Lessons from Meditation and Mom

Daniel Sernicola / January 2022

Author’s note: I appreciate the opportunity to not only share my love of meditation, but to also honor my mother. She inspired the Danja Yoga Community Fund so that others can know the healing power of yoga & meditation. Through it, her legacy and love of life continues. Like my mother, I enjoy writing and can be quite wordy. I’ve been asked when I’d start writing blogs and the time seems appropriate to share this. It my may be slightly triggering to those facing grief. Please accept my empathy as grief is one of the most difficult emotions to feel, work through, and sit with. To accompany this post, I’ve also created a page to teach others How to MeditateI hope you come to know the power of this simple practice. Any donations to the Danja Yoga Community Fund are received with gratitude and will be used to give others the gift of being present with who they are.

Daniel Sernicola / January 2022

This photo was taken a month after my mom’s diagnosis. Before it was taken, she showed me several wigs she purchased in anticipation of chemo side effects.

Raised in a home where we prayed before every meal and in times of need, contemplation and reflection were engrained in me from an early age. I also learned that some prayers are best left unanswered. Comically, as a bullied youth, my mom would offer up the advice to pray for my enemies adding that the Bible says God would heap hot coals upon their heads. I’d pray with all my might and be a little surprised when I went to school the following day and realized the coal thing didn’t quite work! I’d come home from school and at dinner there was more prayer. Through prayer, I\’d feel somewhat better expressing gratitude while at the same time feeling guilt or resentment for negative thoughts and actions. I was in a constant state of believing I wasn’t good enough and thought the intention of prayer was to ask for change.

As a teenager, I found myself attending a fundamentalist church with neighbors. Searching for acceptance and longing to fit in, I hoped this community could be an escape from the bullying faced in school. A sense of freedom was not found and instead, my mind became my prison. Struggling with accepting my own attraction to the same sex, prayer became the vehicle through which I begged the creator to change me. After church each Sunday, I\’d ceremoniously seek time alone in my room or in the woods where the theme of every communication with God was a pleading to be fixed. The simple act of prayer has comforted so many. For me, layers of self-hate and loathing were added to my psyche. By the age of 17, I came out and faced more bullying, struggle with acceptance, and the addition of deeper trauma in my life. Just the thought of sitting alone with my thoughts frightened and further traumatized me.

Around the age of 21, I went through my first break up. We’ve all been there and know it’s not easy to mend a broken heart. Usually after break ups, it’s human nature to try to repair the things we think are wrong with us. I had a desire to fix myself to become better than before. I like to compare relationships to ball of clay. We come into the relationship as a perfectly round sphere. Some moments we feel the addition of clay, and other moments feel like some clay has been taken away. Afterwards, we step back and see the sphere has turned into a blob. Then, we work to reshape it. Like many, trying to work with this blob is how I first encountered meditation.

Friends introduced me to meditation. They explained how it was different from prayer and wasn\’t so much about asking, but accepting what is. The first few times it was difficult to sit and focus on the breath. I questioned if I was doing it correctly since so many thoughts were racing through my mind. These thoughts included a laundry list of tasks I needed to accomplish and, at times, memories and flashbacks of trauma. My friends told me to be patient and it would all come together. I found myself wondering what would come. Then, one day I felt it. Like the clay, reshaping began. First, it felt like a massive weight lifted off my shoulders. Then, the epiphany came – meditation is about observing emotions, listening, realizing there\’s nothing wrong with us, and learning we don’t need to change. Instead, it invites us to adapt and accept what is. This realization allowed me to listen to emotions and stop running from them as I\’d done my entire life. Meditation became my next partner. We began going steady and strong. I began to experience freedom.

Meditation taught me much as a young guy and helped me to see with clarity who I was and wanted to become. All those years of dwelling on my flaws and imperfections seemed to naturally dissipate and heal with each session. Through the simple act of sitting, I began to accept that I’m perfectly imperfect. I began to stop seeing myself as a bargain bin clearance item and started seeing myself as a valuable human with a spectrum of emotions.

Throughout the rest of my twenties, I had an on-again, off-again relationship with meditation. It seemed easy to sit when life was going well. It was much more difficult when problems arose. One can say that meditation was my friend with benefits. I only wanted to practice when it felt good and calmness settled over me. I ghosted the practice at the times it was difficult to find my way to the cushion.

Approaching thirty, my meditation practice continued to evolve. I learned to sit with the thoughts that scared me the most and found that these thoughts could be observed and then let go. This was profound to me. Through meditation, I found comfort and open wounds from past traumas began to heal.

Eventually I became a teacher wanting to share mediation with anyone who would listen. It added color to my life and I wanted others to know and experience it. In meditation retreats. I mediated for hours on end. Afterwards, walking in silence, I began noticing what I’ve often overlooked – the world around me is beautiful. One might compare this realization to Dorothy as she steps away from her dismal farmhouse and encounters a technicolor world of wonder. 

Meditation has been my greatest friend, super power, healer, and at times court jester. It\’s given me the ability to accept, and even laugh at myself. It has helped me through the most celebrated and most difficult times. To sit and allow each emotion to be observed and felt is a gift. I developed an intimate relationship with the practice, still not fully knowing the depth and meaning it would have to my being. Meditation was there for me and accompanied me through the toughest year of my life as a constant companion who didn\’t judge any of the confusion, anger, and roller coaster of emotions experienced. And meditation opened up doors for forgiveness and rebuilding.

