Forest SanghaNewsletter January 1998

The Path to Peace; Ajahn Chah
A slice of life; Kathryn Guta
Remembering our Goal; An interview with Ajahn Pasanno
Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension; Ajahn Sucitto
Four Fold Assembly; Ajahn Sucitto
Signs of Change:
Trust News:


A Slice of Life

Kathryn Guta, a close associate of Abhayagiri and theSanghapala Foundation, worked as a nurse. Then one day, noticing some smallmarks on her arm, she went to see the doctor...

"Take the valium, you'll feel a lot better."
Dr. Erhart dangled the vial of pills in front of my eyes. I felt a smallpop in my chest like my heart was deflating from this well-meant offer."Thank you, but I don't want the valium I want to know why I was never toldof my malignancy nine years ago when I came into this office." I knew Isounded condemning using language like that yet I really did want tounderstand why. I had once been warned by a meditation teacher never to askor answer `why questions' largely because they were unanswerable questions."Why is the sky blue?" "Why was I born?" These questions tend to make themind spin round and round without getting to the bigger issue of how blue thesky actually is and what is birth after all. I forgot this warning and all Icould think of was "why, why, why" and who was to blame. The force of habitled me to blame myself. Someone had to be at fault.

Yes I was regressing spiritually. I was secretly happy of that. Ihated anything that made people superior, and spirituality was sometimes wornas a badge of achievement separating rather than connecting people. I hatedthat, but couldn't deny that I had done it too. My body cried from everypore, from every soft surface and hard angle: "Please take care of me. Enoughof your spirituality." I had spent nights up till dawn in meditation. I hadawakened early with sleep still in my eyes. I had endured cold and heat andscorpions and insects. All, I supposed, to toughen me for this moment of adiagnosis, a cancer diagnosis. Being a nurse and knowing my family's cancertrack record, I could hardly be surprised when the three tiny dark flecksthat appeared on my arm. The three wise men I called them, when they stayedto impart a teaching. All great teachings are received with dread. I knewthis. I had always wanted to bargain the great teachings out of my life andthis was no different.
The point is to feel, to live life in the pores of the flesh and the marrowof the bone. Yet I hate it when its bad.

My arm pains me now as I write this. My fingers are stiff and difficult touse. I wonder how I will work. How will I work when I need my hands to work?How will I support myself? What will I do? I loved to swim, to dance and walkaround the Marin headlands all day. What would I do? I can't deny thatsomehow behind the horror of this catastrophe, I wanted to die. How strange.I understood then that my mind was excited by this new terrain yet my bodywas kicking and screaming resisting every second. Bodies don't want to die.You only have to observe an ant in trouble to realise that. Minds can look atdeath as some different type of vacation. Club Death. Nothing to pay for aneternity of bliss if you played your cards right in this lifetime. My bodywas singing all the while a very different tune. It wanted to be hugged andcaressed and told everything would be all right. All right? Can things be allright when you are dead? The body ceases to exist when it is abandoned by themind. Perhaps it is the ultimate abandonment. The mind can careen throughgalaxies yet the body turns to dust in a matter of weeks or months. In theThai jungle, corpses explode into a gooey mass in just a few days.

"I was going to get my hair cut but why bother."

There again another 'why?' question. My mind amused me. The thoughtswere cascading and ricocheting in its canyons. One moment I felt guilty thatI didn't take better care of my body and then I remembered that I took bettercare of my body than anyone else I knew.

I was grabbing moments as they came to me. Walking down the street Inoticed how blue the sky was. I didn't ask why. I grabbed that moment andrealised that there was absolutely no problem right then. It was only in mymind that the chatter continued.

