Yes folks, it’s my anniversary. On 17 December three years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time I didn’t dare think too much further ahead than the next treatment hurdle, which in my case was a mastectomy two days after diagnosis. Oddly enough, the 17th December in 2016 falls on a Saturday – Law of Dharma or Purpose in Life Day in Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. A little spiritual tingle is travelling up my spine right now because it was after I came home from the hospital that I started writing my blogpost on that 7th Law, a post I’d been putting off for over a year as I came to terms with my own mid-life crisis, for want of a better description. That post led to the Big Breast Adventure series and the rest, as they say in the classics, is history. It seems fitting on this day of reflection (for me at least) to reprise my Law 7 – Purpose in Life post as a reminder to myself (more than anyone else) that time does indeed march on and finding one’s purpose continues to be a ‘work in progress’.
LAW 7 – WORK IN PROGRESS (posted February 2, 2014)
Like a good little perfectionist I’ve been holding off on posting about Law 7 – the Law of Dharma or Purpose in Life – in Deekpak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. Why? Well, I wanted to have it all together in my head, to have figured it all out before I started. Let me state for the record that I’m still a very long way from ‘having it all together’ and understanding the breadth and depth of this most inspiring yet intimidating of spiritual laws. But while I was procrastinating on this post three things happened that moved me closer to getting the dynamics of Dharma and my own purpose in life than any amount of desk research could ever do.
Thing 1 – Dad passed away: The passing of a parent is always a life defining moment. After more than two decades of living with Parkinson’s Disease my dear dad, Keith McDonald, succumbed to its inexorable march.
I have a theory about getting old, having seen it in action a lot over recent times. Our true nature emerges despite our best efforts to hide or subvert those parts of ourselves we dislike or that land us in politically incorrect territory. It’s like we become ourselves, only moreso, and for some people there’s acceptance in the process. These are usually the folks who have a healthy sense of who they really are, developed over the course of their lives. With others there seems to be a sense of bewilderment about their true nature as it emerges in their twilight years. It’s as if lifelong lack of self awareness finally comes home to roost and they are confronted with who they really are. This happens at a time when they have little energy left (or they can’t be bothered) putting on the armour, the face or the demeanour that makes them more acceptable to themselves and the outside world. It seems to my admittedly untrained eye, the true measure of a person and whether or not they are (or have been) on purpose in their lives is evident in times of illness, adversity and old age.
Dad rose to be a captain of the media industry from humble beginnings as a finance writer. He’d been vested with an honorary doctorate, an Order of the British Empire and had a building named after him in Brisbane, Queensland. And yet when the board meetings, corporate events and award ceremonies were done and he was living out his years in a nursing home, his humility, fierce intellect, gentility and strong Christian values were evident to his carers, despite the fact that the Parkinson’s had robbed him of his speech.
When writing his eulogy it occured to me that Dad had always been who he was. He didn’t articulate this in terms of ‘life purpose’ or ‘Dharma’ in fact he wouldn’t have ever used that terminology, being a staunch Methodist and all. He just lived his purpose, unswervingly, through good times and bad, when the road ahead was visible and when it was obscured, whether he was sitting at the Board table or the nursing home dinner table.
On hearing of Dad’s passing a dear friend gave me a book called Proof of Heaven written by a neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander. Dr Alexander tells his story of a massive, unexplained brain infection that puts him in a deep coma for seven days. While his family were told to prepare for the worst, he was having a vivid experience of consciousness, a heavenly realm, beyond his physical form where he had no connection to his earthly identity.
The intense irony of this story is that, as a neurosurgeon Dr Alexander had counselled many patients on NDEs – near death experiences – essentially putting these down to some brain activity or echo. When he emerged from the coma (which his doctors never thought he would) and most remarkably regained his full cerebral capacity (another miracle) he was able to see from his own medical records that his neocortex or the part of the brain that defines our humanity, had been completely shut down by the infection – no activity whatsoever. How then does one explain Dr Alexander’s own out of body NDE as a trick of the brain when his brain is effectively off-line the entire time?
Here is a man of science cast into a situation that defies explanation in any traditional sense. And yet, his specialist neurological training and experience puts him in the box seat to interpret both the magnitude of what’s taken place and its implications for the two greatest questions of the human condition – “Why am I here?” and “What happens when we die?” In his own words, Dr Alexander says, “I see it as my duty both as a scientist and hence a seeker of truth, and as a doctor devoted to helping people – to make it known to as many people as I can that what I underwent is true, and real, and of stunning importance. Not just to me, but to all of us.”
