There were two things I knew right away after the diagnosis.

I was done with the Christmas cookies. And I wouldn’t be googling “Uterine cancer”.

Neither would be helpful and both were potentially harmful.

I knew all things sugary were food for cancer cells. And too much information would take me away from listening to and knowing my own body. I didn’t want to be influenced by the words of the amateur and professional experts out there. What was/ is happening is deeply personal. Statistics are not useful at this level.

For now I am preparing for surgery. The  decision to go with a full hysterectomy was not one I felt compelled to research and debate. There had been symptoms for some months, I was in discomfort, and this particular cancer can be aggressive, I am past menopause, and I trust what I call my trifecta of doctors – primary care, OB/Gyn and the OB/Gyn oncologist surgeon. All women, all well respected, all personal, compassionate and kind. And all of a western medical mindset for sure – but in this case I believe my acupuncturist would agree on the choosen course of action.  (not necessarily the case with the Reiki practitioners I have been working with but more on that later….)

Nonetheless the  decision was made, surgery was scheduled for 3 weeks out and I went home to take a bath. And I have taken a bath every night since – using one of the last hours of each day to lay my hands on my pelvic  area with all the self kindness I can . For years now in my Tai Chi and Qi Gong classes I have talked about when pain arises a common reaction is to turn away – to move as far away as possible from the source of the discomfort. Now here was my challenge to literally practice what I was preaching.

The first couple nights in the tub  I massaged my abdomen in slow, slow circles. I prayed the word containment and asked friends to pray and imagine the same. What could potentially be a stage one cancer could easily jump boundaries and head for the surrounding lymph nodes.

I brought to mind visions of circles of friends and family surrounding me. I breathed and filled the cavity of my abdomen with full, relaxed breaths. Breathing in and out slowly 20 – 30 minutes each night. I have tried not to allow fearful scenarios to be a part of these nightly rituals. It has been my meditation to return over and over again to just sending love to this wounded place.

Just as in choosing how I approach the art of Tai Chi – so I am careful of the language I use and will continue to use regardless of the outcome and discoveries of the surgery. Tai Chi can be a taught as a fighting art  – its martial aspects highlighted in the instruction or as an inner art of healing and self knowledge. I learned it as the latter.

Similarly I won’t choose to fight this cancer – but I will respect the power it has to take my life and do all I can to slow down and listen, make change to my lifestyle, my eating habits, carefully discerning the information my doctors and healing friends offer, and count my blessings everyday – bowing down in gratitude to the love and angels moving in to help in so many ways.

I felt like the prince Siddhartha leaving the palace and entering the real world. It was if I was seeing suffering for the first time.

After a cozy, wintery week end at home mostly nested up close to the fireplace, several meals of simple, healthy foods and a couple of decent movies from Netflix I was now walking the halls of Touro hospital on the way to get a CAT scan. I had been diagnosed with Uterine cancer just days past the holidays – barely into the new year.

All medical tests of the past several weeks had indicated normal to good health. Blood work, urine samples, lung and kidney function – all good. Sometimes the nurses even said great. I carried my small cache of supplements and herbs for review by the various doctors (all with a  little bit of pride at how little “medicine” I needed as a 60  year old woman). Previously  I had always checked  “no” straight done down that medical history list in every doctors visit – rare that they were.

Then came the results of the biopsy. Cancer cells in the Uterus.

Entering Touro with trepidation on what a CAT scan might reveal I was instantly confronted with humanity and the suffering of so many. Suffering in some cases it seemed  that some had endured for a lifetime. Elderly people sitting alone in their wheelchairs. And others with missing limbs, painful obesity, limps, shuffles, breathing apparatus.

I was upright, ambulatory, on the arm of my loving and beloved partner.

Still ….. I had cancer.

But I wasn’t alone. Not even if Anna Maria hadn’t been there with me could I be.

I was no longer special in my diagnosis and body aches, and somehow that comforted me. Loosened the fear and lessened the pain.

Days later reviewing the CAT scan results with the Oncolgist OB/GYN surgeon I fell into a small tirade of “why me?” With a even measure of compassion and straight talk she looked at me and said, “ It’s just bad luck. We’re all going to get something.”  And strange as it might seem that comment later made me smile.

We’re all going to get something.

