Sarah Roos-Essl, Austria
I couldn’t get comfortable in the hard hospital bed. The minutes dragged on and on as I tried to get my mind on something else – anything else – other than what was about to happen in the early morning. It was the eve of my breast cancer lumpectomy and I was hours away from the surgeon removing five cancerous tumors from my left breast. Later that restless night, I received a text from my friend Jim asking if I wanted him to guide me through an Open Heart Meditation before my surgery.
“No thanks,” I replied politely to his text. Hell no, absolutely not, were the actual words I said out loud to myself.
I mean really, what was I going to do, call up The Divine right before I went under the knife? Try and get my messy, angry, cancerous thoughts under control just hours before the operating room? It was a little late for that. I knew I was too far gone. And like many Catholic school kids from the 80’s, I had lost contact with God decades ago. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure who was in charge these days, but I wasn’t about to chat up some higher force who had clearly forsaken me. How could a mother of three young children get breast cancer at the age of 41? No thank you, I’m not answering the call. In retrospect, I guess I didn’t realize that Jim wasn’t asking me to reconcile my entire complicated history with The Divine from my hospital bed (phew!). He just wanted to offer me a little peace, for me to feel loved and held on a lonely, worrisome evening. But more on that later.
So instead of meditating, I chose to watch all three seasons of Derry Girls (laughter is also good medicine), avoiding my heavy feelings until the nurse gave me a sleeping pill and my eyes finally closed.
A few months after the lumpectomy surgery, Jim texted me again. “There’s a new Open Heart Meditation group forming and it’s just for people battling cancer. The woman who runs it lives in Germany. It’s even in your time zone!”
It had been three months since my diagnosis, and I was finally coming around to the idea that I was sick and that I needed to get well. Healing from a disease like cancer is layered and multi-faceted. I was playing by the book when it came to healing my physical body: I underwent the surgery, I was about to have 19 doses of radiation. I dutifully did my blood work, bone scans, scar therapy and stretching exercises. I took my vitamins and supplements, started eating a vegan diet and cut out a list of random things I arbitrarily decided were bad for my health (I really hope I’m wrong about gummy bears). It had only recently occurred to me that I also needed to heal from the inside. And not from my now hollowed-out breast, but from my heart – from my tender, broken but still-beating heart.
“Ok, please sign me up. Thank you!” I replied. I was still skeptical. I had no idea what to expect, but at this point, who was I to refuse someone’s offer to help me help myself? I had taken a few meditation classes before, and they all struck me as very serious. There were many references to training the “monkey mind,” which only made my crazy monkey even more rabid. I always felt like I wasn’t doing it right and I already had enough things to feel bad about.
AFTER OUR INITIAL ZOOM MEDITATION SESSIONS, I FELT SOMETHING INSIDE ME SLOWLY BEGIN TO THAW.
I logged onto our first Zoom session and was immediately struck by the meditation leader. She was radiant. As in, radiating actual light. “Lit from within” as my friend Elena calls exceptionally vibrant people. There were only three of us cancer patients in the group and Alisa, the leader. Alisa asked us to get comfortable and warm, so we all tucked ourselves under blankets and propped ourselves up with pillows. One participant had called in from her hospital bed. Another woman wore a thick wool beanie to prevent warmth from escaping her bald chemo head. I felt a lump in my throat. I wanted to skip to the part where we were happy and free from suffering. I wanted us to not be on this call in the first place.
Alisa watched us quietly as we got settled, the same glowy smile on her face. Then she began –
“Put your hand on your heart and smile, sweetly and freely,” she began. “Smile at everything and everyone you can think of. Smile at people you love, smile at people you don’t love! Just keep smiling!”
Alisa cheered us on like we were little children learning to ride a bike for the first time. Her gentle voice would giggle and say encouragingly “Yeah! Yes! You’re doing it! Yes, Sarah! Keep going!”
We did this for an entire hour. I was surprised to find the skeptic in me was quiet. I felt good. And the smile stayed on my face as I tiptoed downstairs to my loud, chaotic family who was waiting for dinner.
