Last Christmas I found out I had breast cancer.
From the mammogram to the biopsy, they didn’t really think it was cancer but just wanted to be sure. So when I got the call it came as shock that rocked my world. It was a full body blow against my whole auric being. It blew my hair back. It stunned me. It woke me up.
I now had to deal with my mortality. I had to deal with it in such a real way that people my age normally don’t have to face for many years. Sure, I knew intellectually that I would someday die but I never really knew death the way I came to know it when I found out I had cancer. I really got it that whether it was this case of cancer or something else that someday I really was going to die. It shifted from an intellectual awareness to an experienced awareness, and it was really hard.
But it was also an initiation.
I stood on the precipice looking over into the possibility that I was going to die and I turned to my meditation practice to help get through what I call “my twelve most difficult days,” my twelve days of Christmas, I guess—knowing I had a deadly disease growing inside of me but waiting for almost two weeks to have surgery to see how far it had progressed.
What I learned in those days changed me. I learned that in the silence of sitting still, time expands and the moments of life fill to overflowing, sometimes even to joy. You can feel this when you allow your moments to fill from within themselves rather than trying to cram a bunch of activity into them from the outside. The over-activity of our modern lives makes us think our lives are full, but really we’re only whizzing past the moments on the way to doing something else. When you do that, you are half dead already because you are not even feeling your life. But when you stop, when you get out of the swirl, and when you realize that your life really will someday cease, then everything becomes a miracle and you want to feel every moment.
It hit me that we live like we don’t even know that someday we will die. We are so afraid of dying that we ignore death, which leads us to taking life for granted and we end up cheapening it and missing the point of why we are living in the first place. But in the acceptance of my own death, I gained my life and I gained a new relationship with my body, too. Facing my mortality freed me in a way that I was not free before. When I finally knew that someday I was going to die, I prioritized things and valued life more. I was given the gift of really knowing in an experiential way that we need to wake up to the shortness of life and stop taking it for granted.
Life is to be enjoyed, but we focus on the wrong things and spend a lot of time moaning and complaining that it isn’t exactly how we want it to be…we don’t have enough money, we want a new car, the 401k tanked, we have to leave work early to go buy ballet tights the night of the Nutcracker performance even though you’ve been asking your daughter the last 500 times you were at the dance store “do you need tights?” and every time she said no, except now just hours before the curtain rises she realizes she needs new tights (yes, this just happened to me this past weekend). But it is precisely at these moments of moaning about life that we should remind ourselves that someday we are going to die. Use that awareness to reframe your outlook on life and release into the quality of the experience you are creating for yourself. Last year at Christmas I had cancer and thought I might die, this year I have to stop and get ballet tights…ok, good reframe.
So take some time this holiday season to slow down and be silent and reframe the things you are complaining about in your life. Drop out of the swirl, feel the time expand and savor the moments.
It’s your life…make it a good one.
Originally published in 2009