A number of years ago I gave a talk at a cancer conference in Washington, DC on a topic that has been a major focus of my life and work in oncology for many years. The talk was on the model of whole-person cancer care — called The Seven Levels of Healing — that I first discovered and developed in 1993 and have been working with ever since. This approach to multidimensional care is and has been very near and dear to my heart. It articulates and demonstrates how it is possible to truly honor and care for every dimension of human beings, with clarity and precision — at the deepest levels of the body, mind, heart, and spirit — within the context of mainstream cancer care. In a future blog, I will write more about The Seven Levels of Healing, particularly in light of my own personal cancer journey over the last several years.
At the end of the lecture on that particular day, I was interviewed by a journalist who asked me if I could summarize everything I had learned about The Seven Levels of Healing — and about healing in general … in a single sentence. I had never been asked this before, and was stumped. I asked her for a day to think it over and get back to her with an answer, and she agreed.
I went back to my hotel room and sat in meditation. I was deeply intrigued and inspired by her question, and was eager for an answer.
After some time in deep silence, the answer came in a flash of insight that has served me, and many others, ever since.
Now that I have been dealing directly with cancer as a patient myself, I increasingly recognize the deep truth and relevance of what I discovered that evening.
What I saw and understood in that moment of insight is this:
“The Essence of Healing is Found in Focused Action and Intention … Wrapped in the Arms of Surrender.”
This epiphany immediately rang so true to me, and it has guided much of life and work ever since.
As I have mentioned, one of my goals with this blog is to share and explore what I have learned about so many of the great paradoxes of life and healing. The epiphany from that night so many years ago illustrates what I believe is one of the fundamental paradoxes of life and healing — and reveals what I regard as a profound and important truth about the essence of healing.
The paradox is that, in each moment in life, we must choose between knowing when to take action in our lives … when to focus our efforts and intentions to change the circumstances we find ourselves in … and when to accept what is happening and surrender to the truth of the moment, the truth of what is — knowing that, at least for now, we must simply surrender and let go.
This is especially true, and is so poignantly revealed, when dealing with a life-threatening illness like cancer.
When confronted with cancer, there is a deeply visceral, human instinct to do everything possible to heal, to “fix the problem,” and try to get well. This includes searching for the drug, the doctor, the healer, the herb, the diet, the therapy, the protocol, the clinic that can save us. We search and search, and are often willing to endure even the most extreme sacrifices — including an almost limitless array of tests, scans, surgeries, procedures, drugs, chemotherapy, radiation, and myriad types of alternative healing modalities — to find a way to live. We are often inundated by friends and colleagues with countless suggestions of things to “do,” therapies to try, places to go, and opinions about what is best.
This instinct towards seemingly endless action in the effort to heal is completely understandable. I have certainly felt it deeply in my own experience with cancer — not to mention in my experience with so many patients I’ve cared for over so many years, and what I’ve seen my own family members and friends go through in their own cancer journeys as well.
But there are problems and limitations with this kind of single-minded, action-oriented approach.
The first problem, of course is that — at the end of the day — there is absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that any particular therapy or healing modality of any kind will work. They certainly may, but there are no guarantees. Even more distressing is that — especially with serious, advanced cancers — many, if not most, of the therapies will ultimately not work, or be curative, let alone be truly healing at the deepest levels. Unfortunately, our level of skill and understanding of cancer is just not there yet. And, if a particular approach does “work,” or seem to work, we often soon encounter new problems, or experience a variety of side effects, toxicities, or a new and different set of issues to deal with. This is a hallmark of the relative, ever-changing nature of medicine … and human existence itself.
A second problem with this kind of approach — which is especially implicit in the conventional medical model of treating disease, and especially cancer — is that being in a constant state of searching, and making efforts and trying to do everything possible to “find the answer,” can not only be exhausting, but counterproductive.
In my experience, it is impossible to truly heal when constantly in stress — let alone being “at war” with whatever is going on in your body, or your life.
I have found that it is most helpful and productive to make every effort possible to heal and get well — even fighting really hard — while wrapping your efforts, in every moment, and to the fullest degree possible, in the arms of surrender. I believe this balance is where the deepest essence of healing is truly found.
By “surrender,” I do not mean being passive, or hopeless, or accepting defeat.
I am talking about a deeper recognition of the futility of making constant effort to exert one’s will in the world of outer affairs, or on the inner realities of what is happening with the body. I am referring to making room, deep in one’s heart, soul, and being, for what is simply true and present in the moment, and accepting it — as fully as possible. I am also talking about making room deep inside to honor the great Mystery that ultimately lies behind who gets well, who doesn’t, who lives, who dies … and when. Embracing this Mystery, as fully and consciously as possible — even in the midst of a tectonic cancer battle — transforms the whole experience. It adds a vital and precious quality of humility to the entire process. It helps dissolve the illusion of separation, and the illusion of control. It can also open otherwise hidden, inner doorways to supreme grace, unexpected blessings — and perhaps even profound physical as well as mental, emotional, and spiritual healing — that might otherwise be missed.
It seems to me that a deep path of mastery in life, and the healing path as well, is to be quiet enough on the inside to be able to listen for and hear the whispers of one’s deepest inner wisdom. This quiet inner wisdom, when truly honored and respected, may in one moment quite clearly speak to you and say, “focus now, get clear on your deepest intention, and take action.” And yet, in the very next moment this very same inner wisdom may say, “surrender now, let go, rest, trust that you are being guided, and let go.” It is also a calling to try to make your choices and decisions based on love, rather than fear.
The way forward is to become quiet enough on the inside to be able to hear, and distinguish, between these two imperatives that lie within us all … and which can move and change from moment to moment.
There is a profound experience of freedom and opening that comes when our actions and intentions are fully wrapped, in every moment, in the arms of surrender. This opening can lead to some of the greatest gifts imaginable. But we have to be willing to listen, to surrender, and to let go — as well as focus our intentions and take action.
I am going through this exact process and inquiry right now in my own journey, perhaps more directly than ever before. I have just completed a seventh round of difficult stereotactic radiation treatments … after having already undergone so many scans, tests, different regimens of chemotherapy, consultations, and deep exploration of many other healing modalities — none of which offer any guarantees or assurances at all. Right now, I am waiting to resume treatment with more chemotherapy, hopefully in about week. In the meantime, I have absolutely no idea what will happen as a result of the next round of treatments, let alone from all the efforts I have already made to get this far. I have no idea how I, or my body, or my cancer, will respond, or what lies ahead. While preparing once again to “take action,” I must continue to surrender to the unknown.
I am not saying that I have mastered this moment-to-moment acceptance of what is, or surrendered fully to the great Mystery of life, death, and the unknown twists and turns that lie ahead. It has been very hard at times for me to let go of the human longing for certainty, control, and the impulse to keep making efforts and moving forward. At times, I’ve struggled with incredibly deep feelings of sadness, loss, and fear, even though — despite what conventional medical statistics may suggest — the fire of life, the desire to heal and live, and the belief that it is, indeed, possible, remain strong in my heart.
Regardless, though, this profound insight of wrapping my actions and intentions in the arms of surrender is the truth to which I aspire in my life. It guides my journey as I continue to face and deal with the difficult choices and challenges I continue to encounter as the path unfolds.
Thank you for your willingness to share this journey with me, especially on this blog, since it is so hard to stay connected in person right now. Thank you also, once again, for your love, prayers, and heartfelt good wishes; and for your presence in my life. They are a great gift to me!