Launching into Space: A Visualization for Creating Distance

In my continuing quest to find ways to calm myself and soften anxious thoughts, I often resort to visualizations. They are effective in putting the breaks on distressing thought patterns, creating space and encouraging a broader perspective.

My clinical counselor offered the visualization I’m introducing here. It works similarly to “thought container“, which is a visualization in which you create a container for your stressful thoughts, put them in there, lock the container up and place it on a shelf.

You decide how you’d like your rocket to look. Serious and foreboding or cute and shiny?

However, this one goes a step further. For this visualization, imagine a shiny space capsule on a launch pad, of whatever style and era that suits you. Gather up your troubling thoughts and send them towards the capsule, marching them up the ramp and in through the door. You can wave good-bye as the thoughts enter and settle into comfy seats, safely belted in.

Your thoughts are not “bad”. They simply elicit negative reactions in your body. And right now you want to loosen their grip on you.

When all those stressful images are inside, close the airlock/door. It’s up to you how that’s going to look. Perhaps it’s a high-tech electronic door that shuts and locks remotely so you don’t have to be close by. Or maybe it looks like a massive bulkhead, with a wheel that you yourself physically crank shut and secure so that you can be sure that nothing slips out.

When the capsule is secured. Start the countdown to launch. Or just press a button and shoot it off into space immediately. You have full control here.

But here’s the thing: this is a visualization to create distance, not to completely eradicate those thoughts. Because that’s impossible. They will not simply disappear. However, you can give yourself a little break from them, which is what this lauch is about.

Your stressors are still there, but it’s easier to learn to deal with them from down here. Give yourself some space.

Where does the capsule go? To the Moon. It will rocket off the Earth and land on our satellite neighbor. Point your telescope at the Moon at night and you’ll see the capsule, knowing that those thoughts are there but far enough away that they don’t torment you. You’re not trying to forget about them completely. Instead, practice dealing with them where they’re not an in-your-face threat.

In this way, you don’t repress or avoid, you give yourself breathing space and the opportunity for calm.

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I admit that if you’ve been particularly beleaguered by stressors, it would be very tempting to treat the rocket like a clay pigeon and blast the whole thing to bits…and maybe there’s a great idea for a video game there. But truly, it may be easiest to handle them by releasing the thoughts into the ether.

Yes, they’ll be back. And so will the chance to take a deep breath and send them off again.

Cancer, “Why Me?” and Mustard Seeds: The Path to Acceptance

At some point in a cancer patient’s life, there are certain questions that tend to come up. The most likely one of these is why we were singled out to have such a serious calamity befall us.

I went through a long period of this. I mean, loooong. The early posts of this blog are filled with agonized questions about why cancer hit me even when, by all accounts, it shouldn’t have. I posted about not having risk factors and blah blah blah. I kept going around and around and around on this, stuck on a hamster wheel that wouldn’t stop.

I clung to the same ride, unhappy but not wanting to get off.

Allow me to stress: cancer is a serious illness. That is not to be taken lightly. Most of us, regardless of lifestyle, experience profound shock with our cancer diagnosis. It may seem that life is cruel and unfair (well, it is) and that we didn’t deserve to get cancer (well, we didn’t).

I struggled with anger and frustration for years. It’s both embarrassing and freeing to admit that.

Acceptance is a process. I thought I’d accepted my situation a couple of years ago, but in retrospect, I hadn’t. Some days I felt holy and zen-like, floating on my own little cloud, but it was a sham. I’d have glimpses of acceptance and then a wave of anger and resentment would wash over me and I’d be pissed off for another week.

I thought God hated me. A purportedly loving and merciful being allowed this to happen. It was hard to not think of cancer as a blow against my value as a person because of how I interpreted my situation.

It wasn’t until I stepped outside the confines of that type of thinking that I gained a different perspective. I posted about re-writing my life (basically, viewing the same experiences through a different, more positive lens) which provided a glimpse of another way to assess what had happened. And when I heard the retelling of an ancient Buddhist tale I finally understood what it meant.

Never seen mustard seeds? Here they are. Kisa, however, came up empty-handed.

