In which Catherine undergoes a ritual shearing and I consult with a Buddhist Priest and my Shamanic guides regarding my diet.
By the third week of Catherine's Taxol chemo treatment her hair began to come out in handfuls when she showered. It was unexpected; this particular chemo wasn't supposed to cause such hair loss and she found it alarming. Though hair loss was one of the passages of the cancer journey that she had been preparing for, it still brought up so much. She had had enviable hair all her life. It fell in waves of blond tresses and looked great no matter what length she wore it. To be bald was to become unmistakably a cancer patient. But this in between stage of thinning hair was problematic as well. It never could look right.
By the third handful of hair in the shower, she put in a call to Gil, our Buddhist dharma teacher. She had already been in touch with Gil about her cancer journey and he had offered to shave her head when the time came in a ceremony that would renew her Buddhist vows much as one does when becoming a monk.
Catherine had often spoken of a desire to retreat from her life and would ask me how I felt if she shaved her head and entered a monastery to live as a monk. In this scenario I saw myself following her to take up a position as the gardner.
"You always wanted to be a monk," I said when she made the appointment with Gil.
I did not aspire to attain enlightenment through my meditation practice and was content to be a slacker Buddhist next to my more serious American Buddhist practitioners with whom I sat with at our meditation center.
I had great respect for Gil and his ability to explain the concepts of the Buddhist teachings. He gave me language, in English, for a perspective on life that I had understood innately from living in Thailand and speaking Thai as a child. I found the translations invaluable for it showed me that my natural perspective was a viable one in the face of a culture that often valued just the opposite.
It was integrated into the Thai language this Buddha nature. The way we experienced time, the way we asserted ourselves or more likely did not. The way we accepted ourselves as a given in time and place, a part of something rather than striving to make something of ourselves.
This making something of myself is how I am mocked by my adopted American culture. I continually arm myself with opinions and convictions so that I might defend who it is I am.
On the appointed Sunday, I put on my blue Thai farmer's shirt and welcomed Gil into our home. He had on his usual jeans and a plaid shirt. I became the assistant to the event, minding the dogs while he and Catherine talked about this conundrum of being forced by serious illness to face one's death.
Catherine had set up an altar in the sun room with her Buddha, her small brass bowl for ringing and a pink rose from our garden in a vase. Gil added a string of wooden beads and a tablet with the Buddha image in relief. Suitable for holding in the hand, he said. I joined them as they stood at the altar and began with a memorized Pali chant.
They then reviewed the Five Precepts andTriple gem vows which includes aspects of right living and a pledge to do no harm. (It is this pledge to do no harm that prompts a vegetarian diet in a monk's life.) Catherine repeated, after him, the vows of the precepts. Then Gil invited me to tie a red string around her wrist.
And then the shearing began. Gil had brought his electric shaver with him in a plastic shopping bag. Catherine sat in a kitchen chair looking at her reflection in the window glass of the sunroom, as slowly the remaining hair came off in strips. She was moved seeing herself transformed. The effect was somehow uplifting and liberating. Gone was the worrisome hair. This was a look that was complete in itself. Nothing needed to be done with it or about it. A truly carefree style.
As Gil took his leave he told Catherine to call him anytime if she wanted to talk to him. "And you too", he said to me recognizing that the caretaker is just as much under stress. I appreciated this acknowledgement and inclusion.
Both Steven and I were taken by Catherine's new look. She had worried about how we would react. Would we be repelled by such baldness? But the novelty of it appealed to us. It was unambiguous and thug like, but her petite head was so even and beautiful it contradicted itself. Steven took pictures with his phone to show to their other brother. I sewed her a white cap from a t-shirt and later a black one. The white one made her look like an inmate from the futuristic setting in THX1138. The black one like a drug dealer. I was startled every time I did see her naked head and was reminded again of a monk.
Once she had taken this unambiguous step into the identity of a cancer patient, she seemed to own it, become more confident about fighting the disease. Between watching episodes of Judge Judy and the antique dealers hunting collectibles on American Pickers, she researched the promise of a cure and how to prevent a recurrence. She also continued her meditation practice daily. When she was feeling energetic (especially after the steroids from the infusions) she listened to lectures for her studies with The Diamond Approach, a spiritual inquiry practice.
The Path of Non-Harming
Shortly after this hair sheering ceremony I found myself confronting the ethical aspects of eating animals. The leftist, social activists, environmentalists and Buddhists, who were part of my context and community, heavily supported the vegetarian ethics of not killing what you ate. It felt urgent to me to answer to this ethic.
I came across a book by a recovered vegan who laid out for me, in neat categories, all the arguments put forth by the vegetarian camp, from the moral issues to the environmental issues, to the health claims.
