No More Waiting

“I hate waiting.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

During my journey through cancer treatment, I did a lot of waiting. I waited in doctors’ offices, I waited in exam rooms. I waited in labs for my blood to be drawn, and I waited on hold with my insurance company to find out whether they’d approve payment. I waited in pharmacies for my prescriptions to be prepared, and I waited for the MRI to start. And all this while not knowing if I’d survive the process.

At some point, I decided I wasn’t going to wait any more. Life was more precious than ever before, and the Buddhist concept of “impermanence” had been smacked upside my head with the cosmic 2 x 4.

My first response was to take my Kindle to all medical appointments. That way I could read something that interested me and not feel that I was “wasting” my time by “waiting.” While I couldn’t take the Kindle everywhere, I could take it most places. If I’m in the middle of a good book – and I usually am – this is something I still do today.

This worked great until I got too sick from chemo to be able to read.

Then I remembered what the Buddha said about mindfulness of breathing: you can do it anywhere because the breath is always with you. So, I started meditating instead of waiting. I meditated in doctors’ offices, exam rooms, labs …you get the picture. Best of all, I could meditate in the MRI tube. (You can’t take a Kindle in there!)

As my treatments wound down and my life began to adjust to its “new normal,” I found other places to meditate: in the car at stoplights, in line at the grocery store, and standing around while other people got ready to go. Any time I found myself “waiting,” I took the opportunity to meditate, instead.

This has become part of my daily practice. Instead of either becoming frustrated by a delay, or daydreaming, I use this time in the best way I know how: for my spiritual practice.

I can honestly say that I don’t wait anymore. Care to join me?

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Lessons from Cancer

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason – unless that reason is Karma. I also don’t believe that situations are put in our path in order to teach us something. I do believe, however, that we can learn from the situations that arise in our lives if we choose to.

It’s coming up on two years since my breast cancer diagnosis. I’m currently disease-free and almost done with my reconstruction. I’ve shifted gears from identifying as a cancer patient to a cancer survivor.

And yet, I’ve noticed that I still use cancer as an excuse whenever it suits me. True, I still have some residual fatigue. True, I still have some memory loss from chemo. But these issues don’t have to keep me from living my life to the fullest, unless I let them.

So, in an effort to turn the page on that chapter of my life, here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:

  1. I learned how to meditate during cancer treatment. No matter how awful I felt, I found time to get it done. Now that I’m well, I have a much more robust meditation practice that I did before.
  2. I learned who my true friends are, or at least who was emotionally mature enough to stand by me in the face of fear. And I made new friends.
  3. I learned that I needed to take better care of my body, and I started learning how to do that. It remains an ongoing process.
  4. I learned how to ask for help without embarrassment and how to accept it without guilt.
  5. I learned, on the deepest possible level, that life is fleeting.
  6. I learned how not to over-commit myself.
  7. I learned how to say “no” to things I really don’t want to do, and to say it graciously and without remorse.
  8. I learned how to politely avoid people who drain me or give off negative energy.
  9. I learned that it’s not enough to have priorities unless I also live them.
  10. I learned what being grateful really means.

May all beings benefit.

~ Jabo

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My Current Daily Practice

My spiritual practice has taken many forms over the years.  One thing I’ve learned is that the line between “spiritual” practice and other practices is purely imaginary.  Here are the things I’m doing now which I consider parts of my spiritual journey:

  • Sitting and enjoying a cup of green tea while reading inspiring works.  My tea is part of my new cancer-prevention regimen, so is also part of my physical practice or self-care.
  • Reading inspirational literature (while enjoying my green tea.)  I spend about 20-30 minutes reading from a variety of daily readers in several different traditions.  Five of them are Buddhist.  Seven of them are not.  This practice also helps to keep me mentally sharp.
  • Giving myself an all-over Reiki treatment.  Reiki is a Japanese energy technique used for relaxation and healing.  I spend about 15 minutes on this.  Reiki, like my tea, also falls under the category of physical health.
  • Meditating.  Yes, I do a traditional sit-and-still-the-mind practice.  I’m currently doing 40-45 minutes per day.  I’m participating in the Winter Feast for the Soul, which I highly recommend, even starting “late.”  Of all the meditations offered, I’m doing the Tibetan one, which includes some chanting.

