“Being on a spiritual path does not prevent you from facing times of darkness; but it teaches you how to use the darkness as a tool to grow.” ~Unknown
Life has not been kind lately.
My aunt passed away in October. She had been suffering from cancer, but her family kept the extent of her illness to themselves, and hence I did not have a chance to see her before she passed away. I felt bad about that.
My father followed her a month later, just after Thanksgiving. He had been ailing from Parkinson’s Disease, but his death as well was not expected when it happened.
Two weeks after him, a friend of mine who lives abroad informed me of her diagnosis with a rare form of incurable cancer. She has since passed away before I had a chance to visit her. She was not yet fifty years old.
Right after that happened, the veterinarian diagnosed my dog with heart failure, and his days too are numbered.
In mid-January, my mother, who had been depressed after my father’s death, collapsed with a seizure. A tumor was discovered in her brain. Though easily removed, it was traced back to her lung. She too has a rare form of aggressive cancer and though outwardly healthy, her life will probably be limited to months or a couple of years.
The whole ordeal until diagnosis unfolded over the course of an extremely stressful month, and the future is both frightening and terribly uncertain. Because of this uncertainty, I have needed to change my life plans—I had been ready to relocate and change jobs.
In the last two weeks, I have had another friend in her forties diagnosed with advanced cancer with a poor prognosis, and my sister’s marriage has come apart.
Every week it seems brings some new tragedy. As just about everyone who knows me has said: “It’s a lot.” It certainly is.
I can’t put a happy face on this. Life has just been awful, and I wake up each day praying for no more bad news. There has been such a procession of misfortune that I feel more numb than anything else.
And yet, I haven’t been destroyed. I’m not depressed. When someone is depressed, whether it’s situational or clinical, they often become self-obsessed and turn just about any event, however positive, into a negative commentary on their life. I’ve been there before, and this is not depression.
I’m scared, but I feel strong. I know I can handle this. And, I’m very thankful—thankful for what gave me the strength to endure these times: my spiritual journey.
In 2012, after a years-long series of illnesses, bad romantic relationships, frayed friendships, work drama, and general instability in my life, I had a total breakdown.
By “breakdown” I mean the whole nine yards—massive depression, professional psychological help, medication, and inability to work or even function normally. However, following this breakdown came the clichéd spiritual awakening.
This spiritual awakening taught me so many things, most of which you’ve probably already read about, for example: the ego, the importance of being present, the power of vulnerability, etc.
It was such a fragile period of intense learning and growth built atop a well of deep suffering. It felt terrible, but I learned and changed so much. Though it’s unlikely that I will experience such drastic spiritual growth in such a short period of time again, I realized that I had embarked on a life-long spiritual journey with no end.
Along the way, there have been fewer but no less rewarding “Aha moments” and new realizations made possible by the consciousness I had gained. Furthermore, there have been many spiritual tests, and each time I worry that I will fail to live the lessons I’ve already internalized, I surprise myself and come through.
And now I’ve reached an objectively extraordinarily difficult time. This is not a crisis of egoic drama or hurt feelings but real pain—physical suffering and death for so many people who I care about in a matter of months.
While the spiritual journey is a continuum with multiple themes that are difficult to unravel from each other, there are a few concepts that are sustaining me through it all:
1. Presence and the now
The weight of all of it has pushed me into a very intense NOW. I try not to hope because hope has let me down a lot recently, but perhaps more importantly, hope is focused on an unknowable and largely inalterable future. Though in the context of a lot of terrible events, rarely is there anything wrong with this very moment. Despite the pain of recent events, right now there is so much going right.
Choosing to focus on the good isn’t delusional—it’s an accurate reflection of reality.
My mother is dying. We don’t know when and there isn’t too much we can do, but thinking of that future is enough to ruin every day. And yet, with our time together now so valuable, I have no choice but to be fully present with her as much as I can.
I have experienced so much loss recently, but bitterly clinging to that loss will distract me from the precious time I have left with my mother and friends, and it will do nothing to bring back my dad, my aunt, or anyone else.
However, there isn’t much wrong with right now. My mom isn’t suffering, I’m lucky to be free from work to be with her, and my family has come together in support of each other. The birds sing each morning, the weather is fine, and the forest near our house is beautiful. That’s all real too, and there is much joy to be had in each moment.
