I recently attended a lecture by Dr. Susan Bauer-Wu, a professor in Contemplative End-of-Life Care at the University of Virginia School of Nursing. The title of the lecture was “Coming Home to Yourself: Finding Calm, Clarity and Compassion in the Storm of Cancer and Caregiving” but the topic was, put more simply, mindfulness. Mindfulness is ironically something the average person doesn’t spend too much time thinking about. We are often too busy trying to schedule our lives to the minute so that we can fit a thousand tasks into one day’s time. This is part of the problem. Many of you don’t even know what mindfulness even means. I didn’t. So I spent one hour listening to Dr. Bauer-Wu teach me about mindfulness, resilience, and the effects of stress on our bodies. And what I do know now is that the hour I spent listening has already made major impacts on how I have faced my life everyday forward. There is a purpose in sharing wisdom, whether that wisdom is scientific, or philosophical, or a bit of both. Wisdom gives us hope and perspective, even in the darkest times of our lives. Even through cancer and deep loss. I’d like to share some of Susan’s wisdom with you now with the hope that you may gain something from it to help carry you through whatever monsters lurk in your mind, and sometimes that’s just ourselves.
Dr. Bauer-Wu explains mindfulness: “I see mindfulness as a way of being. It’s not doing, it’s a way and a quality of being. It’s a way of being in a relationship with yourself. What’s going in your body, mind, and heart, but also its how we respond to our circumstances. How we look at them, how we look at others and the outside world.” I think what she is getting at is the human tendency to be overly hard on ourselves and our circumstances. Rarely do people fall into the habit of thinking things are actually much better than they are (unless you’re fifteen and dating a college student who you think you’re going to marry). Mostly we tend to view the difficult circumstances and obstacles in our lives as exactly that; difficult. Some are harder to face and more painful than others. This talk was focused on one of the biggest: cancer. The fear and pain associated with being diagnosed with cancer or having a loved one diagnosed with cancer is not something I will attempt to put into words. And while Susan focuses on the practice of mindfulness in relation to the well-being of cancer patients and their care-takers (family and professional) her wisdom extends to any difficulty and any care-giving role you may be filling in your life.
Whenever anything difficult or unexpected happens we feel the initial combination of two things: fear and stress. How can we possibly overcome this incredible stress and still remain intact? Dr. Bauer-Wu describes this as the storm: “What’s the storm? Well the storm is basically our lives. And it’s all an illusion if we think we’re going to go find calm waters somewhere else. Go off and get a new job, get a new partner and everything will be better. Well I don’t think it’s that easy.” Well we know it isn’t that easy. We all have our own storms; they are our inner and outer battles and our happiness largely depends on our ability to remain resilient within these storms. She does not mean don’t grieve or feel, because these are natural human emotions, and she certainly doesn’t mean run. But rather she stresses trying to be present, trying to accept your storm for what it is and finding some calm within it. However, finding calm can feel impossible. And this is where mindfulness comes into play. Dr. Bauer-Wu says: “Science is showing us that mindful training helps us to be less fearful and stressed and it helps us respond more wisely. The definition of mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally.”
Those two aspects, on purpose and non-judgmentally, are key. Our thinking habits are often the exact opposite, subconscious and judgmental. We can rip apart ourselves and create thousands of negative ways to view our storm in an instant. Dr. Bauer-Wu puts it this way: “So living with constant worry, fear, regret is a constant stress. This is about what’s happening inside your head, most waking moments we are living in narratives in our minds. And those narratives are very powerful and they impact the way your entire body works.” The storm of care-giving can be particularly painful. When someone we love is hurting, whether the source is cancer, a divorce, a break-up, or depression, we can take upon ourselves the impossible task of fixing it. Susan relays: “We are giving and giving and giving a lot to our families, to our colleagues, to our students. And very much driven with these goals of things to do do do, and in doing that we lose ourselves. I’m going to help us come back to who we really are, re-connect. So we can be our best selves in serving those we care about.” So here are some tips to re-connect, or as Susan says: “Let’s look at how we can be in the storm and be okay with what is.”
Remember that we can change the way our brains work. We are actually not, contrary to popular belief, stuck in our ways. That idea has always seemed to me like a bit of a cop out. Dr. Bauer-Wu seems to agree and endorses the incredible science of neuroplasticity: “The stress is happening in your thoughts, the thoughts are happening in your brain and if we can train to change our brains, that is foundational to reducing stress. We have learned that the brain is malleable. We are able to grow certain parts of our brain that are serving us and shrink those that aren’t.”
Learn to strengthen the positive and weaken the negative through meditation. Dr. Bauer-Wu says: “The exercise analogy: physical exercise. The more you exercise, what happens? You get stronger you, get more endurance. The less you exercise, what happens? You lose muscle, less stamina. These practices (contemplative practices and meditation) are a type of mental training. They strengthen the wiring in the brain that are used and weaken areas that aren’t used. That’s a really important point. Weakening the areas that aren’t used. Do any of you think that you have any habits that don’t necessarily serve you well?” Pause for laugher.
Drop your anchor. Dr. Bauer-Wu uses the metaphor of dropping an anchor in the chaos of a storm: “And it goes down and down and down. And what happens when we go down? Peace. The first two feet are choppy, but the bottom is calm. That is what it’s like to drop in to your experience right now.” If nothing else, thinking about that image for a moment allows you to focus.
Use the breath. This may seem too simple to take seriously but I dare you to try it. We spent just five minutes in mindful meditation during the talk and I breathed easier for the remainder of the evening. Susan says: “The breath is often used an anchor. As long as we are alive the breath is there, for most people it’s a neutral point of awareness. There are other points of awareness to drop in on, but if we have the breath it’s wonderful. It could be your feet on the floor. Momentarily stopping and dropping into what is right now.”
Be gentle with yourself. Susan says that this brings a spaciousness to the experience of your inner turmoil instead of withdrawing and closing in on your experience. She believes if we can do this, “We can shine the flashlight on positive things. And if we do that we can broaden and see what is possible. Positivity grows.”
Practice compassion and gratitude. Even if you don’t feel like you have anything to feel particularly compassionate about or grateful for. Why? Dr. Bauer-Wu says: “People who have a grateful disposition are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and have more energy. They don’t live with rose-colored glasses because these people do recognize the negative aspects of life. People integrate both the positive and negative in a way that brings meaning and appreciation.” The same goes for the karma of compassion.
For the skeptical and the faint of heart Dr. Bauer-Wu says: “We can create new habits. You can teach an old dog new tricks, but what is essential is that the old dog has to want to learn new tricks. Motivation. You have to want to do it. Everybody starts with good intentions and they get lost. Again, it’s about coming home to yourself. Not losing yourself.” Certainly in one hour in St. Andrews church Susan was able to re-connect me not necessarily to my inner self, that will take some mindful practice, but to the motivation to want to be happy again. And that is about as good of a start to purposeful change as you can hope for.
I hope these tips help those that are experiencing a storm right now, however big or small. To read more about Susan visit her web-site: