In the Belly of the Whale
Updated: Apr 8
Third of three posts about the possibilities for finding wellbeing on the cancer journey
In the Belly of the Whale
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 that he will shortly deploy into the tumor in my right tonsil. I’m already a few seconds ahead of the moment, arching my back and clenching my fists in anticipation.
I’m holding my breath, too.
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: Would this be any different if experienced from the inside-out? Is my body the source of my pain, or is it my thinking?
My whole body spasms as the needle punctures my tonsil. In an instant, pain hockey-sticks from none to unbearable. There’s a rising panic; every last cell in my body rushing to exit—this chair, the room, the planet. Fuckfuckfuck! I can’t do this!!
Then, a lingering echo of my questions nudges its way into the rising panic, distracting and directing my attention for a second. I look upstream; groping, I suppose, for the shutoff valve to this experience.
I cannot describe what I see, if I see anything, but the next moment the panic is gone.
It seems that I’m watching a movie: Dr. C’s face, cocked sideways and peering into my mouth, set against a colorful background of a 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.
There, look. A needle blindly groping around inside a tonsil.
This I can do. Dr. C’s steely blue eyes and flashing sparklers of pain are in the background.
What’s this? A whiff of blood welling in the back of my throat.
Nice. Peace. Neck and shoulders relaxing.
Wait, there is no viewer watching a scene play out. I am the movie-screen, an empty space that effortlessly holds within its frame of awareness the ebb and flow of sensation, images, thoughts and emotions—a screen that contains and feels everything that plays across it, yet somehow is not touched.
Yes, this. And this, and this. Yes.
Dr. C withdraws the needle and, taking a fresh angle, jabs the tonsil once more. Instantly I’m torn from my peaceful perch and hurled into the bulls-eye of suffering. Perspective vanishes as I fall into a vortex of violated nerves and tissue, soaring pain, and worst of all, the terrifying thought that this will never end.
Yet, squirming in the unyielding chair, fearing that any movement will worry the needle and worsen my pain, I manage to hold my head still. The experience becomes acutely personal; it’s all happening to me, me, me! I am panic, I am desperation, I am victim-king.
This is deeply and unforgivably personal. I want to kick Dr. C in the balls.
Slipping moment to moment between aggrieved cancer martyrdom and buddha-like serenity, the show flows onward. One instant, a tsunami of pain and suffering coming from the world out there. The next moment, I am an empty screen, effortlessly engaging whatever dances across the plane of my awareness—intimately connected and intimately detached.
Some lingering fragment of my initial curiosity draws my attention towards the edges of the screen, where a stream of thoughts appears and vanishes like a shower of meteorites streaking quietly across the night sky: This may get worse, one says. Will this never end? says another.
Each emerges from the comforting darkness, flares bright with fear and disappears.
How much more can I bear?
The thoughts that my attention fixes on brighten and flare. And like a moth inexorably drawn to a flame, I am drawn towards their light and become illuminated with fear. The ones my attention glances over, or even ignores, leave me gazing into the quiet comfort of a peaceful dark sky, where pain exists but suffering cannot.
New understanding soaks in: none of these thoughts, these experiences, are mine. None of them I created, none belong to me. Neither the moments of suffering, nor those of grace. They are all impersonal.
Each and every moment of experience is impersonal, until I make it otherwise; when it's about me, the suffering begins. And when it’s impersonal, when there’s no me, life is flow and living is effortless.
Where this understanding leaves me I do not know, nor do I care. This experience alone is a life-vest that carries me through the rest of the procedure; indeed, will continue to serve me in the months ahead, through treatment, recovery, and beyond.
I am okay and always will be because ‘I am’ is all there is to me. As many times as I will get lost or forget this understanding, I will be found.
“Almost done”, says Dr. C, rooting around, harvesting a few last bits of tonsil with his syringe. I look into his face and feel a warm hearth of kindness just behind his cool, sturdy gaze. In him, I see me, and I want to thank him for the introduction. But his hand and fingers still occupy my mouth.
So I give him what I can. I open my mouth wider, stretching my jaw, making room. There’s so much space in here, Dr. C.
Here, please. Take some.