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August 22, 2000

Letters to a Friend with Cancer

The purpose of living, if it has any purpose, is to experience a good death and good dying.

brennan.jpg - 26590 BytesDear John,

The recent arrival of news about the onset of cancer in your pancreas came as a shock and a reminder that these bodies, which for us have become silent, largely unknown partners, decide for themselves when the showdown will come and when the final curtain will fall, though I deeply hope that you will find a way of postponing that event appreciably with whatever treatment, experimental or otherwise, that your doctors recommend. And since the poets, mystics, and some psychologists are essentially right about the standoff between the flesh and the spirit, there is no help for it but to muster all your Dharma forces and the best medical expertise to defeat the aggression of the flesh in the form of cancer. The fact of the matter is that cancer brings the person colonized by it and persons connected to that person face to face with everyone's greatest fear and therefore greatest enemy -- Brother Death.

Psychoanalyst Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death (1971) argued that the primary motivation underlying every human act is the fear of death. Becker didn't just pull the Eternal Footman out of some lottery basket. Building on the work of Otto Rank, Becker pointed out that many others, including Soren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, Norman O. Brown, and Robert J. Lifton had illuminated not only this truth but its corollary, namely that the denial of death persistently manifests in busyness, materialism, and religiosity. To these three gods we offer up our freedom and prefer instead imprisonment in a developmental kindergarten.

Why this fear when life and death are as natural as yin and yang? Because just about everyone is totally identified with "body consciousness" or flesh consciousness ("carnal-mindedness" is the old Christian term which included in it the "body," the mind, the heart, and intellect). That is, just about everyone identifies the sense we have of "I" or "me" with body movement -- "I came," "I went," "I did," "I was," "I want," etc. All of these actions of the "I" are identified with the desires of the body and the "I"'s need to possess exclusively the movements of the body that are pleasurable and therefore good. All that's greater than the insistent and immediate needs of "I" consciousness gets shunted outside the self's boundary. The imminent and transcendent spirit, the really silent partner, is almost totally displaced by "body consciousness." The consequence of this identification with body consciousness in which flesh and spirit are set at odds is the huge mistake of taking the body with its mind and intellect for the source of this "I-consciousness." That is, we make the huge mistake of locating "I" consciousness in the flesh, bound to the body and bounded by the body. The self loves to create protective boundaries, loves the ancient idolatry of localizing spirit, making it identical with a particular object or place. Why we want to reduce the imminent and the transcendent spirit to the narrow dimensions of our own orbits is hard to say, though many words have been spent in efforts to explain it. The explanations are not much help nor are the many pulpit paths to Heaven that serve as sleep-inducing surrogates for the transcendental (a good shorthand word for the immanent/transcendent).

Look rather to the propaedeutics -- the insights and intuitions -- of the poets and the mystics. Inasmuch as anyone has found language for transcendental experience, poets and mystics with their metaphors and paradoxical language have. All cultures in their most essential grants give to us poetry and mysticism. In America, real appreciation of the transcendental begins with the great insights of Emerson and Thoreau, and achieves its greatest American expression in the poetry of Walt Whitman. Those in the transcendental line knew that the self's love of exclusive boundaries occludes the Spirit. Emerson's "Hamatreya" shows the occlusion:

Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint,
Possessed the land which rendered to their toil
Hay, corn, roots, hemp, flax, apples, wool and wood.
Each of these landlords walked amidst his farm,
Saying ''T'is mine, my children's and my name's.
How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees!
How graceful climb those shadows on my hill!
I fancy these pure waters and the flags [stones]
Know me, as does my dog: we sympathize;
And I affirm, my actions smack of the soil.'
Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds:
And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough.
Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet
Clear of the grave.
They added ridge to valley, brook to pond,
And sighed for all that bounded their domain;
'This suits me for a pasture; that's my park;
We must have clay, lime, gravel, granite-ledge,
And misty lowland, where to go for peat.
The land is well,--lies fairly to the south.
'T'is good, when you have crossed the sea and back,
to find the sitfast acres where you left them.'
Ah! The hot owner sees not Death, who adds
Him to his land, a lump of mould the more.

