Presence by Touch: A Visualization

Staying present is key for not letting your thoughts take you on a wild ride.

Maintaining presence, however, takes practice so I’m always on the lookout for new ways to imagine the state of being in the “now”. Some of these are simpler exercises than others, but the upside of a more “complex” technique means that all my mental energy remains on staying present instead of, say, worrying whether I embarrassed myself at a party three nights ago.

The following is a visualization and mental exercise rolled into one:

What if only what you’re touching exists and everything else falls into nothingness?

Seated, close the eyes. Breathing deeply, allow everything that is around you to fall away in your mind, leaving only those points where your body makes contact with the surface beneath you.

Imagine that the soles of your feet sit on top of sole-shaped pieces of support material. Your buttocks and thighs contact like-shaped material, as does any place your back rests against your chair. If you touch your fingers to the side of your chair seat, small oval-shaped pieces of material appear where your fingers make contact.

Everything else disappears against a background of light (or darkness, if that is more calming). The chair and floor and even the room you are in? Gone. The point of this visualization is maintaining focus on only what you are physically experiencing at any given moment.

It is a strange sensation to imagine, floating through the ether but still feeling support from the slightest bits of material that touch you. This is the ultimate in being 100% present and turns the concept of object permanence on its head.

You don’t feel it? It doesn’t exist.

Our brain wants to fill in the parts that we can’t see because the brain has formulated an image of what is out there. However, in this practice we try to do the opposite–let go of what we do not have immediate physical evidence for.

This is a good analogy for dealing with thoughts that our brain fabricates based on the expectations that it has. What if we let go of them, if only for a short while, and simply sit in the stillness of what is happening right now?

No More Sticky Fingers!

Running late with this post as I’m furiously cleaning our apartment in advance of the Christmas holiday!

I noticed a few mornings ago that when I made a fist and then straightened the fingers of my right hand, the joints didn’t stick at all.

It took over 300 days…but I’m happy to celebrate the end of the side effects!

While this may seem like an odd thing to celebrate, it marked a milestone for me. This was the last side effect attributable to letrozole that I had been experiencing, and it was finally gone. Letrozole is an aromatase inhibitor that blocks production of estrogen and is used as endocrine therapy for breast cancer patients who have estrogen receptor-positive tumors. I’d been on it for about 14 months after switching to it from tamoxifen.

For reference, as of today, I am at Day 307 since stopping the medication, so it’s taken quite a while for this joint side effect to subside. Yes, there are other things still plaguing me, such as memory issues, low libido and difficulty maintaining muscle (even with strength training), but those are more difficult to separate out from the garden-variety effects of menopause.

The sticking fingers began in August 2020 (about 8 months after starting letrozole) and were getting progressively worse. By March 2021, when I called it quits with the endocrine therapy, a number of finger joints were sticking and painful, particularly in the morning.

At that point, I was having trouble getting up off the floor, as I was having issues with joints throughout my entire body. The medication was affecting various aspects of my life, making it difficult to exercise and, as I like to put it, lowering the quality of my existence. Following discussions with my oncologist, we both agreed that my risk of breast cancer recurrence was low enough to stop the meds.

It’s been quite a journey to get to the point where I am now.

Shaking this last side effect of letrozole reminded me how far on this cancer journey I’ve traveled. There have been so many ups and downs, friends made and friends lost to the disease, that it was easy to forget that nothing in life is permanent. Time passes and situations change, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

The concept of “CANCER” used to terrify me, and after I was diagnosed, I hit a low so deep I thought I’d never be able to crawl out of it.

Gradually, as my experience with the disease played itself out, I came to accept the uncertainty about the future. As the end of 2021 draws near, I inch closer to the 5-year survival mark. The fact that I can straighten my fingers in the morning without any pain or sticking is a perfect example of how while I cannot know what the future will bring, I can deal with the “now”. And this “now” is not so bad.

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Best wishes to everyone for a very Joyous Holiday Season and much promise for 2022!

The Snow Globe: A Mindful Visualization

Since it’s winter in the US and we’re starting to get the first blankets of white around the country, I thought it’d be fun to use snow as a visualization.

While it doesn’t snow where I live now, I grew up in New England and remember the peacefulness of calm, snowy nights when I stood out on the second floor balcony in the midst of snowfall, listening to the gentle “pat-pat” of snowflakes as they landed on the ground.

When we’re at our busiest, life can feel like a blur.

I draw on those memories when I think of snow globes. Yes, they’ve often been associated with chintzy souvenirs, but there’s really something quite magical about that little underwater world.

They are also quite beautiful representations of the process of settling down.

