Choosing To Live In The Now
Outer, Inner, And Secret Change For Those Touched By Cancer
Like so many people these days, my life has been touched by cancer. Family and friends are receiving diagnoses of various types of cancer every year, and it has become the new normal. Sometimes the cancer can be removed and a diagnosis of remission is given, while at other times it cannot. Regardless of the prognosis, I have seen my family and friends make remarkable lifestyle changes as a result of this not so welcome wake-up call to the fragile hold we have on life. They recognize that while the cancer cells cannot be controlled, they can control how they choose to live the rest of their life. Choosing to make intentional change in one’s life directly impacts quality of life. It can enrich our experiences, and help us work through stressful situations. These changes can be categorized as outer, inner and secret change.
Outer changes are in regard to our lifestyle and body. Many cancer centers and doctors will instruct their patients to eat healthy foods and exercise. A change in diet can help boost the immune system and create an environment where cancer cells don’t thrive. Exercise is good for metabolism, oxygenating the blood and overall mood. If one is about to go through chemotherapy or radiation, time away from work may be another change that is made. During the course of treatment, physical changes, like burns on the skin, weight and hair loss may occur. Outer changes are more obvious to the outside observer, but the inner and secret changes are not.
Inner changes refer to our relationships. These changes are more noticeable to friends and family. When we truly acknowledge that our death is coming someday soon, it can act as a motivator for positive change. A life review of the impact we have made on others, and them on us, puts things in perspective. Grudges and resentments held may no longer seem as important. The energy we put into holding onto the anger and hurt seems pointless. It won’t change anything to hold onto it. An opening may begin to occur in our storyline, and we may want to let the old resentments go. The resentment acted as a wall, but with its dismantling, a real connection can now occur. We can see the big picture, what we were angry about is not important anymore. This inner change can be about a change in how we value those who have walked along side us in this life. The disagreements are just bumps in the road, and what we notice now, is the part of the journey we share together.
Another inner change, may be that we want to spend more time with those for whom we care. Priorities may change and the game on television may not seem so important. Instead, we may want to take a walk outside with someone we care about, or have conversation with the family around the dinner table.
Secret changes are more difficult to explain because it is so personal and must be experienced. Secret changes are often talked about in a spiritual context. Sometimes it can be described as experiencing the Divine, within and without, or as a transcendental experience of inner peace and profound connection to the world. It can also be experienced as a tenderness and an opening of the heart. This secret change occurs within the mind. I think it is the grace within us all, that we are often blind to most of our life. Spiritual practices try to point this inherent peacefulness and goodness out to us, but we usually miss the signs. In order to make secret changes, it often takes an abrupt realization of the short time we have in this life, luck, or finding a method like meditation to help us wake up.
As a contemplative psychotherapist and practicing meditator, I have found myself drawn to this phenomena of the secret change. In Tibetan Buddhism, contemplation and study of death is a cornerstone of our practices, because it helps us to appreciate the uniqueness of each moment. We experience death all the time. Each moment is constantly being born and dissolving. As soon as we notice the present moment, that moment has faded and we are experiencing a new now. Familiarizing oneself with the truth of this ebb and flow, as natural and unavoidable, helps keep things in perspective. In general, our culture is oriented toward youth and youthfulness. Old age and death are marginalized in our society and are often regarded with disdain and repulsion. The more we can practice acknowledging birth and death in our everyday experience, the less surprised we are when we are faced with our own mortality. This doesn’t mean that we won’t have feelings of anger, fear or sadness. We can be honest with what we are feeling, and work directly with those emotions. Mindfulness meditation can teach us how to be kind and gentle toward our experience in a genuine and heartfelt way. This approach helps enrich our life and can lead to less stress because we can work with things in the present moment.
I have witnessed courage and bravery by those facing a cancer diagnosis. It takes courage to accept the reality of sickness and impermanence. It takes bravery to communicate honestly about how one feels. This includes the outer and inner changes. The secret change often occurs naturally as one opens to the truth. The spiritual element of the secret change is what is often expressed. However, from a meditators perspective, the secret change can be explained as one waking up to one’s own nature. Through meditation, one can begin to experience the natural quality of the goodness of one’s self, life and the connection we have to all of it.
I recently taught mindfulness meditation to a group of women diagnosed with breast cancer. What struck me about this group is that they were all very aware of the tenuous hold they on life. Every single day they were preoccupied with the worry of what the cancer is doing, and the fear that they will receive results from a test that says their days are now numbered.
There is an old Buddhist saying, “death comes suddenly and without warning.” When we begin to allow the truth of death to touch us, it motivates and energizes us. Mindfulness meditation can give us the tools to train our mind for secret change. Secret change is really all about appreciating the life we have, and living each and every moment to the fullest. The most we can do is be fully present within our own life, not caught in numbing distraction or thoughts of the past and fear of the future, but in being here, right now. That often results in, not only being with ourselves more fully, but our friends and family. We never know exactly how much time we will have, but we can choose how we are going to live the rest of it.