This was my third December living with incurable cancer.
Introspection is always in full force during the holidays. Every year the thoughts run through my mind and I wonder if this will be my last Christmas. When these thoughts arise it’s a fine balance of acknowledging them with denial, acceptance, and unbridled hope. It’s also bittersweet because it encourages practices, such as mindfulness, which help to gently quell anxiety and also enrich the moment I’m in.
I’ve been practicing mindfulness for four years: I wish I was a master by now. And by master, I mean making it a part of my everyday. I’ll be honest and say that the days go by and I don’t think twice about it. I build routines to incorporate it, but they always go sideways. The thing about living with cancer is you get many opportunities to jolt you back into practice. And so I start again. And again.
This Christmas I reminded myself as often as possible to ground into my body. Notice the chair I’m sitting in, the sounds of family laughter and each conversation, the taste of sugar cookies, sweet potato casserole, and all the delicious food. Notice that my body feels healthy and strong. Notice when the thought creeps in about not being here next year, but recognize that in this moment, I’m healthy and safe.
Another practice I took on this year is from Buddhist teacher and founder of the Zen Hospice Project, Frank Ostaseski. I heard him last month on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast discussing lessons about death and how awareness of it can improve our lives. The discussion was insightful and tender. For me, the main takeaway was looking at how we embrace endings.
Ostaseski says, “...You want to know something about what death has to teach, look at endings. The end of an exhale, the end of the day, the end of a meal, the end of this sentence. How do you meet endings? Do you go unconscious around them? Do you leave emotionally or mentally before something is over? Do you get teary-eyed about endings? Or anxious about them?...How do you leave a party? Do you ghost out or do you consciously go around and say goodbye to people?”
At almost every gathering I had this season, when the time came, I tried to embrace the ending. I made sure to say conscious goodbyes to family and friends. I noticed the actions of getting ready to leave - putting on my coat and boots and packing up gifts. I stayed aware as much as possible on the drive home. It was difficult at times because I was often mentally exhausted by the end of visiting, and I just wanted to check out before leaving.
I plan on reading Ostaseki’s book The Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach Us About Fully Living (2017) to understand more of how to embrace endings. While the subject of death is terrifying when it's constantly staring me in the face, I think these awareness practices of inviting it in are helpful.
I'm just grateful for another chance to practice being present during the holidays. It's a wonderful gift.