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Sangha in Motion

Jan Rose's Dharma JourneyJan Rose's Dharma Journey - Grace & Gratitude

As many of you know, I am recovering from cancer treatment that took place last year. During my ordeal, I was surprised to find myself very grateful for the amazing experiences that occurred. I didn’t start out grateful. Prior to cancer I had difficulty with gratitude.

Last year around this time I was involved with preparations for a big Sustainability Conference which was scheduled in April ‘07. I was involved in this conference because in the year prior (2006) I had asked the “great universal wisdom” to reveal my mission in life. This search is not new. It has occurred over and over again. In 1984 it led me to finish my bachelor’s degree and 1987 to begin masters and then to quit my counseling work a mere 6 years later. I have since come to understand this mission search as a central aspect of my suffering and a catch 22 trap that consists of the strong desire to find my “true purpose” in life while at the same time believing much of what I do is not good enough. I recognize now the destructive and paradoxical the trap I had created for myself.

I have been a member of the Dharma Center for a about 3 of years, Windsong dojo for about nine years and on a spiritual self help search which dates back 15-20 years. All of these efforts have contributed to my modest practice and have given me glimpses of my problems and solutions. Chanting the Lotus Sutra, I began to recognize my judgments on myself as the ego’s desire for “existence” and that I needed to “aspire to the mind of nonexistence”. This means I had an ego that wanted to be someone important, to be talented or to stand out among my peers. However, my ego is also very perfectionist and judgmental. Catch 22!

You may be able to surmise an existence on a roller coaster: A series of valleys and mountains. Being in the valley requires me to reach down and pull myself up by the boot straps and head for the mountain. I had yet another of one of my “boot strap moments” in 2006 as I had many times before. This time, I prayed to one of my idols, Gandhi, to “become the change I wished to see”. I focused on actively promoting those values I am most passionate about. I wanted to plug in and do my part. I truly wanted to become a bodhisattva in the world. My effort led me to a group of people who share an interest in environmental sustainability. This involvement led to my work on the conference.

Throughout my work with this group I was nagged by my old sense of inadequacy. I judged them to be brighter and more experienced professionals who were movers and shakers in the social and environmental community. I judged myself as not measuring up. This is the old scenario which pokes back into my life with karmic persistence.

Judgment is very painful and I have long wanted to stop the incessant noise in my head that kept me from acting for fear of my shortcomings. I was dealing with my usual feelings of inadequacy by my usual methods: in part, “seeking” of spiritual practice and guru guidance, but when “seeking” failed, I dealt with inadequacy by self medicating with emotion numbing substances (alcohol) or practices (TV & other distractions) to alleviate my suffering while pressing ever forward with my “mission”. Based on personal experience I believed my only alternative to this painful dance was to give up on my life, lay down in the valley and begin to look like my mother who is often frozen in fear and depression.

The absurdity and danger in my actions could no longer escape my conscious mind. I knew that I couldn’t continue to mentally and physically abuse myself and not suffer physical repercussions. Early in 2007, I put another prayer out to the Universe: Please don’t let me die before I wake up.

It is probably impossible to explain the wheel of suffering following its cause and effect or trace each individual strand in the web of your life, however looking back at the way my life unfolded I cannot help but see how some of my great karmic struggles were answered .

At this time I needed to experience gratitude. I had taken for granted having a strong healthy body, an abundance of stuff and all my basic needs, an education, a supportive husband, friends, family, community and sangha. I needed to see my Buddha nature the way I see the Buddha nature in others: with love, sometimes extraordinary appreciation and awe and sometimes with perfect compassion. This, I believe, is what it means to take refuge in the Buddha. I needed to learn to applaud my efforts, my practice and wisdom and forgive my mistakes. I needed a wake up call that could not be mistaken.

In March my daughter who lives out of state confronted me with my excessive drinking…and I quit. With greater clarity I began to notice a sensation of an obstruction when swallowing in my lower esophagus. I scheduled an appointment with my doctor and on June 8th I found out I had esophageal cancer. Believe me when I tell you my life was immediately changed.

I felt like I had suddenly stepped aboard a fast moving new world heading in an unknown scary direction for which there seemed no brakes. Tests and procedures were quickly scheduled. Their urgency became clear and unquestioned when Dave and I each independent of the other surfed the internet to see that we were facing a very deadly cancer. I was hit with the realization I might actually die before I wake up. This was a wake up call to reckon with.

Cancer treatment and recovery became our total life focus for the next 6 months. Because I am young enough and healthy enough, the full course of treatment was recommended for the best chance of survival: Radiation, chemo and eventual surgery. I am not going to say that during that time I didn’t experience fear and pain, misery and suffering because I did. The news itself was very shocking. The course of radiation eventually burned my esophagus to the point I could no longer eat landing me in the hospital for a week of intravenous feeding. Chemo had its wretched moments and surgery…what can I say? What was supposed to be minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery turned into a major reduction and rearrangement of my digestive system lasting 12 hours.

But fear, pain and suffering is not what I remember about the experience. It was the amazing grace of feeling strength, courage, support, trust and gratitude. This began on the very first day I found out I had cancer and it carried me through-out the ordeal.

When I was asked to share my story I did a fair amount of thinking for a way to explain my experience both to myself and to you. What was this experience of strength & courage and where did it come from? In the past my experience of myself was of a glass half empty, now my cup “runneth over”. Big mystery!

Now that I am putting my thoughts together I realize how simple it is. The positive things I experienced were a result of my practices. The suffering I experienced was also a result of my practices. Practice is anything you repeat over and over again. When I practice fear, avoidance, or self judgment for example, that is what will come to mind when problems hit. When mindfulness, living NOW in the moment and the Dharma are practiced, these are what come to mind. We become what we practice.

Last Saturday in Aikido, Sensei was talking about why we practice in the first place. He was talking about self-defense in Aikido at the time but gave the example of meeting a serious physical attack out in the real world. Without practice there will be panic. He basically said that because we may be faced with difficult situations in the real world, we practice on the mat in the safety of the dojo in order to meet the challenges with skill, tact, calm, stillness and order.

What I experienced during my ordeal with cancer was the divine love, protection, and guidance of the Three Treasures...refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. I recently read on a Buddhist website that “Taking refuge begins with faith and ends when we trust the refuge we found. Taking refuge means finding guidance, nourishment, shelter and peace in the midst of our confusion and difficulty.” I found refuge in seeing the Buddha nature in those around me, in the teachings of the Dharma and the comfort of the Sangha.

When in the presence of family, a friend, a teacher, and a healer I felt love and compassion reflected back to me…the Buddha ideal in all beings including myself. When I received cards, letters, gifts, chants, emails & prayers from friends and family and friends of friends and strangers from all over the US and beyond I was in awe of the connection; the web of life. Taking refuge in the Dharma, I remembered my practice…that all things are impermanent including life…that to cling to anything is to suffer…that the present moment is all there is…NOW…this is it… I found incredible comfort and trust in this realization when I remembered. When I was in pain, or couldn’t eat, or couldn’t hold my food down and I remembered this too was impermanent, there was peace.

Nirvana is quiescence. When I remember all things are impermanent and that all is connected I experienced a state of serenity, calm, stillness and order and I am grateful.

Remembering takes practice, awakening takes practice. Thich Nhat Hanh said, “It is not a matter of faith it’s a matter of practice.”

April 2008

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