I am writing today from my small room in Crestone Colorado. An arctic cold front has moved through Colorado, providing us a foot of snow, and 10F (-12C) temperatures. I moved from Boulder to the Crestone Mountain Zen Center on October 1st. I feel as though I have written a blog post like this before – in fact, I did, in 2011!
9 years later, I am making a similar choice. A synchronistic set of circumstances came together to allow this to happen. First, earlier in the summer, my Zen teacher, Zentatsu Baker Roshi, who was forced to remain in the US due to the pandemic, decided to unretire and began teaching and managing the monastery again. There were some significant leadership changes this summer at the monastery and several of my closest sangha friends over the years agreed to support my teacher through this transition. Suddenly a space that had felt uninviting in recent years was very open and welcoming to me.
In June, Roshi invited me to live at the monastery in any capacity possible. As my health at that time was still very compromised, I knew I would be unable to make an immediate decision. All my advisors were very clear that making big decisions in a state of depression and ill health, was not a good idea! Therefore, I left the decision open as my health improved until I felt more capable of a decision requiring a big change. With time, I noticed my heart was feeling increasingly at ease with the idea of returning to a monastic existence, and there was some excitement at the concept of being invited to participate in a part-time manner, something I will discuss below.
This time, the circumstances are wildly different. First, I will not “be dancing on loves stage with a beautiful Dutch woman” as I wrote 9 years ago. One of the more difficult aspects of moving here was choosing to leave behind two deeply satisfying and nourishing romantic relationships that had developed in recent months. At the monastery, my risk tolerance for coronavirus merges with the risk tolerance of the entire sangha – and that is a very low tolerance. Essentially the group here is self-isolating to keep our residents safe (Three residents are over 70 and my teacher is nearly 85). Aside from essential medical or shopping trips, my only engagement with others outside the monastery will be outside walks or Zoom calls. Anyone with significant exposure outside the monastery must quarantine and test before returning to communal practice life. The positive side of this is that it is as-if the pandemic does not exist here – because of the group self-quarantine, we do not need to wear masks, we eat and work closely together, hugging and touch are encouraged and what was once normal to everyone outside, remains normal here. Today I shared practice and meals with a group of 18 people which feels incredibly nourishing and intimate after the long period of chemo and corona isolation.
Although nearly four weeks have passed since I arrived, a clear sense of timelessness has accompanied living here. The schedule, the first teacher, is repetitive and unforgiving. The wake-up bell rings at 4:30, although many of us need to stir even earlier to prepare for our various practice roles. I am finding such deep nourishment in my daily meditation. Post-chemotherapy, I took an unintended hiatus from regular practice, possibly for the longest period since I began meditating regularly a decade ago. Each morning, despite the cold and darkness, I eagerly seek that cushion, coming back home to one of the most intimate places I have discovered in this life.
I am experimenting with a part-time schedule here, participating in about 2/3 of the daily activities while allowing myself extra space for ensuring I get enough rest to continue my healing. This means I skip the afternoon work period and the evening meditation – I would prefer not to miss this meditation, but it means I would not get to sleep until past 9. Right now, I need a solid 8 hours of sleep to remain healthy and not deplete my immune system. Once I see the clock strike at 8 pm, it’s lights out for me, which seems unbelievable, although completely necessary!
The other benefit of being on a 2/3 schedule is that I have some flexibility to remain connected to the outside world with better frequency and I am continuing to pursue several threads that have become very important to me in the last year. Authentic Relating is one of the primary ones: I am teaching an online course in Authentic Relating and am also mentoring several people in a leadership development course. I have also headed up a crowdfunding project for the Realness Project where we are raising funds to get authentic relating workbooks into prisons to bring some light to incarcerated people who are facing much more difficult and isolated conditions than many of us. There are a few other threads I may describe later, but the point is that my agreement with the staff here makes it possible for me to occasionally miss part of the morning work period for a meeting or to take a couple of days here or there to teach or take an online course. Normally such half-time positions are not possible, but because I have a long relationship and a developed practice with this monastery, we have come to this seemingly mutually beneficial agreement.
I think I’ll leave it here – I had intended to reach into the subtle aspects, the emotional and spiritual shifts and reflections, however, the practical points took over! I hope to continue writing more consistently and plan to take you all along on this next stage of my healing and evolution!
Hi Friends, here is a quick update from post-chemo-recovery-land.
Last week I had my chemo port removed in an uneventful surgical procedure. Today I removed the final bandages to find a well-healing scar. I am considering a tattoo in the area (this will be my first ever), so please vote on ideas! Here are a few samples, personally the super nerdy USB port symbol is drawing my attention.
This surgery completes my formal conventional treatment. Unless I experience unusual symptoms, my next appointment will be January 2021 for a follow-up CT scan.
