12/19/2012 11:50 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2014

Be Willing to Feel

Excerpted from author Richard Melnick's "PARENTS WHO DON'T DO DISHES."

Thirteen years ago, as a cancer patient with 3- and 5-year-old boys, I knew firsthand the fears of the day: Who would father my sons? Would they miss me? Would they forget about me? How would my wife and the kids manage financially? The permutations of painful outcomes were beyond my grasp.

I gained peace by asking myself over and over, "What am I afraid of right now, in this moment?" And the answer was always the same: nothing. My fears were all based on the future.

I was alive now.

And for that matter, when I investigated the pain I felt in the moment, it became humorous how much my belly hurt from the chemotherapy. When I demanded to know if I would live, I'd smile kindly and remind myself that this also was a concern set in the future.

I was alive -- right then.

I reminded myself that in that present moment, perhaps the most easily expressed emotion is gratitude. For this breath. And the next. And the next. Maybe gratitude is an essential ingredient for healing.

Why waste life being stuck in our heads, avoiding pain, avoiding life, when instead we can dive deeply into both pleasure and pain with equanimity and intensity? This seems the masterful approach. "To live is to fly, both low and high, so shake the dust off of your wings, the sleep out of your eyes," wrote Townes Van Zant.

Fears of an untimely death must have informed my parenting style, as I felt a sense of urgency to pass along life lessons. I also stayed focused on celebrating "who they are now," as opposed to feeling a need to change them in any way. And I wanted them to participate deeply in the truth of their life as an operating philosophy. To quote the psychologist Bruce Tift, I wanted them to "be willing to feel, aware of their feelings and paradoxically... aware of awareness."

I remember one peaceful day, sitting on the rocks above Skyland Lake in the late summer afternoon near our home in Crested Butte. I had just finished chemotherapy and was grateful to be alive. I didn't have any agenda and just began rambling out of the blue...

"Feeling the truth of your being at any given moment is the doorway to experiencing deep aliveness. Boys, I believe you have a soul that does not die when your body is gone, and in this way death is an illusion."

I told them that we could send love to their Grandpa Phil who had recently died and that he could feel it right now. It rang true for them, and they seemed comforted and excited. Sitting on the rocks, surrounded by wild sage and overlooking the lake, we practiced sending love to Grandpa Phil, and the look on their faces was one of pure rapture.

I suggested that the same energy that created their souls also infused their body and all other forms of matter. Every blade of grass, every bug, bird, animal, every rock, every mountain, the stars in the sky and, of course, every person are all created from the same basic stuff. Everything and everyone deserves respect and love because everywhere you look, if you're aware, you see yourself.

By having these conversations at a very early age, maybe they understood the words like music, remembering the melody from deep within without needing to recite the notes and chord changes. Maybe this gave them a helpful counterpoint to the process of individuation that childhood entails. They seemed to develop a deep reverence for life and an underlying sense of ease as they moved through the world. They were not the kind of kids to squish a bug or anything else, and from an early age, I consistently heard reports about how unusually kind they were.

That same afternoon, sitting on the rocks overlooking the lake, I told my little darlings, "Take off your mask and be authentic." By authenticity, I also meant giving your passion and talent and integrity to the world. I believe this is your sacred duty. Maybe your creative force is expressed as a farmer or a doctor or musician or maybe it's standing on your head or rubbing your dog's tummy; it's all good. The creative force knows no limit of expression.

I also told my boys that if they paid close attention, they could differentiate between thinking and feeling. You can hear a voice in your head that is distinct from the feelings you have and some people refer to this voice as the ego. The ego is always finding something wrong with what's happening now, or as Jimmie Dale Gilmore sings, "My mind has a mind of its own." The mind often wants to tell a story about the past or future, label the present good or bad or somehow resist the moment.

I suggested that unlike thinking, feelings are a full-body sensation and not inherently harmful. Feelings come and go if they are not resisted. I asked them to notice how the voice in their head is different than the feeling they have when they hug a puppy, cry uncontrollably or send love to Grandpa Phil. There is no voice in your head at those moments, just peace, love, joy, sorrow or whatever feeling the moment brings. As opposed to thinking, feeling represents your deepest experience of being alive.

And so, we reasoned, if your soul doesn't die and if feeling and life are sort of one and the same, what's the big deal about also feeling some discomfort? It's not going to kill you. Why not say yes to life in all of its forms? "If you avoid your feelings," I told them, "you'll become at war with yourself, afraid of your shadow, afraid of pleasure, too." As Bob Dylan wrote, "It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be."

I asked the kids to examine their resistance to feeling pleasure and the fear of "losing one's self" in the bliss of the moment, as well as being aware of their resistance to feeling disturbing feelings like anger, sadness, and such.

You can't choose to feel just fun stuff and push away the painful feelings because the system doesn't work like that. "The degree to which you are willing to feel pain is in direct proportion to your ability to feel pleasure," Eva Peirakkos writes in her book Guide Lectures for Self-Transformation.

This lesson was seared into my own soul by a dog named Jim. I got him when I was 29 years old, a few months after my best friend died in a skiing accident. Jimmy was a Shepherd mix, a savvy stray that looked both ways before crossing the street and always had a gaggle of new friends around him. To say that we were inseparable is an epic understatement. Even a trip to the dry cleaner might give rise to feelings of separation anxiety. After seven years together, we had knee surgery the same week. Three years after that, he came down with lung cancer a month after I got my cancer diagnosis, and I wonder if Jimmy somehow sucked the disease out of me so that I might live. When it came time to lay him to rest, I was three months into chemotherapy and digging his grave in the backyard of our home in Boulder. Pick and shovel. Sweat and tears. Nancy Griffith's "Great Divide" played on the patio speakers as Jim sat on the grass watching me, a knowing look in his eyes. Our time had come. A few hours later, the digging done, the vet came and Jim had a final bowl of chocolate ice cream, a last hug and scratch of his ears.

The feelings I had while tossing dirt on my dear, sweet friend's grave that evening ranged from anguish to surprising joy at having known such tender and unconditional love. I had never experienced such pain, sorrow and inexplicable happiness. I cried for myself, wailed for Jimmy, and for a thousand lifetimes of welled up grief. And by doing so, I felt deeply alive.

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