As many of you know, my brother-in-law, Leif, is currently battling a rare form of cancer called mantle cell lymphoma. He’s young, formidably strong and has one of the healthiest lifestyles of anyone I know. We went up to Maine to visit him last week.
It’s impossible to describe what it’s like to watch someone you love go through a terrible experience. As far too many of us already know, cancer treatment is not only brutal, but chronic; it just goes on and on. Coping with chronic is qualitatively different from coping with a crisis, like getting hit by a bus; getting hit by a bus has a narrative arc that you can move through. Getting cancer is like setting up house in the middle of a freeway.
Most of us, of course, want to be able to walk into a crisis and fix it. Feeling helpless in the face of suffering is thus one of the most difficult states of mind we endure. So what can we do about that? Here are a few suggestions.
• Never underestimate the healing value of mundane service. Wash dishes, clean floors, do laundry, run errands, cook a healthy meal. These tasks are particularly helpful by virtue of the fact that they are infinitely renewable, and can be done without thinking too hard.
• Just be around. Send notes, send gifts, make phone calls. They’re appreciated.
• Don’t say, “If there’s anything I can do, give me a call!” Instead say, “Would it be helpful if I brought a meal, did laundry?” People under stress are often too overwhelmed to be proactive in asking for help. Use your common sense, double-check, and listen to the answers.
• Meditate. Here is Ken Wilber:
…Foremost among these practices is the one known as tonglen, which means “taking and sending.” The practice is as follows:
In meditation, picture or visualize someone you know and love who is going through much suffering–an illness, a loss, depression, pain, anxiety, fear. As you breathe in, imagine all of that person’s suffering–in the form of dark, black, smokelike, tarlike, thick, and heavy clouds–entering your nostrils and traveling down into your heart. Hold that suffering in your heart. Then, on the outbreath, take all of your peace, freedom, health, goodness, and virtue, and send it out to the person in the form of healing, liberating light. Imagine that they take it all in, and feel completely free, released, and happy. Do that for several breaths. Then imagine the town that person is in, and, on the inbreath, take in all of the suffering of that town, and send back all of your health and happiness to everyone in it. Then do that for the entire, state, then the entire country, the entire planet, the universe. You are taking in all the suffering of beings everywhere and sending them back health and happiness and virtue.
When people are first introduced to this practice, their reactions are usually strong, visceral, and negative. Mine were. Take that black tar into me? Are you kidding? What if I actually get sick? This is insane, dangerous! When Kalu first gave us these tonglen instructions, a woman stood up in the audience of about one hundred people and said what virtually everybody there was thinking:
“But what if I am doing this with someone who is really sick, and I start to get that sickness myself?”
Without hesitating Kalu said, “You should think, Oh good! It’s working!”
A strange thing begins to happen when one practices tonglen for any length of time. First of all, nobody actually gets sick. Rather, you find that you stop recoiling in the face of suffering, both yours and others’. You stop running from pain, and instead find that you can begin to transform it by simply being willing to take it into yourself and then release it. The real changes start to happen in you, by the simple willingness to get your ego-protecting tendencies out of the way.
–Ken Wilber, ‘Grace and Grit,’ 247-49
This doesn’t have to be a big dogmatic deal. You don’t have to let anyone know you’re doing it. It’s a practice that may help you to be more present, less anxious, and less visibly freaked out. Lots of us want to ‘be strong’ for our loved ones, but what does that mean? Stoicism? False cheer? Pretending nothing’s wrong?
Tonglen meditation can help you stop ‘doing’ and move into ‘being,’ which is where authentic connection lives.