Rick Fields, poet, writer, and student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and other teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1995. In May 1997, Tricycle editor-in-chief Helen Twarkov spoke with him about his strategy for living with the illness, and his attitude about death.
Fields’s pragmatism and candor are unusual in our society, where talking about death is taboo, but are very much in keeping with Buddhist teaching. For a Buddhist, death is an innate part of daily life, not an event confined to its end. Awareness of death, in this view, is desirable because it allows us to live more fully, unhindered by the fear of change and dissolution.
Currently editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal and a contributing editor to Tricycle, Fields lives in Fairfax, California, with his partner, Marcia Cohen. He is the author of several books, including How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (Shambhala) and Code of the Warrior (HarperCollins). “In Light of Death” is reprinted with permission from the fall 1997 issue of Tricycle: A Buddhist Review.
Tworkov: When you were first told that you had cancer, what did you do?
Fields: Just by chance, that night a Tibetan lama was giving a Medicine Buddha teaching, and I went. Part of the teaching is that, when you have a sickness, you view it as a chance to take on the sickness of other people. That’s very different from a Western notion of getting sick. The Buddhist viewpoint turns everything around. You take any situation that occurs and make it part of the path — not just good situations, but any situation becomes part of the path. Illness becomes part of the path. You say, “May this sickness I have help me to take on the sickness of all other people who are suffering in the same way, so that they are free from their suffering.” By doing this, you attack your self-pity and your egotism and that basic question that arises when we get sick: “Why me?”
Tworkov: How have your teachers responded?
Fields: Usually, the first thing they have said is “Everybody has to die. Death is real,” rather than “We can cure this. You’ll be all right.” There was a very stark recognition that “you were born, so you’re going to die,” almost like, “Well, what did you expect?” Then a little deeper along comes the idea that “you’re lucky because it’s good for your practice.”
Tworkov: Lucky because you’re a practitioner?
Fields: Lucky because there is time to prepare whether you’re a practitioner or not. The usual notion in the West is “Oh, so-and-so is very lucky that they died in their sleep,” or had a heart attack or some other sudden death. But cancer is particularly good because you usually have time to contemplate the whole thing and work with it. Part of Tibetan Buddhism involves repeating the Four Reminders. The second, in the translation that Trungpa Rinpoche used, is
Death is real,
Comes without warning.
This body will be a corpse.
Death is the only certainty in our lives, yet much of our culture is organized to help us ignore it.
So from that point of view, a terminal illness can be very helpful to your spiritual practice. But that leaves you with the questions of what to do and how to handle it. There are healing teachings that address staying alive but at the same time avoiding denial of death. This idea that dying is a wonderful experience is a sort of double-edged sword: dying is, or can be, but most of us want to stay alive as long as possible. Certainly I do.
Tworkov: I get the impression that, at a certain point, you became quite annoyed with that phrase: “It’s good for your practice.”
Fields: In Buddhist circles the saying is often used as a joke. When anything you don’t like happens, people say, “It’s good for your practice.” Any disaster is good for your practice. Which is obviously true, but you also feel like, “Oh, yeah? Well, why don’t you do this if it’s so good for your practice?” The saying is annoying if it’s automatic and the speaker’s not really being with what the person is experiencing. Maybe it’s good for your practice, but it might be bad for your life. You’re talking about something that can kill you. This opens up many different questions about surrender and acceptance and fighting. My first reaction was “All hands on deck!” because this cancer had been misdiagnosed for more than a year and had become very dangerous, so I had to do something pretty aggressive and drastic. But you never know what’s going to happen. You could have a car accident on your way to some wonderful healer.
Tworkov: Are you interested in your prognosis?
Fields: 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 much weight to any one person’s opinion, whether they’re a seemingly enlightened, spiritual person or a super Ph.D. or an M.D. — fortunetelling has never interested me.
Tworkov: How do you walk the line between acceptance of death and trying to stop or heal a so-called terminal illness?
Fields: 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. My first doctors told me the survival 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 wasn’t interested in hearing about statistics. 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.
Tworkov: What does “fighting it” mean?
Fields: 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 decision was to fight this as aggressively as possible, 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.” And both the oncologist and the radiologist advised against doing it, because they believed the side effects were not worth it to gain what might be a slight advantage. My Chinese-Jewish doctor, however, who has been my advisor through this whole process, thought it was worth doing. So I was in this odd situation where my so-called alternative practitioner was recommending I pull out all the stops with conventional medicine, and my conventional doctors were saying, “We don’t know if it’ll work.” They were being much more cautious.
Tworkov: 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?
Fields: At first, it felt like something had invaded me. Of course, it’s my own cells that are doing it, so there’s also the idea that it’s a part of me. But my first response was definitely a kind of 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.
Tworkov: Did your relationship to your practice change when you were diagnosed?
