Archive for the ‘writing and spirituality’ Category

If someone is stuck in an angry state, what they’re essentially doing is being in a state of adrenaline. And some of the negative health consequences of not forgiving or being stuck there are high blood pressure, anxiety, depression,   not having a good immune response. You’re constantly putting your energy somewhere else.–Karen Swartz, MD

It’s not uncommon, during loss, tragedy or serious illness, that we may sometimes feel let down or hurt by others, whether family members, friends or co-workers.  In my cancer writing groups, participants often express feelings of loss or disappointment experienced during cancer treatment and recovery from people once considered close or counted on in times of difficulty.  I’ve felt those kinds of heartaches from time to time, whether from family members, being in positions of organizational leadership when tough decisions were part of the job, or even, so many years ago, when my first husband and I separated–the first of many marriages to fall apart–in a small university town.

It hurts, when people you have been close to let you down or take out their anger on you.  It’s difficult not to internalize that hurt and find fault with yourself, as if you caused the unkind behaviors you experience, and you lie awake, replaying moments, conversations, actions to try to understand what happened and why.  It’s hard to not blame yourself, but it’s often much more difficult to forgive the slights or unkind actions of those you once counted on.  And yet, you know that carrying anger or resentment inside yourself is not healthy.

I recall the extended difficult months with my siblings in the wake of our parents’ illnesses and deaths and how I experienced anger, resentment or blame as I attempted to honor our parents’ wishes fairly.  It became so onerous, I turned over executorship and power of attorney to an outside party.  That was years ago, but in the process of returning  to Canada a few months ago, I found myself sitting in the garage and paging through old journals from that tumultuous period.  There were pages of questions, hurt and disbelief expression, and self-questioning repeated dozens of times.  A quotation I’d copied caught my attention.  It was from a program I’d watched about the same time,  produced by the UC Davis Health System.

“It’s not a surgery; it’s not a medical treatment or a new medication, but this is a new healing process that doctors are convinced has many hidden benefits, something you can’t get in a pharmacy.  The process is forgiveness.  And more doctors believe that it heals.”  

Forgiveness was obviously on my mind.  I was struggling to stop the replay of hurt and disappointment, groping for a way to alleviate the sense of martyrdom, the shock of being wronged and treated so unfairly by my siblings.  The many months of trying to understand by writing and re-examine  the history I knew by heart, resulted only in rumination, taking me deeper into the pain.  What I needed to do was forgive.  And doing that was going to take some work.

Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, nor does it mean that you’ve given the message that what someone did was okay. It just means that you’ve let go of the  anger or guilt towards someone, or towards yourself. But that can be easier said than done. If  forgiveness was easy, everyone would be doing it.

“The human mind,” psychologist Loren Toussaint stated, “is sometimes an instrument of misery.  When you’ve done wrong…and regret it, it bubbles up again and again.”  But it’s not only forgiveness of others that makes a difference.   The health benefits of forgiving ourselves for our past mistakes or wrongdoings can be considerable.

Forgiveness—for self or others–is a virtue embraced by almost every religious tradition.  Yet, if we’re honest about it, forgiveness is often difficult to embrace, but doing so is important to our well-being in so many ways.  Forgiveness is intimately tied to our physical health.   Even in the struggle of cancer, forgiveness plays an important role.  In a 1989 study reported in the Canadian Journal of Counselling, “forgiveness therapy” helped cancer patients attain catharsis and a greater sense of peace (v. 23, pp. 236-251).

Another group of researchers found that a self-forgiving attitude contributed to less mood disturbance and a better quality of life among women with breast cancer (J. of Behavioral Medicine, v. 29, pp. 29-36, 2006).  A growing body of research, much of it initiated by the Stanford Forgiveness Project, directed by Dr. Fred Luskin, suggests that forgiveness is good medicine for the body. Health benefits have been demonstrated in a number of “forgiveness interventions,” including improved cardiovascular function, diminished chronic pain, relief from depression and an overall improved quality of life among the very ill (M. Healy, L.A. Times, Jan. 12, 2008).

It’s not uncommon, following a cancer diagnosis or other serious illness that patients sometimes turn their anger inward, blaming themselves for contributing to their illness.  I know I did it, telling more than one close friend that I felt I partly responsible for my early stage diagnosis of breast cancer several years ago.  I hear the same self questioning in the newly diagnosed who attend my writing groups:   “What did I do to cause this?  What if I had only done this instead of that?” or say, “I feel like I’m partly to blame for my cancer…”

How do you forgive others and yourself?  Poet Maya Angelou put it this way:

 I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.

