I knew the two soft pillows placed in my right palm were raisins. Yet I forced myself to pretend I didn’t have a clue what they might be. That was the point, after all, to pretend we were aliens from another planet. With my eyes closed, I tried to figure out for what purpose these squishy blobs might have been created.
Using my left hand, I pressed the larger one down flat, then rolled it into a ball. As if attempting to describe its distinctive characteristics in writing, I let my imagination guide me. Fighting against what I knew, that these were dark, plump raisins, I told myself a lie. This is dough, I said silently, as I rolled and flattened, rolled and flattened. I will use this to make two miniature pizzas.
Sitting in a hard, straight-backed chair my feet planted firmly on the floor, I was in my first class on mindfulness meditation. The exercise aimed to impart an aspect of mindfulness, that of beginner’s mind. We were exploring the difference between knowing, or at least thinking we knew, and letting the world teach us through feel, texture and smell, as it did when we were young.
The majority of the thirty or so students in the room were far from young. Nearly everyone, including me, fell comfortably in the Boomer years. I couldn’t be sure if my generation predominated because we had long been attracted to Eastern practices and thought, or if this was due to the fact that cancer tends to affect more people at this stage of life. The class had been offered by a local hospital’s cancer support center. All of the students were either cancer patients or family members. Except for two women who’d gone bald, it was impossible to tell which students were patients and which were not.
At the beginning of the class, Annie, the instructor, had said that when we meditated, unpleasant emotions might come up. I knew this already, having spent more than half a dozen years in therapy, based on an Integrative Psychology model that combined Western talk therapy with meditation. For years, I began each fifty-minute session sitting across from my therapist, Laura, with my feet flat on the floor, eyes closed, watching the breath as it traveled in through my nostrils, into my lungs, and down, all the way to my feet. Watching the breath enabled me to feel, something I’d cleverly managed to avoid for years.
On this morning, in a large room with plain brown wooden cabinets running the length of the east wall, Annie led us in our first meditation. All she wanted us to do was watch the breath, coming in and going out. Each time the mind jumped away from the breath, we were advised to gently bring it back, maybe even labeling it with words, such as planning or thinking.
I had barely closed my eyes and focused on my breath when I realized how sad I felt. The sorrow crowded around my temples, pressing against my eyes. I knew I was supposed to bring my thoughts back to the breath, but all I could think about was how badly I wanted to cry.
The sadness was suddenly washed away by a stab of anger I couldn’t ignore. And what made me angrier was that I couldn’t take my fury out on anyone, because there was no one to blame.
I was angry that my husband, Richard, had gotten cancer. Even more infuriating, he’d been diagnosed when the cancer had spread to his bones and was no longer curable. He had Stage Four, the worst, most deadly. I was angry because I knew he would one day leave me, something I wasn’t the least bit prepared for.
Having always been a person who didn’t enjoy following rules, I continued to ignore Annie’s reminders to bring my thoughts back to the breath. Instead, I wallowed in that anger, dissecting it, considering each aspect, as I began to understand that there were many. I was furious, I could see now, with them, an unnamed group who seemed to control the universe, giving some folks all the luck and others, like Richard and me, most of the heartache. This cancer diagnosis was patently unfair. Anyone could see that. Richard was a kind, thoughtful person. I felt certain that our friends and acquaintances liked him much better than they liked me. He should not have had to suffer like this.
And I went on, listing more of the reasons cancer should not have been allowed to barge into our lives, relenting every fourth or fifth thought to haul my mind back ever so momentarily to the breath. Richard and I had married late, having spent decades finding one another. We had happily imagined growing old and frail together, still laughing a lot, and still getting irritated at each other’s most annoying habits.
I had signed up for the mindfulness class as a way to cope. Though I’d long understood that there were absolutely no guarantees in life and this moment was all we had, my mind operated in a dramatically different fashion. For much of my life, I struggled with both anxiety and depression. To cope, I became adept at trying to catapult myself out of the present moment to some imaginary future where things would be just fine.
In a deep way I understood that dwelling on the cancer was not going to help me or Richard. Yes, we needed to pay attention, to understand what treatments were available and how to deal with side effects and maximize his potential for healing. But beyond that, thinking about this disease only seemed to lead down a dark, narrow tunnel without even the thinnest ray of light.
Each time Annie tapped the small bell, the signal to open our eyes, I again became aware of the other people in that room. In one way or another, we were all in the same boat, drifting toward a future none of us could imagine. Yet no one appeared dejected. In fact, when describing their experiences meditating or trying to pretend that a raisin wasn’t a raisin, many of the women and men joked.
I quit going to those weekly fifty-minute therapy sessions nearly two decades ago, when I felt I’d said everything to my therapist there was to say. I hadn’t been “cured” of depression, as I’d once hoped, but I had learned something profound. I could live with depression. Acknowledgment and acceptance of the depression was at the core. That meant letting in bad feelings, instead of trying to push them away, as I’d done most of my life.
Or as I liked to think, acceptance began with feeling my feet. Times when my mood turned dark, I would straighten my back and plant my feet firmly on the floor. My eyes closed, I would watch the breath, as it leaked into my nostrils and down my throat, filling the lungs, then swirling around the belly, before dropping into my thighs and calves, and finally down to my feet. Once the breath was there, I would feel my feet, the big toe and the pinky, the arch, and then up to the ankle. At that point, I often had a clue what moments before had made me feel bad.
The final time Annie had us meditate I fought to keep even the most minute focus on my breath. I felt as if an annoying fly kept landing on me, close to my right eye, and I repeatedly needed to swat it away. At one point, I questioned whether this practice would ever make me feel the slightest bit better. It seemed to be making me feel worse.
A voice in my head was kind enough to remind me that habits are hard to break. And though I wasn’t supposed to let my mind sail off into thought, I did so anyway.
For as far back as I could remember, I planned, schemed and daydreamed my way out of unhappy times. The thinking went, When I go on vacation, then I will be happy, or When I get a new job, things will be better. Yet nearly every time I arrived in that new and different place, I found that nothing had changed.
I couldn’t wish, plan or daydream my way out of the current situation, I reminded myself. All I could do was learn to look at the world with a beginner’s mind, to take in its beauty, along with the pain. And thinking this, I dragged my mind back, gently trying to focus on the breath, for as long as my attention might deign to stay.
Patty Somlo’s most recent book is Hairway to Heaven Stories, published by Cherry Castle Publishing. Her previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been finalists in the International Book Awards, Best Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, and Reader Views Literary Awards. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Adelaide Voices Literary Award for Short Story, and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014. Find her at www.pattysomlo.com.
© 2018, Patty Somlo