Monday, May 03, 2004

Living in the Present - May 2004

The future: what a wonderful place to be! The imagination envisions countless possibilities—the successful career, the riches, the wonderful family life, the eclectic social circle. So much time is spent planning, dreaming, and focusing on the future. Americans, in particular, seem to do this. We are so success, work, and future-oriented that we tend to glorify the ability to multi-task and work long hours, creating stress and fatigue, both of which are detrimental to our health.

I have always had a love affair with the future. The future held promises of a better life if only I worked harder, planned more strategically, and focused on my goals. Ah, making lists…I do so enjoy making lists. Even more than making lists, I enjoy striking items off those lists because this action produces a deliciously satisfying sense of accomplishment. I have spent a good deal of time over the past eight years devising plans and writing lists for Ovation Theatre Company, my move to New York City, actor business plans, data bases of agents and casting directors, as well as diet, exercise, and beauty regimens; all of these lists were devised with the hope of designing a brilliant and prosperous future. John Lennon’s saying, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” is so true. How many of us truly spend much time living in the present? I thought I did. I thought I was enjoying life more, taking time to smell the roses, especially after I made the move to the New York area. Now I realize I was doing anything but living in the present.

I was enjoying life but I wasn’t living in the moment. I would be with friends but often (and in their company) I found myself thinking about what I had to do when I got home or the next day, or about an audition or scene work for class. My mind was rarely focused on the present. Mind clutter is what I call it. This clutter is especially active at night. I can lie awake for hours in the dark, my mind racing with a thousand (well, it feels like a thousand) thoughts, ideas, and emotions. I finally asked myself, “How can I quiet my mind?”

I tried deep-breathing exercises, but that rarely worked because I didn’t have the discipline for it, and my mind would inevitably commence racing once again. This lack of discipline was bizarre because I have extraordinary discipline in many other areas of my life. I had been going non-stop in body and mind. When I lived in Cincinnati, the last year or two was spent working full-time at Cigna, managing the theatre company, acting, writing and performing cabaret shows, taking dance classes at Arthur Murray, and salsa or swing dancing two to four nights a week—talk about the Energizer Bunny®!

Once I moved to the northeast, my social life slowed down considerably, mainly because I only knew a few people in or near the city. Then just as I was developing friendships and getting out socially, leukemia interrupted my budding social circle. I found myself in the hospital faced with a cancer diagnosis and making decisions regarding treatment options. I began re-evaluating my life choices, reflecting on the positive and negative elements of my life, learning how biography becomes biology, and in the process, discovering that if we can make ourselves ill then we can also heal ourselves. The decision to be an integral force in my own recovery, in addition to modern medical technologies and treatments, led me to utilize three methods of healing that I’m convinced helped restore my health. The methods I refer to are prayer, meditation, and guided imagery/affirmations. Through these three practices I have been enjoying life, despite the cancer, and living more fully in the present.

One may ask, “How can you enjoy life more and be a cancer patient?” First, I don’t feel I have a choice. I’m not dead yet and I refuse to give into this illness. When I feel well and my body is not neutropenic, I continue living my life, being as active as I can. I am a positive force that wants to spread light and goodness in this world right now, not wait until I am in remission. Every moment is precious, so why wait?

Second, I have the time now that I didn’t have in the past (due to all my commitments) to devote to exploring these practices. In the past, I merely contemplated these things, although I’ve always been into prayer. Meditation is something I’d wanted to try, but never made the time for it. While I was in the hospital for my second chemotherapy treatment, Beckie brought a gift for me. The outside of the box read: A Step-by-Step Course on how to Meditate—Insight Meditation. It contained a book that detailed ten lessons, two CD’s of guided meditations, and study cards. I have progressed to lesson six and am learning so much about myself and my ability to calm the mind clutter. It is still difficult not to let my mind wander, but the more I practice, the more I am able to concentrate. This concentration has led to mindfulness, and mindfulness has led to embracing the present moment.

