Blessed with a Brain Tumor
It’s important to me that the resources offered here truly help us become more resilient – able to meet even the most difficult challenges of our lives with courage, compassion, and equanimity.
Will Pye’s Blessed with a Brain Tumor: Realizing It’s All Gift and Learning to Receive is just such a resource. A dedicated student of the nature of reality and Zen practitioner as well as a coach, Will was able to meet a big AFGO (another fricking growth opportunity) in the diagnosis in 2011 of a golf-ball sized growth in his brain with uncommon presence and openness to learning from his experiences.
Will had had previous opportunities to develop his coping resources – the divorce of his parents, his betrayal and loss of a partner, addictions, a struggle with depression and suicidality. He had already been learning some of the “gifts” and “invitations” he describes in his book through his diagnosis, surgery, radiation and, for now, remission:
The Gift of Love
The Gift of Surrender
The Gift of Death
The Gift of Guidance
The Gift of Purpose
The Gift of Co-Creativity
The Gift of Oneness
It’s All Opportunity
Access Your Inner Guidance System
Fall in Love with Yourself
Prepare for Death and Live Fully
This Is It!
So, What Is Important Now?
The book is written with plenty of hope and humor, and explores an emerging spiritual path of awakening from hopeless victim to empowered agent of choice and change to aligning with the trustworthy benevolence and vast power of being. I heard Will speak about his journey as a guest teacher in my local meditation group two weeks ago; he’s the real deal, and his wisdom can be life-changing.
As he writes in his introduction: “May this book help you gain much of the insight, revelation, joy, and transformative “oomph” of being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness without the considerable inconvenience of actually having one – sort of virtual-reality wake-up call!” May you find Will’s gifts and invitations truthful and useful in coping with the blessings and burdens of your life.
Chapter 1: The Gift of Love
“Just as the more obvious nature of my mortality caused others to be kinder as they became aware that any interaction might be our last, I found myself feeling kinder and more deeply loving. Wouldn’t you? What a phenomenal pondering! I invite you to play with it as an experiment right now: Think back to a conversation you had recently. Pick any one. Now imagine how differently you would have conducted the conversation if you had known this was to be the last time you would ever physically connect with this person. To really ramp up the stakes, consider what effect it would have if you had know this could be the last conversation you ever had with any other human being whilst in this form. Would you listen more deeply? Would you give that person more time? Would you smile more? Would you be a little kinder, and more aware of the other person’s feelings?
“Now remember, the possibility of imminent death is true for us all. We have always known this, of course. The Greek write Euripides wrote in the fifth century BCE “No one can confidently say that he will be living tomorrow.” It’s hardly a secret, yet do we live from this truth? It is as if we imagine we will get a card in the mail forewarning us of our upcoming expiration. It is not so. May we live our grandest life, share our gifts, and express our love – now!”
(As Stephen Levine teaches in his death and dying workshops: 1) If you knew you had only days left to live, who would you want to call, and 2) what would you want to tell them. 3) Call them and tell them now.)
Chapter 2: The Gift of Surrender
“Resisting or denying the undesirable, whether a late train, a coffee that is too hot to drink, the mass of institutionalized greed and hatred, a brain tumor, or indeed our own resistance to the undesirable, only increases discomfort and unpleasantness, and delays the moment we become able to offer an intelligent response.”
(This wisdom is at the core of mindful self-compassion practice; we need to see clearly what’s happening and our reactions to what’s happening, and then accept what’s happening and our reactions to what’s happening, in order to shift our brain functioning to a state of mind that allows us to perceive what wise and effective action could be.)
“This is where a right-minded human ends up recognizing that our limited perspective of life is simply insufficient to justify arguing with the infinite and eternal mystery. With this recognition we develop a capacity to consciously respond to events, rather than react through our unconscious emotional conditioning.”
Surrender is not a giving up but a responding to events from a place of choice. Will quotes Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who certainly faced death and dying every day for three years in Nazi concentration camps: “The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
“There is a choice point, a critical moment of stepping into the unknown, disregarding the fear and embracing trust instead….That choice is the choice to let go, the choice to step into the unknown and discover you are always held. The choice to surrender to life and, by being in harmony with this great flow, be empowered by it….”
