Memories Are Made of This

It’s been hectic here lately, as I prepare to leave on a trip to Tucson. In my 12 years there, I met and married Ken, we survived his traumatic brain injury and my bout with breast cancer, and I began my journaling work. While I’m there, I’ll have an opportunity to visit our old home and meet the new owner. I’m looking forward to that.

The vista from our large back windows began with the Catalina Mountains off to the right and then ranged for miles, all the way across the valley to the far side of the high-desert city. From our cozy vantage point, we watched the monsoon rains roll towards us from the horizon, often leaving behind a glorious sunset, and marveled as the turkey buzzards—ugly birds up close—transformed into gorgeous gliders as they soared on the thermals, circling up and up and up until they disappeared from view. Coyotes regularly loped across the open desert of our backyard. A bobcat or two appeared over the years, more hesitant than the coyotes. Javelina, too, often barreled through, at least before the neighborhood was built up.

As I now sit here in the much greener landscape of Southwestern Indiana, remembering my time in Tucson conjures so many memories. I am aware of them as thoughts but also as physical sensations I can’t really name. Is “nostalgia” a physical thing? Sure feels like it. Our brains can’t really distinguish between what we experience and what we imagine, so when I recall the lush beauty of that harsh landscape blossoming after the heavy rains, the delicate, just-washed fragrance of the desert, and the sensation of the cool, post-rain air against my skin, my body feels much the same joyous sensations as it did then. Then there was the morning after a rare snowfall that left an inch or two of white blanketing everything from our patio for miles up to the tops of the Catalinas (the photo above)—the brilliant memory makes my breath catch nearly as much as it did on that day. I feel almost transported back there.

Searching for the exact words to communicate all of this is hard, but discovering the ones that convey what I want to say brings up a “felt sense, “ a little internal sizzle, a tiny “yes!” somewhere in physical body as a result of my thoughts. Have you ever noticed this feeling, as you write or paint or do something you love but which takes a little effort?

This inseparable linkage between mind and body—wait, it’s not a link; the two really are one entity, a bodymind is more like it—this is the reason I love the whole concept of A Living, Breathing Story. It’s because that is what we are. And we are always capable of positive change. It might not be easy, but it is possible, with the right tools (journaling sure is helpful), determination, and the belief that it is possible.

Everyone, you have a good week while I’m gone, presenting a couple of workshops and visiting with old friends in old haunts. And if you’ve a mind to try them, here are a few journaling prompts that can help you experience your bodymind.

  • Recall a pleasant vivid experience from your memory. Sit quietly for a few moments as you let it wash over you and experience the physical sensations again: What did you see, hear, smell, feel, and/or taste? When you are ready, begin writing about that experience with as much sensory detail as possible. Keep your pen moving for 10 minutes or longer, until the writing feels complete. Pay attention to the ways your memories (thoughts) affect your physical body and record that after the main write is done.
  • Sit in a favorite spot, either indoors or out, quietly observing and taking in what your senses pick up: sights, smells, tastes, sounds, touch. Write them down as you become aware of them and then explore your thoughts about them. Don’t judge or criticize: it’s all good.
  • Over several days, take a few minutes to write down your thoughts and how your body feels about them. Once you get some experience with this, it will become easier to determine what’s really going on inside during confusing times because your body always responds to your thoughts.

 

 

Expressing Doubts

“Send me someone who has doubts about it/Who has conquered their own fear and lived to tell about it.” This line from David Crosby’s song “Dangerous Night” always touches my heart—-so much pain and longing and hope there. Admitting doubt these days requires courage and, oddly enough, great conviction—-that if perhaps I am wrong after all, if I am willing to start again should that be necessary, then perhaps I can believe in and live a new Story. Those who gather up their bravery and publicly admit, however hesitantly, that they are now not quite so sure of a position are quickly pounced on, called “cowardly” or “weak” by those who, underneath all the bluster, are the real cowards and weaklings.

But how do we know what we truly believe unless we can turn it over in our mind and examine it first, poke and prod it for a while, to see if it contains mysteries—-wondrous or scary-—to be revealed? How can we make changes for the better unless we first question our experience and the meanings we have attached to it? After all, we create our Living, Breathing Story with those meanings we invent—-and that creates our experience of reality. Unless we can admit doubt and question those meanings from time to time, we remain frozen in the current reality and can never blossom into our fullest, best selves.

