We are probably better off at this point to imagine his road ahead, illness or not, as a journey. The term originally meant the distance one could travel in one day. We could also remind ourselves of Lao-tse’s dictum, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” And we could take one further “step,” and imagine what lies ahead less as “serious,” meaning heavy and grave and more as a series, from which the sanskrit word sutra comes, one bead after another upon a string. For that is, in fact, the only way we can live, one step, one breath, one beat after another.
Despite our fears of what may lie ahead, we have a choice of how to use the power of our imagination. For thousands of years, seekers in all traditions and faiths have understood that what we picture or hear in our minds’ eyes and ears has the ability to generate bodily responses consistent with those images. It is true of sexual arousal as we picture our partner’s body, hearing ghost stories around a campfire, reading news stories of horrific crimes or natural disasters. Whether lust, terror, or empathy, we often respond “as if” the event were happening right now to us. If used to increase interest in and compassion for the lives of others unknown to us, the capacity for moral imagination is wonderful.
But when we recall again and again some wrong done to us, we harm ourselves with resentment from the French, “ressentiment,” or refeeling. The injury results from the fact that we are reacting to something not, or no longer taking place, as if it were in the present. That might be one definition of delusion. In some traditions, the attachment of myself or my identity to an object, whether of the imagination or the senses, is called a form of “identification.” I have reduced the whole of my being to a passing fragment of desire, my being with a temporary “I.” I have traded gold for lead.
One practice Orthodox monks used to strengthen themselves against being carried away by unwanted thoughts was to visualize a crossroad which led east to one village, west to another. One had small nicely painted homes spaced along dry roads with well tended gardens and contented beasts grazing in lush pasture. The homes of the second village were ill kempt with leaky roofs and set in weed choked lots. Paths were muddy, animals irritable with the lack of good feed and care. The monks were to see, smell, travel to these villages as spiritual exercises.
When at a crossroads of his daily spiritual work, confronted by fear or desire or unsure of a course of action, a monk was to recall as vividly possible these village scenes, knowing what train of thought or action was likely to lead him to the village he knew to be the better. There is an immediacy and power in selected images to defend against those generated by fear. Like against like, “spiritual homeopathy,” if you will.
Anxiety about the unknown future whether before or after diagnosis is, of course, to be expected, but we do well to limit it. All too often, for example, we are told what a diagnosis should or will mean for us—in terms of treatment, disability, changes in lifestyle. But who is to say? A well known story recounts the tale of a farmer blessed with healthy sons and beautiful daughters, fertile land and bountiful crops. Admired by his neighbors for his current and future prosperity, he responds humbly, “We shall see.”
A year later a gang of robbers raids the village, quickly plundering the farmer whose wealth is visible to their rapacious eyes. Consoled by the villagers for his terrible reversal of fortune, the now near impoverished man calmly replies, “We shall see.”
Five harvests pass and the raiders return naturally heading first to the farm where they previously had looted so thoroughly. Now its reduced state is worth neaher their time nor trouble and mad with frustrated greed they proceed to mercilessly pillage the surrounding farms. When his neighbors arrive to exclaim how lucky he was to avoid their devastation, he says truthfully with heart open to his fellows’ pain, “We shall see.”