We often say the purpose of mindfulness it to be able to be more fully present in the midst of our lives, for the pleasant as well as the unpleasant moments. I recently had an opportunity to use my mindfulness practice in a very challenging situation.
I wasn’t so happy when I learned I needed outpatient surgery to remove a basal cell cancer below my lower eyelid. I had over a month wait in order to schedule the surgery. So, initially there was plenty of time for my mind to come up with scary scenarios, especially after seeing photos of the repair process. I started to worry about what was my face going to look like. How long would it take to look OK again, or would it ever? What if I could not see.
Using my mindfulness practice, I started by bringing a curious, spacious, nonjudgmental attention to what was happening. I noticed the thoughts, and the anticipation and anxiety they stimulated in my body. I also noticed the physical sensations of tremulousness in my abdomen & solar plexus as well as tension across my shoulders. Here the breath was my ally in that I could hold these emotions and sensations literally a breath at a time over the course of an inbreath and then an outbreath. Being present with myself in this way I could experience how the sensations weren’t so solid and how they moved and changed even if ever so subtly.
The day of surgery finally arrived. Again I was able to bring my mindfulness practice into play. At each stage of the surgery, rather than getting caught in what was going to happen next, I was able to come back to just here and now. The MD commented on my apparent calmness. He said he had a friend who did TM and how helpful it was and how calm he was; however, he himself could never stop his mind long enough to do that. I couldn’t resist and replied that I taught mindfulness meditation and that I explained that my mindfulness approach is not about stopping the mind or thoughts but rather about noticing them with a curious, spacious and nonjudgmental attention. The nurse also commented that she was surprised by my apparent calmness, “You are not like our usual patients.” Then, before they started, the nurse said, “Go to your special place.” I told her that mindfulness was not about going someplace else in the mind, but rather bringing our full attention into each moment a breath at a time, rather than resisting or avoiding what is happening. It was the mindfulness of what was actually happening that helped me rest with relative ease throughout the procedure.
The post-operative bruising and swelling of my cheek and eye was more challenging and overwhelming at times. Of course, this was most challenging in the night when my mind has nothing else to do! What was most helpful in the middle of the night was a practice called Lovingkindness, which goes hand in hand with mindfulness practice. It is the “heartful” aspect of mindfulness. Lovingkindness is the meeting of ourselves and our experience with kindness which employs phrases to hold and welcome our experience whatever it is. So during the night, as I noticed the scary thoughts arising and the anxiety and tremulous sensations in my body that accompanied them, I would say phrases to hold and embrace them. For example, “May I be safe and protected in the midst of this fear and tremulousness.” or “May I be peaceful in the midst of this worry and anticipation.” This allowed more space for them to just be and settle naturally in their own time and I was able to sleep and get the rest that real healing requires.
In hindsight, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for my years of mindfulness practice and the fruit of that practice that was there for me in the midst of one of my life’s more challenging experiences. The whole episode was a powerful reminder of why I practice mindfulness. Mindfulness supports me to be able to show up and be present with sensitivity and compassion for myself and, by extension, to others in the midst of our lives.