West Cancer Center offers a quiet Meditation Room just inside the entrance to our 7945 Wolf River Boulevard location in Germantown, TN.
Adapted from “A Way of Meditation” by Steve Blumberg, LCSW
Can meditation be helpful when someone has been diagnosed with cancer? I believe so. Personally I have not been diagnosed with cancer but I have had serious heart surgery; arresting was a risk of the surgery. I remember the precise moment when the anxiety no longer distracted me, and I was able to remember that space, that point of focus. At that moment, I was able to release into that space, recalling the words, “Thy will be done.”
I know that when you are diagnosed with cancer, many thoughts cross your mind. Meditation is not a cure for cancer or any other life threatening illness. I’ve found, however, that meditation can take me to a place in my mind from where I can observe and respond in ways that are beneficial to me and to those around me, approaching pain and discomfort with a kind of detached interest and even accepting the possibility of a not so good outcome. I’m able to orient to the reality of the illness in a conscious way and to respond with awareness rather than fear.
I hope, in this brief article, to provide a glimpse of the magnitude of wealth that is readily available in a formal meditative practice, and to address, within the context of having a diagnosis of cancer, how meditation might help.
Maybe we can begin with a brief exercise. Notice your thinking. Notice how your body reacts to your thinking. Think about the diagnosis; watch what happens to your breathing. Be aware that the thinking is constant, about this and about that. But when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, notice how much of the thinking is about cancer. Then notice how much you may identify with the thinking, that you seem to be what you think. But, notice that thoughts mostly just happen. It’s not so much that I am intending the thoughts I am having as I think them. It seems more accurate to say that thoughts appear in my mind. This is especially true when I am under stress. Thoughts about cancer may not only appear, they may actually intrude.
Now, observe your breath. Watch what happens to your thinking. Be aware that there is a difference between thinking and noticing, between thinking and breathing. Notice that the part of the mind that thinks is not the part of the mind that notices or observes. Now instead of trying to change or stop your thoughts, I want you to “go and sit” in the part of the mind that observes. Look around, notice what you see . . . notice what you hear and what sensations you feel in your body. Now, from that same observation post of the mind, notice your thinking as it happens. Stay in the observation post of the mind and try to keep from getting caught up in the content of the thoughts.
So, how do you practice meditation? First, I think it is important to have a regular place and time in which to practice. The time can be anytime during waking hours, but it seems important to practice at the same time. Place, likewise, can be anywhere. At first, it will be helpful to have a place where things are quiet and there are few distractions. As you progress in meditation, a quiet place seems to matter less. Internal and external distractions are dealt with similarly.
I would recommend beginning to practice no more than 5-10 minutes at a time, 5-6 days weekly. As you become accustomed to this length of time, you will likely begin to expand it on your own, first 15-20 minutes, later to 25-30 minutes. Rather than a clock watch, a small timer is helpful. With a timer, you have one less distraction: you don’t have to worry how much time has gone by.
It is not necessary to sit in a full lotus position to meditate. Sitting in a straight back chair or on folded blankets on the floor will suffice. The important points regarding posture are to sit straight and balance the head on the spine. If you are sitting in a chair, have both feet flat on the floor, legs uncrossed. Place the palms in your lap, face up or down. I recommend not closing your eyes. Keep them open, but not focused on anything in particular. Look over the end of your nose to a point about 3 feet from your nose. Keep your gaze soft. Learn to breathe diaphragmatically. It is important during the practice itself to remain still. At first you will notice small movements occurring before you are consciously aware of them. Simply observe the movement, like observing thoughts without getting caught up in them.
The practice of meditation uses a point of focus for the mind. This may be an object, such as a candle flame or a cross, a favorite spiritual picture or design. The point of focus can be a mantra, such as the word “Om.” It can be a prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, or any favorite formal prayer. Or the point of focus can simply be the breath. Bring your attention to that point. Practice keeping your attention there, but do not become discouraged when, minutes later, you discover that your mind has drifted from the point of focus. It will. When you notice you have become distracted, notice where your mind had gone and simply bring your attention back to the point of focus. You may have to do this a hundred times in one sitting. Or your timer may go off, and you may realize that you’ve been distracted the entire time. That happens. As time goes on, you will find that the time you are focused, and not distracted, lengthens. This is space in the mind.
The practice of meditation is not the same thing as meditation. The practice of meditation is like priming the pump. It is inviting meditation to occur. I cannot make meditation occur, but I can create space in which it may occur. Meditation itself is difficult to describe. What I may say about it is that it seems to be an autonomous process – it happens itself. There is no longer an effort in maintaining focus. Focus maintains itself: this is meditation. When this happens, I experience a much more profound level than the thoughts that often run away with me.