Shake a snow globe and watch the glitter spin furiously about, swirling like mad with little sense of a pattern. Those are the thoughts of a busy pre-occupied mind, overwhelmed with responsibities and expectations. For some of us this may be what our current life is like. Or perhaps we’re going through a particularly stressful time and feel as though we’re unable to slow down and catch our breath.

Perhaps we ourselves are adding to the chaos by unintentionally shaking things even more, allowing our monkey minds to run with stressful thoughts. With so much “noise” we can’t see through the water. Everything is a blur. We have a hard time collecting our thoughts.

When we stop shaking the globe and put it down…it will continue to swirl for a while and we may feel like we’re getting “nowhere” by trying to relax. But if we trust in ourselves, trust in impermanence–nothing lasts forever–slowly things will start calming down. The agitation will diminish.

Just as the “snow” will begin to settle down, so too will our busy thoughts and our busy lives. The glitter will float through the water more slowly, and the view will become clearer. A few more breaths, a few more moments of patience. The currents inside the globe lose momentum and the snow will gently blanket the bottom until, eventually, everything is still.

No sign of the tempest that once took place. Just silent peace and quiet breaths.

Until the moment the globe is shaken again.

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The trick, of course, is to learn how to find peace as the glitter water swirls madly about. Once we can do that, the storm may rage, but we will enjoy bliss.

After My Last Oncologist Visit, I Fell Off A Cliff

I had an oncologist appointment last Thursday that marked four years of being done with chemo for breast cancer.

During my previous onc visit in February, I had been a mess: depressed, stressed and miserable with joint pain and a feeling that my endocrine therapy was taking away from me more than it was giving me. At that point, he let me stop the aromatase inhibitors.

Now, half a year later, I felt so different. My blood pressure was 118/83, much lower than the 130s and 140s systolic numbers I was hitting after stepping into the exam room on previous visits. I was peaceful and more hopeful.

We discussed all sorts of “survivor” things. The joint pain had mostly resolved itself and was no longer a hindrance to exercise, one of the things most important to me. My libido could have been higher and my short-term memory was often lacking, but he felt that could also be attributable to working and sleeping in the same room for the past year and a half, coupled with menopause.

Finally, my doctor noted that it was time for another chest MRI. Not the most comfortable of scans, but I’d done it once, I could do it again.

I would love a pet, even if it means having to clean fur out of my keyboard.

It was not until around noon of the next day that I suddenly plunged off a cliff. I was talking to my daughter and randomly mentioned my willingness to look after any pets she might have in the future when she’s living on her own, were she to travel for work, because where we lived now we weren’t allowed to have pets…

…and I was slammed by a massive wave of sadness and regret.

My thoughts zoomed back to my first chest MRI, stripped to the waist, lying on my belly, arms stretched over my head, frightened and painfully vulnerable. All my focus was on breast cancer and what other horrible realities the MRI would reveal. All I could think of was surviving my upcoming treatments.

That MRI meant that my life was on hold. There would be no progress in my career for the foreseeable future, and no chance of moving into a bigger place, one that would allow us to get a cat (note: I’m a dog person, but I would have been happy with a cat!). Animals have always been a part of my life, but our apartment rules prohibited them. I yearned for the chance to have a pet again. It seemed such a small thing to ask, but even that wasn’t available to us now.

That brief discussion with my daughter underscored a profound feeling of loss and despair. Cancer had robbed me of a lot of things in my life that others took for granted.

This was my view before I realized I didn’t have to sit there.

And as I sat there in the depths, I forgot that time does not stand still, things are always changing, nothing is permanent…and I have inside me everything I need to climb out.

Curiously enough, I had recently attended a talk on managing anxiety aimed at cancer patients and survivors. The counselor who presented the information was herself a breast cancer survivor and she told us a story of doing a follow-up chest MRI, which she found very stressful. Afterwards, she was asked by one of the cancer nurses what sorts of mental tools she had used while in the MRI tube to calm herself down. At that point, she realized that even though she taught these techniques to her patients on a daily basis, she had completely forgotten to use them herself!

I had been sitting in the darkness for a few minutes when I remembered her story. Most importantly, I remembered that I didn’t have to feel this way, that it served no practical purpose and that I wanted be happier. The only reason I felt like this was because these emotional plunges had been a habit of mine.

So I twisted a rope out of all those grounding techiques that I’ve posted about and pulled myself up.

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True, I still didn’t have a cat. But I was able to take a deep breath and realize that at least I had a future. And that future might contain a cat.

