The Therapeutic Value of Buddhist Meditation

A Meditation Retreat Helps a Therapist Confront Cancer Trauma

David Treadway

I've been working hard on integrating Buddhist teachings and meditation practice into my life for six years now. I have a luminescent teacher named Narayan, a sangha of experienced fellow practitioners, a daily practice, and have been on several retreats. I've been committed to the path, as they say.

None of my spiritual practice prepared for my stage IV non-Hodgkins lymphoma that turned my life upside down two years ago. I was extremely sick and given a small chance to survive.

During the first year and half with cancer, I was assaulted by chemo, suspicious symptoms, and endless rounds of MRIs and PET scans. I tried to act brave and strong. Oddly enough, in the first weeks, I achieved my Buddhist ideal of living moment by moment with equanimity, acceptance, and gratitude. I spoke easily about the transformational power of illness, the gift of cancer. I thought I'd become enlightened. But in reality, in my first months of confronting the cancer, I was out of my mind, quite dissociative. Buddhism doesn't mean being detached, uncaring, disengaged.

Somehow during my illness, I stopped caring about my life. Not about the people I love---my wife, my sons, my friends, my clients. I just stopped caring about me. And like most trauma survivors, I didn't actually go through the experience of battling the cancer. I was a spectator---a kind of dead man walking. I practiced surrender and prepared, as best I could, to die.

But I didn't.

Here I am---remarkably healthy, a walking miracle, and an emotional mess. In the nine months since I completed chemo and stopped having any kinds of symptoms, I've been a quivering mass of heart palpitations, jangled nerves, PTSD flashbacks, and deadly despair. People tell me how great I look, how good I sound. I want to punch their lights out.

I came to this retreat out of desperation. I'm here to learn how to live again, because I might be around for another 30 years. What the hell am I supposed to do with that?! With the illness, I surrendered the idea of a comforting tomorrow entirely. Now I can't seem to grasp even the idea of going on, although I appear to be a pretty healthy 62-year-old. I can't seem to reclaim the normal person's delusion that we own our lives and have a future. It's unimaginable. I don't know what I want to do. I don't care about anything. Nothing excites me. I'm as clueless as a 13-year-old, but with the added insult of having a shrinking, not growing, body.

So I'm here, just resting in the breath, trying to be present to the present. I came because I figured that before I can embrace the possibility of a real future and reclaim the joy of having hopes and dreams, I'd better find a way of living in the here and now, with all the uncertainties, fears, and feelings that I've either been denying or have found to be overwhelming. This is truly starting with the "one day at a time" mantra and holding on to it like it's a life preserver.

Somewhere in the middle of the retreat, I was deep in Samadhi concentration, paying full attention to the experience of the breath filling my lungs and then emptying out of them. I was free of thoughts, floating weightlessly like a space walker. Suddenly I felt a tickle on my forearm. I opened my eyes and saw that crawling up my arm was a round, speckled, orange ball. It was a ladybug; a little dot of life making its way from somewhere to somewhere, and at that moment, my arm was its path.

I felt a flush of understanding, and experienced on almost a cellular level that nothing really separated me from the ladybug. I, too, am nothing but a dot of life, making my way from somewhere to somewhere, I thought. I simultaneously experienced the feeling of being utterly insignificant and of being part of the breath of the infinite universe.

Later that day, my back went into a bad spasm, and my transcendent experience faded into a feeling that it had been nothing much more than a good trip. Almost everyone has some version of that flash in the pan enlightenment experience on a long retreat. When the eager beavers report these moments in the processing groups, the old hands greet it with bemused and gentle smiles.

So today, I go home. What have I learned? Nothing new. It's all 2,500-year-old wisdom. But at least for these eight days, I just was. And despite the back spasm, I've reclaimed a vision of my future. The retreat worked. I feel healthy and renewed. I feel excited about building a new life.

I'll go home and center my life around my Buddhist practice. I'll see fewer clients and do fewer workshops. I'll meditate three times a day. I'll take long walks and cherish the turn of each season. I'll forgo sleeping pills, booze, and comfort food. I'll go to the gym, lose weight, and get regular massages. Maybe I'll train to become a Buddhist teacher. Maybe I'll write about this enlightenment stuff in a fresh, meaningful way. I'll bow to the miracle of each life I encounter and each moment I live. I can't wait!

This blog is excerpted from “Any Day Above Ground". Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Mind/Body | Trauma

Tags: buddhist meditation | meditate | meditation | meditation practice | PTSD | survivors

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