Cancer Again (Naturally)

In December, I started having knee pain. I didn’t think too much about it, even though the pain was intense at times. I’ve had intermittent knee problems for some years, and figured it was probably arthritis or age. It went away after about a week, but then it came roaring back in January – deep throbbing pain that would not go away. I went to a couple of orthopedic surgeons and a rheumatologist. They discovered a lesion in my left femur. Possible cancerous. Possibly not, said one orthopedic oncologist.

The only way to know for sure was to do a biopsy. Last Wednesday, they drilled a hole in my bone, went into the left femur, removed tissue from the lesion, and the pathologist on hand during the surgery declared it cancer. Metastasis, to be exact, cancer that spreads from one part of the body to other parts. We, meaning I and the doctors, thought all the cancer was removed when they took out my old liver and gave me a new one.  But, I’m not getting that easy.  There must have been some cancer cells hiding somewhere, perhaps in bone marrow.

Needless to say, having a hole drilled in your bone is extremely painful.  They put a rod in to prevent fractures and make the leg weight bearing. Still, it hurts like hell and pain medication does not provide total relief.

Next is to get with the oncologist I worked with before and decide how to start fighting this thing. From what I understand there are three modes of treatment: radiation, chemotherapy, amputation.

And two battlefronts: the external one, involving the treatments I just mentioned, along with any others that might be available, and there is the inner front, the battlefield of bodymind and spirit. In future posts, as I did before, I plan to share a few of the highlights of my wayfaring through these stages of cancer.

I do have mixed feelings about putting my personal business in front of the public. But, ancient Buddhist texts describe two kinds of illness: those of the unenlightened, and those of the enlightened. The latter are for the purpose of providing opportunities to teach. I would never claim to be enlightened (I can pretty much guarantee you I’m not), nor am I egotistic enough to think I have much of anything to teach anyone.  Yet, if sharing more of my healing journey can be of benefit to others, so be it.

My approach to inner healing is centered on the Healing Buddha (whose image appears in the new header above), and my way is a bit unorthodox. In Tibet, Medicine Buddha is among the Highest Yoga Tantra. I received a Medicine Buddha Empowerment from Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche in 2002, but I am not convinced that such empowerments are necessary.

In Teachings from the Medicine Buddha Retreat (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2009), Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that in Healing Buddha teachings, “The person has to practice Medicine Buddha and have a good heart, with a sincere wish to help others.”

That is the only requirement, and this sentiment fully captures the essence ofBuddhist practice. Just do it. Try to help others. All awakening stems from that.

Now, for some reason, the song, “Alone Again (Naturally)” has been in my head lately.  There are some nice versions available (Sarah Vaughn, Diana Krall) but I chose the original because I liked it when it was first released and it has a beat.  Since I started letting folks know about this new development, the most frequent response I have received from family and friends has been, “I am so sorry you have to go through this.”  I’m sorry about it, too. It’s a real drag, and I am very tired of the pain, but what can I do? I got it. It’s mine.  I own it. I have to heal it.  Actually, that makes it sound as if cancer were something completely external.  It’s not.  I am the cancer.  I have to heal myself.

I have to admit, though, there are times when I feel downhearted.  So, dear readers, here is about the only self-pitying you will get from me, and it will be over in three minutes and forty-two seconds:


Come Healing with Leonard Cohen

LC1bI first became interested in poetry around 3rd or 4th grade after I read e.e. cummings’ poem “in-just spring,” and I used to borrow books of poetry from the school and city libraries, but I didn’t actually own a book of poetry until years later. It was Selected Poems 1956–1968 by Leonard Cohen. I still have that book. If you were to open it, you’d find an inscription: “To David on his 17th birthday, Love Dad.”

That was a long time ago, and the book, its author, my dad, and I are all still around.

Not only that but the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter has a new live album titled Leonard Cohen – Live in Dublin set for release in December. The video from the album premiered on Oct. 16. It’s called “Come Healing” and it’s from his critically acclaimed 2012 studio album Old Ideas.

Now, as you probably know, in addition to being a poet and songwriter, Cohen is also a Buddhist. In fact, he ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center here in Southern California where he also spent several years on retreat.

