A student asked Soen Nakagawa during a meditation retreat, “I am very discouraged. What should I do?” Soen replied, “Encourage others.”
In 2011, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 41. To say this experience changed my life would be a great understatement. To say this experience was extremely difficult would show a bit more candor. To say that my spiritual practice was absolutely transformed and strengthened and that I learned the true healing power of meditation – that I can say with certainty. My metta-kindness meditation that I practiced while going through radiation treatment was a big piece of my healing process. I was so proud of my recovery. After 2 surgeries, including mastectomy and reconstruction, followed months of physical therapy so that I could use my left arm again, I had become a true meditation warrior. Meditation made the sadness, fear and pain manageable. Meditation helped me find peace amidst the difficulties. After several months I was healed. It felt so good to be strong again.
No sooner was I patting myself on the back for my terrific recovery, than the cancer came back. My mind reeled at the thought of it. How could this be happening? At first, I desperately thought to myself, “is there anywhere I can run to escape this?” It had taken everything I had inside to get through it the first time around. I wasn’t sure I had the strength to go through it again. Fear overtook me as I Googled life expectancy for breast cancer recurrence and visited doctors to find out my treatment options, often receiving a detailed list of all the things that could go wrong.
It was determined that the best course of treatment was surgery followed by radiation. The possible side effects, short and long-term terrified me. However as this was my best option to be cured this time, I agreed. For seven weeks, I had to visit my local radiation treatment center on a daily basis. Each time I would show up, change into a gown from the waist up and wait in the waiting room suite with other patients for anywhere from thirty to forty-five minutes. Then I would go in for my treatment, which would last about fifteen minutes.
It was the holidays, my treatments lasted through November and three weeks of December. There were so many patients going in and out of radiation all day every day. Was it possible for this many people in Marin County alone to have cancer? It boggled my mind to think of every radiation center in every town and city in the United States and across the world. That was a lot of people!
Many times while I waited the suite was filled with people. Most were quiet and alone. Some brought family. Casual conversations I overheard ranged from people discussing how to make every moment in life count, to a daughter filling out a form and asking her mother to rate her depression on a scale of 1-10, to a group of older people discussing the Thanksgiving dishes they would be unable to eat due to the side effects of their radiation. It was a bit surreal.
The first few days I focused on breathing and affirmations. At first I thought the worst thing about this experience was the suffering of my own experience and the things that might go wrong for me. But as I sat and observed the others sitting with me, my state of mind began to shift.
At first I all I could do was contemplate the reasons why I might be here in this moment. Why me? Me, me, me. But my own fears began to diminish as I observed others much worse off than me. I began to realize my blessings: my relative youth and strength, a good prognosis, a localized treatment away from major organs, a group of friends and family supporting me and so on. Suddenly it hit me like a bolt of lightning what I had to do right here and right now: metta, kindness.
After that, each day before I would go to my appointment, I would sit for a bit at home and meditate for healing, for myself and all those suffering with cancer, both animals and people. “May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be strong. May you be surrounded with love.” When I would go to the radiation waiting room suite, I would choose a seat near the large goldfish tank and ask them to help me. Being a great lover of animals, I felt grateful to have friends there for me. They would always swim up to the nearest corner to me and quietly float, they were such a peaceful presence and support.
As I sat and waited, amidst crowds of others or alone, I would chant to myself: I am happy. I am peaceful. I am strong. I am surrounded with love. May all cancer patients, people and animals, be happy, peaceful strong and surrounded with love. May all the radiation techs, doctors and staff at this cancer center be happy, peaceful, strong and surrounded with love. May all the radiation techs and doctors, vets and vet techs treating cancer patients around the world be happy, peaceful, strong and surrounded with love. May this radiation suite and the treatment rooms be imbued with peace and love. May all cancer treatment centers in the world, for animals and people, be imbued with peace and love.
I imagined a beautiful bright light spreading out from my heart to all the hearts touched by cancer around the world. How bright our light would be if we could remember to shine no matter what! When my turn would come, I would go lie on the table as the machine moved around me, sending radiation into me from different angles. Throughout this process, which took about 15 minutes, I would do my metta chant again to myself: I would also say to myself, “These are healing rays: for me and for others.”