Now there’s a man who’s found his purpose or, more to the point, had his purpose thrust upon him.
Thing 2 – I was, quite literally, Drawn to India: Like I said earlier, the death of a parent (in my case the last parent – Mum preceded Dad by a decade) is a life altering event, whether you fully acknowledge it or not. While I intellectually accepted that Dad wouldn’t have wanted to stay in a broken body that refused to follow simple commands like putting one foot in front of the other, or he couldn’t hold his concentration long enough to read his beloved Economist, I had a hard time adjusting to a world where he no longer was.
A couple of months after Dad left us my younger sister, Janet, suggested we check out the possibility of travelling to India on an art tour. The tours are called Drawn to India, run by a Toowoomba-based visual artist and all round good girl, Catherine Parker. I’d always wanted to go to India but was very intimidated by the prospect, given all the horror stories about gastric attacks that make you feel like you’re melting, poverty that keeps you permanently in tears and monkeys that swoop down and steal the banana you’re about to put in your mouth.
But the joyous purpose of our gracious and beautiful tour leader, Catherine Parker, and the art workshop preparation we were gently obliged to undertake prior to the trip had much more of an impact than I expected. Suddenly I was thinking more about guache paint washes and negative space drawing exercises than I was obsessing about cashflow, my son’s homework assignments or what I should cook for dinner. A very refreshing turn of events.
India and art are two concepts that are now inextricably linked in my mind and heart and the lessons I learned on this trip seeped into my being like dreams, indelible and full of portent as to my own dharma. I took many pictures (about 2,000 of the suckers!) and wrote blogposts while in India. On returning home a friend told me something that should have been bleedin’ obvious but hitherto I hadn’t considered… “your writing is your art”.
If you look at what Dr Chopra recommends as the second of three things one can do to put the Law of Dharma into effect in one’s own life, it’s finding your unique talent and all the things you love to do while expressing that talent. Up until Drawn to India I suspected I might have a knack for writing but what I discovered is that my talent really lies in communicating a perspective on things and connecting with people. Writing skill is certainly not unique to me but the way I communicate through my writing is.
Just like when Catherine bid us to forget about the rules and let go of our need to ‘get it right’ or in my case, perfect, first time. Like India itself art is messy, unruly, surprising, frustrating, unfinished, evolving and often accidental. It truly is a lesson in acceptance and going with the flow. It’s a journey not a destination and while the end result may not be what you set out to achieve, the accidents, paint spills and ink smudges along the way create something unique, satisfying and resonant. Bit like life, really.
Thing 3 – The Big Breast Adventure starts: Roughly a month after I returned from India I was diagnosed with breast cancer – an Infiltrating Lobular Carcinoma. Two days after the diagnosis I had a mastectomy and spent the Christmas/New Year period recuperating at home, undergoing more tests and awaiting the start of chemotherapy. This will be followed by radiation treatment and all of this will stretch well into 2014. I thought I was pretty in tune with my physiology but I sure as hell didn’t see this coming.
While I’m certainly no worse off than any of my fellow pilgrims on this journey through life, I’ve already had a few ‘wake up calls’ in my time – spectacular relationship breakups, miscarriages, business failures, protracted demise of parents, sudden deaths of friends, children with learning difficulties, even a breakdown of sorts that had me shuffling off to group therapy every Tuesday for almost 12 months. And how can I forget the daily headaches for more than 35 years that pushed me in the direction of this Epiphany blog and the writing of My Friend the Headache in the first place?
These happenings have pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced a rethink of how I live my life, leading me to philosophies and practices that have now become part of my daily round. Looking back, I thought I had done pretty well traversing the road paved with uncertainty and responding to the Universe’s prompts to wake up and get real. So why breast cancer now?
