A former GP and cancer-survivor discusses with Maneesha the importance of connection and the part that meditation can play when we are sick.
Formerly a GP, now studying for a degree in holistic counselling, Louella Gratton-Smith has experienced first-hand what it is to receive, and live through, a diagnosis of cancer.
In November of 2009 the mother of four and I got together for what extended into an animated 5-hour discussion. The subject: The big questions that come up when we’re in crisis, and the support and learnings that meditation can provide. The following dialogue is a small extract from our lengthy talk.
Maneesha: I see meditation not as a training of the mind, as it’s often described, but more as a letting go of the mind. It’s relaxing into the space of expanded awareness – not a concentration of the mind, which is a narrowing of attention. Meditation takes us out of the whole dimension of thinking and of training.
I know you think love as an analogy for meditation won’t appeal to doctors because it’s not scientific, but hey – doctors have their unscientific moments too, don’t they? Doctors fall in love!
Being in love or in meditation do have some similarities. For example, we can’t control or manage what happens in either love or meditation. In meditation we venture into the unknown, even the unknowable; in love, we recognize as we go deeper that the beloved is unknown, even unknowable. And in both love and meditation we drop our sense of separation, and experience ourselves as part of other-than-me (whether that’s feeling that we are part of our beloved or part of all that lives).
Louella: I get exactly what you are saying, but the bottom line remains that medicine today is objective: if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. Love, happiness, and spirituality are subjective realms, so it is very hard for many scientifically oriented minds to incorporate them into their medical paradigm.
However, one thing that I learnt is that meditation is like plugging in again… a connection to something, perhaps even to the life force.
When I was sick I started having massages and generally reconnecting with myself.
The sense of connection is so much easier when there is peace, when there is no mind pollution with circular thoughts. Meditation facilitates opening the door to a true inner peace and happiness.
Before I got cancer there was this unbelievable sense of disconnection. It’s really interesting looking back on it: I was like a toaster whose plug had come out and it no longer worked. I would talk to people but I felt I was separate. I’d look at people laughing and I’d think: I’d love to feel like that…to feel that joy…that connection.
When I look back at that time of chemo… it was peaceful; I was liberated! Meditation was part of it, and it liberated me from the constraints of living in our Western society, the shackles that society had placed on me – of responsibility and work, and how I should think and how I should feel.
So I think meditation helps you to connect – to yourself and to others – and it is wonderful to have an understanding that life is this wonderful web of connections and relationships.
One of the meditations I did was Progression Relaxation and that gave me a sense of a deeper existence – one that is beyond the 5 senses, beyond the purely physical. Very interesting!!
And that’s one of the wonderful things that meditation does. Once you get the gist of something other than the physical, then you can start to go ‘Well, what is that? What could this be? Is this other-than-the-physical going to transcend death?’
Maneesha: In any situation in life when we are suddenly thrown off kilter, all kinds of existential issues tend to come up: was that your experience?
Louella: Yes, you suddenly have to face those metaphysical questions which, when you are well, you can keep on the back burner. Meditation and the connection to nature are doorways to the metaphysical, and once the doorway is open, and you are starting to feel better, then the whole concept of ‘There is more to life that meets the eye’ deepens and enriches life itself.
For people just diagnosed with cancer the thing that is consuming them is the fear of death. So there is a journey that needs to be travelled.
In the early stages you need to go from that place of fear of death, to a sense of hope, as early in most cases the aim is in fact to continue living. Then at a variable time later, irrespective of the state of health, it is of great value to contemplate death as merely a part of the richness of the human experience. This enables a certain sense of peace to settle, and in my case at least, it was being able to see death not as an end but merely as a transition. This is where meditation is of profound value.
But in the first few weeks of my diagnosis I very much wanted to hear positive stuff, nothing negative. It is a very anxious time and I longed to regain a sense of peace.
Maneesha: And something one could be doing simultaneously, in that early stage is…. I teach a breath-watching method as a very simple meditation that takes minimal energy – so you can even do it when you’re feeling rotten – and which provides the felt experience of how the ‘negative’ has a place too; how all seeming opposites are, in fact, complementaries.
As you watch your breath coming in and going out, you can notice how each inhalation is a taking in of life, and all the oxygen and energy that you need in order to meet life’s demands, to enjoy all the activities and excitements and challenges of life…. Then, when you exhale, you let go of the breath, you get rid of the carbon dioxide, and you relax into a space of not-doing, not-thinking, just being. And as you continue to watch the breath come in and go out you can, perhaps, begin to feel how they work together, how each gives way to the other; how each is needed for the other….
As you meditate in this way, you begin to get – not cerebrally but experientially – that what appeared to be two antagonistic states are not at all: in fact they are part of one movement….And just as that is true of inhalation and exhalation, it’s true too of black and white, male and female, summer and winter, and of course, of living and dying too.
Louella: Meditation is a great entry point, and yes, it can be the next step in reducing one’s fear. It does, of course, have masses of health benefits. It is not rocket science: If you are peaceful, adrenaline and cortisol levels will be reduced and your immune functioning will improve.
The other thing was that when I was meditating, I was observing my thoughts and any physical sensations, so there is this sense that you are something other than your mind and your body. It’s a very logical leap to say: ‘Well, if your mind and body are dead, what happens to consciousness? This consciousness continues on.’
Maneesha: That ability to observe my thoughts and feelings and whatever might be going on physically is the single, most significant key I’ve got from meditation
Louella: I needed to have a belief in my having some control over my destiny…that things weren’t out of control.
Maneesha: Yes, the usefulness of beliefs and the need for control is an interesting issue. I do understand how freaky it is to feel completely disempowered – as we can do when we’re ill and also subject to the dehumanizing process of hospitalisation. I know it’s said – there are numerous articles supporting the notion – that not feeling in control creates anxiety. Yet it seems to me that striving to be constantly in control is a tension-creating state, too!
Books on counselling tell us of the importance of developing an ‘inner locus of control.’ I reckon meditation goes one step better, because it enables us to exchange being in control for being conscious – by which I mean, more present in ourselves, more grounded in ourselves, and more present to any situation. So I’d prefer the expression: ‘an inner locus of consciousness.’ When I have a strong sense of my inner centre, I don’t need to keep a tight grip on the reins. I can relax into the place within that is calm and steady. So whatever life throws at me, I can respond to it from a still, silent, space.
Louella: That is so terribly important – relaxing into life, accepting life, enjoying the journey whatever that may be, and truly going with the Tao. I would love to learn how to teach meditation. It’s the greatest hole in health care. If as a doctor I’d been able to offer this to my patients it would have made the most enormous difference.
If I were now in General Practice I would say to every one of my patients, ‘You need to learn to meditate – whether you’ve got arthritis or a cold – it doesn’t matter what it is: meditation will not only help your health, it will help your life.’ So to me meditation really is the key in so many ways.