THE BLOG

The Power Of Conscious Forgetting, Part Two

06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In a previous post, we discussed the mental discipline of "Conscious Forgetting", a term coined by Jungian analyst, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her best-selling book, Women Who Run With The Wolves.

While I'm not generally a "technique" person, I found this method extremely helpful in my own tightrope walk of awareness during the past six weeks, given what was on my plate. Here's what happened:

In early March, I went in for my first post-lumpectomy mammogram since surgery last July. I went fully expecting everything to go smoothly -- just an easy zip in, zip out kind of procedure. That is not exactly what unfolded.

Female readers know that mammograms can be very painful at worst, uncomfortable at best. Men, imagine having your testicles smashed and spread out between two glass plates, then stand there holding your breath during a series of x-rays and you start to get the picture. I recently saw a cartoon entitled "Man-O-Gram" depicting a man having his male member compressed between the plates on an imaging device. He didn't look very happy. But, I digress.

After the mammogram, I was asked to wait for a few moments while they took a look at the image to make sure they got it right. Fifteen minutes later, the technician called me back and announced I would have to have a magnification mammogram on the right breast.

"Fine", thought I. "No big deal. They want to have a closer look? Fine with me." I saw no red flags waving, heard no alarm bells ringing.

Second mammogram in 20 minutes, and I'm back to the waiting room, where, true to the nature of its name, there was more waiting. Another fifteen minutes later, I'm called back for a third mammogram, this time with an ultrasound.

Looking back, it seems odd, but still no alarms were going off. I was totally in the moment, free of thoughts, putting one foot in front of the other.

Into the ultrasound room I went. A new technician went about her job, putting on the warming gel and moving the ultrasound wand over my breast. Then she showed me something on the screen and said, "I'm going to get the radiologist who will come in and tell you what's going on." Then she left the room.

So that's what happened. Those are the facts. Then, there's what my mind did with what happened.

As the door closed behind the ultrasound technician, the first alarm went off! "Is something going on?" my mind asked. Crap! Something IS going on! WHAT is going on?"

And then, for the next few seconds before the radiologist came in, my mind went into overdrive. "Oh, no! Not again! This can't be happening!" Denial was having its way with me.

My mind was quickly racing towards the edge of the cliff and about to plunge over, when a more sane voice inside piped up, "Now just wait a minute, calm down. You can deal with this." I took a deep breath and was trying to pull myself together when the radiologist entered the room.

She picked up the ultrasound wand and quickly found the "area of concern," which she pointed out to me on the screen. It was huge! It looked like the size of Texas!

"We'll need to biopsy this to know for sure what it is," she said, matter-of-factly.

She continued talking. I could see her lips moving, but my mind was busy doing reruns of the past year: surgery, drainage tubes, hospitals, nurses, recovery, etc. It was not a picture I wanted to be seeing, not now, when I was barely through the healing process from less than a year go. I started to lose it right there on the table, with the radiologist hovering over me.

No longer able to hold back my emotions, I burst into tears. The doctor was taken back. I'm sure she didn't expect this outburst from her simple announcement that a biopsy was in order. What's the big deal? It's a biopsy! She probably prescribes several every day.

Except my mind sailed off into the future and turned it into the worst possible outcome; mastectomy followed by chemotherapy, loss of hair, a long recovery, maybe even worse.

Dr. Radiologist stammered, "Um, well, of course, we don't have to schedule it today. You can talk to your doctor first and decide what you want to do. We could do an MRI, but I won't feel comfortable unless we do a biopsy."

Long story short, the past six weeks have been an opportunity to practice "conscious forgetting." Due to my travel schedule, I waited five weeks to have the biopsy, then another wait for the results. Six weeks later, today, I'm happy and grateful to share the outcome. Benign!

The fibrocystic breast tissue I've had all my life, was the culprit. Even though it's shown up on my mammograms for 35 years and never been cause for concern, it raised concern this time around because it "looked different." No doubt, due to the reduction surgery I had on that side in order to achieve a modicum of symmetry, given the size of the lumpectomy I had on the other side.

Of course, the outcome matters. I am extremely grateful to be on the other side of the "all clear" sign. I am grateful that I don't have to face all the scenarios my mind conjured up. I feel relieved and liberated from the mental holding pattern I've been in for the past six weeks.

However, what matters almost as much as the outcome is what I learned in the process. What matters is how I got to practice being with my mind and emotions in a way that not only served me to "get through" the period of uncertainty, it made me stronger.

I cannot say for sure how I would have responded to a different outcome. I can only imagine that after the initial shock wore off, I would have marshaled my inner resources to get through the experience and come out the other side with different lessons than the ones I'm learning now. In the end, it's all about using whatever life serves up as part of the curriculum for learning.

Conscious forgetting has been anything but being in denial of the facts. There has not been a moment during these past weeks I've not been aware of "waiting for the other shoe to drop". Upon awakening each morning, my very first thought went to the uncertain future. However, I simply chose not to engage with the sea of emotions accompanying this thought.

I was not in denial that these emotions existed and if so choosing, I could have allowed myself to be engulfed in them in a heartbeat. The best way I can describe the experience is like putting yourself in a constant state of meditation. Sitting calmly at the center, watching and allowing the movement of emotions or reactions to take place, without engaging them, staying instead in a kind of gentle, vigilant state.

The key is having the ability to be at choice about it. The "conscious" part of conscious forgetting is where the "juice" is. It requires that one expand their capacity to hold an experience without becoming it. You "have" it, but it doesn't "have" you. In this, there is great freedom.

In the end, it always comes down to having the ability to consciously choose how we experience our lives. Life occurs and we choose. How we choose, what we choose determines what we experience. We can be unconscious and navigate on automatic pilot, a passenger to our own lives. We can hope for the best, hope that life is kind and that we can manage to make it through relatively unscathed.

This scenario will require us to live carefully and cautiously, sticking close to shore, never venturing too far beyond safe moorings, lest we be caught in a sudden storm. Or, as Dr. Estes invites us, we can choose to know that we are "mighty ships, built for these times". We can hoist our sails and venture out to sea.

In the language of aviators and sailors, ours is to sail forward now, all balls out. Understand the paradox: If you study the physics of a waterspout, you will see that the outer vortex whirls far more quickly than the inner one. To calm the storm means to quiet the outer layer, to cause it, by whatever countervailing means, to swirl much less, to move more evenly to match the velocity of the inner, far less volatile core -- till whatever has been lifted into such a vicious funnel falls back to Earth, lays down, is peaceable again.

I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But ...that is not what great ships are built for.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Letter To A Young Activist During Troubled Times

Know that you are indeed, a "great ship," built to withstand the gales that test your endurance. All that you need is already within, and although that may sound like a cliche, it is also a truth. Your task is to discover the resources you already have to help you navigate the turbulent times that come along as part of life.

Stormy weather need not take you down. Remembering to "forget" the outer swirling vortex of emotions and focusing instead on the calmer, peaceful core will help to restore balance, not to mention sanity.

Some of you wrote in last time and said you were going to practice conscious forgetting. What was your experience? How did you use it? How did it work?

Please do share your experience by leaving a comment here or on my personal blog and website at Rx For The Soul. And while you're at it, Become A Fan and be notified when a new post appears.

For those who have inquired about doing group work, I'm pleased to announce Empower Yourself! a 4 week tele-coaching Life Fitness"Boot Camp" series, beginning on May 18. Please click here and here for details and information on how to register. Additional Life Fitness "Boot Camps" will begin on June 29 and July 27. Kick your life up a notch- take yourself to camp!

I welcome your personal contact at judith@judithrich.com.