Letter to a cancer patient
|Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the Public Domain.|
I wrote the letter below to someone dear to me, who's been battling a serious form of cancer. I struggled with it for weeks, till finally the words came to me in a manner that felt genuine. After sending the letter, I figured that if it could help even just one more person, it would be worth to translate it into English and make it publicly available here. This is precisely what I am now doing, having removed all the more personal material. It is my sincere hope that this text finds its way to whoever may benefit from it, if anyone.
Since this the most important message I've ever sent you, for weeks I've been waiting for the right mental and emotional conditions to write it. But the ideal conditions never seem to come. So today I've decided to simply write.
I imagine that everyone around you right now is trying to convey optimism regarding your prognosis. They are encouraging you to believe in a cure. "Positive thinking," we call it. "Faith," perhaps. Their views are possibly correct and certainly constructive. I want, however, to try to offer you a different perspective.
Our generalized compulsion to try and "think positively" when faced with mortal danger reflects our profound fear to confront the nature of life, not only of death. He who refuses to think about death cannot reflect upon life, for the same reason that he who has never confronted darkness cannot know light. Through our "positive thinking," we spend our lives running away from life. What is this that we think we will lose at the moment of death? To talk ourselves into the belief that we will be saved by the bell at the end, even if it's true, is our way—and that of most people around us—to avoid facing these uncomfortable but essential questions.
You suffer from a terminal condition called "life." There's no cure: we struggle, suffer, become ill, and ultimately die; 100% mortality rate; everyone; no exceptions. It's all just a matter of time. So why postpone the confrontation? Why even wait for a serious illness?
I've just said that death is a matter of time. But notice how relative time is, both metaphorically and literally speaking (think of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, for instance). Two years can pack a lot more life than twenty. And by this I don't mean just how much you travel, how many love affairs you have, or how many parties you go to. I mean something a lot subtler and more significant.
Since my father died, almost thirty years ago, I have been confronting these questions more intensely, I suppose, than the average human being. It's impossible for me, in a mere letter, to convey to you my own inner reality in this regard, which has evolved continuously over this long period of time. It would remain impossible even with a thousand letters. I simply want to invite you to contemplate a perspective that may have escaped your consideration thus far.
Contemporary culture has two popular narratives about the nature of life and, therefore, that of death. The first narrative is dualist and found mainly in our religions: it's the idea that we have a soul that inhabits our body during life, and then departs to another world upon physical death. The other narrative is materialist and frequently—albeit incorrectly—associated with science: that we're nothing more than our physical bodies and cease to exist upon death. Notice that both narratives make an assumption that is hardly ever examined critically: that the world exists outside and independently of ourselves.
When you dream at night, you also assume that you have—or are—a body inside a universe external to you. Only when you wake up do you realize that, all along, the universe of your dream was inside you; that it was never separate from you. While in the dream, you simply take a localized perspective within your own imagination.
There are ancient traditions in the world—such as Advaita Vedanta in India, Mind-Only Buddhism in China and Japan, Hermeticism in the West, etc.—which maintain that the nature of life is the same as that of a dream, and that physical death is like awakening. The difference is that the dream of life is collective and carries a momentum that renders it continuous and stable. From this ancient perspective, the world is inside your soul, not your soul inside the world. For this reason, nobody can ever find a soul in the world: Could you find your physical body inside a nightly dream?
That which you think you are—your body, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, personality, memories, etc.—are merely images that arose within your own dream. That which you truly are—the center of consciousness you've felt to be you since your earliest childhood, and which has been producing the dream of your life since then—was never born to begin with. Death is not a future event; it's not something that happens to you. You are not going anywhere, because all "where's" exist within your imagination. Death is as present to you right now, at this very moment, as it will ever be. It is the symbol of the return of your sense of identity to the consciousness that dreams the dream of reading this letter now.
It's impossible to put this properly into words. However, if and when you truly realize what I am trying to say, you will burst into laughter for having ever forgotten that this, obviously, is the true nature of life. You knew it instinctively when you were a young child, but "education" has made you forget it.
I do not know whether your cancer will be cured or not. I do not know which direction this aspect of the dream will take. What I do know is this: at the end of the day, it doesn't matter much, for nothing is lost either way. You are alive now and this is all that is truly real. I know it may sound cruel to say this, especially for the loved ones around you who would suffer as terribly with your loss as I suffered with the loss of my father. However, to deny the true nature of life cannot be the best way to deal with life's sufferings.
We spend our lives desperately defending a hallucinated identity that has never truly been real. We cling to our opinions, personal image, values, etc., as if we were those opinions, personal images, values, etc. What reality do these things have in face of death? We're defending a ghost. And in the process of defending it, we put up barriers and close ourselves up to what is truly important around us. Because we don't want to appear vulnerable, we deny love. Because we don't want to appear weak, we dominate and offend. Because we don't want to appear insignificant, we oppress and cause suffering. What is all this for?
The living presence of death dissolves these pernicious illusions. What have you got to lose by allowing yourself to be vulnerable, weak, sentimental, or whatever? Who is this entity that would allegedly be threatened if it were to open itself up, without armor or preconditions, to other people and the world? That which we think we need to defend dies and, as such, never truly existed in the first place; it's just a set of ephemeral thoughts and opinions that vanish the moment we wake up.
The gift cancer gives you, whether it's cured or not, is to force you to live in the presence of death. You can no longer ignore or dismiss it, despite all the "positive thinking" around you. You are now naked before life. All the illusions of control, security, power, status and identity are dissolving and opening space for a truer, more genuine and intense life; a life where you no longer need to waste time defending ghosts, denying love and closing yourself up to an integral experience of reality. Two years or twenty: what matters is how much we open ourselves up to life, like a parachuter in free fall... without a parachute.