“With each life-changing experience, we’re forced to redraw the map of our knowing.”
—from The Endless Practice, Mark Nepo
I have shared with all of you, dear readers, about my experience with breast cancer over these last few months. And, yes, it has been a life changing experience in so many, many ways. Ways that I have yet to discover and will continue to learn from and ways that have already brought me to new awareness and new lessons. Perhaps some of these lessons were not even “new” per se, but had always been present. My experience with cancer helped to uncover them like treasures during an archaeological excavation: finding things that have always been there within me, yet hidden or buried or long-ago lost. And like any kind of challenge or suffering or crisis in life, breast cancer “forced me to redraw the map” of what I thought I knew to be true. This life experience relentlessly pushes me to look more deeply and more honestly into the nature of my true being, my limitations, my dark sides, and even my strengths.
It seems a large portion of the map of my own knowing and from which I was living, was outdated, ineffective and no longer accurate. In fact, in continuing to use this “map”, I was taking paths which were no longer bringing me to where I could flourish and thrive. Some of the roads on this map were “dead-ends”. But it took great suffering to open my heart and soul so I could see and then, accept this.
I remember the first two questions I asked myself after I was diagnosed: “Have I lived my best life?” and “Have I loved as fully as I could?” Those two questions were suddenly the most important things in the world to me. And when I realized I could not answer those questions, I got scared. Really scared. Because cancer itself already propelled me into such deep fear, I decided to dive even more deeply into it and started asking those questions which would help me to re-draw my map of knowing. This process, of course is ongoing, but I want to share with you some of what I have already discovered after asking myself these questions and realizing that I did not know the answers.
First, I realized I needed to look at those parts of myself that I routinely ignored or denied. As Carl Jung would see them, my “shadow” sides. I knew deep down that the shadow sides of me were the homes to unhealthy, unproductive, ineffective beliefs that I regularly used to rationalize keeping my heart closed and rationalize behavior that only contributed to my own suffering (judgment, criticism of self and others, resentment, insecurity, unrealistic expectations, perfectionism, lack of self-worth, etc). We all hold onto beliefs and behaviors that are ineffective, but we must also remember that we do so because of two aspects of our own fear: the part of fear that forms the foundation of these beliefs in order to protect us, as well as the part of fear that gets triggered when we consider stepping into unknown territory and re-drawing our map. It is so much easier to hold onto behaviors and beliefs long after they have served their purpose. Even though our old ways no longer serve us and are even getting in the way of our growth, they are familiar, comfortable like a worn-in arm chair. The chair no longer adds to the beauty of the room, but it is so, so comfortable that we make concessions for its presence. So, too, with our ineffective beliefs and feelings; we continue to use them as our maps even though they do not bring us to our fullest potential. The old way is comfortable and familiar; the new way fraught with unknown outcomes and uncertainty. Life will teach us that the map of our knowing is sometimes very inaccurate. The knowing and the truths I held onto were covering my own fear. When I looked more closely at this, I could see that fear was preventing me from discovering a new way to know myself and to live fully and love courageously.
In deep reflection of these aspects of myself, I had to admit that I was getting in my own way of living my best life and loving as fully as I possibly could. I had to admit that what I “knew” to be true, was based on fear. I had to admit that I had some nasty habits and those habits needed to go if I wanted to love and live more fully. And I definitely knew I wanted that. I no longer wanted my fears to determine what I knew and held as true and how I lived and loved; I wanted to live from my own open heart, even when feeling petrified and uncertain.
So, I began the process of shining the light on those nasty habits and shadow sides of myself. Not with condemnation, but with gentleness and grace. I lovingly admitted that I definitely held onto beliefs and behaviors that were born of old suffering, but were now just ancient hurts and resentments causing stagnation. I thanked those parts of myself for how they did serve me long ago, but then told them I was releasing them. I practiced gratitude for how they did protect me once, and then moved into letting them go to make room for a new map, a new way of being. Each time I found myself living from those old beliefs and moving into ineffective behavior, I said, “Ah, there I go again. Letting my fear guide my response. I know there is a more effective way to see and respond to this. If I truly want peace and love, what road will get me there?” And I continue to hold the daily intention in this practice.
And wouldn’t you know it?… I started living more fully and loving more courageously. I made amends with those I had hurt and asked for forgiveness within myself and from others. I strengthened old relationships and opened my heart more and more to peace, acceptance, compassion, and being comfortable with differences and disagreements. I re-connected with loved ones and friends and found amazing treasures in this process. I learned that I did not need to be perfect. I took more chances when feeling vulnerable and expressed my gratitude for others. I became acutely aware of how deeply I was loved, and how a big part of me was so afraid to accept this. But now, with my new map and new “knowing”, I learned that the only way to get to a life fully lived and loved was to breathe in this knowledge: I am deeply loved and I am capable of loving others deeply. And so I practice this as well, daily.
My experience of breast cancer was definitely a life-changing experience that brought me into this process of opening, honestly reflecting and a willingness to let go of the old, familiar, protected ways and step into new, uncertain territory. But each one of us, has these kind of life-changing experiences. One of my mentors, Peter Pearson, wisely told me that opportunities for growth and learning and thriving are EVERYWHERE. We just need to be awake to see them. So, I would really like you to write in and tell me of your life changing experiences that have brought you to a new map of knowing. I truly want to know how life has been your teacher, because we are all in this human experience together.
My hope for all of you is that your new way of knowing will undoubtedly and ultimately tell you that you are deeply loved and capable of loving others deeply. Peace.