In Issue 43, we published a collection of Peg Staley’s letters in which she described her life since discovering a tumor in her right breast last October.
Peg has been a Gestalt therapist for the last six years, and lives in Rhode Island, with her husband Andrew and two of their sons. To keep friends in touch with her progress, Peg writes regularly of her search to discover how she “might best be a full and primary participant in my own healing.” Her letters are reflective of that search, as she describes her involvement with hospitals, churches, psychic healers, and therapists.
In the last letter we published, Peg wrote, “. . . I now see myself facing the struggle to use this cancer, this tumor, this indicator of health as a way to learn to live well. It is opportunity.”
MARCH 9, 1979
Dear Friend: My cancer messages are flooding me these past few days. The explosion of understanding which I described in Letter 6 is in better perspective.
Cancer in my body is a symptom of dis-ease. As long as I do not correct the basic problems, the message will persist, and so I can use it as an indicator to know whether I have corrected the dis-ease. To allow cancer to be removed surgically or by radiation before I have changed and located the root problem means it will simply re-occur another way.
I did not pay attention when I had a hysterectomy for fibroid tumors, varicose veins, hemorrhoids removed, gained a lot of weight or any other symptom of disorder. This time the message is drastic enough to make me pay attention. As you know I have taken many steps towards a healthier, more harmonious life, on many levels.
I am so relieved to see cancer as beneficial rather than enemy. I’m glad to have a firm understanding. Identifying cancer as an enemy, separate from myself, and attempting to wipe it out, has never made sense to me. But how could I include and accept, let alone welcome a life-threatening disease? Seeing it as messenger and teacher, I can. I know this is my work as therapist. It doesn’t work to blame my parents for my troubles. I can use them as indicators of the problems I need to clear up in my own life.
It is so easy to imagine that we can eliminate our pain by trying to wipe out a source separate from ourselves onto which we have projected our hurt or anger. As a nation we have attempted to destroy Indians, Viet Cong, Blacks. We still do not know whether we mean to punish or rehabilitate criminals. We lock them up making it easy to pretend they do not exist. They are a social cancer and we are not close to getting their message! We treat them as enemy rather than as symptom.
Our medical system works valiantly to help us all perpetuate our mythology that it is good to avoid pain and death. And so now we have increasing numbers of people with cancer — an epidemic. Cancer is a slow disease. It gives the patient and all those involved with her the experience of facing death as a personal event. Instead of welcoming the opportunity, we have built hospitals and nursing homes to “care for” the person who is ill. The best of these institutions do care for their inmates, but most of us are then able to forget they exist and continue to believe in our own immortality as though we will not also die. We try to block this message, too.
This week I saw that I have walked with death all my life and never confronted him. Mary, my older sister, was just 3 years old when she died four months before my birth. I was born into a family grieving silently for one daughter and afraid I too might die. It was never said directly to me. The message I got was: “Be careful or. . . .” and I knew without knowing, the end of that sentence is “or you will die, too!” Since Mary was never mentioned (in an attempt to avoid pain) death, for me, seemed to be total annihilation. She was totally gone from the life of her family, of those who loved her best. It had happened to her. It could happen to me. To believe that one dies not only in body but seemingly in spirit as well, is devastating.
Yesterday, with Cynthia,1 I faced death and talked with him. It is a beginning and I learned much. Death, you are familiar. I will face and know you. You will come in your own time. You told me “not now.” And as I experienced the closed door with richness, I will also live fully with the time I have. To confront my mortality directly is a powerful message of cancer.
Another is that I had wearied myself with a compulsion to serve others. So I literally and figuratively poisoned the source of the nourishment. Time now to nourish myself, since I will not nourish others much right now. I’m not seeing clients for at least two to three months. Two weeks ago I finished saying goodbye to everyone I had been working with. And I am enjoying my explorations into Peg, the artist. Following Gabrielle’s2 suggestion, I’ve been painting in colors, filling in my body outline traced on wrapping paper. I use crayons, pastels, water colors and acrylics in bright colors and use large brushes, like a grade school child, and fill my large sketch pad as well. I am releasing sounds, noise and my big voice through a wide open throat. I will be seen and heard. As I express the sounds of cancer, of repressed and held in energy, I move with the sound. My buried selves emerge in a kind of theater as I work by myself in our big room. I continue to tune into my body and its needs in a walking meditation which is a beautiful tool of concentration that Cynthia learned in her vipassana work and then taught to me.
