Zen Cancer Wisdom - Selections

Tips for Making Each Day Better


320 pages, 5x8 inches


ISBN 9781614291237

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A Head Like a Coconut

Remembering the Important Stuff

There was once a Chinese governor famous for having read thousands of scriptures. The governor found himself to be most impressive. Zen master Guizhong did not. He teasingly asked how all those scriptures could fit into the governor’s head, which was only about the size of a coconut.

In my past life as a lawyer I learned just how faulty people’s memories can be. We are all witnesses to our own lives; witnesses with a finite amount of reliable memory available to us; witnesses with coconut heads. Studies show that we tend to think we will remember more, and more accurately, than we really do. But our heads are only so big, after all!

It would take someone with a rare gift to be able to remember all of the fancy medical terms and the names of medicines you will be introduced to on this journey. Add “chemo brain” into the mix and watch as the things you were sure you’d remember disappear without a trace into the brain fog.

Be gentle with yourself when this happens. This experience is one big exercise in letting go of the illusion of control. Since you are a mere mortal, it is perfectly natural to mess up, to forget, and to ask for help and support when you need it. Other mere mortals are here for you and they want to help. In fact, they are patiently waiting for you to ask, I guarantee it.

Keeping this in mind, if at all possible, bring a friend or a family member to all of your doctor appointments. That person will be in charge of writing down what’s important while you pay attention to what’s happening during the conversation. It is so much easier to pay attention when thoughts like “I’d better remember this!” aren’t echoing over and over through our coconut-like heads.

If you can’t find yourself a second pair of eyes and ears, then you might purchase a cheap digital recorder, use the voice memo function on your cell phone, or take notes at the appointment. Find what feels easiest for you. Some people relax better when they have more to do. If this sounds like you, perhaps writing the information down yourself would be best.

Writing things down or recording them means we will have the correct information whenever we need it. Keep your information in a safe, accessible place, just in case.

You now have the perfect opportunity to practice the art of asking for help. Don’t be hard-headed—you only have so much memory in your head’s hard drive. When it comes to visits to doctors, phone calls from doctors, or whenever you know you’ll need to retain important information, remember that two heads are better than one!

Crawling Turtles

Opening to What Comes

A monk named Guo once complained, “When I went to the master with my question, I expected an answer like a galloping horse, but got a crawling turtle instead.”

Let’s think about what it means to be “a running horse” or “a crawling turtle.” A horse may get someplace faster, but the turtle has the time to figure out whether it is indeed approaching the place it wants to be. There are pros and cons to each; whether one is “better” than the other is missing the point.

Only a valuating mind, an expectant mind, a judging mind favors the horse over the turtle, or the turtle over the horse. Sometimes life gives us a galloping horse and sometimes it gives us a crawling turtle. Most of the time we do not get to choose which. We might often be lost too deeply in our own drama to be able to see life’s horses and turtles objectively.

When we expect a horse and get a turtle—as when, for example, a scan returns with mediocre results when we expected fantastic improvement—expectations will ultimately have to be adjusted to the reality that confronts us. This need not be such a bad thing. How can we learn to bend like a reed in the wind if there is no wind?

Monk Guo went to his teacher with his “preferential mind.” He approached his teacher with particular expectations, which, being a great Zen master, his teacher did not fulfill. The monk was let down, but he had an opportunity to let go of expectations and open to the unexpected. There is such great freedom in letting go of things having to be your way.

This “preferential mind” is our everyday mind on autopilot. It evaluates and judges everything that happens to us in life. It takes no effort to do this; we simply do it by habit. When we get wrapped up in our own judgmentalism, we become resistant to the many opportunities that life presents us when things aren’t what we want them to be. Initially, Monk Guo did not feel that he got what he came for when he went to his master, but we can see that he got what he needed. He was forced to reconsider his view; to open to what the present presents, and then return to his master once he understood how to let go of preferential mind.

It is inevitable that our expectations will occasionally be out of sync with reality. We may want to be finished with a treatment protocol sooner than is possible, or we may want to escape to a desert island somewhere. Aversions and desires like these are unlikely to affect the outcomes (unless you own a desert island), but are quite likely to drive you crazy if you fixate on them—especially when something can’t be changed. The practice of Zen encourages us to let go and accept that sometimes we must do what we must do, and then get on with it.