Fields: It became more intense. My experience with practice is that the quality of my meditation deepens with the amount of time I actually spend. This isn’t a particularly Buddhist experience. There’s a quote — I think it’s Samuel Johnson — about how death wonderfully concentrates the mind; you start to look at things and you know it’s not a question of “when I get this done” or “when this happens, then this will happen.” It’s right now. And that’s what practice seems to be about: continually bringing you back to right now.
Tworkov: Did you literally start spending more time each morning practicing? Or did you do what you had been doing with greater concentration?
Fields: It was with greater concentration and with greater regularity. I would sit every morning, pretty much no matter what. And I felt that it didn’t matter how long I was sitting, as long as I could connect with my practice on the spot. But the practice doesn’t change because I have cancer. The same things happen as with anybody’s practice. You go in, you go out, you get bored, you have insights, you have good times, you have bad times. There is a sense, not so much of what’s important, but of what’s unimportant. You look at the world and see people suffering over such silly things.
Tworkov: Has having cancer 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?
Fields: Maybe. But I still have habitual patterns and delusions and illusions, and I still get sucked 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 “world of illusion.” I keep working at my job. I keep up my relationships. I keep doing a certain amount of writing. 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. [Laughter.] 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 I should live fully.” And that’s what I chose to do. Whatever that means.
Tworkov: What do you do with your self-pity?
Fields: I think self-pity comes along with self. When this first happened, it felt like all my karma was perched 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 Trungpa Rinpoche had said to Billy Burroughs (William Burroughs’s son), who’d 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 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 and whenever it comes, is not the enemy. It’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 winning, than if you go in scared. A lot of Buddhist and spiritual practice in general is aimed at removing our fear of death. The fear of our own death is the fear of our own births or the fear of our own lives.
Tworkov: I’m alive; you’re alive. We’re both living and we’re both dying. You have a diagnosis of cancer and I don’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?
Fields: We aren’t going to live forever, but the timing seems somewhat different for me. I’ve been told that I’m in immediate danger. The exact timing is always in question. When I saw a doctor at Stanford for a second opinion, I said, “Everybody has said this is incurable.” And he said, “Has anybody told you ‘incurable’ does not necessarily mean ‘terminal’?” And I said, “No, nobody has mentioned that.” 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 my peripheral vision — a rhinoceros with beady, ugly eyes and leathery skin and tsetse flies buzzing around it. That rhinoceros was more or less peacefully chomping on the swamp grass, and as long as the rhinoceros was chomping away, not noticing me, I was fine. But at any moment the rhinoceros could look around, go crazy, and come at me. So that’s one difference: I’m always living with this rhinoceros, even when the cancer is supposedly gone or is in remission.
Tworkov: Speaking of grass, have you used plants for healing?
Fields: Yes. In addition to allopathic medicine and complementary alternative medicine and visualization and meditation and support groups and psychotherapy and yoga, I’ve occasionally used sacred medicinal plants in a healing context. I’ve attended the Native American Church, where peyote is used in the healing ceremony. And recently I did ayahuasca with a Peruvian shaman. I was investigating my mind, looking for the fear of death, trying to track it down and face it — but I couldn’t find it. I don’t know if I didn’t have it, or was ignoring it, or had lost my edge or lapsed back into the illusion that everything was fine and I was going to live forever. But out of nowhere came the verse from the Four Reminders:
Death is real,
Comes without warning.
This body will be a corpse.
And I started repeating that verse. We do need to be reminded. No matter what happens, we tend to forget. The fear is always about what’s going to happen in the future, but I can’t say ahead of time what my reaction is going to be if, at some point, they say the cancer is all over the place and there’s nothing they can do. And there’s nothing wrong with fear. We have these ideas about what is spiritually the right way to handle this, and that’s really unfair to people. They get this trip laid on them.
Tworkov: Like, “If you are afraid, you’re not dealing with this in a spiritual or enlightened way”?
Fields: Yeah, that there’s something wrong with fear. But if I’m afraid, then I’m afraid. So what? Don’t run from fear. Be exploratory. Go into it. How solid is it? It feels very solid because it makes you freak out, but if you lean into the fear and investigate it, you find it is actually made up of these physical sensations that, when you direct awareness at them, tend to lessen or dissolve. It’s made up of projections into the future about what’s going to happen or what’s not going to happen. So don’t be afraid of the fear. Be curious.
Tworkov: What are your fantasies about the end of your life?
Fields: I have more fantasies about living than about dying. But I think I want to be as conscious as I can be at the end. Realization becomes possible then, because you have fewer external distractions, and the intrinsically pure nature of mind dawns luminously at that point — supposedly. And the way to train is really no different than how you train with your own meditation now. It’s not like there’s some big, secret, complicated yogic thing when you die; if you practice meditation now, then you’ll continue to practice at the moment of death.
I did ask Lama Tharchin 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 at the moment when the body and mind separate, there is so much general confusion and chaos that it would be very difficult, and not even very useful, to remain conscious. And anyhow, your Buddha nature has survived through countless lifetimes — the fires of hell, 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 to me. To practice with that as the ground, and 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.
