Friday, August 5, 2011

Lotus in the Fire

Lotus in the Fire: The Healing Power of Zen by Jim Bedard

'Do not underestimate the healing power of prayer!' seems to be the most important message of Lotus in the Fire: The Healing Power of Zen by Jim Bedard. In 1995, Jim Bedard was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). AML is a quickly progressing and deadly form of blood cancer. I knew that Bedard was an otherwise healthy, strong, active, vegetarian who meditated regularly, and would have been considered "low risk" yet he still got cancer. There is an irony in that which I have encountered in my readings on healthy, nutrition, and cancer-prevention. Bedard comments on this when he is confronted with loads of unsolicited advice on treatments, diets, and therapies from random family members as well as strangers. He at once realized that in his healthier state, he used to deliver this advice to the "couch potatoes" in his circle. How annoying and inundating! I pray that I do not become like these folks as it is evident that practicing an active, plant-based lifestyle does not fully prevent cancer.

In this book, Jim Bedard seems to focus on describing the lengthy, painful, and complicated treatment of AML. He brings you into the trenches with him and I felt as if entered his mind, sensing his worries, defeats, aches, as well as his triumphs and joys (even his nausea) at times. Lotus in the Fire was not quite what I expected. Before reading this book, I thought it would be more of a "how-to" get through cancer book through meditation and Zen philosophy. Instead, it was a diary about one man's spiritual journey through healing. I felt this book was inspiring but written more for a Buddhist audience. Published by Shambhala publications, a publisher of "books on Buddhism and classics of the wisdom traditions", I felt that I seriously needed a dictionary to comprehend some of the words used in this text such as sesshin, zazen, kannon, and bodhisattva. Although I appreciate and practice some aspects of a Buddhist worldview including meditation and read the work of visionaries like Thich Nacht Hanh, a lot of terms and ideas were new to me including the idea that his cancer was caused by "past lives" or karma being played out.

Through the bone marrow transplant, surgeries, three chemotherapy programs (each lasting several weeks), radiations, unrelentless nausea and vomiting, severe headaches, lengthy hospitalizations, isolation, and intensive care unit (ICU) stays, atrophy of his muscles, weightloss, hairloss, dehydration, internal bleeding, weakness, and medication side-effects, Bedard really paints a detailed picture for the reader about the beastly nature of AML. There are several moments when Bedard thought he was going to die and in fact this might have been an easier choice in his mind, yet he continues to fight and "choose life" throughout the journey. Although he has had a "few out of body" experiences. Despite it all, he is able to inspire other patients and find solace in his spirituality. Bedard continues to remain thankful, express gratitude, and pray throughout his arduous ordeal.

There is a lot to be said for the effectiveness of prayer in this book, whether it is from his Buddhist sensei (teacher, I know that word), friends, and members of his Zen centre or his Catholic nieces and nephews, family members, and members of congregations around the world. There is a lot to be said for the effectiveness of a devoted spouse, spiritual congregation, and caring family, friends, and teachers who consistently surround him even if it is just to sit in the same room or chant in another room. There is a lot to be said about the human spirit and how it can persevere in times of difficulty. So there you have it! A plan for healing. Faith, community, and self!

I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand the "ins" and "outs" of a deadly cancer diagnosis. What is it like to be told that you may have only days or weeks to live? How does it feel when you are offered treatments that could help you but there is also a chance that they could kill you? How does a cancer diagnosis affect the "co-survivors"-- the spouses, children, parents, family, and friends? How can one's faith assist in the healing process? After reading this book, I became even more grateful and aware of the blessings in my life. It is a reminder to prayerfully seek the learning opportunities in even life's most difficult situations.

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