Originally Published on FutureHealth
I conclude with a story about a young woman's death with cancer. The story began traumatically. Through working together, we re-authored it to give meaning to a life that seemed all to short. The strictly biological story is one of tragic bad luck.
Tiffany was a 22 year old, young woman, just starting Divinity School, diagnosed with a rare form of bladder cancer that had already spread well beyond the bladder. She was only diagnosed when the cancer shut off the urine from from her kidneys, requiring a dramatic surgery to correct.
Tiffany's parents had resources and spared her no possible conventional or alternative therapy. Tiffany continued to decline despite everyone's efforts. In our early work, we used guided imagery, acupuncture, body work, energy work, hypnosis, and other techniques to control her discomforts (nausea, vomiting, bloating, pain). Tiffany was a fast learner and quickly mastered these techniques, achieving a comfort unique for advanced cancer patients. When this threshold had been passed, we began to consider spirituality. We began to seek meaning for her life, what had transpired and what was left of it. Tiffany had been frustrated in starting Divinity School, especially in her desire to study Meister Eckhart. So we began our own course, reading together his writings and discussing them.
My image was of Tiffany's trekking in the desert, following Christ's path to wander alone, hungry and thirsty, for forty days and forty nights. I perceived her as pursuing holiness. Mother Teresa was her ideal, the person she most respected. During college she had visited Mother Teresa in Calcutta and aspired to be like her. Jesus was her other hero. I don't know why Tiffany developed cancer. I don't know if it had anything to do with psychological or spiritual factors. I do know that Tiffany's pursuit of holiness through the course of her cancer brought a meaning to her suffering and to her death that no one could dispute. Tiffany became a Mother Teresa or Christ-like character in her suffering.
Tiffany told me that she wished to completely empty herself of will and desire. She believed that "only the empty ones can be filled by Spirit. If you are full, Spirit has no room to enter. Spirit is attracted to the empty spaces within the soul, not to the sites of fullness." She believed that emptiness would allow her to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
In one of our readings, Meister Eckhart wrote, "So long as a person has his own wish in him to fulfill even the ever-beloved will of God, if that is still a matter of his will, then this person does not yet possess the poverty of which we want to speak....For a human being to possess true poverty, he or she must be as free of his or her created will as they were when they did not yet exist." Tiffany aspired to become nothing but the pure will of God as she died, to be empty of all else but God.
Poverty was a goal for Eckhart as it was for Tiffany. Though her family was wealthy, she abstained from any demonstration of consumption. She spent her summers working in the inner city in the most abject poverty imaginable. I had many untestable ideas about Tiffany's situation, including wondering if she was atoning for her family's wealth, for her guilt at being raised privileged, at going to private schools, at going to an elite University, at having ultimate financial security.
More than anything else, Tiffany wanted to serve God. She wanted to make a difference in the world's suffering. She seemed to feel guilty for having anything. I think she would have been ecstatic if her family had suddenly lost all their wealth. Was she emulating Eckhart's saying that she must be as free of these life supports as though they did not exist? Must she walk alone through the valley of the shadow of death? Her mother would have gladly taken her place on any challenge. But would that have been desirable if it could have been done?
Tiffany showed me where Eckhart had written that we need to aspire to the kind of emptiness that predated our creation, because this profound emptiness would allow God to enter. Not to guide us to do His will like puppets to the puppeteer, but rather to enliven our souls so that we are the Will of God. She explained to me how different it was to imagine doing God's will in actions that I have planned based upon my reading or my understanding of God, as compared to doing without mind, to Being God.
She showed me the writings of a Thai monk, who wrote:
About this mind, in truth there is nothing really wrong with it. It is intrinsically pure. Within itself it is already peaceful. That the mind is not peaceful these days is because it follows moods. The real mind doesn't have anything to it. It is simply an aspect of nature. It becomes peaceful or agitated because moods deceive it. The untrained mind is stupid. Sense impressions come and trick it into happiness, suffering gladness, sorrow, but the mind's true nature is none of these things. That gladness or sadness is not the mind but only a mood coming to deceive us. The untrained mind gets lost and follows these things. It forgets itself, then we think it is we who are upset or at ease or whatever.
"But really this mind of ours is already unmoving and peaceful, really peaceful Just like a leaf which is still as long as no wind blows. If a wind comes up the leaf flutters. The fluttering of the leaf is due to the wind-the fluttering of the mind is due to those sense impressions. The mind follows them. If it doesn't follow them it doesn't flutter. If we know fully the true nature of sense impressions we are unconcerned.
Our practice is simply to see the original nature of the mind. So we must train the mind to know those sense impressions, and not get lost in them.
To make it peaceful -- just this, is the aim of all this difficult practice we put ourselves through.
Therefore, we must cultivate emptiness. We must actually dwell in God as God dwells in us, not even knowing what we do or are doing. It must be done so matter of factly, that it is not even noticed.