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February 2, 2019

This is How Cancer Taught me to Heal my Emotional Wounds

Author’s Note: this is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Not Buddhism. Not Psychology. 


It was in post-graduate school, working on my dissertation, and developing a good deal of the concepts I use today – in theory anyway – that l finally learnt how to stop, and relax a little.

We go so hard, these days. We are trying to get somewhere, to find something with lasting joy. At least I was. Two years of undergraduate school, three years of graduate, and then in my second year of doctoral studies, reading ever-more psychology articles and journals, trying to figure out what Buddhist psychology meant to me, or even at all – how it could be useful in practice – was when I was diagnosed with cancer.

In a state of shock, I crazily tried to continue my studies. I knew that I would soon be undergoing chemotherapy. And still, I tried to keep going, writing my dissertation, working a fulltime job and training to be a psychoanalyst, I was hanging on by little more than a thread.

One of my favourite therapeutic modalities is what some call Existential Therapy. Within, there are a few principles (or concerns) core to the philosophy. One of those is an underlying anxiety of death. It is believed that we are all deathly frightened of our own eventual demise, while we create and take part in all sorts of avenues to forget that we will, in fact, die. My personal confrontation with this anxiety came to a head during this time.

Sure, I had actually been quite afraid of my own death for some time, and took numerous steps in an effort to change my relationship to this inevitable outcome (see my chapter on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy). The truth was, up until now, the thought of my own death was still merely that. A thought. It was yet to be real for me. This diagnosis changed all of that.

I remember the first night, just after receiving the news, in the form of a message left on my voicemail, from my doctor. I proceeded to get onto my motorbike (I was still very new to riding at the time).

For the first time, I left my helmet and jacket behind. I remember speeding down a quiet side street in my neighborhood, far too fast. I checked not for oncoming traffic at intersections, and I sped through stop signs and red lights alike. I told myself it mattered not and, with any luck, if something happened to me on this ride, well, then I would not have to deal with what would soon come.

A good friend – a fellow who had spent the better part of his life in finance before finding Buddhism – invited me up to his home in the mountains.

Get some fresh air, I thought; some peace – or space – I was having trouble finding. It was there, in the trees and the mountains of this little town above where I lived at the time, cutting firewood to stay warm and drinking too much sake at night, sharing with each other the way only those men who have let themselves begin to feel their wounds seem able to, that I realised I knew what I needed.

I knew all along, of course. I only kept myself back out of a fear that I needed to be somewhere in my life, and that I was not yet there. Finally, that space came to me; and my constriction (I’ll discuss spaciousness and constriction later, I should think) subsided. Or, at the very least, it no longer mattered so much.

I needed to take a break. I needed to let myself heal; both my cancer and my being (if you can separate the two; I am still not so sure).

I dropped out of university. On a whim, I flew to Vietnam, bought an old motorbike, and spent the next month riding up through the country. I had traveled fairly extensively in my youth, but it had been years since I took any time just for myself.

This was where my concepts of what I call Buddhist psychology really began to feel real; to feel legitimate and useful.

In some schools of psychology, we speak of trans-generational trauma, or those traumas we carry with us from our family’s past. So you might see how it was that I came to psychology myself. Of Buddhism, I was raised in the crazy-wisdom, vajrayana, or tantric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Of psychology, I would grow up – a naked baby playing around my mother’s studio – as she facilitated Authentic Movement circles.

By the time my parents separated, when I was still very young, my father would have become something of a guru himself – maybe trying to emulate his original crazy teacher; certainly, always searching for a peace from the atrocities he experienced in his youth. He would take his own life when I was ten.

It is a funny thing, trauma. We all have it, whether we are cognizant of it or not. Perhaps those of us who feel we experience emotions more strongly than others – perhaps more sensitively or acutely – perhaps we are just less able to keep ourselves from feeling those things which, in a way, built us into the people we are today. Certainly, looking at our unconscious material is rarely a joyful endeavor, and yet I find it to truly form such a beautiful uniqueness in each one of us.

This experience with cancer brought with it two very important lessons. The first came early on. I realised, in the midst of everything happening, that I was holding on to a hope of what life would look like after cancer.

My hope was – if I were to successfully journey through this process and come out the other side victorious – that it would somehow change the relationship I had had up until now with my emotional states, and with my past. To be specific, I clung to the hope that this new hardship would somehow lead me to a more enlightened state (I even joked with my surgeon, just before he put me under, about the possibility of having a near-death experience. Something to the effect of, “I am not saying to intentionally let me die, doc. But if I were to, and you could bring me back… Well I am not not saying to…”).

This realisation of mine was, on one hand, simply a coping strategy to help me get through it all. Yet, too, it was truly eye-opening for me to see just how much I wanted to be rid of all the worry, distress, sadness, and pain I had felt for as long as I could remember. I was frightened that, if such a thing as this could not do it, I knew not how I could ever possibly get beyond my own suffering.

I was, at the end of the day, still looking for a salve to heal all of my old wounds. I looked for it through psychotherapy, spiritual practices, medicine-journeys, even through the roundabout avenues of my own actual death.

Although I had been aware of this searching for something to fix me for a good number of years, I had still not really come to feel it in my being.

We like to discuss to no end how important awareness of a thing is, while we often content ourselves with just that. Awareness is, indeed, the first step – in both psychotherapy and spirituality – toward creating deep, impactful change, while I like to think that, in our journey toward understanding, feeling comes next (although for some, feeling may in fact come first, with awareness of the thing the next stop on the path. It may just be for me, always the analyst, that thinking seems always to come before feeling).

So you see, what this journey with cancer taught me was that I – subtly, in some ways implicitly, perhaps – still wanted there to be an elixir for my woes. I had only gotten better at hiding this knowledge from myself.

The second lesson, I only began to realise once I had finally finished my treatments.

I wanted to get right back on the proverbial horse. In fact, what I needed was to continue healing, resting, and relaxing into this new place I had found myself. From the initial diagnosis, to the last chemotherapy treatment I would receive, I had gone through a kind of trauma; a very slow sort of dying and being reborn. I needed to give myself the space to process it all, but above all else, I needed to grieve (this time for myself).  

This would take some time. Months. Hating that I had not yet figured it all out. Yet all I could do was just to come back. Come back to my experience. To myself. Over and over again. For a long time, I felt like something of a baby. Caught in the darkness. And then, something shiny! I would grasp for it. It would make everything better, I knew. But then it was gone. Or perhaps I had finally gotten it, only to find it did not carry with it all of the hopes and dreams I had so been longing for. And again I was in the darkness. Though perhaps my eyes had adjusted just a touch.

This is, I think, how the journey goes. We climb. We find shelter. Maybe, just maybe, we continue on. Yet somehow, it is only when we let go of what we hope to find on the other side, that we find we have reached the top (forgive me, dear reader. They say metaphor is a powerful tool both in the telling of a story, and in psychotherapy alike). I should like only to content myself with the conveyance of a more simple conclusion. Which is to say, I found not what I so longed after in spirituality, or in psychology. Nor did I find it in surpassing hardship, or in the coming to converse with my own death.

I found it only when I stopped my feverish search. When I began to loosen the grip that was my clinging to something outside of myself; something that might save me. I found it when I started to grieve for this little child of mine.          



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