on being present

This week, my friend, Kate and her fiancé, Rob, were in town. We shared many hours of meaningful conversation (one-on-one, the four of us, and with groups of mutual friends) that touched me deeply. They were the types of conversations that plunge far beneath the surface and plumb the depths of human connection. 

During a conversation early in Kate’s stay, she asked if we’ve been talking a lot with our steady stream of visitors and with each other about my diagnosis/prognosis — or if our conversations over recent weeks have dwelt primarily on other subjects. The question prompted Mike and me to think about this, and we concluded that — after our initial, difficult series of conversations with our closest friends and family — most of our conversations have had nothing at all to do with cancer, or with life and death, per se. I wondered aloud if that was a good or bad thing and whether it indicates avoidance or denial on any level. In further conversations on the subject, Mike and I reached the conclusion that the profound moments can’t be sought or forced. They have to come about organically and authentically. 

A couple days later, Mike sent me the below excerpt from this beautiful post:

I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope — it’s OK not to be optimistic. Buddhist teachings say, you know, feeling that you have to maintain hope can wear you out, so just be present… The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here, and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world — because it will not be healed without that. That [is] what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.

The quote comes from A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke wherein Buddhist scholar and philosopher Joanna Macy finds solace in the poetry of Rilke following the death of her husband. 

Rilke writes:

The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.

I’ve ordered the book and look forward to sharing more of Macy and Rilke’s insights — and Rilke’s poems — in future posts. 

In the meantime, Mike and I have committed to simply being present — to showing up each day open to grief, love, joy and whatever else presents itself.

Thank you, Kate and Rob, for a beautiful week. We will cherish it forever.

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3 thoughts on “on being present

  1. I haven’t had a chance to meet you, Naomi (yet?), but I just found your blog and I love this so much. I don’t know how much my husband, Josh, has shared with you guys about what happened to me over the last couple years, but so much of my fight against the panic and anxiety of illness was learning to meditate. And, through meditation, developing my own personal (some would say pessimistic, LOL) mantra: “Nothing bad is happening right this second.” So much of my suffering was what my therapist called “secondary suffering.” Some amount of suffering–like a life-changing disability or a terminal prognosis–is real and unavoidable. But the majority of many (most?) people’s pain is the burden of forecasting what bad stuff might happen in a minute, tomorrow, next year. So I started meditating, and repeating my mantra whenever my suffering was of the secondary variety, and you know what? Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, I could say it truthfully: Nothing bad WAS happening that right that second. It took me a long time to learn that lesson, and I still have anxiety, but so much less suffering. I’m encouraged to hear that your similar goal of present-living is giving you the same peace.

    Oh, and also: LOVE that stump table and those granite-topped side tables. Your carpenter must be really talented. And really hot. 😉

    – Jamey

  2. Oops accidentally hit reply too soon.

    *from Josh and Mike. Josh hasn’t shared with us the details of your illness — just that you use a wheelchair and that your diagnosis motivated the two of you to pursue your dreams, thus Josh’s woodworking adventures with us.

    Thank you for sharing more of your story and particularly your experience learning to cope with the anxiety that accompanied your diagnosis. I found so much comfort and solace in various Buddhist teachings about allowing myself to feel the full range and expression of my emotions and to arrive at peace through this, rather than trying to suppress or deny how I felt. Learning to allow “negative” and “positive” emotions to peacefully co-exist was another huge step in my ability to cope with my diagnosis. Having learned these lessons over the past several years, I’m not finding this sudden change in prognosis as unsettling as I might have had I not done this hard self-work. Hope we get the chance to meet sometime. Sounds like there’s a lot of common ground.

    And, yes, our carpenter is very talented and a super nice guy. 😊

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