In this chapter I talk about serious, chronic or debilitating sicknesses, including those which turn out to be terminal. Since cancer can fit into all of these categories, I use it as a representative example of the other serious illnesses as well.
When we first fall ill, we tend to think of it mainly as a medical problem. We look at all the things the doctors can do and we can do, mainly in terms of repairing our bodies.
Soon we realise it can’t be contained in this way. Its effects spread far beyond our bodies. The weekly schedule is re-arranged. You may change patterns of diet, exercise, work and recreation. Your friends, family and workmates respond to you differently when they hear you have cancer. Your inner sense of body and self have to adjust to the presence of a malignancy inside you.Illness is largely a solitary journey into a land of new sensations and feelings, new events, dangers and decisions. You can inform yourself and get all the advice you want from friends and professionals, but once you are fully there, the landscape often looks nothing like the map. And it is happening to no one else but you.
Meditation will help your total body function well so it can better combat the cancer. However, it is equally valuable in dealing with the psychological issues. Despair, pain and confusion can defeat you just as much as a malignant growth. Confidence, clarity of mind and intelligent management of your situation can heal you just as well as chemotherapy.
Meditation can help you from being overwhelmed by your illness. You don’t need to make cancer such an integral part of your personality that you think of yourself as “a cancer sufferer”, tempting as that may be.
It is said that grieving for a dead spouse usually takes a year or two at best. And yet the widow is not grieving all that time. She can be pottering around her beloved garden with the birds, the flowers, the wind and the weeds, and suddenly realise she is completely happy and has actually forgotten him for a few minutes at least. If this happens only a week after the funeral, she can feel quite embarrassed and hope that no one notices.
But this is what a normal mind is like. For inner health and a sense of wellbeing, it seeks out pleasure, even in the worst of situations. Even if we are terminally ill, there can be many hours when we feel quite okay – even radiantly happy. This can be quite a shock for people who visit you with long faces.
When one woman realised she might only have a year to live, it made her fully awake. “As soon as I was diagnosed with cancer, the world became brighter. It was like someone had turned the lights on.”
If she were a meditator, she could ride that moment of illumination and enhance its effect. Much of her day of course would still be occupied by the mundane. But meditation, as the art of entering the present moment, would enable her to savour those bright moments more and more.
A chance to think deeply
Illness often gives one the opportunity to rest and contemplate the bigger issues in life. Many people find catching the flu gives them the excuse they need to step off the treadmill for a day, stay at home and take stock of themselves.
When you are seriously ill, people usually don’t expect you to earn a living. You have time to think at last! Even under these circumstances, the chance to contemplate your life can be a great pleasure. Sickness can give you the sabbatical or the retirement you have wanted for so long.
Sickness can lead to a richer, more intuitive kind of thinking. It becomes blindingly obvious what is important and what is not. As a man with AIDS said, “As I walked out of the doctor’s office, my thoughts about redesigning the kitchen vanished forever.”
Ideally in meditation you don’t actively think. You aim to create a space in which inner wisdom can arise. In Buddhism, this is called “insight”. In a flash, you understand the situation and you know what to do.
Insight has many dimensions. Insight can be about big or small matters, or be an ongoing stream of clear, inspired thinking. Often it has a clean-up function, unraveling the gritty knots of emotional pain and dispelling the confusion. At other times, it elevates the “just watching” quality of meditation into an almost godlike perspective. This can have a philosophic or spiritual quality which is healing in itself.
Meditation can refine the introspection that often occurs with illness. Our usual verbal thinking can easily incline towards fantasy and self-deception. Meditation however, as does illness in general, grounds your thinking and understanding in the body. In other words, you think with your whole body, not just your head.
A clear, balanced mind
Equally valuable is the ability to “just watch” the ramifications of your illness. If you meditate regularly, your mind will be clearer and better able to steer you through the options. New things are continually coming into the equation. If you notice, “Oh! this is happening now” you can meet new circumstances intelligently, even if you haven’t had to deal with them before.
If a diagnosis of cancer is suddenly thrown into your life, how are you going to respond? By dropping everything and plunging into it? Or by trying to lead as normal a life as possible, even if that seems to be part of the problem?
You could go into the extremes of panic or denial. While neither is useful, it can be good to oscillate somewhat between them. It is natural and healthy to have times of sadness and despair, and it is good to enjoy those times when you feel just fine, despite the diagnosis.
Meditation helps maintain your emotional as well as physical homeostasis. When you first hear that your cancer diagnosis is confirmed, what do you do with this huge dark secret? You’ve never been in this situation before. If you’re a meditator, you will instinctively know, “This is a time to meditate”.
