“At each intersection in Indra’s Net is a light-reflecting jewel…and each jewel contains another Net, ad infinitum. The jewel at each intersection exists only as a reflection of all the others and hence it has no self-nature. Yet it also exists as a separate entity to sustain the others. Each and all exist in their mutuality.” —Ken Jones, The Social Face of Buddhism, p.137
This past winter the diagnosis that I had breast cancer catapulted me out of a dark time in which I had often felt closed and disconnected. Panicked by the possibility of early death, of leaving behind a motherless five-year-old, I am challenged to heal. Each day now I nap on the grass beneath the feathery boughs of our dawn redwood, my daughter’s climbing tree. Recovering from surgery and radiation, I sink gratefully into a bed of clover and dandelions. Dozing on and off I scribble in my journal and reflect back over these past months.
As I struggled over my first treatment decision—whether to get a mastectomy (have the breast removed) or a lumpectomy (excise the tumor), I heard from deep inside myself a strict and bold voice. It might have been the voice of a Theravadan nun, I imagined, perhaps from the time of the Buddha. Simple and direct in her saffron robe, she spoke, “Who needs hair? Who needs breasts?” This nun has influenced my decisions over the years to keep my grey hair undyed, my clothes and possessions simple. Here the verdict was absolute: On some vast and fundamental scale, it doesn’t matter whether I have two breasts or one, or none, whether, in fact, I live in this earthly form or not.
As I lie here well over a month since I completed radiation, I still experience exhaustion, an ache as if inside my bones. I don’t know how much I am weakened by the toxicity of the radiation, how much I am depleted by anxiety or even the cancer itself which we all are hoping to be gone. Again and again I keep wondering: What angle of mind should I take to heal? Shouldn’t I visualize myself getting well, imprint my immune system with vitality, my whole body with strength? Yet, I wonder, in such a practice, is there a danger of denial? Am I fully acknowledging the reality of change? Isn’t my practice now to learn to embrace life with all its thistles and stink?
As my thoughts ricocheted back and forth over this decision—breast or no breast—I felt as if I were wrestling with the whole question of what it meant to be embodied. I kept asking myself: What is this body? If I am not my body, can’t I simply let the body go and take to the mind as refuge? A memory surfaced of an image I’d worked with on a three-month meditation retreat many years before. As I did the walking meditation, I would imagine my body as dead meat, a moving corpse. Then I would ever so subtly begin to distinguish the consciousness, a separate strand, interwoven, yet somehow not the body. I would experience this sometimes in an eerie way, an ongoing process of body with a parallel process of mind. But after learning of the cancer, in thrashing out a way to view my body, I found that I was repelled by this image.
Often, hours before I begin my nap in the grass, I find relief from tangled thoughts by opening the back door to the garden. From our landing on the second floor, I can see the yards of our neighbors. Opening the door I find the sky and the sunshine and our climbing tree. I can see Amy, in back, or John, in the house to our right, putting out bowls for the neighborhood cats and I imagine Steve, down the block, putting out his bowls. I wave and Amy waves back. Our dog Cleo dashes out to chase the cats nimbly parading on the fence before they leap down on the other side towards their food. I feel somehow expanded, more permeable.
A few days before the appointed surgery, still undecided as to whether I would keep the breast, I fled to the garden. I spent a few feverish hours digging narcissus and anemone bulbs into the hard February soil. As I dug my fingers into the ground, I felt less afraid. After this planting, I began to hear in myself a gentler voice, an invitation to tend the earth in its various forms, to help bring out its loveliness. Is gardening then any different, I asked myself, from honoring my body? It was then that I told the surgeon to save the breast unless he saw signs that the cancer was spreading. But to honor this physical body felt scary. Instead of simply telling the surgeons to cut the breast out of my awareness, I wanted to be present with what I might lose. And so I remembered. I conjured up the delicate nipples of adolescence like tender pink stars, the new breasts, velvet to my touch under my nightie, the erotic breasts caressed by my husband Patrick and past lovers over these many years, the milk-filled mother’s breasts which suckled my daughter Caitlin. Cautiously, I wanted to experience the history of this embodiment, at the same time seeing the impermanence. Much easier to be absolute, drastic, than it is to be open, uncertain. Could I learn to honor the body without insisting that it stay young or healthy or never die? Caitlin chided me the other day, “Mommy, hold me in your arms. But don’t grip me.”