The second verse paragraph refutes the self's affirmation that its "actions smack of the soil." It refutes, in other words, the self's possessive identity with "sitfast acres, and instead reveals the self's sympathy with for those "sitfast acres" for what it really is, namely hot ownership of so many sources of standing reserves -- raw materials for the self's prodigal benefit and daily distraction from the fact of death. That is, the self's identity with the "sitfast acres" of body and property not only creates the illusion of ownership but also invites the hot owner to exploit those domains as if they were indeed for his/her own exclusive enjoyment. This aggression of the flesh conveniently occludes the knowledge that the self's enjoyment of material tenancy is short-lived. There is, however, a region in which the self can claim real ownership, but it lacks a local habitation and a name. Poet, Robert Frost, gave us a glimpse of this region -- the region of the Spirit -- when he said in one of his poems: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

In that poem, "Mending Wall," every spring two neighboring farmers -- one open and curious and the other belief-bound and mechanical -- go out together to repair the gaps in the stone wall between their property that winter weather has created. The curious farmer would just as soon relinquish the superstitious spring ritual of mending a wall that serves no good purpose because as he puts it "He is all pine and I am apple orchard," and unlike cows, "My apple trees will never get across/ And eat the cones under his pines." Nevertheless, every spring, keeping the wall between them, the curious farmer, out of respect for his neighbor's fears, and the belief-bound farmer, unable to tolerate the unity invited by open space, fill in the gaps, repair the wall, keep their boundaries intact until winter weather once again makes them porous. The belief-bound farmer repeats a saying he no doubt got from his father: "Good fences make good neighbors." He is satisfied with that saying and nothing will move him to go beyond it. But the curious farmer thinks rather that fences have little or nothing to do with making good neighbors and much to do with the primal fear of others. He would if he could put an idea or two in his neighbor's mind and heart by stating that "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,/ And to whom I was like to give offense." That thought, though, finds no fertile ground in the belief-bound farmer's mind, and the curious farmer drops the matter, knowing the other as he really is: "I see him there/ Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top/ In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed."

And there with a few rare exceptions, among whom I do not include myself, we have, in the stone-bound superstitious farmer, the condition afflicting the human species, a belief-bound self driven by needs it hardly comprehends to wall off and sub-divide, giving offense not just to neighbors but to the entire created universe. In making explicit the self's propensity to wall off, Frost takes Emerson a step further. Hot ownership and yankee exploitation of "sitfast acres" are not just a matter of eccentric behavior but a matter of essence. Frost, in effect, says that all hot ownerships are pale substitutes for the self's essential need to connect with the Spirit and that that connection comes about through the openness created by winter weather. In lieu of making that connection, the self fleshes out its precarious body-identity with more and more material substance. Different folks do it with different strokes. The capitalisticYankee loves to exploit the land and its material wealth. The sons and daughters of the Confederacy claimed aristocratic privilege to justify making the black man the raw material for exploitation. Nonetheless, whatever way the self glamorizes and romanticizes its substitute identity-- and they are legion -- the essential need to break open the narrow perimeters of the self remains. Confucius knew this essential need well when he said: "The noble man loves Heaven [i.e. the transcendental]; the ignoble man loves his property." The ignoble man confuses self with his property, that is, he confuses self with the self's boundaries. That confusion, brilliantly represented in the self's characteristic action of "mending wall," is fundamental resistance to entering the regions of the Spirit and thus resistance to growth.

And so when the body eventually becomes a corpse, where then is this "I-consciousness," this stunted self, this ego? Various religions give more or less satisfying solutions to this problem --the most dissatisfying ones, and they rule the roost, are usually some version of the pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die thesis, which translates the ego's property to a reserved plot in heaven's "sitfast acres." That is, if the self behaves itself; otherwise it will find itself occupying hell's "sitfast acres," or so the threat goes. But to make a long story short, this sense of "I" which arises in the body, and identifies with the body, creating boundaries for the time being of our existence, is otherwise universally called in the perennial philosophies of the cultures with the greatest volume of civilization: ignorance, illusion, impurity, individual self, or ego. Moreover, the vast quantity of literature (scriptures) these culture have produced universally declare that the annihilation of the ego-sense, or sense of self, is Liberation, Moksha, Samadhi, Kensho, Enlightenment, Self-Realization, Godhood, Unity Consciousness. Personally, I find it very difficult to remain indifferent to the unanimity of these teachings. Here are some samples:

There is a self-existent Reality, which is the basis of our consciousness of ego. That Reality is the Witness of the three states of consciousness [waking, dreaming, sleeping], and is distinct from the five bodily coverings [body, perception, conception, volition, and consciousness]. That Reality is the Knower in all states of consciousness. It is aware of the presence or absence of the mind. This is Atman, the Supreme Being, the ancient."