Tworkov: What do you believe happens after death?
Fields: I don’t know. I think I feel comfortable being agnostic about what happens or doesn’t happen after death. And I guess I agree with what Stephen Batchelor says: that the reason to practice is not to get a better rebirth, but to get a better life. Or not necessarily better, but a life lived as deeply, as fully, as joyfully as possible. And if something helps in life, I would assume it helps in death, since death is part of life.
Tworkov: Do you ever imagine the specifics of your death?
Fields: 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 to die is alone, because there is less distraction and fewer people projecting their fears and trying to hold on to you and making a big circus out of the whole thing. So go off 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 some other way.
Tworkov: What advice can you offer others who are in a similar situation?
Fields: I find myself caught in the middle of this whole conversation about alternative versus conventional medical treatment. Some spiritual traditions take the view that, since everything comes from the mind, everything can be cured by the mind, or by some kind of spiritual practice or positive thinking or faith. Then there’s the middle ground that says the mind and the body influence each other. And the other extreme pays attention only to physical medicine and material phenomena. I see too many people allying themselves with one extreme or the other.
My experience is that everything can be medicine. For me, radiation and chemotherapy — at the right time and in the right way — can be medicine, even if some people say the treatments are really poison because they mess up your immune system. But if you’re dead, it doesn’t help you to have a healthy immune system. I see medicine as a continuum of things that can and should be used at different times in your fight or in your healing, however you want to approach it. You really have to investigate everything. Try it out, but don’t get caught in these boxes of “conventional” or “alternative.” These boxes are breaking down now, but I’ve still seen a number of people die because they had some very fixed opinion about conventional medicine. It really is up to each person what they do and how they handle it.
Tworkov: How do you deal with anger or frustration about your condition?
Fields: There is no one way. It changes. One time I was driving back by myself from a retreat, and I just started weeping. And then that gave way to this tremendous explosion of anger and rage. I just started screaming as loud as I could. And I could do that because I was by myself in the car, which for Americans is like a place of meditation and refuge, a cave. I was screaming at the top of my lungs, “Fuck you, cancer! Fuck you, cancer! Cancer, fuck you!” And I ended up writing a poem called “Fuck You, Cancer.” It was a very powerful moment for me, just to be able to express that feeling.
I was angry at this thing that has come and tried to take over my life. I was making such a big deal of it, and putting it at the center of 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. Your central organizing principle is what you make it. It can be awareness, or Buddha nature, or certainly cancer. But my rage was about realizing how much it had usurped my life.
Tworkov: What is the role of the care-giver?
Fields: In some ways, being the care-giver is more difficult than being the person who has cancer. The care-giver 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 amounts to a complicated military operation. Helping someone fight cancer is a very hard practice.
Tworkov: And helping someone die?
Fields: Trungpa Rinpoche emphasized just really being there 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 the idea that death is the enemy. If death is the enemy, then everybody is ultimately a failure, because we will all lose that battle. And particularly people battling cancer or any disease — if they see death as the enemy, then they feel that they are failing in this fight. It’s a tragedy for people — on top of all the suffering and the struggle that they are going through — to feel that they have failed, or didn’t do enough, or didn’t do the right thing; that they didn’t eat low-fat foods, or didn’t drink enough wheat-grass juice; that they didn’t uncover their shadow side; that they didn’t go deep enough psychologically; that they didn’t quit smoking; that they didn’t meditate enough, or have positive-enough thoughts. It’s an endless guilt trip that people can get into.
The fact is that, no matter what we do or 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 life.
Tworkov: How did going into and then out of remission affect you?
Fields: When I went into remission, people talked about my miraculous recovery. But when the cancer came back, I had to approach it in a different way. It became something I had to live with. It came back to a lesser extent and in a more limited area, and it wasn’t immediately threatening to my life, so rather than aggression, some kind of accommodation was called for. I was faced with a need for coexistence.
I added practices to my daily routine that emphasized the purification and strengthening of my body and cells and so on, almost imagining the transformation of the cancer cells, rather than the obliteration of them — transformation into healthy cells, into healing cells. Maybe a cure will appear, but it hasn’t yet, so the strategy is to figure out how to coexist, how to keep it down to a level where it’s not life threatening. The other day I had a thought: I don’t have a life-threatening disease. My life is threatening my disease, in that it is keeping the disease from taking over. I live a disease-threatening life.
Tworkov: What is your prognosis?
Fields: That question again! The odds are a hundred to none I’m going to die, just like everyone. From what or when, no one can say. I’m not interested in the fortunetelling of either spiritual or medical seers. As I said earlier, I’ll live — as well, as deeply, as madly as I can — until I die. One thing is certain, though, which this whole encounter has made very clear: the dharma is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and — I’ll bet my last dollar — good in the end.