Any influence that Buddhism has exerted on Cohen’s songwriting seems to be in between the lines of his lyrics. Like Bob Dylan, Cohen is Jewish, and yet both infuse their songs with Biblical imagery. In “Come Healing,”: ” The splinters that you carry/The cross you left behind” and “And let the heavens hear it/The penitential hymn.” The song is quintessential Cohen, dealing with reparation and devastation, desire and betrayal, faith and loss, and absolute love – reoccurring themes for the man someone once dubbed “the high priest of pathos.”

Yes, Leonard Cohen is still around, these days sporting a fedora that makes him look a bit like a latter-day Philip Marlowe, Private Rabbi, prowling the mean streets of the City of Lost Angels. According to Rolling Stone, he told the crowd toward the beginning of his one of his Dublin sets, “I’m not quite ready to hang up my boxing gloves just yet. I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but tonight we’ll give you everything we’ve got.”

Come watch Leonard Cohen drop to his knees to “Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind.” Full lyrics after the video.

Come Healing

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The Heart beneath is teaching
To the broken Heart above

O let the heavens falter
And let the earth proclaim:
Come healing of the Altar
Come healing of the Name

O longing of the branches
To lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries
To purify the blood

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

O let the heavens hear it…


White Light, Clear Light

Never having had a near death experience, I am not sure what to think about them. I am inclined to believe that they are mostly in the nature of hallucination. However, a panel of psychiatrists at the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDs) 2014 Conference held this past weekend in Newport Beach, Ca., stressed that while “there are people who have hallucinations and need certain treatments to function well and live healthy lives, near death experiences (NDEs) should not necessarily be lumped in with such hallucinations.”

People who have near-death experiences often report seeing a white light. Last year, researchers at the University of Michigan discovered some scientific evidence to explain this phenomenon. Evidently, the brain continues to function for up to 30 seconds after blood flow stops, and this electrical activity may account for the appearance of “light.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, it’s thought that certain practitioners also experience a white light or the “clear” luminosity of emptiness at the moment of death. Robert Thurman, in his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, describes clear light as “transparency,” for it is “the subtlest light that illuminates the profoundest reality of the universe . . . It is an inconceivable light, beyond the duality of bright and dark, a light of the self-luminosity of all things.”

The Dalai Lama, during a 1991 teaching in New York, explained clear light this way,

I don’t think that in the term clear light should be taken literally. It is sort of metaphoric. This could have its roots in our terminology of mental will. According to Buddhism, all consciousness or all cognitive mental events are said to be in the nature of clarity and luminosity. So it is from that point of view that the choice of the term light is used. Clear light is the most subtle level of mind, which can be seen as the basis or the source from which eventual experience or realization of Buddhahood, Buddha’s wisdom might come about, therefore it is called clear light.”

As an extremely subtle level of mind, the concept of clear light is akin to the notion of Buddha-nature, the purest state of mind in which one is able to apprehend the true nature of reality, a state of mind that is stable enough to withstand the vicissitudes of most mental afflictions, a mind imbued with a deep sense of compassion.

According to Buddhist teachings, the moment of death presents the greatest opportunity for realizing wisdom and healing, and that the scope for spiritual healing is not limited by death but can actually continue after death. Of course, it would be foolish and wasteful to wait until then to realize an enlightening state of mind. This is why Buddhism emphasizes the present moment, because awakening is always possible, always near at hand.

However, even though sudden flashes of clear light are available in the timeless reality of now, it requires effort, and time, to experience them, and once experienced it is not a fait accompli, a done deal, irreversible, requiring no further endeavor on our part. As I have said many times here, and you may know that it is the theme of The Endless Further, awakening is a continuous process, for if there is such a thing, how could it be anything else?  Awakening or enlightenment, cannot be defined, so how can it be a destination, an end point?  It is an ceaseless journey that takes place only though living, in daily life.  As Krishnamurti said, awakening means to be a light unto oneself, and in that way then, we are the clear light.

Here’s some guys who were clear light, too. Straight from L.A. circa 1966, a long-forgotten, unheralded psychedelic rock band named Clear Light:


See the sand
Lying by . . .
The ocean!
Golden sun
In metal sky
. . . Burning!
Shimmering heat lies heavy . . .
. . . Lies in
Grass brown search
For cooling air
Dying, dying with you!
Harshness flees,
Colors fade,
Night falls!
Quiet winds
Search silver sands
. . . Wandering!


Talking About Depression

Sometimes great benefit follows great tragedy . . . Robin Williams’ unfortunate death by suicide has drawn some much-needed attention to the disease of depression.

