When you have cancer, you think about living and dying. One of my primary reasons for wanting to survive was to avoid upsetting those around me, which although admirable is a little odd, don’t you think? To desire my own survival primarily for the sake of not wanting to upset other people seemed somehow rather sad and hollow. Why did I not have this fire to fight, to survive at all costs, that so many other people with cancer seem to say that they have?
So I thought it was crucial to engage with myself more directly, to be more mindful of my thoughts, in order to gain insight into my desire to survive, or my lack of it. Why bother to accept the brutal treatment that lay ahead of me? If it was going to work, surely I had to want it to work with every cell of my being, both physical and emotional?
So I decided to sit down and take some quiet time to look at this more deeply. I got out coloured pens and a large sheet of paper, and I wrote at the top :
“What do you appreciate about being alive?”
Notice that I wasn’t asking about my life, which seemed comparatively inconsequential. To a great extent, we can build the material and even spiritual aspects of our life by directed intent and action. So the question was more fundamental than that; it was about what I appreciated about life itself. Being alive in the first place. Not dead.
At first I wasn’t sure of the answer, which I didn’t think was a good sign. I have a tendency towards depression that has sometimes needed careful managing over the years. In retrospect, I should have asked myself this question before, as of course if I don’t know what I appreciate about being alive, why should I look after myself? How do I know what to do in order to experience happiness? There are so many distractions in life that pull us away from this basic experience of being present and of caring deeply for ourselves.
So I flipped the question around and wondered what it might be like to be dead. What would I miss about not being alive? Suddenly the answer was clear; I would not be in my body any more, even if what I perceived to be “I” survived in some form or another. So surely what I appreciate most about being alive is being present physically. Being embodied. Being able to touch things, to feel the air against my skin and the ground under my feet, to hug people and hold their hands, to pass them physical objects like a cup of tea, to share food with them.
This insight changed things for me. It pulled me out of my head and into my body more strongly than ever before; a big shift for somebody like myself who is creative, with a mind full of ideas and wonderings. It made me realise that being physically present bought me more happiness than I had consciously acknowledged, and also highlighted the aspects of living that I should make more space and time to engage in and appreciate.
So now my mindfulness practice is undertaken with even more joy than before. I can breathe, feel the air moving in and out of my body, sit in meditation, walk, move, sense things, and be genuinely grateful to be alive and embodied, regardless of what may be happening elsewhere in my life. It is good to be here. Cancer has bought me much to be grateful for.
What do you appreciate about being alive?
Katie Sheen, Founder of Soul Nutrition www.soulnutrition.org