There is a book that sits on my bookshelf that I have not managed to finish reading. I am aware that it is still there and, if I am honest with myself, this book scares me. The book is called Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber; it is a moving account of his relationship with his wife Treya and their five year journey after Treya is diagnosed with breast cancer. The book starts with Ken’s and Treya’s first meeting and ends with her final death. I was given it to read last year by a close friend whose sister had died from breast cancer several years earlier. She said that she found the book a very challenging read, but very helpful and meaningful as she came into relationship with the various issues one can face when yourself or a someone close to you has a life-threatening illness. The reason I share this with you is because in spring of 2011 my girlfriend Elaine was diagnosed with breast cancer. As you can imagine this came as a huge shock and blow to the both of us as well as friends and family. The news came as an even harder pill to swallow as Elaine had already had breast cancer twice before and also an auto-immune disease in her teens.
I have been exploring practices of meditation, Buddhism and yoga for over 20 years and when the ‘shit hits the fan’, as they say, you really get to see where you are at with any ideas you have about yourself as some kind of spiritual practitioner. If I have learned anything from this situation, it is how hard it is to stay open and be in relationship to the possibility of loss, sickness, even death. At times I found myself spacing-out or obsessively busying myself in work or other activities, rather than allowing myself to be with a sense of vulnerability and rawness in my heart.
I feel my practice now is to try to allow myself to feel what I feel and stay open to love and not let fear engulf me; to learn to relax into being with uncertainty, change and ‘the unknown’. Even now I still get anxious when Elaine has to go to the hospital for a check-up; I try and stay in my body and be with my feelings, but it’s not easy. Being in relation to cancer has affected us and our life together, and that can seem overwhelming at times. When I relax, instead of trying to control events due to anxiety or fear, and just stay awake and aware in the present, then I begin to accept life more fully on its terms rather than on my own; its delights, disappointments and its complexities, surrendering more deeply into being human and trying to live a conscious, aware life.
I am happy to report that Elaine was sucessfully operated on and is currently in remission. I hope I will find the courage to go over to my bookcase, take down Grace and Grit and finish it. I know how it ends and it’s going to be challenging reading it, but maybe Treya’s journey is not so different than our own; we all will someday have to face death, but it’s what we do with the time we have that’s important.
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” – Mark Twain