for Denise. She is significantly less responsive today than the past 3 or 4 days. She had a little juice and melon this morning after waking, but has been resting peacefully and sleeping ever since. The hospice nurse visited this morning and assessed that Denise’s passing would like occur this week. Each new shift like this brings another wave of grief for our family, Donna, James, Denise’s parents, Susan and Ched who have been here for 5 or 6 days now, and me. Our home is basically a practice center at this point and we are all on retreat, practicing continually with Denise. Practice is holding my mind amidst the waves for grief. Denise’s has been so generous with her practice mind that it has been possible for me and others to join her where she is clearly resting, the inseparability of mind and guru, beyond meeting and parting. Denise has magnetized a wonderful pratice mandala here in our home with a steady stream of sangha friends coming over to practice in the shrine room we have set up in our dining room, while her family and closest circle of sangha caregivers and friends practice with her in our bedroom.

    Today Acharaya’s Judith Simmer-Brown and Dale Asrael visited and we did the Sadhana of Mahamudra and Dharma Sagara practices together in the bedroom with Denise. Denise has said many times that one of the blessings of her protracted illness is that she was able to fully complete her life and her friendships, and that she feels complete with everyone in her life. So there is really no need for last minute good byes, but please do keep Denise in your practice, holding Denise together with her root guru, the Vidyadhara Trungpa Rinpoche, and all her lineage teachers, buddhas and bodhisattvas inseparably in our hearts and minds. Her core practices are tonglen (exchanging self for other), Werma Sadhana (the Shambhala sadhana), Dharma Sagara (Trungpa Rinpoche guru yoga) and the Avalokitesvara Sadhana, which Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche wrote inspired by Denise’s wholehearted embracing of her journey as the blessings of her guru.

    We are all so blessed by our incredible teachers, lineage, the Dharma and our wonderful Shambhala sangha. I know Denise would want us all to appreciate these Three Treasures as much as possible with or warrior’s hearts of genuine sadness and joy as she has done without restraint or holding back in any way.

    Love and blessings,

    Fleet, Donna and James

    Hi Everyone,
    Denise is gracefully and beautifully moving through her final passage. She has been bedridden for two days now. We put a catheter in, because it was to difficult for her to get in and out of bed any more. Today we switched to an IV for her pain medication. Denise just rests peacefully, no agitation, no apparent fear at all. When Denise is a little more awake at moments she recognizes us and responds with sweetness, love and appreciation. Sometimes, I lean over to kiss her on the forehead, not wanting to be too invasive, but she puckers up her lips making it clear she wants a kiss. She loves kisses. Whenever we tell her we love her, which is all the time, she almost always whispers I love you too.

    Just a little while ago, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche called Denise from Nova Scotia. They talked for about 10 or 15 minutes, with Rinpoche expressing his love and appreciation to Denise, commending her for teaching us all how to work with illness and dying, with letting go, with just profound practice, courage and generosity. Rinpoche gave Denise instructions on working with her mind during her dying process and beyond. Denise nodded with understanding throughout their conversation and responded with whispered voice at times. At the end, she said with a very clear voice, “I love you Rinpoche.” It was all wonderful and amazing and I’m hardly doing it justice here.

    We have our home set up as a practice mandala. Denise’s family and very closest sangha caregivers practice in her bedroom with her and other close sangha practice in the shrine room we have set up in our dining room. People are doing the particular sadhana practices that have been Denise’s core practices these past few years, as well as basic sitting or mahamudra practice and tonglen.

    I feel more settled today than I have for the past five days. I’ve been going through a lot agony, finding it hard to breathe at times. The intense practice we have all been doing and somehow connecting with Denise at the ultimate nature level through practice seems to have stabilized me somewhat. Who knows what the next wave will be though. The practice of Not Knowing is a blessing, necessity and unavoidable reality at the point.

    We are all incredibly grateful for the blessings of our teachers, the Dharma, the Sangha and good friends. And most of all we are all incredibly grateful for Denise and the incredible love, blessings, teaching, humor and grace she has shared with us.