At the tail end of the track entitled From Betrayal to Trust in Session 3 of Brené Brown’s wonderful Power of Vulnerability audio workshop she observes that while vulnerability, uncertainty and risk taking is uncomfortable – like torture even – it’s even more dangerous to stand outside our own lives, looking in like a stranger at the window, or having regrets in the our twilight years about not being real or all the things we wanted to do but didn’t. Dr Brown believes that this is the developmental challenge of mid-life saying, “It’s when the Universe come down, grabs you by the shoulders and says ‘I’m not effing around. I’m not kidding. This is it. I gave you gifts. I gave you opportunity. I made you in this incredible way. And now it’s your turn and you’re going to have to put the armour down and be brave and take some risks because it’s half way over.’ ”
When we were kids in Church, sitting alongside our parents in an uncomfortable wooden pew in the sultry heat of a Brisbane summer, my Dad would occasionally administer a crow peck (a sharp, usually unexpected, rap of the knuckles to the top of the head) to the giggler or fidgeter among us. That’s exactly what this breast cancer diagnosis feels like – not a full on Universal shoulder-shake that demands a complete change of course but a short, sharp crow peck, enough of a jolt to give me a jolly good shove down the path I am already on.
Perhaps this Dharma shebang is straighter in my head that I’d previously thought? In order to divine one’s life’s purpose Dr Chopra exhorts us to:
Nuture the God or Goddess within, paying attention to one’s spirit and what animates one’s body and mind. He cites ‘stillness’ as one of the ways to do this. This suggestion is a little diffuse for me and it seems like a big ask to ID the Goddess when you’re being poked, prodded, injected and literally stitched up in the course of treatment for a major illness. I’ve been developing my skills as a ‘stillness-seeker’ for some time but it wasn’t until I had this mastectomy (a huge procedure in anyone’s language) that I discovered something. Surgery enforces stillness, despite your minds eagerness to get up and get moving. You are forced into stillness, into just being as opposed to always doing, because you’re too stuffed from the surgery to do anything but lie on your bed and consider the ceiling. When you are quiet, the Goddess inside does have a moment to speak to you and possibly even emerge from her hidey-hole. P.S. Having a shower, ditching the surgical gown and putting on some cute PJs also helps to draw her out.
Dr Chopra suggests also that one makes a list of one’s unique talents and all the things you love to do while expressing your talents. I love to write. I get lost in it and find my flow. I also love to interpret things, make sense of them. Writing helps me do this – it’s my very own recipe for self-help.
Use one’s talents to serve humanity. I was overwhelmed by the number of comments received on my Drawn to India posts. One friend told me she was suffering from withdrawal, asking when would I be starting on the next journey? Stand by for the Big Breast Adventure. While some see this diagnosis as another set of obstacles to overcome, another fight to fight, I see it as a chance to make sense of something, to make myself and others laugh at the crazy stuff that happens and to offer some insights from my unique perspective.
Given what’s happened and all I’ve observed about Dharma in the past 18 months it seems there are three ways people approach this mother of all human condition questions. Firstly, there are those who seem to know what they are meant to be doing here and just get on and do it, possibly without ever postulating about or proclaiming their purpose in life. I think my Dad would be in this category.
Secondly there are those who have their purpose thrust on them. Dr Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon and his week long, 3D, hyper-full colour experience of consciousness all without the help of his brain, is by his own admission compelled to tell his story in order to make sense of it and to benefit others.
And finally, there are those who are perpetually seeking their purpose. Sometimes this is accompanied by a lot of angst and flailing around. Other times it’s with a bit more knowing – trying to read the signs, follow the breadcrumbs, walk the path paved with uncertainty and so on. I think I fall into this category but clearly I’m still a work in progress. And while I don’t have everything together in my head as yet, I am mightily inspired by the words of Umair Haque in an HBR.org article entitled How to let your purpose find you:
“Be uncool enough to love. Purpose is a kind of love; it bridges the gap between the individual and the world……..Little-l love is fireworks. It sparks, sizzles, flares — and fizzles. Big Love? It’s the quiet, mighty unfurling of the seed into the towering Redwood. It deepens, roots itself, reaches branches to the sky. A purpose is as dynamic — and as powerful — as all that….. Finding your purpose is not a phase of life — but a way of living.”
Amen to that.
P.S. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be in New York City for the third anniversary of my diagnosis. I’m so grateful to even be here and supremely grateful to all of you good and dear readers who’ve made the sharing of My Big Breast Adventure soooo healing and enriching. Thank you.
Thanks also, to those of you who’ve already sprung for a copy of the book My Big Breast Adventure or How I Found the Dalai Lama in My Letterbox. You can buy a copy from the For Pity Sake shop and please add the coupon code SOMERVILLE at checkout if you’d like to receive free shipping.
The breast of blessings to you, one and all, during this festive season.