Looking Death in the Eye
Rick Fields, poet, writer, and editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 1995 at the age of 53. Fields, a student of Tibetan Buddhism, and his partner, Marcia Cohen, were suddenly forced to deal pragmatically with such lofty issues as impermanence, suffering, and the disunity of body and spirit—questions that most of us dwell upon only hypothetically, if at all. “You're lucky, because it's good for your practice,” his teachers told him. Maybe so, Fields tells Tricycle editor-in-chief Helen Tworkov in this wide-ranging discussion of death and dying, but "this idea that dying is a wonderful experience is a sort of double-edged sword: It is, or can be, but most of us want to stay alive as long as possible. Certainly I do.”
What was your reaction when you were diagnosed with cancer?
My first reaction was 'all hands on deck' because this cancer had been misdiagnosed for over a year and had become very dangerous, so I had to do something pretty aggressive and drastic.
Are you interested in your prognosis?
No. My attitude is 'I'm going to live until I die.' Which is all anyone can do. I don't see the value of having someone say 'You have four months to live.' And I don't want to give that weight to any one person's opinion, whether it is seemingly an enlightened spiritual person or a super Ph.D. or M.D. Fortune-telling has never interested me.
How do you walk between acceptance of death and trying to stop or heal a so-called terminal illness?
Eventually all of us will die. Death is real, it comes without warning. And this body, this particular body, will be a corpse. Buddhism has always been very consistent about that. The first doctors told me the statistics for stage-four metastatic lung cancer, which is what I have, are not very good. Once I found that out, I told the doctors that I'm not interested in hearing about them. What good would it do me? I'm going to live until I die. Whether the doctor tells me I have four months to live or five years, I'm going to live until I die. And the doctor is going to live until he dies. He thinks he knows when I'm going to die but he doesn't even know when he's going to die. If I die fighting it, fine. I'm going to die sooner or later anyhow.
What does 'fighting it' mean?
There are different levels. It's more of a philosophical than a medical question: whether to emphasize quality of life or very aggressive treatment. My first decision with the oncologist was to fight this as aggressively as possible. The second was to do radiation and chemotherapy together, which is stronger. But the side effects are more serious. I said, 'Well, it seems that if I don't do something drastic the cancer is likely to kill me, so let's do both.' Both he and the radiologist advised me against doing it because they believed the side effects were not worth what might be a slight advantage. My Chinese-Jewish doctor who has been my adviser through this whole process thought it was worth doing. So I was in an odd situation where my so-called alternative practitioner was recommending pulling out all the stops of conventional medicine, and my conventional doctors were acting more like 'We don't know if it'll work.' They were being much more cautious. So that's one way that I mean fighting.
When you fight cancer, does cancer become something separate from you? Does it become like an alien part of your body that you are fighting?
At first, it felt like something had invaded me. Of course it's my own cells that are doing that so there's also the idea that it's part of you. But my first response was definitely a kind of a warrior energy. I had to fight. After I had my first radiation treatment I would use mantra and visualization—particularly a wrathful deity visualization—to help destroy the cancer cells during the treatment itself.
Has it affected your behavior? Do you get caught up less in the petty, ignorant, and innocent ways in which we create suffering for ourselves and others around us?
Maybe. But I still have habitual patterns and delusions and illusions, and I get sucked up into life. The deeper question then becomes what does it mean that I am going 'to live until I die'? What does living mean? There seem to be at least two different ways of approaching this: either going into seclusion or continuing to be engaged in this so-called samsaric world. I keep working at my job. I keep up relationships. I keep a certain amount of writing going. I just keep on living. And part of living is very silly. There were times when I thought that I should just go into retreat and try to attain perfect, unsurpassable enlightenment before I die. But at the same time, I felt like, 'Wait a minute, if the whole idea is to live and I'm fighting this in order to live, then live fully.' And that's what I chose to do. Whatever that means.
What do you do with self-pity?
I think self-pity comes along with self. When this first happened, it felt like all my karma was coming and perching right on the tip of my nose, looking me straight in the eyes, staring right at me. And I was staring right back. That's the warrior aspect. Shortly after I was diagnosed, Allen Ginsberg called and reminded me of something that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche had said to Billy Burroughs [William Burroughs' son], who had had a really hard life and was having a liver transplant. Rinpoche said, 'You will live or you will die. Both are good.' I don't want to make my death into the enemy. Death is not the enemy. Death is part of us, it's part of our life. Cancer can be seen as the enemy—at different stages. But death itself, however it comes or whenever it comes, is not the enemy. That's something to be embraced. And that's the true warrior's stance as far as I understand it. For the warrior, death is not the enemy. When the samurai went into battle, they brought little purses that contained money for their funerals. If you go into a battle fearlessly accepting the possibility of death you have a much better chance of fighting well—and, in fact, of winning—than if you go in scared. A lot of Buddhist and spiritual practice in general is aimed at removing the fear of our own deaths. The fear of our own deaths is the fear of our own births or the fear of our own lives.