Shortly before the pandemic, my mother was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer. I found myself feeling a turbulent stream of emotions. Hearing this news, I found my way to my cushion and sat. Thoughts of a troubled relationship with my mom came to mind along with deep empathy – and for the first time, grace. I saw her humanity and understood that, like me, she was trying her best.

Through many conversations with my mother, we eventually mended our relationship and both of us began to heal. I met a strong, independent, free-spirited woman and realized we had more in common than ever thought. During this time she showed a bravery and strength unknown to me. She wrestled with cancer for over a year and a half. Many times too weak to speak on the phone, I’d encourage her to be silent and would tell her about the studio, my classes, and the people I’ve encountered. She’d find comfort in these stories and became fascinated with them often asking how my staff and clients were doing – even though she\’d never met them. For the first time I felt like she understood me – and I understood her. She encouraged me to never let go of my dream.

As cancer began to take over her body, I found myself leading my mom through meditations meant to ease pain. Through yoga nidra and guided relaxation we’d travel above the trees to beaches filled with colorful crystals or apple orchards with the tastiest fruit. We’d do body scan meditations as my mother followed along in a body that seemed to betray her. Breath practices became more difficult for her as time progressed and gave way to aromatherapy. A week before she passed, after one of our sessions, she told me it was the calmest she’d felt since diagnosis. She also mentioned how she hadn\’t been able to tend to her gardens and see her flowers. I went outside and began taking every possible photo of each flower recalling how she instilled in me a love of gardening. Coming back in, she slowly lifted her head to see the beauty in the photos. Like a flower bursting with color, she was fading away. Impermanence. It\’s wonderful when we realize tough times are only temporary. It\’s brutal when we realize people are temporary as well. My heart told me it wouldn\’t be long.

It was a Friday night, four days later when I received the call. Before answering, I took a deep breath, knowing what would be on the other end. My sister told me the time had come for family to gather around and usher my mom through her final days. I gathered a few things and began the long drive to my parents’ home, an excruciating two hours away. I couldn’t arrive soon enough, not wanting to miss the opportunity for parting words.

Helpless. It’s the only word that comes to mind. As my mom rested in her hospital bed in the center of the living room – the same room where we’ve had so many family celebrations and experienced joy – I felt helpless. My family felt helpless. She was small and looked like an injured bird who had fallen from its nest. During the five days leading up to her death, she could only utter a few words: water, Reiki, and love. Those first few days I didn’t sleep. Her back was in immense pain and she requested more and more Reiki. Around the clock she received Reiki and I found myself laying my hands on her in exhaustion as I recited mantras to slow her breath and calm her mind.

A few days in, as I was giving Reiki, I noticed my sister reciting mantras to Mom encouraging her to breathe in love and exhale fear – her hands resting on my mother and giving her own form of Reiki energy known to the rest of us simply as love. There was a beautiful moment when my dad and brother entered the room, saw my sister and I, and placed their hands on my mom pausing in the silence. We understood the turbulent ride we had been on for over a year and half was soon coming to stillness. We were gathered together for the last time as a family, saying our own silent prayers.

The morning of the fifth day, I woke up craving silence and meditation. In my parents’ driveway, I sat on the back of my car and meditated. I accepted what was to come as I looked out over a pond across the street. I used to catch fish and turtles there as a kid, but this morning was recalling all the conversations I\’d had with my mom as an adult. She was childlike in some ways, finding joy in the simplicity of seeing swans seeming to float over the water or hearing geese flying overhead. Emotions swirled through my mind while at the same time I felt ease. Meditation, once again, was there for this difficult time. I reflected on the ups and downs experienced in the relationship with my mother and now felt gratitude for mending old wounds and having the veil lifted, seeing this remarkable woman through a new set of eyes.

The day before my birthday she took the last breath from the lungs that once sustained her life and were now consumed with cancer. Immediately, peace filled the room. My dad asked us to join in as he recited a prayer over her and it was the most somber and meaningful prayer of my life. Afterwards, my family had dinner together – silent at first. Then, stories poured out and laughter transformed sorrow into joy. 

We knew the next phase of our lives would be challenging. Once again, my old friend meditation was along for the ride and provided solace. Sitting, I recalled words my mother spoke to me in our last conversation, “Let it be.” Through those words my greatest teacher taught her most important and final lesson. Just as John Lennon penned the lyrics, many years ago, about his own mother, \”speaking words of wisdom, let it be.\” I now understood their meaning. It\’s the same message meditation has been whispering in my ear all along.

At the beginning of her diagnosis, the studio was in the process of being built. I didn’t know whether to stop or keep going. My mom\’s cancer was at the forefront of my mind and Covid-19 was blanketing the planet. There was much doubt and uncertainty. My mom provided the answer when she said, “You have to share this with others.” This, being the sometimes rocky, yet steady relationship with meditation. This being the practice that has healed traumatized wounds. This leading me down a path of forgiveness and grace. This being what would comfort both my mother and I in her final days. And this being my dharma to teach others. 

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