Without considering psychological and spiritual factors, medicine has no way to predict or understand who will respond to treatment.
I am learning that I do have the inner understanding, which shines from my portion of the Light, to decipher my message. The message is a personal one, rooted in my being, in my history. For me the journey which has absorbed me since October has been one of discovery, struggle and chaos, of uncertainty, excitement and joy. I have trusted that I would find teachers. I have. My teachers are right for me. And my faith is that the process, the search, is my message to you.
Right now I am working with those healers who provide tools and feedback to enable me to magnify my faint sounds so that my dull ears can hear them. Ben Bentov3 shows me the healing as I learn to be in tune with a larger universe and its Creator. His book Stalking the Wild Pendulum explains the scientific connections and background that are immensely satisfying to my inquiring mind. I am also reading, at Avery Brooke’s4 suggestion, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death which is another mind blower. Then last Tuesday I went to hear Bill Condon5 describe his fascinating work on a frame by frame analysis of movies in slow motion showing the correlation between audible speech and the body movements of both speaker and listener. We are all in a dance together, in rhythm and connected.
As I too slow down and observe more closely, I hear my messages — slow down, Peg. Pay loving attention to your body and its needs. You know what to do. Trust yourself. Trust your intuition, your God within. And above all, acknowledge God as source and resource.
I am not well. I am healing. Your prayers and love make a big difference.
Thanks and love,
APRIL 11, 1979
Dear Friend: This letter written in Easter week seems appropriate. I’ve just reread the seven letters covering the last six months. The moment in October when I lay still on the operating room table as Dr. Warshaw6 confirmed the diagnosis of cancer seems very far removed from this sunny spring day. I was plunged then into a new world view. I continue to be amazed at the richness, variety and life I have discovered, where I had expected stillness and death. Whether I visualize going deeper or higher, and often it seems to be both together, I keep on learning and re-learning the lessons of my life. A poster on the silo wall behind me quotes Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” A friend, looking at the lifesize colorful pictures of Peg done on brown wrapping paper and pinned up on the large living room wall, saw that all but the most recent faces seemed like masks. “No, Beth — they are all masks.” And I remembered a dream my son, Peter, told me about when he was quite young, of standing in front of a mirror removing masks one after another and wondering if he was there at all.
I am here and I am unmasking myself layer by layer with one set of new eyes each time. And as I do, I move to the light. Rev. Jim Diamond7 sent me a book called The Testimony of Light, an electrifying, satisfying, description of the world beyond death which fits in with my belief. The account makes it plain that we are, in both this world and the next, evolving towards higher consciousness, higher vibrational frequencies, towards light.
Two weeks ago I spent four days with the Episcopal sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit8 which helped me to ground my intellectual understanding in reality. Paul Stimson, a friend of Rad and Leila Ostby, introduced me to this interesting community. To be free to be a part of the life of a loving, self-supporting, energetic group of sisters gave me a precious chance to review my life in the Lord’s presence. I enjoyed the contrast of sisters in full habit, singing three services a day using music sung for centuries, who were worldly, practical and also very interested in psychic phenomena, in reincarnation and healing. I was renewed. My determination to build a new and deeper connection to Andrew is already bearing fruit. My sense of the Lord’s presence in my life has been strengthened. Sister Lucia, wise and kind, is in charge of the retreat house. Mother Elise, principal of the school, as well as head of the community, chose the music, led the chapel service, often cooked meals and prayed especially for my healing. Both found time to spend with me as well.
