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How I Learned Mindfulness

Sitting on the couch, petting my cat Chaz, I felt the sun streaming in through the window. I felt Chaz’s silky fur run through my hands and the warmth of the sunlight shining on my face. In that moment, I was okay.

My mind wandered back to the last week and how sick I had been after my chemotherapy treatment. I had been up half the night vomiting, and then I was so weak that I lay on the couch the entire next day. I remember feeling so tired, depleted and alone. I brought my mind back to this moment with Chaz, and again, I felt fine.

Then my mind wandered again, this time to the thought of having treatment again in a month, and I felt fear course through my body. I took a breath and again focused on the feel of Chaz purring underneath my hand. Everything was okay when I kept my focus on right now.

Focusing on the Present Moment

This was my life, when I was 11 years old and going through eighteen months of chemotherapy for a rare childhood cancer. I learned that if I could just be in the present moment, everything was okay. When my mind wandered to the past or the future, I felt fear and, at times, terror. But when I came back to my breath and what was happening right now, the fear left, and openness, and ease entered.

Back in the mid-seventies, when I was undergoing cancer treatments, no one talked with me about what I was going through. I felt my mother’s love when she was by my side through all my treatments. She would say, “You are going to be fine,” and her words were very comforting and soothing. And yet, there was no reality check or discussion about what I was seeing and enduring, or about how I was living on a tightrope between life and death.

Without any teachers, counselors, or tools to guide me, I began practicing what I now know is called mindfulness. I learned that when I could be fully present in the now, fear dissipated and life opened. I was fully alive and grateful for each day.

I told no one of my self-taught learnings of how to be okay.

Thinking About the Future

This self-learned mindfulness carried me through years of treatments, radiation, and multiple surgeries. I held little fear. Over time, I learned to live in the moment to the extent that my brain actually did not know how to think in the future. When I was 25 years old, my boyfriend, Scott, threw out the word “marriage,” and I had a full-blown panic attack. I gasped for air and didn’t know if I could continue breathing. My reaction shocked Scott. We now look back at this moment, 30 years later, and laugh.

Soon after Scott’s proposal, I realized that I needed some mental framework to hold future thoughts. Luckily, I met a gifted therapist, named Kevin, and he walked with me on this path. I learned how to continue embracing the now while, at the same time, creating space for future plans.

The peace and ease I experienced as an 11-year old when my mind centered in the moment was not only life changing but also life giving. I learned what being alive meant. This sense of aliveness has informed my entire life.

Now, forty years later, as an adult, living a healthy life, I can catch my mind wandering to the future or past—to a fear, a worry, a what if. On a deep level, I understand that life is not lived in the past or future or in what ifs or worries, and I bring my mind back to the present moment. Living one day at a time, one breath at a time, is a lifelong practice.

It is in this moment where we feel our essence, our breath. It is in this moment that we are fully alive.

Catherine Duncan, MA, BCC is a Social-Emotional, and Spiritual Care Provider at Newbridge. She is an ordained minister, a board-certified chaplain, spiritual director, energy healer, and tapping (EFT) practitioner who works extensively with mind-body therapies and aromatherapy.

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