In early 2000, I was diagnosed with mouth cancer. I had by then been practicing mindfulness meditation for 14 years. I was a bit in shock, but thanks to my strong mindfulness practice, I was still very much aware of the turmoil and fear I felt. I realized I had a choice about how to handle this situation. I could go into my old habitual mode of panic and anxiety, or I could use mindfulness practice to heal myself. I chose mindfulness over my cancer. In that moment, I realized that whatever happened to me, it would be okay. I knew mindfulness practice would sustain me, although I also knew that I could neither predict nor control the outcome. My only hope lay in living in the present moment.
Mindfulness practice come from the Buddhist tradition. In his lifetime, the Buddha was also called the Great Physician because he understood that the source of dis-ease and suffering lies in the mind. Thoughts, feelings and mental pictures that form perceptions of reality create our problems as well as our joys.
Over the years, mindfulness has become my way of life. It is not something I practice only when I do sitting meditation, or even walking meditation. I try to practice mindfulness every moment of my life, to make it an unbroken thread. The idea of time off from practice is absurd. If we arent practicing mindfulness, were practicing something else. I decided to practice mindfulness as the Buddha intended me to so that I could heal the dis-ease and suffering of my cancer and understand the true nature of my mind and of reality.
The practice I used most frequently involved allowing me to become deeply aware of my breathing, and then to become aware of my mouth from the inside. I focused my attention on the cancerous tissue on my gums. As I did this, I was first aware of the physical sensations: the hard lump of the tumor, the stretched feeling of the gum-tissue, the sensation of vibration or pulsing within it. As I put my attention fully on those body sensations, thoughts, images and emotions came up. Then came the anxiety and fear, the grief and loss and the scenarios which my mind created out of them. I noticed I did not dwell on these things and I did not analyze them. I turned off my analytical mind and let my non-analytical, discriminating mind learn the shape and texture of these thoughts and feelings. As I moved more deeply into this practice, gradually the perception of any separation from my body, my mouth, my cancer, my thoughts and feelings, fell away. Even the identification that made these things mine fell away.
When the time came for my surgery, I had changed my relationship to my feelings and thoughts about it. The anxiety and fear were still there; they are my chronic companions in life but, I did not let myself be run by them. They would come up, Id recognize them and then theyd pass along. I requested the lightest anesthetic possible and no narcotic painkillers. I awoke from the surgery with a throbbing feeling in my head and otherwise relatively clearheaded and alert. I managed my pain with a combination of mindful breathing and regular Tylenol. The true face of pain was simply, moment to moment, what I was feeling and that was okay.
As a result of practice, I didnt get hung up in the drama of the cancer surgery or resist the reality of my pain. I had feelings, for sure, but it was all okay. The pain was okay and my life was still okay, even though it was far different than it had been two months earlier, when there was no evidence of cancer. My practice had led me to an understanding that living with pain, or even awareness of my mortality, is my reality. I did my best not to suppress or to dramatize, instead, I tried to be simply, moment to moment, with what is.
Mindfulness practice offers healing by getting to the root of our suffering: our belief that whatever we are feeling or thinking is the only true reality. It allows us to see that delusion walks hand in hand with enlightenment. When we heal the mind, we also heal the body. I recovered from surgery, and my mouth healed, more quickly than my doctors had imagined. I continue to be cancer-free. It may return; I cannot predict that it wont. But, I know that whatever happens, the healing practices of mindfulness will help me through.
Andrew Weiss is the author of Beginning Mindfulness: Learning the Way of Awareness, (2004; $14.95; New World Library www.newworldlibrary.com). He has studied Buddhist meditation for many years in the United States, Europe, and Asia. He teaches mindfulness meditation at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and at the New England School of Whole Health Education. Visit Andrew at www.beginningmindfulness.com for more information.