|Finding Joy in the Midst of Suffering Autumn 1999|
by Karen Levine
|My story starts
when I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer to the bones, lungs and left
eye in April 1998. This was after undergoing a mastectomy and eight months
of chemotherapy to prevent a recurrence. Periodically my health, even as a
small child, would get bad. Yet nothing in my prior experience fully
prepared me for the despair and pain I felt when I contracted metastatic
The worst of it, as far as I was concerned, was that now I would never get the chance to experience true joy. Everything from now on would be tainted and overshadowed by the cancer.
Since 1976 I have been practicing a spiritual lifestyle in hopes of gaining joy. While we all know we should practice the presence of God at all times without expecting to attain anything, I had hoped that the practice itself would become a source of joy for me - doing the right thing and all that.
During those 20+ years of practice I learned there is a certain advantage gained by setting aside a specific time of day to practice prayer and meditation. The time of day can change, but you must do the work daily. Now the physical pain I was experiencing gave me a new perspective.
Waking up at three in the morning, not by choice, but because I was in so much pain I could not lie in bed or even sit in a chair, put a different twist on my prayers. Week after week went by and all I could do during my time with God was sob. Why God, why so much pain? Help me with it, get rid of it for me. Let me know what it is I am supposed to be learning from it! All I heard was silence. I got weaker and weaker, more and more tired. Where was this joy I was supposed to be feeling from my practicing? Where was this joy I was supposed to be having by being in the presence of God? I knew He was near and was listening to every word I said. In the Judeo-Christian ethic it says, "The joy of the Lord is your strength" and "In thy presence is fullness of joy" . Yet joy was nowhere to be found and as far as I was concerned it was moving further and further away and out of my grasp .
After a solid month of daily crying to God I received in the mail a Buddhist magazine. The issue was dedicated to cancer and dying and included an article on vipassana meditation. The article spoke to me. It asked me simple questions, "Could I visualize the pain? Did it have an image, feeling, taste, or fragrance?" The article set down a method of holding the pain, being present with it. The article suggested that my relationship to pain could change, the pain might lessen, or at least I would gain an understanding of it. I decided to try it out.
I resolved that the next time I woke up because of the pain, I would try to be present with it instead of crying to God . Night after night, week after week, I practiced being present with the pain. Each night something different would happen. Sometimes I would get an image of the pain. I learned that the pain I felt had an image, a feeling, a taste and a fragrance and yes, sometimes it would lessen and even disappear completely.
Then one night it happened. I was meditating
and there it was. A feeling of peace, not associated with whether I was in
pain or not.