In a way it does not feel there is much new to report as I go through the months of chemotherapy. At times some of the side effects are quite challenging physically for me but, as I reported last month, these symptoms come and go even over the course of a day, and I am still doing mostly okay with everything. Often I don’t have much energy. And I have lost weight; it seems to me that I am really quite thin and bony now. This is actually a little bit of a concern as the oncologist said that if I lose too much weight he will have to reduce or stop the chemotherapy treatment. Hopefully that won’t be necessary, as I am trying different things now to stabilize my body mass. One bit of medical news is that I have just started on a specially prepared turmeric compound, which aims at disempowering cancer stem cells, together with some Traditional Chinese Medicine, intended to help with everything – the recovery from the op, the chemo side-effects, and the cancer. I’ll probably be adding some other alternative treatments to the mix soon too.
Maybe, though, there’s other stuff to share. Kirsten told me the other day that someone asked her about me. “I read the official version,” she said, “but what’s the unofficial version? How is he really?” “There is no unofficial version,” Kirsten told her. “He really is how he says he is.”
Now I wonder about this. I really don’t know and I certainly wouldn’t want to presume in any way what was behind this particular person’s questions. But here or in other similar sorts of instances there may be in the background an important issue at stake. Generally we tend to see everything through the lenses of our assumptions; and assumptions about practice and possibility will inevitably have significant consequences – for our practices, obviously, but also for the ways we live and envisage the trajectories of our lives, and even for our basic senses of and feelings about the whole of existence. Of course these assumptions are various – nowadays, perhaps, more than ever – and their consequences can unfold in various directions. Listening to so many practitioners in different teaching situations, however, I often find myself wondering in particular if many people have, for a number of reasons, already set up in advance absolute and immovable limits on what they might admit is possible through practice, not just for themselves, but for everyone. To me, that’s sad, if it is the case. And it makes me want somehow to persuade and encourage people out of and beyond their limited sense of what’s possible, wherever they have absorbed that sense of limitation from. I am generally a quite private person, though, and perhaps even more so in regards to my practice, so I don’t often share much about my practice and what happens there. But I wonder now (still with some hesitation) if it would not be more helpful to do so sometimes. I truly believe that far more is possible, for everyone, than most people think.
There are so many examples one could give – and in a way that is the main point – but here is a brief account of a very particular opening that has happened quite a few times now, most recently some nights ago:
Tonight again I cannot sleep. It’s not that the pain is so constantly intense; it’s more the discomfort of a digestion that just will not settle, and that’s enough to keep me awake. Having lain there in vain for a few hours, I haul myself up in the bed and cross my legs in the darkness. How to practise now? How to look?
Well, I could ‘be with’ the sensations, the vedana, but that doesn’t really call me at present. Instead I include the sensations in a wider awareness that encompasses the whole body and the room, and tune in to that sense of awareness. Lightly reminding myself now of its thorough emptiness and of the emptiness of time – of past, of future, and of the present too – a sense of exquisite beauty and of freedom suddenly blossom there and fill the space. And there is too a sense of the inseparability of this awareness and its objects – the room and the world around me. I ‘lean further in’ to the timelessness, and perceive the whole of my life – this moment and all the events, all the experiences – as having in some inexpressible way both a timeless as well as a temporal dimension to their existence.
The taste is so subtle and so sweet that I could stop here or just allow the self to dissolve in that emptiness, that totality. But rather than that more familiar track, I veer toward sensing that all of it is ‘me’; I see and feel it now that way: a ‘me’ that is not separate from the timeless, that is immanent and transcendent both; ‘my soul’ rooted in, and not separate from, ‘God’, or ‘Buddha Nature’, or whatever we might want to call it. This soul, however, is thoroughly empty, I know – it has no inherent existence, no existence independent of the way of looking – and there is no need to claim it as an ultimate truth or as anything more than a skilful perception, an insightful way of looking. But this knowing of its complete emptiness takes nothing away from the beauty and power of the perception.
Now I linger there and sense something further: that this soul includes also both the universal and the intimately personal dimension of being – me and my unique personality and expression, all that comes through me and all that I have shaped and that has shaped me. None of that is separate from God, from this Buddha Nature, this timeless dimension that is both transcendent and immanent.
And it includes too my death, and the duration of my life; the timespan of my life, whether that turns out to be ‘long’ or ‘short’, is itself an aspect of my soul. It is not other than my soul, which is not separate and not wholly other than the depths and the timeless heart of the divine. I would love to live; I want to keep playing, experimenting, creating, discovering; to keep giving, receiving, loving, and praising. And at the same time I see, in a way which does not involve thought, that the timing of life and death is perfect, is ‘me’, is my soul, is divine. Peace and awe and a deep bowing of my being as I remain with this tuning of the perception. I suppose I could stay awake here; there is plenty of energy and brightness now, and it is very lovely. But the body needs to rest, so at last I lie down again, in this peace and awe and bowing, and after a while give myself, successfully and gratefully, to sleep.
I reflect on all this later. The more deeply and palpably we understand for ourselves through our own experience the emptiness of all things, the more possibilities open up for the perception; our range increases; we are freer to engage different ways of looking, and so to experience self, other, world, and existence in manifold ways. Though emptiness in its depths is always the same, there is not one experience of ‘Freedom’, one taste of ‘Awakening’; it is actually multiple, varied, infinite even. And it will keep growing, if we let it.
Regarding the particular perception I describe above, there are many ways in to it. And there are many ways out of the confines and assumptions of normal perception. Emptiness forms part of a way, if it reaches deeply enough – to see that time and the present, space, and awareness, as well as self and other, are utterly empty. Love too forms part of a way, if I let it open my eyes, open my sense of the beloved, whoever or whatever that is for me in that moment.
This example I share forms part of the reason why I feel deeply okay most of the time with what is happening. And it has very little to do with ‘belief’ or conjecture about what does or doesn’t happen after death. It is a perception, not even clung to as a ‘truth’, but with a power that is all the greater, more profound and more beautiful, because of that.
To me it’s interesting to ponder why someone might cling to a limited sense of possibility, but the likely reasons are many and complex, and here is not the place to expand on this. Perhaps here we may just point out that the conditions which support a clinging to certain views of limitation are not only personal; without a doubt they are also, in many ways, culturally construed and absorbed. And to me it seems crucial to be aware of and interested in this. But I’ll leave all of that for another time and place…
Right now I don’t know of course if reading and reflecting on what I’ve written here will make any difference to anyone locked in or clinging to certain views that limit the sense of what is possible through practice. Or if it will even make any difference to anyone at all. I hope sincerely that it does, though, that it might contribute, even if only in a very small way, to some questioning, experimenting, and opening in this area, for us all.
On another note, please know I still very much appreciate receiving your news, and love to hear your reports about your practice. I am just sorry that I don’t have the capacity right now to respond to most of the personal letters and emails I receive. If you have sent me something or sent it through Mark, I trust you will understand if you don’t get a reply from me. And please don’t refrain from sending, or posting on this website, on the assumption that I am not interested or will not read; I am very interested and I do read. I hope too, more generally, that you all know how deeply touched and supported I feel by your beautiful messages of care and kindness.
With love and appreciation and great gratitude to every one of you,