How does one surrender to life in the face of adversity? Q&A with Putney author Cheryl Wilfong
PUTNEY — As a young adult, writer Cheryl Wilfong "fell into a black pit."
A mentor recommended meditation, which Wilfong, of Putney, said helped her out of the dark place.
"Not that I recommend that for everybody, but it worked for me," she said.
Decades later, she turned to the same practice after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis in 2015.
"I have a lot of faith, or trust, in mindfulness," Wilfong said. "Mindfulness just made the whole process easy — really."
Wilfong wrote about the experience in her 2019 book "Breast Cancer Meets Mindfulness: Surrendering to Life," which went on to win a New York City Big Book Award, was named the Independent Publishers of New England 2019 Book of the Year and, most recently, earned a 2019 silver Nautilus Book Award. According to the Nautilus award's website, its
mission is to recognize books that support conscious living and green values, high-level wellness, social justice and spiritual growth.
Following her diagnosis, Wilfong underwent surgery and radiation, and now describes her health as good.
She is also author of "The Meditative Gardener" and "Following the Nez Perce Trail: A Guide to the Nee-Me-Poo National Historic Trail with eyewitness accounts," among other titles. She is a teacher at the Vermont Insight Meditation Center in Brattleboro and also, a hospice volunteer.
Having just come inside from gardening on a recent sunny day, Wilfong took time to speak with the Reformer about focusing on the present, her newest book and life in a pandemic.
Q: What is mindfulness?
A: One of the simplest definitions is: tethering the mind to the body, so, keeping the mind in the present moment, staying here and now. As one of the chapters in my book says, "The future is always a stressful thought." First of all, the future is just an idea. The body is always in the present moment. The body cannot be anywhere else.
Peace is in the present moment. Thinking about the future is always a stressful idea. Even if one is thinking about something wonderful — that anticipation of something wonderful that's going to happen — my vacation or whatever, or my next stage of life — that carries with it what's called eustress, and it's still stress, even if it's wonderful stress.
Q: How did your practice of mindfulness change when you received your diagnosis?
A: One of the things I did was come up with some mottoes for myself, sort of like AA mottoes, like, "I don't need to know that right now." If the doctor doesn't know the answer to that question, I can't know the answer to that question. Because, of course, the mind wants to know, wants to know, wants to know. And the doctor probably has a pretty good educated guess, but the doctor hasn't really thought about it. The doctor's busy thinking about other patients. So that was one of them, one of my little mottoes. "I can't know the answer to that question." "The answer is not known at this time."
Q: How did you decide to write a book about your experience?
A: I was on a 10-day silent meditation retreat, and when the mind calms down and becomes quiet, sometimes, really good ideas pop up. And so this was one of them, like, "Cheryl, you should write a book about this." Really, the subject is breast cancer, but it's really a Dharma book.
Dharma is the teachings of the Buddha. And, you know, that's what I do, is teach meditation. So it was a great opportunity to just, step by step, offer practices that put the mind at ease.
People don't know what's going to happen with the pandemic, it's really sort of useless to guess about the future because it's all stressful and it isn't known right now.
Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your mindfulness practice?
A: I'm at peace. I'm not worried. Yes, I may die. Who knows? I may be dead by July. I'm in my 70s. I think my health is pretty good. And I don't have any of the compromising illnesses. But yeah, death may come. Death comes when it comes.
One of the scary things about this pandemic is that it puts us face to face with death in the old-fashioned manner of death, where people are here and then all of a sudden they're gone. And, you know, our modern style of death is much more: going downhill, recovering, there's a new normal; going downhill, recovering, there's a new normal, so we've got a lot of time to sort of adjust to the fact that someone's body is dying.
Q: Do you have an intended audience for your book?
A: Anyone who is going through a stressful time, a stressful place in their life. So yes, the topic looks like it is breast cancer, but it could apply to any cancer and really it could apply to the pandemic. It could apply to people who are deeply concerned about our political situation. It's good for any kind of stressful situation.
Q: What does it mean to surrender to life?
A: It sort of depends on whether you think the universe is friendly or hostile. If you think that the universe is a hostile place, then that's the path that leads to suffering. A lot of heartache and mindache. If you think that the universe is essentially friendly, then why wouldn't you trust life? I say "life," but one could substitute your own word. Some people say universe. Some people would say God. Some people would say nature. Some people might say "higher power."
So surrendering to life — as if life knows better than I do, how to live it. Because, of course, I've got my own opinions about what would be good, but life, when I look back at it, has been pretty darn good to me, even when I was spitting into the wind and fighting it.
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