After a tough period in June and July, I feel I am emerging from this period of insulation and acute pain. I am managing through a series of physical complaints that I referred to last week, as to be expected for 6-12 months after an intense chemotherapy regimen. My hair is growing rapidly and profusely: I am even grateful for those annoying nose hairs. Without them, your nose constantly drips all day long!
I am noticing the transition of my attention from day to day survival and comfort-seeking to more traditional focuses such as relationships, career, purpose, practice, meaning, etc. More on all of this soon. I’ve been able to get out into the high country to enjoy the midsummer alpine heaven that is Colorado. Attached are a few photos from a recent solo backpack from an isolated lake at 12,000 feet.
Today, I simply want to re-express my gratitude for all the support and love that continues to uplift and inspire me forward. I originally was going to start naming specific folks – however, when I sit and reflect on everyone involved, I realize this list is too long! My family, my oncology nurses, my extended community abroad, my local friends, lovers, the random social media friends following my blog, my acupuncturist, and massage therapists, and other healers: yoga therapist, oncologist, kinesiologist, astrologers. All the staff and support personal. Everyone who delivered me home-cooked meals and groceries. All the children (and adults!) who drew me pictures, sewed masks or created some art for me. My best friends who offered or did travel long distances to be with me. My spiritual community and spiritual teachers, guides, gurus, and friends- the men in my men’s community and my extended authentic and relational communities. The dark horse podcast and other online sources of inspiration in this difficult time. May more that are not coming to me at this moment. And to all of the courageous folks in every walk of life inspiring me daily.
My eyes are watery and soft as I write this list and feel overwhelmed as I remember all of the individual acts of care and love – financial and physical and emotional and so much more. I purchased a big box of thank you cards that I intend to eventually send out – for now, trust that I am grateful and I am doing my best to pay it forward with my actions and intentions as I move forward into the next phase of life.
We did this together.
Today marks two months since completing my chemotherapy treatment. It is hard to believe so much time has gone by, so quickly. This morning I met with my acupuncturist Kate, in an appointment that ended up feeling much more like therapy than acupuncture! I am very grateful for Kate’s healing touch over the past months. First, she is highly knowledgeable and skilled at what she does, and more importantly, she deeply cares and deeply listens.
I walked out of her office with tears streaming down my cheeks. I do not think I have cried for a while. What happened? We started speaking first about several of the physical issues I have been facing since chemotherapy – weight gain, odd body pains, skin discoloration, and a few other things. After examining the strange discoloration in the middle of my back associated with a lot of tension, Kate starts digging a little deeper – how are you feeling, what are your thoughts about the cancer? Do you feel responsible, do you blame the outside world?
After being needled thoroughly, physically, and verbally, our conversation eventually reaches a point of discussing normalcy. This concept has been affecting me and many of you, as we learn to live with the societal changes coronavirus has thrust upon us. For me, this goes a step further, as I emerge drastically changed physically, emotionally, and spiritually after this healing journey with cancer. I am struggling in many ways internally. Looking from the outside, things in my life appear normal. I am beginning to socialize, date, taking on projects, and going on retreat. I just spent 3 magical days in the wilderness camping at 12,000 feet at a pristine alpine lake.
The struggle centers around this concept of normalcy. My hair is growing back, aspects of life are returning to pre-cancer as much as they can considering the coronavirus backdrop, I feel motivated and directed in my activities. And YET, I also fear this normalcy. Was this just an 8-month bad dream? I am very proud of myself for tackling my healing process so strongly, for integrating the tumor and embracing the strong chemotherapy regimen. But I know this is not the complete healing – my mind wanders to the possible sources of the disease. If they were emotional or spiritually rooted, have I addressed the source? If I have not, how do I?
Therefore, these contradictory energies play inside of me – on one hand, this desire to return to what was, to all the masks and shadows I danced with previously, and on the other hand, pressing my foot on the brake, slowing down. Did I receive my lesson(s) from this healing process? Is there more to do? Returning to who and what I was is impossible, there have been too many changes this year.
Who am I and who do I want to be?
And this thought itself may be the greatest part of my struggle – during my treatment with tuning forks vibrating on my heart and crown, Kate instructed me to remind myself daily that I am being guided and that it is not always me who is in control. As obvious as this is, my entire being resists this knowledge with incredible force.
Reflection on my most recent test result – I’m out of the woods!
The report was clear and I’m essentially finished with conventional treatments for the time being. I’ll have follow-up scans every 6 months for the next two years (the highest likelihood of a recurrence is in the first two years), but other than this, I will be on my own, free of pharmaceuticals for the foreseeable future.
Ordinarily, it would be a beautiful time to celebrate the confluence of my 41st birthday and the end of treatment with a big party, but unfortunately this pandemic will delay this until a yet to be determined date in the future!
A brief health update 1-month after my final chemotherapy treatment.
A follow-up to my last video about striking a balance between belonging and being true to yourself.
A few thoughts on vulnerability, sensemaking, and finding your voice at the risk of not belonging.