By Martha Brettschneider
My father died 39 years ago, just a few days after my thirteenth birthday. Since he chose to take his own life, Father's Day triggered sadness and self-pity for many years.
The more painful truth, though, is that when I learned he was gone, the deepest part of my young heart felt relief for him.
My earliest memories of my handsome, brilliant father—whose hands were once on the cover of Life magazine performing one of the earliest liver transplants—were fraught with mixed emotions.
He loved me deeply, and let me know it. Despite that, I could never crack the core of his bipolar disorder-induced despair, no matter how hard I tried.
His suffering was palpable to me and seeped into my own tender skin. So even while I wailed in my mother's arms upon hearing the news of his death, a small voice whispered, "At least he's not suffering anymore."
Years of therapy helped me realize that I could never have made him happy, could never have saved his life. Eventually I stopped counting the days in the run-up to Father's Day, stopped planning that I would be miserable, and got through the day in a relatively neutral frame of mind.
Six years ago, while recovering from breast cancer, I stumbled into mindfulness practice quite by accident (if you believe in accidents, which, frankly, I don't anymore).
I discovered that I was spending most of my time focused on the future, with intermittent periods of being mired in the past. I was missing out on the beauty of life in the present moment, the only place where anything real happens, the only place I can take action.
Most shocking of all was learning that I have a choice in which thoughts to buy into. I can allow thoughts that don't serve me to float away. I can decide what memories to include in my highlight reel.
Learning these truths on an intellectual level is one thing. Unleashing the full power of present moment awareness requires a whole lot of practice. In my own case, nurturing a daily meditation habit has been key to translating theory into results.
My personal experience is in line with the mountain of neuroscience research results on the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Daily practice in the art of carving out a few minutes of stillness to observe my thought patterns has strengthened my capacity for:
Instead of replaying the sad memories that trigger suffering, this Father's Day my highlight reel will feature these memories:
For most of my life I focused on the irresponsibility of that driving lesson. This Father's Day, 39 years later, I'm reframing it as the final indication of his love for me. He knew he was checking out, but not before teaching his youngest child to drive.
And those other memories linked to his depths of suffering, the ones I'm not choosing for my highlight reel? Those episodes made me stronger too. They taught me to live my life to the fullest, attend to my mental and physical health, and seek treatment for both when needed. They taught me to cherish the gift of life and loved ones, since you never know how long any of us will be here.
Having a positive highlight reel doesn't mean burying the hard parts. With practice, we can honor the role of tough times in our lives and let the negative emotions go. Each stepping stone along the way, including the sharpest, most painful ones, shape us in positive ways if we stay open to learning the lessons.
It took therapy to get me to a point of neutrality on Father's Day. It took mindfulness to get me to a point of gratitude.
Martha Brettschneider is the author of Blooming Into Mindfulness: How the Universe Used a Garden, Cancer, and Carpools to Teach Me That Calm Is the New Happy
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