The Dharma of Illness and The Medicine of Wonderment
by Tarchin Hearn
with thanks to David French for asking me to write something on this topic
Oct 25/15, 5:52 am. I am sitting in my hut at Orgyen Hermitage, our 2 acre block situated in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. The sky appears crystalline, washed with the colours of dawn and framed with silhouettes of trees and bushes. All around are the sounds of thousands of birds, chirping and squawking, a fluxing aural tapestry celebrating the rising energies of another day. There is a sense of timeless goodness, an unhurried rightness in this moment of simple daily blessing. An immeasurable expanse of experience and experiences surrounds and suffuses me, a weaving together of uncountable situations and circumstances – a seamless whole in the act of constant transformation – this dancing of my current knowing/experience/beingness.
Beneath my skin, vast realms of micro-activity are doing their part in bringing forth a glorious morning display: muscles, tendons, flowing blood, metabolizing cells, neural dance and hormonal releasings. In this very moment, uncountable cells are being born and uncountable cells are dying. What yesterday were carrots and wheat and beans and animal flesh are now flowing streams of metabolic activity; substances being broken down, new substances being built up and all of this molecular action powered by sunlight and mass/energy transformational mysteries.
My situation is no different from everything else. If you look into anything you will see that it has an ‘interior’ and that that ‘interior’ is a dancing of multi-leveled process that, when considered all together, is indistinguishable from the particular thing itself. A rock is composed of molecules relating to each other in a crystal lattice way. Each molecule is composed of atoms that were once born in stars, which themselves are fields of subatomic activity, ‘moving/transforming’ with the speed and energy of light. A living blade of grass is similarly composed as too, a human being, a bird, and an evolving world. This inner dynamic is inter-responding with outer dynamics. The rock is surrounded by situations and circumstances that affect it’s beingness and so it is compacted, or eroded or carved by wind and sand or by the hand held tools of a focused sculptor. The grass is also is similarly shaped and so are you. Everything and anything you can identify is a dancing flux of inner process and outer process and the mingling together of both in simultaneous, mutual, co-creating response.
A few years ago, I was writing about the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Instead of speaking in a negative way – not permanent – I tried to enquire into what it positively is. If something is not permanent, then what is it? The very concept ‘impermanent’ seems to imply that there should be, or could be, something durable or at least, independently stable. Yet when we look deeply and pervasively into the interbeingness of anything we find both ourselves and the object we are involved with, and our mutual ongoing interactions, to be interpenetrating fields of dynamic multi-leveled process. Out of this mutually probing and responding flux of inner and outer in the act of relating, arises our experience of perception. Each moment of perception is an abstracting of seemingly durable, temporarily unchanging features, from an incomprehensibly ephemeral ‘holomovement’1 – this universe in action. We are constantly shaping and re-conforming to the shaping and conforming of ‘others’. This is the ungraspable mystery of our lives and living. It’s what we are. It’s where we are, and how we are and what we are knowing. In Mahayana Buddhism this dancing of impermanence is sometimes referred to as ‘suchness’.
Life is a boundless matrix of dynamic relationships.
Ultimately, every action reverberates throughout the universe.
I responding to you.
You responding to me.
This responding to that.
That responding to this.
Responsiveness is the living heart of being and becoming.
Atoms, molecules, organs and organisms, families and societies;
entire ecosystems, biospheres, planets and galaxies;
all shifting, responding, constantly changing.
Each birthing of this is a dying of that.
Each dying of that is a birthing of this.
Responsive change is the very nature and fabric of what is.
Permanence is a mental abstraction; a hope, a need,
a convenient but potentially deadening freezing
of the actual creative dynamic of all our lives in action.
Suffering arises through trying to fix or make permanent
what is essentially a seamless fluid process.
May we cease grasping at permanence and
with heartful confidence, love, enthusiasm and wide awake sensitivity,
enter fully the great birthing/dying matrix of responsive relating;
this ineffable, un-pin-down-able, present blessing of now.
Pause for a moment, and open all your doors of sensitivity and discernment – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, feeling and empathizing. Sense the world within you and around you. You are a constantly changing ocean of relationships: these words and your brain, your posture and the physical objects around you, your chemical and metabolic well-being and the thoughts and understandings that that are shaping the way you are using your senses. There is much more to life than what we usually assume is going on.
Over the last ten years I have been alternately bothered by, and have been trying to make friends with, the results of a steadily enlarging prostate gland. Benign enlarged prostate happens in many men of my age. It is a common expression or unfoldment of the dancing biology that we have become. Getting up five to ten times per night to pee, I was often suffering from sleep deprivation. Two weeks ago, I had a biopsy and the results came through a couple of days back. Cancer.