I understand that doubt or questioning can lead to severe consequences. We can be cast out, shunned, by those who we thought loved and supported us. We can be trolled and threatened online. Or kicked out of political office or of a job, even a family. Still, those among us who can admit they might be having second or even third thoughts are to be heard with respect and compassion. We must honor their bravery. Whether they ultimately change their beliefs or not, they did the most important thing: they asked the questions. As individuals and as a society, we cannot survive—-and most certainly cannot thrive-—without questions and doubts about what we have come to believe.

If you keep a journal, you already have a safe, private place to ask your questions. There, in its pages that quietly and without judgment accept everything you have to say, you can express all doubts, questions, fears, anxieties, whatever is on your mind. Your journal is the place where you can ask them first, formulate and revise them, work through them. Then, once you have gained clarity on your position, you can share them with others if you choose. Or not. It’s absolutely up to you.

Here are some prompts to get you started:
• I used to believe _____________, but now I’m not so sure because ….
• The question or doubt I most want to express is….
• I am doubtful….
• The scariest thing that might happen if I express my doubts….
• The best thing that can happen if I express my doubts…
• In the past, I questioned ___________ and I….
• I survived doubting ____________ and now I can survive (even thrive) when I express my doubts about….
• Imagine the best possible outcome of expressing your doubts or questions and write about it, with as much detail as possible.

Do Old Habits Have to Die Hard?

The other day Ken sneezed and I immediately said, “Bless you.” I’ve done this thousands of times over my lifetime when someone sneezed. My Catholic parents trained me to say “God bless you” so I still do it, decades later, even though I’m no longer religious. When I don’t say it, a feeling of incompleteness hangs in the air, waiting to be filled.

But this time, I got to wondering why so many of us automatically say it—how did this habit become part of the cultural Living, Breathing Story for so many people? Where did it originate?

Turns out, there are several possible explanations. Using this phrase most likely began because of an ancient superstition that a sneeze either let the body release evil spirits or opened the body to them. “God bless you” was a way of offering protection. Since people hundreds of years ago believed evil spirits were real and did not know a sneeze was simply a physical response to an irritation in the nose, offering this blessing made sense. Still, it continues today when we know better (although it never hurts to offer kind words or blessings to someone).

You have probably heard this story, or a similar one: A woman has a holiday roast ready to bake, but before putting it in the oven, she cuts off both ends. One day her husband asks her why she does this, since to him this seems a strange, wasteful habit. She says she grew up watching her mother do this same thing. So when her mom comes for dinner, the woman asks her about it. The mother’s response: Her oven was very small, so she had to cut the roast down to fit into her only pan that would fit into the oven.

We all do this same thing all the time: unthinkingly repeating habits and beliefs handed down to us from our family, community, or culture, believing they are real or necessary or “that’s just the way it is.” They can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive.

Innumerable ancient habits and beliefs—positive and negative—remain implanted in us in the 21st century. They are part of the “water” of Story in which we live immersed, so much a part of us and our thinking we do them automatically. Like sending blessings to a sneezing person, they have become part of our traditions or cultures, even woven into our DNA and brain structures.

Whatever these beliefs or habits may be, they fill a need, answer a question, or make meaning out of something confusing or incomprehensible—or at least they once did. We humans do not like uncertainty; there is safety in familiarity, often no matter how painful or ridiculous. Furthermore, from the last trimester of pregnancy through age 7, our brains are like little sponges without defenses, simply absorbing without question whatever we learn or experience—and much of that is not positive, by any means. Our experiences during that time shape our reality, locked into our subconscious and thereafter running the show—as much as we like to believe we have conscious control of ourselves, the conscious mind is a mere 5 percent of our entire mind! (More information here.)

Fortunately, though, we can change those old, subconscious beliefs if we realize they no longer serve us well. Many methods exist for this undoing process (see the link above again). I include journaling, since it’s a proven method of self-directed change and is adaptable to every person and circumstance. Remember that you need not be a “good” writer and that journaling has no rules. When you write regularly, it’s common to see patterns and trends in your life—and to notice when some of those no longer serve you well. If you want to explore some previously unexamined areas of your life, here are some journaling prompts you can use:

1. When you have a negative behavior or thought you would like to release, or you’re simply curious about one, write a letter to it. You can begin by writing a brief description of the behavior or thought, and then continue with “Dear (behavior or thought),” and go from there. Simply write whatever comes to mind about it. Allow yourself enough time to let your mind wander over the subject as thoroughly as you can. Do this exercise as often as necessary until it feels complete.

