Some people say that the first couple of years of marriage are the most difficult. While I’m not sure that this statement rings true for all couples, my marriage was certainly put to the test very early on. It was two months before our first wedding anniversary that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And although many newlyweds face all sorts of challenges, I’d say that our circumstance was a bit extraordinary. If you really want to see what your relationship is made of, throw a little cancer into the mix and you’ll figure it out fairly quickly.

Luckily for me, my husband stuck by me through it all: He slept on the floor next to my bed in the hospital, brought me Popsicles during chemo treatments, emptied fluid from my surgical drains and attempted to soothe me when I was in agonizing pain or panicking that I wouldn’t live to see my next birthday. Although this unique experience bonded us in a way that most young couples will never know, it also saddled us with a lot of extra stress and unease about the future. We had truly been through a war together, and now we were searching to bring a bit of clarity and calm to our relationship.

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It was with this goal in mind that we decided to sign up for a retreat at the Dharma Centre, a facility nestled in the woods of Kinmount, Ont., that offers various spiritual retreats. Our program was entitled “Mindfulness, Change and Living With Purpose,” which seemed incredibly fitting. Mindfulness, the act of being in the present moment, is something neither one of us has ever been particularly good at. Let’s just say that when you hear descriptors like “peaceful,” “meditative” and “Buddha-like,” you do not think of us. But we decided to dive right into it, with open minds and hearts, hoping that maybe we would find some solace and guidance.

Admittedly, we had preconceived notions about what kind of people typically embark on a mindfulness retreat (i.e., New Age hippies who smell of patchouli). But, as it turns out, we very much enjoyed our group of fellow retreaters – an eclectic bunch, including an engineering professor, a recovering alcoholic and a young woman with bipolar disorder. And despite our differences, we had something in common: We had all gone through a difficult period in our lives and were looking for a way to move forward.

It’s actually quite remarkable how quickly you can connect with complete strangers and then confide in them about things you might not even tell your closest friends. Our relative ease and comfort throughout the retreat were a testament to the skill of leaders Jocasta Boone and Sharon Davison, of Living With Purpose Now, both experts in helping people transition through change. With their guidance, we reflected on and analyzed the positive and negative experiences we had endured and talked about our goals and vision for the future. Through a variety of deep exploration exercises, we all began to open up and share intimate feelings and stories, seeking comfort in one another’s support. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by my husband’s willingness to join in despite his introverted personality. (These situations typically cause him considerable distress.) But, as always, he rose to the occasion, and I was reminded once again how lucky I am to have him as my life partner.

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We also had several meditation sessions – some while lying down, some while sitting, some while walking –  all very challenging since we both found it difficult to stay centred and keep our thoughts from spiralling. But this challenge was a necessary one; we forced ourselves to focus on our breathing, and we learned not to judge the thoughts that popped into our heads (such as, in my case, thinking about the massive itching sensation all over my body due to being eaten alive by mosquitoes –  an unfortunate consequence of being one with nature). For two people who live a hectic and stressful existence, learning to have a greater awareness of, and appreciation for, what’s happening in this very moment was truly an essential tool to add to our spiritual tool box. (Note: I never thought I’d say something like “spiritual tool box,” but, alas, here we are. Perhaps I have already changed more than I realize.)

After the retreat ended, we made our way back to the city. As soon as we turned on our phones, the emails and notifications started flooding in. We were instantly pulled back into the daily grind of our lives, the memories of our retreat receding like a lovely and peaceful dream. We have been trying to make use of all the lessons we learned, taking small steps here and there to live more mindfully and enjoy each moment as we live it. Will we ever fully succeed at bringing awareness and serenity into our relationship and into our lives? I’m not sure about that, but I do know that as we move into the next phase of our marriage and face whatever challenges might be waiting around the corner, we will get through it all – as we always have – together.

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