It all adds up to 90 minutes per day.  I could never do it if I saw these things as tasks or chores.  Luckily, I enjoy each part of my routine, even mindfully brewing my tea.  And it sure beats watching television.  At the end of my life, I may wish that I had meditated more, but I doubt I’ll wish that I had watched more television.

The Most Important Thing

There’s but little breath left

on the boundary of this life and the next.

Now knowing if I’ll here next morning,

why try to trick death

with life-schemes for a permanent future?

 

~ Milarepa, Drinking the Mountain Stream

 

This passage really spoke to me when I read it today.  I’m currently in treatment for breast cancer, and though my prognosis is good, I’m constantly reminded that I don’t know how long I have left.

Of course, I didn’t know how long I had left before my diagnosis, either.

Still, according to this quote by Milarepa, should I plan for retirement?  It’s like the old argument new meditation students often bring up when learning to focus on the present moment.  “But if I live in the present, I’ll have nothing in the future!”  The solution is simply that sometimes the present moment is the correct time to plan for the future.  “What am I doing in this moment?  I’m reviewing my 401K.”

More to the point, should I plan for a life after cancer?  If so, how far into the future?  I think what Milarepa is pointing to is that nothing is permanent, so planning for a permanent future is futile.  As they say in the movie Fight Club, “Given a long enough time line, everyone’s survivability drops to zero.”

So I bought a house.  The house is already older than I am, and it will outlive me.  I think that’s kind of cool.  I like the idea that I’m merely one of a series of occupants in the house over the course of its existence.  I don’t plan to own the house forever, just as long as I live.  That’s impermanence.

I’ll close with this question from Pema Chodron: “Since death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what’s the most important thing?”

Learning from Illness

I’m home sick today. This rarely happens to me, especially when I love my job as I do this one. I fret that my students aren’t getting what they’re supposed to, even though I know they’re in good hands. I feel guilty that I’m not doing anything productive, even though I’m too sick to work. So what’s to be learned from all this?

First, dwelling on how crappy I feel only makes it worse. There’s a certain amount of “suffering” inherent in being ill. Thinking endlessly about how I bad I feel adds an additional layer of suffering that is purely optional. I can just sit with the bodily sensations without judging them – without saying “I feel terrible!” to myself – or I can do things like type this blog post. Either way, I’m not feeding the suffering.

Second, delegating my class to someone else isn’t neglecting it. I emailed in the lesson plan for today and followed up with two phone calls. Now I can relax and let the people whose job it is to take over, take over. They are professionals. I am not indispensable, regardless of what my ego is telling me.

Third, focusing all my energy on getting well IS productive. I didn’t realize this until one of my dear Buddhist friends emailed me recently that she was home sick and how lazy and unproductive it made her feel. I wrote her back to say that sometimes, healing our bodies (or minds, for that matter) is our job for the day. It was only when I wrote that to her, that I realized the same is true for me. Today is my opportunity to “practice what I preach.” I will focus on getting well. If I accomplish nothing else today, my progress toward health will be accomplishment enough.

Resting in Ease

I’ve had a sore throat and sinus infection since Sunday.  Monday and Tuesday of this week, I had my current 15-hour days.  By the time I got home both nights, I was so exhausted that I  took some medication and went to bed.

Today being Christmas Eve, I had the day off.  I got up this morning but quickly realized I was ready for a nap.  I told my husband I was going to expend all my energies toward getting well.  I went back to bed around noon.

I fell asleep almost immediately.  It was the fitful sleep of illness, unfortunately, and I kept waking up either too hot or too cold.  Each time I awoke, I adjusted my covers and settled on my back to meditate.

I practiced metta, silently repeating the phrases in my mind, directing lovingkindness toward myself.

May I be safe.

May I be healthy.

May I be peaceful.

May I be happy.

I dropped back to sleep each time, still turning over the mantras in my mind.  Eventually, I woke to the sound of my husband’s voice.  It was 5:30.  I got up to spend some time with him, and it was amazing how much better I felt.  I’m still not completely healed, but I’m well on the way.

I had never tried meditating during an illness before.  Though my desire was to sleep as much as possible, I found that meditating – rather than thinking about how miserable I was or worrying how I’d feel tomorrow – brought me additional rest.

Isn’t that interesting…?