Sunday, September 19, 2010

Shifting Focus

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust

"Everything depends on our way of looking." Thich Nhat Hanh

The diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease makes us acutely aware of the impermanence of our existence, and forces us to reevaluate our contribution to the human story. Put plainly - we wonder how we will be remembered if we die. This mortal uncertainty breeds chaos, and from this chaos - all art is born, especially great works of literature.

I am teaching Siddhartha by Hesse in my senior World Literature Honors class. It's a bildungsroman (coming of age story) about a young man in ancient India who sets off on a path of self-discovery amongst Buddhist teachings. It was written in the 1950s by a Swiss author who was the son of Protestant missionaries, which evidences the fact that "truth" isn't confined to one religion or experience - it is a quest that sometimes requires us to visit unexplored lands and ideas in order to make sense of our own world and our place in it.

These distant landscapes that help illuminate our own individual truths can be literal or metaphorical, and certainly the "land of cancer" counts as a foreign place filled with epic battles that no one is particularly prepared to fight.

After my own cancer diagnosis, I dusted off my pocket survival manual for times of spiritual doubt: Living Buddha, Living Christ by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who draws from both religious traditions to make an eloquent and insightful argument for peace. Both Jesus and Buddha stressed mindfulness - being aware that people everywhere suffer, and that our role in this world is not to avoid that suffering but rather to be part of its solution.

Part of the solution to our own suffering lies in our focus. "What is important is our insight into the nature of reality and our way of responding to reality...When you look at the blue sky and are aware of it, the sky becomes real, and you become real" (Thich Nhat Hanh). This sounds pretty mystical, but it's not. Basically he is saying that if we go around worrying and carrying anger with us, then that is the reality of the world; but if we stop and see the beauty in our lives, then our reality changes into something much more meaningful.

It's hard to close the door on negativity and self-doubt, but I'm going to try at least to wake up every morning and make an effort to turn the knob.

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