I also felt betrayed by the claims that such a diet was healthy. It was not as I was finding out. It was nutrient depleting and metabolically troublesome, possibly energy draining. Plus the high heat of industrial processing all but destroyed what nutrients were left in the supposedly healthier-for-you veggie burgers and other meatless soy wonders, filled, as I found out from the book The Whole Soy Story, with secret toxins, rancid vegetable oils, mystery fillers and other dubious unknown ingredients.
From my reading of Lierre Keith's book, The Vegetarian Myths, it became clear to me that the planet would not benefit at all from humans choosing a vegetarian diet. The very grains that would have to be grown to sustain so many vegetarians was already colonizing the land in a distinctly imperialist manner. Industrial agricultural methods rendered the land infertile, stripping the soil of nutrients which led to desertification, thus more clearing of forests and natural habitats for farmland. Factory farming of meat adding insult to this equation by pushing grains into animals. Animals that normally fed off the land itself and were designed to add to the fertility of the soil with their manure.
I was still left with the moral concept of killing what one ate. The up close, human to animal responsibility of it. No argument could persuade those who were unable to kill. It was as immoral as the death penalty. And so it was that I took Gil up on his invitation to contact him.
He responded right away and I met with him a few days later at the meditation center. He took me on a walk into the neighborhood leaving me to guide our talk. I offered a little of my own history with Buddhism and how it had been my home base, but more recently I had felt more drawn by a Shamanic practice. I told him, too, how I appreciated that American Buddhism was saving the dharma with the individual practitioners giving their full attention to it in the characteristic, driven, American way. But the Buddhist practice in America embraced vegetarianism in such a way that I was led to believe it was healthy. "I felt misled," I said simply. (This was understating my feelings of rage at being so misled by every sector of society concerning food plus the concern I suddenly had for the health of the people in our Buddhist community.)
Gil gave his response. There were two reasons people became vegetarians in the '70s, he began. One was for the moral aspect and the other was for the environmental aspect.
"We knew a vegetarian diet wasn't healthy," he said. It was a relief to hear this because no one in our Buddhist community ever discussed the health aspects. As a newcomer to the community I thought those who ate vegetarian as part of their practice were purifying their bodies to compliment their spiritual path.
Gil then told me a story about Frances Moore Lappe, my hero of the Diet For A Small Planet fame. In the '70s, Gil lived at the zen monastery in San Francisco. The monastery had invited Ms. Lappe to come to dinner and speak to them about vegetarianism. She lived in Berkeley at the time and arrived bearing a rabbit stew made from her own rabbit. This shocked them all, but she explained to them that feeding a rabbit kitchen scraps was the most ecological way to bring food to the table. The whole point of her book had not been vegetarianism, but that feeding grains to animals was wasteful.
I was thrilled by this story. She got it; she wasn't just a hippie chic proselytizing a vegetarian diet. She understood the underlying math. It was the public, then, that wanted to embrace such vegetarian deprivation to do their part. She would be repeatedly quoted for her ardent explanation of how there was enough protein in beans and rice to sustain humans and that's how we should eat on a finite planet rather than fattening cattle with food while humans starved. Too bad she wasn't able to flesh out her equation so to speak. It would take another thirty years before Novella Carpenter would write her book Farm City and reintroduce the idea of growing your own meat with her backyard farming in Oakland and her pig.
But that still left me with the ethics of killing. I confessed to Gil, that I was also the family rat killer.
"That's because you can," he said with no judgement either way, "I can't. I can't kill. If someone else goes fishing and kills a fish I will eat it, but I can't kill a fish myself. If I do need to eat meat for health reasons I eat some chicken or fish."
He told me about killing gophers when he was a gardner at Tassajara, a zen monastery we had stayed at ourselves. There was no policy about the gophers; it was left up to the gardner to decide. Gil gave it a great deal of thought and watched the garden carefully. In the end he decided that, given how much damage the gophers did to the food crops, he would trap them for the greater good of the community. But over time he had become less able to kill. Someone else would have to catch his rats.
He hoped he had answered my questions. I offerd that it was even more complex and nuanced than I had thought. Then suggested that I might consult my spirit guides and power animals in a Shamanic journey on the topic. He encouraged me to do so and was as intrigued as I was by what they might say.
Returning to the Hearth
The crucial part of journeying to ask a question is what exactly do I ask. The wording of a question would bias the answer. I formed in my mind a nuanced request. What were the ethical considerations of eating meat? How did I reconcile killing another being in order to eat it?
I put on my ten minute drumming segment on my iPod and followed the urgent rhythms into the theta state of my mind and entered the Dream Time. I chose to go to the upper world first to meet my spirit guide Grandmother because she often gave an answer that was an overview.
