To listen to this speech, select track three in this list.
13 April 2015, Los Angeles, California, USA
I don’t know what you were doing in November 2011, but I was in Bali, teaching a weeklong retreat based on my eighth book, The 5 Principles of Authentic Living. For six months prior to Bali, I had suffered from muscle spasms in my back that would buckle my knees, drop me to the floor, and blind me with pain. I could scarcely walk, but I had committed to teaching in Bali, so I loaded up on painkillers and flew from L. A. to the retreat site.
When it was over, I was finished: exhausted, weak, sick, and in pain. I knew I couldn’t make it back to L. A. Instead, I went to the much closer Australia, where I had recently lived for six years. I went downhill fast. Lying down, I couldn’t lift my legs; I could barely wiggle my toes. On December 24th, yes, Christmas eve, I was admitted to the ER of a local hospital.
I didn’t know that I was entering a school that would soon transform everything I had ever known or been. A few days later, I was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer — you know, the terminal kind. My spine, pelvis, and hips were riddled with tumors. I was rushed into a series of radiation treatments, which relieved the pressure on my spinal nerves and prevented me from losing my legs to paralysis.
That was the good news. The other news was that, statistically, I had six months to live. But seeing as how I’m standing before you this evening, it’s clear I’ve exceeded the doctors’ predicted expiration date by nearly three years. I’m quite happy about this; not so much because I’m still alive, but because I always take delight in doing what I’m not supposed to do.
And just for the record, I am not a statistic. When word got around that I had become a spring-break hotel for millions of cells-gone-wild, teachers and teachings came from everywhere. Oncologists, metaphysicians, friends, colleagues, students — all had suggestions as to how to fight cancer. I received tips about nutrition, emotional clearing, European and Mexican clinics, cannabis oil, breath work, psychic intervention, herbal supplements, and, of course, juicing.
I started thinking that if cancer didn’t kill me, this well-meaning but overwhelming tsunami of information would! But then I received a message from my meditation teacher, Swami Muktananda — with whom I had lived and studied for 10 years. Even though he had died in 1982, he managed to get this message to me: “Robert, don’t say you have cancer; if you must say something, just say that you are holding the space for cancer to visit you temporarily.”
That message triggered a game-changing epiphany. I decided that cancer was a condition, not my defining reality. I decided that my response to cancer would create my reality. So, I shifted the focus of my listening from outside to inside, where an irresistible voice started speaking to me from the depths of my being, but in silence.
This inner silence taught me many things — about cancer, the nature of self, and living authentically, which has been the focus of my life since I was 11. When I began “holding the space for cancer to visit me,” a lot of people started telling me what I should do.
It was tempting to simply obey the “experts,” thinking that they knew. Yes, they knew what they knew, but not what I was beginning to know, courtesy of silence. For example, not long after my last chemo treatment, my doctor asked how I was getting on with my life. I told him. I didn’t go out, socialize, exercise, or take walks on the beach. I didn’t have a pet; not even a houseplant. I hadn’t joined a cancer support group. I didn’t have any burning ambition or clear goals. I wasn’t having sex, with myself or anyone else.
He said I was clinically depressed and prescribed anti-depressants, which I assured him I would take, but I never did. He didn’t understand that in my solitude and silence, I was being taught important, maybe life-saving things. I did listen to the experts, but I didn’t automatically do what they said. I didn’t let them choose what I should do. I realized that it was up to me to choose.
So, I developed a discerning disposition. I questioned everyone and everything until I was satisfied. I wasn’t bullied or intimated by what anyone told me to do. I challenged the status quo of convention and popular opinion. For example, in all the messages I received, it was clear that no one wanted me to die. That was nice to find out. Everyone wanted me to fight hard and defeat cancer.
But I never felt that I should go to war and fight to survive. I thought it was better to become friends with cancer. I wasn’t afraid of dying, nor angry about this sudden turn of events. I was at peace with the prospect of moving on, even though there were still things I wanted to do, like teach what I had learned about authentic living and speaking truthfully.
Still, I felt that death was not my enemy; after all, it has been with me from the first moment of my existence. I know I disappointed many people when I told them I had made death my friend and that I wasn’t going to start a war against cancer. During the months of my chemotherapy treatments, I could only eat refried beans and fried eggs and drink watermelon juice. I dropped forty-five pounds. My body glowed with toxicity. I spent twenty-three hours a day in bed. I was barely a vegetable.
But my attention had turned from “terminal” cancer to inner silence. I started going on numerous trips to . . . I don’t know where. I called them pony rides to oblivion. My consciousness left me and went where I couldn’t track. Each time my consciousness returned, it came back with less of me than when it had begun that journey.
One day, I ceased to exist in the way I had existed up until that time. Those pony rides to oblivion devoured everything I had ever known as “me”: page by page, the history of my life was shredded — all the mental photos, memories and mementos — gone. Desires, goals, aspirations, fears, hopes, wishes — gone. Time disappeared. Conceptual language collapsed. Everything I had been, everything I had known, everything recognizable was gone — except silence, and what comes to life in silence.
It’s hard for me to say what came alive in silence, what is alive within me now. Since my pony rides to oblivion, words themselves don’t have the same power to convey meaning, though I love words and speaking: my professional motto for 30 years has been “Have Mouth, Will Travel.” What really matters now is where my words come from. I know the difference between speaking about, and speaking from, the difference between philosophy and embodiment. I can recognize the difference between surface and depth, between petty and profound, between trendy and timeless beauty.
I don’t care if cancer is still with me or not, because I’m living with something truer, something that silence installed in me as a kind of existential app that has erased all other programs, leaving me with this: I live from my soul. If I want to say something from my true heart, I say it now. If I want to do something from my molten center, I do it now. I live from deep silence, and that makes me happy because maybe now I can do what I’ve tried to do my whole life: be a blessing to myself and to everyone I meet, and bring some much needed grace into this world.