Should something arise in the moment, that’s when I’ll deal with it. While I do occasionally find myself worrying over the future, that serves no purpose and only spoils the now.
In times of extreme stress when so many things are going wrong, it is critical to exercise self-care; you cannot be a positive force in the world if you’re falling apart inside.
Boundaries are key to protecting your time and energy, which are particularly challenged in very difficult times, from behaviors that drain them. However, most of the time life is much easier, so we allow people to skate by and “go along to get along” as not to be difficult. After all, we don’t want to seem mean or selfish or unforgiving. We aim to please.
However, while the importance of boundaries is particularly stark in times of crisis, even in normal times they play an important role in self-care and building healthy relationships. This is clear when we see what can happen when we don’t enforce boundaries.
Oftentimes, trying to be nice and agreeable, we allow someone to repeatedly cross the line with no repercussions. As our resentment builds, we may act out in retaliation, doing nothing helpful for ourselves or the world.
A relationship of true intimacy and mutual respect should be able to easily withstand one party making his or her boundaries clear. If the other can’t handle that, then how deep of relationship is it anyway? In fact, establishing a level of trust with someone to feel comfortable enough to discuss boundaries is in itself a sign of a strong relationship.
Enforcing boundaries involves a level of honesty that can deepen relationships.
During my mother’s time in the hospital, frustrated with being confined to bed, she unleashed a stream of vitriol at me that were without a doubt the most hurtful words anyone has ever said to me.
As difficult as it was to do with her health in such a fragile state, I felt I had no choice; I had to enforce my boundaries. If I am to be her primary caregiver, I couldn’t endure a situation in which she directs her frustrations at me—it wouldn’t work for me, and it wouldn’t work for her. Unfortunately, it was a repeated behavior of hers over many years.
Without getting into the details, we had a very frank discussion about this, and to be fair, it’s something I let her get away with for a long time by not enforcing my boundaries.
While initially very painful, this talk led to me sharing deep dark memories and thoughts I never would have otherwise said and clearing a lot of what stood in the way of our relationship as mother and son. That very likely would not have happened had I not stood firm, and I never would have established that open a relationship with her. However long she has left in this world, I know that this issue, my past hurt from her actions, won’t stand between us again.
3. Having an open mind
When faced with a diagnosis as dire as what my mom was given, unless you completely give up, keeping an open mind is often the only way to find good news that you would have otherwise overlooked.
For example, in beginning my research on this type of cancer, I was dismayed to learn that there has been no material change to the standard of care in about forty years. All of those recent breakthroughs in cancer treatment you’ve heard about, they don’t apply to this one!
However, rather than declaring defeat right away, I did decide to dig a little deeper. What I found was that there actually are a lot of clinical trials going on in our area for this type of cancer, many of which may provide a good second-line treatment option. Moreover, one of the trial drugs is very likely to get FDA approval in the next year, giving us some options where before there was none. Taking advantage of these would require changing hospitals, so these are developments I never would have learned about had I given up.
I’ve been reminded to keep an open mind about people too. My mother, typically pretty volatile, has faced this all with amazing strength and equanimity—certainly more than I’ve shown! For someone totally uninterested in spirituality, she shown a remarkable perspective on all of this in the context of her life, with which she is very satisfied.
My sister, also going through marital problems while taking care of her baby and usually very emotional, has coped perhaps the best of any of us and has exhibited some very healthy habits for staying even. My brother, on the other hand, himself a doctor, has probably been the most scattered and emotionally crippled by the recent events.
The point is that whatever you think you know about a person, it can change any day, any time. People can surprise you, for better or worse. While it’s totally rational to make judgment calls about people’s strengths and weaknesses, abilities and attributes, you must always realize that you can be wrong, or that the person might change—in fact, people are changing all of time!
Spirituality is not about finding a happy hiding place insulated from temporal concerns. It’s quite the opposite—it’s about moving through life with eyes and arms wide open to whatever happens. It’s the way we get down in the mud and go through the wringer and remain who we are.
Spirituality is a muscle. It gets stronger with exercise, and exercise causes discomfort. But once recuperated, you find you’re able to lift even more weight than before.
I’ve never had to deal with such a painful series of events, and hopefully I never will again. But however insignificant what I’ve already been through seems in comparison, that past started me on a spiritual journey that prepared me for this present time. Whatever happens, I know I’ll emerge stronger from this too.