Will gives a very skillful exploration of the experience of self as the mystery, as the wholeness of Being. “We are neither our bodies nor our minds, but that which sees. In such a realization, we know, not by deduction or reasoning but by gnosis or insight, that death is nothing to fear, for all that ends is the body and the mind’s chatter. When we are no longer attached to or imagining ourselves to be either of these – the components that die – we see death as considerably less troublesome….In fact, we step out of the good-and-bad-judgment game altogether. ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,’ as William Shakespeare wrote.”
“We see that surrender is far from being passive. In allowing what is to be, there is harmony, an inner stance of stillness, alert and active as required. The impact of two of the world’s most effective change makers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi, shows us that loving what is immeasurably enhances our capacity to create change. The energy previously bound up in posturing controlling, looking good, avoiding looking bad, being right, is freed. The energy, once caught up in maintaining the illusion of who you thought you were, expresses itself now through enhanced creativity, joy and service.”
“The quicker we accept what is without argument – the quicker the state of mind arises from which change most easily arises. Surrender does not preclude response; however, it is essential for an intelligent response to arise.”
Chapter 3: The Gift of Death
We are having a hard time living, because we are so bent on outwitting death. -Simone de Beauvoir
“Death may be a major inconvenience to one’s schedule, but it seems also to be rather essential to life. As capital letter and full stops are to this paragraph, death is to life. (Echoing Deepak Chopra: “Death Makes Life Possible.”) Perhaps in the eternal unfolding, death serves much the same function as punctuation – to reflect on what has gone before and prepare for what’s coming next.
“To face death with equanimity is a gift for all involved. Through minimizing stress it is health-supporting. Rather than wasting time and energy wishing the tumor did not exist, or stressing about what might happen, there is an open space into which more productive ways of relating to the circumstance can arise. Consequently, not only was I spared the stress and discomfort of resistance and fear, but also I observed potential gifts, and there was freedom to recognize and receive them in the infinite spaciousness of allowing.
“How often do we hear of individuals for whom facing the specter of death prompts and improved prioritizing of what is important. It seems that once death is no long possible to ignore, and the delusional thought that we can “always do it later” is laid to rest, hindrances and obstructions within the mind are lifted. We regard life as it really is – a precious yet fleeting opportunity to express and experience our hearts’ desire. Perhaps this is the great gift inherent in such circumstances….In my experience, making peace with my own death has led to a number of wonderful developments…One particular gift that arises from accepting that it could be all over in a moment is the gift of joy.”
“When I experience “this moment” as possibly my last, the extraordinary wonder and beauty that is always present becomes crystal clear, and the ordinary phenomena of manifestation and form take on a gloriously wondrous sheen. I realize this inherent delight is in the fabric of life itself – in things as they really are, as apart from what we think that are. This luminescence is as much visible in a lamppost or dog poop as in the more obvious examples of a child’s smile or a pretty sky.
“How do we do that? A good starting point is to check whether our filters – our beliefs and personal narratives about life – are true and helpful. Do they help us create what we want in terms of experience and response? Having begun our work here, we move beyond the filtering of mental activity – ruminating, speculating, and projecting this and that – to perceive life as it is, clearly and directly. A consequence of so doing is coming to the same realization articulated by countless visionaries, mystics, poets, and inspired scientists – that that this and that are, more truly, just this: that beyond the very helpful separating and distinguishing functions of mind, there is just one whole, and this includes us – we are not apart from it. We experience unity….Thus facing imminent death gifted both the means and enhanced motivation to experience joy now. I have been especially delighted to discover that it is possible to choose joy!
“And some of the gift of death is waking up to how we want to live while we have the chance. The sense of urgency necessary to create major change can come from knowing that one day tomorrow will not arrive.”
Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone. – Pablo Picasso
I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has be “No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. – Steve Jobs
Will says, “Looking back at this most creative and authentic period of my life, I can only feel gratitude for the gift of death.” And suggests:
* What would you change if you knew you were going to die in a week or in six months? What’s stopping you from making that change now?