Let go of trying to turn turtles into horses. Greet and welcome each experience exactly as it is. Let go and experience the freedom that results from accepting what you cannot change, whatever it may be.

When To Pick Up Your Nose

Laughter is the Best Medicine

A monk asked Master Yunmen, “What is the purity of all-encompassing wisdom like?”
Yunmen spat at him.
The monk said, “How about some teaching method of the old masters?”
Yunmen replied, “Come here! Cut off your feet, replace your skull, and take away the spoon and chopsticks from your bowl. Now pick up your nose!
The monk said, “Where would one find such teaching methods?”
Yunmen yelled, “You windbag!”
And struck the monk with his staff.

One of the most refreshing things about Zen is that it welcomes and appreciates humor. In Zen we use humor as a teaching tool. Laughter helps us not take ourselves and our precious egos so seriously. Humor is also a way to express one’s insight and understanding, or as in the above case, to poke fun at a questioner’s lack of insight or understanding.

In the above passage, a monk wanted to get all of the answers to his big spiritual questions from Master Yunmen. A Zen master like Yunmen would find this ridiculous. Yunmen knew well that there is no way to simply teach truths that must be experienced for oneself. If the monk had been awake, had experienced a taste of his true self, he would have known that the answers to these questions are only found through one’s own experience.

Yunmen would not cater to this beginner monk, and instead responded to the monk’s earnest but misplaced questions in spontaneous and humorous ways. His responses escalate in their absurdity, to reflect the absurdity of the monk’s thought. This little story illustrates how humor can help when we are in over our heads, or when we need to stop taking ourselves so seriously.

My mother, who has also undergone cancer treatments, told me that sometimes when people at her oncologist’s would say, “You look so good!” my mom would reply, “Yes, I guess cancer agrees with me!” I find myself, too, bringing out the absurdity of the mundane questions put to me in treatment like “Can I get you anything?” “Yes! A double cheeseburger, fries, and a shake please!” My attitude tends to get a laugh or a smile, which I happily share in. In case you haven’t noticed, smiling is contagious! Having a good sense of humor comes in handy when you have cancer. Yes, we can laugh and smile we have cancer, and
we most certainly should, as often as possible.

Why laugh? Because studies show that laughter reduces your stress hormones and increases the response of immune cells. Laughter provides a workout for your body’s core muscles, increases blood flow and oxygenates the blood, and acts as an analgesic to reduce pain. Laughter also improves alertness, creativity, and memory. Would you believe that it takes less than a second for the health benefits of laughter to start to kick in? Seriously!

It is easy to find ways to laugh. Part of the trick is to remind yourself of this by keeping in touch with what made you laugh before cancer. I have a good friend, for example, with whom I can share a good laugh even at my own expense. We all have friends or family members who help us let our guard down and not take ourselves so seriously. Keeping in touch with the people, movies, books, or ideas that help us to laugh at life is an important part of helping ourselves get healthy.

• Spend time with that friend who helps you laugh at the absurdity of life. With cancer comes a host of new friends with cancer that you meet along the way. Many times you’ll find that exchanging stories of the absurd situations you find yourselves in is a source of much laughter.
• Embrace the “interesting” changes in appearance that you go through with humor: why not wear a fun hat to cover your bald head, or get a temporary henna tattoo when you go bald? It’s okay to chuckle at the strangeness you see looking back at you in the mirror. When you look funny, you look funny! When I began to grow my hair back, it grew in curlier than it had ever been. It was so curly that I looked like I was wearing a steel wool pad on my head, or that I had the world’s worst Jew-fro. This hairdo gave me months of laughter until it finally grew out and settled down.
• Listen to comedy routines, see a funny movie, or read a humorous book (David Sedaris did wonders for me).
• Find what makes you laugh, and make regular use of it.

Over the years it has become very easy to laugh at myself—I have had tons of opportunities to practice and hone this skill. If Zen masters find it perfectly appropriate to use humor when words can’t take us where we want to be, then there’s no good reason why we cancer patients shouldn’t follow in their wise footsteps.



How to cite this document:
© Suzannah Stason, Zen Cancer Wisdom by Daju Suzanne Friedman (Wisdom Publications, 2014)

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