“The next message you need is always right where you are.” ~Ram Das
I try to exercise mindfulness in all things. Nowhere has this been as important for me as in my relationships. I try to remember that I am not the same person I was as a child. People in any family play different roles at different times. It’s been heartening to see myself, formerly a frequent recipient of unwanted advice, in a position of sharing the wisdom of my experience and being a conscious example of what I recommend. I am a younger sister. I am fifty-six years old and own a home, but in my family, I will always be the younger sister.
The difference in age (seven years) only hints at the contrast between my sister Barbara and me. Others have unfailingly viewed her as smart, competent, successful. People have often described me as clever, disarming, creative. While others have always seen me as good-hearted and funny, I used to feel that I would never measure up to my older sister. I knew I would never make a pear tart or play the cello. I would never be able to create a pivot table with Excel and I’d probably never manage a huge investment portfolio.
The comparisons used to bother me. I wished that they didn’t. But I did seek some elusive sort of respectability most of my life, the kind that seems important to a younger sister. Last April, my older sister was diagnosed with lung cancer. After some quickly scheduled tests, we learned that it was operable. As was her way, she did an impeccable job researching surgeons and treatment options. She did a lot of work in short order to facilitate making sound medical decisions.
I remember sitting in the surgical waiting room with her husband and a family friend. We tried to keep each other positive while waiting for the very in-demand specialist to make his post-op consult. It looked like we were lucky. Two lobes were removed from her right lung, but no radiation or chemo was indicated. Through the miracle of modern medicine, she was awake within a few hours. Almost as soon as she gained consciousness, she expressed worry about her husband of forty years, his inexperience at handling simple household chores like making his own breakfast.
She noted feeling anxious about how often she’d have to monitor her lungs to make sure the cancer didn’t come back. At this point, I was reluctant to remind her how lucky she was that her surgery appeared to be so successful. At some level, she knew, but she was not accustomed to letting her mind dwell on the good that could be found in the present.
Over the next few weeks, after she returned home and started living her normal life again, she started attending a survivor group that showcased the topic of mindfulness. Now we started to experience a little reversal of roles. Instead of placing a premium on the ability to plan and organize, the most important thing for her became how to live in the present moment. A freelance writer and single most of my life, I learned how to live without a large measure of structure. For the past fifteen years, I have also kept a meditation practice. Living in the present moment and living mindfully was something I knew something about.
“I am not Yoda or anything,” I told her, “but I can tell you what I’ve learned about mindfulness.” I began a habit of calling her at least once a week. I’d let her empty her mind of its many worries. I asked her to share some recipes. And I dispensed some principles that became important to me in my life.
1. Never value anything because of how much, or how little, it costs.
I knew I would probably never instill her with my love for thrifting, but letting go of this kind of judgment about money has allowed me to find pleasure in the present more easily. Sometimes the simple things in life end up being the most valuable if we allow ourselves to enjoy them.
2. Don’t expect the worst. At minimum, stay neutral.
Without trying to sound like Pollyanna, I encouraged her to look at statistics and probabilities. Her thoughts had a tendency to sink to the bottom of the pond. “Statistically speaking,” I’d say, “things are just as likely to get better as they are to get worse. Stay open to the possibility of good things.”
3. Don’t miss an opportunity to compliment someone, say thanks, or express affection.
I hoped this suggestion didn’t sound maudlin, and it might have if she interpreted the underlying reason as avoiding regret. Fortunately, she understood the other upside of these gestures—making a difference for someone else. One of the main ways I have found to drop preoccupations with worry has been to think of others and not just myself.
4. Pause periodically during the day and observe your own breath.
I knew this suggestion was emotionally charged for her since she was learning how to breathe with thirty percent less lung capacity. I added, “I’m not telling you to watch your breath so that you think about how much harder your lungs are working, although it is wonderful how well a body can adapt. When you watch your breath, you become aware of how to slow down. You don’t have to finish everything right now.”
5. Any time you can spend making friends or nurturing relationships is the most worthwhile way you can spend your time.
Go out to lunch with you pals more. Enjoy your experiences. Don’t just dwell on your accomplishments or worry about planned tasks. So far, our weekly talks have not even touched on my favorite reason to exercise mindfulness, which I will perhaps save for the next time we go out to lunch: For me, the greatest gift of mindfulness is noticing yourself in a state you would like to live in so you can practice consciously bringing that state to each moment. Once you know what it would look like for you, being the person you want to be is far more doable. Catching yourself feeling gratitude, you can live more gratefully. Catching yourself feeling love, you can live more lovingly.