Many of the books I’ve read recently, and I’ve read many, reinforce the “living in the moment” concept and suggest how to use mindfulness to achieve this goal. Some books I’d recommend include: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Naht Hanh, The Power of NOW by Eckhart Tolle and The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Meditation is teaching me how to calm the mind and to be in the present by focusing on the breath, sounds, body sensations, and steps (during walking meditation). I have even created some of my own meditations using what I’ve learned so far in my studies.

Living in the “now” is not an easy task. It is quite difficult, actually, but it is definitely a worthwhile pursuit. I’ve found that when I am truly present in the moment, I am neither anxious nor stressed about the future or the past. I have oftentimes found myself anticipating troublesome or conflict-riddled scenarios so that I could practice how I might handle these situations. How counter-productive is that? Several people have confided that they do the same thing. We sabotage our current peace of mind by fabricating problematic future situations that may or may not occur. These illusions create torment and suffering, thus ruining our peace of mind and happiness in the “now.” By being committed to living in the present ,the obsession about the past or the future disappears. Of course, that’s not to say we never plan for the future, but it is important to keep it all in perspective.

Make plans but don’t be a slave to planning. As Eckhart Tolle suggests, “Learn to use time (what he refers to as “clock time,” which is intrinsically linked to the concepts of past and future) in the practical aspects of your life (i.e.—planning a trip or setting goals) but immediately return to present-moment awareness when those practical matters have been dealt with.” He continues to expound on this, “…within the sphere of practical living, where we cannot do without reference to past and future, the present moment remains the essential factor: Any lesson from the past becomes relevant and is applied now. Any planning as well as working toward achieving a particular goal is done now.”

I have a long way to go in achieving success in my endeavor to live in the “now.” However, I am cognizant of when my mind strays to the past or the future, and this awareness is the first step in changing life-long behavior patterns. When I find myself worrying, getting angry, or day-dreaming, I bring the focus back to my breath, to the steps I am taking, to the position of my body, or slow down my actions.

This is my spiritual regimen. I hope to continue following it once I am healed and back out in the “real world.” Right now I have abundant time to engage in these spiritual practices. I can spend twenty to forty minutes meditating, twenty minutes praying, and twenty minutes doing affirmations or guided imagery exercises. That’s a good amount of time spent cultivating spirituality, but right now I need it. I believe all of this has aided in my well-being, especially throughout chemotherapy. Regardless of recent studies claiming to have found no positive correlation between possessing a good attitude and increased cancer cure rates, I still maintain that a positive attitude and being proactive in my own healing are effective survival strategies. And if nothing else, it has made my life more pleasant, and helped the people I love deal with my illness better, which has to count for something.

Following are some insights and observations I’ve recorded in my journal throughout my mindfulness practice and spiritual studies that I want to share. Some are chronicled in my book, Rebirth: A Leukemia Journal, so I apologize for any redundancies, but they are included here because of their significance to me. I hope these insights and observations are helpful.

January 30
I have arranged the meditation area in my room. It’s so lovely. A small box is situated on the floor beneath the window sill, which will enable me to gaze out the window (should I wish) while I’m meditating. A taupe scarf decorated with a black and red oriental pattern is draped over the box. On the surface of the box is placed a miniature crystal owl (given to me by a friend of Lani’s), the faith box (Karen B's gift), a small, white vanilla-scented candle, a tiny, white ceramic bowl with blue flowers painted on it and filled with an assortment of rocks (Bobbi’s contribution), a plastic bottle of holy water that Dad gave me, and a four-inch wooden box that holds my rosary and two gold Mary medallions.

I have treasured this tiny wooden box since the summer of 1994 when Tina, a Godspell cast mate, gave it to me. Tina, a gifted artist, painted the box. The figure of a woman—or an angel, perhaps—is on the lid, and she resembles Edvard Munch’s women in his paintings, Puberty and Dance of Life, only Tina’s rendering is much prettier. I will always remember Tina’s strength and character, especially having endured the loss of her only child shortly before I made her acquaintance.

