Pay mindfulness forward

by Brian on July 9, 2018

in Cancer,Mindfulness

“You’re going to feel so much better in a week.”

I don’t know if it was a pep talk or my doctor’s analysis of my cancer, but those words of encouragement, uttered two days before my treatment for follicular lymphoma was to start a few months back, buoyed me through the initial fears and side effects of starting a 2-year process of chemo and immunotherapy.

It also set my expectations high – really high. So when I came back to Hadassah Medical Center for my second treatment a week later, it was hard to hide my disappointment.

“How do you feel?” my doctor asked with her usual cheer.

“In general, I’m tolerating the meds well,” I responded, which was true. I hadn’t wound up in the emergency room with a high fever or an infection. I’d had no allergic reaction while receiving the IV itself, which is another common concern.

Yes, I ached all over and felt fatigued much of the time. “But those are manageable,” I said, reassuring myself as well as my doctor. “It’s the stomach aches that are the worst. And that’s got me worried.”

Worried, because it was abdominal pain that sent me for that first ultrasound (the one that caught the cancer early) and now there seemed a distinct possibility that the pain might not go away with the cancer treatment; that the knife stabs to my stomach that I was experiencing daily might be caused by something entirely unrelated to my cancer.

“I’m afraid,” I told my doctor, “that this is going to be how I’ll feel for the rest of my life. That I’ll get to remission from the cancer but still be suffering from chronic pain.”

“Let’s not worry so much about a year from now,” she said. “How about we try to just get through the next week?”

Anxiety about the future has been one of my emotional bogeymen for as long as I remember.

It comes from an understandable place – it’s what makes us human. After all, human beings are the only animals that can even imagine a tomorrow. We play out in our minds multiple possible responses to everything. That allows us to think strategically; to be three steps ahead in a negotiation.

But when it fuses with worry, “future thinking” is decidedly less helpful.

I’d already begun to deal with this even before my cancer diagnosis.

I set out on a speaking tour of the U.S. at the end of 2017 to promote my new book. Yet every time I started my spiel, my stomach would flare up.

When I returned from the trip, I met with my therapist who suggested I try a variation of “pay it forward.”

“Can you derive any enjoyment at all from these talks?” she asked.

“Well, when the pain has subsided and I reflect back, I feel pleased about the job I did and the way the audience reacted,” I replied.

“So, can you bring some of that good feeling you know you’re going to get in the future into the moments when you’re actually talking?” she continued. “Even if you’re physically uncomfortable?”

“That’s not very mindful!” I chided her. I’d long ago internalized the meditation mantra that you should always strive to focus on the present and the feelings you’re having right now.

“I’m just suggesting a way to give those ‘future feelings’ more prominence in the current moment,” my therapist said. A kind of an “anti-mindfulness mindfulness.”

The concept was not unfamiliar to me. When we used to camp at the Jacob’s Ladder music festival (before we started renting a room with a proper bed), I would never get more than 3-4 hours of sleep. The tent was too cold. Then it was too hot. There was too much noise from the kids next door.

I’d walk around the grounds for the next two days in a daze.

But there’s so much more going on at the show: all the music, connecting with old friends, the late night jams by the Sea of Galilee.

How much of my overall experience was not feeling well? Ten percent? Why should I let just one element, already in the minority, define the entire weekend?

Here’s another way of looking at it: What’s the cost-benefit analysis on the weekend as a whole? Does the discomfort outweigh the positives? Would it be a reasonable decision to skip out on the festival entirely just to avoid the possibility of not sleeping? Of course not.

“The things we generally value most in life bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant,” writes Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap, a primer on ACT – Acceptance Commitment Therapy. He gives the example of an intimate relationship, which comprises desirable feelings like love and joy, but is also hard work with inevitable ups and downs and emotional pain.

To be sure, it’s not always possible to willpower your way past pain, especially when it’s chronic. But I’ve already found this technique helpful as I settle into my new normal.

Maybe I won’t feel better in a week, I told myself. Maybe it will take a month. Or a year. Or it won’t happen at all. My job is to accept whatever reality is mine (including the pain), while at the same time committing to embrace the bigger blessings in my life – those that are happening right now and those that I can imagine enjoying in the (hopefully very near) future.

I first paid mindfulness forward at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo of Hadassah Medical Center via Wikimedia Commons, taken by David Shankbone

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