The exact date eludes me, but the imprint this night had on me will be forever seared in my memory.
It is late December, 2009, and I am 16 years old, a junior in high school. My parents solemnly sit me down on the couch as if I had stolen my sister’s Halloween candy in an effort to be featured on Jimmy Kimmel. Remembering this experience, I wish that had been the case, because the next four words completely altered the rest of my life.
“Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer.”
My mother, a supposedly-healthy 48-year-old woman, who completed a triathlon just a few short months earlier, was now calmly telling me she had 3 to 6 months to live. I tried to go about my night as if nothing happened, but there was no avoiding the foreboding sense of what the future had in store for my family.
New Year’s came and went and after countless appointments, CT scans and procedures, chemotherapy proved to be the only viable option. A treatment that would kill cells in her body in hopes of conquering the disease. On the date of her first session, my mother made me a promise to me: She would spend one last Christmas with her family.
Day by day, month by month this single cell mutation exacerbated by the strain of chemotherapy began to turn my lively, compassionate, and inspirational mother into a shell of the woman she used to be.
Bernadette Suzanne Vanyo, the most important person in my life, passed away on December 26, 2010 at 10am in her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She left an indelible mark on this world and in my heart.
Finding Light in the Darkness
Experiencing this devastating transformation first hand is the most painful and destructive thing I have ever been through. It brought on some of my life’s darkest moments. Being able to transmute my pain into growth and find the light at the end of the tunnel has allowed me to become self-aware and mindful—perhaps in a way that no other event could have done. However, my path to peace, awareness and self-study has been long and far from straightforward.
That path began with a chance to travel to Bali, Indonesia as part of my Theater Arts degree at Arizona State University. An element of the training involved yoga—something that I was aware of prior to my trip, but which I had largely considered to be a form of glorified stretching. However, over the course of 40 days, I twisted, I folded, and I breathed, but something else, something limitlessly more important began to change: my mind.
The Moment it All Changed
During a morning Hatha yoga class, as the sun was peeking over the horizon and the rest of the world began to wake, something shifted in me and I finally gave myself permission to do what I had been resisting for so long: to grieve. Reflecting on this experience, my cathartic release came from an awareness of my breath. As I breathed through the experience, I gave myself permission to dissolve the trauma of my past and open myself up to the beauty of the present.
Here I was, a very young adult surrounded by people, some 2 to 3 times my age. As I expressed my trauma emotionally and physically, I was greeted with open arms by a loving and nurturing community. It was that day that the seed of acceptance, mindfulness, and empathy was rooted deeply in to my soul, and that I recognized the sacred intelligence that exists in all of us.
Yoga Found Me
It is often said that yoga finds you, and that you are attracted to the physical but return for the mental. The mindful practice of yoga has not only opened doors for me, it has shown me which ones to close. It has provided me with an ever-changing mirror in which to affix my drishti and a sounding board for daily personal reflection. Mindfulness is single handedly responsible for where I am at today, it adds meaning and fulfillment to what I choose to do and has been paramount in my ability to learn to accept things—even the most difficult and devastating.
Yoga has not only saved my life, it has shown me how to live. As Eckhart Tolle wrote in The Power of Now: “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place. Primary reality is within, secondary reality without.”
The power of the mind is leaps and bounds beyond what we currently think possible, and—regardless of external circumstance, it’s possible to consciously curate a mindful, authentic, and present existence. When you become conscious, intentionally conscious, of the present moment, you are able to learn to experience what is, and to recognize what may never happen again. Every experience you have my be your last. Why not do what you have always wanted to? Why not strike up a conversation with that cutie on the other side of the room? Go do whatever it is, because you have no idea what the future may hold.
There is no better time to start than the present. Don’t restrict yourself with a limiting belief based on fear disguised as practicality.
Sink into the present with Kevin’s Mindfulness 365 eBook by Synchronicity Yoga. A year of daily actionable prompts, activities, and meditations to help you cultivate a happy, healthy, and mindful life. Learn more here.
Kevin Wathey is an ex-athlete, actor and yoga instructor currently based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is the owner of Synchronicity Yoga (@SynchronicityYoga), which he founded to help others achieve their highest potential through mindful and authentic living. You can find Kevin at one of his yearly international retreats, select festivals throughout the country or by following his adventures with his dog Lokah on Instagram @KevinWathey.