As I am napping in the grass, my neighbor Amy calls through the fence. “Barbara come quick, you’ll never believe this!” When I look through the door in the fence, I see the usual line of cats at their bowls in front of the garage, and then at the far end, in broad daylight, a raccoon feeding at the furthest bowl. “It’s a female,” whispers Amy. Indeed, this mama raccoon, her teats distended and red, clearly ravenous after days of nursing her babies, has risked to forage side-by-side with the cats, in view of us people. I imagine her exhausted, starving. Challenged to survive, she has felt compelled to leave her cubs in their nest under the deck of some overgrown yard and, without the protection of night, to brave this territory. Now, seemingly oblivious to the cats, she moves from bowl to bowl. Suddenly, one cat, defending his food, humps and hisses. The mama raccoon rears, bares her teeth, flattens her ears. Darting at her, Amy shouts “Git!” And the raccoon flees.
I keep thinking about this mama raccoon. I feel a kinship with her that I don’t understand. On this first encounter, she inspires me! How brazen she is! What courage she has in full daylight to claim her place among the cats.
On the night before I had surgery, I invited friends to come to a meditation circle at my house. It was from the surgery that we would learn how serious this cancer was, whether or not it had spread to the lymph system. I had invited my yoga teacher Saraswati and friends whom I have known over years of Buddhist practice. I had asked others who live far away to sit in their own homes and to join us in meditation. At first I didn’t feel comfortable asking my mother, who had come from New York, and Patrick—neither of whom are meditators. So often in the past I had felt wrenched between my spiritual practice and my loyalty to these two, neither of whom were drawn to Buddhism. But each in their turn approached me. Please, might I join the circle?
After Caitlin had gone to sleep, we gathered quietly in the living room. As we settled on our cushions, my hands trembled. But with the potency of the meditation, I became deeply still. I could hear Patrick, on one side of me, and my mother, on the other, both weeping. It was then that I felt a shift, a deep feeling of relief. The poles of my spiritual and secular life were aligned, at least for this moment. And when, at the close, my friend Wes asked everyone to send me their healing thoughts, I felt my whole being burst into light, as if the very cells were illuminated, like so many candles on a solstice tree. I was full with this circle, lit with the energy of our pooled attention. I could sense Caitlin dreaming in the next room, my friends sitting in far away places, also lit, the very meridians of the planet brightening.
As I rest I breathe in the scent of wet rosemary, listen to the water sprinkling the calla lilies. Last night, up to comfort away Caitlin’s nightmare, I had so little sleep. How early this morning did she start bouncing on the bed? Why wouldn’t she stop? I hated the way I grabbed her arms, screamed for her to give me peace. On a day such as this I feel so fragile, crave comfort myself. When I take Caitlin to school, I interrupt the teachers at their prep to demand my hellos and good-byes. Then I am swept with shame at my neediness. How can I cut through this? Should I consider Chöd practice, each day imagine the moment of death, work actively with impermanence? I question, what practice is right for me at this time? If done unskillfully, couldn’t these death awareness practices hasten death?
Even though the news from the surgery was hopeful and I was able to keep the breast, I found it impossible to sustain the feeling of luminosity I experienced through the meditation circle. After ten days of having cooked us every meal, my mother went back to New York, my old friends Marie and Peter began to attend to their own jobs and families. As I became exhausted from the radiation, I saw my intense need for attention and help. Relieved, one morning I found a letter in my mailbox from someone dear to me, my only relative who lives here in Berkeley. A love note, a letter of support? I was stunned to read his angry letter, to find out that he was enraged with me about something dating before the cancer. How could he, at this time? I was aghast. In my own initial burst of venom, I saw my insecurity, my lack of self control, my vindictiveness. I had imagined that with “death over my left shoulder” my most mature and forgiving potential would blossom. When I saw how I was even tempted to use my sickness against him, I became, as an overlay, furious at myself.
I was ashamed to notice on several occasions how I looked forward to telling people that I had cancer, as if that would trick out of them their hidden love for me, their feelings of guilt for having ignored or jilted me. At times, the prospect of becoming seriously ill, or even possibly of dying—just to get a break from my own constriction—felt exhilarating. There had been an excitement about all the attention and expressions of love I was getting from friends and relatives at the time of the surgery. I would catch myself imagining my memorial service, people meditating, reading aloud from my journals. And seeing this, I was scared. If I failed to embrace life now, would I prevent myself from healing?
I think again of that mama raccoon, and I am shaken by opposing feelings. In her black mask, I see her now, coming as a thief to steal from the bowls set up for the cats. Does the ferocity of her hunger serve her? No! She scares Amy, who, instead of offering her food, chases her away. I am distraught as I feel myself in this raccoon mama. I think of the ceremony I attended the other night when I was a guest at a Zen center. As I reflect on the formality and intimacy of this gathering, I am consumed with worry. Did I intrude? So often when I look back on my daily encounters, I am swept with embarrassment or guilt. As I review an incident, I see myself, driven by my needs, ignoring the boundaries set by others, crashing in where I am not wanted. As a child of divorced parents, I felt like an intruder in both my father’s and my mother’s homes; now in Berkeley I often feel like a gate-crashing New Yorker, and in New York, like an infiltrating Californian.
