The Monster in the Closet


Every December I go to the city to see my oncologist and to get scans done. It is a gruesome process as my cells seem to remember other times when I was not as healthy, or times when I did not have as much faith in my body as I do now. Yet, the whole process makes me feel unhealthy, and most important it shakes my faith. Every December is like opening the door to face my own monster in the closet; the one I thought I would eventually stop fearing when I grew up.

I’m not sure if it’s the memories of being there in that medical center, the smells, the too well-known routine. Or if it’s the whole industry, the forms you have to fill out with the same information again and again. Or the blood work. Or the discourse about diagnosis: “By the way, you have cancer, you still have cancer, and you will always have cancer even if you do not have cancer in this precise moment.” That makes me sick to my stomach. Oh gee, thanks for the reminder, I have honestly forgotten!

In 2011, I was diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer, which immediately put me at “stage four.” That was after 10 years of being blissfully in what the establishment calls remission, since my very first diagnosis was in 2001 and I was just “stage one” then. (Was it really blissful?)

Now, I have been tumor free for several years, though as my oncologist likes to remind me, the fact that the scans can’t detect any tumor doesn’t mean cancer cells are not swirling all over the body. Because, according to her, they are. Great! My stage four cancer has become a systemic disease. Her words not mine. And one that I should be treating (with poisonous medications) forever and ever, and ever. Whatever that means.

How do you respond to such a categorical statement? Well, let me remind you, whoever YOU are, that there are cancer cells swirling around our bodies all the time anyhow. And the fact that in my past I had creatively activated them does not mean that it is in my future. That is the faith part. And I have grown to know my body to realize she likes to be healthy, and has always guided me to what is best for us. And this is a fact.

We live in constant fear. We live in a society that is driven by fear, and profits from it. No wonder our liver, our digestive system, and our kidneys are out of sorts. We constantly make decisions based on the unlikely probabilities of the worst. From the insurance we purchase to the medications we take – and I am not only talking about health insurance or Tylenol. I am talking about life, house, and car, and trip insurance, just in case, because we just don’t know. And even the three-year extended guarantee that we purchase for that electronic toy we will give our kids this Christmas. She will eventually break it, so I better get my money’s worth. We assume the worst, we expect the worst, and then we are flabbergasted when we get the worst.

What if we say NO? What if we start to believe that the best is going to happen. What if we believe that everything happens for a reason, and we can make reason of whatever happens for good. What if we start looking at the body as the best part of ourselves, our protector, the perfect organism that it is, and listen to her, and take care of her, and love her, and stop judging her, and treat her respectfully. What if we do not wait until we are in our sixties to start saying “no.” No to the energy-sucking parties of the season. No to the super costly seasonal family trips. No to the consumerism that promises happiness yet delivers misery and bankruptcy. No to the stress of the merry jolly Christmas, or happy Hanukah, or whatever it is that you inherited as celebration. What if we say no and mean it.

What if I keep my faith in my beautiful body, and rest, and smile instead of crying, trust instead of doubting, sleep instead of worrying, relax instead of making lists of unwanted things to do? What if, like nature, I save my energy during winter and darkness, and become strong and flexible like wood, and powerful and malleable like water? What if I keep healing myself and my self, and do not pay attention to the same drag-me-down-kill-me-now discourse my lovely doctor has to tell me? Because it is what she does, and she has to be responsible and follow protocol, yet it is the same words for everybody: despite age, race, religion, creed, conditions, situation, glucose levels, plasma levels, cholesterol, etc., etc….

What if I open the closet door and hug my monster, and love her, and wish her well, and let her go, this time for good?

Change can be paralyzing…

I started this blog with the hope of writing two (ok, one!) entry a month during my sabbatical year. A little bit of writing and a little bit of resting seemed like a good balance. I did not want my inspirational juice to go dry or my readers to forget about me (less than one entry a month would have done that). Yet I also wanted to rest, which is what a sabbatical should be about (after all, the word implies an abstinence from work).

However, around February, my rhythm stopped. My world was a bit turned upside down by the possibility of “change,” and I went into “waiting” mode. That is why I have not been posting since. I am back now to fix that, in the midst of changing, which is happening all the time whether we want it or not.

