Terry Patten

Flying Lessons: Living and dying through the eyes of wonder

I knew Terry Patten, beloved author, mentor and teacher for so many, and I didn’t know him.

Inspired by the clarity of his teachings, his honesty and his almost translucent heart, I reached out to him several times over the years. First an interview, then a query about this or that, proposals for spiritual initiatives of one kind or another. Finally, with much trepidation, inquiring into the possibility of his writing some words of support for my book. Each and every time, he responded with such love and fraternity that he left me speechless.

I have loved his workshops, our conversations, and I felt exhilarated at the scope and inspiration in his treasure trove of a book, “A New Republic of the Heart. An Ethos for Revolutionaries”. I have followed his social experiment with curiosity and admiration, as I embarked on my own, a continent away. So why do I say I didn’t know him?

Because a person’s deepest character truly emerges when life puts them up against a wall, an all-or-nothing situation like the terminal cancer diagnosis he faced on the day of his 70th birthday, in April of this year. 

I was not surprised that he communicated this news right away, and told all of us (the ones he shared his life with, and those of us who followed him from afar), that he was surprised and moved by this turn of events, of course, that he would do what he could to heal himself, but that he did not in any way plan to renounce his love and wonder at the immeasurable beauty of existence.

As the months wore on and the illness advanced, beyond all medical attempts to stop it, it became clear that he would remain true to his word. His reports (that were then lovingly continued by his dear friend, and former wife, Deborah) shared his reflections, the harshness of some of the treatments, and the ways in which he found his way back to love and wonder, each and every time. 

Over the last weeks, he and some of his close friends offered a series of workshops, aptly named “Brightening every darkness”, which focused on a spiritual approach to dealing with our personal and collective mortality.  

Here are some highlights from his inspired talk with Craig Hamilton: 

“Early on, reading on other people’s cancer journeys, I came across many references to “the battle against cancer”. Right away I knew that that would not be my truth, that ‘Terry ego’ battling it out. Turning it into an effort turns it into something I can succeed or fail at, it enlists egoic motivations and fears, and it creates a wrong relationship to the wonder of the whole process.”

“I have found that every moment presents a different challenge. Some moments are all about making space for the discomfort of the treatments and trying to hold that bigger, wider context, and at other times I have felt so buoyant, so graced, it almost feels like the happiest time of my life.”

“In many moments, being closer to tears has been the measure of my groundedness. They’re tears of grief and of gratitude, and they’re not even distinguishable. It’s broken hearted, but also… heartened! There’s a power there, oddly. I don’t feel collapsed in those tears, I feel more available.”

“I’ve been discovering that I am invoking, and not just casually, during many moments, the sense of dwelling in the sense that I am coinciding more completely with the totality of reality, what David Bohm called “the whole movement”. Whatever somebody seems to do, it’s not really separable from the total world process, and affirming life. (…) I want to be a source of sanity and love for other people, so that they can be too; this pulse of blessing that can replicate itself. I felt that way before my cancer diagnosis, but it’s like a sensory experience that is new now.” 

“It’s also been a voyage in my relationship to myself. I’ve gotten to meet myself, know myself and love myself in new ways. I treasure my contact with other people, for sure, but I’m treasuring myself too. And I think there’s a growing ability to be present in little things. Noticing and being present for subtleties. I walk up a hill next to my home as part of my morning routine, but during this time I have not had the strength to scamper up the hill, I’ve had to walk very slowly and stop and rest and catch my breath. And yet the practice is to really be in that foot that is taking that small step slowly, and that next foot, and this capacity to get really appreciative of the smallest things, and not craving extraordinary ‘thises’ or ‘thats’. And I don’t even have to think about it. There’s something about being with these lessons in a wordless way. I can notice the opportunities, and participate in a more creative way.”

“There are moments in which the heaviness of my symptoms or the things that are hard are more prominent, and then at times it is like accepting this amazing gift of this robust and pretty stable intuition of my real identity, non separate, full of love and happiness, and very free.”

His eyes light up as he speaks these last words, and the real Terry, the one he’s been all along, shines through with piercing force.

So perhaps none of us -Terry included- really knew what his tender soul and giant heart were capable of, until he was faced with the task of letting every mask fall away.

I feel blessed to have been a witness to this deepening, and honored beyond words to have been able to call him a friend.

“You did good, sister!”, was his generous response to my book, in one of the last emails we exchanged.

No words could suffice to speak my praise, my awe, my gratitude.

But these will have to do: “You did amazing, brother!”