2. As a twist on the above technique, you can also write a letter from your behavior or thought to you, in which it explains, perhaps, how it came to be, why it wants to stay or is willing to go, etc. You can let your imagination have fun with this one! It can give you an entirely new perspective on the situation.

3. You can reinforce your new habit (whether it be healthier eating or a replacing a negative belief with a more positive one) by writing often about how it feels to live with a new pattern. Write in the first person present tense: “I am doing this now…,” rather than, “I will do this…” By doing this exercise repeatedly over time, you override the neural pathways holding the old habit in place with new pathways that reinforce the new habit.

The Good and Bad of Labels

Democrat. Republican. Christian. Muslim. Atheist. Gay. Straight. Transgender. Environmentalist. Polluter. Pro-choice. Pro-life. Black. White. Capitalist. Communist. And on and on.

I’ve been thinking lately about how we so naturally place labels on things and people and how they affect our Living, Breathing Story. Neurologically speaking, that labeling is a good thing—it allows our brains to make sense of the world so we can more easily navigate through it. Imagine if every time you saw a maple tree or a cell phone or a stop light—or anything else, for that matter—you had to stop and decide what it did, how it would affect you, what it meant to you, and what it was called. You would spend your life in utter confusion and chaos. Thankfully, your brain is very good at naming and categorizing things.

But these names and categories don’t exist in a vacuum. They all have emotional associations connected to them. While this further helps you function more easily in the world, it also leads to many potential problems in interactions with other human beings, each of whom has his or her own associations with the labels (see how confusing this can get?) .

The words at the top of this post are simple words we invented to describe people—but each one is also loaded with a host of mental, emotional, and physical responses. We all have our own positive or negative reactions to them (remember that “negative” and “positive” are relative terms, depending totally on the perception of each individual), and so we react accordingly. And not always for the better.

What about the labels we assign to ourselves? You know, like “too old/fat/dumb,” or “not good/smart/accomplished enough.” And on and on. You’ll notice that those labels are all negative or limiting in some way. Of course, we have positive labels for ourselves, too, but because our brain has a natural negativity bias, it’s oh-so-easy to fall into its clutches and tilt towards the negative. As you well know, that kind of self-labeling doesn’t exactly leave us feeling good about ourselves or eager to explore new situations.

Our labels originate from many sources: family, teachers, religion, society, culture, history, to name only a few. In reality, most of them are false. But when we believe them, they solidify within our Living, Breathing Story to become our self-image.

In Mark Matousek’s brilliant new book, Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation, & Self-Discovery, he writes eloquently about self-image, that “portrait we carry in our head, representing the person we imagine ourselves to be…It’s a distorted, subjective view made up of stories, beliefs, emotions, desires, biases, and insecurities that have little factual basis. As an inside job, self-image is entirely personal and subjective. While it may evolve over time, self-image tends to glue into place like a photograph fixed on a moving object, concealing the truth of who we are.” (My italics.)

“How does self-image become so entrenched?” asks Matousek. “Through the imposition of narrative labels. Putting names to thinks solidifies them in our minds.”

And then, when we believe a label, when we “settle upon a story,” says Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, “we must live it as if it were true. We must perform it by living it. By enacting the story, by living as if it were true, we make it so. We make it true.” (Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process)

In other words, we invent these labels—these little stories—and then when we believe them, we live them.

But there’s good news! Since we invented them in the first place, we can re-invent them or what they mean. Or create new labels altogether. Remember that it’s not always healthy to believe everything you think.

I invite you to try some journaling to experience labeling for yourself. Please be as honest as you can. Your journal is private, so no one else will see what you write.

• Look at the words at the top of this post. It’s likely you will have some strong reactions to some of them (and it’s okay to admit that). Choose one that describes you and write about yourself in that context. Then choose one you believe is its opposite, and write about your beliefs regarding someone described by that word. Do this for several word pairs.

Now change your focus. Choose one of the “opposite” words you chose earlier and write about yourself in that context. Do this for several word pairs.

What did you discover? Do you think your beliefs are true? If so, why?

