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Cancer and Mindfulness: More Than Just Being Present

Another way to use mindfulness to help with a journey through cancer.

Key points

  • Mindfulness can be beneficial to cancer patients.
  • Some individuals, however, say they wish they could be less present during the cancer ordeal.
  • Seeing mindfulness as the energy of presence can change how you use it.
  • “Letting go” is not a command but a result.
Johnhain / 1197 images/Pixabay
Source: Johnhain / 1197 images/Pixabay

To the cancer patient, mindfulness is a tool that, if discovered, can have many benefits. One cancer survivor who I recently met told me he had been attending lectures whenever he could on alternative medicine. He had attended energy medicine talks, mindful meditation lessons, visualization classes, and tried a plethora of other avenues, “including prayer,” he said, adding that he was a devout atheist. A colleague of mine followed a similar course. When his cancer was cured, he mused he didn’t know which of the complementary techniques had worked, so now he had to believe in them all. I have always liked that comment and openness to try something new. Perhaps you or someone you know has considered complementary mind-body-spirit methods for relief. Of these, mindfulness is one of the most sought after.

But sometimes mindfulness doesn’t work or only marginally works. Some individuals say there are times they wish they could be less present such as when awaiting vital test/treatment results. But what is mindfulness and how can knowing a bit more about its nature increase its efficacy?

Seeing Mindfulness as Energy

Seeing mindfulness as energy will help, in terms of efficacy. It suggests new applications.

As an analogy, think about your cellphone’s flashlight bar control. You can slide the bar upward to brighten the beam or slide it downward to dull its intensity. You can think of mindfulness this way. Mindfulness is the energy of your presence. You don’t have a “bar” to control it, but you can regulate it mentally. You can intensify the beam of your mindfulness to the point of ultra-sensitivity. As a general example, you can focus on your foot, increase the sensitivity of your attention and feel your sock below your foot—but you can increase it further and feel the sole of your shoe below your sock, the floor beneath, and so on. You can control how much you feel these.

There are many reasons why you might want to do this. If, for example, you were listening to an orchestra, you may want to zero in on the violin or further onto the way the violinist is bowing the instrument and how that affects the sound of the whole orchestra. You could move your focus from one set of details to another. Increasing the energy of mindfulness will make everything brighter and more pronounced. You can even try this with the words in this paragraph. Notice how as you zero in on and energize certain words or detail, you automatically “let go” of others.

“Letting Go” Is Not a Command but a Result

Letting go is important to cancer patients. Mindfulness offers a way to “mechanically” make yourself let go. You can, for instance, use the energy of mindfulness to put your attention on feel-good internal details like positive memories, images, sounds—really anything sensual as well as thoughtful—and leave it there. By doing this, you cancel out certain details by increasing the brightness of our attentional spotlight on others.

I want to suggest that it is also possible to tamp down the energy of mindfulness in a given moment by decreasing the energy of your presence. Recall your flashlight bar control. By adjusting the energy, letting go becomes a result rather than a command.

The following are a few activities that may help you use these concepts:

  1. Mindfully reflect before or after a treatment. Reflection can help you spot details in your environment and in your thoughts, feelings, memories, and actions that have previously slid you into a positive, relaxed mind. By spotlighting these next time you are in a similar experience, you can help cancel out (let go of) the internal or external details that might interfere with your desired mindset. Ask yourself which positive influencers have worked the strongest and quickest. You can increase the spotlight of your mindfulness of these in your next experience (e.g. while waiting for test results) to help guide your mind into a positive zone.
  2. Mindfully connect to a goal beforehand. This is another way to help keep your head clear and moving toward the positive. Increasing the energy of mindfulness on goal-driven activities like editing an important file on your phone or laptop that you have to send by the end of the day can do the trick. By focusing the energy of mindfulness on your goal and pushing the pedal to the metal, it is possible to send your mind into a flowing state, even if just temporarily. Other times, you may be better off goalless, while simultaneously increasing your mindfulness. So, you’re not blanked out; instead, you’re “blanked in”—with your mindfulness spotlight on high, a kind of empty mind that is hyper-present and flowing.
  3. Mindfully keep a wide, objective focus. But then zero in on certain feel-good detail as it naturally flows across your vision, like reflections on a clear, still lake. This can help you identify detail (whether it’s from your internal states or external/environment) that guides you to the feelings you need. Just stay objective and observe as images, thoughts, memories, and feelings float by, with no nit-picking, and zero in on the pleasant ones. You can try closing your eyes, if you like, or shade an entire image in your mind with your favorite earth tone or other calming color. Then using the energy of mindfulness, take a slow, deep breath. As you breathe in, mindfully breathe in the whole image. Feel its energy, then direct the energy—using your breath—to parts of your body and mind that most need soothing. Then repeat the whole process as long as you like.

None of this is going to be a “slam dunk.” Nonetheless, seeing mindfulness as energy has increased its use and efficacy for me as well as others. It is simply another way to look at mindfulness, which is still one of the best ways I know to regulate mindsets. May this tool serve you well.

On a personal note, and like so many others out there trying to survive their cancer, I was recently in the “waiting room” myself, waiting to find out if I was potentially cured. Fortunately for me, I was.

More from Joseph Cardillo Ph.D.
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