You relax and settle into your body as well as you can. Your mind may be frantic, but at least you can drop the physical agitation that came from driving and running around all day. You can let the breathing soften and sigh, and feel your body shift from arousal towards resting mode.
Ideally, you “just watch” the thoughts and feelings racing through your mind. “I hate this! This can’t be happening to me. I feel just fine! What did I do wrong? Shall I tell people at work? I can’t tell my kids. I’ll quit work and do all the alternative therapy things. I can’t bear to think about it. I’ll tell the doctors to just do everything they want. Shit! maybe I’ll die. I might even lose my hair. I’m not going downhill the way Elaine did. God, I feel tired. I want to go to sleep and forget all about it.”
Getting a cancer diagnosis can be like falling in love. The mind is likely to be in turmoil for days or weeks until everything is factored in, one change after the other, and you find the point of balance in the new situation. It is like sailing a small boat in a hurricane. Calm weather may be nowhere in sight, but anything that keeps you upright is invaluable.
You’ll face many new options, inner and outer. If you don’t cope with them well, you’ll feel stressed and over-burdened. This will affect your health just as much as the illness itself. On the other hand, if you manage your changing situation to your own satisfaction, your sense of well-being will be enhanced enormously. Meditation is just as likely to help cure cancer by fostering a healthy state of mind as it is by stimulating the self-healing mechanisms of the body.
Making your own choices
How you respond to an illness is as much a reflection of your personality as anything else. Some people really discover their true identity when they get seriously ill. Doctors, friends and family give us very clear cues on how they expect us to behave. But do we really want to be told what to do while we are ill, in much the same way that Mummy decided what we would wear to school?
Research indicates it is important to maintain a sense of being in control of your treatment. The alternative – just letting people do what they want with you – can be quite unhealthy for you. When rats are trained into “learned helplessness”, they suffer high stress hormone levels and suppressed immune function. The result is very similar in humans who are depressed or lonely. The sense of being in control, even if it is an illusion, leads to a healthier physiological environment than just giving up.
When faced with an option, do you decide, “They all seem to want me to have the operation, so I’ll do it to make them happy. They’re doing so much for me anyway.” Or do you decide to wait another week or two until you really know what you want?
Hundreds of times in the course of an illness, you’ll be faced with choices about how to act. If you are a meditator you will wait for the inner signals to tell you what to do. The Buddhists say that every single thought (and any ensuing action) has either a healthy or an unhealthy result. Meditators have a way of telling which is which, that most people don’t. They can read their bodies.
When you contemplate a thought or action that is actually unhealthy, it triggers off a subtle bad feeling in the body. Healthy feelings are usually soft, flowing, pleasant and energising. Unhealthy feelings are usually hard, stiff, stuck and unpleasant.
So you may be facing a decision. You feel as sick as a dog but you have a message that a friend wants to visit you. What do you say? You consider the options. How would you feel if she came? And how would you feel if you said no?
You’re unsure, so you do a little meditation. You bring her image to mind and notice how your body responds. If you feel it perking up in anticipation, you know that her visit will be healthy for you. If, however, the body sags and you feel a sense of gloom, you realise she wouldn’t be good for your health.
We can think about issues relating to treatment for weeks and never get any clearer. The body, however, can tell you almost immediately. If you meditate, you are much more likely to “know in your bones” what is right for your body and soul.
Telling yourself and others
One issue you’ll face may be, “Who do I tell?” Where do you find your personal point of balance between the extremes of panic and denial, between obsession and leading “an ordinary life”?
Do you even tell yourself you have cancer? Some part of you could be saying, “I’m not going to think about this. I’ll do what the doctor says, but that is all!” It can take weeks or months or even years before the full significance of a serious cancer is absorbed by the psyche. It’s your choice how quickly or slowly it sinks in.
If you take it in too slowly, you can just drive the feeling underground. You may pretend there is nothing to worry about, but some part of you knows you are lying. Even if the Grim Reaper knocks just once and walks away, that knock should wake you up.
For your own mental health, you need to absorb the full significance of a serious illness, sooner or later. If you try to downplay it or live with irrational hope, there will always be a deep tension within you, shutting out the part that knows the truth. That tension will equally derange your body’s homeostatic balance. Finally, the best way to let the body do its healing work is to be at peace with the truth, even if that seems hard to do.
by Eric Harrison, Perth Meditation Centre
More specific information on how to meditate on an illness, how to face negatives and enhance the positives, why meditation is good for your health and how to use it for this purpose can be found in Meditation and Health, available as a downloadable e-book.
Alternatively, if you’d like specific guidance you can call the Melbourne Meditation Centre and arrange for one-on-one meditation sessions.
For general advice on how to prepare your home if you have a serious illness or chronic disease, you may refer to Healthdirect Australia, the national health information and advice service funded by the Australian Government.