• Consider the labels or names you apply to yourself. Write down five of them. Where did they come from? Do you believe them? Live them? How? For the ones that don’t serve you well, what would you like to replace them with? (Even if you don’t yet believe you can replace them with something more positive, write anyway. Give yourself permission.) How do you feel emotionally and physically when you compare the two versions of yourself?

What did you discover? Do you think your beliefs are true? If so, why?

How Have Your Personal Myths Shaped You?

Your life is built on any number of myths. I don’t mean that as an insult, or that your life is not true or has not happened. Far from it. As one of my favorite authors Unitarian Universalist minister Kate Braestrup said in a sermon some years ago: “A myth is a story that illustrates the organizing principles by which we are able to understand and live in the world.” While we often think of myths as cultural stories, such as those from ancient Greece or many indigenous cultures, myths can be personal as well. Each one of us is still creating—and living—our own myths, our own organizing principles, today.

Our personal myths are those stories we naturally create, mostly unconsciously, to make sense of our lives and our world. Blended together, they create our Living, Breathing Story, the personal account of who and what we believe ourselves to be, which determines how we experience reality. (See more.)

Here’s one of my myths. I grew up believing the only way to support myself was to work for someone else. By fitting into some kind of corporate structure and doing the work assigned, I would receive a paycheck, which would pay for all of life’s necessities.

Yet although I worked in Corporate America for several decades and even moved up the ladder, my deepest heart never fully committed itself. Despite often feeling a fraud but believing no other options were open to me, I soldiered on. After all, this myth implanted in the structure of my brain (as are all our myths) insisted I did not have the skills, talent, or courage to live any other way. Believing it, I lived it.

However, desperate circumstances forced me to explore and finally change that myth.

My last “real job,” as I jokingly call it, became so physically and emotionally painful, the only way to save myself was to break free. Yet doing this took several years of tortuous questioning and self-exploration, which filled up many journals. Gradually, I became able to “listen with the ear of my heart,” to quote St. Benedict, and realized I could live in an entirely new way. My old myth morphed into a new one that gave me the courage to take a risk: I liberated myself from corporate life and eagerly jumped into the life of a freelance writer. After all, I thought, if it didn’t work out, corporate life was still available, however painful it might be.

To my amazement, that was never necessary. I was fortunate enough to succeed.

By changing my inner myth (but not knowing that’s what I did), I was able to follow my soul’s calling and do my work wholeheartedly and often joyfully. Later I realized that the traumatic nature of my last job forced me to stop coasting along, living half a life out of fear. In all the years since then, my life has changed for the better in innumerable ways. I am grateful for all of it, even the original pain, because, like a baby bird pushed out of the nest, I learned to fly.

What are some of your personal myths? What do you believe about yourself and your world? What are the organizing principles that that shape your experience of reality?

You can use your journal to explore these elements of your Living, Breathing Story. Here are some prompts you can use. Write for at least 20 minutes for each one you choose:

• Jot down a list of five ideas or concepts you believe about the world (examples: religious beliefs, political leanings, life is a bitch and then you die, or life is good, etc). Then choose one and explore it: Where did it (or might it have) come from? Has it changed over time? In what ways? How does it affect your life? Does believing it help you feel better—or worse?

• Write about one time in which you deliberately changed your life, as I did with my work. How did you come to that decision? What was the result? What did you learn from the process? How can you use what you learned in other situations?

• Knowing what you now know about personal myths, what are some of the organizing principles you use to understand and live in the world? Make a short list and choose one to write about in more depth. Does it serve you well, or not? Do you want to keep it, or change it? Why?

• If you could exchange one of your less-than-happy personal myths for a better one, what would it be and how would you change it?

The Power of “Yet”

This tiny, common word packs a ton of hope—and your body knows it. “Yet” can be a trusted guide through the Foreboding Forest of Fear or a safe passage across the Ocean of Doubt. It encourages you to keep going when perhaps you would rather just turn around and climb back under the covers. While it does not guarantee success—a fish will never be able to climb a tree, no matter how much it tries—it can improve your odds.

Think of something you want to accomplish but haven’t been able to. Maybe it’s not so grand as a desire to complete your first marathon, although it can be; perhaps it’s just making it around the block after years of too many doughnuts and not enough exercise. Maybe, despite numerous hours of practice with your violin, you still can’t play that one passage in “The Lark Ascending” with the right touch of passion, and sometimes not even the right notes. Perhaps your attempts at knitting have several times fallen flat. Or you may be grieving a lost dream and believe you will never be able to release it and move forward.

