Confession: I was a mindfulness skeptic. I thought meditation was silly and I resented those people who sat around, crisscross applesauce, making circles with their thumb and forefingers. Why did they deserve to produce nothing and reap bliss as a reward?
Furthermore, they were obviously lazy because why weren't they working themselves to the bone and worrying about things they can't control like the rest of us. And it's really hard to sit on the floor that way, with perfect posture, so they must be abnormal to want to do that so frequently and for such long periods of time.
Medical science forced me to change or, dare I say open, my mind. As reviewed in my blog post 4 Ways Mindfulness Helps Cancer Survivors, there's no denying mindfulness practices help cancer survivors stop negative thought feedback loops, increase focus, memory and creativity, decrease pain, improve immunity, and achieve an overall sense of well being. Who can argue with these, among other, benefits?
But how do you do it? How do you take time out to go to your meditation pillow in the middle of a forest during a busy day and bliss out?
Luckily, for you and me, there are many ways to start a mindfulness practice that do not require sitting on a rock in the middle of a peaceful river. While I love the sound of moving water as much as the next guy, I need alternatives that fit my life.
Quite seriously, I want to convey that it's important and possible for cancer survivors of all stripes to integrate a mindfulness practice into their lives. There are so many types of cancer survivors in so many different places and, as we know too well, cancer doesn't discriminate against any of them. Don't they all deserve the benefits a mindfulness practice can bring?
But does a rancher in Wyoming think he needs to sit on a rock barefoot in the pasture holding a Buddha statue to his heart while he meditates? And how is he going to learn to meditate well when all the other cowboys are laughing at him?
What about the single mom in the Bronx who is making ends meet working three jobs? Does she have time to consider a mindfulness practice as she puts food on the table and keeps her kids safe?
I'm stereotyping and that's just the point. Mindfulness works beyond stereotypes because it's just you, your head, your thoughts, and your breath. We all have those things and they can trick every single one of us into being stressed, anxious, and fearful. Don't exclude yourself as I once did.
Here are some ideas for starting a practice where you are, right now.
1. Check out a mindfulness app.
I actually love this idea. We are super connected to our phones and computers, right? So this works really well because you can try meditation without altering a well worn habit (staring at your phone) or even looking like you're meditating! You can put your headphones on and appear to be listening to the news, music, or an audio book. Many meditation apps will even remind you to take a break by buzzing your phone.
My son (he's 7 years old, never too early!) and I recently tried Headspace and really enjoyed it. It includes a free, guided meditation intro series and helpful, illustrative animations before each meditation.
Here's a non-exhaustive list of meditations apps to try:
Meditation Oasis (multiple apps)
Where could you squeeze time in to use these apps? How about on the subway or bus during your morning commute, in the waiting room at the dentist, early in the morning, right when you wake up, right before you go to bed at night, in the bathroom stall at work, in the grocery store parking lot, from the sidelines at your kid's soccer practice, during the quiet hours of your night shift, in that five minutes you've got just before the meeting.
See what I mean here? It doesn't take that much time, and I know you have your phone with you. You have five minutes somewhere. Try it.
2. Go for a nature walk.
One of my great heroes is the consummate naturalist, John Muir. As you can see from the quote above, he really gets it. John Muir spent months at a time in the High Sierras of California. His writings tell me he was not just an environmentalist, he was also a mindfulness expert.
Being outside has the potential to pull you out of your head and allow gentle reentry to your thoughts in a new way. If you take time in nature as an opportunity to be mindful, you will begin to simply notice - sound, silence, stillness, movement, light, shadow, earth, and sky - as it exists. You can apply this observation, in turn, to your inner life. Be a naturalist of your own thoughts, fears, and worries, an observer instead of a participant, victim, subject, or judge.
And you don't have to go to the forest for weeks as John Muir did. Just step outside. I like to sit with the flowers in my garden and watch the pollinators buzz. Their pace and responsibilities put life in perspective for me. I also like to pull weeds because at that moment, there's nothing else that matters. It's freeing.
