Reading notes from Grace and Grit: Spirituality and healing in the life and death of Treya Killam Wilber

by Ken Wilber (with excerpts from letters and diaries by his wife Treya)

The change is not a question of will. Will is necessary to cultivate awareness, but it often gets in the way of that kind of subtle, profound inner change. (…) It’s more of an allowing, an opening.

… “A joyous state of mind should be so powerful a predictor of survival was completely unexpected” (Dr Levy). (…) I’ll gladly trade my anger for joy, thank you! Now I wonder how this study will make me feel when I’m feeling depressed and unjoyful… The possibility of endless bouts of this kind of yo-yo reaction to new articles, new studies, new test results, new prognoses on and on, is exactly why cultivating equanimity, being with what is, observing without trying to change or make “better” helps me so much.

Friends and family often wondered, is she being unrealistic - shouldn’t she be worrying? fretting? unhappy? But the fact is, by living in the present, by refusing to live in the future, she began exactly to live consciously with death. Think about it: death, if anything, is the condition of having no future. By living in the present, as if she had no future, she was not ignoring death, she was living it. And I was trying to do the same.

I had begun getting up at five in the morning so I could sit for two or three hours before starting my day as a support person - without, incidentally, any lingering bitterness or resentment. I seemed to have reached a genuine peace about all that - due to what, exactly, I don’t know, except perhaps that I was beginning to realise that blaming cancer, or blaming Treay, or blaming life for my circumstances was simply bad faith.

The first noble truth: “there is suffering”. And tonglen: have compassion for it.

… life is simply not fair, we’re not entitled for any rewards for good behaviour, these things happen. Certain “new age” beliefs once enticed many of us with the possibility of understanding why and how these things happen, with the hope there was some greater purpose or lesson behind each personal tragedy, but we’ve learned the hard way - perhaps the only way - that many times we don’t understand. Nothing is simple. It’s hard to live in what I call “don’t know land”, but here we are!

… the possibility of death will never be far from me. Each month, each week, each minute of however long I have left will be lived with the possibility of death never far away. A strange realisation, that I will always carry with me this goad, this spur, this thorn, reminding me to stay awake. It’s rather like carrying a meditation master around with me at all times, at any moment the roshi could unexpectedly give me a sound whack!

I certainly have my moments of wondering what life is all about, especially in the midst of such intense focus on treatment, with all the time in between to be filled when we’re in no position to do any work. Not an original question, to be sure. Still, my drive to be as well as possible seems so deep, like it comes from a cellular level, that my moments of being philosophically down don’t much dent it, though they make my shoulders sag and my delight in life grow dim. (…) I thought of how my love of life usually pops back unexpectedly, like when I feel sudden delight in a bed of roses of hear birds singing in boisterous competition. But today even those moments seemed flat, couldn’t penetrate my mood or lift my drooping shoulders. Earlier that day I had commented to Ken that we might have to confront these moods more often than people who have children since children so constantly draw you to life, fill you with their sense of unbounded possibility and their hopes for the future, all at a time when your own sense of limitations looms larger, your body slows down, you become more “realistic” about life.

… the only thing I could think of that gives life meaning is helping other people. Service, in a word. Things like spiritual growth or enlightenment seemed nothing more than concepts. Full development of one’s potential also seemed trite and egocentric unless it leads (and it often does) to ideas or creations that help relieve suffering. What about beauty, my artwork, creativity? Well, today at least, it didn’t seem very important, except perhaps for the art that adorns sacred places (…) Human relationship, human connections, indeed gentle, loving relationship with all forms of life and all of creation, only that seemed important.

Treya had always been in touch with the doing side of things; the first shift was a rediscovery of the being side of herself - the feminine, the body, the Earth, the artist. And this recent shift was more the integration of both being and doing, the bringing them together into a harmonious whole. She hit upon a phrase - passionate equanimity - that seemed to perfectly summarise the entire process.

Receptivity is not inactivity. It is real activity but not effort in the ordinary sense of the word… It is simply an attitude of waiting for the ultimate mystery. (…) This “active inactivity” is an example of what I think of as “passionate equanimity”. Ken reminds me that the Taoists call it “wei wu wei”, which literally means “action no action” and which often is translated as “effortless effort”.

… if Treya is making an important decision on, say, whether to try a new treatment, I give her my opinion as strongly as I can state it, even if I disagree with her, right up to the point that she finally decides what to do. From that point on, I agree with her, and get behind her, and support her choice as best I can. It’s no longer my job to heckle her, or to cast doubts on her choice. She has enough problems without having to constantly doubt her own course of actions.

The existentialists are correct that within the realm of your own choices or your own doing, you have to affirm the choices you have made. That is, you have to stand behind the choices you have made that contributed to moulding your own fate; as the existentialists say, “we are our choices.” Failing to affirm our own choices is called “bad faith” and leads to “inauthentic being”. For me this came in the form of a very simple realisation: at any time in this difficult process, I could have walked out. Nobody was chaining me to the hospital wards, no one threatened my life if I left, nobody had tied me down. Some place deep inside I had made a fundamental choice to stay with this woman through thick and thin, no matter what, forever; to see her through this process come what may. But somewhere during the second year of the ordeal, I forgot about this choice (…) and therefore almost immediately fell into an attitude of blame, and consequently self-pity. So each day I reaffirm my choice. Each day I choose once again. This stops blame piling up, and slows the accumulation of pity or guilt. It’s a simple point, but actually applying even the simplest points in real life is usually difficult.

The sages say that if you maintain (…) choiceless awareness, this bare witnessing, moment to moment, then death is just a simple moment like any other, and you relate to it in a very simple and direct way. You don’t recoil from death or grasp at life, since fundamentally they’re both just simple experiences that pass.

Dzogchen doesn’t touch a thing. Thus the pointing-out instructions usually begin, “Without correcting or modifying your present awareness in any way, notice that…”

“Don’t listen to what everyone who thinks they understand has to say about you” I want to say “Trust in yourself, filter their comments through your own understanding, and don’t be afraid to reject those that you find are harmful or disempowering, those that weaken you and make you afraid or unsure of yourself. Keep your psychic immune system operating so you can accept helpful help and reject damaging 'help'.”

My resistance (…) flared into action quickly when she said, “Well, if you have cancer you must have something eating away at you inside. Can you stand to face the truth?” Ken was on the other line. He rarely gets really angry, but he blew up at this woman (…) “What’s eating her ma’am is assholes like you who don’t have the faintest fuck of an idea what you’re talking about.” He hung up the phone. I was thinking, “Oh God, please spare me from these simplistic interpretations. Is being around people like this going to help me, I asked, or hurt me?” I tried to explain to her just how much violence and aggression her seemingly innocent comment contained (…). I’m still trying to find ways to reach them and show them how much they are hurting people.

All of us, in the secrecy of our domestic security, are frightened… it is a fact that at any moment, as yet undetermined and certainly unknown, each and every one of us is going to die. (…) So recognising that fear and running from that fear - this balance continually goes on. Recognising it is fearlessness. When you recognise it, when you stay with it, which means that you let yourself quake, feel the quaking, then there is fearlessness. And then running from it, in fear of fear, is cowardice.

I think everybody realised that their letting go of Treya was crucial to the process, and in their own individual ways, each person released her.

That smile of contentment and release remained on her face for the entire twenty-four hour period that she was left in her bed. Her body was finally moved, but I think that smile is etched on her soul for eternity.

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  • Last modified: 2016-03-27 11:33
  • by maja