As the days went by, I felt stronger and stronger emotionally and spiritually. It seemed that my whole life had led up to this moment, to strongly dedicate my practice to so many people and animals around the world who were suffering, many much worse than me. Believe me, had I not been a cancer patient myself, you would never have found me sitting in a cancer waiting room suite! As strange it is sounds, since it coincided with my radiation treatments, I actually began to look forward to my time with metta each day. Who could I help today? Maybe it would be just me, or maybe someone else. This was important!
The less I thought about my own problems, and myself and the more I focused on helping others, the better I felt. I admit that I wondered if this daily metta practice, even though I was practicing it with my whole heart, was really helping anyone else. Besides the fish who always swam over to hang out with me, was anyone else feeling it?
One day the meditation waiting room was empty. Well, that is, except for my meditating fish and me. As I sat and chanted my metta mantra, an old man walked in very slowly. He had open sores on his head and neck from his radiation treatments. He entered the room and looked around, as if trying to decide where to sit. I was sitting quietly with my hands palms up on my lap. He came over to me and politely asked, “Excuse me, would you mind if I sit next to you?” “Or course not, please sit with me.” We didn’t speak, but he placed his hands on his lap, palms down and closed his eyes and took a deep breath. I closed my eyes and continued envisioning my heart’s light shining so brightly and wishing love peace strength and joy to all of us, cancer survivors. I could clearly hear him relaxing his breathing and feeling more at ease, just from sitting beside me. My heart smiled
That experience happened early on in my treatment, but it made a big impression on me. I began to make an effort to make eye contact with each person I would pass or see in the halls, the dressing rooms, or in the waiting room. Instead of retreating within as many patients might, I would smile and say hello and in my mind I would see my light shining out and think, “Have peace, love, joy and strength today, dear one.” I began to notice the radiation techs too. Some days were very stressful on them. Sometimes patients were crying, having anxiety or in pain. With the sheer volume of patients, I could only imagine what it must be like to work there day in and day out. But these techs were always smiling, always kind, and always compassionate to each and every person, even the difficult ones. They became my metta models. I might be chanting it, but they were living it! I was so in awe of each and every one of them!
And so in this way, for seven weeks the radiation center became my center of meditation practice. As the weeks wore on and I began to have some difficult side effects, such as a dislocated collarbone and skin burns, still I continued with the metta. And what became very evident for me is that healing is not about the body. We have a body, but it doesn’t define who we are. I realized that no matter what was happening to my body, I could find peace, love, joy and strength in this moment. No matter what, in this moment my heart was perfect and shining bright. The more I could see this within myself, the more I could see it in others, and the brighter I could feel my metta practice shining.
On my last day there, I went into the treatment room and was met once again by my tech team who had been working with me each day for seven weeks. After my treatment they gave me a little congratulations certificate signed by each of them. I thought that was a kind thing to do for each patient at the end of such a big ordeal. But then each of them lined up to hug me. They tearfully told me how they would miss me. They said that I was absolutely their favorite patient. That when I was there, it made even the hard days go better. In that moment, I could clearly see the fruits of my metta practice. Loving-kindness and compassion is the most powerful healing we can offer to ourselves and to others! In that moment as well, I realized that over the seven weeks of treatment I had forgotten to be fearful and now felt quite fearless; my light was so bright!
As I reflect on my experience of metta in the radiation suite, I realize how important it is that we continue to practice loving-kindness, even when it is difficult to do so. In fact, perhaps difficult times are the most important times for us to do it. Practicing metta can bring us out of our self-centeredness and help us to feel a strong purpose in helping others through compassion. It can bring meaning to a situation that might otherwise be filled with negativity or confusion. And most importantly, it can help us to let go of fear. Fear makes difficult situations much worse and it can poison our ability to find peace and gratitude in the present moment.
The next time you find yourself in a difficult situation, try practicing metta and watch the amazing shift you will feel within yourself. Even more amazing, watch others around you shift into peaceful healing from the loving-kindness you offer.