"Take the valium" the doctor had said. "Melanoma", the pathologyreport had read. I read the report thoroughly studying it like a lawyer witha brief reviewing it to find some flaw, something that did not fit. There itwas: recurrent melanoma. If it was recurrent, why was I not told of it nineyears ago when I had first gone to the doctor noting a change in a mole?Guilty! I requested and got the slides of my skin. I carried them home in aplastic case in a manilla envelope under my arm. Exhibit A. I wanted to seethe slides for myself. Not that I doubted the diagnosis. It was just that thestory did not fit. I was going about things in my usual logical manner. I wasnot calm. I was not unafraid. I was only gathering all my intelligence toapply it to the problem. Later I could afford to fall apart. Now I wanted tounderstand what had happened. I wanted to see the slides for myself.
My mind travelled to India to the cremation ghats at Benares. Rather, mysense of smell remembered the acrid smell of human flesh burning. There'snothing like it. One night I took a river boat out on the Ganges. Colouredlights outlined the boat. It looked happy like a party boat only it took youdown the river for a visit to Club Death. As I passed each funeral pyre, Ipressed my hands into the railing and tried to continue to breathe as thesmoke filled my lungs. Some day this would be my fate. 'Know this now,' Ithought.

It always seemed to me fundamentally unfair that no matter how muchspiritual practice I do, I still feel like hell a lot of the time. I guess Ithought that practising and understanding something about the true nature ofthings would cushion me against life. This is not true. What is true is thatI feel things more. I feel better and worse than I did before I undertookthis path. I feel ripped off. I wish there were warning labels on thesemeditation practices. 'Caution, you may feel better or you may feel worse.'The point is to feel, to live life in the pores of the flesh and the marrowof the bone. Yet I hate it when its bad. I won't try to be philosophicalabout it.

I had one week of hell. Walls pressed in against me. Then I woke upon Friday morning and I was peaceful. I understood the fruits of practice. Icried in gratitude. I understood that cancer may be with this body to thegrave but I could make friends with it. I could understand cancer. Cancercould have its place in my body. I always saw a clear distinction betweencancer and not cancer, between those with cancer and those without. Now Ionly saw grey areas. I am the same person I was before cancer. In fact I mayhave had cancer a long time without knowing it. I am not different yet I amfundamentally changed by this news. I feel no escape yet I'm not unhappyeither. I want to work it out with this demon cancer.
Two doctors said I had a poor prognosis. They seemed certain. The third saidhe didn't know. How I grabbed onto those words. I wanted to unfurl a bannerand march through the streets yelling: "He doesn't know. He doesn't know."People tell me how difficult it is not to know; how much better it is to knoweven if it's bad news. Sure it's hard to live in uncertainty, but I'd take itany day over being presented with a dire, hopeless. statistical prediction ofthe timing of my demise. Of course we all know the death rate is 100%. Forthose of us presented with a life-threatening diagnosis, this ceases to be aconcept. It is felt deeply in the pit of the stomach. It's hard to forget. Toremember then that one never really knows when one will die feels wonderfullyrelaxing. Furthermore, it's the truth. Two years ago I bundled my perfectlyhealthy brother, his wife and three kids onto a plane and they never got totheir destination. "Plane crash, Kathmandu, terribly sorry, all are dead,"the man from the State Department said in an early morning phone call. 'Don'tknow' is a gem holding within it the truth that life is uncertain. It leavesroom for magic to enter as well. I don't worry about retirement now. I hadfeared I might die living on the streets as a bag lady. Now I feel thesupport of my family and friends and I know I am alive right now only fromtheir generosity. I have become a receiver. This is a different role. I havebecome a giant receiver, bigger than the radio tower on top of Twin Peaks,because there is no other way to sustain my life. This is not logic speaking,This is wisdom carried in my bones from the bones of my ancestors. The twosupporting wings I felt sprouting on my shoulders at the time of diagnosishave been nurtured and tended to by many loving hands. I feel I am beingcarried by kindness. I hope I never again doubt that I am loved.

My patient and friend Michael told me: "Don't think this melanoma hastaken anything from you. It has given you something more. It has made yougreater." I looked into his freckled face severely darkened with KS lesionsand saw his eyes were as bright as a bluebell flower. I could not doubt thatwhat he said was true.
Kathryn has subsequently recovered
from the diagnosed melanoma.