One woman reflects on the fact that no one is immortal.
In August 2014, I received a stage 3c ovarian cancer diagnosis. An oncologist, whom I nicknamed Dr. Downer, presented me with a grim outlook. She straightforwardly explained the number of treatments, the progression of this incurable disease and gave me a survival rate of three and a half years.
A doctor at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center responded differently: he bans the phrase ‘terminal illness’ in his clinic. The cancer’s course, where it stops and starts again and how long it extends its reach, is unpredictable. He encouraged me to meditate, do yoga, eat well and exercise daily. Sitting still on a cushion and feasting on organic foods came more naturally to me than exercise and yoga. My path as a healthy-eating Buddhist began.
Another practice that I developed along the way is “contemplating the space in between.” It also helps me as a pilgrim on this cancer journey. If you’re a Tibetan Buddhist, in-between spaces or transient realms are best captured by the Tibetan word bardo, which has been translated traditionally as that period between death and rebirth. Yet, the bardo can be interpreted as any transitional state, any state that lies between two other states. It may describe that space in between breaths, or the present moment between past and future. The Buddhist author Francesca Freemantle explains further:
“(The bardo) can act as a boundary that divides and separates, marking the end of one thing and the beginning of another; but it can also be the link between the two—it can serve as a bridge or a meeting place that brings together and unites. It is an open space filled with an atmosphere of suspension and uncertainty, neither this or that. In such a state, one may feel confused and frightened, or one may feel surprisingly liberated and open to new possibilities where anything might happen.” (Francesca Freemantle, Luminous Emptiness)
Freemantle’s explanation of bardo reminds me of the Japanese word ma, which also is translated as a transitional state. Its Kanji character graphically places the one for sun inside a door. It thus emphasizes the positive qualities of transitions. With it, the Japanese see the sunshine between the door jambs, not storm clouds. Their ma is full of light, revelation, creativity and positive energy rather than a transition filled with fear, doubt and frustration.
The term ma may also mean the place between two objects. This can be an energetically charged space that enhances both objects while keeping their individualities distinct. Thinking about the ma is a wonderful way to hang art on a wall. The space between two works of art can become almost as important as the pieces themselves.
Working as a museum curator in a building by Tadao Ando, the famous Japanese architect, I connected with his use of ma as a design principle. Ando clarifies the differences between the
terms mu (nothingness) and ma (the space in between and the negative space around and between objects) in several ways. He starts by saying that: The space of nothingness is where one finds … life’s richness. I think in English, both mu and ma are justifiably translated into nothingness. For me, both are concerned with the invisible. While mu is that which one cannot feel, ma makes it palpable and tangible.
The importance of the Japanese tearoom does not lie in the walls, floor, ceiling, but the space of ma surrounded by these elements.
This concept of ma became especially germane to me as a person with cancer. By keeping the concept of death close enough but not too close, I experience life in new and wondrous ways. Consider the use of your two index fingers as a way to visualize the ma, the space in between, as a state of mind. Death is your left index finger and life is the right. Place them side by side so they touch each other. Death and life don’t have the space to radiate a sense of magic and wonder inherent to both.
Now, if you separate the index fingers so that they are your entire arms’ length apart, they seem miles apart. Death becomes something far, far away, irrelevant to life. (That’s how I operated before diagnosis.) If you find that sweet spot, the energized space of ma, where the index fingers are just far enough from each other so that the negative space feels alive, the idea of death enhances life and vice versa.
Every moment seems full of potential and beauty: as Ando noted, ma “makes (nothingness) palpable and tangible;” “(it) is where one finds … life’s richness.”
When you are thinking too much about death you are not experiencing the ma. When you avoid death altogether you are also not experiencing the ma. When I was told I had three and a
half years to live, I felt too close to death. I felt as if my two index fingers were touching. It was devastating. There was no space, or a very limited space, and not much light or sun shone
through that door. But the second doctor’s response of having a disease without prescribed term limits, on the other hand, allowed my psyche to experience the ma. It permitted me to enjoy life fully because anything is possible. I am indeed “open to new possibilities where anything might happen.”
It’s easy to upset yourself when you have a progressive disease. This is why the image of the ma is helpful. One of the first times I used it was at my favorite annual music festival in Austin. I had
been diagnosed with a reoccurrence a year after my first line of chemotherapy. It was a golden afternoon with the sun just starting to set. The banjos, guitars, fiddles, the close-harmony vocals of a bluegrass group opened my heart. I looked at my handsome, kindhearted husband and the first thing I thought was I might not be here next year.
I may be dead and gone and never again get the chance to see him again in this light with this music in this beautiful place. I normally would have run to the concession stand for the temporary comfort of a pizza or a beer. Or, I would have cried and explained my sadness to my husband. Both actions would have deprived me of the sheer beauty of the moment. Why not revel in the ma? I visualized index fingers parting just so and stayed still and quiet, and all of a sudden what was a particularly uneasy moment became a joyful one for me.
The good news is that you don’t need a progressive disease to experience the ma. You just need to remind yourself of the obvious: you are not immortal. Why not then consciously experience the ma, that sunshine between the door jambs? Why not shed your fear and confusion and choose to “feel surprisingly liberated and open to new possibilities where anything might happen?” When I catch myself thinking about death too much or too little, I visualize the ma. This allows me to have authentic moments of happiness and serenity throughout the day. It makes me feel connected to the world around me, and I am grateful.
This article is published in remembrance of and on behalf of Francesca Consagra who died on December 16, 2018 surrounded by friends and family.