By Richard C. Frank, MD
I have just returned from the Omega Institute in Rheinbeck, NY, where I was a participant in an intensive retreat on mindfulness, “Mindfulness Tools for Living the Full Catastrophe: A 5-Day Residential Intensive Program in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).” The course is based on the methods of mindfulness meditation pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society.
I was one of 150 participants from around the world who sat in chairs or lay on mats and willingly gave their bodies and minds over to two leaders who guided us, Florence Meleo-Meyer, MS, MA and Robert Smith, DO. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.
The first question they asked us to consider was “Why are you here?” I went for many reasons, the first of which was to better learn what mindfulness meditation is and if it would be of help to my patients. Though many cancer patients do partake in acupuncture, massage, Reiki, and other integrative medical techniques that most cancer centers now offer, I had not routinely recommend meditation to the cancer patients I care for, mainly out of my own ignorance.
Mindfulness is defined by the Center for Mindfulness as “a basic human quality, a way of learning to pay wise attention to whatever is happening in your life that allows you a greater sense of connection to your life inwardly and outwardly.” Easier said than done. It is challenging enough to be mindful and calm when some jerk cuts you off when you’re driving or your kids are fighting and not listening, but of course even more so when you find out that you have cancer, or when the treatments aren’t working. Fortunately, the Center further defines mindfulness as “a practice, a systematic method aimed at cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding.” I went to learn the practice.
I learned to meditate, both sitting and walking. I learned the “Body Scan,” in which one meditates on the sensations coming from different parts of the body. I learned mindful eating, to appreciate the food on my plate. I learned basic yoga techniques. During the teachings, profound and moving poetry and other writings were recited to put us in a mindful frame of mind.
I must admit, though, that after the first two days I remained skeptical. I was not really getting the breathing that was supposed to calm my racing thoughts; I was not able to “feel” from my foot up to my ankle or other non-moving body parts. I looked around at everyone’s concentration and thought they must be faking it. Then the third day came – a day of total silence. We hung signs around our necks saying “In Silence,” so that everyone at Omega knew we were not to talk or make eye contact with them. We awoke to start the silent meditation at 6am. By breakfast, my thoughts become clear and I had several new insights about my work. After lunch, I walked around Omega and actually looked closely at the flowers, counted their petals or leaves, watched a dragonfly suspend itself in place for an extended period of time, and observed bumble bees cross pollinate flowers. I was opening up to things I walked right by for 50 years. But by evening, I had had enough. I couldn’t sit, lie or walk in silence any longer. I had run out of productive thoughts. I had observed enough nature. I was cracking. And then, the silence was lifted, slowly, gradually, and participants grouped in threes to whisper about what had happened inside of them as a result of the day. It felt like a re-birth.
I whispered that the day that almost broke me transformed me. By going inside myself, I learned not just about who I am but what the world around me had to offer. I found such strength in all the other participants around me, who I would later learn struggled just as I did. Although I called this “mindfulness boot camp,” I emerged much better than before.
I was especially amazed at how much affection I had for the other participants and the compassion we each had for one another. Throughout the five days, we would turn to total strangers to share our inner-most struggles and have returned to us an honest assessment of ourselves. Some exclaimed that it was destiny that paired them with the person sitting next to them. One man, who suffered from chronic numbness in his leg said that he had the return of sensation for the first time in a decade. Mindfulness meditation was helping us cope with physical and mental pain.
Dr. Smith closed the session by quoting Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget
what you said, people will forget what
you did, but people will never forget
how you made them feel.”
Ms. Meleo-Meyer and Dr. Smith, you made me feel. Better. More in touch. Grateful.
As a result of my experience, I will attempt to meditate on a regular basis and to make this a regular part of my life. I will also recommend meditation to my patients. I believe that the benefits can be tremendous, including less stress, anxiety, hopelessness and a greater feeling of control over one’s body and thoughts. It can help cancer patients cope with the many emotional ups and downs that they experience on their cancer journeys. Mindfulness meditation is great medicine.