    Love you all very much,

    Fleet

  9. elephant journal admin says:

    “Joyful to have such a human birth
    Difficult to find, free and well-favored,
    But death is real,
    Comes without warning,
    This body will be a corpse.. .”
    —Chogyam Trungpa
    Death is real and fickle. She had great support and maintained the view. It was a good death. Practicing like that is also the best way to live. We cannot take anything or anyone for granted. It also helps one be kind to everyone, even the prickly folks who annoy us. They are here today, maybe not tomorrow. Anything we say could be the last words in an exchange. And the more we surrender to egolesness, the more we cannot be either pricked or annoyed. Love you, Mom.

  10. Leslie Hays says:

    Thank you for publishing this poignant article, Waylon. Thank you James, Fleet, Donna, and Don for sharing this journey with us. Thank you Trungpa Rinpoche for introducing us all to Denise’s bravery, confidence, and big hearted love. I feel truly blessed to have known such a shining example of basic goodness. She gave us a great gift by showing us all how to take the teachings to heart. It was impossible to be with Denise and not feel bathed in love . . . She will always be an inspiration to me.

  11. Suzanne Lawson says:

    Dear Fleet,

    It is with profound gratitude that I thank you for sharing this journey with us. I may be relatively far away now, but the sangha remains very close to my heart and I feel the loss of Denise with poignance and appreciation for her, for James, and for you. Her heart and courage are an inspiration to us all.

    Suzanne

  12. Hello,

    Please accept my sympathy for your loss. I did not know Denise but when I heard through a NW Coalition contact that she wrote an article on the topic of death, I was compelled to find it.

    What a treasure her writing is and will be to anyone who is about to face the ultimate fight for life. To those who encouraged her to write, thank you. Her words are a gift without boundary.

    Sincerely,

    Nanette

  13. Kerry Schwartz says:

    Ki Ki So So Dharma sister! Your powerful journey, supported by Fleet, your amazing family and sangha, has pierced us all. Thank you for your beautiful life example and for this gift.

  14. [...] Via Corey Kohn, my favorite photographer (and human being) like, ever. Subscribe to her weekly photo blog! The below post references American Buddhist Denise Thornton, who died of cancer recently and wrote about the experience of cancer for elephant. [...]

  15. Kerrie K-Weinberg says:

    Donna, I just finished the beautiful words that Denise has left for all of us. Even though I did not know her I really feel that I know her a little more now.Much love to all of you, Kerrie, Ben and Sam.

  16. [...] a few months after our friend Denise passed away, I just heard two nights ago standing out on Pearl Street in the dark that Susan [...]

  17. With gratitude and appreciation to Ms. Thornton and also to her friends that share this personal information, I say thank you. I am inspired by her thoughts and pursuit of clarity. What each of us share, in this moment is ourselves, if we dare to be in a place of love. I too have been diagnosed with terminal cancer and find it difficult to comprehend the ability to foresee the future or life expectancy of another. What I do know is that I have this moment and in this moment I have shared in her life, Ms. Thornton, a woman that I have not had the pleasure to meet on this earth has comforted me and I am at peace. With Love, Suzette

  18. [...] experiences often define people most clearly. Lance Armstrong frequently comments that “cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Taken literally, this sounds a little crazy, [...]

  19. [...] Denise Thornton: the Dharma of Cancer. | elephant journalSep 2, 2008 … Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it. [...]

  20. Florentino Yaish says:

    I have recently started a web site, the info you offer on this site has helped me greatly. Thanks for all of your time & work. “The inner fire is the most important thing mankind possesses.” by Edith Sodergran.

  21. Srszee says:

    Wow–I thought it would be fun to reconnect with some people I met in college. I met Denise at Miami University, Oxford, OH. She was so much fun and interesting to be around. She graduated a year ahead of me and we lost touch. I was shocked to stumble upon this page and learn of her illness and passing. Blessings to you Denise, wherever you may be, and to your family.

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