In her new memoir, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home (Shambhala, June), acclaimed teacher and author Natalie Goldberg—a longtime practitioner of Zen Buddhism—writes of finding her way through hospitals, doctors, and painful treatments following her cancer diagnosis in 2015, and how Zen informed her response to the illness as well as the possibility of death.
What is the meaning of the title of the book?
Usually we only look at one aspect—or a few—aspects of our life. Certainly, the knowledge of my mortality in most of my life was avoided, cut off, put behind a curtain. When cancer came, not only death took a forward step, but also disappointment, betrayal, and for sure, just plain-old reality stuck out its head. At some point during the months of dealing with my sickness, I surrendered. I didn’t fight or repress anything, [I] let it all out. Let the whole thundering world make an appearance, be alive, hold forth. And I named the book this because I was saying okay, I’ll embrace it all, face it, in order to save my life.
How did your Zen practice shape the way you responded to cancer?
Zen teaches us not to exclude anything in life, to accept all of it, stop pushing and pulling, allow it all to be—let the fullness and pain of life come home.
Why is embracing suffering better than resisting it?
If we don’t face the pain, it grows bigger—it creates highways and intersections and entanglements. Better to cut it off at the root, not run from it. Also, what we are afraid of often has energy, and that energy transformed is the energy of enlightenment, of waking up.
What was most surprising to you about being ill?
How stunned I was to find out I had cancer. And then how outraged; no, not me, I have other things to do. I’m too young—how much I resisted it.
How did having cancer change you as a writer?
I began to give myself more space, more time to just be, to sit and listen to the aspen leaves tinkle in the summer afternoon breeze, and this eased my urgency to write. I would write but it was no longer everything. And yet I quietly, almost unnoticed to myself, kept writing and then produced two books, The Great Spring and Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, out of the time I had cancer.