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“There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.” – Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With The Heart Of A Buddha
I started meditating in 2001, hoping to recover from a chronic broken heart. It worked! I met my husband 6 months later.
Beginning with my original breast cancer diagnosis in 2010, I have sat in countless doctors’ office waiting rooms, filled out pounds of paperwork, had hundreds of blood tests, 12 rounds of chemotherapy, approximately 137 infusions, a handful of surgeries, 28 radiation treatments and a CT or PET scan every 6 months.
All this Cancer Nonsense
I’m so glad I had a meditation practice when all of this cancer nonsense started. Meditation has been an invaluable asset and a dear friend. It is a practice that exercises your present moment muscle.
When I was diagnosed metastatic in 2012, I learned I would have to get an infusion every 21 days for the rest of my life or as my oncologist put it “indefinitely.” I liked that word because it seemed more flexible and in the present. The “rest of my life” seemed like a long time. Or did it?
I remember thinking about when and how I would die. My friend Rachel had just passed away a month before at age 36. I was terrified that I was that close. I asked myself, “What if I only have a month? 2? What if I have 6 months? A year? 2? 5? 7?”
I stopped at seven and thought this is ridiculous.
None of us knows how long we have left. I vowed then not to spend any more precious present moments worrying about a future that hasn’t happened yet. I focus on the awesome things I have in my life and practice gratitude instead of worry and regret. Oh! And I meditate.
A Future that Hasn’t Happened Yet
Last April, I got a call from my oncologist after a PET scan. Typically he would give me the results over the phone, but this time he asked me to come into his office and said that he would squeeze me in between other patients. Pretty scary.
I remember thinking, “Okay, stay in the moment, stay in the moment!” My mind kept going toward fear. I’m standing in my oncologist’s office. He tells me to wait there at his desk. I breathe in, I breathe out. I breathe in, I breathe out. I start counting my breath. I panic. I breathe in, I breathe out. I bounce to fear and pull myself back to the present moment. Over and over I call my focus back. I pick up an elephant figurine from the desk and beg it to help me stay in the present. The fear of what my doctor will tell me is taking over. The attention I was giving it held me in the present when going into the future felt like diving into a deep cold well or jumping out of a spaceship.
What he eventually told me was what I feared. The cancer had come back. Once again, I had to squarely face my fear. I remembered my vow from 7 years before not to follow a path away from the present. After some discussion of chemo (or not) for the third time, we found the right drug for me. So far it’s working.
Practice Being in the Present
We can all practice being in the present. A few things to try:
- Whatever it is that you are doing, do it with your full awareness. For example, when you’re sweeping the floor, become aware of your thoughts and begin to pay attention to the simple act of sweeping the floor. Try to not put a label on it as good or bad; just notice your movements. Notice the sound the broom makes as it sweeps across the floor. Notice the muscles you use, your grip on the handle.
- Find a favorite quote or phrase that helps soothe you. My favorite is by Thich Nhat Hanh: “Dear One, I am here for you.” When I spiral into fear, I repeat this phrase over and over.
- Cultivate compassion for yourself. Close your eyes and repeat the phrases silently to yourself: May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be healthy, May I live with ease. See if you can cultivate a feeling of warmth, generosity, love and kindness for yourself. Imagine a ball of golden light at your heart center.
Noticing details, becoming aware of our senses, being curious and having compassion for ourselves can all help anchor us here in the present. What a gift to ourselves and one another!
Kristin Westbrook is the founder of Calm City, New York’s first Mobile Meditation Studio. Kristin discovered the power of meditation after her breast cancer diagnosis at age 42 and then again two years later. Her longtime meditation practice continues to help her navigate the healthcare system and the challenges that come with living with Metastatic Breast Cancer. She is a certified meditation teacher and has fulfilled the requirements for the 100-hour Meditation Teacher Training as prescribed by the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science. Kristin is also trained in the Transcendental Meditation technique. She has a consistent daily meditation practice as well as practicing numerous styles of yoga.