It (Reality) is "Absolute Subjectivity," which transcends both subjectivity and objectivity and freely creates and uses them. It is "Fundamental Subjectivity," which can never be objectified or conceptualized and is complete in itself, with the full significance of existence in itself. To call it by these names is already a mistake, a step toward objectification and conceptualization. Master Eisai therefore remarked, "it is ever unnamable."
The Absolute Subjectivity that can never be objectified or conceptualized is free from the limitations of space and time; it is not subject to life and death; it goes beyond subject and object, and although it lives in an individual it is not restricted to the individual.

Zen Master, Shibyama

There is an adamantine Buddha-nature within the bodies of sentient beings. Like the sun, it is essentially bright, perfect, and complete. Although vast and limitless, it is covered by the layered clouds of the five skandas (body, perception, conception, volition, and consciousness). Like a lamp inside a jar, its light cannot shine.


All the fish needs is to get lost in the water. All man needs is to get lost in Tao.

Chuang Tzu

All wisdom literature, in one way or another makes the same assertion that things are not two but one. Even in the Christian tradition, the Jesus of the Gospel of St. Thomas -- not included in the canon of the New Testament -- asserts the oneness of things:

They said to Him: shall we then, being children, enter the Kingdom? Jesus said to them: When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, then you shall enter the Kingdom.

Thus, St. Thomas has Jesus deny, in a style characteristic of the Gospels, that "I" consciousness shines and functions as a uniquely separate light in every separate person. The unique light is not "two" but "One" because it owes its presence in all persons to the illuminative light of the transcendent and imminent Self. Ninety pages into The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker notes that the "invisible mystery at the heart of every creature. . .attains cosmic significance by affirming its connection with the invisible mystery at the heart of creation. This is the meaning of faith." But given the state of affairs rendered by the fact that almost everyone dwells in "twoness," or duality, is it possible to connect "I" consciousness with its transcendental source and why is it desirable to do so? Again the answers universally given are yes it is possible and it is desirable because by connecting with the Supreme Identity, the Supreme Self, the Absolute Self -- some like to call it God, but what's in a name? -- our experience is transformed for the better of all concerned -- the self, others, and the world. Ordinarily we don't connect because the wall-loving ego hides this Self in the ego's jar, but the veil of the ego can never completely hide from us some knowledge that "I" consciousness is really knowledge that "I-am-the-Self." It may break through, as you well know from our salad days in the sixties, occasionally when high on acid or sometimes even on marijuana or when sex is "good," or during some spontaneous mystical moment. However, most of us either ignore these moments or consider them aberrations from "normal" consciousness and remain largely ignorant of the Supreme Self when we pass from life. Hardly a good idea and certainly not the best way to go.

I'm reminded of the way the great English poet and Anglican Divine, John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's Church, took his leave of life in 1631. He got up from his sick bed, wrote his own funeral oration, and then delivered it to his congregation while dressed in his funeral shroud. Donne, a poet and a mystic, knew what being connected to the Supreme Identity (the name the Sufis prefer) entailed for the human self. He memorialized it in his famous meditation 17; I'll quote only these sentences: "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Donne is obviously not talking about real estate. I can't claim to make the leap to identity with any-man's death, but I certainly will feel the diminishment of a friend's death and so will all your other friends, if that is to be. The silent bell of the Self is one bell, not two, and is always tolling for everyone, only we won't hear it, we wall it out.

Whatever may hap, I send this letter as a way of pointing in directions you might want to turn. It's not that I think you don't know which way to turn, but that the ego is so adept at keeping its wall mended, it's hard to remember what we really do know. I wouldn't send such a letter to someone who is an utter nincompoop or non compos mentis in matters of the spirit. The bell tolls for those who have ears to hear. Since retirement, the sound of the tolling bell has become ever more insistent; "free" time whispers loudly to be used well. The gift of life is not for the purpose of possessing as much fruit as we can possibly grab before we go. People who know me to be in the phase called "retirement," are always asking me if I'm enjoying my retirement. I know they mean well, but what they really mean is: aren't you lucky with all that free time on your hands, you can do whatever you want, have as much fun as you want. They obvious hate their present employment and eagerly and anxiously anticipate a future in which everything will be roses and apple pan doughty. Well, it is true that every day is like Saturday, but that too can be a burden and often is for many retirees who rush back to regular employment at minimum wage. Anything to avoid being alone with the clamoring self. But this is just another delusion of the self with its hope that the future will bring something better; we'll never get pure positives, except maybe those who are unlucky enough to reach the Christian Heaven, but granting that possible, they might could get pure negatives too.