To summarize what kept me away from my blog for around three months: I won’t bore you with details, let me just say that we considered the possibilities of new jobs and a cross-country move from north to south. Yes, the promise of sunny, warmer weather, warm fresh tortillas all year round, and close proximity to family and friends made it very tantalizing. Decisions needed to be made, and that was the hard part.

But what did I really want? Was a great opportunity knocking at my door and I was being too lazy to get up and open it? Or was the shimmering object further down the road just a mirage? I could not decide if “the grass is greener on the other side” was at the root of our temptation to pack and move, or if fear of change was the grounding reason to stay put. Of course, there were all the other more insignificant minor details of money and job security and what not. But at the root of my paralyzing indecision were not the details of the overall package, but the feeling of being out of control and making a mistake.

We all know the things we need to change to be healthier, to have a better day-to-day existence. We all could do with little changes in our lives. But why is it so hard to change our ways of being? Why do we resist it so much, even when we know the benefits it could bring?

Spring is the time of the year when everything in nature is changing. It is a time for regeneration and new beginnings. From my Qigong training I have learned that to be healthy I have to go with the flow and, most important, not go against the natural flow of what’s going on in nature. How was I to renew my spirit if I was feeling immobilized by the possibilities of change during the spring?

I think of myself as someone flexible, easy going, someone who likes to explore ideas, and who can change her mind easily if presented with good arguments. But what I think of myself, and what my nature truly is, are not necessarily in line with each other. My brother-in-law told me (well, told us: a room full of “accomplished” family members–whatever “accomplished” may mean) that we were all type A controlling freaks­: competitive, highly organized, ambitious, impatient . . . you get the idea. And maybe there is some truth to that. Being out of control, in a chaotic environment, not knowing what is going to happen next, is not something I feel comfortable with.

Life is chaotic, unpredictable, and again and again, it shows us that we are NOT in control. Control is just a myth; control is something we like to construct to ease the anxiety of not knowing. I have learned that the hard way. Yet, it is an ongoing lesson, to be learned again and again in my daily practice.

Changes are always happening, and if we go with the flow, we can experience changes as good, positive things. At least we can always, and I mean always, find a silver lining even in the hardest of situations.

While being confronted with my own energies and feelings of uncertainty I asked myself: what does it really mean to go with the flow and to be flexible like the seasonal Qi of Spring?

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, spring is the season of the liver. Liver energy rises during the season, and if it does not flow easily, it can get stuck and create all sorts of health problems: from season allergies to menstrual issues for women, from headaches to emotional upheavals. It will also show in the digestive system, as the liver supports the stomach, but only if its energy moves smoothly.

At an emotional level, I know that I need to do something about my stress and anger in a proactive healthy way. For me, kicking and punching in my martial arts classes helps a lot–helps letting that energy move out of my body. Taking breaks from computers and electronics saves my liver energy and relieves a bunch of symptoms. Not trying to control my children (or my husband for that matter) and walking away when I need to, is another way to flow more freely. And practicing Qigong daily is a must; it is like plugging into an electrical outlet in the wall when I am running short of energy.

When I do all of that, accepting that everything is in constant flux, things become easier. And this also means that it becomes more manageable to not hold on to a preconceived idea of how things should be, how my children need to act, or even how things used to be. The Tao teaches us that there is not simply a “good way” and a “bad way,” just different ways…

Everybody needs to find what it is that gets energy flowing for them. And changing accordingly will only come easier once that energy starts flowing.

In the end, we decided to stay put in the north, not because we did not want to change, I am happy to report, but because we decided to listen to our hearts. It just came down to where we felt at home…at least for the time being.


“No pain no gain.” Is that true?

I was recently staying with some friends in a cabin east of Seattle. Beautiful place and surroundings.

During breakfast, the wise father was trying to convince the 11-year old child of going for a 1000 vertical feet hike in the breath-taking surroundings. The kid, being a kid, was not convinced this was such a good idea. She emphatically argued that the hike was painful, as she has done this particular hike before. The father, being a father, came up with all sorts of rationalizations why doing the hike was indeed good for the body and the soul. One of his persuasive arguments, or one that stuck with me, was that as he has aged he has understood how pain can also be pleasurable, that pain could also be enjoyable. Some of us at the table agreed to the necessity of learning how to balance pain and pleasure, and that in order to participate in a somehow painful activity by choice, the pleasure needs to overcome the overall pain. After all, the well-known proverb “no pain no gain” promises reward in exchange for suffering.

