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Written by: Laura Divine & Joanne Hunt
Death is a natural part of the cycle of life. We have talked about this with teachers and students in Integral Coaching Canada for many years. How being awake to death invites a call to more vividly be awake to life. How without death, life is not so deeply cherished and vibrantly lived, and how without life there is no place for death. Instead, there is an inextricable link, an irrevocable connection, an always/already cycle of life and death. The question is, “To what degree do we live each day awake to all facets of this, bringing it close and letting it inform our focus, priorities, purpose, and experience?”
Since my diagnosis of Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer on March 5, 2020, we have been living these teachings more vividly than ever as the reality of death coming sooner vs. later has been a real and palpating presence in our daily lives since then. There is no cure. Death will come. The cancer in my lungs, lymph system and liver keeps growing. The growth was partially interrupted twice by two of the five different chemotherapy treatments I have tried, and I have had more side effects than I care to list! Drugs (including one clinical trial) have helped keep me alive and, at the same time, we are running out of paths to go down.
One treatment option remains after the one I am currently receiving. While these last two drugs are considered ‘last ditch efforts’ with 10-15% efficacy, each treatment holds a possibility of working that we can only find out by trying it. Much to our glee, we learned in mid-December that this second to last drug is having a positive impact. How long will this drug work? No one really knows. We only find out when the next CT scan is taken. We take it twelve weeks at a time. When the cancer outsmarts the final drug, palliative care remains, and I will live out the time remaining until my body can no longer function. Yes, I will die then. Right now, I am fully living.
Taking it down a notch into our daily lives, we live in a structure of chemotherapy treatments and associated appointments. For over a year now, our structure includes a weekly blood test on Tuesday to check my immune system’s ability to receive chemo, then chemo on Wednesday, if all is well. Repeat this process in Week 2. Repeat again in Week 3. Then Week 4 has no chemo. These four weeks complete one cycle. At the beginning of each cycle, we meet with the oncologist who checks on how I am doing, addresses any complications, side effects, meds for side effects, answer any questions. Dr. Awan is a true partner in this journey. He is kind, smart, a great listener, fully present when he meets with us. We are so grateful for him.
After three cycles (12 weeks) the rubber hits the road with CT scans that concretely answer the question, “Is this treatment working?” The scans reveal if the tumours
1) have decreased in size - has occurred twice for me: yippee!
2) are stable so there is no growth - has also happened twice: yes!
3) have grown or multiplied - has happened all the other times: oh no!
The meetings with the oncologist following these scans are sobering, honest discussions about what the scans are indicating, what that means and the path forward. While these are very supportive meetings filled with incredible expertise seeking the best possible treatments, they can also be painful as I usually receive indicators that I have moved further along the path towards my eventual death.
We both know that my death is coming, so why are we so devastated by the CT results each time? Someone said to us recently, “I don’t know how you guys do it. After almost two years of bad news, you must be building the ability to be with them?” Nope. Not even close.
We are crushed every single time we receive the news of the cancer’s move. And each time we realize that hope had crept in again. It is so quietly resilient. Hope had shaped our expectations for this scan. And then this one. And then this one. Where the hell did hope come from? Hope that, quite frankly, we didn’t even know had taken shape. Yet here it is again, only revealed to us by being shattered. Repeatedly.
How does this tendril of hope arise again and again? How?
We are both pragmatists. We have decades of practice of being with “what is.” Hope isn’t something we were striving to create, and we have never turned away from the brutal truths of my specific path with terminal cancer.
But you know how it is when you are in a long-term practice or a structure, new things reveal themselves over time. With repetition. We have often talked about how structure (practices, routines, cycles) lets you meet yourself fresh. It does. Even while you are being treated for a terminal disease.
Here’s the cycle we started to notice about a year into this journey when the cancer tumors were shown to be growing most of the time: The cycle would start when we receive devastating CT scan results. For the first week after the news, we would both go through our individual and shared emotional rides as another layer of grief and loss would grip us. We would be in shock. Stunned. Tears. Silence. Processing new fears and uncertainties as we enter the new landscape of this specific stage of the journey. Landscape that is foreign as we’ve never been in this exact place before (a new chemo, new side effects, new cancer tumours impacting my functioning, new things to expect and plan for, new research to understand, etc.) We would also be sharing the news with others, feeling all their reactions, trying to stay as present as we can to our own process.
Near the end of this first week after “the news,” we would find ourselves starting to anchor what is still here, what is continuing forward that is not yet lost. In all of this, we would move through, honour, and be real with each other about our experiences.
At some point a new ground would start to steady us. Our energy would then inch back, as well as our humour, and our enjoyment in so many things that we are so fortunate to experience: our new dog, our home, the lake we live next to, nature, friends, family, good food, music, books and movies, tai chi, walking, surprises in each moment. Then our day-to-day living would move back into the foreground naturally.
The knowing of where we are, in what I have come to call a “death in slow motion,” never fully leaves our awareness, but finally space emerges leaving things to naturally arise, including tiny shoots of hope. The 12-week treatment structure kicks back in. Our drives to and from Ottawa continue for chemo treatment. Life does life. And this is when we notice hope subtly arising from unconscious to conscious. Ah, there you are again.
