September 2, 2008

Denise Thornton: the Dharma of Cancer.

Do not pursue the past.

Do not lose yourself in the future.

The past no longer is.

The future has not yet come.

Looking deeply at life as it is.

In the very here and now,
the meditation practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.

We must be diligent today—to wait until tomorrow…

…is too late.

Death comes unexpectedly!
How can we bargain with it?

The sage calls a person
who knows how to dwell in mindfulness night and day
‘One who knows the better way to live.’

~ Bhaddekaratta Sutra

editor’s note:  This article was written for elephant by a wonderful Buddhist friend, Denise Thornton. Denise Thornton is/was one of those people who everyone loves. She made everyone feel heard—she is/was fully in the moment, cheerful, and yet has a sense of modesty and humor that grounded her beauty in the reality of being human. 

Her cancer has now advanced to the point where she may not have time to see her article come off the presses…her good friend Fleet Maull had asked to show her the article, so we’re posting this now so she can see the article, and her friends may hear from her one last time. To any friends of Denise who wish to practice in support of her last days (you will not be able to see her), Fleet Maull says: “We have set up our dining room as a shrine room for people to come over and practice from 1pm to 7 pm each day. Please feel welcome to come over and practice.” Complete instructions have been copied in comments, at the bottom of this post. You can email Fleet at [email protected] but please do so only if necessary. Please do not call.

~ ~ ~

The Reality of Death, by Denise Thornton.

I was a healthy 49 year-old. I loved my career, exercised regularly (even on the road), and ate well, mostly organic. There is no cancer in my family and both my grandmothers lived to be at least 95. I thought this was my path too. Life had other plans.

Sitting down now to write about my journey with terminal cancer, my heart wells up with intense feelings, both happy and sad. I reflect on the depth and poignancy of these past three years shared with family and friends, the pain and surrender of working with an intense illness and the opportunities to practice the Buddhadharma so completely. 

But what stands out most vividly….. ……is the joy, the appreciation I feel for every moment. I would never have chosen this journey. Nonetheless, I find myself filled with gratitude for the clarity and freedom embracing it has brought me. 

It’s heartbreaking, now, to see so clearly how we get in the way of our own happiness when death is just some distant possibility for us. We try so hard to maintain and defend ourselves, spending so much of our energy and missing so much of life trying to hide from the fact that death is real. Until we are fortunate enough to awaken to this truth, we tenaciously live in denial of the one thing that, if embraced, brings us real freedom. As I look around with new eyes, it seems to be a common experience most of us share.

I’m grateful for how 30 years of Buddhist practice and taking the teachings to heart prepared me for this cancer journey. Working with this illness and terminal diagnosis has been a daily, moment-to-moment practice of yielding and surrendering to “what is.” I’m no longer in control. It might seem like it at times, because I still have some choices. But despite the importance of the choices we make in life, our choices don’t ultimately put us in control of our lives. 

When I got sick, I said to myself, “I haven’t practiced with death and impermanence for 30 years so that I’d be surprised it could happen to me.” So, when I got a cancer diagnosis, I was ready. Now I have to say, it surprises me that people are so shocked when impermanence comes knocking at the door.

Above and below photos by Elaine Logan.

Between the love I received from my parents and the love and blessings I received from my teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, I learned to trust in myself and to have confidence in my basic goodness. This has served me well in dealing with cancer, the long treatment journey and the nearness of death. Why not trust in our basic goodness and learn to like and appreciate ourselves…what better friend could we have? When it’s our time to leave this world, this trust and confidence will be a great ally. 

If we can live even one moment completely and fully, right now, one complete moment of presence, openness and trust, we will have lived completely. Life is not about how long we live, or merely about what we “do”—it’s about how fully we live, how deeply we are touched by our world. 

If I would recommend anything, it would be, “Take death to heart.”

It’s not so morbid as we might think. For me, it’s been the path to joy, appreciation and gratitude. The Buddhist teachings ask us to think about our own death at least three times a day. We know death happens to others. We see it all around us, but we still don’t think it will happen to us, somehow, at least not now.

As we contemplate our own death, we won’t be so frightened by it. Normally, we continually guard our sense of permanence, some continuity of “me.” Without realizing, we expend energy warding off the reality of change—of death. We live in fear, treating impermanence as a continual threat—be it old age, sickness, death, or just a moment of empty space or boredom. 

Contemplating death brings clarity—how to proceed in life, what’s important and what’s not. Mostly we get caught up in our expectations of life and the doing of things…projects and more projects. What feels more important to me these last few years is just being. We’re here, we’re alive and we have this precious opportunity to truly touch and be touched by others; to communicate our love, joy, pain, sadness and fears; to share our hearts and humanity. What feels really important to me at this point is not to get more, but to give back, to give something to life and to help others if we can.

I invite you to start practicing with impermanence. Take the reality of death to heart. Let it pierce you. If you can open and surrender to your own mortality and vulnerability, you will discover a fundamental, unconditional source of strength and confidence. 

The realization of death is a real blessing. It brings joy, freedom, genuine appreciation and the ability to fully live our lives, right here and now. Knowing my time is limited, I’m grateful just to appreciate the life I’ve lived, the teachers I’ve studied with and the love I’ve been given and received.

Denise Thornton, M.A. Gerontology, from Naropa University, Boulder, was diagnosed in 2005 with end stage liver disease at the age of 49. She spent 15  years working in Long Term Care as Regional Marketing Director. A student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche since 1976, Denise teaches Buddhist and Shambhala programs. She has a 23 year old son, James.

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