Archives for category: Mindfulness

Five years ago today I was told, “You have cancer.” I had been looking forward to the possibility of this 5 year mark, holding at “no evidence of disease.” I had a mammogram recently that was normal. So, I am at “no evidence of disease”.  Unsurprisingly, having had two heart attacks in the past four weeks has dampened the party a little bit.

Nonetheless, I am going to give my 5-years as a survivor its well-earned appreciation. There were a lot of highs and lows packed into the last five years. I’ve written about nearly every one of them in this blog, which I started immediately after my diagnosis. My blog turns five years-old today, too.

When I chose the title for my blog, “My Eyes are Up Here”, in part, I was just trying to be clever. But I was also communicating the fullness of my life. When I got breast cancer, the rest of my life didn’t just stop. At times this was a great burden. At other times, it was the best thing about my life.

I have learned in these five years that I am not completely defined by my cancer. I am also not completely defined by my heart problems.

My eyes are still up here.

I have been working half-time this week, following what turned out to be two small heart attacks. As I wrote previously, the current working diagnosis is Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD). It is infrequently diagnosed and mostly seen in women in their 40’s to 50’s, physically fit, and with few or no heart attack risk factors. The cause is unknown. It is possible for dissections to heal so I am taking a number of medications to improve my heart functioning as well as to prevent the formation of blood clots. I have follow-up tests and lots to learn about heart functioning.

This was a shock, to understate things. Just two months ago, my husband and I were in Southeast Asia. We were walking through ruins in extremely hot conditions, just as we’d done when we were in our 20’s, on our honeymoon in Egypt during the summer. During the vacation, I was really pleased by the health of my body and what I was capable of doing. I thought of trips that John and I could take in the future.

Yesterday, I had a mammogram. It was normal. My 5 year “no evidence of disease” anniversary is in two weeks. This is big news that has been upstaged by my heart. In the past, I have compared cancer to a natural disaster. It can happen to anyone, no matter how virtuous. I am re-thinking that metaphor, at least in my experience. My breast cancer was more like a failed safety inspection. The treatment was to prevent a disaster. One of the harder aspects of breast cancer treatment is that it made me feel sick when I hadn’t felt sick.  The heart attack was like a natural disaster, a small earthquake followed by an aftershock. They caused damage to my heart. The medications I am taking now actually seem to be making me feel better.

Today, I have no work responsibilities or health care appointments. I am taking care of myself. I am listening to my body. Yesterday, it told me that taking a walk with a friend was a good idea and it was. Today, my body told me to sleep in. It has also told me to spend a lot of time resting on the couch. Finally, it has told me to take pause and check in with my thoughts and feelings.

One thought that passed my mind was, “I’m still healing from the cancer and now I have heart problems.” I felt the urge to cry “foul!” (And it would have been fine if I had.) My next realization is that I have always been healing from multiple wounds.

We are all healing from multiple wounds.

Be kind to yourselves, friends.

Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.
-Jalaluddin Rumi

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As many of you know, I have been taking pottery classes for the last year or so. I typically throw (make forms using a pottery wheel), rather than hand build. Learning to use a pottery wheel is challenging. I am still learning how to center the clay on the wheel head, consistently. There are all of the steps to remember. Even if one carries out the steps, there are lots of variables that impact how fast the wheel should go at each step, the amount of water that should be added during throwing, the amount of pressure applied by each hand, the positioning of hands and fingers, and the speed at which the hands and fingers should move up the clay. On top of that, the type, size, and hardness of the clay is another variable to be considered. Finally, there are shaping tools that can be use. There seem to be about 5 million pottery tools in existence. One type of tool can have so many variations. People who are very experienced know not only how to use the tools, which requires finesse, but how to select the best tool.

When I first started throwing, nothing really turned out. That is normal, I am not being overly self-critical. Then every once in a while something would turn out and I couldn’t figure out what I’d done differently. I like bowls, so I threw a lot of bowls. I decided I wanted to be able to throw a salad bowl. Clay forms shrink about 7% from the time they are thrown to the final firing so the initial throwing is of a larger than desired piece. For me, a salad bowl is a pretty big bowl, and it certainly was when I was a beginner. Nonetheless, I was inspired by the challenge to throw “a big bowl”.