“We can’t see our own glory in the mirror…in the end, the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.”   Angelou’s words remind me of a passage from the poem,  “St. Francis and the Sow,” by Galway Kinnell:

Sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness
to put a hand on the brow of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely,
until it flowers again from within,
of self-blessing.

Forgiveness is, in part, a chance to “flower again from within of self-blessing”–a beautiful image to consider.  How then do we learn to forgive others and ourselves?  Karen Swartz, MD, a John Hopkins psychiatrist, suggests these steps:

Forgiveness training is a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques, but the goal is the same: Identify the problem, give it time and get objective input. That input doesn’t have to come from a mental health professional. It could come from a close friend or a religious adviser.
Identify what the problems are.
•    Work on relaxation techniques.
•    Challenge your own responses.
•    Change your thoughts from negative to positive

Writing Suggestion:

Focus on forgiveness this week.  Perhaps it’s a simple act of forgiving yourself, another, or even your body, changed by cancer.  Here are some questions to help you get started:

  • Who or what do you most want to learn to forgive?
  • Describe the event or the actions of someone that created pain and heartache for you.
  • Did your pain morph into self-blame or depression?  Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that emerge as you write.
  • Where, in this week, do you have the opportunity to practice forgiveness?
  • How have you learned to forgive others and yourself?
  • Has learning to forgive helped you feel physically better, for example, improved sleep, energy, or mentally, have a more positive outlook?

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When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

(“The Peace of Wild Things,”By Wendell Berry, in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998)

There are poets and poems whose wisdom and eloquence I return to often when the world is too much with me.  William Stafford is one favorite; Wendell Berry is another.  I find comfort in their  words, a refuge from the constant assault of political wrangling, war, suffering and violence in the world.  In the past many weeks we’ve been inundated with the news of more refugee crises, hurricanes and their aftermath, wild fires and senseless acts of violence.  I’ve felt “despair for the world” taking hold of my mood, enlarging each day as I hear of another report of hardship, violence or people’s suffering.   I feel helpless in those moments, and as if I, too, need a respite from the world’s woes to regain an even footing.

I live in a city, and escaping to a place of peace and quiet can sometimes be difficult.  But I take my refuge in the quiet of dawn, a ritual of writing, clearing my mind in the stillness of early morning as my pen races across the page.  My dog awakens with me, patiently sleeping at my side until I signal it’s time for a walk among the trees in the park nearby.   It’s a habit, a practice that helps me regain a sense of peace, even hope and gratitude that seems to arrive quietly, unannounced, in these moments of stillness.  I rest in the grace of the world.

What is stillness?  According to Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of the wonderful little book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), it’s not so much about meditation, but “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.”  “Going nowhere,” he states, “isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

(From:  “Keep Quiet” by Pablo Neruda (In: Extravagaria,  1974)

Perhaps what sometimes seems to be increasing societal numbness to something akin to “routine” violence and hardship in the world is a result of the constant motion and noise that fill our daily lives.  My life is less hectic now that my husband and I are entering a state of so-called “retirement.”  While I enjoy the quieter pace my husband and I share, the old habit of “busy-ness” is an addiction that can be difficult to break.  It’s a habit I used to know well but now witness now in our younger family members and friends — their days filled with running from meeting to meeting, social event to social event, responding to dozens of emails and texts in a day, spending hours staring at screens and sites like Facebook, and all the while, experiencing the constant stream of news, trivia, games, retail offerings, advertisements–“noise” of the modern world.   I was asked by a woman a few days ago what I did all day now that I’d “retired.”  She was unaware of the quiet I need in my life to continue to write and teach, yet for a moment, I struggled to answer–so far removed have I become from the whirlwind life I once lived in the corporate world.   I wish, all those years ago, I’d had Iyer’s book to read– he speaks so succinctly to what I then experienced daily:  “A big luxury for so many people today, is a little blank space in the calendar where you collect yourself,” he wrote.   A big luxury... Think about it.  It’s so easy to lose touch with ourselves in our demanding, rush-rush world.  Yet we need this thing called  stillness, the space and time for quiet that  allows us to care for our inner lives and feed our malnourished spirits.

