Cancer is an alarm clock that is really hard to ignore. There’s just no hitting the snooze button, rolling over, and going back to sleep.
The first I heard of Swami Vishwananda was from Madhevi in 2002. We made friends when as a researcher she visited the clinic in northern Switzerland where I spent four weeks in cancer treatment. She told me Swami would be in Ticino, far south at the end of that month. She gave me intricate directions to get there but my two little girls were missing me, I was exhausted and just wanted to get home to the States. I didn’t forget Swami: There had been something compelling in his eyes as I’d gazed at his picture on the flyer.
In 2003, I made another trip to Switzerland for treatment. Again, I was so close to him and my future brothers and sisters but didn’t know it.
Four years later back home in Rhode Island, I impulsively threw open a yoga magazine I’d never read before and there he was — again. He was coming to New York, a familiar playground to me. It was to be a homecoming in many senses. I got a hold of Madhevi and discovered she’d also be there.
When Swami entered, the energy in the room shifted. His voice was like a lasso and when surrounded by stillness, I felt my life as I had known it gently slip away.
In a private interview the next day we spoke about my decision around age six to be a monk, my entering a religious order at eighteen and leaving a few years later, about cancer and Archangel Michael. He assured me that cancer “would not be a problem.” Later in the waiting room, looking over the Hudson, he said he didn’t much care for New York. He noticed a scab on my hand where a small but deep wound was healing. Smiling, he flicked away something invisible from the spot a few times. I kept falling into his eyes and asked him if he was my guru. “Listen to your heart,” was all he said, his eyes twinkling mischievously.
I returned home, set up a little altar, placed his picture next to my bed and began using the vibhuti in ways that seemed to make sense. I spoke to Swami in my mind and heart. I never seemed to hear answers but that was all right.
That was April. In July, my life as I’d known it ended once again— and not very gently at all. I returned to New York for a six-month follow-up ultrasound and expected to hear the same news I’d heard every four to six months for the previous five years — that the cancer was still growing, but slowly and that what I’d been doing to manage it as a chronic condition was still working.
Instead, I learned it had metastasized to my lymphatic system. I was advised to go to Holland for a unique MRI soon. This would clearly show the extent of it and help determine appropriate treatment options. Holland had been coming up for months in the strangest ways.
On hearing the news, I wandered numbly around the city before going to New Jersey to see my father. He is close to ninety and still living independently, but he is now the child and I am the parent. I lied to him by saying the cancer situation was unchanged. There was no way to take this in. I couldn’t get my head around it.
Metastasized prostate cancer is medically incurable. From a medical perspective, it’s the beginning of the end. Although I had always believed I wouldn’t die of this cancer, and Swami had confirmed that, there was no way to integrate this new development with my long-held belief. I knew Swami would not let me down. I knew he’d help me find the healing only God can provide. The only treatment option for me now was a spiritual one. It was a relief in a sense.
In August I arrived in Nijmegen on the easternmost edge of Holland, curiously being within walking distance from Germany and Swami’s ashram. The MRI results were worse than expected and there were gracious apologies from the two kind-hearted doctors. Ay-yi-yay! Nothing about it felt real. I felt alone but hopeful. I was to see Swami again.
From the beginning, I’d believed the cancer was a wake-up call from my Self to me; it would only be a death and rebirth of my spirit. It brought me back to the spiritual path in a more focused and intense way than ever before.
At fifty-eight, it had been forty years since I’d first entered a monastery. Since early childhood I knew I was supposed to do God’s work. It had been crystal-clear to me up until my mid-twenties that my purpose was that of a priest-teacher-counsellor. By my early thirties, I’d been ordained in a non-denominational church after two years of study. Dissatisfied, I investigated ordination in the Episcopal Church and the Unitarian Association, visited the Trappist monks, sat Zen, explored the metaphysical world, and attended the Kripalu Centre in Massachusetts for years during which time it became an ashram of nearly 300 monks and nuns.
Yet, something about the Hindu experience felt good. I loved the music, chanting and dancing. Even though I was well versed in world mythologies, much of it seemed very strange. I could never see myself with a guru. Perhaps I lacked faith and trust — or I wasn’t eating enough curry. As time went by, demands of a growing family, two sets of aging parents and running a business took me increasingly further from spiritual practice.