I had enough success with big bowls to keep me going for awhile. I have to say objectively, I have big bowl-making potential. There were a lot of flops, though, not to mention many bowls that cracked in the kiln. None of my bowls were made with an intention to make anything but a bowl. I do not yet have the skills to plan size and shape ahead of time. Okay, more accurately, I do not yet have the skills to implement the size, design, thickness, etc of the bowl I have planned in my head.

One quarter, after thinking I would just keep realizing my “big bowl potential”, I made flop after flop. I made bowls that were of uneven thickness or that were not round, or that were not level on the rim. I made bowls that looked so so promising as I pulled up the sides to make them thinner and thinner, only to collapse in on themselves on the wheel. More than an hour’s work and all I could show for it was a wet mess on the wheel and sore throwing muscles.

All through the process, I read about bowl-making. I watched Youtube videos on “big bowls”. I watched my teacher’s bowl-making demonstrations, which she typically did once per quarter. Each time, I learned something new and tried to apply it to my big bowl-making. Then I gave in to the idea that had been lurking in the back of my head, which was to make little bowls. They are faster and easier to make. I could focus on my technique. I started making little bowls and my bowls started getting more refined.

Last week, I met with my psychologist, Rebecca. It was the first time I’d seen her in a while. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been dealing with some challenges related to stress and my heart health. I brought Rebecca two of my little bowls as a gift. We had a productive session.  I have some work to do in my life. Physically, my healing from my cardiac event is not an linear as I’d like. There are fits and starts. My diagnosis is undergoing refinement as my physicians are gaining more information. The current working diagnosis is Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) a rare condition, caused by a tear in an artery wall. Some blood flow is diverted to outside of the artery wall, lowering blood flow. Further, blood that gets outside of the artery wall is more likely to clot, which can press on the artery, narrowing it. SCAD is present in men and women, however, when present in women, they tend to be in their 40’s and 50’s, physically fit, and with low risk of heart disease. What causes these tears is unknown.

My prognosis is still good but there is uncertainty as to the length and course of my recovery in the upcoming weeks. I have resumed a practice I started right after my breast cancer diagnosis, five years ago, which is to meditate about 10-15 minutes per day. I’ve had to temporarily cut back on my walking until my heart heals so each day I do the little bit that I can do.

My daughter and husband are out tonight. I decided to watch something on television that might only appeal to me. I used to occasionally watch, The Gilmore Girls, a mother/daughter drama-comedy with very fast-paced dialogue. They brought the show back after many years for another season. I decided to watch the first episode.

The Gilmore Girls is a smartly written show with appealing lead actors. In other words, it is not a bad show. That’s not the point of this post. The opening scene of the show took place outside, in the town square. The first thing I noticed is that everyone in this town is white. The mother and daughter characters were drinking coffee from paper cups that were obviously empty. I realize that this is a common use of props in television and film. Without fail, I notice that the coffee cup is empty. I can tell by the way they handle it! There’s no weight in the cup! Why can’t they just fill it with water or something?

The all white town, then the empty cup. Next, they pass the sign for the town, “Stars Hollow”. Really? That’s hollow, too? It’s not a bad show but really, the first 10 minutes were too symbolic for me.

Life is full. If I take a drink of life, the weigh of the cup registers in my hand. It has flavors, colors, aromas, and sounds galore.

The fullness of life is a big part of what makes life so amazing.

A hollow cup is easy to understand. It is easy to master. There are no surprises.

But what, precisely is the point?

Yes, I am a bit agitated today but as always,

Peace, friends.

I attended a sitting meditation two weeks ago. The instructor read a poem at the beginning. There was a phrase in the poem that has stuck with me, “bearing reality.” Mindfulness is about bearing reality, bearing the way things are right at this moment. Daily, there are difficult realities, especially at this time. I keep reminding myself that today’s reality is not necessarily tomorrow’s reality.

