By Karnamrita Dasa
“I am now faced with a health challenge, which I have taken to be an answer to my prayers.”
Each of us is the leading actor or actress in the drama of our life. In this drama there is no rehearsing, memorizing lines, or knowing the outcome. Rather, the plot unfolds as we move through life, suggesting new directions and understandings as we confront successes and reverses, or even upheavals.
After living a regular life for my first eighteen years, an existential crisis propelled me to search for the purpose of life beyond the status quo of striving for the American dream. I started looking into the realm of the soul and God. After moving into a Hare Krishna temple in 1970, I lived as a brahmachari, or unmarried celibate, for ten years, and as a temple-supported married man for four years before embarking on another life-changing quest. To help me stay the course in bhakti–yoga, I had to find myself materially and make peace with a turbulent upbringing.
Keeping a journal for twenty years helped me sort out my life in surprising ways. Through writing, I learned to become more thoughtful, introspective, and philosophical. Building on this, I began blogging nine years ago on Krishna.com, sharing my life’s struggles and successes. I also write about lessons from working with my therapist wife in helping devotee couples prepare for marriage and remain fixed through marital and family challenges.
Moving to a wooded country setting twelve years ago in a devotee community was also life changing. I became more attuned to nature and observed practical lessons from the land and plants and in growing food. The peaceful, quiet environment has helped my writing and spiritual endeavors. While I was living the good life of spiritual practice and material peace, I was also aware of dissatisfaction in the midst of what seemed an idyllic setting. I began a habit of intense prayer for my spiritual progress, to find the root cause of my despondency, and to take appropriate action.
An Unexpected Diagnosis
I am now faced with a health challenge, which I have taken to be an answer to my prayers, since it has propelled me into another direction, of increased writing and speaking with a great sense of urgency. In November 2015 I discovered a swollen lymph node in my neck. After a month of tests, a biopsy revealed squamous cell carcinoma, which was considered a secondary tumor. A PET, or full body, scan revealed the primary cancer, in the nasopharyngeal area of the nose. Fortunately this was the only place cancer was found.
Researching the various cancer treatments, both conventional and alternative, has been educational for my wife and me. There is much to learn about what cancer is, what it means when it grows in the body, and the best way to treat it. We found a nine-part documentary very helpful in our education about cancer and the quest for the best treatment. You can view it here: http://thetruthaboutcancer.com/
There are many alternative treatments with a high success rate, often more efficacious and with fewer side effects than conventional radiation and chemotherapy. Although most of you reading this don’t know me personally, this could be your story, which is one of the reasons I am sharing it. Or it might already be your story, since in the USA, cancer strikes 1 in 2 men, and 1 in 3 women, in their lifetime. In 2015 there were an estimated 1,658,370 new cancer cases diagnosed and 589,430 cancer deaths.
After an exhaustive study of treatment options we learned about from the Truth About Cancer series and from well-wishing friends and doctors, we were on overload with too many choices, yet we had to make a decision. My wife, Arcana Siddhi, was understandably anxious. “What if we make the wrong decision and you die?” Eventually she took solace in the conviction that we would be guided to make the best choice, as were other people we heard from. She also came to accept that my death was one possible outcome. This acceptance helped her calm down and be at peace, as did our spiritual practices and reading scripture.
Gradually, by taking the decision to pray and being open for guidance, we were able to narrow down our options and finally decide. We agreed on an herbal treatment offered at the Biomedical Clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, and also a diet based on the best of many recommendations. This began a new phase of my life when the idea of death became very real to me, beyond mere theory. I have been documenting my repeated visits to Tijuana for what may be a long journey of recovery. So far so good, as the visible tumor is shrinking.
Unfortunately, just mentioning the word cancer scares people, as if it were a death sentence, though it does foster many interesting conversations. This widespread generally negative impression about survivability from cancer adds to the stress people go through, and that isn’t good for healing. At the same time, I have been moved by the outpouring of love and appreciation I have received from my friends and family. I get the most amazing hugs – as well as looks of disbelief, as if I might disappear at any moment. What a world we would have if we always appreciated one another with such feeling! Arcana Siddhi and I joke that I may be partially attracting the cancer to feel such love and appreciation.
Additionally, in a strange way, I have found my cancer diagnosis an empowerment to speak and write, as I do so with new conviction and authority. Although my friends and family are far more upset and worried than I am, I can honestly say, “It’s all good.” Whatever happens, I know it is for my ultimate spiritual benefit.
