I realise I haven’t written a blog for over a month now, but sometimes the processes going on in my mind (and life!) are a bit hard to share – a work in progress I suppose. Waaay back at the beginning of 2013 (yes – 3 years on now, isn’t that incredible?), I started to, very cautiously, open up about the struggles I was having in coming to terms with the assault of the chemotherapy on my mind and body. In a way, the physical side was easier because a) I wanted to live and b) I got so involved in hospital routine that it was almost a relief to pitch up for treatment – with or without Fenella, as appropriate – and hand the responsibility for killing the cancer cells over to someone else. What I quickly came to realise was that c) to z) were all the other bits: my emotions, the battle between chemo and not-chemo that raged in my mind, the fact that I needed to survive the toxicity of the chemo probably more than the cancer, the need to take responsibility for my own health, and so it went on – in fact I really could go all the way to z) quite easily, and the blog gave me a massive outlet for the various stages I went through in my journey through the Dark Lands of aggressive treatment.
Back in those days there was always something going on that provided fodder for the blog: a new member of staff on the ward, another tale of Dot, more run-ins with the medical staff about drugs I didn’t want to take, my rapid escape plans from Ward 11, Life at Home and of course, keeping working as much as I could through all of it, which involved a certain amount of pretending-that-nothing-was-wrong, which was my private side making its presence felt. It was also key to my survival, as keeping busy gave me some respite from the constant chatter of the fear that had taken up residence in my head. Sharing these things on the blog was easy, as the journey through treatment was itself a story that in some perverse way I enjoyed telling – hence the book – but now (thankfully!) there isn’t such a keen focus, which sometimes leaves me wondering what to share and what to keep private. In essence I suppose, my personal back story of the period of treatment and recovery was how I was hurled headlong into a spiritual journey with a particularly steep incline; everyone reacts to a cancer diagnosis differently, and mine was an immediate first-from-the-gate pass into the Dark Night of the Soul.
Interestingly enough, that journey has continued at the same pitch, even though the surrounding landscape has cheered up considerably; my visits to the hospital are currently standing at three-monthly chats with Joe, which we enjoy immensely, but I am forever changed and can never go back. Just as a quick aside, Joe had a trainee GP sitting in with him, which I took as a splendid opportunity to educate him in the importance of complementary medicine, or even just the benefits of taking vitamins, to be honest. Something I’m pretty sure he won’t get anywhere else. My main concern at these appointments is that my blood test results are OK. This time the phlebotomist had to take eight vials of blood (which was a bit of a shock to both of us) as Joe wanted some extra things checked, but apparently everything is behaving itself at the moment, so I am exceedingly relieved. I asked about my Vitamin D level – which I supplement with two drops every day – and that is good, and my recent Dexa scan shows my bones are perfectly normal, which is also a relief after the curious incident of the swollen wrist (Blog #66). It is also something of a miracle considering the amount of aggressive chemo I had, especially just before the stem cell transplant. Joe asked what I take and I reeled off the usual stuff, going nice and slowly so Trainee GP could follow. Joe asked if I was back at work full time, which he always does for some reason; we both laughed our socks off and Stephen commented that I had never really stopped – apart from the really bad days and the isolation of course, when I worked from my laptop in my room. At which point Trainee GP asked what I did, so I told him about Wessex Astrologer and the blog, and gave him one of my very special pink business cards with Fenella on the front as he seemed genuinely interested. Here it is:
We also told him about Stephen’s involvement with Watkins, and to our surprise he asked for more information as his sister-in-law might be interested in some of the books. Result! I hope he enjoyed the appointment as much as we did. It is always lovely to see Joe, but I don’t want to be seeing him any more frequently (just in case the universe is listening).
But back to the subject in hand which is the tortuous journey of the Dark Night of the Soul. I was incredibly lucky with the support I was given to help me along the way, which apart from a completely unexpected outpouring of love from people I never even knew reading the blog, often took the form of suggestions from other people and books. I became well acquainted with Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful book Fear, which was never far from my side, and that led me deeply into a side of Buddhism I hadn’t encountered before. A very gentle and deeply contemplative style which was excellent for the 3 o’clock in the morning thoughts, when all is quiet except for the voices in your head, which are very loud. As I recounted in Blog 63#, my personal experience of Thich Nhat Hanh’s community from Plum Village touched me to my very core. And all they did was sit on their cushions, smile beatifically, and come out with some stunningly simple words of wisdom.
