Written March 2019
If you’ve read any of my (many) articles posted to Daily Zen, you’ll know how passionate I am about living and teaching mindfulness and meditation as a foundation for our individual and collective well-being. My own journey of over ten years has taught me many principles and truths, and provided me with much insight, all dramatically transforming my perspective on life in general, on my own life more specifically, and on how I am able to respond to life’s myriad joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures, challenges and victories.
There is little doubt in my mind that this past decade prepared me for what I face now and most-unexpectedly: a cancer diagnosis and the realization that, ultimately, the cancer will prevail. Last autumn, I found myself faced with several physical ailments, many of which I attributed to an extremely heavy workload and stress. But, by the end of January this year: I experienced rapid weight loss (more than 40 pounds or 18 kilograms); it became increasingly difficult to swallow; and getting myself through a regular day of work was near-impossible more-often-than-not. Realizing that something just wasn’t right, my doctors ordered numerous tests, and, on February 14th, I was diagnosed with gastro-esophageal cancer that had spread to all my lymph nodes. Essentially, we learned that I have a very aggressive type of cancer, with malignant cells from my neck to my pelvis. Because the cancer is so aggressive, it was clear that surgical intervention and/or radiation therapy would do more harm than good.
So, my oncologists started a very potent, triple-combination chemotherapy within two weeks of my diagnosis.
All of this, naturally, set off alarm bells and a litany of things to consider and act upon without delay… I needed to get my affairs in order (as they say). Round one of my chemotherapy was a living nightmare; round two was a bit easier, but, still, hardly easy. And, I realize that I have several rounds (a couple of months) still to look forward to before follow-up tests and imaging will be able to determine whether any/all of this is working. We know that the treatments won’t eradicate the cancer, but we surely are hopeful that it slows things down and offers me some measurable quality of life. Of course, there will be many options to consider and decisions to make once the results are communicated by the amazing oncology team that is taking such good care of me.
So now, my challenge/my choice is to stare death in the eyes, mindfully… I’ve learned and know intuitively that living mindfully is always possible, even when faced with death.
One of my favourite authors and lecturers, Eckhart Tolle, talks about how, at first, the term ‘human being’ was, in his opinion, somewhat inadequate in capturing the multiple dimensions of who we Are: mind, body and spirit. Upon further reflection, though, Mr. Tolle realized that ‘human being’ works quite well after all to express exactly what each of us are – we are ‘human’ and, we are ‘being’. We tend to think of ourselves objectively, as many separate entities all racing around the planet trying to make a life, to be productive, perhaps, even, to contribute something worthwhile to society. And in that very frame of mind, we have lost, forgotten or just plain ignored the most obvious fact about ourselves: we are a ‘happening’, not simply a time-limited object in space. Just like an apple tree ‘apples’, so the universe ‘peoples’. Think about that. We are a focal point in the infinite spaciousness of this universe in which It, the Universe, has manifested itself as each one of us, as each living creature, as each planet and galaxy! This is truly a Divine miracle that, even more incredibly, makes it possible for us to be consciously aware of our existence in time and space, ‘being’ as humans, with each breath we take in, in every present moment. What an amazing thing to just stop to contemplate this simple phrase: I AM! Not just that I am Paul Kenney, that I am a cis-gender man, that I am a father, a spouse, and a grandfather… I just AM. I exist beyond the confines of the body-mind complex: I AM, here, now, and in each unfolding present moment.
For me, especially now, it’s only from that perspective, realizing that deeper dimension of who we really are, that I am (that we are) able to respond positively to life’s most difficult challenges. Perhaps more importantly, it is from that perspective I see that death is simply a gateway to another dimension of my Eternal and Sacred existence.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest, for me or for anyone, that on a very human level, a ‘dimensional perspective’ makes life’s challenges any easier, nor does it numb the pain of deep wounds. It doesn’t alleviate the suffering that might come with the thoughts and emotions arising out of grief or loss either. But I do mean to suggest that I (we) can choose to see things differently… that’s human too, and it’s a good thing. Pema Chodrun is noted for saying: “You are the sky, everything else is just the weather passing by”. For me, this is profound in that it illustrates the multi-dimensional aspect of who we are: beings who are consciously aware of the vast array of human experiences we have from birth until death. We are not the experiences, we are the conscious awareness of them! It’s when we embrace and appreciate this deeper level of who we are that we can move to a place that allows us, with great self-compassion, to accept the difficult human experiences we encounter. Over time, the sting of life’s pain and suffering loses its power over us; the sting no longer controls our destiny. It stings, for sure, that I live with cancer and that I know the cancer will ultimately win. But I find myself very mindfully embracing the notion – the perspective – that I will not give that sting the power to control my destiny. In so doing, while the pain is real, I don’t and won’t cave in to the suffering.