Writing for the New York Times in 2012, Iyer cited Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  Carr noted that Americans spend eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen and that the average American teenager sends or receives 75 test messages daily.  Yet it was fifty years ago that Canadian author Marshall McLuhan warned “When things come at you very fast, …you lose touch with yourself” (The Medium is the Message, 1967).

“When things come at you very fast…”  This past week, my husband’s sister , who was treated for inflammatory breast cancer five years ago, was hospitalized after a niggling difficulty swallowing which had worsened to the point she could not ingest food.   Tests revealed a growth on her esophagus, and a small surgical procedure performed.  Once she was able to eat again, she was sent home, only to be re-admitted days later with bleeding and unbearable pain.  She is undergoing tests, but early indications are revealing what is most likely evidence of metastatic cancer, and frequent doses of morphine have done little to lessen her pain.  She and her family are navigating between preliminary test results, treatment implications, and clinging to any threads of hope they can find in the doctors’ words.

It’s an experience so many cancer patients and their families know well.  Emotions run high; test results can be confusing, diagnoses conflicted, and the fear of death a constant companion.  The medical team’s voices may temporarily overshadow the patients’ and their families’.  The reality of a terminal diagnosis, clarity about what matters most, and, and what the families and patients truly want for themselves in this final chapter of life are fraught with contradictory emotions and difficult discussions. Where can you find the stillness amid the prodding, tests, diagnoses, medications, pain, prognoses–all of it–to listen to yourself, to know what’s in your heart, and the clarity of what matters most to you here and now?

Stillness, being in the moment, can help.  Cancer, or any chronic illness, as Dr. Paul Brenner, MD states, “is Life:  You hope it can get better but fear it will get worse.  There is no choice other than to live into what is happening now.”  Those with cancer, he notes, live in the truth of the moment because that is all that exists.  It is, ultimately, about being present to the now, not living with regret for the past or worrying what the future holds.

Stillness, time to be fully present in the moment, can help us clear away the static,  clarify and discover what is truly important.  It’s tougher to find the quiet when one is also surrounding by the sometimes conflicting opinions of your doctors and family members.  Meditation, yoga, tai chi—all help ground you in the present, the here and now and in quiet.  As Iyer reminds us, stillness–learning to be in the moment—”isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

But little by little,

…as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world…

(From:  “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)

I have come to believe that stillness, being fully present to the here and now, is one of the important factors in what heals us, whether we live with loss, cancer, or other chronic illness.  It is deeply important to clear away the “noise” that comes from the external world, from well-meaning others, and listen to one’s self.  During a  2004 PBS  interview former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, spoke about his recovery from oral cancer in 1968.  … as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about…It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), offers a “recipe” for embracing stillness: “At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready,. “Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.—

I have come to cherish stillness in my life –and I now realize how very much I need to “rest in the grace of the world” to live a life that is meaningful and full, but more, to know my truth by being truly be able listen to what is in my heart and mind.   Perhaps you have discovered the power of stillness in your life, a way of being fully present in the world, a way to discover what truth lies in your heart.  Why not write about it?

Writing Suggestions:

  • For this week, consider how quiet and stillness have been part of your healing process.
  • What was the situation that triggered your need to “embrace stillness?”
  • What practices helped you learn to embrace quiet and turn your attention to “what is” instead of “what was” or  “what could be?”
  • How has creating or embracing stillness and quiet as part of your life helped you heal?





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It’s difficult to imagine the many lives that have been lost or devastated in the past few weeks by fire, hurricanes, shootings or bombings.  Each day seems to only bring more reports of tragedy–loss and destruction.  Last week I wrote of friends diagnosed with metastatic cancer  and those who had lost their homes in the California wildfires.   They have all occupied a permanent place in my daily thoughts, my concern for them and hope for their recovery filling the pages of my journal.  It was difficult to imagine any more heartache and tragedy coming in the wake of the past few weeks, but last night we learned of another loss.  This one affected me even more than the others, because it was the death of a friend’s grandchild, the victim of an automobile crash and a drunk driver.  My emotions ran the gamut of shock, sorrow and not a little bit of anger ignited by the circumstances of the death.  An unnecessary death of an innocent child.

But now, I am struggling to know what to say or how to offer support and help for the family.  I am worried how they will cope and deal with a tragedy no one should have to experience.  I walked early this morning, sifting through my thoughts before returning to write in an attempt to make sense of it all.  Gradually, what I was writing took on the form of a prayer, first for the child whose life was lost and then for her family, struggling with overwhelming grief and heartbreak.  I am not one who prays regularly, nor do I attend church each Sunday as I used to do so many years ago, and yet, I know that writing each morning as I do is both a meditation and a prayer, something I recall the poet, Denise Levertov, saying in her final interview:   “When you’re caught up in writing, “it can be a form of prayer.”