Many verses in the Vedic scriptures have taken on a new and more relevant meaning, such as the classic verse in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.14.8) for surrender and acceptance of difficult conditions or circumstances: “My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances with his heart, words, and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.”
Although I don’t think it is my time to go, I have found that this diagnosis fostered some interesting meditations on death, as guided by the Gita’s second chapter, and revealed all the hankerings and desires in my heart. As is often my process, I take time to observe my thoughts and feelings from a third-person perspective, so I can learn as much as I can from my reactions or responses.
Here are some of my reflections: Who do I really think I am – my conditioned story, or an eternal soul? How do I define myself? What are my attachments? How much do I consider myself a servant of God, or an enjoyer of the world? Where is my faith? Where is my shelter? What is my relationship with the holy name? How much do I truly want the goal of pure devotion and love for Krishna and everything in relationship to His service? How much do I care about others? What am I willing to give in the time I have left in my body?
One of my responses to cancer, even as I do everything possible to strengthen my immune system and avoid foods that cancer likes, is to focus on living what is truly important to me, and praying to embrace whatever lessons cancer is meant to teach. I am practicing “effortless effort,” or remaining calm and open to any outcome, while trying to live what is right for me as a spiritual practitioner of bhakti. “In all activities just depend upon Me and work always under My protection. In such devotional service, be fully conscious of Me.” (Gita 18.57). I have decided that I am not “fighting” cancer but sending it love and acceptance. Cancer is Krishna’s agent and His loving embrace meant for my good, even if it leads to the death of my body.
Valuing the Moments
My natural response to the possibility of dying is to appreciate the opportunities and gifts of life, and furthermore, Krishna’s blessings in even tiny details, in what I used to think of as ordinary or commonplace. For example, I write notes in books to emphasize and remember points. I am so grateful for the pencil and marvel at the eraser by which I easily make corrections. And now, avocados seem to be saving my life, as there are so many foods I can’t eat. I take the time to savor the taste. They have never tasted so good, and I thank Krishna for creating them, and for making them plentiful and inexpensive.
From this standpoint, appreciating the value of each moment is a great benefit in understanding the shortness of our life, and how it can end, biologically speaking, at any moment. Thus, contemplating our death is important, and death itself is not a failure – as is sometimes thought by doctors trying to save lives – just another natural stage of life. “One who has taken his birth is sure to die, and after death one is sure to take birth again. Therefore, in the unavoidable discharge of your duty, you should not lament.” (Gita 2.27)
We can also question what is good or bad from a higher spiritual perspective, which is all about our growth as persons and souls. Once we decide what we must do, we have all the time we need. The attempt itself is our offering and our success, regardless of the outcome. “’Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all,” wrote Tennyson. In a similar way, we can say that it is better to try to give and serve than to hold back.
There is no perfect time, only this moment. I am trying to live by this premise now, while praying to depend on Krishna for direction. I have new motivation to follow the perfect design of my life. As we endeavor, we can also appreciate what comes to us, seeing behind it the Lord’s positive intent.
Spiritual optimism is important, even as we see the world’s many miseries; and while our life endeavors are imperfect, we can take solace in many verses. “But those who always worship Me [Krishna] with exclusive devotion, meditating on My transcendental form – to them I carry what they lack, and I preserve what they have.” (Gita 9.22) In light of my situation and my many shortcomings, I remember this verse often.
Spiritual optimists are not Pollyannas. They realize the difficulties and severity of certain events, and still choose to be positive. Even though negative thinkers may be more objective about possible negative outcomes, that doesn’t mean they are happier or more successful.
On our journey of self-discovery and spiritual improvement, or in dealing with a life-threatening disease or unavoidable death, at some point when we have done all we can, rather than “letting go” of something, we can “let it be” as it is, and allow “what is” to occur. My attempt and prayer is to surrender to Krishna’s embrace and plan, seeing myself as a servant and not the supreme controller, even as I try to arrange for increased service.
In this mood, as one of the many fruits of cancer, I am traveling to temples to give a talk entitled, “Facing Death to Live More Fully Today.” I begin my talk by saying, “I may die today,” to make a point about the importance of whatever time we have, since we are all “near death.” Facing death is not an idle wait for me, though it has given me a new intensity in my spiritual practice. I feel compelled to do many activities I’ve been procrastinating about, including publishing my new free-verse poetry book, My Yoga of Expression. Therefore I can unequivocally say that my cancer is Krishna’s loving embrace for me, and I am grateful for its opportunities for spiritual and personal growth.