Zen Cancer Wisdom
Tips for Making Each Day Better
Daju Suzanne Friedman
One of Daju Suzanne Friedman's friends writes in the forward to this book, "I was shocked when I was diagnosed with cancer. I had been a longtime Zen practitioner and Ashtangi yogi, eating right and living right, and then there was a lump in my neck." It turned out to be throat cancer.
I actually thought the way I lived would protect me from old age and death! Then cancer came calling ... Wake up!
Those of us who have a sudden accident, a powerfully disabling sickness, a vicious turn of luck may have thought the same. I've been a good person. I've taken such good care of my body, eaten well, driven safely, been kind to my friends and strangers. I've avoided the usual traps. It's not right. I should be perfectly healthy. It's not fair...
And the ultimate: you can't do this to me!
Who? The gods, fate, the devil, chance? The author writes "I went from a Chinese medicine doctor whose practice focused on cancer patients to a cancer patient myself."
The world didn't make sense anymore. I was living the ultimate Zen koan or riddle: How could my anticancer lifestyle have led to Stage IV lung cancer? How could true love, broccoli and qigong lead to illness?
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The author notes that one big problem is our reaction to the diagnosis. "Your attention and focus shift dramatically toward just this one thing." But,
While single-minded focus can be beneficial, it is also important to remember that you are more than your diagnosis and that there is more to life than being a patient.
The temptation is to fight it with all your strength. But we learn soon enough that although a fighting spirit may help, there may be other things to attend to. Like going on with your life. Caring for your friends (as they will care for you). Getting out of bed every morning. Beating a devastating depression that may follow the diagnosis.
Daju Suzanne Friedman offers a multitude of options. "I experimented and discovered firsthand exactly what helped or hindered my mood, energy, body, and/or spirit," she writes. "I learned how to ease unnecessary suffering during my cancer journey and began sharing this information with friends, family, patients and strangers. It is easy," she says, "for the dragons of cancer to overshadow and even obscure the pearls on this journey. No matter how dark it gets, the moon is always there." With Zen, she reminds us, you don't tell someone what to do. Rather, you become the finger pointing at the moon.
The purpose of all the tips in this book is to help you feel better now, and if not now, then at least quickly or soon.
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Zen Cancer Wisdom comes divided into eighty-six brief exercises, or insights, or thoughts: on the devastation of the diagnosis, and on possible options to take you from horror to, if not acceptance, then, at least, a modicum of calm.
As I went through the various chapters, I found a variety of sensible ideas here, some very obvious, simple ones. Such as keeping warm, taking in the beauty of the outdoors, getting enough sleep, releasing anger and anxiety --- as well as breathing, visualization, stretching, trying to continue, as much as possible, a "normal" life. If such is possible.
The writer doesn't want us to embark on fake joy, but she wants to help us escape, if at all possible, numbing despair.
There are specific options: "writing little poems," deciding what to eat, experimenting with acupuncture or aromatherapy, enjoying chocolate (yes, Chocolate!), drinking tea, learning how to make a diverting ceremony of it.
The author plays the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute. She admits that she is not all that masterful: it's difficult to play well. But because it is difficult, "playing it requires my full concentration and focus."'
I must be careful to get the tilt of the flute just right, to place my fingers in the proper positions for each note, and to blow in a way that creates the proper sound for each note, all while trying to read the music (in Japanese) correctly.
Q.: What's going on?
A.: Well, um, I've got lung cancer.
Q.: Oh wow! I'm sorry. What are you doing for it?
A.: I'm learning to play the shakuhachi.
Q.: Oh ... really? ...
A.: Yes. And it's very hard. The music is all in Japanese.
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In the chapter entitled "To Know the Road Ahead, Ask Someone Returning," she opines that going on the internet will probably give you what the kids call TMI ("too much information") --- some accurate, some not so. Live people, instead of electronic contacts, might be a much better source of help, so look for support groups, ask your oncologist, seek out friends or friends of friends who have gone the same route. "The road we have found ourselves on has many beautiful spirits. Find a few willing to share, and watch as your fears are left behind on the trail."
There's more specific advice here, a lot more. Daju Suzanne introduces us to some simple breathing exercises with visualizations. It's like what we used to do back in the sixties; we would stand or sit as straight as possible, breathe in --- through the nose --- think the color blue (river, early night after sunset, pre-dawn vistas, purity) ... and then breathe out through the mouth, letting out the black (soot, darkness, self-lacerating thoughts, fear, loneliness).
Probably the best chapter in the book deals with pain. She quotes the old Zen saying, "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional." We used to say "Breathe into the pain." Visualize the ache or throb or burning or agony ... and breathe in as slowly and as deeply as you possibly can, directing the breath to the place where the pain is at its worse. Slowly draw lightness in thorough the nose; slowly let darkness out through the mouth.
She writes, "During a particularly long, painful meditation session, we may tell ourselves to be the pain, for suffering
occurs when we resist what is true and real and here, and what is more true and real and here than pain?
It may sound a bit simplistic, but "what we mean is to tell ourselves to stop fighting; stop resisting the reality that we have pain, and see how well we can function along with it for the time being."
Fighting pain is like dragging a resisting cat across a carpet. The cat is miserable and the carpet gets shredded.
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What I found interesting here is that there are not only the clearly stated options in breathing, exercising, getting out from under the very word "cancer," but, too, techniques valuable in dealing with any kind of trauma ... including depression (which always manages to pop in the back door along with all the other agonies).
There are specifics. For those who have neuropathy --- a tingling in the lower legs and feet --- from whatever disease or shock to the system (or from her own chemotherapy), she suggests we might try a month of self-medication with L-glutamine from the health food store.
She tells us, too, that chemotherapy can take a vast toll on our stomachs --- she calls it "drug-related heartburn." She suggests licorice, but not the "red and black vines ... from the candy aisle, which do not actually contain licorice." Instead, there is DGL or "deglycyrrhizinated licorice," preferably in chewable tablets. These "antiheartburn tablets should be taken 15 - 20 minutes before eating."
For a healthy meal, she encourages us to make a simple broth with vegetables and, if you can tolerate meat, boil bones to get chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine. To add flavor, she suggests small amounts of seaweed and leafy green vegetables, along with wakame or kombu. She admits that brown rice, which we are all supposed to love, "is hard to digest," and mentions the alternative way of cooking it: soak it overnight with a spoonful of apple cider vinegar.
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When I got to the very end of Zen Cancer Wisdom, I found that Daju Suzanne Friedman had died as she was finishing this book. I was unnerved, felt that I had lost a friend, one who had taken the time and the trouble to show how she had dealt with a devastating illness; had, as many of us have tried to do, learned how to navigate the tricky waters between living and dying. In this case by doing something creative and original.
And then, when the journey was almost over, she had turned and said, "Here, I've tried this, it worked for me, at least temporarily, made my passage somewhat less difficult. Now you take it, it's yours: work with it, and if it helps you, pass it on to others. It is the least we can do."
And so I pass the same on to you --- at least what I gleaned from this most direct and honorable piece of writing on an exquisitely mournful subject.
The very humanness of it can help hold us together, keep us together long after some are no longer there to see, or hear, and know the ultimate truth that we have tried so hard, for so long, to discover.--- L. L. Lark