On the floor to the left of the box are two Mass cards that Mom sent to me and on the right side of the box are my list of affirmations, the Insight Meditation kit, and three books: The Miracle of Mindfulness, God Calling, and 365 Tao. It’s an inspirational, spiritual area adorned with items that are significant to me. It sounds cluttered, but the items are displayed in an organized fashion.

February 3
12:15PM- I completed twenty minutes of meditation. It was quite relaxing and surprisingly, my mind did not wander much. Of course, it does wander, which is typical of me. I’m working on breath awareness and how that awareness enhances my experience of the present moment.

February 6
I meditated. Will there ever be a time my mind doesn’t wander? I know meditation is a discipline which takes practice and patience, but I want the focus and discipline now. Yes, my impatience is surfacing. The goal: continue to meditate and be compassionate toward my inability to concentrate for even short periods of time. I know this practice is beneficial to my emotional, physical, and spiritual healing. It may also prove beneficial to the larger world as I become a more serene and compassionate individual passing serenity and compassion on to others.

February 11
Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Mother enrolled me in a special healing novena of masses from February 5th through the 11th. I said a prayer to Our Lady of Lourdes to rid me of the leukemia so that I may go on to lead a productive, healthy, and long life. I blessed myself with the holy water Dad sent. My parents definitely believe in the power of prayer and so do I.

I added another note to the faith box which already includes several requests at the moment. Today's request read: Dear Lord, please let my insurance transition be a smooth one and let me stop worrying about it. Let me trust that You will take care of it. All will be well. Amen.

Before prayers, I meditated. I am deriving much enjoyment from my meditation practice. Afterward, I studied (again) lesson one in Insight Meditation and read chapter three in The Miracle of Mindfulness. In chapter three, Thich Naht Hanh promotes the benefit of setting aside one day a week as a “mindfulness day.” I would like to try that, but I have trouble remaining mindful for ten minutes; hell, who am I kidding, I have trouble remaining mindful for two minutes. I seek to practice mindfulness daily, both in structured meditation as well as brief periods of breath awareness throughout the day. I try to remain conscious of this endeavor as much as possible so that mindfulness will eventually become habitual throughout each day.

Today I experimented with mindfulness while making a cup of tea. By performing the task slowly and methodically, the nuances of each action created a deeper awareness of the process and my mind-body connection to it. To begin, I was conscious of the feel of the mug—it’s cool, ceramic hardness and the weight of it in my hands. I examined the colors of the mug, its various shades of brown, dark blue, and cream. I listened to the dribble of water leaving the spigot in the refrigerator as it filled the mug. Next, I followed the movement of my arms as the left one opened the microwave door and the other placed the mug into it. The slamming door and the whirr of rays heating the water broke the silence.

Next I opened the tea packet exploring the feel of the paper and the smell of the tea as the bag was pulled from the wrapper. The beeping of the microwave signaled the water was ready. I retrieved the mug, observing the steam rising from it and absorbing the heat in the palms of my hands, and then gingerly placed the tea bag in the bubbling water. This three-minute process was executed with slow precision and careful attention. Not only did I make the tea in mindfulness, but I also drank the tea in mindfulness, savoring the taste, smell, and warmth of the libation as it traveled down my throat into my belly. It is interesting how enjoyable making and drinking a cup of tea can be when attention is paid to the details.

I should live my life in mindfulness because it fosters living in the moment which creates peace of mind and alleviates anxiety. By paying attention, one finds there is no need to hurry through life. I don’t want to hurry through life anymore; I’ve done that and it’s exhausting. I aspire to a place of serenity and clarity, even in the midst of chaos.

March 1 – Guided Imagery
I listened to the Chemotherapy Guided Imagery cassette for the first time last night. I’ve had this tape since January. It was wonderful. Powerful emotions flowed through my being and tears of joy streamed down my cheeks. When I was done listening to the cassette, the catharsis had produced a peaceful and relaxed state. I then attempted to listen to the affirmations, but fell asleep during them. In fact, I slept uninterrupted until 7:30AM. I haven’t slept that long in months.