What was that tale? It was “Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed”. In brief, Kisa Gotami’s young son dies and she is so distraught–not understanding why she would deserve such a painful experience–that she goes to the Buddha in hopes that he can bring the son back from the dead.

The Buddha agrees to revive her son if she can bring him mustard seeds from households where no one has died. Of course, she cannot because death touches all living creatures. She is comforted by the realization that her sorrow is shared and understood by everyone in the community and she finds acceptance of her loss .

Another way of looking at this is that we all suffer. For me, it’s a reminder that while a cancer diagnosis is life-threatening, there are few (if any) humans on this Earth who have not experienced some form of loss or grief at some point in their lives. Yes, some of us bear a far greater burden than others–grave inequities exist. But they also bring profound opportunities for growth.

And while I (and I expect most cancer patients/survivors) would have preferred to experience this personal growth through means other than cancer, being able to be here in this moment, having turned the corner, is one of the most beautiful gifts I could ever receive.

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Two points need to be made here:

Point #1: Burdens are distributed unequally. Socioeconomic, racial and other disparities further tip the scales, making outcomes from a disease like cancer even worse. As a society, we haven’t come close to rebalancing this. Acceptance is easier for some than for others; no one has a right to preach to anyone else.

Point #2: It’s been over five years since my initial cancer diagnosis, and even longer that I’ve been worrying about it. As I mentioned above, it took a LONG time to get to this point of acceptance. Knowing this, I would never rush a new cancer patient to get here. Acceptance must come organically, and yes, sometimes never does. Cancer breaks hearts and no one experiences it in the same way. Be patient.

Perspective: The Broom that Sweeps the Mind

Last week, I had a good reminder about the importance of maintaining perspective.

It had been a stressful few days at work. At the height of it I found myself in a problematic situation, trying to “fix” an issue that wasn’t my responsibility by sending a quick email. I would have done better to pause, but I was in “go-go-go” mode, driven by anxiety that the situation was causing.

Afterwards, I found myself obsessing about what had happened and how I had reacted. So even though I had initially felt that my email response was the best course of action, by evening I was convinced that it was the worst. This opened the door to allow in unrelated doubts about myself. That frustration carried into my nightly meditation, and ultimately, into fitful dreams.

In a few seconds, a perspective shift changes your entire view of things.

The next morning, I felt marginally better. But it wasn’t until I checked my text messages that my perspective shifted. I received photos of my father, leg in a cast, at the local hospital’s emergency room. Reason? Cracked tibia bone and deep vein thrombosis.

In an eyeblink, I forgot about what had happened with work. I needed to get more information about my father’s predicament.

As news of exactly what had happened filtered down to me (it was a much more controlled situation than I had initially understood it to be), I went into the office with a different mindset. The work stress that had been top-of-mind and in-my-face was now way over there in the back of the room.

FYI, my father is fine and the trip to the ER was actually a follow up from the previous day’s visit to his doctor where they discovered the fracture and the blood clot. The doc had encouraged the ER trip to get quicker access to an orthopedist. My dad is in good spirits and my mother (a former nurse) has been tasked with administering the clot-dissolving injections.

But the shift in perspective that morning reminded me so much of a similar shift several years ago: prior to my cancer diagnosis I had been experiencing a lot of anxiety at work…but once I learned that the lump in my breast was cancer, everything else fell away. It was as if the roar of work stress suddenly became muffled and all I heard was my beating heart, my health, the important stuff.

When I had cancer, the things that used to bother me, stopped. I knew then what was really important.

I distinctly remember that as I was going through my cancer treatments, in all the concern about what was happening in my body, I experienced the least amount of anxiety about anything going on at work that I’d ever had at that job. It felt like I could handle anything that they threw at me.

Perspective. That’s what I had as I sat in the infusion room. And that’s what I regained last week.

How curious that the shift in perspective was so simple to achieve. All I needed was to remember what was really and truly important and everything changed within a few seconds.

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“Simple” is not necessarily “easy”. We have so many things coming at us in the course of the day and we try to triage them as quickly as we can. It’s expected that we will make “little mistakes” and give more weight to the problem right in front of us–those things that are immediate. But with practice, we can realize that most of those are transient and the important stuff is what deserves our deepest attention and appreciation.

