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One of my closest friends was recently diagnosed with stage four, inoperable, incurable cancer. He was told that if he does a lot of treatment, he probably has two or three years to live. Like so many people who get a diagnosis like this, nobody expected it. He was incredibly healthy and vital right up until it all suddenly happened.
By the way, a lot of you may know him. He’s a spiritual teacher named Terry Patten. He’s the author of several books. I’ve taught courses with him, including a year-long program we did together in Berkeley. He’s really a soul brother of mine. We share a love of the outdoors and have done a lot of adventuring together. We’ve shared so much.
I’m not bringing this up to be heavy or morose. I’m bringing it up because we’ve had a lot of very poignant conversations since this diagnosis, which was near the end of April, and he’s had a lot of insights that have had a big impact on me. He’s a deep spiritual practitioner and has been very intensely on the spiritual path most of his life. For him, what this has brought home more than anything is the preciousness and sacredness of what it is to be alive.
In spite of this very difficult diagnosis, he has this deep and abiding sense that there is nothing wrong. He’s not making a problem out of it. He’s completely facing the reality of his own mortality and the fact that his life will be much, much shorter than he ever expected.
In a recent conversation he said something interesting to me. He said that one of the most challenging things for him is the way other people keep relating to his diagnosis. Terry is someone who is loved by a lot of people. Many people admire him and respect his work, and he’s done a great job of cultivating relationships. When people hear about his diagnosis, he says that it’s almost like they can’t help but orient to his cancer as though it’s something really, really bad, which is not how he sees it. He said, “For me, I can’t go there for a second. I can’t buy into that at all. That would take me right out.”
I know him well and I can see it in him. We’ve spent time together in person, and have been talking on video. More than ever, I feel he’s right in the heart of the deep, essential perfection at the essence of everything. He’s rooted in that which is unassailable and can’t be diminished or reduced by some of the worst news any of us could get—that our own life is going to be radically cut short.
I know some of you may be thinking that this is denial. That’s one of the stages we all go through with a terminal diagnosis. We just try to convince ourselves that everything’s okay. But I can tell you that he’s not in denial. It’s very clear. Probably due to his lifetime of meditation and deep spiritual practice, this experience is like the exclamation point for him on what he’s already been devoted to—a spiritual awakening. He’s opening himself up to the truth of this in a remarkable way.
I have found Terry’s response to the situation to be very poignant. It’s as if everyone around him is being taught something important about life by seeing how he’s relating to this situation. It’s been very interesting and powerful.
I’m bringing this up because all the spiritual practices that I teach are, in one way or another, designed to put the realization that Terry has been expressing into practice. This is something that is very obvious and natural to us when we are resting in awakened consciousness. In other words, these are all practices of stepping directly into an awakened, enlightened relationship to life and to our experience.
I’m aware that this kind of practice really challenges us on a fundamental level. It challenges us to let go of all of our presumptions of limitation—all our presumptions of imperfection.
To be clear, I’m not trying to convince you that everything is perfect. This is not a philosophical proposition. I’m not even saying the end result of this practice is that you will believe everything is perfect. It’s not about everything being perfect. It’s just that this is what happens in our being as we awaken to who we really are beyond the mind, beyond the ego.
There’s this revelation that the essence of everything is this glorious, sacred reality that is not dependent on anything. That’s why I call it the practice of unconditional happiness. It doesn’t depend on anything.
Normally, happiness depends on good things happening. If good things happen, we feel happy. If bad things happen, we feel unhappy. But there’s this unconditional happiness that Terry is very organically embodying right now, and it comes from the realization of what this all really is in its essence.
I’ve noticed that in some of the questions and comments people have posted, there’s a common response along the lines of, “What do you mean things are perfect? Nothing in this world could be. Look around us!” Or, there’s almost this feeling like I’m trying to impose a belief system on people. It’s not really a belief system at all. It’s just something we can come to see and know directly for ourselves through practice.
The essence of the practice isn’t trying to force this realization upon ourselves. We’re not trying to push out all the bad thoughts and get ourselves to just think good thoughts, or just have good feelings, or get in a naive, Pollyannish state where everything is rosy and great. It’s nothing like that.
If you look at the essence of all of the direct awakening practices, they challenge the assumption that something’s wrong, the assumption that something’s missing, the assumption that something is lacking or inadequate or incomplete about life, about ourselves, about this moment, about existence so that we can make room for a deeper knowing of this essential wholeness, fullness, and perfection.