When I began radiation, I descended into dread. Perhaps, most of all, this was a dread of loss of contact. I dreaded walking through the corridors of Alta Bates Hospital each day, trying to win a smile from the receptionist. I dreaded waiting in the hall in my green gown, watching some of the other cancer patients rolled in on gurneys. I dreaded listening to the technicians carry on their conversations over and through me, arranging my limbs as if they belonged to a corpse or were some extension of the equipment. Most of all, I dreaded hearing the door click shut in the treatment room and being left alone with the Star Wars equipment gliding over me and the high pitched yammer of the machine.
To counterbalance the touch of the radiation, the machines and the technicians—this touch without awareness—I bought myself a weekly massage. Surprised when one masseuse introduced herself as a beginner, I commented on her strong hands, her sure sense in rooting for knots. She told me that before she worked on humans, for many years she had massaged horses. Hearing this, I felt unexpectedly moved. As her fingers worked the braided muscles of my back, that back became the tight flank of a mare, contracted from hours of work in the ring. Through the touch of this horse masseuse and her story, I felt the animality of my body, I felt sister to the horse, the dog, the tree.
As I lie here under the wide arms of the redwood, I recognize the pain of an “intruder.” Into the grass, I weep for the mama raccoon driven by her ravenousness to break in and I weep for myself, driven by my hunger to belong. I bite my lip, tasting the salt-tang. This sense of being an intruder feels more fundamental than my particular psychology and history. Isn’t this a basic human malady? To feel like a visitor on the planet, who needs to steal from life, rather than partake in it. To fear that after a brief stint of a lifetime on stolen turf, I will die and leave no trace.
At my cancer support group, I talked about the rift with my relative and about my reluctance to ask for more help from the close friends who had taken so much time out when I had the surgery. I cried as I remembered that the teachers and families at Caitlin’s nursery school had offered to provide us dinners. “I am just barely learning the names of some of the women who are offering to cook for me. How can I ask?” One of the longtime group members, the mother of a woman with cancer, urged me, “I have been approached by several people whom I barely know asking if it would be okay if their prayer groups prayed for my daughter. Even as strangers, it has been satisfying for them to provide this support. Let these women cook for your family, Barbara.” So I did.
The nourishment I experienced through this cooking went far beyond the meals themselves. Laurie, who made one of the first dinners said, “I thought about you as I was cooking this and imagined what good foods would make you strong.” Later that evening, as I ate her soup, I brought Laurie into my awareness. As I discovered the lentils and chick peas, the tomatoes and carrots, I remembered Laurie remembering me. Robert, my acupuncturist, tells me, “Kind attention, meditation and food are all energy. In the dinners these families cook, they are offering energy to you from all over the world. Take it in as love.” As our family ate each meal, lasagnas, corn soups and chile rellenos—old family formulas and favorite recipes passed from friend to friend—I experienced the energy moving in my body, and the channels lighting up between myself and these families.
Through the fence, I can hear Steve from down the street talking to Amy. He will be gone for a week, so could she be sure to put out extra food for the wandering cats? As I listen, I am moved and my imagination stirs. It occurs to me that there are kind people who put out bowls for feral cats in the back yards throughout this neighborhood, throughout Berkeley, Oakland, Albany, Richmond and beyond. Who knows how far? I find this thought comforting. I think of my sister, the raccoon. It occurs to me now that, in feeding at the cat bowls, she is able to tap into a great network which was already there. Somehow, I sense that I am too. As I listen to Amy, pouring the dry food into the many bowls, I am resting in this vast net of connectedness that is always there, yet needs to be illuminated through awareness.
After several months of treatment, my friend Pat drove me to meet with a local genius of a healer, an acupuncturist and herbalist who is also knowledgeable in Western medicine. “Cancer is a chronic disease,” Michael said. “It cannot be cured. But it can be contained.” I hated hearing this. Yet I sensed its truth. He invited me to open to this uncertainty. After several hours of questions from me, he then took my pulses. He described the imbalances in the flow of energy though my body. Then he told me: “Take more risks. That’s a prescription!”
I was aghast. “Do you say this to everyone?” “No,” he said, “I read your pulses. I’m saying it to you.” “What do you mean risks? Bungee jumping? Camping I could imagine, backpacking maybe. But if you mean rock climbing, spelunking. No!” He continued. “More risks in your thinking and in your actions. You’ll have to figure out what is appropriate for you. But,” he laughed, “once you’ve gotten used to something, then it won’t qualify as a risk anymore, and you’ll have to find something else. At some point in camping there may be nothing else to do but to try rock climbing….”