This morning I prayed a rosary then listened to the affirmations section of the cassette. I must buy more of these tapes. The exercises have been rejuvenating to my mind and body. I feel centered, positive, and more energetic. This sense of well-being has to be beneficial to the healing process.

March 2
I went for a walk this afternoon and incorporated walking meditation into it. It felt good to get out and move my body. My mind only wandered about ten times during the forty-five minute trek. I focused on the warmth of the day, the soft breeze on my skin, the feel of muscles rotating in my calves and thighs, and the pounding of my feet on the pavement as I concentrated on the “lift, move, place” mantra that I was mentally labeling. I felt mindful and centered and was so grateful to be able to enjoy the gorgeous day outdoors.

March 7
I finished reading The Power of NOW. It reinforces all that I’ve been learning. Being present and living in the “now” are deceptively simple concepts; in reality, they are quite difficult to achieve. It is important for me to live in the moment because it will help alleviate much of my anxiety. Today, as often as I was conscious of it, I focused on connecting with my breath and my body—its movements and sensations.

Tonight, as I was getting Aidan to sleep, I experienced being completely immersed in the present. Aidan was inconsolable after Barbara and Dan left for the hospital. Barbara had been vomiting most of the day and her doctor feared she was getting dehydrated, so instructed her to go to the hospital. I did everything I could think of to comfort Aidan and ensure he felt safe and loved. He sat on my lap, crying as I gently rocked him back and forth. I was so moved gazing upon his sweet little face. I love him so much. It was only Aidan and me in that moment. His crying was the only sound to impose upon the silence in the house. I embraced the darkness of the room, the feel and warmth of his tiny body cradled in my arms, the soft, rocking motion of the chair, the sound of his and my breathing, and the feel of hot tears rolling down my face as I watched the tears cascade down his. He looks like a little cherub with his chubby cheeks. He’s so beautiful.

After two attempts of putting him in his crib, the third time was a charm. I watched him sleeping, finally at peace. In that moment, I experienced a deep, unconditional, overwhelming love for this child. Nothing else mattered in that moment, and it allowed me to know the extent of the love I am capable of feeling and giving, which is precious knowledge to possess.

March 9
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz was a gift from Michael S. It was one of the many gifts in the friendship box Karen B delivered in February. This is another book that reinforces everything I’ve been reading and studying. It’s odd, but I am finding that I’m enjoying my life more now during my illness than I did previously, and much of that has to do with my living more fully in the present. Every morning this week, I have roused from my slumber bursting with anticipation and excitement to start the day. I long to jump into the day and begin writing, meditating, and tackling whatever challenges may arise.

I read The Four Agreements in about two hours. (Unfortunately, I cannot tell you what these are because doing so would be copyright infringement, but I think these agreements are sound advice, so I recommend picking up a copy.) I’ll e-mail Michael S to thank him for the book again and let him know my thoughts. I think he’ll enjoy knowing my comments. Of course, I am making assumptions about his reaction. However, if he doesn’t like my comments, I won’t take it personally ;-)

March 11
I’ve had a revelation about control. There is so much in life we cannot control, and I have found that is particularly true with my body. I’m a control freak. Alright, I’ve admitted it.

Anne Cushman wrote in Yoga Journal (she was referring to separation anxiety between her and her pre-school-age son in her article "Calm, Clear Mind"), “…it’s through such small moments that we train our capacity of letting go and begin to come to terms with the fact that in the end, we can’t control anything but the intention we bring to our actions.”

This conclusion is so true. It's simplicity is brilliant.

March 13 - 365 Tao – Discovery
Meditation is a process of discovery, of slowly exploring how you function as a human.

