The memory plays in my mind as if it just happened, but really, it was almost a year ago when I sat outside my doctor’s office without a doubt in my mind. I even recall saying to my mother, ‘I really hope they have good news for us, I’m not mentally prepared for anything else’. My certainty just felt so concrete. After receiving a stem cell transplant, three months prior, this was about to be a defining moment of whether it was successful.
The truth is, things don’t always happen the way you imagine them and the concrete scenario that I had poured into my mind started to crumble into dust. I sat in that office staring into my doctor's eyes, listening to her explain the gravity of this new reality. A reality I had only toyed with in the dark moments, a reality that I knew was possible but chose not to feed. But there it was, Death. I sensed my whole body tingle with impermanence and despite how hollowing it felt, I laughed. Experimental treatments would have been a long shot, and without treatment, my life wasn't foreseeable past two years. Nothing can prepare you for that kind of news and, despite the weight of what unfolded, I started to sit with something that would forever lighten my life.
If you’re lucky, death will knock first before it comes in. Thankfully, that was the case for me and most of you already know, my expiry date has changed. However, the lessons that I have learned from that window of uncertainty will forever remain. Fast forward, today, here I am. Sitting in my living room, fully living, sipping on tea and inviting Death in as loved and welcomed company. Not because I wish for death, but the reality is... it was always here.
Often times, I believe that if people had a moment of insight, true visceral insight, to how impermanent that their lives truly are, our idea of fully living would be forever changed. When you are gifted time to move through that space, there is a lot that you begin to learn and a lot that you begin to unlearn.
I recently had the privilege of joining Frank Ostaseski at the new Calgary Central Library for his discussion on Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. His life’s work has been steeped in the teachings of death, dying, grief, loss and compassionate care which hits so close to home for many of us. My curiosity pulled me in, I had been contemplating whether my experience with death tied common threads with a larger collective. Through imagery, words, and connection, Frank was able to really bring home concepts that I found validating. It grounded me with a sense that I was not alone in my discoveries. Although I cannot recreate his message, I can share, that morning we were reminded… Don’t Wait!
Don’t wait for death to creep up on you, create a relationship with your endings. Some of us may think death, or dying, is something that we need to get through, but you don’t get through death. You get through life and we have to remind ourselves of this. How do we want to show up? What truly matters to us? Frank asked us to reflect on how we say good-bye, how we leave things. How do you meet our endings? These are the kind of reflections that will give us insight into how endings come into play in the bigger picture.
We spend so much time collecting but how much of that can we really take with us? I could remember times where I would be racing through life trying to make some kind of magic happen but ‘Don’t Wait’ doesn’t mean racing through life. We need to take time to make time! Sit with our deepest desires. What is it that gives you a sense of life!? You cannot pack your bags for the final destination so why not focus your energy on creating more spaces. Collecting memories instead of souvenirs because it’s a lot easier to move through the spaces than to move through the things we try to stuff into them.
After the discussion, I had a chance to speak with Frank a little bit one on one. His words were incredibly insightful and even though our time together was short, it was sweet. The last thing Frank shared with me before we parted ways was, “Don’t let anyone tell you how to live your life.” So with that in mind… I ask nothing of any of you. I only thank you for taking the time to share this experience with me. Now, Go, live your life, if you want to, it's knocking at your door.
Yamas + Niyamas: A
It is with great honour that I share with you how I found peace and was able to move through one of the most challenging chapters in my life. One day, after a steady decline in my health, I discovered I had a rare type of Leukemia. This diagnosis was much more severe than anyone could have ever imagined and instantly I dove into the most intense chapter of my life.
In this situation, the body responded in fight; the threat was real. It wasn't a driver cutting me off, it wasn't a break up, it wasn't a deadline at work, it was a life-threatening crisis. Thankfully, I had studied and practiced methods of mindfulness for nearly a decade leading up to this experience. Some people would ask and wonder why this happened to me. I was active, I practiced yoga and meditation, I volunteered every summer and I was, for the most part, a pretty happy person. For me, the question why did this happen to me, did not serve me. The question was how do I move through this. I did not want to play a victim or believe I was being punished, although there were definitely times it felt that way. This chapter in my life became the ultimate test. How deeply I could love myself? It was through self inquiry that I discovered deep healing.
It is natural for us all to experience suffering of some form in our bodies, in our relationships, in loss, in everyday life and it will take plenty of practice but I am certain, that with an open mind you will discover an intrinsic wisdom within yourself that will not only help in the hard times but enrich the joyful moments in your life, too. For me, because my physical strength was drastically fluctuating, yoga was not always an option, so when I did practice I would have to go back to basics, the fundamentals of yoga.
The Yamas and Niyamas, are reminders of awareness and mindfulness, not only on the mat but in everyday life. Here are some examples of how they encompassed my journey through cancer.
Ahimsa, non-violence, taught me to be kind to myself, to be compassionate when my body was no longer capable of simple tasks like cooking or walking. It served as a reminder that life will always ebb and flow and we must be kind and not attach ourselves to who we once were or desire to be.
Satya, truthfulness, taught me to speak up and to feel my emotions. Rather than burying the pain or pushing away from difficult conversations, I leaned in to what I was feeling and used communication to seek understanding.
Asteya, non-stealing, taught me to be grateful for what I had left of my health and my mind. I believed that I was worthy, that I was deserving of kindness, and I appreciated everything my family, friends, and strangers were able to offer. The idea of non-stealing is truly to appreciate what we have so despite all circumstances, we are whole.
Brahmacarya, conservation, taught me to invest my energy in things that gave me life. I had to reevaluate what was important to me. One of the biggest lessons in conserving my energy was letting go of all the experiences that I gripped on to with anger or resentment, whether that was with myself or with others. This did not mean I avoided being angry or upset, it simple meant allowing myself to feel and let go and forgive.
Aparigraha, non-attachment, taught me to be grateful in each moment. To accept things for how they were and know I could still choose light. Even in the darkest hour love was always the best medicine.
Saucha, cleanliness, taught me to make rituals like bathing a mindful practice, sending healing love and appreciation to my whole body. And as my body began to atrophy, I realized my mind had to stay strong and I decluttered the irrational thoughts.
Santosha, contentment, taught me to embrace each moment and that destination thinking like I will be okay when... were not productive. Life is so precious and we do not need to wait till we have a life threatening illness to realize this.
Tapas, discipline, taught me that dedication to my practice of yoga and meditation was cultivating a better quality of life. It was not about being rigid, it was about being diligent like Rumi says in the beautiful poem, The Sunrise Ruby, 'Submit to a daily practice. Your loyalty to that is a ring on the door'.
Svadhyaya, self-study, taught me that if we lead with an open mind, we will discover the most divine wisdom of all. That it simply requires making time for stillness. The insight will come, we just have to make that space available.
Isvara Pranidhana, surrender, was not so much a teaching as it was an experience. It was a softening. In my experience, the surrendering came exactly when it was needed and if I had to find a teaching in that, it would be that a deep sense of self-acceptance will forever change us.
There is something so therapeutic in my reflection with cancer. It stripped me down to my very core and opened my eyes to how vulnerable we all are; that our time here is only a flicker of conscious existence and we must live and embrace every moment. Have gratitude in the simplist of things, celebrate our aliveness, and love unconditionally.
For those of you who took the time to read this, thank you! I am so grateful to share my journey with you. I hope that my insight has given you some peace and my closing message is:
courageously accept yourself.
The light in me sees the light in you.
. Ayla . @missaylanova .