I want to be clear about something, so please listen: This is not us wishing for hope or striving for hope or trying to force hope into our lives. When you have cancer, you have more than enough people telling you, “Don’t give up,” “Keep hoping,” and “Stay positive.” You want to punch them in the face! So, to be very clear, hope isn’t something that we have ever tried to will into existence. This kind of tender hope that we noticed over time, it just arises. No effort. Like a whisper. It is quiet and sometimes you don’t even know that it has arrived until you are devastated or surprised by a scan. You realize in that moment, “Oh, I was hoping, really hoping that I would enjoy another summer.”
Hope had arisen.
We didn’t hear it arrive.
The drive to Ottawa to meet Dr. Awan to discuss scans is always a quiet one. The next cycle begins – often it is a shattering of hope, grief and loss, followed by integration and steadiness, then the quiet arising of a new tender hope shaped by the new landscape. Rarely has good news been part of these meetings, but we celebrate when it happens with unsteady legs that are now unsure how to hold joy.
Ever the developers noticing, noticing, noticing...we observed the recurring structure of our experience and found ourselves marvelling at how hope continues to arise, manifest, and express itself in such an organic, non-contrived, powerful way in each of these cycles. We’ve been carried by hope finding its way into our awareness, without us seeking it out or forcing it, without jumping to hope as a way of bypassing the experience of loss and fear. We’ve repeatedly experienced how hope provides a recognition of potential not yet manifested, possibilities not yet known, and brings, by its very nature, a sense of purpose, openness to the moment and what it might bring. As well as a strength of spirit to be curious, open, and thereby resilient in our day to day living. In essence, we have come to more vividly see hope’s contribution to this specific life and death journey we are currently travelling as honestly, fully, courageously, and abundantly as we can.
We have also come to see that while hope expresses an openness to future potential and what has not yet been manifested, something needs to be present for it to arise in a natural, non-contrived way. We have found that what enables an opening to this is a profound field of acceptance of “what is” as simply “what is” as well as an honoring and letting go of “what is not” possible any longer. Regardless of whether the news is wonderful or devastating. Following deep acceptance, we can then experience the ground of truth right now, a strength sourced from what has brought us this far and an openness to touching possibilities that have a relevant resonance at this place in time.
For the few results that indicated cancer shrinkage or staying stable, we fully take in those results and feel the delight, joy and gratitude for this moment. We register that this treatment is not yet over and that there are twelve weeks before another scan. Time. A twelve-week gift of more time. Feeling the presence of the current hopes, what still fits and what needs to fall away, as well as experiencing some new ones emerging with the surprise of a good result that seems to alter what’s possible as we gaze forward.
For all the tumours growing CT results, we feel the devastation, grief, sadness, anger, disappointment, fear. Being honest, being real. Letting go of what is no longer possible. The wishes, dreams, longings that are no longer viable. Feeling the significance of them and the ending of them. At some point, feeling how it leaves an opening, a space not yet filled that is calling for, “What now?” From this place emerges new, tender sprigs of hope given our updated reality of what is and isn’t possible. Hope. Fresh hope.
It is a hope that is scaled to what is present for us now.
Tender hope arises in all of us. It may arise when we wake up in the morning. It may be the hope that led you to seek out becoming a coach, of being in service. The gentle hope expressed by a client. The hope for a better day today. The hope for one more day.
Hope is also a key factor in our coaching method. A client gains access to their Current Way of Being, both what it has allowed for as well as its limits enabling the client to vividly see “what is” without judgement. To directly experience the truth of this way and to register how it is no longer working for them. Through this, an opening emerges. An opening to a New Way for a client to fulfill the deep longings of their coaching topic. An opening to and encountering potential that resonates as realistic, possible, and worth pursuing. The client experiences hope in a profound and meaningful way. Not hope from pumping up a new possibility, a new future, a new place to be motivated to strive towards. Rather, a hope that arises from getting grounded in current reality, honoring what has been, accepting what is no longer possible, and tasting a New Way. It is a taste of hope.
A client going through a coaching program is a mini-cycle of birth, life, death. Cycles of development. Cycles that keep turning throughout our lives at various scales. Little mini-cycles, medium-sized cycles and then the biggest, all-encompassing cycle where our life ends in this form. Hope arising at various scales depending on the landscape.
As 2022 begins, we invite you to consider the various types of cycles you will travel through in the year ahead. Notice them as they emerge. Here are some questions that you might want to explore to support you in further refining and advancing your capacities to fully be living in the cycles you experience in your life.
- Are you able to sincerely let go of what was in this cycle and, viscerally, concretely loosen your grip and let it fall away? (past)
- Are you able to fully take in what is present now in the cycle and let the truth of “what is” ripple through your being? (present)
- Are you open to a space, not yet fully defined, not yet known, not yet seen, and receive all that arises in any part of the cycles you will travel through this year? (future)
- What are the structures of your unique cycles and what are they whispering to you?
- What qualities of experience let you know that hope is present? (ie. curiosity, creativity, buoyancy, strength, calmness, groundedness)
As we travel through our own hopeful, painful and deeply intimate cycles, we send you our deepest care and abiding respect as you enter and travel through yours.
Loving you from over here,
Laura and Joanne
© 2022 Laura Divine & Joanne Hunt