* If you are not living in joy, loving what you are doing, and spending time with people you love, how can you change yourself and your life so you are?
Chapter 4: The Gift of Guidance
Will explores the possibility of tapping into the benevolent intelligence of the universe that is available to guide our healing and evolution through synchronicity. (Which I will explore further in the November e-newsletter through the topic of coincidence – God’s way of remaining anonymous. – Carl Jung.) That events are connected in our understanding by their meaning to us, not simply by cause and effect.
(I have my own small example of the power of synchronicities to guide us to our deeper wisdom and intuition. Sometimes when I’m in my garden, talking with a friend on the phone, a hummingbird will come to feed at the feeder or from the flowers. I’ve learned to pay special attention to whatever my friend was saying just as the hummingbird showed up. It usually had some deep significance, worth noting, and the hummingbird showing up has become a symbol to pay attention, don’t let the meaning of things go by too quickly.)
In terms of synchronicities (God’s way of remaining anonymous) guiding his own awareness and choices, Will writes, “It has become apparent as my worldview has gradually expanded to allow it – through meditative insight and conclusions as to what the latest scientific data suggest – that we live in a universe where meaning and guidance are somehow woven into the fabric of form, into life itself.”
We can learn to trust our deepest intuitive wisdom as support from life itself for the life and death decisions we must make on our journey.
Chapter 5: The Gift of Purpose
(Will Pye loves quotes as much as I do; we frequently quote the same authors.)
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman
Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. – Helen Keller
“This is the gift of purpose – discovering my life’s purpose and deciding, once and for all, to prioritize living it.”
“Whatever form the expression our life purpose takes – whether to lead a movement to free a nation, create works of art, build a community or a giant corporation, create a family, or simply quietly and humbly go about being ourselves – each share a common essence: creativity and a contribution to the whole that only we, following our life path, inclinations, tendencies, and persistent desires, could possibly make….The human journey is about discovering how we can, each of us in our unique way, express this creativity and love. How can we bring forth our deepest essence into the world? By being our deepest essence. Now.”
“Keep in mind that our collective shift occurs just as personal shifts occur – not by attacking that which we seek to change, but by nourishing that which we seek to be and become…The old does not make way for the new; rather, it will battle for its life. The new becomes the new by being.”
“Living our life’s purpose, once we have hacked through the thickets of our fear and procrastination…need not involve struggle. The more we allow ourselves to be consumed in our purpose, the more effortless it becomes. The moments of pain, anguish, and anxiety fly by all the faster, whilst the contentment lingers longer. We learn to recognize the inevitable challenges and difficulties of creation as opportunities for growth, invitation to reaffirm what is important now…. There is good reason to search for “something more.” And there is good reason, when we begin to find it, to give our lives to it.”
Chapter 6: The Gift of Co-Creativity
By co-creativity, Will means in part to shift the stories we tell ourselves – about ourselves, about our lives.
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change. – Max Planck
Language around illness and death is really important. Research has shown that cancer patients who talk about themselves as cured fare far better than patients with the exact same prognosis who talk about themselves as being in remission.
“Whenever we experience events congruent with the dominant focus of our narrative, we are prone to interpret this as evidence of the story’s truth and justification for continuing to tell the story. All stories and prophesies have the potential to be self-fulfilling if there is sufficient belief and sustained attention. What you focus on, you will manifest. Therefore, choose your story carefully. Become conscious of your story, especially your meta-narrative, your most cherished beliefs, the story underscoring your life.
This change in language, changing the narrative, allows a person to shift from a self-pitying “poor me” or “why me?” stance to a more empowered agent-of-change stance. And that change agent stance allows a person to be co-creative with life, with the energy and life force of life, to promote healing and growth.
“As patients we must be mindful to be as free as possible of the limiting beliefs and well-intentioned ignorance of others, whether doctors or family members, and be willing to take 100% responsibility for our health.”
Chapter 7: The Gift of Oneness
“This gift (of the realization of oneness) is worth being born and dying for. This last gift cannot be spoken of. Yet this is the one topic that must be covered, for it includes, informs, and inspires all that is. What but the ineffable is truly worthy of words?”
