Right now as I write this post, I am in the in-between process of having had a mole diagnosed as suspicious (possibly melanoma) but needing to wait for surgery to remove and biopsy it. Like many other people scattered across the world I am living with that very real but unconfirmed threat of the possibility of a very different and much shorter life. And of a difficult path ahead for myself, my wife and kids.
I am not a stranger to cancer. I watched my father die from asbestos related lung cancer. And my stepdad from lung cancer due to smoking.
Also, as a mindfulness coach, I have helped others in the midst of the diagnosis of, and living with, cancer. I have watched many times as the anxiety dawns upon people when they realise what could happen.
How the overpowering sensations take them away as thought spins horror stories of the imagined future ahead.
For everyone, many many unanswerable questions plague the mind.
How will I die? Will it be painful? What will happen to those I love? Each question leading to another question.
An infinite recess into a world of desperation. A world where we feel utterly powerless, and unable to control our lives.
In my current situation I can recognise this process from looking within. I can be going along, living my life, then suddenly it starts.
The sensations seem to intensify. Then a thought story begins.
If I let that story run it becomes convincing and real. I start to explore possibilities and hit Google for answers. I search this and that and make plans.
All the while, the sensations intensify. And the anxiety accompanying them just becomes worse.
How can I find a helpful perspective amidst all this painful experience?
Through practising mindfulness, I have come to know that my experience is very simple. All that is really happening is that sensation is combining with thought and mental images.
These three factors fuse together to create an illusion which is not actually what is happening. But it seems incredibly real.
The best way to retreat back from – or see through this illusion – is to separate the experience out into these separate components: sensations, thoughts, and mental images.
This blogpost is simply about one of these components – thought.
About how to recognise the thought stories that thought weaves. And how by doing so, we can not be taken off into some imagined scenario that may never come to be.
There are four main thought ‘categories’ that seem to occupy the mind…
Though the stories that thought conjures can vary in their details, the ‘plot’ is often the same. I have noticed these four main patterns that thought describes in my own experience. And I have confirmed them with others:
- What if I had (made a different decision)
- What will happen to those I love?
- How will I (deteriorate and) die?
- How it’s all going to be alright
Let’s take a look at each ‘category’ to see what sort of story
1. What if I had (made a different decision)
This is where the mind turns to the past to imagine a different scenario.
What if I had been diagnosed earlier? What if I hadn’t smoked? What if I had had a different doctor?
The mind frantically searches for a reason as to why things are the way they are, and how it could have been different.
But it isn’t different. And can’t be different.
It is exactly how it is.
Like when my little Nisan Micra’s engine seized on the motorway through lack of oil.
The amount of times I berated myself for not checking the oil. But in the end, nothing I thought would change the fact that it had happened. There I was by the side of the road with a broken down car.
No amount of revisiting the past could change that fact.
2. What will happen to those I love?
This is where the mind worries for those that will suffer as a result of our death.
The mind tries to look for security. A knowledge that they will be alright. A reassurance perhaps, that we will not be the cause of them to suffer.
And to understand and come to terms with the truth that we will not be able to be there and protect them from harm.
I have this with my wife and kids. How will she manage alone? How will they be affected without the love and nurturing of their father?
These are questions that cannot be answered.
Life is uncertain at the best of times. Even when we are present to influence the future.
3. How will I (deteriorate and) die?
We know it’s not going to be a pleasant path from here onwards.
There will likely be some physical pain. There will be emotional turmoil. And there will be a HUGE amount of uncertainty.
Cancer is hidden. It sneaks around in the dark and appears unexpectedly.
Every little twinge in the body could be indicative of some new ailment. Some new growth.
And thought will seize upon that.
Though we cannot really know what will happen, thought will imagine the worst case scenario. So we begin to live the terror of our own demise, even before it comes into being.
And ultimately that means facing the possibility of death.
The final goodbye to everything that we hold dear.
4. How it’s all going to be alright
And then there is the flip side. Where we imagine we will be saved.
Some new medicine. A cure. A miracle. Or act of God!
Something to right this wrong. To make everything all right. To make all the pain and uncertainty go away.
This thought story will provide hope. Something we cling to. Something to provide reassurance to ourselves and our friends.
But in the end – just like the other three – it is just a story. It is not real. It may or may not happen.
How to work with these categories
What these categories give us is the ability to recognise and sort our thoughts. So when we start to imagine how it could have been different, we can recognise the ‘What if?’ story.
Having recognised it, we can drop it. We can put it to bed.
Until another one arises. Then we do the same – recognising it as just a story and dropping it.
Because these thought stories are imagined scenarios. They are not real, but part of the illusion.
There is a huge benefit in not allowing these thought-stories to play out.
Instead we can stay with the arising sensations. Intimately be with them.
We can experience the fear but not allow it to spin into thought.
We can feel how the body is responding to this situation life is presenting. Really presenting – right now!
We can be totally utterly present in what is happening now. Rather than some imagined future.
Which is what it means to live in this present moment.
As I write this write now, I write in all probability, as a person with melanoma. Yet in this moment, my body feels fine.
In this moment, emotionally I feel fine, though sometimes fear may arise and die down.
In this moment my wife and kids are close and intimate and I have this incredible opportunity to be with them. To love them. To spend time with them.
And I do not need to allow thought to steal these precious moments away from me.
And if I am very still, and very clear, I can experience through this presence, the intimate love and tenderness that life presents in every moment.
Not some religious belief, but the actual experience of the gentleness and acceptance that arises in amidst those unwanted sensations…
The reassuring knowledge that whatever happens, however horrid it may seem, on another level altogether, everything is exactly how it should be.
And there is no want or desire for it to be any different.