Sleep Peacefully, Sweet Aira

“[A pet is] a little tuft of consciousness that circles around a person like a moon around a planet, and completes their energy field making them more whole.”

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen quoting a spiritual teacher, as related by Dr. Nancy Novak on the Nancy’s List email newsletter, November 1, 2020.

There are few reminders of impermanence as poignant as life transitions. I experienced this over the weekend as we said goodbye to our beautiful Siberian husky, Aira. I knew the time was coming and that it was right to let her go, just a month shy of her 15th birthday.

Retirement: living the good life in her “golden years”, in her own room. Lots of naps and loads of love.

Aira’s transition was gentle. My mother held and stroked her as she lay on her favorite rug in her bedroom in my parents house. She fell asleep quietly with the first injection, and after the I.V. drug was administered, passed into peace, surrounded by the people she knew and loved in familiar surroundings.

She now lies beneath the window outside her room, one of her favorite places in the yard to sit during the winter, as it was almost guaranteed to have a snow mound. She loved that. As the days became warmer, that mound was one of the last to melt.

In her younger days, bright with husky energy.

I remember the silkiness of the fur on the backs of her ears. And the unbridled joy she exhibited when she would get loose and start tearing around the neighborhood. And how she would roll around in freshly fallen snow in ecstasy. And how wonderful she smelled after rooting around in a rosemary bush. And how we would find a dog treat hidden in a shoe, under a pillow or anywhere else she thought was a safe spot that she could return to later for a snack.

Everything changes. Aira matured and calmed down. She followed us from Chicago to California, then due to stifling housing constraints in the Golden State, was welcomed by my parents in Connecticut, where she got a beautiful yard, lots of snow and unbelievable amounts of attention. Years after their three kids had left, my parents and Aira formed their own little family unit and went almost everywhere together.

My father’s health faltered and Aira, too, started showing her age. The last year brought on the most striking changes. Aira sprouted a fast-growing mast cell tumor on her shoulder. By the time it was removed, the mass weighed almost five pounds, and her prognosis was guarded. That was in April of this year.

Some weeks ago, my mother noticed a hard spot in Aira’s belly. As with the previous tumor, this one grew lightning fast. And unlike the tumor on her shoulder, this one was among her organs and taking a toll on her. This one was not coming out.

I would lie away at night, wondering how this would end. Had I known how blissfully she would transition out of this world, my heart would not have felt so heavy.

Newly arrived at my parents home in New England, looking forward to the cooler air and, after years of California warmth, SNOW.

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I am Roman Catholic. When I was young, I remember a humble missionary priest speaking of how anyone could baptize someone with the sign of the cross and holy water. So, logically, I pilfered some holy water that my grandmother kept on a shelf and baptized our dog at the time, a good-natured chihuahua named Rudis.

Several decades later, when Aira was part of our family, I was already an adult (so I have no excuses), and as I was holding a small vial of holy water brought back from mass, Aira came to sniff at it. I thought, “Why not?” and baptized her.

I’m sure that I’ll be punished for this brazen transgression. And you know what? That’s okay. I hope that I’m banished to the place where animals go after they die, because I’d rather give up my spot in Heaven to spend eternity with my dogs.

Releasing Stress Bubbles

I’m constantly working to keep anxiety under control. For me, one of the most common feelings associated with stress is that of it being “in your face”. There is no buffer and therefore no easy way to give yourself time to pause. Emotions rush at you.

I’ve developed visualizations to give me some space. I’ve already written about getting perspective and keeping anxiety at arm’s length, but sometimes I need another way of freeing myself from stressful thoughts. So I use bubbles!

Oooo, bubbles!

When I get caught up in thoughts of a stressful situation and I feel like the images are right in front of me, I imagine pulling back from the scene. What is transpiring before me continues, but I slowly move away, and as I do, the periphery of my vision starts bending inward. As I pull back, I realize that I am inside a bubble with finite edges.

I keep moving backwards through the wall of the bubble until I’m standing outside it. The actions within are still taking place, but they’re no longer coming at me. I watch from a safe distance, feeling secure.

I may allow the bubble to float away or I can pop it if I choose. Or I may stay with it for a while, observing without getting drawn back in.

Sometimes this becomes a game, particularly if I wake in the middle of the night and find myself in the grip of fearful thoughts. It’s usually not enough for me to back out of one bubble. There may be many. Sometimes I leave a bubble and then realize that I’m standing in another, even bigger one.

When my mind is particularly active, the bubbles keep coming.

But eventually, I get to the point where I am standing outside of all the bubbles, watching them floating before me, the figures or events looking small and not menacing at all. That is the perspective that I need to create myself breathing space.