What most people don't have the faintest inkling of is that the purpose of living, if it has any purpose, is to experience a good death and good dying. In other words, good dying is part and parcel of living well, is experienced again and again every time we slay our selfish desires and move toward Oneness. I've always been deeply impressed by the Masters who predicted their own deaths to the hour and the minute. They obviously knew death as intimately as they knew life. They made friends with Brother Death, shook his hand as it were, but not always in the theatrical manner of John Donne -- though it's surprising how light some of them make of the experience. Yogananda announced his ultimate liberation from the body at a banquet and then promptly died in front of his astonished audience. (In Sanskrit this is ultimate liberation and is called Mahasamadhi.) However, the instincts for theatricality -- whether in Donne or Yogananda -- tells us something about the way we should regard our ego-sense, that is, we should regard it as an actor in a drama that is definitely not entirely of our own making. "The play's the thing," said Shakespeare. We're born into our particular dramas and play our roles badly because we don't realize the roles can be played better, more creatively, when we go beyond our father's saying that "good walls make good neighbors."

Moreover, those walls, reconditioned again and again to plug up the winter gaps with customary spring rituals, make Life and Death a conflictive polarity, generating fear of living and fear of dying. Those fears cause us to run for the delusory security of some coccooning cover while denying that the cover itself should serve the purpose of good dying. That's what cocoons are for -- to make butterflies out of caterpillars. That run for cover, reinforcing the sense of "I" as consciousness arising with and belonging to the body, not only widens the gap between the ego-driven self and the Supreme Identity but also afflicts the human species with innumerable self-idolatries that are the bane of civilization and may bring it to an early end. We have the technology to do it and we've already experience several close calls. Alan Watts hit the nail on the head when he said, "Technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe." Which of course means, given the present state of human development, that use of technology has been and will continue to be destructive. I apologize for the pulpit stuff.

Even if you make a full recovery -- and my prayers are offered to that end -- you will still eventually have to do this work of putting your worldly and spiritual life in order by dissolving as many boundaries your ego creates as you possibly can. That is, you will have to do it if you care to do it and have time to make time to do it. Of course, I realize that when suddenly we find the putative enemy, Brother Death, breathing down our necks, it's not easy to gather our wits about us. There are all those avoidance stages people have been taught to think they must go through. If you can summon the will to do it, mount up again and cut to the chase.

But that is your decision and how to proceed is best known only to you. You've already invested some serious time to the dissolution of barriers and boundaries. Perhaps the shortest path is to engage with those who have devoted their energies and intelligence to understanding Unity Consciousness. Two books you may want to start with: Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy and Ken Wilber's No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth. These two books are easy to read and they complement each other beautifully. Huxley's book is basically a collection of salient teachings from East and West on the perennial wisdom. Wilber's book is an amazingly lucid explanation of key tenets in the perennial wisdom, applying them to personal growth. These books will point where you might go next. But maybe you don't need these books at all. Perhaps a Zen group or some spiritual group within traveling distance is available. I tend to think, it would be best to go directly to some form of meditation, but of course because that suits me well doesn't mean it will suit you well. What might suit you better is to continue for as long as possible with your daily routines, but doing them with as much mindfulness as you can muster. I realize the chemotherapy drugs you're on will be a major impediment. However, I assume you will have legal access to marijuana and that, I understand, will definitely help.

In addition, I gladly volunteer my services to assist in whatever way I can. I'm a free agent and can come for a long visit or a short one. I could take off your shoulders much of the whatever physical labor the ranch requires. That will conserve some of your energy for the Dharma struggle with the aggressor.

After you've had time to read this, I will give you a call; I wrote these things down instead of calling because phone conversation is ephemeral and disjointed. None of what I've said in this letter was meant to upset you and I trust you won't take it that way. My intention was to say something pertinent when almost always in these situations the general response is impertinence. I hope I have evaded that mistake, though I know I have succeeded again in evading brevity.

Mark Swift

The Harbinger