About a month ago, I facilitated a mindfulness session for a group of about fifteen people. It was a group of engaged, young professionals…attorneys, physicians, therapists, all of whom were also actively involved with their families, whether as parents, partners, spouses. Many of them were new to mindfulness, but were eager to learn.
They felt trapped on a treadmill of sorts, wanting to get off, and at the same time, fearful of what it might look like to slow down or stop, even for a moment. One woman, who was also a physician and mom, confessed that she didn’t know whether she could find the time to meditate, or prioritize her self care and needs in the midst of a crazy busy life.
As I started the session, I reflected for a moment on how and why my own mindfulness practice began. And I was shocked at what came to mind. I thought back to when I was in high school, and two dear friends, Chee-Jun and Cecil, were diagnosed with bone cancer about one year apart from each other. And several years after that, when they each passed away, in the first years of college. It was my first, up close exposure to sickness, dying, and death.
I didn’t know how to make sense of the grieving process. I didn’t know how to wrap my head around the idea that in one moment, we were healthy, and in the next moment, we were facing life threatening illness…and in the next moment, someone could be gone, never to return again, at least in this physical form. At the time, it was a dizzying mix of grief, anger, confusion, shock, denial, all of which returned in brief instants and toppling waves, for many years to come.
It was my first full body realization that none of us is promised tomorrow, and yet we live as if we will live forever. We spend years agonizing over past events that continue to tightly grip us. We spend years fretting about future events that may or may not happen. All the while, the seconds on the clock tick past, and we are lost in our time warped heads, engaged in stories and self criticism, while our actual lives unfold without our presence.
It was this loss, and my subsequent realization that we really must live, fully live, that was the beginning of my own journey towards mindfulness. And I would still call it a journey, despite writing about it, teaching it, using it as a tool in therapy, simply because the practice continues to unfold in new and unpredictable ways. Knowing we should be present is different than being present. Knowing we should be compassionate is different than being compassionate.
I can know these things just as well as the students and teachers around me, and rest half asleep in the deceptive comfort of that knowledge.
My practice is one of starting over and over again, in every moment, in an effort to really pay close attention to what is unfolding inside of me, and outside of me. That precarious jump between “knowing we should” live mindfully, and actually breathing our way through the rich and colorful experiences and emotions that create this life.
I think it is actually very difficult to live each day as if it were your last. We can’t necessarily maintain that sense of gravity or urgency, or fear even. But when we don’t take life and health for granted, at the least, we perhaps wake up a little more, or sleep-walk just a little less.
For me, I can laugh and marvel at the butt-shaking dance my kids do while brushing their teeth, instead of my escalating impatience at why they still aren’t in bed at 9:30 pm. I might pause and really taste my coffee, appreciate that brief moment and how good it feels, even if it just for a second. If I am really paying attention, I will do the things that feed my spirit, making a choice to pick up a book or my journal, or go for a walk, rather than scrolling through my Facebook feed one more time.
So as I shared this memory with this group, present and interested to learn about mindfulness, I saw some recognition mirrored in their eyes. They had all been through their own forms of loss, and knew, viscerally, how loss has a way of making you feel–not think, but feel–that much more deeply about how we show up for our lives. We had a wonderful dialogue about what makes it hard to be present in the ways we would ideally like to be, and where we might find some entry points within our own lives. We meditated together, which is always both a challenging and beautiful experience, and shared food and wine and laughter and conversation together afterwards.
I think I will always remember the particular connection and feeling we all shared that evening. It almost felt like a full circle moment for me, reflecting back on Chee-Jun and Cecil, and how their deaths prompted me to life, and eventually led me to a place where I could share that experience and journey with others…a heart breaking loss, that now creates its own beautiful ripple effect of sorts, twenty years later.