It is both strange and wondrous to contemplate my situation. Over the years, I have supported many people as they lived in worlds dominated by cancer or assumed potentially terminal conditions. Now, I find myself going along in what feels like a familiar manner and then something subtly shifts. Suddenly everything is convoluting and I realized that this time, the cancer/diagnosis is about me!
The response from friends and acquaintances has been very revealing. After the biopsy, we received a phone call from the hospital and I was told that the doctor had found “something he was concerned about” and that he’d like to see me in his office. I called my GP and he e-mailed me a copy of the lab report. The Gleason scores and PSA readings along with other parameters were listed in an orderly clinical column. I ‘googled’ the unfamiliar terms and began to make sense of what they were saying. I phoned friends who had had similar procedures and read extensively and had a deepening sense of being part of a vast network of lives, disciplines, studies and technological developments – a wondrous glimpse of a living world, the fruits of 3.5 billion years of intelligence unfolding, growing itself into a capacity for curiosity and caring, now inseparably merged with and arising as my living.
Mary and I went to the appointment in the outpatient clinic at Tauranga hospital. A nurse took us to a small room and said the doctor would be with us in a few moments. We could hear snippets of conversation going on in the hallway and some kind of consultation happening in the room directly opposite ours. Then both of us thought we heard the word ‘Tarchin’ at which point someone in the adjacent room got up and closed the door and we could only hear muffled voices. I thought to myself that perhaps they were discussing how to break the ‘bad’ news to us. The door opened. The urologist came in. He saw me holding the lab report and I opened the conversation with “well, I guess we have to get to work. What does it mean by . . .?” His eyes and facial expression expressed great relief as he said, “I see your GP must have told you the results”. I realized then that this moment, of telling a patient that they have cancer or some other potentially terminal condition, must be one of the least liked tasks of any doctor. He mentioned that often people found the news to be such a shock that they would have to re-schedule the consultation to give them time for their emotions to settle. We humans, able to send individuals to the moon, inventors and users of internet and cell phones, capable of landing a space craft on an asteroid, mapping genomes, photographing Pluto, peering into a beating human heart, or into the smallest organelles of a cell, are so often traumatized by opening ourselves to the basic biological reality of our lives.
In the midst of the 21st century, many people, in spite of all their worldly wisdom, are still laden with medieval attitudes to illness. It is not uncommon to talk about the big ‘C’ or about being sick or unwell, as if sickness was some kind of failing. (It is revealing that we use the word sick to indicate something warped or immoral, “God, that’s sick!”) Physical dysfunction, frailty or weakness is often experienced as if it were something to be ashamed of, or guilty about – as if we had failed to meet some target or some kind of socially accepted ideal of good health. We often feel a need to make excuses for our suffering. As if we needed to make excuses for being the vulnerably co-dependent dancings that we are! It’s my genes, or a virus, or a bacterial infection, or something that is going around. We try to identify a concrete cause for our condition, not only to help us find a resolution to it but because the only alternative to identifying a clear ‘outer’ cause seems to be that we ourselves, our behavior or our lifestyles, are the cause. It’s our bad ‘karma’ or perhaps our bad diet or lack of exercise or excessive stress, and the illness is punishment or retribution for our dissolute living! But are these really the only two choices; either something outside my control – or me? We could do with a new word for illness/sickness, one that honored the magnificence of this profoundly inter-dependent holoverse in the act of knowing and experiencing itself in this particular manner. I guess it probably wouldn’t catch on to say, ‘I’m having a deepening of suchness’! Or, ‘I’ve been invited into a period of intensified enquiry, contemplation and spiritual ripening’.
Observing the many different responses of people to my diagnosis, I sense something very deep going on here. In a culture that so values and celebrates autonomy and the imagined freedom of independence; my own car, my own house, a secure job (self employed), private property, and so forth not to mention ‘my’ body or ‘my’ mind, the terror of dependence that illness can bring, is more than many can bear. We feel sorry for this unfortunate victim of stroke or heart disease, or cancer. We can easily feel sorry for ourselves. Its unfair. I haven’t achieved my ‘four score and ten’. Some people avoid this depressing inner groan by treating their experience as a military campaign. So and so is heroically fighting the disease. So and so lost their long drawn out battle with cancer. We’re targeting the infection. We’re part of a war on cancer, HIV, and so on. With this metaphor, chemotherapy can be seen as a form of carpet bombing.