Oneness is a deep and prolonged experience of the state of non-dualness. “The typical object/subject split of conventional consciousness ceases, and there is just this “awarenessing.” This, and all that is arising within this, is oneness.”
Will describes his own experiences of oneness, all the while acknowledging how difficult it is to describe the experience with the dualistic (object/subject) grammar of the English language. The mystic poets seem to come the closest to describing the radiance and luminescence of oneness. The importance of the gift of oneness is that it opens our awareness out so far beyond the limitations of the personal self, of a personal consciousness. We sense, more than think, that we are part of a vast being-ness, that we are that vast being-ness. Fear drops away; we abide in peace and ease.
(The seven gifts of Part One of Blessed with a Brain Tumor are cogent bits of philosophy. The seven invitations of Part Two are practices and exercises the reader can do, again and again, to bring our thinking/feeling/behavior more in alignment with the philosophy of Part One. All of them reminiscent of practices and exercises offered in the weekly Resources for Recovering Resilience and the monthly e-newsletters on Healing and Awakening into Aliveness and Wholeness.)
Chapter 8: It’s All Opportunity
(Very similar to exercises I have offered in “Everything is a Cue to Practice.”
“I have discovered that, with practice, it is possible to see every life event, every circumstance, every pain, discomfort, and “problem” as a gift. And, in looking through this ‘lens,’ that is how they are experienced….When we welcome all of our experiences, life becomes one big opportunity for creative exploration. I have come to regard the “big shit” especially as potential-laden opportunity for growth and discovery. Thus, it is so.”
“Of course, it’s easy to experience falling in love, or receive an act of kindness from a stranger, or witness a beautiful sunset, eat a delicious meal, or accept a bouquet of flowers as a gift, and so we begin the dance in these moments, with appreciation. This trains the brain to give emphasis to what is desirable. As we progress, we come to see even the unpleasant and unwanted as a gift. Along the way we might come to such a perspective through noticing often that a “bad” development often turns out to be “good.”….Even when events transpire that appear not to have a [silver lining] hidden within them, there is always opportunity to learn and grow, to practice love….
For example, I might feel an intensely uncomfortable emotion. I might wish it weren’t there, and notice resistance to it. When I choose to see it as a gift, an intimacy with the circumstance immediately opens up, and the suffering created by the resistance falls away. I am then left with just the emotion. By embracing any circumstance or experience with positive acceptance, we remove the suffering of wishing it were not so and allow all our attention and energy to focus on responding intelligently. Which may simply be to feel what is to be felt… Rather than a hindrance to my desire to feel good, the bad feeling is an opportunity to deepen my capacity to feel good by allowing pain to arise and fall away and remain as loving presence.”
“It is one of the delicious paradoxes we encounter on the path of awakening – we must first embrace that which we wish to transform. Acceptance and transmuting our inner experience are not contradictory; they are different stages of the same process….Every moment is an opportunity to transform and evolve, if we wish.”
Chapter 9: Access Your Inner Guidance System
While acknowledging the joy of thinking – integrating, deciphering patterns – Will focuses on intuition as our inner guidance system.
“A quieter mind allows more space for a greater intelligence to be noticed and utilized….We develop our latent capacities for wiser living….Intuition is quiet, has no need to be right, and presents its conclusions instantaneously…Using our conscious attention we train this capacity and more reliably discover our “heart’s desires” are those which serve our highest good.”
Chapter 10: Fall in Love with Yourself
“Loving yourself is a prerequisite for being of truly useful service in this world. It is at once the greatest gift we can give ourselves and an act of altruism.”
Of course, as a psychotherapist, I work with people every day who struggle to love themselves, to embrace the inner shadow parts of themselves, to relax into a feeling loved and lovable that isn’t at all selfish or narcissistic but simply the deepest truth about their own worthiness.
“It is more like I am inherently worthy, and I see others as equally so. The world loves me every day, nourishing me with breath and being: who am I to disagree?…Between the extremes of narcissism and self-sacrifice there is a happy middle ground. It is the realization that we are, in our entirety – with our fears and doubts, our judgment, our failures, our petty selfishness, our shallow desires, and harmful actions – lovable. There is perhaps no more precious moment in a human life than when finally we realize – perhaps for the first time – that we are loved and lovable, independent of action. We are loved by virtue of our being….When we realize our inherent lovability, we can begin to share this unconditional love with the world.”