The following week I was in Boston to work with Tom Yeomans,9 who had come East to teach a psycho-synthesis course. I always work with him in some awe as he guides me towards my core. This time was no exception. I uncovered the terror which has bedeviled me for so long. Fear of annihilation, I’ve tripped over you for years and now I see you clear. I had not realized before the grip and subtlety of your tentacles. I have raged at insensitive parents. Now I see how my fear of being forgotten when out of sight led me into all kinds of crazy behavior. My fear was so great I couldn’t even connect to it at first when Tom asked me to look beneath my anger to see what I found. So I have continually made up marvellous logical reasons why the other person’s behavior was explanation enough for my fury. As I saw the process, Tom invited me to explore what I would consider the opposite of being forgotten. “Remembered, loved, eternal” came to mind. “Find the specific phrase or word that fits for you,” he said. Finally I realized that I am held “eternally in love.” I went on to experience that wonder and then to experience my forgiveness of the human failings that helped to hide this Truth from me for so long.
I felt the presence of bright Light which increased and I was getting glorious. And I suddenly began to laugh. I had remembered the last 15 minutes of Ben Bentov’s day-long workshop at Interface last month. He traces the path of evolution from minute particles to larger and larger organizations of vibrative matter in the void until he gets to the largest of all. It’s a Deva, a Beam of Light shaped like a tunnel and invites his exploration. He enters and emerges from the tunnel to discover a figure, the God of Gods and sees . . . himself. I laughed, Tom laughed and I felt healed and well. I usually take myself so seriously, and I laughed harder than ever.
I’m not even going to try to sort out how I can be the source of my universe and at the same time know that God holds me eternally in love. I just know both things are true. And in this Easter season I am deeply moved by the events in the Bible and their parallel in my life. Christ’s willingness to experience humanity as I do seems especially precious. And I have history and knowledge on my side as I go through the events of Holy week, knowing that Easter will come. Death itself cannot obliterate me.
. . . Most of us do not change until we have to.
Death seems far away today. Ben had suggested visiting Dr. Revici10 in New York who has developed a simple, self-administered drug without unpleasant, or destructive side effects that is reducing the tumor in my breast. His associate Dr. Fishman11 has shed some light on why simple remedies are so little regarded and in some cases frantically attacked. Cancer is a nine billion dollar industry in this country. Four billion is spent on research and the rest on treatment. If a simple remedy is found which does not require machinery of modern medicine to test and administer, the effect on this country would be comparable to the collapse of the auto industry. Even the best intentioned researcher has to be somewhat ambivalent when faced with news of a simple cure which works. And he will find as many logical reasons as I did to defend his position of adversary.
If such a cure is found, what will happen to insurance companies, to our social security system, all based on certain percentages of deaths? Each individual specializing in cancer within the system of medical delivery faces a termination of his life’s work and a vast upheaval in his life. And as I know very well, most of us do not change until we have to. It helps me to see this perspective. I can understand this fear.
I do feel loved on many planes. Your support, encouragement and prayers have all been important to me.
I also love you.
MAY 4, 1979
Dear Friend: The puzzle of cancer and its cure continues to absorb my interest and attention. Three times now, once with chemotherapy, once with Greg Schelkun12 and most recently with Dr. Revici I have announced to you an improvement in my physical health only to have the process reverse itself as soon as I proclaimed it. “What is going on?” I keep asking myself.
A workshop with John Grinder13 and Judith Lozier14 in Cambridge last weekend has helped to provide some understanding. Many of you have written to me concerned that I somehow felt guilty or sinful as I emphasized my responsibility for my own health and cancer. I knew I did not feel guilty and I had trouble enunciating what was true. John’s position is that we who come to be healed whether in mind or body have already tried as hard as we can with our conscious minds to correct the problem. If that had worked we would not be seeking a healer. Obviously then we are searching for a different way.