Think about your situation as you sit quietly, eyes closed. Then say aloud several times, “I can’t do this,” and really mean it. Pay attention to how you feel in your body.

Then do it again, only this time say, “I can’t do this—yet” several times with emotion. Once more, pay attention to any physical sensations you might have. Do you feel different than when you said you could not do it? If not, that’s fine. But with practice, you will begin to notice that you likely feel lighter and somehow more uplifted. Those sensations are your mindbody at work, instantly transforming your thoughts into the physical sensations that blossom from the hormones and neurochemicals your body produces in response—and building new networks in your brain that will help you reach your goal.

You have just experienced the power of “yet.” Can’t or can’t yet: Each one is a story you tell yourself, and each one creates your particular experience of reality.

“Yet” is a marker of a growth mindset that can help you improve your brain power and motivation over time. In her research with students, Carol Dweck has discovered that, “Just the words ‘yet’ or ‘not yet,’ we’re finding, give kids greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence. And we can actually change students’ mindsets. In one study, we taught them that every time they push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain can form new, stronger connections, and over time, they can get smarter.”

This holds true for you grown-ups too.

You already know the power of journaling, and now you can put the power of Yet to work in those pages, too.

Once again, try the experiment above, where you first tell yourself “I can’t do this” and then “I can’t do this—yet.” After each time, write for a few minutes about the experience: what did you feel in your body? How were your emotions affected? Then compare your writings about the two statements. Which reality would you rather experience?

Another way is to make a brief list of at least five difficult transitions you have experienced over your lifetime, such as a promotion, the birth of a child and the attending exhaustion and fears, heartbreak and grief, illness or recovery, writing your first book. Then for each one, write a few sentences about how at first you were not sure you could navigate the transition and accept the change, and then about how you did. You were experiencing the power of “yet” at those times even if you did not realize it.

You can also use your journal to envision and create your path to the new way. Choose a current transition in your life or one you are considering. Jot down your doubts and fears about moving through to the other side and how you’re not sure you can do it. Be honest and open with yourself. Then, write again, but this time, use your imagination to envision the best possible outcome, even if you don’t believe it—yet. Over time, you can revise and update this vision as necessary. Writing down your dreams can prove a great help in achieving them.

For a fun look at the Power of Yet, watch this lively number from Sesame Street:

http://pbskids.org/video/sesame-street/2365319589

Culture is the “Water” We All Live In

Fish live immersed in a universe of water, and because it is such a normal, natural part of their existence, they don’t realize that fact (until they are taken out of the water, of course). The same is generally true for humans and the oxygen we breathe. It’s always there, so we don’t think about it much—until we are somehow deprived of it. These are rather obvious examples of what we might call “invisible immersion.”

Yet there is another kind of (generally) invisible immersion that actually controls a good chunk of our Story with little realization on our part. These are the stories that make up culture and society. Those stories are the “water” in which we are immersed every moment of our lives. We are so deeply embedded in them, and they in us, we tend to believe “it’s just the way things are.” Our individual Living, Breathing Stories are shaped to a large degree by them.

We can change them, or choose to not live within their boundaries, but that’s often uncomfortable or even dangerous because many people have a lot invested in ensuring that they remain “true.” Fortunately, progress continues along the lines of positive change.

Here are a few of the strongest examples of these embedded stories.

