Do you ever get a very un-spiritual attack of ‘I found it first’? I’m having one of those at the moment with the whole mindfulness gravy train. Here’s a bit of background.
When I was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphona – a very aggressive cancer – a couple of years ago, my partner Stephen, who is Managing Editor for Watkins Mind, Body Spirit magazine (so he gets to see all the good books first), suggested I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s lovely book, Fear. It turned out to be an excellent suggestion and the book was never far from my side as I fought to stay calm and positive in the face of extreme illness. Then he suggested Rachel Neumann’s book, Not Quite Nirvana, in which I discovered that she is Thich Nhat Hanh’s editor, responsible for turning his boxes of notes into the beautifully simple books I was now devouring. Although I had been aware of mindfulness for a while, it wasn’t especially high profile at that time (2012/13); it also hadn’t figured very highly on my list of spiritual practices, because despite having gone through some pretty tough times, I hadn’t needed to deal with the gut-wrenching fear that a cancer diagnosis brings. I quickly came to appreciate exactly how powerful mindfulness is.
During most of my treatment I was in hospital every three weeks, for several days at a time, depending on where I was in the regime. Mantle Cell Lymphoma is known as a chameleon cancer as it adapts to become resistant to every drug that is used against it; the Nordic regime I was following was extremely powerful and debilitating chemotherapy that cycled through different drugs to try to outwit the cancer. It wasn’t a pretty situation to be in, and I needed some focus to help me get through the long hours on the drip, especially once I got to the stage of having a stem cell transplant. At that point I was incarcerated for 23 days in an isolation suite, with not a sniff of fresh air (too dangerous) and visits restricted to only the healthiest members of my family and friends. That was incredibly difficult as I didn’t get to see my sons at all during that time – they seemed to be down with something or other for the whole month and it was considered to be just too much of a risk. Now firmly on the trail of mindfulness (is that an oxymoron, I wonder?) I found and downloaded onto my laptop The Bell Chant – the version with Thich Nhat Hanh’s voice as the overlay to the flashmob meditation in Trafalgar Square in June 2011.
I played it endlessly, plugged into my headphones as the chemotherapy seeped into my veins. The music reached right into the deepest places of my fear, and for 7 minutes and 38 seconds I was connected to all those lovely people sitting meditating in the sunshine. It was a much-needed escape, and I always came out of it feeling refreshed and a whole lot more positive.
Then Stephen passed me a book on Zentangle – the art of drawing, without drawing to de-stress – which is actually just like the doodles I used to do all over my school books. OK, a teeny bit more complicated, but nevertheless an extremely clever marketing exercise that I threw myself into as it was perfect for taking into hospital. So I would often be found sitting on my hospital bed, plugged into The Bell Chant, happily doodling, I mean zentangling away. It brought me great calmness and serenity and I would really recommend it. In fact, spending time colouring with my sons when they were small was absolutely my favourite pastime – much more so than Buckaroo or cards, or any of the other games parents were playing with their own offspring. I loved the peace that came naturally between us, and it seemed to calm the boys down if they were troubled or fidgety. We also had some amazing conversations brought on by the space that was created for us in doing such a simple activity. Anyway, back to Zentangle. At the time it came to my notice the idea was just being sold as a form of executive stress relief, but as I was actually doing it, I was thinking, ‘Hey, this goes really well with Mindfulness.’ Obviously so did a load of other people, as colouring books are now in the bestseller list on Amazon, and the Mindfulness Colouring Books are up at the very top.
Thankfully I am now in remission, but the mindfulness practice continues, and it has affected every aspect of our lives; after all, that is what a spiritual practice does, and the best spiritual practices worm their way into your psyche until you can’t imagine a life without them. We have downloaded the Lotus App onto our phones, so we set it to go off at random intervals during the working day. I am back at work full time now and both of us find we need the chime to remind us to take a moment and pull away from the constant web of deep concentration that draws us in. We are brought back up to the surface as the chime sounds and pause to focus on the breath and take ourselves back to a point of calmness, which is very welcome in a busy day.
As indeed do several million other people, judging by the number of books and courses offered on the subject. In fact it would be very hard for anyone not to be aware of mindfulness now, and this is where that little bit of uppity-ness sneaked in – one which I’m not very proud of, but it is better out than in. It has started to feel like my beloved spiritual life-saver is being defiled and bastardised. We now have Mindful Cooking, Mindful Colouring, Mindful Eating, you name it… Companies wishing to edge their way up the list for being top employers offer mindfulness sessions for their staff; it has become the buzzword for ‘cool’ and there are even people patenting techniques for learning and teaching it. Oh per-lease.
But then the wonderful bit happened, as it always does if you let it. I was lucky enough to go to an event in London where some of the nuns and monks from Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in France, were hosting an evening of meditation and sharing. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed and you can read more about it on my blog #64 No Words for This. In the face of some really weird questions from the audience, an extremely difficult question from a very troubled lady, a failing sound system, and running over a strict schedule by about 20 minutes, this lovely group of people exuded peace, love, and a very well developed sense of humour. Being in their presence as their love literally flowed off the stage to envelop us all, made everything alright again. Suddenly I realised that mindfulness can be used to resolve absolutely any situation: whether it is irritation at other people cheapening my beloved practice, or utter terror at a cancer diagnosis. The community talked us through the process of facing these emotions and literally immersing ourselves in them as we breathe in, and releasing the love to resolve them as we breathe out. It is much, much deeper than that, obviously, but this isn’t the place to go further into it. And they also told us that whatever we are feeling is perfectly fine. Resistance to something can be breathed through, as can the denial at the fact we are resistant. How amazing is that? The more I heard, the more I loved it, and indeed it was exactly what I needed to hear.
What I witnessed that evening was true mindfulness in action – and a textbook example of how to deal with my grumpiness at people hijacking what is precious to me. And I have come to realise that what started out looking to me like mass marketing of a precious spiritual practice is actually finding its way to the people that need it, and I’m sure that Thich Nhat Hanh would wholeheartedly approve. And that can only be good news as we work our way towards greater peace and tranquillity. And that’s brilliant. So I’m not grumpy any more.
Margaret Cahill has her own blog at margaretcahill.wordpress.com and would love you to pop in to say ‘Hi’.
P.S. Reading this back some 6 months after I wrote it, I realise that I am much more grounded if I meditate when I am wearing the Brandenberg crystal given to me by the lovely Judy Hall. I am pretty much surgically attached to it and have been known to belt back into the house if I go out without it, such is the feeling of protection it brings. So go forth and experiment, and enjoy bringing crystals into your spiritual practice – I am sure you will notice the difference.
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