Minding life

Recently, I took a two-day training in the fundamentals of tai chi. While I never realized how exhausting and sore one can become through such a slow, meditative practice, it also made me realize how much I had started rushing through life again.

One part of that training required everyone to eat lunch mindfully – no talking, no devices, no reading. Only you, your thoughts and your food.

After I was diagnosed with melanoma that was how I ate my meals. Mindfully. I sat with the intentĀ of enjoying the food in front of me and little else. Occasionally I might page through a magazine or book, but my sole purpose was to be present in the moment of each bite.

Then work and life gradually flooded back over me and I started working through lunch, eating while I finished a story or got ready for the next task at hand. Dinner became a rush of food stuffed between events or tasks. Even breakfast was gobbled down while getting ready for work.

What had happened?

I looked back at those days after my diagnosis and surgery when everything in life jumped out in living Technicolor.

As I struggled to find balance with the new fatigue treatment handed me, my mantra was, “it is what it is” and I got to things when my energy allowed. I wasn’t worried about balancing ten spinning plates at once like I used to before diagnosis. One spinning plate kept me mesmerized – and it was fine.

But suddenly, I had multiple plates spinning again, some faster than others, and I didn’t want any to fall to the ground and crash.

The tai chi instructor kept telling us we weren’t relaxed enough – you can never be too relaxed, she chided. Maybe that’s why I was exhausted after each day. Instead of relaxing and being mindful of each movement, I was trying to gain control, only to realize, it’s not mine to gain.

If I could control my life, I never would have gotten melanoma. True, I had control of aspects earlier in life that could have prevented my diagnosis, but then I wouldn’t be talking to seventh graders in a few days about the importance of sun safety. If I could control my life the way I thought it should be run, heaven knows where I’d be, but I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Part of being mindful to me is seeing and accepting subtle signs along the way. Those subtle signs led me to Beat Cancer Boot Camp, which led me to be a group fitness instructor, which led me to the YMCA, which led me to the tai chi class and many other things.

All those things have become part of the plates currently spinning in my life, along with family and my full-time job.

As I watch those plates spin, I have to be mindful of their rhythm and the energy needed to keep each in orbit. Within that rhythm, I’m sure there is space to sit and eat quietly, mindfully, restfully. I’m sure there is space to watch the robin sing outside my door each day, see the hummingbird dart back and forth for food and wait for the dragonflies to fill the sky.

Mindfullness requires breathing, following the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen with each breath. Letting that rhythm fill you, calm you. It’s the only way I have found to come close to the relaxed state needed for tai chi, needed to reduce stress, to survive.

While I am only a beginner in tai chi, I knew mindfullness when I was the sickest I’d ever been in my life. Why did I forget how amazing it felt to be alive when I was terrifiedĀ of dying?

Tai chi involves achieving a relaxed state of awareness. My muscles haven’t forgotten how sore they were after those two days of training. However, as my leg muscles continue to heal, that big muscle in my head, lingers on the lost art of mindfulness and longs to find that relaxed state of awareness.



A simple act of stillness

Sit still. How many times have we heard that, have we said that? How many times do we actually do that? In the wake of dealing with side effects from Yervoy treatment (bi-lateral inflammation), and despite the benefits and drawbacks of steroids to counteract the inflammation, stillness is the one remedy that has proven to be most effective – with the least side effects. One wouldn’t think it would be so hard to sit still.

The simple act itself, sitting without motion (or in my case laying without motion), isn’t as difficult as justifying sitting with no productivity, when a million tasks beckon to be completed. It’s a nasty social web we weave, when our whole being seems to circle around accomplishing as much as possible, in as little time as necessary. Yet, when one more treatment, possibly life-saving treatment, swings in the balance, it tilts the scale more in favor of sitting, despite inner voices that shout otherwise.

When you’ve spent a good portion of your life going full-throttle, it’s a challenge to ease off the gas, let alone slam your chassis into park. Every vehicle needs to run a certain amount so it continues to function efficiently and effectively. I’m trying to calculate that amount on a daily basis.

One day of the proper amount of stillness revs my engines, thinking of all I can accomplish now that I’m feeling better. Until I stomp on the gas and realize that wasn’t such a great idea.

Then I sit, and the blessed feeling of relief sweeping over me at that moment, forces me to try and come to terms with many things. How can stillness continue to make you feel useful? How can stillness help you reach fulfillment? How can stillness fuel your passion? How can stillness make you feel alive?

The answer lies in the rejuvenating power, no matter how brief, that accompanies that simple act of stillness. I’m hopeful that sitting still will produce more long-term benefits as I work past the aggravation of bi-lateral inflammation, secure that last dose of Yervoy, and head down the road to no recurrence of melanoma. Until then, I’m trying hard to stay still.