We must look to our unconscious intention below the level of our awareness. What is producing this destructive behavior whether it’s overeating, getting cancer, or smoking? John’s belief is that the intentions of that buried part is in our best interest even though the behavior is not. Even more; this part is doing the very best it can to protect us but it is acting on out-dated or insufficient information. Fulfilling this intention is a secondary gain. For example: a woman is able to lose weight until she gets close to her ideal when she immediately regains it all. Working with John, she learns that her unconscious part wants to save her marriage. Getting thin, she is unable to say “no” to men who are attracted to her and so she eats to save her marriage, the secondary gain in being overweight. The resolution comes as she is able to separate the good intention from destructive behavior and then choose new ways to meet a very worthwhile objective.
I went up to the workshop feeling very distressed and angry with Andrew. It is an old issue centering in my perception of his willingness and ability to care for me and love me. My head gives him the right to behave as he needs to do. My heart and gut get knotted up and scared that he finds other women more attractive and then I get angry. I want his exclusive attention. After returning from the weekend I begin to suspect that I gave myself cancer to buy his love. To get sick to get love and attention is an old familiar pattern in our family.
One intention of my cancer-causing-part is to have a more loving relationship to Andrew. It is a secondary gain. The pattern of cancer not only doesn’t work but it is destructive and unacceptable to me as a way to meet the goal. Last weekend I learned ways to contact my unconscious part directly and it signified its understanding and agreement by increasing or intensifying certain signs in my body. An increased heart rate and quicker breathing were my signs of a “yes” answer which I could feel and my partner could observe. Both reactions sidestepped my conscious mind, which like most people’s is very nosey. It wants to butt in, to know what is going on and to understand even though it has already failed miserably at making any helpful change with these tactics.
My unconscious part agreed to accept suggestions from my creative self about alternate, less destructive ways to meet its goal and found at least three new ways to do this. And it also agreed to implement the changes in my life. The best part is that my body kept responding “yes” and my mind didn’t have the foggiest idea, at that time, what the intention was or what any of the alternative solutions would be. It has been exciting and wonderful to find myself acting in new ways or understanding the intention as my mind suddenly pops into focus when I notice that I am behaving differently. This explanation is basic to my newest understanding of medical treatment. Medicine works from a basis of scientific proof. You repeat the treatment in the same way with so many different people until you can show that in 50, 60, or 90% of the cases you get a remission of disease. I believe that all illness has secondary gains. Cancer destroys body cells. In order to have a high percentage of remissions, medicine has had to come up with powerful treatments not only to reverse cell breakdown but also to OVER-RIDE our secondary gains. When the gains from having a life-threatening illness are not dealt with, many of us will find other ways to meet our intention which still feels so important. Cancer may recur or accidents will “happen.” For others the experience of coming close to death and returning to life may meet the goal.
Without considering psychological and spiritual factors, medicine has no way to predict or understand who will respond to treatment. And it must also then lump all of those who do recover by following alternate healing methods as “spontaneous remission.” At some time, this catch-all phrase will seem as ridiculous to us as “spontaneous generation” did to explain the presence of maggots.
I have meant for a while to tell you that had doctors offered me a 90 percent chance of cure I might never have explored alternate healing and you would not be receiving this letter. It is a cancer which doctors told me (if we pushed hard for the right treatment) gave me a 30 percent chance of surviving for five years, with treatment. That percentage did not seem to me enough to justify the discomfort and destruction of my own immune system which would follow in the wake of the treatments proposed. So I have chosen my own path and believe that I probably have still more to learn about secondary gains which I have not yet uncovered.
I do know that a major awakening since I wrote is understanding what it means to me to be of service. My earliest memory in therapy is of my birth at home where I was left crying at the foot of the bed while those present tended to my mother. I learned then that I was to serve her rather than be served or nourished by her. I have carried resentment for years at that lack of nourishment as well as a confused attitude towards serving others. I resented demands and believed that I should buy love by being helpful.
A psychosynthesis process which I learned last summer helped me to sort this out last week. After writing down ten of my important values on file cards, I rank ordered them. Going through the list from the bottom up I checked the order by asking this question: “Am I willing never to have any more no. 10 in my life in order to fulfill my obligations to no. 9?” Some of my values on the list shifted positions as I did this second step. The pair which touched me the most was health for myself and my ability to heal others. I want to be healthy and I would rather die than give up my ability to heal others. It was a real surprise and a moving experience to learn this about myself.
