When I speak about the importance of present-moment awareness to a new group of employees or workshop participants, I’m oftentimes met with confused glances. Sure, it’s nice to be present when we are feeling good. But what about the stressful times when we are scared, sad, anxious, overwhelmed, and uncertain? Why in the world would we want to be present with all of that unpleasantness?
The truth is, sometimes I feel the same way. But I’ve learned over these last few years that if we feel what we are feeling in the moment, it transmutes into energy and stress that is ready to be released from our bodies versus a mental story line that we don’t necessarily have any control over. We give it permission to be expressed versus suppressed where it will likely build up and cause further emotional, physical, and mental damage.
I was reminded of this recently after a bit of scare after my last regularly scheduled six-month appointment with my oncologist where she discovered a lump. Spoiler alert – everything is fine. Evidently, even after a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, there is still is some breast tissue, so self-exams continue to be key. Regardless, these “scares” are just a stressful reality of my post-survivorship life.
It’s not a secret that I am a big advocate of the role that meditation plays in reducing stress and helping us to become more responsive versus reactive in high demand situations. But as I’ve learned in my own life, that as challenging as my cancer journey has been, the opportunities to learn and grow have been tremendous and helped me to live my life with more meaning and gratitude.
Not all stress is harmful according to Kelly McGonigal, a business school lecturer at Stanford and program developer for the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Her TED talk on stress has been viewed 14 million times where she discusses that stress is only damaging if you view it as a negative. If you think of stress as a positive challenge, your body can handle it. In an article for The Stanford News she says that “once you appreciate that going through stress makes you better at it, it can be easier to face each new challenge.” According to the research she conducted for her new book The Upside of Stress:
There is a reason stress has a bad reputation, and part of it is the evidence that chronic and traumatic stress can increase the risk of illness, depression and early mortality, among other things. Choosing to see the upside of stress isn’t about denying the fact that stress can be harmful. It’s about trying to balance your mindset so that you feel less overwhelmed and hopeless about the fact that your life is stressful. We rarely get to choose the stress in our lives, and it isn’t realistic to think we can avoid stress. Given that life is going to be stressful, what do you gain by focusing on the fear that the reality of your life is killing you? Psychologists have found that the ability to embrace stress requires a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. You have to be able to understand that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. It can be true that going through something stressful can make you sick or depressed, and it can also be true that the same stressful experience can ultimately make you stronger, more compassionate and more resilient over time.
While I’ve witnessed stress and change as tool to remind us of our capacity to personally grow and capture meaning in our lives, after this particular appointment I was invited to face the raw nature of my fight or flight nervous system in the midst of this stressful moment.
It didn’t kick in until I left the doctor’s office and entered the car. I knew what was about to happen – the good ole’ cathartic car cry. I know this feeling. I’ve been here before. A flurry of thoughts, emotions, and sensations kicked into gear.
Wait, what is happening? > A lump, but I don’t have boobs > Crap, it feels like my first tumor > Tears > More tears > Heaving ugly cry > More heaving ugly cry with occasional guttural sounds > I’m so hot > I hate Texas in the summer > Laughter > Hysterical laughter > This must be bad joke the universe is playing > Good thing I wrote the book > I’m hungry > Sushi or caesar salad? > This can’t be happening again > I’m scared > Ugh, like really really scared > I don’t know if I can do this.
And then something kicked in with the reminder to breath. It was an automatic prompt from my body considering that between the ugly cry and hysterical laughter, I couldn’t catch my breath. Inhale….. Exhale…. Inhale….. Exhale…..
Sure enough, I feel my nervous system beginning to settle. I continue to focus on my breath. When I get home, I feel in a more responsive (versus reactive) state and make the appropriate appointments for follow-up. I feel calmer, relaxed, tender. The rest of the day and weekend feels sweet. I feel more present and appreciative with the people I’m spending time with. Gratitude kicks into high gear.
The following days include lots of waiting, scanxiety, and a visceral reminder of so much of my cancer journey that is ready to be remembered and ultimately released.
While it hasn’t been all consuming, it definitely has taken up more mental, emotional and spiritual space than I am accustomed too. As I share with so many of my clients, I’m reminded that the purpose of meditation is not necessarily what we experience during our seated practice, but the acknowledgement that the seated practice is what is training our brains and bodies to ultimately experience more calm, focus, and clarity. It shows up for us in the times we don’t even know we need it.
So my body, mind and spirit align as they have so many times before in these moments of uncertainty. I pause, tap into my meditation + mindfulness toolkit and begin to just notice what arises.
When the feelings of fear, anxiety or sadness show up, I focus on the sensations in my body. The tightness in my chest, the pit in my stomach that feels solid, the warm salty tears streaming down my face, the shallow breathing and the deep invitation for my body to take slower, deeper breaths. I am reminded that I am right here. Right now. I welcome these emotions as just stories that I am attaching myself too that aren’t based in any tangible reality in this moment.
As soon as these thoughts arise and I focus on the sensations, they start to decrease in intensity. I’m reminded of my breath as an expression of the vitality of life flowing through me. I feel my heart beating in my chest as more energy circulates, readying me to meet whatever challenge I am facing. I can feel the current of compassion begin to flow with my breath and remind me to be gentle and kind to myself.
I feel connected to something bigger and am reminded that I am capable of meeting this moment, and the next, and the next. Because the truth is, this is all we have. This moment, right here. Right now.
This is why I meditate. Not as a life hack to make my life more awesome (although that is certainly a bonus), but because I know it is giving my mind, body, and spirit the fuel needed to mindfully meet these stressful life moments with more meaning, clarity, open-heartedness, and compassion.
Paige Davis is an entrepreneur, writer, cancer survivor, mindfulness facilitator, and meditation teacher. She is founder of Soul Sparks, where she leads and facilitates meditation and mindfulness programming for companies, teams, and individuals seeking more patience, productivity and present-moment awareness. Her first book, Here We Grow: Mindfulness through the Big C and Beyond will be published in May 2018.