  • There is no logical, earthly reason why women should be considered inferior or somehow “less than” men. Yet a long, long time ago, it was decided that women are inherently subservient to men. This is probably one of the most entrenched stories in all cultures on the globe, and over the millennia it has caused more misery, terror, and death than nearly any other cultural story—not to mention the loss of all the abilities, talents, and skills that billions of women were not permitted to express. Even today, in the “enlightened” 21st century, women around the world are prevented from reaching their full potential because of sexist or misogynistic practices. These range from being paid only 78 cents to every dollar a man makes to being prevented from determining their reproductive choices, to not being allowed to drive or be educated, or, horrendously, being stoned to death after being raped for “shaming” their family, while the rapist remains blameless. (See Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future to read the story of how half of humanity came to be viewed as inferior to the other half and how we can change that story.)
  • Much the same can be said for people of differing skin colors. Why is pale skin (and the person who wears it) still considered by many people to be superior to darker skin? Once again, this terrible story developed in the distant past and is still in play today. Slavery in the United States was only one horrible result of this story.
  • Economics is another such story, and it is playing out to dire effects on the planet and every living thing aboard. Take the example of trees in a forest. They provide life-giving oxygen to the atmosphere; habitat for innumerable birds, animals, and insects; food; shade; and a stabilizing effect on the soil in which they live (this prevents erosion and mud slides); not to mention their sheer beauty. But our economic system gives them much more value when they are chopped up and turned into toothpicks than when they remain alive. While making money is not necessarily a bad thing, when it is coupled with a Story such as this, the effects on our environment are devastating. (For a powerful look at the true costs of this story, see the article here: http://tinyurl.com/y8jfeahc)
  • Systems of government and the politics surrounding them arise from a wide variety of beliefs. Monarchy, democracy, socialism, communism, tribal governance, and other forms were all invented and sustained to keep a certain kind of order and generally to keep certain people or class of people in power. As only one example, look at what is happening in the U.S. these days. The stories here are growing stronger and angrier as venerable, respected traditions are being twisted and denied or discarded, and even outright lies told by the highest officials are promoted as truth. None of this is new, but what is new is the vehemence and speed with which these stories are being told and the gulfs of separation they are causing among greater numbers of people.
  • Like politics, religion is another story we are often warned not to discuss because of its potential for being a power keg of emotion. Religion is one of the most pervasive and entrenched stories humans have created. It has given rise to, and permission for, both utmost goodness and terrifying evil. The variety of religions that have flowed across the globe over the centuries demonstrate the creativity humans use to explain the deepest mysteries of life and to make some sense out of the inexplicable, random events that happen to us. Religion is often the basis of other cultural stories as well, such as the inferiority of women and the concept of nature as something to be dominated.

The one thing all these cultural stories, and thousands more, have in common is that humans invented them. People with their innately story-making brains created them for many reasons and to serve many purposes that eventually were lost in the mists of history (which itself is another story, usually told only from the viewpoint of the most powerful to keep their preferred story alive).

Yet as the human race has progressed and evolved, we have begun to see how some ingrained cultural stories do not serve us well, such as the subjugation of other human beings, the exploitation of nature for profit, and the need for war. The previous two centuries have been witness to much progress, which occurred as people woke up to the negative impacts of these stories, as well as the possibility for more positive, healthier stories for greater numbers of people. Despite the seemingly backward swing of the culture pendulum at the moment, these changes will not be stopped. Those old stories are changing because more and more people are creating—and living—new and better ones. These changes in individual Living, Breathing Stories are the foundation of change for our cultural stories. When enough people live the new stories, the cultural ones follow.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

Take a look at your life and your culture, and explore one of the cultural stories you live within. It can be one of those above, or another one, even one that comes from your ethnic heritage. You need not judge it in any way, unless you want to.

How does it affect you or what does it mean to you, in positive or negative ways? If you know or suspect that it is not serving you well, can you work to change it? How? Do you know where it came from and how it has changed over the years or centuries? Write for at least 15 minutes—and do this as many times as you like with as many cultural stories as you like. It will be an eye-opener, for sure!

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PS. It’s been a while since my last post here, so thanks for your patience. My thyroid surgery went remarkably well, I’m fully recovered, and despite what the docs thought, there was no active cancer, only precancerous cells. So I require no further treatment and am feeling wonderfully healthy and energetic once again. Thanks to all of you for your support and positive energy in whatever form you sent it.

Cancer, Mindbody, and Living, Breathing Stories

As Living, Breathing Stories, we are composed of innumerable elements that blend together to create the “I” we inhabit at any given time. Some of these elements we define as positive, and some not so much. Yet our experience of reality depends in large part, if not entirely, on the thoughts we think about these elements—the definitions we assign to things and experiences, the beliefs we hold about anything, the meanings we bestow on seemingly random events—and how our physical bodies respond to those thoughts.

Take serious illness, for instance. What roles does our mindbody play in it? What are our stories about it? How do they affect the ways we treat it or live with it? Do they tell us to resist at all cost, to be grateful for the lessons it teaches, or…what?