The metaphor of a bubble is a lovely one because bubbles by themselves are playful, beautiful and, of course, ephemeral. Just as the bubble does not last forever, the events in our lives, no matter how stressful, don’t last forever either. The bubble reminds me that all things pass.

I’ve even brought a little container of soapy water with a bubble wand to work. Blowing bubbles (when no one’s looking) in my office slows my breathing and requires some focus. A controlled exhalation is needed to not pop the prismatic ball of soap-water before I can send it on its way, taking my worries along with it.

A stressful event taking place inside a bubble seems less frightening.

When I cannot do this indoors, I may take a break and head outside, letting the bubbles float off into the breeze. I might make someone else smile in the the process and that gladdens my heart.

It’s silly and fun and reminds me not to take everything so seriously. And if I can send my cares off in bubbles, giving me even a temporary reprieve from anxiety, then perhaps what might have seemed like an overwhelming crisis may feel more manageable.

Portals

The journey back to my hometown included a trip to my alma mater, less than an hour away from my parents’ house. Just like much of the Northeastern US, the school has a lot of history that is reflected in its architecture.

A rather majestic entrance to a library…

Doorways and passages hold a particular interest for me, not only because they can be works of art within themselves but also because they have a symbolism that resonates with me.

A close up of one of the library doors.

A door offers an opportunity to pass through and see what’s on the other side. It may improve our situation or worsen it, but even if it’s the latter, there’s always another door in the not-too-distant future that we can open.

What’s on the other side?

I don’t believe that we ever truly run out of portals to open and thresholds to cross.

Here’s an invitation to enter…
Doors can be deceiving. They may look foreboding, but lead to glorious things.
Some doors you want to stand and admire before opening.
And in lieu of a proper door, windows serve as adequate portals in a pinch.

The Magic of Impermanence

I can be clingy at times.

For better or worse, my tendency is to cling to thoughts, expectations, emotions. Letting go is difficult because change brings on uncertainty, and uncertainty doesn’t feel safe.

And yet, if there’s anything that watching the stately Notre-Dame aflame teaches us, it’s that nothing remains untouched by time and happenstance, not even the 850-year-old symbol of a country.

In our lifetimes, the cathedral has been a steady fixture. And yet, if you consider its history, Notre-Dame has undergone many changes. Modifications by French kings, damage during the Huguenot riots and French Revolution. Repurposing, re-consecration, restoration and renovation over the centuries

While it’s romantic to consider Notre-Dame de Paris as a constant through the ages, the reality is that those significant changes have enhanced its character with meaning. And when the unstoppable advance of time transforms the cathedral into rubble, perhaps something even more beautiful will arise from her remains.

Change can set free something unexpected and lovely.

I have experienced changes in my own life that I couldn’t have predicted and certainly didn’t want. They have been frightening and even painful, and I increased my suffering by fighting them even after realizing I couldn’t stop them.

But just as there is new growth after a forest fire, with the heat being necessary in some cases to release seeds and allow them to find soil, unpleasant changes in my life have led to new paths. All I have needed to do is let go of the past, accept my new reality and find something even more beautiful there.

And that is where the magic lies.

1975-2019

Unbeknownst to me, the friend whom I wrote about in “Waiting To Say Goodbye” had already passed by the time I posted last Saturday. The end came very rapidly but peacefully Friday at sundown, allowing just enough time to enable her to be surrounded by everyone in her immediate family.

This is sudden and painful. She and I had spent a good chunk of 2017 sharing breast cancer treatment experiences. We knew that there were no guarantees with cancer, but we both had hope. Neither one of us imagined that this would be one of the outcomes.

After she knew her cancer had spread, she continued living as she always had, toughing through the hard parts. She didn’t want people asking her how she was feeling, she wanted to keep on going until she couldn’t go anymore, and that’s what she did. Her decline was so swift that she had felt well enough to do everything normally until the last few days before her passing. That was a beautiful gift that she genuinely deserved.

Understanding that nothing in this life is permanent doesn’t make her death any easier to accept, although it does underscore how things change no matter how desperately we cling to them. I strive to practice non-attachment, but who am I kidding? I am too attached to people and expectations. Yes, it does cause suffering, but right now suffering is just what I do.

Eventually I may transcend this. Eventually.

I end this post with a quote from Claire Wineland, the 21-year-old cystic fibrosis activist who passed away from complications from lung transplant surgery on September 2, 2018. She had spent most of her days knowing that her time on this Earth was short and urged people to live life to the fullest: “Go enjoy it, ’cause there are people fighting like hell for it.”