Addiction is often a gateway to depression, and vice versa. Williams may have had a genetic predisposition toward developing both. The major surgery he underwent in 2009 to replace his aortic valve may also have been a factor. As I recently learned firsthand, major surgery can lead to major depression.

Last photo of Robin Williams via Instagram, July 21, his 63rd birthday
Last photo of Robin Williams via Instagram, July 21, his 63rd birthday

During an appearance on the Ellen Degeneres show, Williams dismissed any suggestion that he may have suffered from depression after the surgery. I suspect he was either in denial or uncomfortable talking about depression.  He did have this to say: “they literally open you up, they crack the box, and you get really vulnerable . . . and you get very, very emotional about everything.”

That was my experience in the hospital following my liver transplant. I was extremely emotional, crying at the drop of a hat. Not sad, I was happy, appreciative. I came home, was fine for a few weeks, and then . . .

Depression following major surgery is caused by a complex mix of physical, emotional, and behavioral changes a patient goes through, and in my case, there was also the medication to suppress my immune system so my body will not reject the new liver and the medicine I take to offset side effects of the anti-rejection meds. Quite a combo.

Like most people, I get depressed from time to time. It usually doesn’t last long. This was something else entirely, and it came to a climax over the 4th of July weekend. I felt alone, hopeless, helpless. I couldn’t eat, read, do any of things I would normally do when I feel blue. All I wanted to do was sleep . . . and I was thinking about the Big Sleep and how to induce it.

For the first time in my life I was afforded a glimpse into the desperation someone in the grip of severe depression must feel, when the agony of trying to get through another day seems so overwhelming that you think, what’s the point? Why try? Who cares?  You sort of just want it over.

That Sunday, I heard from my cousin. She was sick. She was afraid her cancer was back and that it was spreading through her body. I only felt worse after that. The next day I went on a clinic visit and had a meltdown in front of my doctor and the social worker. They were very patient, spent lots of time with me that morning. My doctor wrote a prescription for anti-depression medication. He said it would take 6 weeks for the drug to take effect. Listen, when I take pills, I want ones that are fast acting. I still haven’t filled the prescription.

On the way home, I began to fell lighter. Maybe it was just getting everything off my chest – and I was brutally honest about what I was going through, I didn’t hold back. I began to think about my cousin. What she was facing was much worse than what I was going through. When I got home I had some unexpected interaction with another USC transplant patient, a guy who has been on the waiting list for a transplant six years. I was on the list only a year and a half, cancer put me on a fast track. I reflected on all the people I had met during the that time, some who were very sick and weren’t going to make it, some that I saw just that morning, who had transplants also and were not doing nearly as good physically as I was.

What was I grousing about? I was so fortunate. My recovery was coming along phenomenally.  So many people had gone to bat for me, invested time and energy. What was wrong with me?  Look at all the others who are having a much rougher battle, my dear cousin was probably dying . . . Empathy began to kick in.

One of the books I relied on during my journey through liver disease and cancer was Ultimate Healing The Power of Compassion by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. It is about inner healing, based on the traditional Tibetan Buddhist healing philosophy where to cure any disease, you must first cure the mind.

I went back to the book, found a passage that had always stuck in my mind:

A compassionate person is the most powerful healer, not only of their own disease and other problems, but of those of others. A person with loving kindness and compassion heals others simply by existing.”

When you are suffering from depression, you question the value of your existence, and in your twisted thinking, you wonder if life is worth holding on to, but, here it says that just by existing your life has meaning.  A very powerful thought. Very easy to forget. Analyzing my own situation from a Buddhist perspective, I would say the root cause of my depression was self-centeredness. I was indulging in self-pity, feeling sorry for myself.

Compassion gets you out of yourself.  You can take the Noble Eightfold Path, the Bodhisattva Path, and all the 80,000 Buddhist teachings, and distill them all down to this: the enemy is your self, the battle is to win over yourself.  Compassion is the art of this war.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche has a section on dealing with depression.  I glossed over it before.  I wasn’t depressed then.  He writes,

What made you experience this depression? Your ego, your self-cherishing thought. There is an immediate connection between depression and the strong cherishing of I. You become depressed basically because the ego doesn’t get what it wants or expects.”