This subject has been on my mind for a couple of weeks now, since I will soon be a two-time cancer survivor. Breast cancer in 2011, and now thyroid cancer, with a thyroidectomy coming up soon. Compared to what many women go through, my experience with breast cancer was a walk in the park—lumpectomy and radiation only, a rare but easily treatable kind caught before it spread, plus good insurance and lots of emotional support. For all of this, I am grateful still.

What might have been the cause of this cancer? Even though I’ll never know for sure, my curiosity sent me to explore.

First up was the usual explanation—it’s in the genes. My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer, and my mom is a survivor (many other family members have had cancer, too—father, grandfather, sister, aunt, probably others). So, as the current cultural belief has it, breast cancer appeared in me because of my genetic inheritance. Maybe so. Yet, epigenetics tells us that genetic determinism (or: you got the gene, you get the illness) exists only in a very small percentage of cases. Instead, gene expression—genes turning “on” or “off”—is due much more to our conscious and subconscious thoughts (they are energy, remember), so having a particular gene does not mean the associated illness will inevitably appear. Perhaps breast cancer genes in my DNA turned on because of my unconscious belief that as part of this lineage I, too, would experience this disease.

But I wanted to explore other possible causes as well. Since everything is energy, including thoughts, next I talked with a gentle, skilled energy healer. She believed that the tumor, which was in my left breast and near my heart, was the manifestation of the traumatic emotions (embodied thoughts) I experienced after my husband’s serious accident about eight years before. Was this true? I’ll never know, but given the intensity and duration of those emotions, which caused physical, stress-related heart issues, it felt like a distinct possibility.

(Note that this does NOT mean I believe I consciously caused this disease in myself—nor does anyone else. Instead, it means that at the very deepest levels, our bodies work in mysterious ways still incomprehensible within the current story told by allopathic medicine. There is good evidence, ancient and modern, to back up what I write here, and you are free to choose the particular story you believe and live.)

Now thyroid cancer has made its appearance. I’ve read that it might be related in some way to breast cancer. Genetics again? Maybe. But the thyroid is in the area of the fifth chakra, which is all about communication, voice, creativity. I have long spoken and thought about how to find my “voice,” to speak my truth, to communicate from my heart (as I am doing here) instead of being afraid to share what is there. Maybe the cause is a blocked or unbalanced fifth chakra. I don’t know, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility.

There could be any number of other causes, too, none of which I will ever know for sure. I simply want to remain open to possibilities because that offers more opportunity for healing and restoration of many kinds.

I am fortunate and grateful that a skilled surgeon will remove my thyroid, along with the cancer, and that pharmaceutical options can replace the missing hormones. Yet I am also pursuing other avenues of healing my mindbody as well. One is working with a Reiki master to help balance my energy and restore physical and emotional equilibrium. In addition, a dear friend, a psychologist who has done medical hypnosis for more than thirty years, has created a personalized audio session that carries me through a skillful, loving surgery free of complications, complete and easy recovery, and quick stabilization of my thyroid hormone replacement. I listen to it each morning to bring this desired, imagined reality into actual reality, using the awesome power of my mindbody (which you have too, by the way).

In meditation, I am also listening to my heart for any messages it might have for me. And in relying on the 40,000 neurons, the wisdom, and the spiritual insight it contains, I’m also listening with my heart, too, bypassing my brain and its rationalizations and delusions in order to sense the deeper reality that lives there.

Of course, I am journaling about all of this, in whatever ways feel best when I sit down to write.

I cannot know the ultimate outcome of this new chapter—or maybe just a long paragraph—of my Living, Breathing Story. Right now, it feels positive. It has already reminded me, yet again, of all the love and support that always surrounds me. It may hold an unseen gift (this has happened before with other difficult experiences) or offer a lesson that will serve me well (so has this). Those things might be wrapped up in dire or difficult circumstances that will require fortitude and faith. Time will tell. As my future unfolds, I am doing my best to maintain my Living, Breathing Story in ways that are mindful, self-compassionate, and grateful. Always grateful.

Help Yourself Heal With An Unsent Letter

Would you ever consider writing a letter to a body part that was giving you trouble, or to an illness? Or have that body part or illness write a letter to you? Pretty weird, right?

Actually, not so weird. Letters are a wonderful therapeutic journaling technique, particularly the Unsent Letter. This technique is just what it sounds like: you write a letter you will never send. Keeping it personal allows you to express yourself honestly. And, if for some reason you really  never want anyone else ever see it, you can destroy it.