And even the “important stuff” needs to be swept out once in a while.

Grounding Through the Fingertips: Hand Steepling

Note: this is another grounding technique, by which I mean a way to retain focus on what is happening in the “now” rather than getting lost in memories of the past, which we cannot change, or succumbing to fears about what may happen in the future. It’s not a woo-woo magical technique. It’s merely being mindful about what is currently taking place so that you can respond appropriately and maintain your composure.

During acute stress, we need to bring ourselves back to the present quickly. By doing so, we are able to clear our heads of the “what-ifs” and “you shouldas” that cloud our thoughts at those times.

But what’s the fastest way to do that? For me, it’s definitely focusing on the fingertips. Each fingertip has approximately 3,000 nerve endings, more than any other part of the body (except the most intimate). When you touch something, all those nerves start firing.

You can take advantage of this sensitivity to ground yourself.

Channel Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and put your fingertips together.

This is what I do: I “steeple” my fingers (thumb against thumb, index finger against index finger, etc.) as if I were Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock contemplating a complex situation. The fingertip pressure immediately commands attention from my fearful mind in the same way that a boss displaying that hand gesture would command an employee’s attention. Taking deeper breaths, I rub my fingertips against each other in a circular motion. The movement enables the nerve endings on the fingertips to keep firing as the sensation continues. Or I can bounce my fingertips off each other, or keep them together but flex the fingers to create a pulsing motion.

Closing my eyes accentuates the emphasis on sensation and makes maintaining focus on it easier.

Yes, this seems so simple, but it’s also quite effective. By placing our focus on the fingertips, we take our attention away from more reactive parts of the body like the chest area, where the heart might be beating fast and ribcage expanding and contracting with rapid breathing. Feeling into those areas might only serve to reinforce the heightened emotions that we’re experiencing.

The hands lie further away from that commotion, and that distance between the chest and our fingertip sensations enables us, if even for a short while, to get some perspective. Think of it as the anxiety not being “in your face”.

We can use body sensations as anchors to help stabilize us through anxious times.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, all I “see” is that sensation of fingertip to fingertip, as if it’s the only thing that exists. I can play with this, imagining that I’m holding something between my hands, and that the sensation I feel is actually the feeling of that object against my fingers. It can be a pane of glass or even a beach ball. It all depends on what my brain is willing to accept at the moment. It’s a relaxing mental exercise.

As with many things related to mindfulness, it’s helpful to practice this fingertip pose when we’re in a relaxed and meditative state to connect the sensation to a feeling of calm, enabling it to serve as an anchor when our emotional seas are rough. The more we practice, the stronger that association, and the more effective the grounding response when we use this technique in the midst of anxiety.

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Fun fact: body language experts consider steepled fingers to be an expression of confidence. That might be the little boost you need when you’re navigating a stressful event!

Re-writing Your Life

When I look back at the past decades, I feel exhaustion sweep over me.

Negative events may seem like they’re never-ending.

Cancer was not the only negative thing to come up in my life. There have been quite a few horrible things that have taken place, and at times I get overwhelmed by the thought of them.

This is not where, at my age, I thought I would be, and that’s disappointing.

But I realized that part of this disappointment is the lens through which I view things. Granted, I’ve had my share of misfortune, but when my life seems to be sinking into bleakness, it’s time to do something about it.

This calls for a change in perspective.

So I have undertaken a project. I am writing out the story of my life, but with a slightly different bent: when I come across a negative event, I pause and consider whether I can find something in it to be grateful for. I write about how I overcame it, rather than how bad it was, or how unfair and so unlike what others have had to deal with. I place emphasis on the outcome to avoid getting mired in anguish.

A difficult person in my life? I’ve learned that I’m not responsible for their happinesss, only for my own. A disastrous financial situation? I’ve found that what I perceived as a terrifying outcome can be overcome, and there is a light on the other end and a path by which to maneuver through it. A frightening health crisis? I now know I have met head-on the most daunting disease I ever feared that I would have and somehow made it through treatment.

Re-framing your personal history, when you’re ready to do so, can open you up to a glorious new view of how powerful you are and what amazing things you have achieved in your life.

