For a year I slept with a fluorescent skeleton-head candle in my bedroom. When I awoke in the dark, the skull reminded me that I was going to die, my heart beat faster, and I held my breath. It seemed impossible to fathom how the world could go on without me in it.
I had begun sleeping beside this glowing skull after reading Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live and knew immediately that I wanted to live with death as a guide. Asking others to join me, I formed a small group of vipassana meditators to explore this together—imagining that we each had only a year to live as a vehicle to live life more fully and as a way to investigate fear of death.
I grew up in a family that never talked about death even though my father went missing in action in the Korean War and never returned home. A portrait of my father hung in our living room, and it felt as if his eyes followed me wherever I went. One time I dreamed he was walking toward me. He was surrounded by light and asked me to come with him. I didn’t know where he was and felt certain I would die if I followed him. I woke up screaming and gasping for breath.
When I started the Year to Live group, I contacted this primal terror. I gradually learned to breathe with that terror and not push it away. I also deepened my awareness of the way fear prevented me from taking risks—how it stopped me from doing the work I really wanted to do. That year I started teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), something I had training in but until that time had been too timid to attempt.
Through our Year to Live group, I wrote my own eulogy, reviewed my life, deepened my relationships, and went through a weekend practicing death and rebirth. In one particularly potent exercise, I made a death mask, placing strips of plaster over another member’s face and having a like mask placed on my face. I felt the usual fear catch in my breath, and I kept paying attention to that. When the mask was peeled off, it was a reminder to shed the patterns and habits that held me back from experiencing life as joyful no matter what the circumstances.
Maranasati—mindfulness of death—has continued to guide my life for over ten years now. I have led almost sixty yearlong groups through the Year to Live process, as well as many MBSR groups and workshops. As part of this work, in October 2007, I sat with a small circle of men with AIDS whom I had taught to meditate. They talked about being in intensive care—close to actual death—and what that experience had been like. I felt a powerful curiosity. What would it be like—that up-close experience of death?
Two months later I returned home from Saturday errands to a letter from the mammography center asking me to schedule an appointment for a repeat mammogram. When I called, they told me I had a small shadow on my right breast. Nothing had ever been abnormal in the right breast before, and I sensed something now was.
During the week before my appointment, I imagined my family and friends living without me, just as I had practiced in the Year to Live groups, and I was filled with sadness. On one morning walk with my dog, another kind of thought came, a thought I had felt lurking: I can’t say I don’t want this.
I felt a shift inside, then heard a wren sing and saw leaves blow through the trees around me. The curiosity I had felt two months before in the AIDS group replaced the sadness, and in some way I didn’t completely understand I felt ready to face whatever lay ahead. Although I knew that thought was the truth, I didn’t want to share it with anyone else.
I returned for another mammogram and felt my intuition strengthened with each additional film, followed by an ultrasound. The radiologist told me I would need to have a biopsy, showing me the ultrasound film and pointing to what looked like a small black hole in the center of floating white strands, like the Milky Way.
Two days later, on the Thursday before Christmas, I had the biopsy. Afterward, the radiology technician held my arm to make sure my balance was stable. She told me she had caught many women as they fainted from fear during their mammograms after the biopsy. But I didn’t feel dizzy; I felt focused.
I heard the results from my husband, Eric, who’d been told in a call from the gynecologist when I was out. When I called Eric from my daughter’s house, I heard the phone ring, get picked up and then be hung up. I called again and heard Eric breathe on the other end of the line. I asked, “What’s wrong? Why did you hang up on me?” I heard him sob. Frightened, I asked again, “What is it? Tell me, Eric. Is it our dog? What is it? Did your mother die?”
Finally he told me, “It’s you.”
He cried, “You have cancer.”
“Oh, it’s okay. I already knew.”
“But it’s not a good kind. It’s invasive and you could die.”
I immediately told my daughter and son, and we hugged each other. I wanted everything to be out in the open. I didn’t want to hide from the truth like I had hidden how I felt about my father when I was a child.
For the rest of that day and night I kept telling myself, to make it real, “I have breast cancer. Maybe I’ll die from this. It’s invasive breast cancer.” I made several promises to myself, one of which was this: I will never be annoyed or angry again; I will only be kind. I thought it would be even harder for Eric to lose me because I’d never again be argumentative or need to have my way. The intention was earnest, but of course I was asking a bit much of myself. I fantasized, Now I’ll just write about my life and the lessons I’ve learned from the Year to Live groups to pass on to my kids, do chi kung, and be with my family and friends. I felt a new freedom when I thought about what I wanted to keep in my life and what I wanted to let go of.
As I had trained myself to wonder over these past ten years of leading groups, I continued to ask, What if I really have just one year to live? What if this is my last Christmas? I felt like I was in a bubble, a surreal space. To my own surprise, I didn’t feel afraid.
On New Year’s Day I set an intention to be fully present for whatever came. This year I knew mindfulness would be the only guide I would need. By the time of surgery I felt ready. I no longer thought I was going to die from this cancer but kept a clear eye on this possibility that is always here.
I created a new altar under my bedroom window, with a view of the crown of a grove of redwood trees and a large open sky. As I sat in meditation each morning and evening I often remembered a teaching from the Thai Forest monk Ajahn Mun. He said that devas—powerful, angelic, supernatural beings—are attracted to the pᾱramῑs, the radiant qualities of heart/mind. He also said devas like to be in treetops. I felt comfortable and at ease, held by the radiant redwood devas.
Before my surgery, I gave the anesthesiologist a piece of paper and asked him to read aloud the invitation to be at ease and heal well just as he started and ended anesthesia. I asked him to play music I’d chosen on my iPod. I awoke from surgery to the Kuan-yin and metta chants, and I smiled.
Over the next weeks I did all I could to stay present—to not wish for the future, as I waited for the results of the surgery, and then more tests—to keep a big perspective. This wasn’t always easy. After waiting two weeks for the results of a critical test, I was told the test had mistakenly never been ordered. I felt like screaming. I went to my yard and looked up at the sky, at something vaster than my own story. A tug from my heart brought me back to my body. And for one of the first times in these weeks of uncertainty, I cried. After some minutes I sat and felt my breath, in and out. After another week I got the result of the test and it showed a high intermediate risk for cancer recurrence. I decided to start chemotherapy the next week.
I knew my hair would fall out, so I decided that before it did, I would have my head shaved in a ceremony. I asked the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Anam Thubten Rinpoche to teach as a guest at the meditation class I lead. He chanted the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination sutta in Tibetan (the Buddha’s teaching on how suffering is created) while shaving my head. I felt heat from the electric razor and watched my hair fall around me. After my head was bald, Rinpoche’s Dharma talk on renunciation strengthened my intention for mindfulness and deepened this cancer “retreat.”
One day, during the second week of chemo, I sat at the hospital with other people with cancer. I saw a young man without hair and an old woman with her daughter and three small grandchildren. The daughter told me her mother was dying. My heart broke open and I started to cry. Tears kept flowing down my cheeks as I tried to take in the immensity of the physical suffering I saw and felt. I knew I was part of this cancer community and felt the wider reality that all of life suffers and eventually dies—we just don’t know when.
I am grateful for the black hole that turned out to be a tumor because it made me stop and pay attention. I have emerged from this retreat in awe of the Year to Live mindfulness practice that allowed me to be with cancer in this way. The practices I have been doing and teaching over these ten years have provided me with the ground for courage—an ability to be present with whatever comes—curiosity and increased appreciation for the mysteries of life and death. Right now I’m still bald like a turtle out of its shell.