One of the programs we have been offering to patients at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre since 1996 is called “mindfulness-based cancer recovery.” It’s based on a similar program developed in the United States called “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” If you look up this term on the Internet, you’ll find thousands of links to books, articles and training programs.
Essentially, understanding mindfulness begins by asking yourself the question, “where is my mind right now?” and beginning to see how easy it is to metaphorically “lose your mind.” Try it. Monitor your thoughts for a while and you’ll likely find yourself planning your day, worrying about all the things you have to do, writing lists, reviewing the fight you had with your spouse last night, thinking of emails you have to send, being angry at someone for something they did or wishing you’d said or done something different yesterday, last week or last year. All these thoughts of the past and future can easily result in feeling angry, depressed, frustrated, worried and stressed out!
But is there any alternative way to be? Acutally, yes. Consider the possibility of being awake, aware and present in your life as it unfolds moment-to-moment in the here and now. What if you could be paying attention to the drive to work, perhaps observing the scenery or listening to the radio, rather than planning and ruminating the whole time? What if you could actually listen to the conversations you have throughout the day, looking at and concentrating on the person in front of you, rather than planning what you want to say next, watching TV or thinking of something else entirely? How might that feel different or better?
The truth of the matter is that being “mindful” – paying attention, on purpose, in the moment, with a sense of ease, acceptance and openness – is accessible to us all. It’s a pretty simple concept, but by no means easy to implement. Our habits of thinking, judging and planning are ingrained through years of practice. Becoming mindful in our lives requires commitment to mindfulness meditation practice, which is simply setting aside some time each day to be quiet and focus on training your mind to stay where you’d like it to be. It’s a skill that you can learn, just like playing tennis or learning the piano. It may feel difficult or awkward at first, but over time, if you practice each day with patience, mindfulness will become more and more a part of your everyday way of being.
What are the benefits of such a practice? How would someone living “in the moment” ever get anything done? Images of hippies or gurus living on mountain-tops may enter your mind. Interestingly, though, the opposite seems to be the case. People who meditate regularly are better able to focus their minds on the task at hand, work more efficiently without being distracted and are happier while doing it. The cancer patients we work with have consistently demonstrated decreases in their stress levels, less anger and anxiety, better sleep and overall improved quality of life.
By now I’m sure you’re keen to get started! Unfortunately, I’m out of space. We’ll include some instructions in the next column, but in the meantime you can get more information by calling the psychosocial resources line at 403-355-3207.