People ask, “Is meditation necessary?” If you want to explore the innermost parts of your mind and ascertain who you really are, there is no more ideal method. Mere introspection is not deep enough, and psychological counseling will not necessarily bring you face to face with all parts of yourself. Only the depth and solitude of meditation can help you learn everything. Discoveries are there. We need only enter the mind to find them.
—Deng Ming-Dao

March 24
Yesterday morning around 5:30AM I had a very positive meditation experience. I was wide awake, and the sun, casting a soft pink glow across the sky, was just beginning to rise over the rooftops. I’d been awake for over an hour, so I decided to get out of bed and devise my own meditation based on the techniques I’ve been learning. I also meditated for the first time without using a CD to guide me.

I got out of bed, arranged my pillow on the floor, lit the candle, opened the blinds, and began meditating. I alternated my awareness between sounds, breath, body sensations, and “choiceless awareness.” “Choiceless awareness,” as defined by Joseph Goldstein in Insight Meditation, “is a state of great receptiveness, where we simply open up to whatever object arises from one moment to the next.” In this morning’s meditation session, planes, birds, trees, the flicker of flame, the ticking of the clock were all alternating objects of my awareness. I sat for thirty-five minutes, which is a record for me, and I was only distracted a few times. I think I’m making some progress.

March 31
This morning as I was meditating and looking out the window, I found my concentration stray from focusing on the breath to focusing on a small tree in a yard across the parking lot. I began contemplating the tree’s nature. It probably stands all of fifteen feet tall, has a very narrow trunk, a few branches, and devoid of leaves—a skeleton of a tree. It looked fragile and scrawny, and its vulnerability touched me as I watched it swaying in the breeze. Then I remembered it possesses strong, sinewy roots that grasp tightly to the soil beneath the earth's surface.

This underwhelming sapling will someday transform into a glorious, robust refuge for many life forms. Its trunk will be wide and sturdy, it may reach heights of forty or fifty feet, and its branches, adorned with emerald leaves, will expand in every direction toward the sky. Birds, insects, squirrels, and numerous other beings will seek shelter in its branches from the wind, rain, and sun. These creatures will discover a playground and a home. Human beings will derive pleasure gazing upon the tree’s beauty and find comfort in the shade of its boughs.

As the seasons change, so will the tree. Its green leaves will transform into an artist’s palette of the most gorgeous hues of crimson, brown, gold, and orange. As winter approaches, it sheds its autumn cloak revealing skeletal, gnarled, bare branches exposed to winter’s chill. Soon spring arrives attiring the tree with green buds and/or colorful flowers, and soon thereafter, it dons a gorgeous, lush, green, summer frock. The cycle is complete and then it begins again.

When one contemplates the beauty and substance of a tree, as well as the fact that it is an oxygen-producing plant that enriches the planet, it is inconceivable how people can be apathetic about the destruction of the rain forests or to the logging industry’s desire for unlimited access to woodlands that they can devastate for the sake of monetary gain. The earth’s natural resources are finite, and someday these forests may no longer be at our disposal to enjoy or destroy (as some seem wont to do). Hmmm…it is interesting how one small thought can evolve into larger issues relevant to today’s world. Meditation really does help us connect to everyone and everything. We are not isolated beings, we all affect on one another and to all life forms on this planet. This interconnectedness is one more thing I am learning on my spiritual journey.

April 6
In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Naht Hanh narrates a story by Tolstoy about an emperor searching for the answers to three questions:

1.) What is the best time to do each thing?
2.) Who are the most important people to work with?
3.) What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The answer is this: “Remember there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.

…often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first.”

I love the wisdom behind this tale because it is so true.

Living in the present alleviates the stress of planning for and anticipating conflicts in the future. Living in the present eliminates dwelling on the past. The past is gone, learn from it and move on. What I’ve discovered is that when I’m firmly ensconced in the “now,” I possess a sense of serenity. This serenity is new and exciting, however fleeting it may be as a novice practitioner of mindfulness. Someday I will harness the power of being present in the moment because it is the only place we can tangibly exist. The present: what a wonderful place!