Do we get what we expect?

I’m in the void between writing and publishing; that place where you send your baby book out to a few trusted people for what you hope are some minor corrections and constructive feedback.

And then you wait.

Early indications are that it’s readable and useful. I’m still on track to publish either late April or early March. I still don’t have a name I like. I started with ‘What if the Cancer Comes Back?’ but figured most people wouldn’t want to buy it. I moved on to ‘Worried Sick by Cancer’. Same problem. I really want a title that’s focused on what the book will help you to achieve, rather than the problem it’s trying to address.

Having said that, popular wisdom is that it needs the word ‘cancer’ in the title. Something to do with algorithms and search engines and online potential. I really like ‘Fear + Less’.
It’s a book about fearing less. But is this too obscure? And it doesn’t contain the word ‘cancer’. All thoughts and suggestions are welcome.

In the meantime, I’m contemplating the extent to which we get what we expect. I had coffee with a friend that hasn’t been to yoga for a few months. She hurt her foot and ended up in one of those ski boot looking things that they use instead of a cast. She was telling me that when it came off, her whole leg was wasted and that she’s still regaining strength.

Then she said this: “It will never be the same. I’m always going to walk with a limp.”

Hold on a minute. You’ve only had the boot off for a couple of weeks and you’ve already decided that you’ve got a permanent disability. When I asked her why she thought this she replied that her doctor had delivered this miserable diagnosis and that it reflected her own fears, so she saw no reason to reject it.

I reminded her that post-mastectomy I was told I’d be likely to experience some permanent restriction to my range of movement. It was likely that taking two F cup breasts from my body, and the subsequent scars running under my arms, would mean that my arms just wouldn’t be able to do what I was used to them doing. A combination of scar tissue and nerve damage would see to that.

When I put my hands above my head I still need to slightly adjust my left hand to bring it to the same height as my right. That’s it. Oh, I sometimes have some tightness to the left side if I twist. I can also put my hands into a reasonable ‘reverse prayer’ (put your hands into prayer position and now see if you can do the same thing behind your back), and a couple of weeks ago I held something called ‘crow pose’ for a good five seconds.

Crow pose involves crouching forward with your hands on the ground, putting your knees on the backs of your upper arms and then lifting your feet. Google for impressive pictures. Essentially, I can support my entire body weight on my upper arms.

I’m a 55 year old woman whose had a bilateral mastectomy.

I’m also close to four years since my diagnosis and a few months further away from three since my surgery. Recovery did not happen quickly. I still have some issues with my hands and my feet thanks to the nerve damage from chemotherapy and I also get annoying pain across various parts of my chest on a regular basis. It turns out that this is common post-mastectomy. I don’t accept that either condition is permanent.

I think of all the various aches and pains I’ve had during treatment, and all the way back throughout my life. What an amazing capacity our bodies have to heal. I also recognise that some recovery takes much longer. I think we have a mindset that a few weeks is a reasonable healing time because that’s about how long it takes for a cut to heal.

Here’s the thing. Skin heals quickly. It has to. It’s the outside, protective coating for our bodies. Other things heal more slowly.

I was told by my oncologist that whatever nerve damage I had at the end of twelve months was probably my ground zero. Things weren’t going to get any better. Then the radiation oncologist told me that nerves can take up to eight years to regrow. Eight years! So let’s wait until then before writing off my healing capability. Certainly things have improved slowly but if I’d accepted the first diagnosis I’d be focusing on the pain and discomfort and not bothering with physiotherapy to improve my condition.

I’ve recently read about some interesting research into chronic pain. People that experience it have a different kind of brain. Researchers can put 100 people through an MRI and detect which ones experience chronic pain by looking at the architecture of their brain. Here’s what’s really interesting; they can also predict which people will develop chronic pain using the same techniques.

It turns out that to some extent, pain really is all in our minds! At least, it’s more likely in those of us with a particular kind of mind.

This is huge. About one in five people report either chronic or sever pain. It’s the reason pharmaceutical companies invest so much money in pain relief. It also explains why so many of these medications affect brain chemistry.

This might sound like your propensity to experience chronic pain is just some kind of genetic lottery, but it’s more complex than that. A whole range of things directly impact the way our brain functions. It’s no surprise that chronic stress can cause exactly the kind of changes that result in chronic pain. People with higher levels of anxiety or depression are also at risk. Some recreational drugs, including alcohol, are also linked to the same kinds of changes in the brain that result in chronic pain.

So what about the brains of people that are less prone? Of course those with a calm disposition, and good techniques for coping with anxiety and stress do well. (Don’t ever let anyone try to tell you that there’s a human being on the planet that never experiences anxiety, stress, grief or anger.)

The robust mind might also belong to someone that used to be prone to chronic pain. These people have usually altered the way they live their lives to reduce stress and anxiety. They probably practice meditation regularly and may also use yoga, tai chi, qigong or some other form of calming exercise routine. Track these people over time and their MRI’s will show physical changes to their brains. They don’t cope with a pain-prone brain by soothing it, they actually change the architecture of their brains to something less likely to experience chronic pain.

