It’s been a while. What have I been doing? Well, a brief foray into having panic attacks (very brief), reminded me to get my “Big Mind” back. “Big Mind” is a term coined by Suzuki which has to do with experiencing all that one can of one’s reality, versus small mind which experiences and clings to fragments or portions of reality. It is also a central concept in mindfulness meditation that addresses the implicit limitations of the small thinking mind which has habits of clinging to certain experiences, facts, and portions of reality and which is unfortunately fuelled by the limbic (emotional reactive) system into fight/flight/freeze mental and behavioral responses. It doesn’t always tell us the truth. In fact, given the right emotional tilt, it can take a small piece of reality and spin it into a monster or a fairy tale. If you happen to be in a life-threatening health crisis, as I have been, that thinking brain complies with a non-stop loop of fears, catastrophic scenarios, and absolute horror stories. Need I explain that I planned my funeral, grieved at missing my children’s futures, missing Christmas this year and even experienced an agonizing death.
With my Big Mind, all of this can still be true, but it’s not worth spending my time on. Because it is not “yet” reality. And even if it is, it is not “all” of reality. An observing mind (which is always with us) notices this catastrophizing habit and simply lets the loop pass while we pay attention to the body, the breath, the senses, and more balanced views that invite us into the present moment. All the hostile or even euphoric scenarios are focused in the future, or linger in the past, and in the meantime, my absolutely adorable puppy’s cuteness is missed, my husband’s perpetual kindness to me is overlooked and I can go for a walk in the woods and completely miss the frogs singing their basso profundo love songs.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Coming to Our Senses uses the word “senses” to both speak to this “Big Mind” concept, as well as the balanced thinking that allows us to stay in the present moment and breathe in everything that is occurring in the now. The present is, after all, a present. It is all any of us actually have. We may still plan for the future, and review our past. But if you miss the present you miss your life.
Certainly, while I was going thru the two months of diagnostic procedures, it was very difficult to be in the present. But I could have been and it would have been easier. I started to have the “Thursday dread” because it seemed every Thursday there was another “negative” doctor’s appointment, or another procedure, or more bad news. So essentially I missed Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. You get it? Then there was the after Thursday recovery period. So Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were still in full swing, but I was stuck reviewing in my mind what the doctor said, her coldness, my outrage that this was taking so long, my angst about the devolution of my life into a medical statistic.
Coming to my senses.
Thankfully I have come to my senses. Joy, peace and immense truckloads of gratitude have been the result. I feel so grateful for every little minute moment of every single day. Sometimes I laugh spontaneously. Many times I just can’t stop smiling to myself. Sometimes when going for a walk at the Hills & Dales park near my home, I stop before going down the trail just to be amazed at the beauty, to take in the textures of the bark, the varying shapes of each tree, the dappled light that affords such a rainbow of green. I get excited (again) when a red-bellied woodpecker stops at our feeding station. I notice with contentment the empathy of a neighbor who offers a friendly hello, and asks if Alberta was ever as hot as Kettering. I feel the enormous blessing in a short texting connection and ongoing friendship with my x-husband and revel in our continued advocacy for our three children.
A friend of mine posts on Facebook a caption on a picture “an Iris trying to be a wildflower.” And I think wow, such an amazing perspective. Another friend from University days sends me some of her short stories by email, and I think, how privileged I am to have contact with her inner world. Another friend, with whom I have had no contact in 30 years, shares his story of prostate cancer in a blog, because, he says, I encouraged him to. I discover a poem I haven’t read in decades and can’t wait to share it with Tom, or anyone who will listen. How is this possible? These moments are just–got to use that word again–amazing to me. Totally, awesomely, amazing.
My hands still work. So do my eyes, ears, nose, and lungs. More importantly, my heart is still beating. And it’s full. I feel so full of gratitude. So full of noticing this very moment and all that is in it. Sometimes I’m actually a little euphoric about small things: like how good this tomato tastes, how the air is hot with moisture like a sauna, how hearing my daughter’s voice on the phone is just so rich, how my husband teases me when I get a hot flash, how my son so loves to linger in hugging me, how a good friend accepts me and tells me “not to bite my tongue” when I regret a bit of speaking aloud.
And it is awe-inspiring for me to be growing in this way. And I have Stage IV, Breast Cancer! I am also a senior citizen, facing a limited number of years whether or not cancer proves to be my demise. Further, even if I am experiencing, pain, fatigue, nausea, there is always something at that very moment to be so dog-gone grateful for. For one thing, even with pain, you’re lucky if you can feel it. My myopic, panicky mind has been broadened to experience each day with a fresh, open, eager perspective, and feel so much gratitude.
My father, Frank, and mother, Anne, showed me this path years ago. They were fundamentally unlike the truisms spouted about senior citizens: hardened arteries and hardened hearts. They both battled debilitating diseases of aging. But their world didn’t become smaller, tighter, and more negative. Instead, they continued to soften, to become more flexible, more courageous, more generous and more open to joy and gratitude even as their bodies, like mine, were creating storms and drama that would eventually do them in. I still vividly remember my mother dancing in the kitchen after a recent release from a prolonged hospital stay. She was 84 at the time. Or my dad, at 86 working with immigrant families to continue to make his life a contribution after my mother had passed away.
When was the last time you really tasted what you were eating? When was the last time you took something ordinary and looked at it as if for the first time? Have you given yourself the open-hearted opportunity to embrace all the little gifts of your life? Will you recognize the stress and striving, the regret and longing, the fears and self-doubt that dominate your small mind are only part of your reality? When was the last time you really fully lived the meaning of the Peter, Paul & Mary lyric “The song is love. The song is love. The song is love.” Love your life. Drink it in. Breathe it in. This day, this moment, this breath is a gift and it is full enough to experience right where you are.
Now is the only time-zone.