Sit at the ocean and feel its incredible force pull your soul about. Or beach comb with the sandpipers. Take a walk in your neighborhood early in the morning while the houses yawn and the birds wake. Your city is a habitat - sit in the park and watch people pass and children play. We too are members of the natural world.
3. Learn to breathe.
I am a full fledged Pilates addict. When I started the movement practice four years ago, the first thing my instructor taught me was how to breathe. At first I was like, "What the hell is this person talking about."
Over the years, the importance of the breath has become clear. Breathing deeply and completely is calming, cleansing, and allows my body to exert more power over my mind.
During stressful parts of my day (which is pretty much the whole thing), I use my Pilates breath to gain control over racing thoughts and scattered priorities. It is so very simple and effective. You're breathing anyway, you may as well use it to your advantage.
Essentially, the nature-walk-mindfulness concept also apples here - stop to do something that is normally automatic and instead do it with intention. Notice the details of the physiologic process that normally happen involuntarily - the air going in and out, the parts of your body that rise, fall, and stretch, the speed at which the air moves through your chest. Becoming aware of breathing, a process triggered deep in your brain, trains you to be aware of the other things automatically triggered in your brain. Like being stressed or anxious. Or thinking negatively about yourself or others.
Stopping for just a moment to breathe gives you permission to halt the automatic negative feelings and thoughts you're having. It decreases their potency because they don't gain momentum and take over. It makes room for something different.
4. Put it to pen and paper.
I first watched this TED talk when my son Luke was learning to write. I could tell, as Luke struggled to control his small hand, forcing the pencil to turn a line into a letter and then a word, there was something special about scratching a tool across a page. My hunch was confirmed by Master Penman Jake Weidemann's talk.
Our brains process language as we write with pen and paper. Writing organizes our thoughts and gives them greater meaning, writing lets the brain bring ideas to bear. It also stimulates your brain to create new ideas and increases memory and focus.
Sounds like mindfulness to me.
While the process of writing contains elements of a traditional mindfulness practice, it is different in some ways. It is not mere observation without judgement. Instead, it's observation through an action. This method of mindfulness may thus be useful for kinesthetic learners, or those who need to move to think.
Writing allows you to move automatic, negative thoughts out of your head and onto a piece of paper and by doing so, become conscious of their presence and effect. It is a powerful method of awarenss and an empowering, almost surgical remedy to negative thoughts.
I was recently mortified when my parents gave me a journal I'd kept when I was a teenager. What puerile thoughts I'd written down! But after recovering from the embarrassment of the words, I wondered why I'd stopped keeping a journal. The words were mortifying now but meant something to me back then. Perhaps writing those words helped me grow away from silliness toward new, more meaningful ideas. Maybe it helped me grow up.
I believe you and all cancer survivors would benefit from growing up, out of illness and into wellness through the process of writing.
5. Channel your creativity.
I see a pattern here - do you? Notice how Picasso speaks of the creative process the same way John Muir speaks of being in nature. Also note that for Picasso, painting is like keeping a diary, or writing. These similarities are not coincidence. Creative people know the benefits of mindfulness because they need it to produce their work.
My husband is a talented painter. When he's really in "the zone" with his painting, he describes a feeling of transcendance where he is unaware of the world around him. He is so consumed with creating that he moves beyond his usual state of consciousness. He doesn't feel time pass and isn't bothered by his usual thoughts or worries.
This creative state is a form of mindfulness because when you truly create, you are not judging what you're doing or how you're doing it. You are not reacting to the process, not predicting what the product will be or judging the result. You are merely participating in the drive to make something. It is a pure, child-like state. It is mindfulness.
Creative endeavors are so varied - any cancer survivor can find something to do that will transport them to "the zone." Sewing, crafting, flower arranging, cooking, landscape design, water color, calligraphy, woodworking, interior design, knitting, model making, lure making, leather craft, baking - really any creative discipline will do.
There are many ways cancer survivors can start a mindfulness practice. My hope is you feel mindfulness is something you can participate in comfortably, no matter how or where. I started a mindfulness skeptic until I realized its benefits for cancer survivor wellness. I think you'll feel the same once you try it out.
If you have other ideas for how to get started with a unique mindfulness practice, please drop them in the comments.
Take care of your mind, Survivor.