I'm alive, you're alive. We're both living and we're both dying. You have a diagnosis of cancer and I haven't. What's the difference? Are you dying more than I am? Does your situation make you more aware of dying while I am probably still functioning under the delusion that I am going to live forever?
Not that you are going to live forever, but the timing would seem somewhat different. I've been told that I'm in immediate danger. The exact timing is always in question. But when I saw a doctor at Stanford for a second opinion, I said, 'Everybody has said this is incurable.' And he said, 'Has anybody said to you that incurable does not necessarily mean terminal?' Lots of diseases are incurable or chronic but can be managed and are not necessarily terminal. But I'm living much more with a constant question mark. When I was in remission, the cancer was like a rhinoceros. Off in your peripheral vision, there's this rhinoceros with beady, ugly eyes and leathery skin and tsetse flies buzzing around it, like an evil unicorn. And that rhinoceros is more or less peacefully chomping on the swamp grass. And as long as the rhinoceros is chomping away, not noticing you, you're fine and you're in remission. But at any moment the rhinoceros could look around, go crazy, and come at you. You are always living with this rhinoceros, even when the cancer is supposedly gone or is in remission. So one difference is that I have this rhinoceros around.
What are your fantasies about the end of your life?
I think I want to be as conscious as possible at the end. Realization becomes possible then because you have fewer external distractions and the intrinsically pure nature of mind daunts luminously at that point—supposedly. And the way to train is really no different than to train with your own meditation now. It's not like there's some big secret complicated yogic thing when you die, but when you practice meditation now, then you'll be continuing to practice at the moment during death. I asked Lama Tharchin Rinpoche about painkillers, and he laughed and said that they aren't a problem. For one thing, if you are feeling a lot of bodily pain it's harder to practice and concentrate. And when the body and mind separate there is so much general confusion and chaos at that moment that it would be very difficult and not even very useful to keep your consciousness. And anyhow, your Buddha-nature has survived through countless lifetimes—the fires of hell, of drowning, God knows what. Buddha knows what. It's survived. So a little morphine isn't really going to affect your Buddha-nature; don't worry about it. The idea that Buddha-nature is unborn and therefore undying has been very helpful. So to practice with that as the ground, that as the path, and that as the fruition seems to me the best thing to do. As for having fear, that's just being a fearful Buddha.
Do you ever imagine the specifics of your death?
I've instructed Marcia about which particular teachers or spiritual friends or gurus I would like to have notified. Some yogic teachings say the best way is to die alone, because there is less distraction and fewer people projecting their fears and making a big circus out of the whole thing and trying to hold on to you. Go to a cave by yourself and die like a deer in the forest. That has a certain attraction. But if it happens some other way, then it happens that way.
In what way do you deal with anger or frustration about your condition?
There is no one way. It changes. One time as I was driving back by myself from a retreat, I just started weeping. And that gave way to this tremendous explosion of anger and rage. I started screaming at the top of my lungs, 'Fuck you, cancer! Fuck you, cancer! Cancer, fuck you!' Later, I wrote a poem called 'Fuck You, Cancer.' That was a very powerful moment for me, just to be able to express that feeling.
It was anger at this thing that has come and tried to take over my life. It has to be kept in perspective, otherwise the disease has won in a completely underhanded way by taking over your life—by being what your life revolves around—when what you are fighting for is a life that is flexible and can respond in different ways. The central organizing principle is what you make it. It's awareness of Buddha-nature, and certainly cancer can put that in sharp relief. But my rage was about realizing how much it had usurped my life.
What is the role of the caregiver?
In some ways, being the caregiver is more difficult than being the person who has cancer. The caregiver is like your shield bearer. I have been very lucky with Marcia. She made a vow to help me through this. She has accompanied me to every doctor appointment, taken notes, asked the tough questions, and organized what is really a complicated military operation. Helping someone fight cancer is a really hard practice.
And helping someone die?
Trungpa Rinpoche talked about just being with the person in a genuine way and not laying a big trip on them. This is the most helpful thing that you can do. One of the most common trips that get laid on people is this idea that death is the enemy. If death is the enemy, then everybody is ultimately a failure, because they lose that battle if they see it that way. And particularly people battling with cancer or with any disease. If they see death as the enemy, then they feel that they have failed in this fight. It is a tragedy for people to have that put on top of all the suffering and the struggle that they are going throughóto feel that they have failed. The fact is that no matter what we do, how much we do, as the Buddha said, everything that is put together will come apart. Everything that is born will die. Meditation is partly about realizing that the mind is beginningless and therefore endless, open and luminous and deathless. But that has nothing to do with what happens to the physical body. The physical body does die. And that death is not in any way a failure. It's a logical culmination of each life.
Interview with Rick Fields by Helen Tworkov
From Tricycle (Fall 1997). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from TRI, Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.