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I
T’S STRANGE TO cry after the last page, when you already know the end of a book. After all, the death of Treya is in the subtitle. Although written as a combination of journal entry and commentary, like a good novel Grace and Grit drew me in to participate in its story. Treya Killam Wilber is Terry Killam when you first meet her. She is a kind of a sixties earth woman, in search of an eclectic spirituality. She spent 3 years with the Findhorn environmental community in Scotland. She meets and falls in love with Ken Wilber in a classic but somewhat bizarre romance. She discovers a cancerous tumor on their honeymoon. Against the backdrop of marriage and dealing with cancer, the real drama in the story is how both Terry and Ken learn to relate to God.

What struck me most was the process through which Treya came to live detached and yet deeply involved in life. She calls is Passionate Equanimity. She has a fairly positive attitude at the beginning (her and Ken joke about "Fun with Cancer"). But the aggressive tumor and treatment test this side of her "to the max". From the beginning to when she chooses to die (it wasn’t an assisted suicide), she meets each step with honesty, finding a way towards trust. She deals with anger, rage, bitterness, self-pity, depression, as well as laughter, humor, trust, and love. I know her relationship with Ken helped her experience and deepen her understanding of and trust in. And so her healing isn’t about getting rid of cancer, but of relinquishing a controlling grasp on life. Halfway through her struggle, around the time she changes her name to Treya, she starts the Cancer Support Community with another Cancer survivor. Somehow this crystallizes a movement in her of choosing Life, regardless of whether she herself will die before her time or not.

Because she shares this process in frank journal entries, you get the sense of getting to know her. Part way through the book I sensed both that she was an extraordinary person, and that I could have been her friend (in other words, she’s quite ordinary). As she becomes more accepting of whatever course the disease takes, she also becomes much more diligent in treatment disciplines, in her personal growth and spiritual practice. And yet she writes about it with such honesty, you see that this could be a path for all persons. To find ways to live passionately, and yet with a detachment that trusts a Bigger sense in the universe somehow seems to capture the essence of being human. Being a part of Treya’s life for awhile and observing how she modeled this path in her particular incarnation, was a real gift. In becoming so ordinary, she taught me something.

One of the themes of her writing is her own sense of vocation. At the beginning of the book she’s 36, and still trying to figure out what her calling in life is. By this time she’s spent several years at the Findhorn environmental community in Scotland, helped set up and teach at an alternative college, taught at the Windstar foundation, and has her own counseling practice. But she still has a deep sense of feeling she isn’t doing enough. Somehow during the course of her illness, she comes to understand that Being and Doing are equally important aspects of her life, and begins to sense a vocation as being an amorphous creator of environment. Treya comes to understand that she can Do more effectively when she deeply enters her Being. This also has taught me something; I’m not quite sure how it will incarnate in my life, but she encourages me to take my own life seriously from an inner perspective.

Ken’s story is just as moving. He’s a classic intellectual type, with a great sense of humor. Some of the cracks he makes are rich especially because they’re at Cancer’s expense (i.e. Fun with Cancer was his idea). He comes into this relationship a famous, well-published, successful psychologist and authority the Perennial Tradition and Buddhism. And you come to understand how much he needs to grow himself. As Treya’s cancer quickly evolves into a radical illness, he chooses to put his career on hold and serve her daily needs. He gets caught in the cost of this, and it tears him apart. He too is very honest, courageously sharing how this process confronts his isolationism and eventually calls him to a different kind of surrender. He is completely in love with Treya; she is God for him. And in this relationship he comes to understand serving God. Their relationship reflects something of our relationship to God, even while still communicating the human limitations of both of them. In some ways the "famous" Ken Wilber becomes ordinary as well, in spite of his brilliant mind. He is incredibly vulnerable in how he responds to Treya’s death; I couldn’t help opening my heart to him. His desire to love God, to love Treya as pure as he could somehow revealed the fragile human soul in him, the best of what people can be. He just found himself in this context and after searching his heart and soul lived the only life he could.

The commentary on the Perennial Tradition, woven throughout the book, is a counterpoint to the human drama, showing how spirituality and daily life are interwoven. Both of them practiced different forms of Buddhist meditation. I found myself being open to how Buddhism offers a good corrective to my own sense of Pelagian working out my own salvation. The theme of suffering is of course the major one, and how being open to your suffering can lead you to compassion. Spirituality, a lived relationship with God or Universe, can lead one to trust in any situation, to be honest and yet not chained by suffering. Because both Ken and Treya show that accepting life as it is is the starting point for any spiritual path.

They also give the great gift of redefining healing. The medical world (and even sometimes the homeopathic world) too often limits healing to getting rid of disease. While physical health is part of any healing, Treya’s life challenges Emerson’s assertion that physical well-being is essential to spirituality. True, physicality can shape your spiritual perceptions. But healing isn’t just getting rid of disease; it’s a reconnection to one’s wholeness, (compensation in Emerson’s terms). Ultimately trust allows you to surrender even both our physical and spiritual perceptions, since we can’t know with certitude this side of Death. Treya showed me that you can be healed, and therefore free, regardless of whether you are disease-free or not. It may be an arduous, excruciating process, one that may require many incarnations to realize, but ultimately Spirit shapes matter, not the other way around. God lives within us, and Love seeks to become actualized in ordinary, human lives of passionate equanimity.

Thanks Treya and Ken, for being humble teachers. I wish, Treya, you could have lived. Your cancer still seemed cruel at the end. But you fought the good fight.

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