When I arrived in the sky place, I found myself running across a field of grain, the imperialist colonizing kind, and I was eager to be free of its vast dry yellowness. The cottage of the Grandmother was at the edge of the field over a stone wall. She was in her garden. I entered it and went to her. She hugged me a long time before taking me into her cottage where I sat at her kitchen table and she put before me a hot bowl of bone broth soup.
I asked her my question about the ethics of eating animals. She gave a sigh and told me that the whole purpose of my incarnating in human form was to integrate fully into my body, the cells of plant life and of animal life so that I could fully realize health in this incarnate, human form. As she mentioned plant life and animal life, I saw their essence in my mind and noted that the plant essence was by far the more powerful and intelligent.
"What about the vegetarians? I asked.
"Forget about them," she said impatiently, "that is not your path."
"What about the killing of animals for me to eat," I asked.
"You must see it as an ecstatic experience for the animal. The ecstasy of being released from the incarnate form. The birth and return home to the spirit world."
I then ask about the slaughter of the animal.
"The faster and more skillfully it is done, the better the ecstatic release."
"Should I kill my own meat?"
"We'll talk about that when you are serious about doing so," she said, calling my bluff.
I gazed into my soup and saw chunks of liver. I was not sure about them, but I ate and contemplated her words. (Later I would read that bone broth and liver were good foods for regulating blood sugars.)
The drums began the call sequence before I could finish the soup. I got up and hugged her goodbye, sobbing a little. She comforted me and welcomed me back to health, back to the hearth of my health.
Comforted by her reassuring presence, I wrote my notes from the journey. Then I began another to visit the lower world to ask about the killing of animals for eating. As I descend I heard my power animal Mongoose announcing my arrival. I was dressed like Mowgli in a loin cloth. My feet bare and I am in a young body. I was also young in the upper world.
"Here she comes," says Mongoose, "the Hunter." We greet, but we do not hug. Then he does hug me, but rather stiff and formally. He was creating distance between us.
"Your task is to kill me," he said simply.
"I can't do that you're my power animal," I protest and I know that I really can't.
"Okay then you can kill my young," he says and there is no arguing with him. The young mongoose are clearly much smaller, more realistic in size than the god-like human size in which he has appeared to me today so I agreed to it. I manifested my own bow and quiver of arrows and followed him into the jungle.
"I will instruct you," said Mongoose when we came to a clearing. Meanwhile all the little mongoose came out into the clearing to greet me, then scampered back into hiding again.
"This reminds me of seeing Island of The Blue Dolphins when I was little," I said, I had been entranced by the girl with her bow and arrow, but then she shot the wolf. I kept watching as if my own life depended on it. Was life intrinsically cruel or not? I was much comforted when the wolf was nursed back to life and became her companion.
"That was a recognition of your path," said Mongoose. "These mongoose will also come back alive, but they must die first by your hand." I agreed to play the game and manifested a crossbow instead for better stalking. Mongoose told me how to find the mongoose. "You will need bait," he says and he handed me a cat carrier with a cobra in it. I took it to the clearing and let the snake out. At first the snake wanted to bite me, but I shoo it off. He entered the clearing and the mongoose came out to prepare to kill the cobra.
"So I am to kill the mongoose as it prepares to kill the cobra?" I asked him perplexed.
"Yes it is the same. The same ecstasy to kill or be killed," he explained.
I concentrated on making a good killing. Only one mongoose had stayed to fight the cobra. I shot it in the throat. Mongoose, my teacher, hurried to its side and caught the blood in a wooden cup which he bid me drink. "This will nourish you," he says, "And then you must skin it and roast it."
I drink from the cup. Then I cut the skin of the slain animal down the middle and down each limb to the feet and hands. Mongoose handed me a hatchet to take off the feet and hands, then helped me put the carcass on a spit. He manifested a fire and I roasted it. When it was cooked, he bid me eat of the flesh.
"It tastes like chicken," I said. Mongoose knows that I am making a joke.
"No," he says, "more like rabbit." I remember the taste of rabbit from a restaurant in San Francisco. I noticed that he did not eat of the mongoose meal. It was for me.
"You are hungry," he says, "eat before the drum calls you back." And I did, letting the juices drip down my chin. I smeared the grease on my face and body like war paint.
"You are trained to be a hunter," he says, "your are wiry and strong; don't' worry about being so thin. The meat will feed you." I ate until the call back of the drum. We walked away together. I was still holding the roasted mongoose. I handed it to him. At the mouth of the tunnel I saw Bear my other power animal. I gave him a hug and rubbed his fury chest. He hugged me back warmly and I scampered up the large tunnel, taking my leave.
The journey left me feeling exposed for my hunter nature. It was not a story I could tell easily, but at the same time I felt integrated into the cycle of life. I could now stand confidently before the meat case at the butchers counter and own my meat eating life.
Labels: cancer journey, diabetes, environment, health, paleo, pre-diabetes, vegetarianism