Now, let’s think for a minute about what “pain” really is, and how we construct the idea (and reality) of pain in our society. If you look in the dictionary, it will probably give you two interpretations: one is the common idea of the physical suffering caused by illness or injury, and the other relates to the careful effort or trouble that one person puts in attaining something (in line with the proverb).

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), pain is just energy, and as energy, it has consciousness and a message. It is a message from your body. How you interpret that message is the most import part. To my surprise, when I looked up definitions of pain in our western medical tradition, it also defines it as a message: “We feel pain when a signal is sent through nerve fibers to the brain for interpretation” (

Whether it is acute pain or chronic, physical or emotional, both traditions agree on the warning aspect of pain as the body asking for some action to be taken. However, the way pain is dealt with in both frameworks is very different. Where western medicine sees differentiation, TCM looks for similarities. They way I was taught was that if you have an ear complication, you go to a otolaryngologist, for anxiety or emotional issues you go to a psychologist, maybe a psychiatrist if medication is needed, and for back problems, chiropractors are a great choice. A western doctor probably would not consider your hearing problems to be related to your lower back pain, much less to any anxiety disorder, while a traditional Chinese doctor will not only see a relation in all of these conditions, but also will ask you whether you feel supported at work or in your family environment.

Where western medicine wants to “kill” the pain literally with painkillers (therefore erasing the message), TCM encourages us to look deeper into our symptoms to get to the root cause of the discomfort with gratitude instead of fear. Where Western medicine sees illness and diseases, TCM looks for health and opportunities. And I think we could all gain from thinking more about health and opportunities and less on the negative elements of disease. Western medicine is great at putting out fires, and it is the best for emergency medicine. However, I want to focus here on prevention, on taking the necessary measures to install “fire alarms” that work so we do not set fire to the house in the first place.

A person’s understanding of pain, and its negative associations, can actually make it worse. According to TCM, fear is the emotion associated with the kidney, and when experienced for a long time on a regular basis, it can disrupt the delicate balance of the kidney’s energy function. Unfortunately, we live in a fear driven society. We live in a constant mindset of “what if…something bad happens?” We spend money and energy protecting ourselves with all sorts of insurance for the worst-case scenarios that we play in our heads again and again every day. Any bone issues, ear problems, lower back problems, and panic attacks, are all related to an imbalance of the kidney energy. But there are a lot of little simple things we could do to counteract these immediate “fight or flight” responses by just exploring other ways to interpret our own realities (and get our kidneys and other organs back into balance and health).

For the most part, we are taught in our culture to take a pill rather than take responsibility for our own bodies. We are too used to the instantaneity of our mediated world, and have forgotten how to take time to really heal and be patient (in both senses of the word).

I want to propose that, when pain arrives, we look at it as an opportunity for change, as an actual message that our body is working very well. Pain may actually be a sign that our body is taking care of us, and that we need to pay attention and be aware of the here and now of our daily lives in order to listen to what the pain is conveying. I urge you to leave behind the automatic response that we have internalized that “something is wrong with me” when pain or illness arrives, and trust that your body can take care of itself, and that healing is in your hands. Don’t just run for medication, but try alternative ways to deal with the message at first.

Pain can be an opportunity to check on your own self-discrimination; those negative ideas that you may have about yourself, and the way you view your own reality – your cultural beliefs, your thoughts, desires, frustrations. They are all energy, and they all can affect your body and your overall health in positive or negative ways. Pain can bring change, can make us grow, and it can show us the way to our better selves…

Don’t get me wrong. Pain is real, and pain is, well, painful. And sometimes medication is indeed a good option. But, for example, one way I have changed with practice (my daily Qigong, my meditation, and my martial arts practice) is the way I react to pain. My first automatic response used to be fear – when my knees hurt I thought, “crap” the cancer may have come back, and I worried, and worried some more. And then I would feel sorry for my “poor” knees, and felt victimized that “this” happened to me. I would eventually talk myself out of it. Eventually.

