Mindfulness: The love within your love

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And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself? –Rumi

Two years ago, I accidentally began to practice mindfulness.

On hearing the plan that I needed six rounds of chemotherapy, I thought that it would be a great time to start all those things that I had been planning to do before my cancer diagnosis: yoga, eating healthily, thinking positively, blah, blah, blah. With hindsight, I see that me being business as usual, was actually my way of dealing with it all. I was pretending it wasn’t happening.

And then, life intervened, as the first round of chemotherapy nearly killed me. The chemo was the correct dose for my size, but my body which had been in fight or flight mode for years, held onto the chemo longer than was good for me. After a week in hospital, I came home thankfully alive but so weak, I couldn’t do anything.

I tried again to carry on as before but after a while I gave up and began living completely in the present moment. I listened to my body and accepted whatever came my way. I lay in bed a lot with a little fridge besides me so when I needed a drink I didn’t have to walk anywhere because I couldn’t spare the energy. And when I had energy, I had to spend it wisely. Life most days was a choice between having a shower, or dropping my kids off at playgroup. I couldn’t do both. I took my life moment by moment.

Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine and Mindfulness, and author of Coming to our senses defines mindfulness as paying attention to being in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and with an open heart.

Chemotherapy taught me this. For the first time ever in my life, I accepted my body as it was, which at that time was bald, battle-scarred and amazing. I stopped forcing it to exercise. The chemo had severely damaged the nerves in my veins so stretching hurt my limbs. And when it came to food, I gave my body the hangover food it wanted: fried egg sandwiches and chocolate cake, instead of forcing it to eat healthy cancer-fighting food. And then I stopped worrying about not eating cancer-fighting food, as that was too stressful. And then I stopped fighting life and thinking that I should or shouldn’t do something. I started to be.

And this listening to my body, came as a bit of a relief to my mind too. For like my body, it used to hang onto to thoughts that really weren’t good for me. I would dwell on things people said, or did, or didn’t do, for far too long. I made myself ill worrying about other peoples’ opinions of me.

And when I got overtired and my mind went to the dark side and frightened me with thoughts like: What if you don’t get better? What if this is it? I was so glad to get back to the present moment and a judgement free way of living, that I became surer that being in the present moment was the only way to live. The alternative was to think positively, which was equally stressful, because each time I didn’t, I worried I might affect my chances of getting well and die of negativity, another exhausting thought.

And I realised that all my life, my mind had been so full of pointless chatter. A thought I later saw echoed by Eckart Tolle in his book The Power of Now. To counter our pointless thoughts, Tolle, recommends that we watch our thoughts as a separate thing, and with experience, we come to know that we are not our thoughts, we are the essence of what is between our thoughts.

Throughout my treatment, I looked so well, that often people would ask me to do things. One day a mum in our local playgroup asked me to take on a volunteering role. I said that I was recovering from cancer and didn’t feel that I could do it. She said: Oh! that is what they all say… someone has to do it.

That was really, the first time that I saw that mindfulness was bigger than me. Normally I would have gotten upset with this person and her meanness. Instead, I was able to observe her anger and frustration and I began to view her differently. I felt compassion for her situation. In her mind, she was stuck with a volunteering job she hadn’t ever wanted and couldn’t palm off on me. This moment wasn’t about me at all. She wasn’t bothered about me, otherwise she might have chosen her words more carefully. Why would I waste energy getting upset about what she said? She didn’t care! Why should I?

Kabat-Zinn says that wisdom and compassion are practices which you need to cultivate it and which are capable of healing unthinkable wounds, which I know now is true.

It is business as usual nowadays: I do yoga, I eat healthy, I’ve lost weight, and sometimes I even think positive thoughts, blah, blah, blah. Mainly though, I try to approach each moment mindfully, because I know that when I do, it is possible to see the good that is in everything and everyone, and that healing may only be a moment away.

Chemotherapy: The year of my hair

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Before I started chemotherapy in March 2011 I had had the same hairdo for 20 years. It was long and very dark brown and curly and I loved it. It was, I believed, my crowning glory and I imagined I wouldn’t be the same without it. I found that I was the same without it. I am not my hair but I like having hair on my head.