I was scared, confused, even outraged by this prescription which I didn’t understand. Yet something resonated. It was the next day that I turned my usual morning walk from the streets bordering on Tilden Park into the meadow. Afraid of possible murderers or rapists, I had never before ventured into the park on my own. But now I could hear Michael’s voice, “Consider the imagined dangers next to the danger of this disease you’re facing….” So I kept right on walking through the trees, along the stream, into the park itself—our own Bay Area patch of wilderness.
As I strode, breath deepening, arms swinging, I enjoyed the spring—the lupine and poppies—the tart smell of eucalyptus and bay, the call of birds along the stream. After a hour’s walk, around a bend, I was startled to meet the liquid eyes of a doe. She was so close, I could see the quivering of her nostrils and the pink glow where the sun shone through her cocked ears. Unwittingly, I must have made a tiny movement. With a tremble, she bolted and a faun, hidden until that moment in the grass, flashed after her. The two deer leapt up an almost imperceptible path which I now saw to wind up the slope of the hill. As I watched them bounding to the crest, the boundaries of my awareness broadened up the hills towards clear June sky.
I imagine the mama raccoon returning to her nest. Strengthened after feeding from bowl to bowl, she nurses her cubs. As they grow older she can perhaps lead them on foraging expeditions, showing them the yards of the neighborhood almsgivers. But what if on her rounds she is trapped in a broken fence, hit by a car? What if she doesn’t make it back? Often I come to my nap worried about Caitlin. (Is she sturdy? Am I passing on my upset, my fragility?) What if I become ill again, what motherly soul will help Patrick protect and nurture her? Will Caitlin know to look for the bowls that are out there? My friend Marie once said, “I have to believe that if I weren’t there, the universe would take care of my children.” I find it a great challenge to keep such trust.
As spring turned to summer, one morning walk I left the paved path and headed up the hills on the deer trail. Feeling weakened from lack of sleep, I hoped to revive myself on this walk. I mustered a brisk pace through the pine grove, and began to climb a series of brown hills towards the peak. As I gained momentum, the blood flowing and oxygen circulating woke up my awareness. Consciously now, I applied this awakened awareness to my limbs. I could feel the streaming in my arms, the tingling in my feet and fingertips, the stirring in my belly. I recognized how in risking to follow these deer paths, I was, at the same time, opening up all of the subtle channels through my being. I sensed the channels of energy extending through my body and beyond—out through the world.
Today I want to notice everything, the Mexican primroses with their soft pink faces and yellow tongues, the dead rat shriveled by the tomato patch. Again and again, I am confirmed that mindfulness—bringing my awareness to whatever is there—is the most healing practice for me. And the danger here? Perhaps sometimes a distance or coldness. In our bath together, Caitlin takes the soap dish and pours water on my raw radiated breast, over the hard contour of the hematoma left from surgery. How I love this bathtub blessing. Can I permeate awareness with a wash of tenderness?
Over the spring and summer our family spent many hours in the vegetable garden. As Caitlin pulled red threads of radish roots, I pinched the suckers off the tomato plants, Patrick seeded new grass, I felt our intimate collaboration with rain, sun, earthworms. One August afternoon, as I weeded the lettuce, I remembered a call I’d had that morning from the East Coast. A friend who had been precious to me twenty-five years back was also being treated for breast cancer. As I gardened, I thought about all of the women in my generation—dear friends from Cambridge to San Francisco—who now have breast cancer or who have died from it. To what degree, I wondered, is this epidemic due to the toxicity of the vegetables that we grew up on, poisoned by pesticides and herbicides? I thought about the danger when we on this planet lose intimacy in collaboration with the larger web of life. Hidden by the scarlet runner vines, I sat in the dirt that afternoon crying for my friends and for all the women I didn’t know who would suffer from this profound carelessness.
Late into the night, intertwined with Patrick, I absorb the heat and heartiness of his sleeping body into mine. Through the slope of my chest and belly, the curve of my thighs and knees, I pass him back my thanks.
When Caitlin climbs onto my lap, and molds her form to mine, something mysterious passes each to each.
As I nap on the grass, the earth passes me its aliveness. And I pass back mine.
One day as I followed the deer trail up towards the crest, I imagined the mama raccoon following these same paths down the hill. For the first time, I saw the reciprocity. I come from the city into the woods to be nourished and the mama raccoon comes from the woods into the city to feast in our backyards. We crisscross and exchange.
Sometimes when I hike, if I feel a surge of fear (Will the cancer recur? Will I die young?), I remember to draw the vast landscape into my awareness. Welcoming the eucalyptus grove, the brown hills, the meadow of dry grass and thistles, I open the field of who or what I perceive myself to be. I begin to sense that the narrow self within this particular package of mortal flesh is an expression of the ongoing exchange of life. When I experience this exchange, I am, for a moment, more fully alive and also not so afraid to die.