I don’t think our friend and her family are members of a church nor very religious, and I wonder now what will help them through this horrible loss.  Certainly the support of their close-knit family will be important, but could their prayers or the prayers of others help?   Perhaps, as the book, Healing Words:  The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, written by Larry Dossey, MD, suggests.  It’s interesting that in this day of modern medicine, something as basic as prayer can have beneficial impact on our health and well-being. Dossey summarizes a number of studies demonstrating the positive influences of prayer on health and healing among patients with breast cancer, HIV, and coronary disease, among others.  I remember the words of one writing group member a few years ago as she reflected on her recovery:  “I believe that everyone’s prayers helped me make it through with grace and strength.”

We find prayer in every religion and culture, written in every language.  Studies have found that religion and spirituality are very important to the quality of life among many cancer patients.  Prayer sustains us and offers solace.  For me,  daily writing is a deeply spiritual practice.  Although religion and spirituality are related, they are not synonymous.  Religion refers to a specific set of beliefs and practices, usually within an organized group, while spirituality is more concerned with our beliefs about the meaning of life.  You may think of yourself as religious or spiritual or both.

Whatever our religious or spiritual beliefs, one’s faith or spirituality can provide strength and comfort.  “As part of our wholeness,” Stephen Levine said in a 1994 Sun interview, “we need our woundedness.  It seems written into spirituality that there’s a dark side to which we must expose ourselves.”

The tragedies in your lives may seem like a dark night of the soul and even challenge your faith, but life’s difficult and painful experiences also offer the chance to explore your spirituality, deepen your self-understanding and compassion for others. “My faith grew, and I prayed a lot,” more than a few of my writing group members remark after cancer treatment.  Others turn their writing into prayer, as L. did, asking for mercy as  she struggled through chemotherapy:

A wad of pain
In the pit of my stomach
Lord have mercy

I focus on it
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy
Lord have mercy…

L.’s writing, begun in response to a group prompt, led her into a prayer.  Writing can, as hers did and this morning, mine, even become the prayer itself.  Writing takes us deep into ourselves, and in the wake of life’s tragedies, sorrow and suffering, it can become a prayer of sorts, a deeply spiritual practice.  We write raw, honestly and as we do, the irrelevant and unnecessary falls away to reveal the meaning in our lives.  Call it what you will–hope, prayer, faith, or meditation–we stumble onto a higher consciousness, something larger than ourselves.

When K., a young woman in her twenties, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, she confessed to the writing group that she had never been one to go to church.  Now she felt as if she needed to rely on something bigger than herself.  “I think I need a boost in the power of faith,” she said.  “Faith, I have decided is an important part of human life.”

In Buddhism, understanding nourishes faith. The act of looking deeply within ourselves not only fosters self-understanding, it can strengthen our faith.  V., who died of metastatic breast cancer several years ago, wrote throughout her cancer journey, often humorously, sometimes poignantly.  As she neared her final weeks, she examined her faith, acknowledging that although it had been challenged by cancer, her faith had offered her strength and solace.  .

But our relationship has changed.  In asking me to surrender to this illness, God has asked me to let go—to trust—float free.  And I have found this to be a most precious time.  My cancer has challenged my faith, and I have found an incredible well I did not know I had.  I have found true surrender, enormous peace.

V.’s words are ones I return to often in my writing groups as I think about what sustains us all in dark and seemingly inconsolable times in our lives.  Faith, prayer, meditation, the community of others’ support–we learn again to open our hearts to caring, compassion and connectedness with each other– it lets the healing in.

Writing Suggestions:

  • Today, my heart is again heavy with sorrow and the weight of unanswerable questions. I have turned to what sustains me in times of sorrow and pain:  long walks in the quiet of early morning, a practice of writing–my meditation, my prayer.  What sustains you in those incomprehensible moments of loss or tragedy?
  • Reflect on the beliefs or spiritual practices that sustain you.  Write about the importance of prayer, meditation, faith or community during difficult times in your life.
  • Perhaps your faith has been challenged by unexpected tragedy.  Perhaps your illness or struggles led you to a spiritual journey you didn’t anticipate.  Where have you found solace and strength in the midst of hardship?

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