I have to let go of my pride in having beat the odds these past 60 years. The check list at the doctors office will now include surgery, cancer, recovery, medications.

I don’t have to be the impervious, always healthy Tai Chi teacher.

I am simply a human being.

My colleague Ann Maria Signorelli routinely facilitates a six week psychotherapy group dedicated to increasing ( perhaps first finding) joy in daily life.

Recently she has been supplying me with the weekly homework she gives to the people attending those groups. The very first instruction is to give my personal definition of  “Joy”. I am surprised that my  first round of naming Joy  attributes to it a depth of quiet I find when I am doing nothing  in particular  -not bursting into song –  but sitting at the the waters edge watching the sun rise over the pine trees on the river where I live.  The longer I sit in this place of  “doing nothing”  the stiller I become and  this simple contentment seems enough. But oh for the grace of those fleeting moments when I don’t wish for anything or anyone to be different than they are!

Soon enough I leave my perfect perch to go make what  I hope will be the perfect cup of coffee to top off this lovely early summer morning. It’s pretty darn good – but disappears too quickly. I start to plan my day – breakfast, emails, laundry to start….. Quicker than I can notice  my thinking and planning mind reasserts itself and together we are off and running.  The quietude of the morning escapes me – the magician pulling away the cloth to show that there is nothing there!

The next instruction in the Joy group homework is to imagine what the experience of Joy looks and feels like when we are alone and when we are with others. The next attribute that comes to me is Presence. Many of us have heard the advice of meditation and stress reduction teachers “to be with what is”. That doesn’t usually sound like an invitation to Joy. It can sound like a grin and bare it instruction ( or so it has for me at times).  But recently I have had two of the most satisfying interactions with others simply by being still and listening to their stories  – one and elder friend in the hospital after a fall and a fractured pelvis and the other a friend on the verge of divorce. I wasn’t “doing” anything. I left both those encounters feeling a reciprocated love and a deep gratitude for the ability to just be present. I don’t know what greater gift we can give  one another. Leaving both those friends  I felt what is my emerging definition of joy – a quiet and steady inner presence.

And one of the final instructions for this week of Joy homework is to find ways to remind myself of my intention to look for opportunities of joy in my daily life. This part I know. I return to the wisdom of my body. If even 3 times in a day I straighten my posture – deepen my breath, quiet down that over active mind, and place my hands on my heart  I return to that place of stillness and not doing that the river offered up so generously this morning.

 

 

 

Vertical Awareness

The concept that most inspires me lately is  the instruction to live in vertical awareness.

The words  come from meditation teacher  Rodney Smith. I discovered the phrase in his book, Stepping out of Self Deception. I have respected the teachings of Rodney since sitting a meditation retreat with him years ago in the lovely rolling hills of Texas.  He has a soft presence and kind heartedness but  he didn’t hold back in his admonishment to us long time practitioners to stop stalling and go for the true freedom the Buddha pointed to.

Mindfulness is a common concept in our culture these days. It is at the heart of Buddhist teachings. But how many moments in any given day do you really pay attention to what you are doing. And why does it matter anyways? Isn’t it easier sometimes to get through the hard stuff easily distracted and entertained?

Beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hahn says this, ” when we don’t practice mindfulness, we suffer in our body, our mind, and in our relationships. In practicing mindfulness, we become a peaceful refuge for ourselves and others. When the seed of mindfulness in us is watered, it can grow into enlightenment, understanding, compassion, and transformation. The more we practice mindfulness the stronger the seed will grow.”

Ok sounds good! I would like to be a peaceful refuge. I want to be compassionate and kind. I really do want a felt sense of  unity that will move me to a deeper sense of service to others.  So what holds me back?

I don’t remember. I fall asleep behind the wheel on my weekly commute. I watch another movie instead of the stars. I pick up another magazine. I buy another book.

I need that string tied around my finger.

The concept of vertical awareness gives me a tool. In horizontal awareness we are looking back – we are looking forward. Planning, regretting, hoping, worrying. In vertical upright awareness we are present in our mind, heart and body right here, right now. Living in our bodies. The three dan tiens lined up!

Mindfulness can at times seem so full of mind. But add to that the beating and breath of the heart and the wisdom of the gut and the possibility to be  more consistently and fully engaged in the present becomes a tantalizing and very real possibility.