I want to be healthy and I would rather die than give up my ability to heal others.
I value my ability as a healer above my own life. And once again a painful memory becomes a joyful source of learning. Yes, I am here as a healer. I am here to be of service not for gain, not for what I get back but because that is what I am to do in this lifetime, this time around. And the lesson started the moment I was born.
So I will be starting to see clients again, a few appointments each week. And I will leave time for my painting. It isn’t really me or them. It is us.
With my love,
MAY 29, 1979
Dear Friend: In the first letter I wrote to you I said about my cancer: “it makes sense to me to say with firmest love ‘Enough!’ I will not let you destroy yourself and me. I will restrain and stop you.” This week working with Ben Bentov I saw how I am to meditate to do that. He sees my cancer as a dark shadow. Both he and Dr. Leone have found it spreading towards my armpit and up towards my collar bone. The meditation is to imagine love as a pink healing color surrounding the whole area of darkness and compressing it. Darkness compressed enough turns to light. Or it may be easier to imagine coal pressed into a diamond. Either way I invite you to join me in this special way by sending your love to me, visualizing this process in my body. I will usually be meditating at 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. if you wish to join me in time, but any time you think of me, I will receive and appreciate your aid.
I am beginning to understand love not as an emotion but as having a whole separate quality. Here again Ben has been a tremendous help. The heart chakra in my chest is the source of love energy and is the first uniquely human chakra. The three lower chakras of the body are those we share with animals. Emotions originate in the lower ones and Ben’s description of emotion as furry little animals with sharp teeth who rise and take over is vivid for me. I need to focus on love, on my ability to send love which comes from the heart. Sentiment, grief, rage, fear and even joy are emotions which can side-track this heart energy. I am learning not to be so emotional or easily toppled and very surprised to discover that I am then able to be more loving.
A wonderful visit Saturday evening with Barbara and Jim Diamond has also been crucial to me. Both saw that my struggle is with living. My focus is on life and how to live. Even more I realized after they’d left that my question still is “AM I WILLING TO LIVE?” The time will come when the question is “Am I willing to die, to let go?” but right now I am still struggling with my willingness to live and the possibility that my death is not so far away has sharpened my understanding of what it will mean for me to truly decide to live fully.
I also see why I have had such a terrible struggle with the medical community. They see the enemy as death and pain. I see it as inhumanity. Barbara and Jim made the distinction between being healed or being cured. Healed of course means being whole and the dictionary definition also talks of being restored to original purity or integrity. Cured, which has connotations for me of hides being tanned or beef-jerky dried and tough, by dictionary definition, means remedial treatment or the removal of disease or evil.
To be fully human is to live healed, whole, as well as one is able, and may have little to do with one’s bodily state. To pay attention to the distress of my body and to cure that alone has felt inhuman to me. A friend, a nurse practitioner writing a paper for a course, interviewed me the other day. She asked me if anyone, anywhere, in my experience with the medical establishment had paid attention to my needs on an emotional or psychic level. As I thought back I was horrified and angered to realize that I had not once experienced within the medical delivery system the kind of attention which I, as a therapist, know to be basic to healing. Most people assumed that they already knew what would be comforting or helpful to me and followed their own ideas.
In many other cases my clearly stated wants were totally ignored. No one within medicine gave me any space by asking what I wanted or by asking whether what they were doing or saying was what I needed at the time. No one checked with me. I did get a fair number of rhetorical questions.