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When my hair started falling out it was shocking to hold great big long clumps in my hands, so my husband clipped it all off and then I looked on the internet for a gallery of pictures to show me how soon my hair would grow back and what it would look like. I thought that way I would feel less sad. At the time, I couldn’t find one so I thought that one day I would put up my own for someone who wanted the same information. So, today is that day.

The pictures are random because I found chemotherapy gruelling. Ideally, the photographs would have been taken at a specific time of the month in the same place in the same outfit. Unfortunately, they were taken all over the place and sometimes there is one month between them and other times six weeks. I took pictures whenever I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oooh new hair do,’ which happened a lot more than I had thought it would.

I had six rounds of chemotherapy, every three weeks between March and August 2011. My hair started falling out after the first round and I was completely bald by the third round. It started growing back after the fifth round and three weeks after the last round it was fuzzy, grey and thick and thin along its length. Three weeks after I finished chemotherapy I got my husband to shave my head again so it would be even. And my hair has been growing fairly steadily since then.

I had one haircut in April 2012 as it was a bit of an odd shape and then in September 2012 I got my husband to trim the back off with the kitchen scissors to turn it into a bob, rather than the mullet it felt like.

My new hair was completely grey so I coloured it my old colour. I didn’t want grey hair. I wanted to look in the mirror and see a me I recognised. I used a ‘natural’ hair dye one without ammonia in case my scalp was sensitive.

Update 

July 2013: My hair is starting to look like how it used to be.

March 2017: Going grey

Experiencing embodiment

B K S Iyengar pic from www.tribuneindia.com

Last spring I began six rounds of chemotherapy which changed the relationship between me and my body forever. The chemo worked so well on the first round, it shut down my immune system and put me in hospital. Then each subsequent round left me weaker and weaker. For a few months, I became my body.

I spent everyday trying to battle the physical side effects of the chemo. And the intellectual part of me which I thought defined me, behaved like a useless relative asking the questions I didn’t want to hear: ‘Aren’t you scared?, ‘What if you don’t get better?’. Finally, I stopped thinking and did what my body asked me: ‘Sip this, chew that, lie down’. I lived from moment to moment and began living completely in the present, I had stumbled upon mindfulness.

One afternoon as I pushed a needle full of the immunostimulator Lenograstim subcutaneously into my stomach, I remembered Stelarc, an artist who upgrades himself surgically because he believes his body is obsolete. And I thought: ‘What a plonka,’ as I was still very sore from having cancer surgically removed from my body. But on reflection, I could see what he meant. I was only my body and so weak I was unable to interact with the world. Someone else was looking after my toddlers, taking them to the park, and doing all the things I could no longer do. I was trapped in my body upstairs on the bed, and I would weep at the thought of getting up to do anything, even reading was beyond me. I too felt that my body needed an upgrade.

I felt that every experience I had was totally physical and raw. Although on an intellectual level I still knew that was not true. We are embodied. We experience the world through our bodies and their limited senses and then our brain interprets the experience in light of our past experiences. There is no such thing as a raw experience.

I even lived this embodiment. Each time I thought of the next round of chemotherapy, I would vomit. Such a reaction is known as anticipatory nausea. And, anything I did in the chemotherapy room: drinking tea and reading my kindle, I was unable to do outside of it without vomiting. My embodiment had reinterpreted the experiences of drinking tea and reading my kindle as vomit-inducing ones.

I realised that it wasn’t just my embodiment which was causing my experiences. It was also other peoples’ embodiment, especially when it came to their perception of my physical appearance. I lost all of my body hair and so when I left the house it was in camouflage. I wore an expensive wig, I drew on my eyebrows and I wore a lot of eye-makeup to distract attention from my missing eyelashes, so people wouldn’t perceive me as sick. On the odd occasion when I would open the front door displaying my bald head and face, people would shrink backwards and look at me with horror or repulsion or fear. In my camouflage, people would treat me as a normal person and judge me on the tube for not giving up my seat to the needy. And the people who knew would say: ‘Oh you look so well, I can’t believe you had cancer.’ Everyone has an experience, or an image of how cancer should look.

