This week's yoga study is tapas (I'm not talking snacks with drinks). It means enlightenment through tackling necessary hardship. Right out of the hopper it leads my attention to the unnecessary hardship in our lives.
Patanjali says tacking the hardships, over which we have no control to change, without complaining, feeling hard-done-by or self-pitying, is an act of purification, and that through our practiced and loving efforts we can gain a light, healthy body and acute powers of hearing and understanding.
In the old days, before the enlightenment of the Buddha, for example, it was thought that suffering was a necessary path to liberation. That's how you got the homeless beggars with their bowls, sitting naked on snowy mountains, laying on beds of nails and such nasty things. Thank God I didn't live in those times! The Buddha came along (and obviously Patanjali - or the translator I'm reading) and said, no, you don't need to seek out suffering. Enough of that shows up all by itself, sooner or later, or even all the time.
Everyone is different in the amount that life calls them to go through disasters. For the recent flood (2nd worst of the century in Manitoba), my two-year-old son and I had to self-evacuate for four days to a lovely woman's lovely home with her lovely daughter in Lindenwoods. On the flip side, I saw a picture from the Philipines of a man and woman up to their necks in water, floating their oblivious-looking infant in a wash tub. Suffering is relative and taking the time to notice we are not the only one suffering can often make us grateful for the challenges we face.
Left to our own device, there's a tendency to avoid necessary hardships. We don't want to, don't feel like it, you can't make me, I would rather poke my eyes out. And yet, the frequency with which we will turn around and create all kinds of unnecessary hardships for ourselves, and guess what, all the people around us, is astounding.
On that note, almost ten years ago, having practiced yoga and meditation for most of the decade, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, stage four by the time I got to bottom of what was bringing me down. I won't tell the whole story here, but as it relates to tapas, it was an opportunity to see what I was really made of when all my defenses were down and my identities were blown.
Along the way to getting really sick I avoided the necessary hardship of quitting my job with a family business in the high-stress public relations arena. I knew it would devastate my father after he'd invested so much in training me, and I wanted to help the family with the business that had given me so much growing up. However, I knew the job was killing my body, never mind my soul. Feeling the pull of my soul stronger than my body I ramped up the time I gave to yoga, meditation and organizing gatherings in the midst of a full-time-plus business life was so stressful, that it frequently made me want to jump off the building in which I worked. Suddenly (or so it seemed) I had a lump in my neck, and within months the low grade malaise turned into very sick.
This was the beginning of an end, and the point at which I systematically lost and gave away everything - the things I couldn't manage anymore: my house, my pets, my things, many of my friends (though the loved ones who showed up gave me immeasurable love and support), my hair, the use of my hands at times, even the ability to deep breath and sit up in the midst of brutal chemo regimes.
I faced the loss of my life twice. The first time found me laying on my back for a whole day. That never happened. No matter how bad I felt, I had always managed to sit myself up and at least meditate on the space of infinity, reaching unexpected hights and experiencing joy like never before, despite the state of my body. That day, after 11 months of chemotherapy, I was defeated. There was no more fight in me. I had lost it all and there was not yet signs of the treatments working. After the day was done and the day light turned to dusk, I suddenly woke up from my funk by the realization that there I was, with nothing I knew to be myself, but I was there whole, perfectly complete and full - amazing! Who would have thought it? Then I knew that I never again needed to do anything for myself or to make myself fulfilled. With nothing, not even a real hope to live on in my body, I was already that.
The second time I was diagnosed, my oncologist was sure I was headed for death, as this is statistically the case. They ramped up the chemo to daily doses, five days a week, for a few months. At the end of it they recommended a stem-cell transplant, a procedure that half the people die doing and said this was my only chance. By this time my life had turned into one therapeutic act after another, the medical stuff being the least of it. That story will be for another time. For all the efforts I'd made, all the self-educating I had done and all the great guides and healers I'd invited into my life, I still had not yet come around the corner of recovery. It broke me at this point while I deliberated about the looming and heroic medical process that took up to a year, if one lived through it.
Hanging in the balance led me again to face the loss of my life, and ultimately to be at peace with that very real possibility and to see what lay at the heart of keeping me in a down-spiral of illness. In the heart, I discovered that I had been making all my efforts, fabulous and expensive as they were, out of fear - the fear of death, fear of authority (especially medical/conventional) and fear of being sick.
I then realized that I needed be at peace with death, be at peace with authority and the reality of becoming ill, and most importantly that I needed to start acting out of a love - love for myself, love for all the good things available for supporting my health and most importantly a love for Life itself. At that moment I decided not to do the transplant and accepted that if I was to die at that time, let it be of cancer, not chemo. I began a sometimes moment-to-moment practice of conscious love, and a constant digestion (not denial) of the fears that ometimes moment-to-moment came to the surface. As you guessed, I turned the corner and have never looked back. I'm in better health now than I was in my twenties, save for the mothering injuries I'm nursing. My oncologist pretends I don't exist, by the way, and he never asked me what my secret was. He didn't lack anything truly, but curiosity.
The tapas I practiced in those days prepared me to live a life so full I could never have imagined it. And life continues to throw me curve balls, to say the least. The most humbling part is waking up to the fact that when we turn down our choices in the time that that choice is ripe, the scene may turn, and our "get to" may turn into some other "have to." Here's a prayer that I and we all learn to do as much "get to" as we can. Please do send me your thoughts.
Cheers and kind love, Beth