A former child star is taking some flak for tweeting that Williams was selfish by committing suicide. But he’s right. A person in a fog of depression has limited vision, and is capable of little wisdom. So wrapped up in their own pain, the pain that they will cause others with their act does not enter into the mind, or if it does, it is dismissed, or overshadowed by the darkness.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche offers three powerful techniques for fighting depression: remember impermanence and death, experience your depression on behalf of others, and give your depression to your ego. I like the last one. Why not? Since your ego is not you, and not real, but just a manifestation of self-cherishing thoughts, let the ego take care of the depression. Lighten your load.

orson-welles_trialI don’t know how serious was my bout with depression. It seems to be over and done with, although some residue lingers. When my thoughts were at their darkest, there was still the faint light of others that shined through – I could never intentionally do something that would inflict that kind of pain on my father and my other relatives or friends. Obviously, the darkness that surrounded Robin Williams was deeper.

I wrote above that Williams might have been in denial about post-surgery depression. It’s also been suggested that his periodic rehab check-ins to “maintain his sobriety” over the years, were covers for depression treatment. Strange commentary on our society where treatment for substance abuse has less of a stigma than treatment for psychological issues.

A few days after my cousin died, a tenant in my building left a few books in the laundry room for others to take, a romance novel, a science fiction adventure, and Against Depression by Peter D. Kramer. I grabbed the latter. I haven’t read it cover to cover but rather have jumped around. Kramer sees depression as a disease (some say it is a disorder), and he advocates an all-out, take-no-prisoners approach similar to the one that allowed us to eradicate smallpox. He says, “Not fearing depression, we might love more generously.”

Only 16 or 17 percent of Americans ever experience major depression, yet Kramer also says,

For a group that extends far beyond the minority who go on to suffer the syndrome, depression is the disease that stands in the wings. Many of us, and here I include myself, spend much our lives fending off depression, in those we care about, but also in ourselves.”

His message is clear. Anyone can have depression. Anyone can feel so alone and hopeless that almost on a whim, even though the thought has been thought many times before, they can try to cut themselves with a knife, hang themselves with a belt . . . unless someone is there to stop them.

Robin Williams has left us. He’s left us laughing, but he’s also left us talking about depression and that is a good thing. I think he would want us not to fear depression, and I think he would be pleased if by talking openly about depression we were able to love more generously.


Time Is

Yesterday, June 12th, was the one month anniversary of my transplant. My recovery is progressing well, and in fact my doctors, nurses and coordinators all tell me that my progress is nothing short of spectacular, something I am not ashamed to admit that I love to hear.

And yet, it is not quite as fast as I would like.  I wish I were back to normal already, or better than normal, as I was told would be the case. I’m tired of being tired, sick of being cold (I feel cold all the time), and everything else that has come with this recovery. Even though they say what I am experiencing is typical and to be expected . . . I’m impatient for the healing process to be over and done with.

I know it’s the wrong attitude. I should just let go and let time heal.

Recently I read where a Buddhist teacher or blogger said time does not heal. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who it was, nor did I bother to read the article and discover the context in which that statement was offered. Now, some reason it’s stuck in my mind, and taking the statement as it is, literally, I couldn’t disagree more.

It is important to pay careful attention to the timeless reality of now, but it is equally as important to understand the passage of time, the cycles of time. As always, the first and best Buddhist solution is to find the chu-do, the middle way.

To deny time or simply remain in the mindfulness of now is as bad as living in the past, or living only for the future. Time brings change, and since the Buddha taught everything is transient, we should have faith that change can be our friend, our ally, if we choose to let go and flow with it.

We should also try to understand the cycles of time and just where certain situations stand and where they intersect with other situations, forces, and qualities, in the complex pattern of life.

In my situation, allowing time to heal forces me to work on my practice of patience, which I’ve noted more than once is not my particular forte in life. Being patient with healing, being patient with my medical team, with myself . . . for me, it’s a struggle, but I am armed in this fight with confidence, for as Shantideva wrote, “Even while I remain in this world of suffering, through the practice of patience, I shall have beauty and good health and long life, and even the extensive joy of a universal king!”

Allowing time to heal our wounds is about having confidence about acceptance, something we probably don’t think about too often, so I’ll say it again . . . have confidence about, with, and in acceptance.  It is good to accept things, to trust in the virtue of letting go, being patient . . . after all, it’s really just that old wu-wei, the natural way of things . . . it’s understanding that time does heal . . . that all things change with time and acceptance is not rushing change or being unduly concerned about time . . . you see, for some people . . . for those who love . . . who really love . . . time is . . .