But this is when it gets even more difficult. The joy of today can give way to heartache tomorrow. The fears of today can give rise to positive action. This is the bearing of possibility, the what could’s. As a psychologist and as someone who practices mindfulness, I know that living in the future is tricky business. It is important to visit future possibilities in order to plan. However, the future, though a good place to visit, is no where to live.

The challenge, in our country, in our world right now is to bear it all. We must bear reality and possibility in balance. As with “baring it all”, “bearing it all” leaves us vulnerable. Right now I am considering my options for formal activism. I have done individual acts but I have not become a member of a group effort. I have been hanging out on the edges observing possible groups. There are a lot of them, by the way. Some of you may belong to one or more of what must be one of hundreds of resistance groups across the country. Since many of these groups cropped up after the election, there is an understandable amount of disorganization and flux. I am a practical person. I don’t want a “feel good” group. I want to be part of a “do good” group. I want to be effective. There’s a gamble no matter what I choose.

Today, I am bearing reality. I am weighing my options. I am bearing possibility. These are scary and exciting times, these times of bearing it all.

Part of my mindfulness practice is to live my life with intention. I have a strong intention right now to be more of a social activist because 1) this is no time in the U.S. to feel helpless and 2) I might be able to offer something positive, however small, to the world. Also, following up on my last post, I have made a point of being more conspicuous. I have been a pretty outspoken person since about 5th grade when I first remember my teacher commenting (not negatively) about my feminism.

I find myself now, however, not just being outspoken about my beliefs but also being outspoken about my behavior and linking it explicitly to my political activism. Honestly, the U.S. presidential election initially left me feeling betrayed by a substantial proportion of my fellow citizens.  When I left my house the morning after the election, I made a concerted effort to count every act of kindness that was directed toward me. It helped me feel safer.

I have continued to do this but I have also tried hard to do positive works. And since I am putting this within the context of social activism, I have let people on social media know about what I am doing and why. I include charitable contributions, phone calls to congress, and small acts of kindness that I do with intention of creating loving social connection. Announcing my actions is my version of carrying a sign in a protest march. What if I decided to protest in the park, by myself, without a sign and without saying anything? How would anyone know what I was trying to do.  I am labeling my action. Others might feel inspired to do similar things. I know that I have felt inspired by others. I also know that when I announce my intentions in public, I am more likely to follow through.

Objective labeling is a big part of observing and being mindful. I have learned the practice of labeling my mental behaviors during meditation. When my thoughts are judgmental, I can label it by saying, “That’s my judgmental mind making judgements”. I have been taught that this is a way to stop the brain puzzles that keep me out of the moment and I have found it to be an effective technique. To be aware of myself makes it easier for me to act with intention and to respond to life instead of simply reacting to it. Sometimes I have to make a sign to myself to understand myself better.

I think of this as a practice of using signs, some turned out to the world and others directed inwardly. Both are extremely useful to me.

What’s your sign?

Peace to you, friends

Between 2012 and 2014, I had 9 surgeries; three of them were to remove cancer and the other six were to patch up the damage. Not all of my surgeries were major, but nonetheless, I spent a lot of time in a hospital gown, with my ass hanging out. I am outgoing in many ways and have been for the most of my life. However, I also spent the first 46 years of my life being fairly modest when it came to revealing my body. For example, I did not wear a swimsuit for years, because I was very self-conscious. Medical visits were another thing. I didn’t mind that so much. But when it comes to surgery, it’s different. My body was on display to a parade of people whom I did not know. Even worse, you know how I am a child psychologist and see patients and their parents for a living? Some parents work at hospitals. My hospital. To see people I knew from the community, in my role as an expert and a leader, with my ass hanging out, could have been mortifying.

Guess what? It was not mortifying. It was merely embarrassing and not gravely so. This is because, I used my mindfulness practices to stay in the present and to try to keep those thoughts that make a stressful circumstance into a mortifying one, at bay. For example, instead of focusing on how embarrassed I was and what must a person from the community think of me, I focused on her kind treatment of me. Further, the more times I was “exposed” both literally and figuratively, the less difficult it became. It was less and less embarrassing.

