Dukkha and Gratitude

I will not attempt to spin Stage IV pancreatic cancer as a "glass half-full" life event.  It is not.  I also remain mindful that I'm not the one in the center circle.  Even bringing all the empathy I can muster to bear (and I want to delve into that subject later), I cannot know what that experience is like... at least not now.

Dukkha - Theory and Practice

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that all life is dukkha (suffering).  Now, the common Western interpretation of the First Truth is rather dismal and nihilistic, but you can't stop with Truth #1.  The Four Noble Truths go on to delve into the causes of and cures for suffering.  Don't worry, I'm not going make this a lecture on Buddhism. I'm in no way an expert in the teachings and certainly not in the practices.  But the key point is that we are often the cause of our own suffering.

M. Scott Peck in 'The Road Less Traveled' discussed what he referred to as "legitimate suffering".  Legitimate suffering arises from adhering to the four aspects of discipline (delaying gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing).  He further theorized that attempting to avoid legitimate suffering actually results in more and greater suffering (neurotic suffering).  I can personally attest to the truth of that and I imagine most of you can as well.

Bottom line:  Suffering is real.  Suffering is pervasive.  And you better damn well figure out how properly face it and work with it.

Now here's the mystery:  suffering is also a crucible into which you are placed.  And within that crucible, you can be broken and ruined or you can be forged into something new and much stronger.  I have witnessed and experienced both outcomes.  I don't have the wisdom to help anyone direct that process, but I do pray that the latter is my path through this experience.

It would be neurotic to invite or seek out unneeded suffering.  But once the demon has taken up residence in your home, it's time to make friends with it.  There are gifts that the darkness can bring if you're present and aware.

Grace and the Darkness

I highly recommend Thomas Moore's 'Dark Nights of the Soul' for a more expansive discussion on this topic.  Moore's perspectives might be invaluable when (not if) you find yourself lost in the underworld.  He invokes Hekate, the Greek goddess of the moon, as your guiding dark angel.  Perhaps it's past time for me to get reacquainted with her.

The three faces of Hekate
Moore defines a "dark night" not as simply a challenging or traumatic experience, but as a truly transformational journey that is signified by a withdrawal from the world of light (the normal routine and the everyday affairs).

I'll give you two quotes from Moore that resonate with me...

“During the dark night there is no choice but to surrender control, give in to unknowing, and stop and listen to whatever signals of wisdom might come along. It’s a time of enforced retreat and perhaps unwilling withdrawal. The dark night is more than a learning experience; it’s a profound initiation into a realm that nothing in the culture, so preoccupied with external concerns and material success, prepares you for.”  - T Moore

“It is precisely because we resist the darkness in ourselves that we miss the depths of the loveliness, beauty, brilliance, creativity, and joy that lie at our core.” - T Moore

(I'm well aware that, at this point, you are all scrambling to add me to your holiday party guest lists)

So what treasures have I  uncovered wandering lost in the darkness up to this point?  I'll share three.

There are matters in my life that I have struggled with mightily over the past few years.  In some ways, it's the lesson of the monkey trap.  A hollowed coconut with a small hole is staked to the ground and baited with rice.  The hole is just big enough for the the monkey to insert her hand.  But once she grabs the rice, her fist will no longer pass through the hole.  The monkey is trapped and loses her freedom because she refused to let go of the "prize".

There's no need to disclose the specifics here.  Suffice to say that I have let go of the "rice" and am much more grounded in truth now - making choices and acting from that place.

There are life challenges that, while difficult, you know from experience you have the capacity to walk through.  And then there are the ones that leave you questioning yourself at the core.  To have the latter experiences and then be able to look back on them is true wealth and wisdom.  To find yourself in the middle of such an experience is an existential crisis.

There was a period when I was terrified that this dark night would swallow me.  And I compare that to times when I felt that I was close to losing "everything" only to come to the realization that "everything" is actually not all that important and/or real.  This was different.  This felt like what could be lost was me.

Then from somewhere inside... light.  I got up.  To the best of my capacities, I walked towards reality and let go of what I wished were true... and became more real in the process.

Over the past few years I have, on more than a couple of occasions, looked up (often as not from the beer I was holding) and became exquisitely aware of my fellow travelers.  Whatever I have done karmically good or ill to place me in their company, is the most prominent manifestation of grace in my life.  And I have on more than a couple of occasions tried awkwardly to tell them how priceless and treasured they are.

The transition from "normal" to a participant in a life-threatening crisis... from the everyday world to the underworld... was hard on me and on those in our community.  It is awkward.  What are the right words?  What are the right actions?  And then slowly, we learned how to dance again to a new darker tune.

There are relationships that have unfolded and deepened.  Friends brought skills and experience to bear that I never thought I would need from them.  Support appeared from unexpected places.  Love has manifested in ways that has left me dumbfounded.  Grace.

And for those who view me with pity, you might be taken aback to learn that I sometimes feel that same emotion towards you when I see it in your eyes.  Not because you should envy me, but because you fail to understand the true nature of this experience.

I'll end with a meditation from a fellow traveler in the underworld.  You are all invited 'up to the house'.


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