Now, when my knees hurt, and they do hurt sometimes going up and down stairs of my house, my first response is to be thankful. Second, I take care of my kidney by conserving more energy, doing more Qigong, eating more salty food. I massage my ears once a day, and give myself some acupressure in some of the points of the kidney meridians. I also imagine myself without pain, and I know from my heart, that the pain is just energy stuck, and that eventually it will flow. I talk to myself with love and respect, and I talk to my knees with kindness. They are not broken, they have been through a lot, and they are still standing, taking me places. They are awesome!

Fear and worry are just emotions, are just energy, and we will all feel it one way or another, one time or other. It is part of who we are as humans. Accepting the fear, seeing where it is coming from and letting it go is a healthy way to deal with those emotions. Pain is also energy, with a message. Exploring what your body is telling you can be life changing.

I highly recommend practicing the simple Qigong routine of the Four Energy Gates that I learned with my Qigong master (Dr. Nan Lu). It is really simple but effective. You can find it at

Needless to say, we did not go for the hike that day. The kids (old souls in smaller bodies) convinced us that sitting in front of the fire on a cold winter day was a better option than weathering the storm, literally.

Remember that, according to Yin and Yang, there is no light without darkness, no summer without winter, no morning without night, and certainly, no pleasure without a little of pain.

After all, the rainbow only shows when there is rain…




Just keep swimming…


So I will start my very first blog talking about how Dory and Marlin (yes, they are fictional fish characters of a Disney movie!) became sources of inspiration in my life. I know Disney pictures have a bad rap sometimes, but Finding Nemo and Finding Dory are two good movies to watch, if you like animation. Or just read along, and I will tell you why I am using these characters for today’s message.

Marlin is a single father with some scary experiences in his past (he lost his wife and other children due to sharks–let’s say they were murdered). So Marlin is stuck in that past and in his own fears. Raising a child (which is not an easy task for anybody, let alone single parents) and trying to keep his son (Nemo) safe, is what makes him so uptight about life in general and being safe all the time. It is only when his son disappears and he has to swim through an ocean of problems to find him that he is able to overcome parts of his past, his deepest fears, and move forward.

In the film’s sequel, you can see how he’s still true to his own worrying nature, and his inability to let go (which, by the way, will knock your stomach and liver energy out of balance, but more of that on another post). He always comes on strong at the end, conquering his own shortcomings. Don’t get me wrong, I do like him. He is a very nice and carrying father and friend. It just shows that it’s not easy to change. We all have a lot of Marlin in us. Well, I should speak for myself; I do have a lot of Marlin in me. I am also a caring mother, or try to be, whose children’s safety is very important, and for that I am a lot of times uptight and unable to relax around my kids. But that has been changing, as I practice Qigong and apply it to my daily life. Practice is an every moment, daily life commitment, not an hour a day exercise routine.

Dory, on the other hand, is playful and wise in what looks like a careless way. She is not careless. Her problem is that she has short-term memory, but that is also her bliss. Not remembering bad experiences saves her a lot of trouble about worrying all the time about what is going to happen. She is forced to constantly let go (something we should all practice on a regular basis); she is forced to live in the present moment, and her decisions about the immediate future are not based in her past experiences, but she approaches every situation as new, with wonder eyes and a little bit of innocence. However, there is a lot of wisdom in her.  Her head is faulty, so she listens to her heart. She is very brave despite having suffered a lot of trauma due to her condition. She is aware of that, but that does not stop her. Ever. I strive to be more like Dory every day, and although my nature is to be more like Marlin, I have learned that I need to keep swimming no matter what. 

So even if you have not watched these films, and even if you do not like Disney and Pixar animation, the message here is simple but hard to put into practice: daily life has to be faced with new eyes. We do not know the future, we only know the past. But the past is gone, so today is what matters. Like Master Oogway says, rephrasing what the Buddha taught, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” That’s from Kung Fu Panda, yes, another animation film that has taught me so much. (I also highly recommend it.  It was my first assignment when I became a Qigong student.)

When I am overwhelmed I think: what do I have to do NOW. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not next month, but NOW. One day at a time, one thing at this moment is my mantra. It has kept me safe and sound.