After 30 years of  learning, practicing, re learning, teaching, and learning more, I feel I am finally coming to understand  the very real potential for Tai Chi and Qi Gong as practices for true integration of the body/heart/and spirit.

I don’t necessarily think it should take that long ( admittedly I am  at times a slow to learn and  periodically  a lazy practitioner). But after recently completing  a certification process through the Institute for Integral Qi Gong and Tai Chi (IIQTC) and teaching several workshops on The 10 phases of Qi Cultivation, as outlined by Dr. Roger Jahnke, I understand at a visceral level the wisdom of our bodies to lead and the importance of sharing that lead equally with our hearts and our connection to the universal (body/mind/spirit). I call that firing equally on all three levels – 33.3% each!

In the system of Tai Chi and Qi Gong  there are an acknowledged three centers of energy cultivation – the lower, middle, and upper Dan Tiens. The lower Dan Tien ( and the one given most the most attention throughout the early years of instruction and practice)  is situated in the body 3 inches or so below the navel and  1 to inches within. This is the center associated with our relationship to our ourselves, our bodies, and our connection to the earth. It is our place of “gut wisdom”.

We live in a culture that values most of all what the thinking mind can do. From our heads we analyze, worry, predict, and generally figure things out to the best of our ability – often leaving out input from our  what we are sensing in our bodies, what our hearts are feeling, or what the universe may be guiding us to do. In a sense we walk around top heavy – off balance.

It is no wonder so much attention is given almost exclusively to the lower Dan Tien in learning Tai Chi . To correct  an imbalance sometimes you have to go to the other extreme to eventually find you way back to the middle ground.

In learning Tai Chi we keep sending our attention and our breath to the lower Dan Tien. We pay attention to sensations in our body. We feel our feet on the ground. We pretend our eyes are in our belly and move through the room ( or the world)  guided from there. At first it is our physical balance that improves but over time that way of relating to the world gives  one a firmer foundation so we are not so easily thrown by the small and large disruptions and challenges in our daily lives.

 

 

For many people sitting still is hard. Sitting still for twenty minutes or more can seem an impossibility. Add to that the challenge of simply noticing the act of breathing – no planning your work day or what you have to get at the grocery store, or what you’ll wear Friday night, or how you’ll have that hard conversation you’ve been meaning to have  and you might decide meditation is not now nor will ever be for you.

Sitting still and quiet is a revolutionary act in these times of expected multi tasking and instant responding.  Even so given the speed with which most of us move through our days – sitting down to meditate can feel like running into a brick wall.

The ancient practice of Tai Chi offers a do-able meditation form for our modern times. Rather than sitting down we stand up, we move , we breathe deeply, we  practice the movements slowly and deliberately. Rather than insisting the mind focus on one thing – the intentful practice of moving consciously clears the mind almost effortlessly. Often at the end of  Tai Chi class participants report feeling much calmer and more energized than when they arrived. There is often a light heartedness in our conversations as we exit class and a connection to ourselves and others that seems more accessible.

Tai chi forms can vary from 5 minutes to 25 minutes or more. Once learned the practitioner can decide how long to practice each day and how many times a day. Twice a day for 10 minute or more can have a revolutionary effect on the rest of your day and how you relate to those around you.

 

There is much to be said for a healing practice and way of life that is non-invasive, been around for years, and has been proven to heal, all for free. The health benefits of stillness and meditation are many and the practice of them is safe, simple, and can help restore your body to a state of total wellness.

From the everyday stress that life can bring to medical conditions and disorders, quieting the mind, controlling breath, and seeking inner peace can provide relief. Meditation and stillness centers around peace, bringing the mind into the present moment, and slow, deep breaths. When you actively practice these, your blood pressure begins to return to a normal level, the tension in your body, as a result of stress is relieved, and the thickness of coronary arteries are reduced, which improves the heart condition.

The deepened state of relaxation has been shown to activate the genes that protect from rheumatoid arthritis, infertility, and even cancer. Along with cultivating a whole and healthier mind and body, the mindful, meditative practices also help relieve insomnia, allergies, and depression. The undivided attention and focus given to your breath, surroundings, and the present moment, all alter the brain chemistry and allow you to face life and deal with stressors with a clear, calm, and balanced mind. Begin where you are today and watch your health drastically improve with the practice of stillness and meditation.