Wednesday, March 17, 2010


A member of our cancer support group asked, “Why is it we never talk about spirituality?”

Actually, we talk about whatever members bring up. Some are reluctant to speak of spirituality because they suspect it would be unwelcome in a secular hospital. Some assume that spirituality is necessarily different for everyone, and so hardly discussable. Some fear offending others, or being offended.

Still, it’s naggingly present, especially amid life-and-death experiences. A few years ago I was asked by our local hospice—a first-rate organization—to help out in a training session. For one exercise participants were divided up, and I facilitated a group of eight. We were asked to complete a written survey about our own religious views. One question was, “To what degree does your religion affect your daily life?” I crossed out “religion,” wrote in “spirituality,” and completed my survey. Afterward, in discussion, it turned out that everyone in our group had done exactly the same thing. Their spirituality, whatever that meant, trumped their religion.

What, then, is spirituality, and what does it have to do with sickness and healing?

Twenty years ago I experienced a spine-threatening illness. At any moment I could’ve become a C2 quadriplegic. It got my attention, believe me. My doctor friends insisted on immediate surgery. I wasn’t opposed to that, but wished first to try something less invasive. So for a couple of weeks I flopped around, doing research one hour and screaming at the universe the next. Friends offered help in the form of books, dietary suggestions, prayers, crystals, and talismans that began to form a sizeable pile beside my bed. I was grateful for their sentiments, but none of it helped much…until a friend sent me a curious poem.

The poem, written two thousand years ago by a Taoist monk, related the pains of his aging. Actually, he was disintegrating. Line after line lamented his losses. His faculties were failing, organs were falling away, but the final line said this: “On the other hand, what does this have to do with me?”

That got my attention as much as the illness had. What a remarkable accomplishment, I thought, a self-image that ultimately transcends disease and death. This monk wasn’t alone in that skill. Ram Dass tells of when his guru was dying of cancer. His students, gathered around him, wept. One cried, “Please, Master, don’t leave us.” The old man replied, “Leave you? Where would I go?”

These people aren’t kidding around. That’s actually the way they see the world. Imagine what that perspective does to fear, for one thing, but also to one’s relationships with others and with the universe. Now, that’s spirituality.

Apparently it’s about expanding self-image. Say I see myself mainly as a guy, comprised of my job and my masculine role. If I get prostate cancer, the consequent loss of work and post-op incontinence and impotence will devastate me totally. But a wider view is also available. For example, I’m a father, a son, brother, friend, raconteur, gourmet, reader, coin collector. Or wider: I’m a human being. Or wider yet: I’m a sentient entity. I’m a grape on the vine of consciousness, a child of God, a Dharmic agent, an eternal spirit. A common greeting among yogis is the Sanskrit “Namaste” (pronounced na-ma-stay). Translated literally as “you-me-it,” it expresses the recognition that there are no boundaries. You don't need to be a yogi: parallel concepts exist in every religious tradition.

Sounds fine, right? But how do we get there? Like every other endeavor, one step at a time. It begins by wondering, today: am I possibly slightly greater than I’ve believed up until now?

1 comment:

  1. "On the other hand, what does this have to do with me?"
    As I read that line, I was struck with how often I've considered that question, as it relates to my thoughts and emotions. When I have been able to look at them objectively, from a place of detached awareness, they seem so disconnected from any semblance of present reality. It is as if they appear out of nowhere, at the margins of my awareness, like phantasm in some forest glade childhood dream and beckon me to follow them on mindless adventures. In those times I have been able to remain undistracted; they vanish as mysteriously as they appear, leaving me alone momentarily in tranquility.
    It's a wonderful mystery, this aspect of my mind, which can remain so unchanged be the continuous stream of thoughts and emotions that pass through it. There are moments in that place of awareness, when there is an intuitive knowing, that even when death comes, I may be able to echo that phrase " On the other hand, what does this have to do with Me?"