Awake & Alive: An interview with Erica Rayner-Horn

We recently spoke with Erica Rayner-Horn about her Awake & Alive Mindful Living With Cancer Retreat, which is coming again to the Whidbey Institute this April. Here’s that conversation:

What inspired you to launch this program? 

The inspiration for founding the Awake & Alive Mindful Living with Cancer Retreat was my experience the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. It was both humbling and enlightening to discover that despite being a lifelong meditator, a psychotherapist, and a stress reduction instructor, nothing prepared me whatsoever for the utter shock of facing my own death and possible imminent demise. While I was undergoing treatment, I knew I’d benefit enormously from a mindfulness and meditation retreat with other people going through cancer so I tried hard to find one, but to no avail. It just didn’t seem to exist. I set the intention that when I was well enough I would create a mindfulness and healing retreat . . . and I did!
What is unique about this retreat?

I initially modeled the retreat on my mindfulness-based stress reduction program but over time, as I listened to feedback and evaluations, I included more mindfulness meditation practices and expressive arts. When Diana and Kelly Lindsay joined me as co-facilitators they brought the wonderful addition of Qigong, which helps restore the proper flow of qi, or life energy. We developed the retreat further with more creativity, guided visualization, and deep relaxation. To the best of my knowledge there are no other cancer retreats in the USA that bring together the transformative practices of mindfulness, stress management, meditation, and Qigong.

Another important aspect of the retreat is that in addition to providing opportunities for deep self-reflection and insight, we also give participants tangible, practical tools to help them to relax, energize, cope better with challenging emotions, and transform negative thinking. People have told us that it’s very helpful to have materials to take home that help them continue the practices they learned at the retreat.

We have the great gift of the healing environment of the Whidbey Institute with its many acres of protected forest. Here, there’s an atmosphere of deep peace and healing. Together with the delicious, healthy food that our wonderful chef Christyn prepares, the space provides significant support to the retreat. Everyone who’s attended the program has commented on how just the place alone has helped to heal, calm, relax, and nourish them. We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to host our retreat in such a beautiful setting.
What qualities of the program are you proudest of? 

We get feedback from many participants who tell us of the deep healing, insight, and transformation that they experience at the retreat—and this is by far the most important quality. With the exception of raising my two extraordinary children, I have never felt more gratified by anything I have done! It’s been hard work and takes a lot of time, dedication, and care, but it is such a great privilege to work with people who are facing the real issues of living with a life-threatening illness. There is no other circle I would rather be a part of than the one that gathers every evening of the retreat in the old Farmhouse to share stories, hopes, and fears. The sharing circle is the heart of the retreat and it’s here where we explore the deep issues—life and death, how we make meaning of life, what really matters, how we live with change and uncertainty, and how to discover gratitude, awareness and joy in every moment we have.

What amazes me most is witnessing how each group comes together in their own way, supporting each other with such love and encouragement that by the end of the retreat everyone leaves feeling less burdened, more empowered, more inspired, and better able to face whatever lies ahead. I have come to trust that something unfolds over these five days that is more powerful and transformative then I can quite account for. All I know is that we all leave with lighter hearts and spirits knowing we have shared a precious few days of healing together.
What has surprised you about the retreat?

It hadn’t occurred to me that people would want to return to the retreat or that they would find it increasingly beneficial each time, but it’s not uncommon for people to come back. They usually comment on how much more powerful it is the second or third time, when they can really deepen their experience. One person, a physician who has returned three years in a row, told me, “as long as you continue to offer this retreat I will be there! Each time I learn so much.”

The other surprise has been the distance some people travel to attend the retreat. Besides those coming from Whidbey Island and the Northwest, we’ve had participants from California, Colorado, and New Mexico as well as Canada, Alaska, and even Europe! I also hadn’t anticipated that Awake & Alive would become international, but this summer I took the retreat to England, my home country, and was delighted to find a warm reception there along with an invitation to return next year.
You say that this program is appropriate for anyone with a cancer diagnosis, past or present. Can you tell me more about why that is?

Regardless of how long people have been living with cancer, they come to Awake & Alive retreats to learn and practice healing modalities that can improve their quality of life and and enhance healing. Some are still in shock from a recent diagnosis and the stress of making treatment decisions, while others may have been living with cancer for many years—sometimes decades. As many more cancer patients survive and live longer these days, we have had many extraordinary retreat participants who are living really well with “chronic cancer”—disease that is not cured, but managed. Cancer affects every aspect of life and we’ve discovered that wherever they are in their journey, each person can benefit from a holistic mind-body approach that encompasses physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual healing.
Is there a place for a companion or caregiver in this retreat?

Yes, we are fully aware of the impact that having a loved one living with cancer has on caregivers, family members, and companions, so we are happy to offer space for them whenever we can. We keep the group size small, no more than eight to ten participants, so as I’m registering people I try to keep an eye on the balance of the number of couples and the number of people attending alone. Generally that means we have two, or perhaps three, companion/caregivers attending the retreat.
Can you tell me about the other members of your leadership team?

I would love to! I am so blessed to have the wonderful Diana and Kelly Lindsay working with me to facilitate the retreat. All three of us are cancer survivors and know the terrain of cancer from the inside, yet we each bring our own particular skills and strengths to the program. We complement one another really well, and together we can offer a balanced and rich program. Diana and Kelly are the program directors of Healing Circles Langley, a non-profit that offers support for those impacted by cancer or other life-changing conditions. They bring their big hearts and extensive skills as instructors of energy work to the retreat.

One of the highlights of the retreat is spending an afternoon with the gifted Deborah Koff-Chapin, who leads participants through a beautiful Touch Drawing experience accompanied by chanting and Tibetan bowls. Many find this a really inspiring and powerful experience.

I am deeply grateful to have such a great team of creative, talented, kindhearted, and fun people to work with! Together with the truly awesome team at the Whidbey Institute, we are able to offer anyone living with cancer an opportunity to discover what it means to live fully awake and alive—even while facing serious illness.
What have some past participants said about the Awake & Alive retreats?

There are so many wonderful stories but here are a few vignettes . . .

Michael and Dorothy were reeling with shock when they came to the retreat last year. He had just been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, and they described themselves as totally stressed out. By the end of the retreat Michael said, “it’s a big thing to be told you have terminal cancer, hard to come to terms with, but this retreat dramatically reduced my fear and anxiety. We leave with tools to practice mindfulness every day that can be incredibly calming and helpful. My wife and I feel renewed, recharged, and unafraid of the future.” Dorothy said, “I came to support my husband and healed myself—I not only feel rejuvenated but ready for anything!”

Barbara, an ex-school principal with metastatic colon cancer, attended the retreat three years ago. Her goal was to live to her 60th birthday and celebrate with a barn dance, which I’m glad to say she did! She told us she had never done anything like this before, but in her evaluation she said, “this retreat really helps one deal with the pain and uncertainty of living with cancer. Helps one live a ‘healed’ life, regardless of diagnosis and prognosis.”

Linda is a single mom whose oncologist put her on a “watch and wait” regimen after a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s Follicular Lymphoma. “Living with the unknown is so stressful,” she said. Initially finding it very difficult to talk about her cancer or articulate her feelings, Linda appreciated how mindfulness practice helped her live in the here and now and work with her anxiety. “I’m learning to relax and live in the present rather than fixate on future fears,” she said.

Sarah is a psychotherapist from California who has been living with metastatic lung cancer for many years. About her experience, she said, “the retreat was an opportunity for me look at my relationship with the cancer within me. I don’t want to fight it, I want to have compassion—but I don’t want it in my body. What an incredible gem to have found a different relationship to my cancer.”

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