At the end of August 2006, I arrived at Steffenshof. Swami was there and a mudra workshop was scheduled in Freiburg. Madhevi would be going — she’d always guided my evolving connection to Swami. Everyday at the ashram and workshop I seemed to meet another old friend. I’d landed undeniably right in my spiritual family. It was intoxicating and my feet had trouble finding the ground.
Seeds of wisdom
Waiting for my interview with Swami, I collected seeds as I did wherever I went. My life was plants and I’d worked as a horticulturist for eighteen years. Since around the same time in childhood that I had imagined becoming a monk, plants had been my passion.
I was fascinated by the giant Impatiens growing at the corner of Swami’s house, by itself under a tree. This genus of plants gets its name, meaning impatience, because its seed pods literally explode when ripe. In the wrong location it can be highly invasive. I wondered how this lone Impatiens got there. I cupped the pods in my hands because the lightest touch could spray the seeds without warning. Just then Swami came over, greatly amused at how this worked. He and I playfully squeezed every pod, trying to catch the seeds, laughing and talking as we did.
The ripe seeds were black and the unripe ones white. It’s been my experience that a seed can continue to ripen if it’s fully formed, germinate and grow. Swami took my cupped hand holding the fruits of our fun-filled labor: it was a palm full of lovely black and white dots. Just two days before, the MRI scan in Holland had shown the cancerous lymph nodes in white and the normal ones in black. He said, “You know, the white ones will never grow.” Defaulting to my professional knowhow I said, “Well, actually, if you let them ripen, a lot of them will germinate…” Squeezing my hand tightly Swami said loudly, with his eyes blazing, “NO! …No, they will never grow. They have no life.”
In my mind I was saying something like, “He’s really good at Swami stuff but I guess he just doesn’t know much about horticulture…” Mamma mia. Smiling, he left and said I should come back to see him at two o’clock.
Forty years in the desert
Back an hour later, I was still unaware of what had really happened earlier. He gave me healing oil and told me firmly that I was not going to die of cancer and that I needed to stay positive. He closed his hands and eyes and said my name, Michael. When he opened his hands, there was a ring. I flung my arms around him Italian-style and told him I loved him. I don’t recall all he or I said. We were swimming in a warm sea of feeling. I told Swami I wanted to be initiated and he said, “Sure, we will do it tonight after darshan.”
Thereafter I went to the little chapel filled with icons where I could assimilate what had just occurred. I recognized this as the very same Labor Day weekend that it had been precisely forty years ago when I’d first tried to become a monk: It was a biblical metaphor. I’d entered the Dominican order in Providence, Rhode Island forty years before. Now it seemed that forty years of wandering in the desert had come to an end. Realizing the search was over, that I’d reached the Promised Land, I lay face down on the floor and wept. Gratitude and relief overwhelmed me. I’d been carrying broken-heartedness for so long. In that moment, all of my spiritual aspirations from childhood were fulfilled. I knew I was being healed in every way.
The seeds of a whole new spiritual life were sown within me that night at initiation: I’m sure they’ll grow to flower and bear much fruit. By divine design, my guardian angel and friend Madhevi was there to witness Swami initiating me as jal brahmachari Shrihara. The name stands for Lakshmi and Vishnu, the eternal feminine and the eternal masculine.
It was only when driving back to Holland that I got the real meaning of Swami’s words while collecting seeds: The white ones will never grow! They have no life! Now I won’t be surprised when I sow all those Impatiens seeds if half don’t grow.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval Dominican mystic, coined the phrase “felix culpa” to describe original sin, the happy fault, the fortunate fault in human nature that called forth the need for a saviour and brought Jesus to the world. Without the happy fault of cancer, I might not have been blessed by Swami’s presence in my life. Perhaps he was drawing me in all along, waiting for the vehicle of cancer to bring me back to the remembrance of my true Self and a place of readiness.
On a retreat in the States that same year, Swami spoke of himself as a bridge – a bridge to God. God is the true destination.
Shrihara – Michael J. Chille – USA