The fear that you feel would not even exist but for your own creation of it. Being free does not come from awareness of your story, it comes from being aware of your creation of the story…. Dr. Jack Pransky
On a stainless-steel tray, Dr. C is preparing the biopsy syringe which he will shortly deploy into the tumor in my right tonsil. I'm already a few seconds ahead of what's coming, arching my back in anticipation.
Wearing a blue surgical cap and a clinically reassuring smile, Dr C turns to face me. I consciously exhale and shrink down, pushing my ribcage deeper into the firmly padded examining chair.
As I close my eyes and brace myself for the hypodermic's imminent arrival, a curious thought occurs to me: Is my body really the source of my pain? Or could it be my thinking?
My whole body answers and spasms as the needle enters my tonsil. In an instant, pain hockey-sticks from none to unbearable. There's a rising panic; every last cell in my body rushing for the exit - this chair, the room, the planet. Fuckfuckfuck! I can't do this!!
Then, a lingering echo of my questions nudges into the rising panic, redirecting my attention for a moment. I look within and upstream towards the headwaters of my experience: groping, I suppose, for a shutoff valve.
I cannot describe what I see, if I see anything.
But the next moment the panic is gone.
What is going on here?
It's like I'm watching a movie, only I am the movie: Dr. C.'s face, cocked sideways and peering into my mouth, framed by the colorful mouth-and-throat anatomy poster behind his head.
A corona of pain frames and permeates the scene. But the I-wish-I-were-anywhere-but-here part is gone.
Suddenly, I'm okay.
Looking back on that experience now, what happened then, at the starting line of my cancer journey, was an unforgettable experience and lesson about the possibilities for wellbeing and clarity - even in life's darkest moments.
A year before the biopsy, I had stumbled across a radically different, yet exquisitely simple, explanation and paradigm of the human experience: it happens from the inside out, and we have a choice.
Every moment of our experience comes from within us, and is not caused by any outside event, person, or circumstance.
Each moment of experience is created by our thoughts, each of which is brought to life as a felt experience through the five senses and our emotions. We aren't our thoughts, but we live in the feeling of our thinking.
Every one of us is born with a bottomless spring of wellbeing, resilience, wisdom, and creativity which cannot be harmed or broken by anything that happens to us in the course of life.
While we share a common physical world, our individual experience of it is as unique as our fingerprints.
Sitting in Dr C's chair that day, I knew as a scientific fact that a sharp object piercing human flesh creates a physiological and neurological response within the human body. What I was interested in was whether the pain and suffering that surely follow were inevitable, or a choice - evidence that "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional," which Japanese writer Haruki Murakami claimed.
The truth was that I had been terrified by needles and dentists since I was a child. Waiting in the chair for my biopsy, somewhere between wondering and hoping, I wanted to know if a better experience was possible
There, look, I say to myself as the needle blindly gropes around inside a tonsil. This I can do.
There, Dr C's steely blue eyes, and crackling sparklers of searing pain.
A whiff of blood welling in back of my throat. This is interesting.
Neck and shoulders relaxing. How curious. It's like I'm watching a movie.
Movie? I wonder. One moment, I am the movie, being crushed in a maw of suffering. The next moment, I'm in a theater watching a horror movie projected on a screen. When it's too much I simply look away.
And there is a third version of this experience. I am the movie-screen. An empty space, a frame of effortless awareness across which flows sensation, images, thoughts and feeling. While the pain is very, very real, somehow the experience is fundamentally no different an experience than hugging my wife.
Yes, this moment. And this, and this. Yes.
Dr. C withdraws the needle and, coming in from a fresh angle, jabs the tonsil once more. Suddenly, there's a surging vortex of pain, and my equanimity vanishes. I'm returned like an arrow back into the bulls-eye of suffering, where I now encounter the dreadful thought that this will never end.
Squirming in the unyielding chair, fearing that any movement of mine will worsen my pain, I manage to hold my head still.
The experience has become acutely personal; it's all happening to me, me, me! I am panic, I am desperation, I am a victim, the victim-king himself.
It's all deeply and unforgivably personal. I want to kick Dr. C in the balls. Mother-fucker!
Back and forth it goes.
In real-time, it takes less than sixty seconds for the biopsy. But there might have been a million moments in that minute for all I knew. In some, I am victim and cancer martyr. For many, I am poise and serenity, the Buddha himself.
In those moments, I feel both intimately connected and intimately detached. I become grace itself - and a new understanding spills over me.
None of these moments of experience are mine. Every moment is impersonal. Neither the moments of suffering, nor those of grace belong to me, nor say anything about me or life itself. Each and every moment of experience is impersonal until I make it otherwise. When there's no me, life is flow and living is effortless.
This little glimpse of understanding is a life-jacket for a drowning man. I am okay, always will be. It is so even when I forget. As many times as I will surely get lost, I will always be found.
"Almost done", says Dr. C, finishing up with his syringe.
I look behind his cool and sturdy gaze, the man I wanted to kick a few seconds before. Within I see a hearth of kindness. In him, I see me.
I am full of gratitude and want to thank him for the introduction. But his hand and fingers still occupy my mouth.
I give him what I can. I open my mouth wider, stretching my jaw, making room.
There's so much space in here, Doctor C.
Here, please. Take some.