Daniel Heagerty: Cancer—Choosing Expansion vs Contraction

photo courtesy of Ruth Hennig

August 12, 2019

Every test, every CT scan, every consult with my oncologist could provide more information but could not lessen the uncertainty.

My diagnosis of stage IV cancer was met in typical human fashion: shock, disbelief, victimhood, what caused this, why me? And it quickly evolved into a new life of profound uncertainty. Every test, every CT scan, every consult with my oncologist could provide more information but could not lessen the uncertainty. As humans we strive for certainty every day, every hour, yet now I must learn how to be with uncertainty, every day.

The advanced-stage cancer diagnosis brought forward a new perspective on suffering. The immediate suffering came with having to acknowledge that I will lose my health, it will deteriorate from deep inside with no hope for a reversal, only the hope of pain and psychological “management.” Then there is the suffering I witnessed immediately from my family: my two adult children, my five siblings, my sangha, deep friends. And then the pain of looking at the beauty of the flowers, the trees, the mountains, birds, rivers and ocean knowing that all this will pass, before my very eyes. 

We all have a choice, I believe, to “fight” the cancer or to “accept and be with” our cancer. The medical industry, the medical practitioners, society and our “language of cancer” pushes and pulls us to choose the “fight.” For me, I found no agency in choosing this kind of fight. We can only forestall advanced cancer (and death in general), we can not win this fight. I chose to see my cancer as a new aspect of my personal ‘ecosystem.’ It is as much a part of me as my blood and the universe of cells that evolved into this body I call ‘self.’ As such, I chose to love and honor this new cellular formation in my ecosystem. I chose to teach myself to move spirit over matter.

The choice to “honor and respect” cancer versus “despise and destroy” (fight) brought me a deep peace with my cancer.

The choice to “honor and respect” cancer versus “despise and destroy” (fight) brought me a deep peace with my cancer. I could now look at my condition with immense curiosity and a sacredness. With that comes a new level of living in the Present, diminishing the fear of dying, and learning to live in the Perfectness of Now. A new “consciousness” evolved that broadened my landscape and widened the sites and sounds of life “as it is.”

On this new journey I deepened my spiritual practice, an informal Taoist/Buddhist path of sitting meditation, reading and fasting that brings a “lightness of being,”  a sweet clarity in each day. A daily question of the proverbial “what is important” (or, where best to put emotional and spiritual energy) helped me to hold a certain calmness with the everyday anxieties of living. But readings and past experiences regarding the more profound opportunities we have for greater consciousness have drawn me to psychedelics. I recognize that we humans have far more capacity for seeing the ‘unseen” than we allow for ourselves.

I experienced Huxley’s “Doors of Perception” fifty years ago, while in college. I took a limited number of LSD trips, some mescaline, and (on a college science exploration down the Grand Canyon) peyote. These ‘mind excursions’ fundamentally re-wrote, or re-wired, important parts of my brain, and mind. I experienced “the unseen” and felt the profoundness of the non-duality of existence. Interestingly, though I did not take any psychedelics for the next 50 years, those Doors of Perception never closed.

Deep meditation and psychedelics can bring to us that opportunity to get beyond our sense of individuality and separateness, to lose the sense of a clear demarcation between me and the trees, or life and death.

I’m 69 years old with terminal cancer. I am on the last leg of my journey of life. My curiosity, my yearning for seeing the unseen, for living and experiencing the profound grows stronger each day. The past year, living with this cancer, has been possibly the greatest year of my life in terms of explorations of the mind and soul. I attribute much of this attitude and practice to learning to manage my “Default Mode Network” (DMN). I manage it (override it) using small doses of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. The DMN is that electrical signaling system in the brain that evolved with our human development as a means to bring order to an otherwise overly complex data system, to keep us focused on “survival.” A consequence of the strength of the survival-driven DMN has been the diminishment of our capacities for deep mystical experiences and deep knowledge based on non-duality. The seminal  neuroscience work concerning the DMN tells us that the slowing down of the DMN erodes the boundaries we otherwise hold as true between self and world, subject and object. Deep meditation and psychedelics can bring to us that opportunity to get beyond our sense of individuality and separateness, to lose the sense of a clear demarcation between me and the trees, or life and death. Concepts that are not new to many indigenous peoples. When I get to that level of insight, into the sphere of the mystical, I experience it as inherent truths of life (and death).

My curiosity with life grows, my comfort with death expands, I work the “edges of consciousness” as I would do muscle-building.

I try to manage my DMN to achieve deeper cognitive insights and greater mystical experiences. I am teaching myself (or training the mind) to view death (and life) through more and more angles of the prism. My curiosity with life grows, my comfort with death expands, I work the “edges of consciousness” as I would do muscle-building. It's a practice. It has given me a brief “view” of the doorway to death from the other side, too brief and impossible to describe. But I know this portal now, that it can be accessible as my neural networks are reworked, retooled for the ultimate step on the last path. The path chosen is that of curiosity and expansion, growing a forest canopy that filters and diminishes that relentless fear of death. 


Daniel Heagerty worked on water and land conservation, public trust resource protections and climate activism with youth for over 40 years in the western US. He served on state, regional and nonprofit boards focused on conservation and land stewardship. He currently is a volunteer trail worker at Spirit Rock and on Mt. Tamalpais. He lives in Mill Valley, California.

Tags: 7 Healing PracticesMind-body; spiritual & consciousness-changing approaches

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