The Poison Path

I’ve written about peacocks before. In Buddhism, the peacock is a good and powerful symbol. The ancient myth is that a peacock’s brilliant plumage is created by the peacock’s eating poisonous things, like snakes. So the teaching is that anybody can eat poison (figuratively, anyway) and be transformed for the better by the experience–so long as they take the time to understand the experience and surrender to all that it offers, even (and probably especially) the unpleasant parts.

Tell any chemotherapy patient about the peacock in Buddhism and they might either smack you in the face, or fill their houses with peacocks.

Poison in general has an important place in Buddhism. The Buddha Guy tells the story of the poison arrow like this:

A person approached the Buddha asking, “What will happen after I die? What was my form before my birth? What is the source of all we see? Answer these questions and I will become your disciple.” The Buddha replied in this manner: “A man is shot with a poison arrow. Wounded, he refuses any aid, demanding answers to his questions. Who shot the arrow? What is the poison? Of what wood is the shaft? From which bird came the feathers for the flight? Surely he will die with these questions still unanswered.”

Yeah, that’s a nuh-duh moment. If you’ve been shot with a poison arrow, don’t ask questions, moron. Pull out the fucking arrow.

But what if the circumstances of your life require that you get shot with a poison arrow? And further require that you leave that arrow in? And for a long time?

The answers for those questions get really important, really quick…and perversely, they’re not important at all. But before I get into the reasons why I believe that, I have a different path to introduce.

There’s another tradition that references poison, and it appears (also perversely) at the fringes of Western New Age frippery. It’s called “the poison path.” It also uses the peacock as its symbol. And it deals with those questions in a Dark-Ages-witchy way that I’m not entirely convinced is healthy…but at least it’s got the stones to be honest about its rage.

I believe that human life is a comedy and a tragedy at the same time, and so are the answers to those questions. What do you do when you have to get shot with a poison arrow in order to save your life? Nothing. You will either live, complete with the memories of all the trauma you endured (tragedy), or you will die (comedy). And if you live, you’ll tell others how you did it, when you really have no idea what precisely spared you (tragedy). If you die, you’ll tell no one that you’ve learned the most important lesson there is, that you have no control over any of it, and that the only peace you can make in your life is to make peace with your death. It’s the biggest form of confirmation bias ever invented…and there’s the biggest comedy.

It’s that play of light comedy and darkest tragedy that makes life so beautiful, practically iridescent with contrasts. Hence the peacock. And the poison path believes that you have to revel fiercely in all its iridescence to make the trip worth it.

Everyone wants to believe that somehow, they’ll be the one to live through the great big garbage bag that is cancer…and that they’ll experience an explosive flowering of the spirit because of the experience. Psychologists even have a term for it: post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is held up as the Holy Grail of psychological recovery from trauma. This idea that we can be transformed by suffering if only we can retain a positive attitude–that we can always become amazing versions of ourselves after going through a trial by fire–is pervasive in oncology wards. I’ve watched a dying man, gray-faced with a literal decade of agony, beat himself up for not maintaining a positive-enough attitude about his situation. I’ve come to believe that positive attitude is as full of bullshit as the giant prints of beautiful flowers framed on the walls of nearly every oncologist’s office I’ve ever been in.

Seriously. Flowers. In a place that force-feeds poison and cuts off parts of people in a scorched earth attempt at healing.

Either the flowers are there as a blatant attempt to make us patients more quiescent, and hence easier to treat—which makes those flowers manipulative bullshit…or they’re a genuine, though kitschy, attempt on the part of the staff to remind us of the beauty and fragility of life—which really makes them bullshit. We’re living that message, thank you. Be told you’ve got a 50/50 chance of seeing your next birthday, and let’s see how beautiful and fragile you feel. Being beaten over the head with that message just makes me mad.

I’ve been in precisely one oncologist’s office that didn’t have flowers. They had cows. Cows, for God’s sake. As cynical as I can sometimes be, I thought at first the cows were sending the message, “Line up and take your place in the abattoir like a good little cow.” But the waiting room the cows had been placed in wasn’t some sad little shoebox with no windows, only flower prints hanging on walls made grubby with time and suffering. It was a genuinely beautiful room, a gallery easily fifty feet long, painted a gentle spring grass green, bathed in sunlight from a continuous bank of windows opposite that were easily five feet high. Comfy chairs and couches nestled together in family groups. Big dining room tables with half-finished puzzles laid out on them stood between the groups, ready for anybody to drag a chair over and move the puzzle along. The cow portraits were tiny, perhaps six by eight inches each, lined up singleton along the inside wall of the gallery. And as I walked the length of them, examining each, I realized the tiny cows were individual, perfectly realized little portraits of somebody’s cows. A whole herd of them. Every one of the portraits had a name, and a unique face. Their individual personalities shone through in the portraits. That’s hard to do. That’s art. And that’s really hard to do with creatures as stupid as some cows can be.

I adored those cows. They made me grin every time I was in there. Not because they weren’t still lining up for the slaughter (because I have no doubt that, eventually, the subject of every one of those paintings ended up in somebody’s belly somehow), but because they were lined up for the slaughter and some painter still managed to find their individuality, their humor, their beauty. I loved those goofy cows—especially the one with its tongue up its nose. Because that cow was going to die, and die young, and nobody told her, and there she was, sticking her tongue up her nose. Nobody told her she should die with dignity, or that she had to die having achieved something amazing because of (and through) her suffering. She probably died with her tongue up her nose. Post-traumatic growth is the Holy Grail of recovering from terrible experiences, yes…and it’s also the perfect way to re-traumatize a patient by telling them they’re not suffering the correct way.

Don’t give me goddamn peacocks. Give me a cow.

Update: The series of cow paintings is by Nancy Bass and called Valley Girls. The pictured cow is Queen.


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