I am still here. Re-framing the bad stuff is work in progress and it’s not always easy to let go of my familiar, well-worn, negative narrative, but, yes, I am still here.

I’ve discovered that my life is a story of perseverence. There have been numerous hardships and it’s true they’ve left deep scars, but I am aware of how they may twist my attitude, which has removed some of their negative punch. While I may look around and wonder why things have gone a certain way, I also see what I’ve learned and how I’ve matured.

If you want to give this a try yourself, there are a few things to keep in mind:
This is something for you to undertake about your life, not to be forced into by another person, nor push someone else into.

This is not about looking through rose-colored glasses or feeling that your concerns are not taken seriously, nor is this a squelching of negative emotions instead of dealing with them. It’s a step to the side for a different view. This doesn’t mean that those events were not disastrous or those who perpetrated bad things don’t deserve punishment.

You have a right to be upset. You are heard.

Re-framing your life in this way means that you give evidence to the exquisite being that you are, and to the power that you have within yourself. If you feel as though you’ve been chewed up and spat out, be gentle and start slowly.

When you’re ready, invite healing by releasing the burden of negativity and, pen in hand, allow yourself to reveal your strengths.

Pulling Back for a Broader View

The World Is Too Much with Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

William Wordsworth

At times, the manufactured world feels like it’s closing in on me. Admittedly, that’s not what Wordsworth meant when he wrote his famous sonnet, although his poem, written to protest the spiritual collateral of the Industrial Revolution, is sharply appropriate for describing our current relationship with Nature and how we’re mucking it up.

But I’m going to sidestep that for a second and draw a different parallel. Because as I get drawn into day-to-day worries, when I wallow through the weeds of common stressors, I miss the overall beauty of this Earth and the fact that I get to walk on it.

My anxieties seem all-encompassing and fill my field of view, although the reality is that I’m just a speck. That’s not to minimize the significance of what I’m feeling while I’m feeling it and how it affects me, but once in a while I need some perspective. When I pull back to take a wider view of things (say, like from the height of the International Space Station!), things look different.

It’s so much quieter up here. I think I’ll stay for a bit.

Away from the noisy hum of machines and the incessant jabbering of humans, Earth seems pretty peaceful and quiet, which I never get in a large city. There’s always some whirring or buzzing here, traffic on the street and planes overhead. Not even earplugs provide complete relief.

In the same way, there’s a lot of chatter in my head. It gets so overwhelming at times so I need to apply “mental earplugs”: a grounded seat, darkness, lengthened breaths.

Suddenly, I’m no longer dragged by the runaway freight train crashing about in the space between my ears. For a moment, on a small cushion, those things that seemed important float away in imaginary bubbles and, if only for a moment, everything is still.

A Loss…and a Laugh

I lost my Costco card today. Somewhere between the entrance and the check-out line. It’s not the end of the world since I was promptly issued a new one, but the old one had a photo of the pre-cancer me on it.

Reminders of that “old me” are disappearing as I redefine who I am. Yes, life is constantly in flux and change is inevitable but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt.

Cancer has been about loss for me. Loss of weight, loss of hair, loss of concentration, loss of physical fitness, loss of over a year spent in treatment. Loss of a friend to the disease. Out of nowhere, losing that one seemingly insignificant warehouse card brought this all back.

There have been gains too, and much to be grateful for. I could draw up a long list. But today I can’t write about them.

Today I longed for what was gone. Tomorrow will be better.

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The clouds parted, the sun shone forth and nothing really changed but my attitude.

So, after all that angsty serious talk, I got home and realized that my old Costco card was in my back pocket all this time. D’oh! I’d forgotten that I’d stuck it there!

Wow, I felt silly. They say hindsight is 20/20…well, looking back at how darkly I’d taken this, it did seem a bit ridiculous that I’d packed so much meaning into a piece of plastic.

And in a swoosh, the clouds cleared out, the sun peeked through and the world looked different. I still have that new post-cancer photo on my Costco card, but I’m laughing at myself and it doesn’t seem that bad.

Same situation, new perspective.

And then, if we realize that we can change our perspective…?