A friend gave me May Sarton’s novel, A Reckoning, about a 60-year-old widow dying of lung cancer. I recommend it to you. Towards the end of her life her doctor decides she has to leave her home where she has been coping with her death in familiar, loved surroundings to go into the hospital for some tests. Her hospital experience is painfully familiar to me. I have experienced myself or seen others as victims of each inhumanity she describes. But my concern is beyond this. It is not at all clear in the book what benefit she will derive from the tests. It is totally clear that the doctor will feel more comfortable in his treatment of disease with more information. But what will it do for her, the patient? That is not apparent. Nothing in her treatment changes after the hospital visit. And then immediately after that the doctor, also from kindly motives, arranges for her to be carried out to the garden for tea in her chaise lounge so that he can fulfill his promise that she will experience springtime before she dies. She is a “good girl” and, not willing to disappoint him or those who will arrange it, she goes along with the plan when what she wants is to stay quietly in her room. No one checks with her since their own needs to help her are so great. They are also operating on out-dated information, which could be so easily checked if anyone near her had asked what she wanted and been willing to give up their ideas of what would be best for her and to listen to hers. She also obviously had never learned that she had the right to ask.
One thing I have wanted and am taking steps to find is a closer relation to Andrew. We are seeing Leie Carmody, Sean’s wife, to help us clear up the accumulated shit of 31 years together. When I worked in therapy with Tom Yeomans, I talked to my dead sister, Mary, who told me that I must let go of my buried anger and resentment, which was killing me. Leie helped me to see how extensive and also how subtle that anger is. It helped me to understand from Leie that as children we are all forbidden access to our sorrow and hurt. Haven’t you heard as a child or said as a parent, “I only want you to be happy.”? It is painful for a parent to know that a child is unhappy, so as children we learn to conceal our grief. Instead, we cover it up with anger, indifference, sarcasm or joking and so deny we even want what we miss so deeply.
I buried my sorrow, covered it with resentment, and then buried that as well. And it’s all there visible to a discerning eye which Leie has doubled in spades! I’ve been unpacking it not at Andrew this time but in a safe place where my raging will not add further hurt. I see more and more wisdom in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ suggestion that every hospital, school, home or office, wherever humans live together, should have a “screaming room.” Only I, realizing how enraged I have been, would call it an outrageous room.
As I write, I imagine what a different experience we Americans would have if, instead of being guaranteed, in our mythos and creed, the pursuit of happiness, we had been encouraged to follow the pursuit of growth. The ability to grow into wholeness, completeness, to be restored to integrity and purity. This has got to be what I mean when I pray “Thy will be done. Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” And again in answer to Jim Diamond’s question about my visualization of death, I realize that I see it as life lived more intensely, unencumbered by an earthly body. And since all I know now and much that I love now is here in this physical world which I have inhabited for 56 years, I am very reluctant to make a change. I haven’t yet fully used all that I’ve got. And boy, am I learning!
With my love,
P.S. A friend has just called. Ben Bentov was on the plane which crashed in Chicago. I saw him four days ago and now know that we said goodbye then. I am still numb. I am sad around the edges and the center of my knowing is a celebration of the love and friendship we shared in these past few months. He told a friend before he left for the West that his work was done. I know it. He used so much of what he had and had shared his gifts generously with many people. Ben, you are glorious and I will miss you very much. I feel as though I am swimming in heavy surf. I get an insight and then immediately without a breather comes the test of my learning. And, damn it all, I’m still afloat.
1 CYNTHIA FINN — Therapist, teacher of meditation, Lexington, Kentucky.
2 GABRIELE ROTH — Teacher of dance and movement in New York City.
3 BEN BENTOV — Medical inventor studying energy, Waylands, Mass.
4 AVERY BROOKE — Meditation teacher, Noropon, Conn.
5 BILL CONDON — Researcher, Boston, Mass.
6 DR. ANDREW WARSHAW — Surgeon, Massachusetts General Hospital.
7 REV. JAMES DIAMOND — Episcopal Chaplain, University of Minnesota.
8 COMMUNITY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT — Brewster, N.Y.
9 TOM YEOMANS — Teacher, Synthesis Graduate School, San Francisco, Ca.
10 DR. REVICI — Cancer, medical researcher in Trafalgar Hospital, New York City.
11 DR. FISHER — Acupuncturist, New York City.
12 GREG SCHELKUN — Psychic healer, San Rafael, Ca.
13 JOHN GRINDER — Co-author with Richard Bandler of The Structure of Magic.
14 JUDITH LOZIER — John Grinder’s partner.