Chapter 11: Surrender Disempowerment
“The question of whether the human being is volitional – can actually choose – is a question that has vexed philosophers and scientists for millennia, and with good reason. It is fundamental to how we live our lives and to what degree we are responsible for our life choices….I can choose to exercise free will – make choices – or I can choose not to.”
Making our own choices is empowering because we become agents of change, in our personal lives and in the larger world. And we align our own energy with the life energy that allows us to bring change into the world.
“Mahatma Gandhi suggested, “Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.” Will would suggest, “from within Oneness, the two apparently separate pursuits are the same, as Gandhi himself knew, and in remaking ourselves we do remake the world. All energy can be focused through this prism of inner peace. Such inner harmony is of immeasurable value in a world at war with itself. Thus we are each called to the task – to create love and peace in our being, to be at one in our inner world, not merely for our own contentment, but so this peace may spread to our families, our communities, and to our world.”
Chapter 12: Prepare for Death and Live Fully
You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this. – Henry David Thoreau
Bonnie Ware, a palliative care nurse who worked with people in their last twelve weeks of their lives, compiled the following list of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying in her book of the same title:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish I had let myself be happier.
Will suggests the practices of mediation, gratitude, and curiosity as primary tools to help us learn to live fully and avoid the above regrets. And then, “to live fully your most wonderful and extraordinary life: 1) become aware of your stories; 2) upgrade your stories.
“These stories are your operating software and require ongoing upgrading as new data and desires come into your awareness. This may sound a little tedious, a bit like hard work. it is far less tedious than experiencing an unconsciously created life full of negativity. It is far less hard work than forever cleaning up the messes you have made by self-sabotaging and limiting perspectives and beliefs. With practice, this (upgrading) becomes an entirely effortless and enjoyable process. It is worth the effort!”
Chapter 13: This Is It!
“I have found the most direct route to the cessation of suffering is to realize the impermanence of me.”
This is the most spiritual chapter of the book, the deep end of the pool, exploring the impermanence of the ever-flowing, ever-changing sense of self. Finding comfort in knowing, as the wisest philosophers and sages have always known, that any suffering and also anything we treasure, will pass away. Nothing is permanent except the Being-ness that underlies everything that arises and passes away. And the opening of the self to the idea/deep realization that we are not who we think we are in a small limited sense but that our true nature really is the This-ness of all of existence. This is it. When we realize, in the broadest sense, that we are really This, that This includes everything there is, then the fear of death falls away completely. There is only this, and we are this this-ness.
Chapter 14: So, What Is Important Now?
Will experienced a powerful synchronicity in reading this quote a few days before his diagnosis: “Death is certain, its timing uncertain; so, what is important now?” The quote resonated deeply even before the diagnosis, and became a guiding principle for daily living afterwards.
He offers these exercises at the end of this chapter:
* Imagine you have just discovered the world is going to be destroyed by a meteorite in six months’ time. Alas, it is unavoidable, and the entire planet will be destroyed overnight. Write out what you will do with the next six months.
* Your fairy godmother is real and paying you a one-time visit. She will grant you everything you wish to be experiencing, creating, pursuing, exploring, and expressing; however, it’s a one-shot deal, so don’t hold back. Write out the life you should be living – your ideal life that will bring you joy as you describe it now. What sort of relationships would you be enjoying? Which relationships would be healed? Who would you forgive? What type of work would you be doing? Where might you travel to? What creative and self-expressive pursuits would engage you?
* Looking at the first two exercises in this list, what is it inside you that prevents you from living the life of your dreams? Think carefully, and don’t settle for an excuse. Instead, seek to see how holding certain beliefs about yourself and the world – perhaps succumbing to fears and doubts – has thus far created a distance between your dreamed-of life and what you live. What excites you about the prospect of changing?
* What can you do in the next twenty-four hours and then on a daily basis for the next six weeks in order to remove the obstructions you have created and begin to live a more deeply fulfilling life?