I feel grateful for the way I was able to cope with this. It may have been quite different earlier in my life. One of the things this coping taught me is an appreciation for my body and far less embarrassment about it. Any embarrassment I have now about wearing a swimsuit in public is really manageable. It doesn’t keep me from enjoying myself. I don’t worry about my appearance when I encounter people in the community on the days I am not in the office. I am comfortable going around town with no make-up and wearing work-out clothes. If it is raining, you will see me in a rain hat with ear flaps. It’s not cute. It’s functional. It keeps me doing the things I love to do, like taking long walks during every season of the year, which also benefit my physical and mental health. Those things are more important than being cute. I am free to be who I am, even the facets that are not cute, without embarrassment.

I have also noticed a significant decrease in my embarrassment, more generally. I used to get so embarrassed when people sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I felt very self-conscious even though on some level, I enjoyed it. Last Thursday was my 51st birthday. It was also Thanksgiving. Seventeen of my loved ones sang, “Happy Birthday” to me. For the first time in my life, the only feelings I had were purely positive. I felt happy and joyful. I thoroughly enjoyed it, smiling the whole time and being able to make eye contact with my well wishers. What a marvelous power to be able to absorb and appreciate love from my friends and family!

I have been thinking a lot lately about the power of acting in spite of embarrassment or fear. We are in times when this power is of utmost importance. Our country and culture are divided. Oppression and hatred were a problem before and now are more so. I was reading an excellent article, Eight Ways to Stand Up to Hate, published by the University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good Action. One of the recommended strategies is “practice being conspicuous”. For example, walk around the neighborhood in a funny hat. The goal is to learn to tolerate the discomfort of being conspicuous so when we are in the presence of a stranger in need of help due to hateful acts by others, it will be easier to act and not freeze, the latter of which is a natural response for many.

These are times when it is natural for many of us to try to be careful about everything. To worry. To look for problems in everything. To accept only the perfect solution when none exists. “I don’t want to support x cause because it does not solve every problem.” We need lots of efforts and strategies to make this world a better place. Some of our efforts will only help the tiniest bits. Others will fail.

To fail by not trying is not a way I choose to be.

As always, peace to you friends.

As you can imagine, I am still reeling from the U.S. election results.  Like many have written in other blogs, my reaction was much like being told my positive breast cancer biopsy results in May 2012. A major difference is that in the case of my cancer treatment, I felt very well taken care of by competent healthcare providers. I also had relatively clear choices to make.

No, I am not saying that the election was worse than cancer. I actually don’t know.  I don’t know what will happen to my country and the world. I don’t know what my health will be like in the future. We just don’t know the future.

A lot of people has commented that the election “woke people up”. I would say that it woke some people up the way hearing a bomb blast would. Others have their eyes open, their sleeves rolled up, and are following a clear purpose and direction.

I am in neither of those groups. I am, however, trying to follow a process in mindfulness, to be awake but at ease. This means observing pain, emotions, and even thoughts in as much of a grounded way as possible.  I have had moments of being mindful and at ease since the election. That is not most moments. But I continue to practice my meditation to cultivate compassion, to be aware in the moment, and to be as active and constructive as I can be.

It is tremendously difficult but even in those moments of balance, the results have been tremendous. Those moments provide me with hope.

May I be awake. May I be free from suffering. May I be at ease.

My you be awake. May you be free from suffering. May you be at ease.

Peace.

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Last night I had one of those dreams where the setting kept changing. First, I was in a university marching band, practicing on the football field. Then I was sitting at a desk in a classroom. After that, I was attending a reception on a boat. Even though the setting kept changing, there was a story line that ran throughout the dream. I met Terri Gross, of the interviewing radio show, Fresh Air.

I really like Terri Gross’ interviews so I was excited to meet her. The reason we were meeting is that I had written her about my blog. In the classroom, I was telling the other students what I would say to Terri, if I were to meet her. And then she walked onto the boat with a container full of elegantly decorated cupcakes. Terri explained that she had made them and that they were leftover from a wedding she’d attended earlier that day.