In the next few sessions, Alisa continued to encourage us. She told us she wanted us to feel “True Source Love” in our hearts to support our healing and to support the return of happiness in our lives. True Source Love, she told us, can be many things – we didn’t need to get bogged down with a religious belief system or specific nomenclature. True Source Love can be thought of as The Creator, the Source of Unconditional Love or the Source of our True Self. It can be Mother Earth, the Divine, God. It can be all these things.
As I sat there with my hand on my heart, I couldn’t help but wonder what I was really feeling just then. Was this God speaking to me? Was it me talking to myself? Was I making this all up? I didn’t know, but I felt something inside me slowly begin to thaw.
After a particularly powerful session together on a cold February afternoon, I wrote Alisa a message. “Thank you for today! I feel a lot better.”
She replied shortly but sweetly – “All True Source Love.”
WE ARE CONSTANTLY SURROUNDED BY TEN TRILLION BEAUTIFUL MIRACLES THAT ARE GIFTS FOR US, ALL FROM TRUE SOURCE LOVE.
Every time I would message her or our meditation group with good news or just a joyful observation in my daily life, Alisa would reply with the same thing: All True Source Love. All True Source Love.
What? Could this really be?
The first spring crocus was all True Source Love?
The glistening strawberries in the blue bowl were All True Source Love?
The cheeky, toothless smile of my eight year old was All True Source Love?
Yes, I’m sure she would say. All of it.
Slowly but surely, I was getting the hang of it. I started going on daily walks to watch spring arrive in my little village outside Vienna, Austria. Every time I would see something beautiful, I would say Alisa’s words out loud and smile, “All True Source Love.” It became a sort of game for me, and the more I played, the more I won. A new world opened itself to me, a world that was softer and full of miracles, a world far away from cold hospital waiting rooms and a scary cancer diagnosis. Maybe you could also call this a gratitude practice. There isn’t a wrong way to think about it.
And let me tell you, when you finally realize what I’m getting at here – that we are all actually surrounded by ten trillion beautiful miracles that are all gifts for us, all from True Source Love – you leave the lonely desert and arrive in Eden. You’re handed the keys to the kingdom. I can’t describe it any other way. It’s as if you have spent years in black and white and are finally seeing in color. The universe suddenly becomes “rigged in your favor” as the poet Rumi writes. Soon enough you realize that maybe the mystics were right all along – heaven really is, within. Or at least it can be if you work at it.
Now summer has arrived in Vienna. A huge, shimmering green flower chafer just landed on the table where I write this post, somehow managing to end up on his back. His squirming legs and round tummy are covered in yellow pollen from a day drinking from the roses. I gently flip him over and he flies clumsily away, humming as he goes. All True Source Love. See what I mean? Seek and you shall find.
It’s been a few months since I began this meditation journey. Maybe you’re curious to know – did it work? Am I finally healed from the inside out? Well maybe, but maybe not. Once I started teaching myself to see the world with the lights turned on, I stopped caring about the outcome of the practice itself. Accessing this kind of illuminated love in my heart will now be life-long work for me, not unlike exercising an essential muscle. It’s a full-time job and our deep responsibility to build our own internal heaven.
A LOVE LIST FROM MY JOURNAL
And yes, there are great days, and there are bad days too. I will forever be a student. To not get discouraged on the days when I’m not “feeling it,” I started making a list of all the ways I imagine divine love might feel, which is also to say, things that bring me great joy. When I have a particularly hard day, I look at this list. Below are a few examples from my journal. As you begin or continue your own quest toward accessing this kind of love that is possible for you, I wish you a list like this and ten thousand times longer…
Love like tiptoeing down the stairs on Christmas morning
Love like the fringed yellow tulip petals in April
Love like coming home to soup on the stove
Love like the smell of coffee wafting into the bedroom
Love like my daughter’s sleepy morning smile and tangled hair
Love like the sound of a knife buttering toast
Love like the flower chafer flipping over
Love like shooting stars
Love like a ripe tomato on the vine
Love like the color of honey
Love like the smell of lilacs in the rain
Love like the clang of church bells at sunrise
Love like being totally forgiven, for everything
Love like learning to ride a bike
Love like looking back and realizing your dad let go of the bike seat
Love like you’re flying