“Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Rumi
Mae-Tan smiled broadly as she told the retreat group her story of living with metastatic colon cancer for the past three years. I felt confused by the smile as she described losing the career she loved as an elementary school teacher when exhaustion from chemotherapy put a stop to it. She married her partner of twenty-two years, Darlene, as soon as gay marriage became legal in Canada in 2005, even though her family had disowned her for her 'unconventional' lifestyle. Mai-Tan's smile didn’t let up as she described having to give up her passion for travelling, cycling and hiking.
“I’m not sure why I'm here on retreat,” she said. I don’t like talking about how I feel. I just want to pretend I don’t have cancer, and keep smiling. Is there anything wrong with that?" She looked at me across the circle of eighteen people, her hairless eyebrows raised in question.
I shook my head to convey that there's nothing wrong with whatever works to cope.
“I don’t feel comforted when people tell me I’ll be okay, no matter what happens. I just get scared. Music helps calm me more than talking does, and when I hear your music, Maryliz, I feel a warm wave of reassurance wash through my body,” Mae-Tan said.
The group of eight retreat participants lay on mats, tucked in with fleecy blankets, their eyes covered by lavender-scented eye masks to block out the light coming through the skylights of the large group room. Two gongs, about four feet in diameter, hung one above the other in a black steel stand at one end of the room. Eight crystal bowls of different sizes sat on tables in a semi-circle on either side of the gongs. One could just about wrap one’s arms around the largest one, and the smallest one was the size of an ice bucket with a six-inch glass handle, used to resonate sound close in to a person’s body.
Maryliz, a classical pianist, and our retreat musician has always known that the language of sound can reach places in the body, heart, and soul that words cannot. She weaves music throughout the days on retreat, and in the early morning groups after Qigong, she offers a twenty-minute sound bath with the gongs and bowls.
After hearing the sounds of the bowls for the first time, Mae-Tan described her experience. “I seem to lose connection with my physical body, and I feel like I’m floating on an ocean of sound. I don’t feel scared anymore, even about dying.”
“When you begin to float, try letting go even more. See what happens," Maryliz said. “Your awareness may keep expanding out from the boundaries of your physical body, to fill the space around you. Some people believe it is this place of sound from which we are born, which is also the place we dissolve into when we die.”
“I don’t know about that Maryliz, but I do know I love the calm feeling that comes over me after a few minutes floating on the sound. The peace lasts for a good two hours after,” Mae-Tan said.
A few months after the retreat, Maryliz and I went to see Mae-Tan at her home. A group of eight friends were sitting around the kitchen table eating dinner when we arrived, while Mae-Tan slept a few feet away, in a hospital bed, by the fire.
Mae-Tan was beyond communicating with words by then, so Maryliz directed her question to Darlene who sat in an armchair by the bed, one hand tucked under the duvet to reach for Mae-Tan.
“Do you think Mae-Tan would want to hear the crystal bowl?”
"I'm sure she'd love it, and I know I would!" Darlene's exhausted eyes filled with tears.
“Do you want to lie down on the bed beside her, or on the couch?” I asked.
“No, I want to sit right here. I'm watching for every breath now.”
We all knew there wouldn’t be too many more breaths.
Maryliz struck the handheld bowl with a suede mallet, and the C-note rang out, filling the corners of the room. She then slowly began to rub the wand around the edge of the bowl, like a finger on the rim of a wine glass, until waves of sound encircled the bed, the room, and everyone in it. The sound seemed to beckon us all to that place of sound beyond language where everything arises and passes away and we fell into a kind of reverence. Mae-Tan’s breathing pattern slowed and became shallower, and I wondered if she was practising floating on the ocean of sound, expanding her awareness out into the space around her, a rehearsal perhaps for her final letting go.