When I was facilitating journaling groups for people with brain injury, participants sometimes wrote an Unsent Letter. Everyone knows what a letter is, and they were able to use it well, sometimes in profound ways. They would write a letter to their brains, delivering a message, such as “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you better,” or asking questions, including “Why did this terrible injury happen to you?” When they shared their letters with the group, we often were deeply touched, sometimes to the point of tears.

Because we are living, breathing Stories, we are embodied Stories—we hold within our physical selves everything we have experienced through our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and beliefs, and this process creates our experience of reality. So if we pay close attention to our bodies—if we listen to them with the “ear of our heart” as St. Benedict might say—we can access the vast storehouse of wisdom held within them. This revealed wisdom can help us heal and live in a more joyful, positive way.

When I had breast cancer six years ago, I wrote both to my breast and to the small tumor there. This exercise allowed me to explore my feelings about the situation, and it was immensely helpful for my emotional state, which I am sure enhanced my physical well-being too. Dealing with recent health issues has once again caused me to listen more closely to what my body is trying to tell me with the changes it has manifested. So, I’ve been writing letters to and from my thyroid. Some enlightening information has emerged, and I know it will help me restore my good health.

How to write an Unsent Letter? First, know that you can write a letter to anyone—living or not, real or imaginary—or anything. Perhaps you need to vent your anger or displeasure with someone but do not want to express it to them (letting it all out in a letter you will never send can sometimes clarify your thoughts, so that you can write another, send-able letter to the person or have a conversation minus the anger). Or perhaps the person is no longer in your life or you don’t know how to reach them, yet you have something important to tell them. You can write such a letter to a part of yourself, say your Procrastinator self or your 10-year-old or future 80-year-old self—or write it from that part to you. Or perhaps you have an illness or injury and have a desire to tell or ask it something. The Unsent Letter is perfect for all of these situations, and many more.

Now I’m that exploring this new health issue, as I write and meditate, my body’s deep wisdom is slowly emerging and allowing me to discover information I can use to become more positive about the situation, or perhaps even to heal it.

 

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

I invite you to write an Unsent Letter to a person, a situation, or anything in your life with which you would like to express yourself. Be as honest and sincere as you can, keep your pen moving, and trust that the right words will come. (No one will see this except for you, remember.) Begin with “Dear ____________” and be sure to end with a closing such as “Sincerely,” “Love,” or whatever you feel is appropriate, followed by your name.

Give Up What You Think You Know

Here’s a short version of a story about me I used to tell myself: After getting divorced in my mid-20s, I was single even at age 49 despite some dating and several short-term relationships during the intervening years. I came to believe I would never have a good relationship, and I was often upset and frustrated about it.

One day, as I whined yet again about not having a man in my life, an exasperated friend said to me, “Maybe it’s time to give up what you think you know.” Wow—for some cosmic reason, that was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. The truth of her statement flashed all the way down to my soul and sparked a gigantic shift in my Story.

My first thought was, well, the only common denominator in all my relationships was, um, me, so this must mean I’m not meant to have a lasting relationship or a marriage. Armed with that knowledge, I set about being happy on my own, content with my friends and activities, and even looking forward to living my life alone in the way I wanted to live it. And it worked. I was finally happy on my own and gave up the search for A Man.

Yet, the Universe had other ideas, and within a year I met Ken. Only this time,  I shifted my expectations and stayed true to myself and refused to fall into my old patterns of relationship, like being needy and afraid to stand up for what I wanted. The greatly condensed version: Ken and I were able to slowly build a true partnership based on love and respect, and now we’ve been happily married for nearly 14 years.

I feel so blessed to have been so immediately and intensely struck by those few words from a friend, so that I truly was able to make the shift and give up what I thought I knew. It’s not often that such an amazing thing has happened to me. Usually, when I am able to make a change in myself or my life, it’s more gradual, even grudging. But no matter how change has come about, my experience of reality has been altered and my Story changed accordingly.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

Recall a personal experience that was not so positive at first but which you were able to turn in a more positive direction when you thought about it in a different way–when you were able to give up what you thought you knew. It need not be a life-changing or lightning-bolt kind of experience; even a small one will do. Write about your story before the shift and then about what caused you to give up what you thought you knew and create a new way of thinking about it. How did your life change as a result? Write for at least 15 minutes.