The Zen of Cancer


Mindfulness and meditation for the masses. What does this mean to those of us with a life-threatening disease?

As a longtime student of Zen meditation, I view my life as an endless series of moments stacked in perpetuity, one upon the other; instant by instant, with me as the observer overseeing the whole production. Zen meditation is a traditional Buddhist discipline providing insight into how the mind works, which offers benefits to one's well-being and spirit. It has long been my personal "chemotherapy" of choice.

Zen Buddhist studies are not a religion. Arguably, Buddhism itself has no religious connection since there is no deity involved; just a guy with some remarkable insight; a philosopher; rather rotund by some accounts, who lived a long time ago. "Buddha" means "one who is awake." The Buddha who lived 2,600 years ago was not a god. He was an ordinary person, named Siddhartha Gautama, whose profound insights inspired the world.

Living as a five-year male breast cancer survivor, I can say with certainty that nothing has benefited me more in my efforts to come to terms with my disease, my own life and my impending death than the disarmingly simple tool of meditation, mindfulness and self-inquiry.

But what does all of this mean to those of us with a life-threatening disease?

I promise you; this will not be a story of supernatural mumbo jumbo with references to enlightenment and spiritual bliss. There are no gurus or sages or mysteries of the ages in my story. Nobody discovers nirvana or mystically erases cancer here.

Zen, you see, is not that exciting.

Nor is Zen meditation a passive exercise. In fact, it lies somewhere between the pleasure of living, the fear of dying and the uncertainty of being. If you think about it, most of us aren't really afraid of dying. We're afraid of not being. The fear of having our lives, our souls, our feelings and accomplishments suddenly not existing; vanishing from the cosmos in the blink of a merciless eye — that's what really gets under our skin.

Zen doesn't make that go away. It just allows us to get a glimpse of those thoughts and thousands more just like them. And then we have a chance to see them for what they are: just thoughts.

Cancer creates a torrent of distressing thoughts in most of us. But what's wrong with thinking, you may ask? Nothing at all if we are willing to give fear, anxiety or hopelessness the power to guide us.

Zen meditation is not a quick fix. In my own case, it took sixty-nine years of thinking to deliver me to the place I'm at today. It could take that many years to dismantle the endless chain of ideas, judgments, fears and phobias that I've built up like spiritual plaque over the decades. Or not. And that is the promise of Zen. It makes no promises.

"Wait a minute," you may be thinking. "Zen is always contradicting itself with endless puzzles and mind games that seem too simple to mean anything!"

Bingo! That is the nature of cancer too. It becomes a perpetual, confounding competition to stay alive, to get tested, look for bumps and lumps; with infusions and intrusions that become our life. All of those things are important and good in our lives with cancer. But they are not “life.”

I've been careful to make that distinction about the disease I have and the ideas I have about it. I feel as though the minute I let the fear of being in pain or the frustration of not knowing my future take center stage, I become a victim of my cancer. And whether I live for another two days, two years or two decades, I really do have a choice to live right now, at this very moment.

Easier said than done? Of course. And that's why we call Zen meditation a “practice.” I spent a year living in residence in a Zen Center in Hawaii, sitting in meditation every day for hours sometimes, and still I describe myself as an "infant in Zen". It's not something you "get" or realize or become or earn or discover. You already have it. Midway through that year I had a mastectomy of my left breast. Cancer didn't change my life; it just changed the way I thought about it.

There is a lot of information and some pretty good misinformation about meditation available in books and on the Internet. In my house we have hundreds of books on meditation, mindfulness and self-discovery. If you're interested in exploring Zen meditation yourself, I might recommend the books "Everyday Zen" by Joko Beck, "The Miracle of Mindfulness" by Thick Nhat Hanh or "Meditation" by Osho.

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