Living mindfully is a practice and it takes practice. Living mindfully is about nurturing an acute awareness of what IS, allowing it and accepting it. Living mindfully lays the foundation that make it possible for us to live well and at peace despite whatever experiences we’ve had or might have in our lifetime.
Again, it really is about perspective and it is from this perspective, I realized just recently, that I can truly reflect on the cancer I live with now as a blessing. Why? Because at it’s very basic and fundamental level, this experience, like all others I’ve had (good, bad and indifferent) is a gateway – an opportunity – through which I may see, touch and live from that deeper dimension of Self. When I (we) allow and accept that, life’s experiences and my (our) awareness of them is radically transformed. Living mindfully with what IS becomes a series of miracles that yield to each present moment; I (we) begin to appreciate, at a very deep level, the beauty and sacredness of all things: the smallest flower on a bright spring day; the inter-connectedness of all living things. Most importantly, living mindfully makes it possible if not easier to experience what ties it all together – the mystery of love. Still, I recognize that to live in this way means that I (we) must be willing to live with an open mind and, more importantly, an open heart. In other words, living each moment with a ‘yes’ to life, including all the good and bad experiences and everything in between. For me, in this moment, it means staring death in the eyes, mindfully… being acutely aware of it… allowing it… accepting it.
When we decide to live by greeting each of our encounters or experiences with a conscious ‘yes’ to whatever the reality IS, we open ourselves up to seeing life with fresh perspective: we see life differently, we see others differently, we experience life and all its moments differently. When we live heart-centred in this way, we can tap into the vast resources of wisdom, joy, forgiveness, kindness and compassion – for ourselves and for others. We can think, feel and move from a deeper space of quiet understanding and, as a result, make wiser choices that respond to our human experiences and protect our minds and bodies from the potential consequences of reactive living. We begin to see the inter-connectivity of all life whereby we can learn to be truly present and respond to life in a way that is healing, nurturing, and healthy.
This is living life from a place of deep stillness, peace and equanimity. This is how we can live our lives with grounding that prevents us being tossed about by the waves of life. This is freedom and liberation in its most fundamental form. This is living in mindfully-conscious awareness, open to the infinite potential of each breath we take.
I have learned, and with a deeper sense of truth since my cancer diagnosis, that love is the basis of life-energy, and of our very existence. Unconditional love, compassion, and gentle, loving-kindness is what binds the multiple dimensions of our existence – alone, and together. It is the very foundation of the great mystery of Life itself!
I have been so very blessed in my life’s journey because I have experienced so much love, compassion and kindness, from so many people, across so many life experiences, especially during this final journey with cancer. Love, kindness and compassion have been my strength to do my very best to live with grace and gratitude. Today, I can and will stare death in the eyes not because I want death to come, but because when it does, I will be living mindfully and with the capacity and readiness to shape my death’s destiny. I know in my heart-of-hearts that when I close my eyes, I will do so from that place of deep stillness, peace and equanimity. In keeping with the very wise words of Dr. Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
Breathing in, I acknowledge all the joys and challenges in my life.
Breathing out, I say ‘yes’ to everything that is present in my life.
Breathing in, I accept the good, bad and everything in between that is present.
Breathing out, I rest in the deep stillness that is always, already present.
Edited by Jeff Potts
Author Bio – A devoted meditator, Paul believes in the integration of mind, body and spirit as necessary for healing and bringing about physical, mental and spiritual health and wellness. Through meditation, he believes anyone can develop the ability to be heart-centred and live in gratitude, joy and peace, despite past or current trauma and life struggles.