All complex, inter-dependent life dancings, in other words, all living beings, have come about through the collaboration and balancing of uncountable factors. As the relationship between these factors change, the system functions differently. If the relationships change sufficiently, the functioning will change into something else all together and the original functioning will no longer be there. An apple ceases to function as an apple when it is digested into molecules of carbohydrate that have become part of a metabolic process. These constantly changing relationships are a basic nature of all interdependent arisings. There is no shame in this. We call the apparent emergence or beginning of something ‘birth’ and the apparent final disappearing of a thing ‘death’. When a child is growing, the birthing of cells outnumbers the dying of cells. In middle age the birth rates and death rates are approximately equal. Later, the death of cells overtakes the birth rate. Birth without death would not be a life. This continuous streaming of birthing/dying is life in action – all of me present with and for all of you. As Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful poem “When Death Comes”: When it’s over, I want to say: all my life. I was a bride married to amazement. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
A week has passed since I began to write this short piece. During that time I have been scheduled for surgery. It is a new morning, in my hut. The bird choirs are announcing and celebrating, probing their newly dawned situations in the world. The echoes of mooing cows adds to this moment of appreciating you and us and the immeasurable intricacy of everything and everyone. I am taking my medicine. It is not expensive, as it has proved impossible to patent. It has been around since the dawn of human kind. I dearly hope you can find this medicine when you need it. It’s called wonderment!
In the vast expanse of nature unfolding,
In faith and trust and wonderment,
We give ourselves to this suchness,
This seamless mystery of birthing and dying.
Giving, flexing, bending, softening, responding
– this fluid, continuous letting go is my sadhana, my work.
Spacious, loving, with feet solid in the earth,
We nurture the hints at blessedness,
The myriad faces and masks of God.
Nurturing, supporting, feeding the presence of blessedness;
the experiential knowledge of being deeply supported
– embedded –
in a miraculous weaving of lives and living
with no absolute beginning or end.
Moving in this flow of compassion and deepening enquiry,
we engage with all beings in ways that support the integrity,
the stability and the beauty of the entire living world.
Engaging with this pilgrimage/journey/adventure of birthing/dying living.
Embracing it. Surrendering into it. The mystery is tremendously integrated.
It is extraordinarily stable. It has been in action for billions of years.
It is breath-stoppingly beautiful in all its vulnerability and creative possibility.
I’d like to finish this essay by thanking all the people who have sent generous offers of support to Mary and I at this stage of the journey. Smiling, breathing, present appreciating, offering May all beings be blessed with wonderment. May all beings realize their true nature.
A comment on the words holomovement and holoverse. In the Avatamsaka Sutra we find the phrase, “worlds interpenetrating worlds without obstruction” or sometimes, “realms (of experience) interpenetrating realms (of experience) without obstruction”. This phrase is pointing to a staggeringly interdependent universe in which each part is itself an interbeing of all the other parts which in turn are interbeings of all the other parts. Shifts in the small realms trigger responses in the large. Movements on the interior of things are dancing with movements of the exterior of things. Mental processes are shaping physical processes while at the same time those same physical processes are shaping mental process. Individuals are influencing collectives while societies are shaping individuals. This total webworking of causes and conditions is sometimes referred to in the Avatamsakha as “Indra’s Net”.
Borrowing from the idea of a hologram, or holistic or wholistic, I have termed this totality of worlds interpenetrating worlds without obstruction, the ‘holoverse’ and the total activity that makes it, a ‘holomovement’. I was first inspired to use these terms back in 1986 by the physicist, David Bohm. Here is a poem that I wrote then and dedicated to him. For those interested in Bohm’s work, I recommend a new collection of his writings called “The Essential David Bohm” edited by Lee Nichol.
Wangapeka May 13/86
(for David Bohm)
I enter the holoverse through the trapdoor of my body.
Rivers of trembling, lighting the streamings,
Stardusting swirlings of lifetiming motes,
Fields pulsing softly and grossly and fast,
Crisscrossing oceans of endlessly sparkling
Visions of all times,
radiating vast implications,
in simple points of infinite complexity.
I enter the holoverse through the trapdoor of my body.
The holoverse bodily enters through me.
The future is now.
The hall of mirrors as metaphor is shattered in the face of a holoverse
rich and wondrous beyond all imagining.
All and nothing, one and many
Vast and minute, separately and sequentially and simultaneously.
Words fade as eyes open even wider
and even wider still!