“I got your letter”, she said.

“I read your blog,” she said.

“It’s not funny.”

In my dream, the only part of my blog that existed were my earlier days of blogging, when I was going through the acute phase of breast cancer assessment and treatment. I used a lot of humor in my writing then. Terri was telling me (I could read her mind in my dream) that cancer is not funny.

“I thought it was hysterically absurd”, I explained.

The dream ended with her giving me the last of a special flavor of cupcake, which was nice,  especially since I am unable to eat wheat during my waking hours. The fact that it was a broken piece of cupcake with no frosting shows once again that even in my dreams, my fantasies fall short.

Humor was one of my ways of dealing with a very stressful time in my life. I still use it.  I am typically able to laugh at the ridiculous aspects of life. However, I find myself relatively humorless these days. I am frequently thinking, “That’s not funny.”

Over a year ago, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States. A number of friends on social media thought this hilarious because it seemed so preposterous. I wrote, “That’s not funny. That’s terrifying.”

Admittedly, I’ve laughed at a few things, mainly extremely well-done Saturday Night Live skits and late night t.v. bits. But otherwise, I mostly avoided memes, because they weren’t funny to me. Many of them were mean spirited. Donald Trump is an extremely sad, insecure, and cruel person. To nurture my own compassion helps me distance myself from the hate vortex he is stirring up.  I have brought him to mind during meditations, wishing him well, wishing him joy, all with the purpose of cultivating compassion and acceptance. The Christian version of this approach is “Love your enemies.”

It is really really hard to do this but I keep trying. Some weeks ago, I saw a video of the Dalai Lama talking about Donald Trump. He made fun of Trump’s hair! I thought to myself, “That’s not funny.” I have thought back to that film and realized that this is really a mark of how stressful this election has been to a lot of people. Even the Dalai Lama took a cheap shot.

Perhaps having judgmental thoughts about the Dalai Lama’s short-comings in compassion is a good signal to me that I am taking life too seriously, so seriously that I am causing myself suffering on top of real pain.

We are all doing our best in difficult and uncertain times. In about two days, there will be more certainty, one way or another.

Peace,

Elizabeth

P.S. If I have another dream with cupcakes, I am taking a whole cupcake complete with elegant frosting. Hear that, dreaming part of my brain?

Last week at the U.S. Presidential debate, I saw a women interrupted 51 times in 90 minutes by one man. I hate being interrupted. Actually, some interruptions are fun, the kind that you exchange with a friend with whom you share a great deal of empathy and can finish eachother’s sentences. Those interruptions show the strength of connection and intensify it. The interruptions I hate are the ones that change the subject, argue, and contradict. Repeated interruptions are like a salvo of little assaults that compromise one’s ability to share thoughts and feelings.  Interruptions are jarring and for me, they take me away from myself, at least where I was and where I wanted to go.

For many breast cancer patients in the U.S., October, “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” is an unwelcome interruption. Many people are active in advocacy for breast cancer research as well as for increasing access to quality healthcare. These are critically important concerns. Then the pink tsunami comes in and interrupts with new messages, one of using a disease as a marketing tactic and wrapping it in “awareness” a construct, which is vague and inoffensive. For those of us who do think about the word, awareness, thinking, is not enough. Awareness solves nothing once everyone is made aware and nothing else happens.

Breast cancer itself, was a major life interruption. I was 46, going about my middle-aged life assuming that my only health issues were that I was overweight and not exercising enough. Bam! Cancer! There were two years of starts and stops. Cancer treatment brings many interruptions.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I strive for integrity in my life, the sense that the parts of my life contribute to my whole self, in a way that makes sense. This contributes to a sense of balance. There is a teaching in mindfulness that the past, present, and future are all part of one’s being.

I continue to accept cancer as part of my past, my present, and my future. Even if I never have a recurrence, the knowledge of the possibility is still there.  Cancer is part of me but not all of me.

Watching the debate reminded me that the best way to handle an interruption is to keep going instead of just stopping and let the interruption take over.

Life interrupts, keep moving. You may need to make course corrections but you are still going forward.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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