‘Keep a positive attitude’, ‘what you resist persists’, ‘where thoughts go, energy flows’, ‘put gratitude in your attitude’... I could go on but you get the idea, and ideally I agree, but how can we be positive when life has just dealt us a cruel blow? Perhaps it’s the loss of a job or home, the failure of a relationship or that last round of IVF, the death of someone we love. Or receiving a life threatening diagnosis. How can we keep our mind on what is good when we are facing a major challenge that demands our attention? How can we have gratitude when life truly sucks?
About a month ago the phone rang early in the morning. My mother answered and I knew it was trouble. All I could hear her saying was ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry...’ her voice laced with shock and sadness. I got up and sat next to her on the stairs, wondering who she was talking to. ‘Do you want to talk to Heather?’ She asked the caller, the phone was passed to me. ‘Hello’, said the shaky voice of my younger sister. ‘I’ve got cancer’. Cancer? She’s only 40! Married only a few years with a young daughter. How could she possibly have cancer? My mind raced, unable to process the news.
My sister has never smoked, eats well, is slim and very active running several times a week; the model of health. She explained over the next ten minutes how she had discovered a small lump in her breast a month or two before. How she had been fobbed off by two doctors but feeling there was something wrong, pressed for further tests. Several biopsies were taken and all confirmed the lump was in fact cancerous, not the benign cyst she was repeatedly reassured it was. ‘I’m frightened, Heather, I’m frightened’ her voice shaking the words down the phone ‘I’ve got cancer, CANCER!’ I was stunned. And mad.
I’ve been a self-development junkie for years. I subscribe to all the email lists; I’ve read all the books and watched all the films. I’ve laughingly said that I could teach seminars on the Law of Attraction, the idea that we attract people, situations and events to us based on our vibrational alignment, or put simply, we get more of what we think about. I’ve often thought how I would love to put all these years of study to good use and now I could, but not the way I wanted to. Mental note to self: Be careful what you wish for...
‘First’, I said, ‘let’s take the sting out of this word Cancer. It’s just a word and unfortunately, it’s a very loaded word, it strikes fear into us and that’s just rubbish! Cancer, cancer, cancer! Perhaps receiving a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence at one point in time, but not anymore. Not today. And not for you.’ I told her she would be absolutely fine, and I meant it and I believed it. ‘But I can’t stop thinking about it’ she said. My sister is very aware of the Law of Attraction herself, and she was afraid that by her constant dwelling on the cancer and her fears about it, that she would attract more of that to her. Or as Mike Dooley puts it, that her thoughts would become things. So, how do we stop thinking about the bad stuff and get more of the good stuff?
Typical Law of Attraction advice would be; gratitude. Be grateful for what you do have. ‘But how can I be grateful for anything when I have cancer?’ My sister wailed. A very good question. One I have struggled with myself. This Law of Attraction stuff is all good in theory, that we have to stay positive and focus on what we want not what we don’t want, but what many of the great luminaries out there don’t seem to be able to tell you is HOW.
How do you focus on what you want when a big hairy, fanged monster like cancer is chasing you? I think telling someone to be grateful when something terribly frightening, painful, and unwanted has happened is just plain cruel. For me, grateful is another very loaded word, and faced with a crisis, grateful might as well simper in on the coat tails of supplication with its begging bowl.
But how about appreciation?
What can you appreciate in your life right now? Can you appreciate a walk in the park, a new pair of jeans, a glass of wine, a bar of chocolate, watching your favourite TV show? Yes, I am keeping it deliberately small because when we try to appreciate our partner or vocation in times of crisis, we might immediately feel unsupported, so leave them out and think small.
The purpose of distracting ourselves is not to be in denial about what’s happened. We know it’s happened, we’ve acknowledged it, but sometimes, we just can’t process right away, the grief is too much, the shock too great and we need to be soothed. And we need to take our mind out of its maddening spiral into despair because we can’t do anything to help ourselves from this place.
‘First, we need to get real’, I said. ‘Is there anything you must consider in order to take positive action here?’ For example, if you’ve just lost your job, you need to take action and find another one or start a business. ‘Is there anything you can achieve by thinking about cancer?’ No. ‘Are there any positive benefits to considering it in any way?’ No. Then the next step is to stop.
· Acknowledge what’s happened
· If you can take positive action to help yourself, do it right away
· If not, distract yourself with appreciation
I shared with my sister a couple of tools I had picked up and used successfully myself when my monkey mind was cruising full speed ahead on the wrong road to despair-ville. ‘First’, I said; ‘as soon as you catch yourself thinking the frightening thoughts, STOP. Imagine a big stop sign in your mind’s eye. Make it big and bright with flashing lights. Then have some screen savers lined up and switch lanes.’ Screen savers, an idea I got from Dr. Srikumar Rao, are nice little mental images that you thought up in advance. Remember your favourite holiday moment, or some other occasion that was just great. Don’t have any nice memories? Make it up. Have a mental image of something you would like to happen in the future. Know that you will immediately switch to these thoughts when you notice yourself ruminating over the fearful things. ‘But I feel so bad because sometimes it takes me forever to realize I’m doing it!’ My sister said. Yes, that’s very true, so the last thing is to appreciate yourself for following these two steps, no matter how long it takes.
You did it, you stopped yourself, congratulate yourself.
1. Use the stop sign
2. Switch to a screen saver – anything you can appreciate
3. Appreciate yourself for doing it
Her doctors in France where she lives were quick to take action and she was admitted to hospital within weeks and the lump was removed. Even though they removed significantly more tissue around the small 1.4cm lump, they found abnormal cells at the edge. She has just got through the second of four rounds of chemotherapy. Since starting the chemo, she has had intermittent symptoms: felt sick, had a mouth full of ulcers, days she couldn’t get out of bed and her hair is dropping out. She has bought a wig and a couple of head scarves, one gray and one shocking pink.
My sister still faces another operation to remove more breast tissue when the chemo is over. Then there is the radio therapy and the drug therapy. She will make a full and complete recovery. She is using the stop sign and the screen savers of happy thoughts and it’s working for her just like it worked for me. By deliberately focusing on things that made her happy for her screen savers, she has begun appreciating what she already has in her life a lot more. Grateful is bit of a stretch right now, but appreciation she can do.