October 2, 2011
Excerpt from Coyote Wisdom Chapter 10
By Lewis Mehl-Madrona
This excerpt tells the story of my work with Tiffany, a young woman with cancer who was from the Christian faith and how we used Meister Eckhart as a way to bridge my Native American philosophies with Christianity to create a healing dialogue throughout the course of her cancer. this seems like an important story to me because it shows how we can create healing (meaning and purpose) even when the patient dies.
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.
We must make a radical Letting Go in order to be sufficiently empty and therefore able to be God. God enters the emptiness. Meister writes that God is nothingness, which is more properly hyphenated as no-thing-ness. To be full of God we must meditate or comtemplate no-thing-ness, since that is God. God is not a thing.
I wondered how Tiffany could become No-thing, when she was the oldest, favorite child of a family that was Everything the perfect family, the most respected family, the most successful family. Within her lay the desire for no-thing-ness: as expressed in all of her good works with the poor. I almost had the sense that Tiffany aspired to selflessness, as in having no self, as in being completely empty. This was the gist of the stories she showed me. Though I sensed another Tiffany from her imagery, a wild girl who wanted to sell hats in a "throw-back-from-the-60's" store or buy a Harley-Davidson and set out across Route 66. That path would be unique and iconoclastic. These choices were constrained by her family and her religion. My stories about these versions of her were too frivolous to be believable, though they made her laugh.
Was this the pivotal point, to empty Tiffany of the sense of fullness her family provided her, the sense of fullness her culture provided her? Her own attempts at emptying had been serious, planned, careful, thoughtful, and safe. When she finally was empty at times during our sessions, she came alive with a vivacity that didn't often show. Spirit was clearly in her then, but I think that level of passion and excitement went against her definitions of acceptable religiosity.
In one exercise, we found 7 versions of Tiffany who were well. One, as I mentioned earlier, sold hats. Another rode a bike down Route 66. Yet another taught school in an impoverished neighborhood but as a vital member of that living community. This brought forth Tiffany's satisfaction at worship in the gospel church of the inner city black community in which the sermon is a dialogue between minister and congregation, and the music smacks of vitality compared to the staid, conventional, quiet realm of Protestant Sundays. It was this wild abandonment for life that attracted the versions of her who were well.
Another of her favorite Eckhart quotes said (p. 215), "One must be so free of all knowledge that he or she does not know or recognize or perceive that God lives in him or her; even more, one should be free of all knowledge that lives in him or her. For, when people still stood in God's eternal being, nothing else lived in them. What lived there was their selves. Hence we say that people should be as free of their own knowledge as when they were not yet, letting God accomplish whatever God wills. People should stand empty."
While this paragraph could profoundly connect Christianity and Buddhism and Native American spirituality, I found myself feeling that Tiffany was using it to make meaning out of her disappearing from life.
I think Tiffany did achieve, as Thich Nhat Hahn said, awareness of no-thing. She set about letting her little bottle of self drain out. She did empty her will and poured out her self. She pulled the plug and let her personality drain out into the sand so that only empty remained. Did God enter? No one goes to the gas station with a full tank. I try only to go when the "Empty" warning light comes on. Then I know I am ready for a fill-up.
Together Tiffany and I had profound spiritual experiences that I will never forget. We did experience Christ. We experienced God's entry into the soul. We felt that spark of life that enlightens and enlivens us all. Tiffany became a living saint. But, even as she lived, I kept wondering how she could be a saint and still live. Together we experienced wise, kind, compassionate, loving, enlivened, and all-encompassing energy, whether you call it Christ, Spirit, or bodhisattva. When we are filled with Spirit, we are no longer ourselves, but a hybrid human-spirit being, thing and no-thing simultaneously. Working with her through the dying process became one of the profound events of my life.
In this hybrid state miracles can occur, though the miracle for Tiffany had no relationship to the health of her physical body. I believe she achieved sainthood in this life. She achieved the state of human empty -- spirit full. But she eventually stopped returning to the state of being only human and marveling at the wonder of what has happened.
Another Eckhart quote said, "...there is something in the soul from which knowing and loving flow. It does not itself know and love as do the forces of the soul. Whoever comes to know this something knows what happiness consists in. It has neither before nor after, and it is in need of nothing additional, for it can neither gain nor lose. For this very reason, it is deprived of understanding that God is acting within it. Moreover, it is that identical self which enjoys itself just as God does. Thus we say that people shall keep themselves free and void so that they neither understand nor know that God works in them...."
"The masters say that God is a being, an intelligent being, and that he knows all things. We say, however: God is neither being nor intelligent nor does he know this or that. Thus God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things.
"Therefore it is necessary that people desire not to understand or know anything at all of the works of God. In this way is a person able to be poor of one's own understanding." This understanding in physicality was what Tiffany achieved through the experience of cancer.
Though she died, Tiffany had a healing. She attained holiness from the perspectives of everyone who knew her. She taught me that writing about healing and the suspended state of grace entailed in healing is difficult because the location of healing is never quite available. Like Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, we cannot locate healing precisely in both space and time. It happens through the creation of emptiness and the infiltration into the emptiness of a mysterious force free of all things because it is all things. So this emptiness is a metaphor for giving up our will and surrendering to the larger good, to the larger cell or organ or being of which we are but a miniscule part. Thinking that God controls us like the puppeteer as is popular in fundamentalist religions, is like thinking that we control one mitochondrium in one liver cell. We do not. God does not, because we are God and God is us.
Tiffany was quite fond of the "five touchings of the earth" meditation, which we did often. In the first meditation, we contemplate that whatever we think we are is but one wave in the ocean that we are. Each wave is a manifestation of the greater whole. The waves come and go. They are impermanent. But the ocean remains forever. This body that I have, it is a wave. It will come and go. But knowing that I am truly the ocean and not the wave, I can feel peaceful.
In the second meditation, we consider that we have been many times and will be many times, and all these beings are again manifestations of that which we truly are. Again, we are the ocean and not each wave.
In the third meditation, we consider that we are all of our ancestors and all of the offspring yet to be born. Again each of us is a wave in a greater ocean. My mother, my father, they are in me as I was in them.
The fourth meditation is on our beloved, while the fifth is on finding loving kindness and compassion for one whom we feel is our enemy. We embrace the enemy and feel that we are the enemy and the enemy is us.
When we are the ocean, there is no death, no disease. In this state healing has already happened because illness never was.
Tiffany gave this quote to me during the week that she died. It was Eckhart's sermon on his concept of breakthrough, so important for his spirituality. It was also Tiffany's way, perhaps, of telling me she was ready to breakthrough, to achieve that greater union with God. She found what really mattered to her the sacred:
"In the breakthrough ..., where I stand free of my own will and of the will of God and of all his works and of God himself, there I am, above all creatures and am neither God nor creature. Rather, I am what I was and what I shall remain now and forever. Then I receive an impulse which shall bring me above all the angels. In this impulse I receive wealth so vast that God cannot be enough for me in all that makes him God, and with all his divine works. In this breakthrough I discover that I and God are one. There I am what I was, and I grow neither smaller nor bigger, for there I am an immovable cause that moves all things. Here, then, God finds no place in people, for people achieve with this poverty what they were in eternity and will remain forever. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the strictest poverty one can find."
Lewis grew up in southeastern Kentucky and attended Indiana University where he majored in biophysics. He then attended Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is currently teaching in the Clinical Psychology Program at Union Institute and University in Brattleboro, Vermont, and has a part-time private practice there. He is the author of several books about integrating narrative and indigenous ideas with modern medicine and psychiatry including Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, Narrative Medicine, and Healing the Mind through the Power of Story.