Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber
By Ken Wilber.
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1991.
413 pp. $25.00 (hardcover).

When Ken Wilber and Treya Killam met in 1983, it was “love at first touch.” They married shortly thereafter, and almost immediately learned that Treya had breast cancer. Grace and Grit is the story of their life together until Treya’s death five years later. Although it is primarily a tribute to Treya and her remarkable healing into life and death, it is many other things as well.

This book makes an important contribution to the distinction between the disease process and the meaning given to it by society. Is cancer the fault of its victims and their personalities? Is it something to “battle against”? Or can it be treated “with compassion and enlightened understanding” becoming an opportunity for healing on many levels? Anyone who has cancer or anyone who is supporting someone with cancer should read this book, if only for the way Wilber handles these questions—and the way Treya lived them out.

Grace and Grit is also a book about how one person’s impending death became a profound teacher for two people. Ken Wilber, who has made significant contributions to the psychology and philosophy of religion, shows how he used his knowledge of mysticism, or the perennial philosophy, to make sense of—and be transformed by—an actual relationship and crisis. The real-life ride is much bumpier than his theoretical works would make it seem—and herein lies the unique value of this book. For example, Wilber tells us in his theoretical voice that,

The whole point of meditation. . . is to free ourselves from the [delusion] that we are merely separate egos set apart from each other and from eternal Spirit, and to discover instead that once released from the prison of individuality, we are one with the Godhead and thus one with all manifestation, in a perfectly timeless and eternal fashion.

In another more down-to-earth voice he lets us know what it was like becoming a “separate ego” as meditator, husband, cancer support person, and writer. Wilber’s candor keeps alive the tension between theory and practice that enriches this already extraordinary story. In the end we see the effects of his own transformation when he is able to say,

I found the same type of quiet joy creeping into my soul, joy at having this moment of life, a moment that seemed utterly precious. . . a lesson taught me by Treya as she lived daily with death.

A good deal of Treya’s story is told through letters and journal entries. We witness her working through the apparent paradox every dying person must face—how to accept the fact of dying without giving up the fight for life:

I want to get as much time out of this as I can, and so I need to work at that with complete focus and dedication and clarity and concentration and right effort, and yet at the same time be completely unattached to the results either way. Pain is not punishment, death is not failure, life is not a reward.

In the case of Treya’s meditation we see its evolution from a sporadic “should do” practice to something she treats as “an offering of time and attention.”

I loved the melting into spaciousness, into emptiness, of my meditation . . . and I realized what a real help this is going to be for me at the point I am dying. . . . I see myself expanding and eventually mixing, completely evenly with it all, dissolving back into it, realizing that as my real nature.

The most striking aspect of Treya’s experience is the change from concern with her own illness—her own suffering, her own cure—to compassion for all suffering and the realization that “healing makes no sense whatsoever for an isolated individual—nobody is really healed until everybody is healed—enlightenment is for self and other, not just self.” This change was largely due to the practice she received from the late Tibetan teacher Kalu Rinpoche, a practice called tonglen in which one imagines the inbreath as the suffering of others in the form of thick, black smoke. After holding it in one’s heart, one breathes out all of one’s own peace, health, and goodness, and sends it to the suffering other in the form of healing, liberating light.

Another theme interwoven with all the others in this book is that of finding one’s own way of being in the world:

[Treya] had returned to her roots in the Earth, to her love of nature, to the body, to making, to her femininity, to her grounded openness and trust and caring. While I remained. . . in Heaven. . . the Apollonian world of ideas, of logic, of concepts and symbols. . . . In the traditions, Spirit is found neither in Heaven nor in Earth, but in the heart… the integration or union point of Heaven and Earth. . . . And that is what Treya had done for me; that is what we had done for each other: pointed the way to the Heart.

The work Ken Wilber is known for was written with great clarity in the Apollonian world of ideas. And hopefully, there will be more of it. In light of this, Grace and Grit is all the more moving for having been written from the heart.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .