HWW Life Practice #3: Mindfulness
“And then comes the knowing that in me there is space for a second, large and timeless life”
- Rainer Maria Rilke
Shortly after my prostate cancer diagnosis (read my story here) my wife Lisa gave me the book Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I had never heard of JKZ, or the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program he developed in the late 1970's at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, but I was ready to try anything, to deploy whatever tools and resources I could to help manage the stress of knowing that I had cancer growing inside my body, and that the standard approach for dealing with the source of that stress – removing my prostate – could have long-term, profound side effects for my quality of life.
Kabat-Zinn had pioneered the use of MBSR – mindful breathing, essentially – to help chronically ill patients to improve quality of life and, in some cases, medical outcomes. These patients were suffering from such diverse illnesses as chronic pain, depression, anxiety, addiction, cancer and PTSD. Even short-term meditation (30 minutes a day for 8 weeks) was shown to make measurable changes in parts of the brain associated with learning, memory, self-awareness and regulation of emotions.
Very ill people (terminally ill, in some cases) were using their minds to control their emotional responses to illnesses that their bodies’ had no control over. And if they didn’t get better (many of them didn’t, sadly), they at least were happier and experienced more peace of mind during their remaining days. So I downloaded some of JKZ’s guided meditations and began tentatively cultivating my own mindfulness practice.
I sucked at it. Maybe. It was hard to tell. Was I doing it right? I didn’t know what to expect or if something in particular or profound was supposed to happen, or if I was supposed to feel a certain way.
But, still, I showed up every day (or most days), which basically means I sat in my closet, lit a candle, closed my eyes and listened to Kabat-Zinn tell me how to breathe (in his thick Bronx accent) for 20-30 minutes.
For these few precious moments each day I would focus on my breath and nothing else. Coming in through my nostrils, filling my chest and then my belly, then reversing course, climbing back up my torso and then exiting, again through my nostrils.
When my mind wandered, as it inevitably did, I would bring it back to my breath and start all over again. Over and over. For 10 minutes at first, then 20, then 30.
This was how I was going to train my mind to avoid obsessing over a past I couldn’t change or a future I had no control over; this was how I was going to deal with the fear of knowing that I had cancer growing inside my body.
I had been practicing mindfulness for about 3 years when I took my family to Kauai (the Western-most Hawaiian island) for a vacation. One morning, before anyone else was awake, I got up early to hike to Ho’opi’i Falls (an example of one of my favorite HWW two-fers: Movement + Nature Connection). After a short, muddy two-mile hike I reached the falls. It was a beautiful spot, peaceful and secluded, a perfect place to meditate. I set the timer on my watch for 10 minutes, closed my eyes and breathed, the sound of the rushing falls filling my ears.
After my brief meditation I opened my eyes and was about to stand up and start heading back up the trail when a single, brilliant orange-red flower dropped out of the sky and landed between my feet. I stared down at the flower, which was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, then looked up into the sky; I searched in vain for the branch or tree that this flower would have come from. I looked back down at the flower, then over the fifteen foot cliff directly in front of me.
There, at the bottom of the cliff, on the bank of the stream that the falls emptied into, were dozens, maybe hundreds of these flowers, many of them desiccated and withered, pale versions of the vibrant, gorgeous specimen still lying at my feet. How'd I miss them? I wondered to myself.
With this thought in mind I started back up the trail, which I soon found was littered with thousands of these flowers; in some places the trail was carpeted with them. The realization that I somehow had avoided seeing them during the two mile hike in, and that it took one literally falling out of the sky at my feet for me to see them, was at once exhilarating and humbling, a powerful example of the awareness that mindfulness can bring to our lives while at the same time a very clear indication of how much more work I needed to do.
Upon reaching the car my humbling was complete. There were thousands of orange-red flowers, in various states of decay, at the entrance to the trail. “We were here all along,” they seemed to be saying, “but only now do you see us.”
What else had I missed on the hike down to the falls? Where was my mind for those two miles? What else have I missed because I haven’t been here, in the present moment, while my mind obsessed about the past or worried about the future?
I am so grateful to have learned this lesson when I did, even if it took me more than half a century to finally get it. And it’s no coincidence that this learning came to me when it did; my defenses were down and my heart and mind were cracked open and laid bare to other possibilities for healing and knowledge.
This is why the African Tulip tree (or Spathodea campanulata or Nandi flame) is the symbol of the Health Warrior Way. It represents an important inflection point in my life, the moment I first realized – really understood – the power of the present moment. It also serves to remind me that beauty is everywhere around us, if only we are open to discovering it.
Mindfulness is not magic. Like the other HWW Life Practices it’s simple but not easy. Once you’ve made the commitment to show up every day to breathe, quietly, for 10, 20 or 30 minutes or more there are many resources that can help you get started and keep you focused through those first few weeks and months.
You can download Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditations (I started with Series 2 of his Guided Mindfulness Meditations) or listen to Tara Brach’s meditations, which are available for streaming free via her website. And there are now apps like Headspace and Calm that can help you get started, wherever you are. There’s no shortage of options.
So: get busy with your own rescue. Start today. Not tomorrow, not next week, not as part of your next New Year’s resolutions. Today. There’s no time to waste.
The good news is you’re not alone. We’re here to help. Let us show you the Health Warrior Way.
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