Spotlight on Our Sangha: Shelley

Oct 18, 2021

shelley-tanner-kadampa-nyc

In 2014, I was diagnosed with stage 3 b metastatic breast cancer. And because of my experience with Dharma — I had been practicing at my Kadampa Center for over twelve years by that point –I was able to walk into that experience with a strong and stable mindset that this was not necessarily a bad thing. At times I felt almost like a “cancer fraud,” because I was getting so much joy out of learning how to handle it in the best possible way. I showed up every day and learned what it was like to accept this thing that I had no control over.

I am a skier, and Kadam Morten often uses skiing as an analogy for our practice, because for an experienced skier, a bump, a mogul, is something you are looking for, the challenge that you want. So I went into this cancer journey with that skier mentality: that feeling of — “Isn’t this what you’ve been training for?” It was like the boots-on-the-ground experience of the big things we talk about in Dharma. Sickness. Possibly dying. It really upped the ante, and I had to accept moment by moment what was happening.

I began to realize that most of the things we worry about haven’t actually happened. They are just thoughts in our mind. It’s like Mark Twain said, “I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened.” So where can you be peaceful? In the clarity of your own mind, in the freedom and flexibility of this moment. We talk about “living in the now,” but having cancer gave me this real opportunity — this knowledge that if you truly live in the now, you won’t experience the suffering of things that haven’t happened. And it worked. It totally worked. Now I’ve had no evidence of recurrence of the disease for a number of years, and I also don’t spend any time at all worrying about it.

In a way, finding a positive approach to dealing with cancer was like learning to do a breathing meditation. It’s on the same continuum. When you do a breathing meditation, you begin to realize, if I can hold my mind on the sensation of the breath for one moment, I can do it for five, or ten. And that peace starts to come in, and you know that it’s possible to be better than you are now. You can recognize that potential and gain that confidence in your own experience. So I was able to go into something of a much higher intensity than whatever crappy mind I had this morning when I did my breathing meditation — having those thoughts of, “what’s going to happen in the hospital today?” — and I began to have that confidence, that knowledge that I could bring my mind away from that, back to the peace, back to the peace, back to my heart. Back to the clarity of my own mind.

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