"Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." (Kabat-Zinn).I remember the very first time I ever experienced true mindfulness. It was at a Matchbox 20 concert at Tempus Two winery in the Hunter Valley. The concert was outdoors in a natural amphitheatre in front of the cellar doors, luscious green lawns surrounded by row upon lovely row of grapevines. What promise it held. The stage was set and naturally lit by a brilliant full moon. It was April and the weather, temperamental.
Rob Thomas was at his fabulous best, with the audience eating out of his hand. Long Day had just begun and the sky opened and the rain began to fall. It fell heavily, but no-one seemed to care. The smell in the air of rain and fresh cut grass was amazing as I, along with the other 10,000 people there that night, shed my poncho in order to feel every drop of rain on my bare arms and face, as we sang at the top of our lungs.
“It’s sitting by the overcoat,
The second shelf, the note she wrote,
That I can’t bring myself to throw away......”
Rob and the band stepped forward on the stage into the rain, completing a perfect picture that allowed all five of our senses to be engulfed by the moment.
In that ‘Long Day’ moment nothing else mattered. We were healthy and happy. Our families and friends were happy and healthy and as far as we knew, there had been no break out of World War III. In that moment, we both had fabulous jobs, a lovely home and safety and security. In that moment, singing in the rain with Rob Thomas, life was perfect. And perfection felt good.
That must be what people refer to as “high on life”. I can recall that feeling that day in the rain singing Long Day so readily, it feels like I am truly back there on that day in 2004. It reminds me that I am able to choose to feel more moments in that way, everyday. Choosing mindfulness to cope with chemotherapy was the best choice I made. Another opportunity to take some control back.
Mindfulness practice was most useful to me to combat the nausea I could not escape. I firstly needed to accept that the nausea was present and given it seemed to occur exactly the same way in both cycles I had no choice in realising it was likely to reappear in cycle three. The next part was the most difficult. I also needed to be willing to have the nausea. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but as it is often that struggle that intensifies the discomfort, I needed to drop the struggle. Allow it. Make room for it.
I began by taking a few deep breaths and mentally scanning my body from head to toe. I was looking for the ‘loudest’ sensation to focus my attention on. The nausea managed to occupy my entire torso, so that was easy.
Next I pretended that I was a curious scientist who had never experienced such a feeling before. I asked myself a series of questions, answering as I went, always without judgement, keeping in mind that Hamlet quote, “There is nothing good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”
“If I drew an outline around the sensations in my torso, what shape would it make?”
It would accurately trace the outline of every individual organ, including every centimetre of intestine.
“If I could touch the sensations, what would they feel like? Would they feel wet or dry? Rough or smooth? Sharp or soft? Solid or hollow?”
They would feel wet and sticky as if covered in black tar with a certain amount of density to them, like a dense sponge. There would be no sharp edges.
“If the sensations were a temperature, what temperature would they be?”
They would feel luke-warm to touch.
“If the sensations were a colour, what colour would they be?”
Shades of black and grey. Very dark.
The entire time I managed to ask and answer those questions, I was sitting with the discomfort. Accepting it. Allowing it. Without judgement.
I was already noticing a slight decline in the level of nausea when I began to focus on my breath. I imagined breathing into my organs. Slowly breathing, deep breaths, imagining the air moving around each organ. Making space, allowing it to simply be. Willingly.
What a noticed was an ongoing calming of the nausea. It de-intensified all the while I was practising mindfulness and continued to reduce, although I had to be careful not pick up the struggle again. Simply removing that ‘edge’ from the nausea was such a relief that bought me space to cope a whole lot better.
I imagined that struggle as a big, black bottomless pit between myself and the nausea, both of us holding the end of a tug-o-war rope. The nausea was able to pull me toward the edge of the black bottomless pit when I got caught up in all of my unhelpful thoughts about how much I hated the feeling and how I thought I couldn’t tolerate it for a minute more. What choices did I have as I was pulled towards that fearsome pit? Sometimes I pulled back by trying to argue with my thoughts, but then they just seemed to get louder and louder and appear more frequently, in effect pulling harder on the rope, pulling me back towards the edge of the pit. The tug-o-war could often go on for hours. What other options did I have?
Of course, I could simply drop the rope. By refusing to struggle with my unhelpful thoughts or the nausea, I could no longer be influenced by them. They could no longer pull me into that menacing pit. Acceptance, with detachment. Finally I experienced a real breakthrough with my nausea management and overall coping with cancer.