Of course, what this means is that even my ‘permanent chronic pain’ diagnosis is now up for argument. It’s just possible that with yoga and meditation I can overcome pain. It’s certainly highly likely that I can reduce it.

I noticed a few months back when a visitor complained of a headache that our medicine chest was full of pain relief medication. I had stocked up on it, having been told I’d probably be taking it for the rest of my life. I couldn’t be sure about the last time I took anything but it was certainly months ago. I didn’t decide not to take the pills, or to endure serious pain. My pain just hadn’t been strong enough for me to want a pill.

There are still times when I consider medication, and still very rare times when I take something, but that’s a long way from six tablets a day. I think my progress is due, to a very large extent, to my daily yoga and meditation.

I also think that part of it is due to my expectation that we can always improve our health. There’s no upper limit to how well we can be. Ultimately, a doctor’s diagnosis is just an educated guess, an opinion based on what they thing other patients in similar circumstances have experienced.

Personally, I’d like to see doctors trained to talk about possibilities rather than absolutes. This isn’t about putting a shine on a bad situation. It’s about being accurate. I’d like to hear them use language like this:

Based on what we know about your condition there’s a possibility that you may have permanent pain or physical restriction and there’s also a possibility that you may not. The body has an amazing capacity for healing and it can sometimes take years before it’s finished the job of recovery. There’s a lot you can do to improve your health and there’s no upper limit to how well you can be.

I suppose we’re still years away from meditation being recommended, in spite of the overwhelming research that proves it’s more beneficial and more effective than any pharmaceutical your doctor can prescribe. Ideally, I’d like to see practices that included a psychologist to teach people the techniques they need to live a fulfilling life. I’m sure that would have more impact on public health than all the pills in the world.

Regardless of where you are with your own recovery, please know that nobody has the right to steal your hope. Doctors that make proclamations about your limits are sharing their opinions, and while they are very well informed opinions they are not a sentence. When it comes to recovery it’s best to keep an open mind. We may be capable of more than we think. Certainly we will never get more than we expect.

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How to Change Your Mind

There was another shooting this week.

This one was in the USA so it got lots of news coverage here. It could have been anywhere. All over the planet there are similar examples of violence and hatred. It feels like a vicious circle; a shooting happens and the response is anger and hatred, and the anger and hatred build and bounce until someone else snaps and the whole cycle starts again.

What to do.

If you’re a caring, compassionate person events like this one can leave you feeling hopeless. What’s to become of our species?

It’s an acute form of the same kind of distress we experience when we’re confronted with selfish, greedy people that don’t care about the planet or the other animals we share it with, or selfish, greedy people that don’t care about other people.

What to do?

I see friends responding with anger towards these types of events. There are cynical posts on Facebook, heart-felt expletives, conversations through teeth ground down by years of frustration.

And then an afternoon spent looking for something entirely different leads me to the work of Tania Singer. I was concerned about the way world events can be deeply distressing to highly empathic people. As an ex-police officer with a history of PTSD I now avoid the news. It’s just too upsetting. There’s so much research about how easy it is for us to ‘catch’ the emotional distress of others. So when I caught sight of this article in an issue of New Scientist I was drawn to it:

How Sharing Other People’s Feelings Can Make You Sick : New Scientist 2016

You’ll need to pay to read the whole article but if you’re the kind of person that’s deeply affected by distressing events I recommend it. Does this resonate with you:

Overdosing on the misfortunes of others is not just a problem for those in high-exposure professions such as nursing. All of us are vulnerable to catching the pain of others, making us angrier, unhappier, and possibly even sicker.

What was really interesting to me about this article was that the research done by Singer and her colleagues provides some great strategies for combating this distress. Teaching people how to meditate on loving kindness, and how to become better at observing their emotional responses to different situations can have a protective and healing impact.

Impressively, these processes can actually change your brain. Singer demonstrates using MRI’s how their program altered the neural activity in their research participants. She and her team have also demonstrated that these changes do more than just improve individual wellbeing; they also change the way we treat each other.

In tests that examine economic modelling and how people behave, Singer’s team established that meditation and other cognitive awareness practices shifted people’s behaviour from selfish to generous, from individualistic to cooperative.

If you’d like to learn more then here’s the link:
Tania Singer: How to Train Your Mind and Your Heart

This work relevant to anyone interested in social change and the evolution of our species beyond our current state. Compassion and extending loving kindness can change our brains and lead us to behave in more compassionate ways.

All those from religious traditions that believe meditation can change humanity are, in fact, correct.

The flip side of this is that a world filled with hate, cynicism and negativity has the potential to hard wire us for competition, greed and cynicism. When we give in to anger we’re doing to opposite of meditating on loving kindness and our brains (and lives) will suffer as a result.