Throughout it all, I kept my Matrix residual self image, the image of me which had been the same for over 20 years: Long black curly hair and a fine pair of eyebrows. So, I would get a shock when I saw my bald self in the mirror looking back horrified and repulsed even though I no longer felt my hair on my shoulders after I had asked my husband to cut it. I packed it and posted it myself to a wig charity. My hair had left the building. However, we didn’t have any mirrors in our home in which I could easily catch sight of myself, so I would go days thinking that I was still the same old me. Even when my husband said I looked like a Mekon, I laughed and thought, ‘Well that is just your opinion.’ In my head I was beautiful. I was a warrior. I was Wonderwoman. I had learnt how to reframe my experiences and tell myself positive stories. I had learnt to use narrative therapy.

And because I was focusing on reinterpreting things more positively, I stopped reading into situations. I have always been a people-pleaser, afraid that people won’t like me, or that I am not enough. Intellectually, I know that this is because my embodied mind is working overtime misintepreting other people’s behaviour. Most people aren’t actively disliking me, they are busy thinking about their underpants being too tight or what they are having for tea. They haven’t even noticed me. Sadly, I find a lot of women feel the way I do, it seems to be some warped extension of the mothering instinct. I have a feeling that I am responsible for making everyone happy and should rush about doing just that. As if I had the power?

Several months after finishing chemo, I went to a yoga class. I thought I would only do about 10 minutes and have to rest, but I managed to do the whole thing. It felt amazing. I was there and present and so proud of my body for being able to do yoga, to get into positions and to hold them. I was all of me, complete in my body. I was unaware of anything else until I looked up and saw a woman at the back of the room staring at me. Throughout the rest of the class she kept staring. Why wouldn’t she though? I was beautiful. I was a warrior. I was Wonderwoman. And then when we went over to return the blocks and belts, she told me off for standing on someone else’s yoga mat. It was immediate, she leant across and got hold of me the instant I stepped on it as if she had been waiting for me. I immediately apologised being the people-pleasing sap I am and stepped out of her grip, and then I lay down on my mat for the corpse pose and felt angry: It was a communal mat and I was barefoot and really, WTF? I decided I would talk to her later and got on with relaxing. When I got up I had forgotten what she looked like. How was that possible? And as I walked home I asked myself: What did it matter? Why did I need to say something? In this instance, her behaviour towards me was not my problem. It was sad that instead of using this time to do yoga and feel better, she was for whatever reason, annoyed with me.

And this was a revelation. I grew up in a household where sometimes I would be recounting an incident and then I would get told off because I didn’t respond correctly. I should have said X, or shouted, or shown them. Or, I would get told off because someone would be upset about something else and not about me at all. I just happened to be there able to become a focal point for their annoyances. And this has recurred in different contexts in my life, particularly in my career, which has made me feel bad because somewhere along the line, my embodiment believed that someone else’s inappropriate behaviour was my fault and that I should bend myself out of shape to fix it and make them feel better so that they won’t treat me badly again.

So like the embodied kindle-tea vomiting that I learnt instantly, recognising that a woman telling me off was about her and not about me, was amazing. And it was fitting that this happened in yoga class. Yogis talk about cleaning the lense of perception and see the world as it really is. Through meditation, Yogis attain a healthy state of seeing things as they are rather than the unhealthy stories their embodied selves have learnt to believe. And once this ability to see clearly is combined with the mindfulness of being present in this moment of seeing, great power and wisdom become the norm.

When my hair and eyebrows first grew back they were white, so I dyed them and afterwards I looked in the mirror and felt a distinct sense of: ‘Ah there you are.’ The image in the mirror once more resembled the image in my head, although I had a funky short hairdo and looked like a different me but more me.

And having spent time listening to my body and practising mindfulness, some days I still feel like more me, albeit, a different, funky me. And other days I forget about me and where I have been as I am sucked back into life and the trifles which can make up a day. And every now and again, I remember where I am, and I remember that I am all of me, complete in my body, and once again I recognise that I am more me than I ever was and I welcome that distinct sense of: ‘Ah there you are.’ And why wouldn’t I?

I am beautiful. I am a warrior. I am Wonderwoman.