Running parallel to this, though, has been an experience which is almost directly opposite, and I guess it is this duality that I have been mulling over sharing. Then I read David Hare’s wonderful book, The Buddha in Me, The Buddha in You and I decided I did want to talk about my experience. Back in the early days an astrology friend made a comment on the blog that I should chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo as often as I could. I wasn’t really very clear why, but I love chanting, so in a very gentle, muted way, sort of did it under my breath from time to time. I started to research it and discovered that the chant is the key part of Nichiren Buddhism. This isn’t the place for a lecture on Buddhism, but I was interested to learn that Nichiren Daishonin was a monk in 13th century Japan who decided to simplify Buddhism (which can be incredibly complicated) so that the ordinary person could understand it. That went down like the proverbial lead balloon amongst the feudal, patriarchal establishment of the day, and Nichiren very quickly found himself in deep trouble. But whatever trouble he was in – which included exile and an attempt to chop off his head – he continued to chant and to spread the word that by practising his much more simplified version of Buddhism, the ordinary peasant really could achieve happiness in this lifetime. Fast forward several hundred years, and Nichiren Buddhism has now spread around the world through an organisation called Soka Gakkai International; my friend is a member in London and last year she suggested I go along to a local meeting to see it in action.
The first thing that struck me was how lovely and welcoming they all were, and the second was the volume of the chanting. Woah! What about quiet monks on cushions? I found it quite ‘vexatious to the spirit’ to use one of my favourite quotes from the Desiderata, and failed to understand how anyone could get much from it except a sore throat. But I read more, and went to the monthly meetings and actually really enjoyed the whole experience of being with such lovely positive people. What puzzled me was what exactly they were chanting for. Okay, well I have read that people chant for money, or jobs, which all seemed a bit too focused on the material word for me. But what happens if you have a big problem and don’t know the answer. I bravely asked the question. Can you chant just for a good outcome for whatever it is? Yes, absolutely. And if it is someone else’s big problem, can you chant for them to have a good outcome? Yes, absolutely. It was beginning to make a bit more sense, but I still hadn’t connected my head and heart on this, unlike the Plum Village Community, where I wanted to be a stowaway in their coach and stay with them forever. I mentioned this to my friend, and she emailed back that I should chant as though I was trying to set light to a damp log. Hmm. I was clearly missing the point. Then a really weird thing happened. We have faced several challenges in recent months and I was starting to get pretty frustrated and angry about the injustice involved. Somehow the lovely Thich Nhat Hanh’s prescription of sitting with the emotion wasn’t dissipating the build-up of emotion. I was in the flat on my own and had already started chanting when I thought about setting the log on fire; suddenly I connected to the anger and all hell broke loose. In my counselling course many moons ago we were taught a bit of gestalt therapy, which is about experiencing the physicality of the relevant feeling and using that energy to work through the emotion – a good example is punching pillows, which is a very good way of releasing anger without hurting anyone. I have punched pillows in the past and found it incredibly liberating, and now I had found my vocal equivalent. Wow. With tears streaming down my face I realised I had finally ‘got it’ and it felt amazing. I emailed my friend who replied that she had just had a dance around the room, because I had finally found the Buddha in me :-). A bit of an angry one possibly (my words not hers), but something had been unleashed in that experience and now a lot of things written about Nichiren Buddhism made sense. So, it was at exactly the right time that I came upon David’s book, which is the story of his own voyage of discovery – from being doubting and almost hostile to the sudden realisation that this practice had found a very important place in his life. It is a funny and incredibly inspiring book and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
And so as I get to this particular point in the journey, I am pleased to find that both the cushions and the pillows can have a place in my life. And that is a huge relief, because on a long journey, there is always a need for a bit of comfort. :-)
Wishing you all good health