I was on a course recently with a wonderful group of people that genuinely care about humanity and the planet. Even given this strong, positive bias I was surprised by the level of anger and negativity in some people. ‘The one percent’ came in for a lot of hatred, as did individuals seen as belonging to it. There was even some conflict within the group as some people decided who they did and didn’t connect with. Even here, there were the seeds of weeds that become violence.

Is it really as simple as loving everyone? Even the greedy and the violent, even the destructive and the selfish? And is that even possible?

There are reasons to practice meditation in any case. Evidence suggests it can protect your brain from the effects of ageing, provide you with a calmer, happier life and help you to overcome depression and anxiety. There are lots of free meditations available on the internet if you’d like to give it a try, or just do this:

  1. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit. Hold your body in a neutral position – not too relaxed or too stiff. You want to be comfortable but you want to avoid falling asleep.
  2. You don’t have to close your eyes but many people find it helpful.
  3. Listen. What can you hear. Spend a few moments paying attention to the world around you.
  4. Now focus on your body and how it feels. Feel where it’s in contact with the chair. Feel your clothing against your skin.
  5. Shift your focus to your breathing. Notice that it’s cooler breathing in and warmer breathing out.
  6. Your mind will drift. This is normal. Be relaxed about it. Imagine that your mind is the sky and the thoughts that try to pull you away are like birds that fly across the sky. You can notice the bird and let it fly past. Bring your attention gently back to the sky.
  7. Now cultivate a feeling of loving kindness. Think of someone you love (If you struggle to think of a person then try a loved pet) and feel the emotion build up inside you. Imagine this feeling is like the sun, shining in the sky.
  8. Extend a feeling of loving kindness out into the world. Start with yourself. Bathe yourself in loving kindness. Then extend it to your close friends and family. Wish the very best for them; their health, their happiness and that they should also achieve peaceful and compassionate minds.
  9. Now extend loving kindness beyond the people that you know to the people that you don’t know. Remember this feeling is sunshine and it doesn’t discriminate; just like the sun it shines on everyone. If you struggle to shine loving kindness on some people, imagine them as small children or babies. Cultivate loving kindness towards all humanity.
  10. Now extend loving kindness to all life on earth. To trees and animals and microscopic life. To fungus and whales and chickens and lizards. Everything that lives can experience your loving sunshine.
  11. As you do this, your thoughts will continue to drift. This is normal. Just gently bring them back. You might like to imagine that your loving kindness is a river flowing out into the world and your distracting thoughts are like leaves on top of that water. Just let them float by.

You only need to set aside five or ten minutes a day to do this. After a while it becomes like cleaning your teeth. It’s just part of your routine. There are other ‘mindfulness’ practices like yoga and tai chi that will also help you to develop your meditation skill, but remember that it’s specifically a meditation on loving kindness and the practice of extending compassion to others that will have measurable benefits for you.

From personal experience, this practice has been extremely beneficial in helping me to live with post traumatic stress disorder. Part of my policing career involved child protection work, so you can imagine the challenges I face when it comes to extending loving kindness to all human beings.

But I do. Even to the offenders I’ve arrested. They were once children too.

Perhaps my greatest challenge has been to move beyond the anger and hatred that I used to feel for these people. They are not monsters, and treating them as monsters is only feeding the creature. I sometimes laugh at the realisation that The Beatles knew the answer and I’ve been hearing it all my life; Love really IS all you need.

I’m not saying it’s easy to avoid being pulled back into old patterns. When a shooting happens or I hear that the Great Barrier Reef is dying or I read that a politician has acted in a greedy, selfish way it’s simpler to just get angry and to launch into a rant. And then I remember that hate makes me part of the problem.

I sometimes wonder why adults that would not allow their children to bully other children with name-calling are perfectly okay with doing exactly the same thing to other adults via social media. Does calling Donald Trump a dickhead really make a difference? Or does it feed into the dynamic that allows him to exist at all.

One of the most common despairs of anyone passionate about the planet and the people on it is this: How do we change the minds of the destructive and selfish? It turns out that the answer was in our question the whole time: by changing their minds. Perhaps we need to focus on finding ways to engage these people in compassionate meditation. The research suggests it could shift their behaviour.

In the mean time, we can be the change we want in the world and work on refraining from the kind of behaviour that will make our brains like their brains. Could it be that simple? Maybe the next time you’re tempted to share an insulting thought or denigrate a public figure, pause and give thought to what you’re cultivating.

What’s most interesting to me about all of this new research is the extent to which it validates some very old philosophy. Buddhists have been teaching compassionate meditation for generations. The minds of Buddhist monks look very different under MRI analysis. They have changed their minds.

When events like mass shootings happen I am now able to avoid the anger and depression, not least of all because I recognise that these emotions feed the creature. Change is possible. We have the means for our own evolution. Spread the word.