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Having a 'One-on-One' With My Fears From Cancer

“When we know how to suffer, we suffer much, much less.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

The other morning I “invited my fears to tea.” (Well, coffee, but I’ll get to that in a moment.) I had heard Kris Carr (New York Times best-selling author and cancer survivor) recommend doing this many times, but had never really understood it – or practiced it – until that particular morning. I was driving to work and all of a sudden I felt like I was going to have an anxiety attack. My heart started to slowly beat faster and faster and it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. Tears started to well up in my eyes and I asked myself, “How much waiting and unknown can one person take?” Living with cancer isn’t just about living with cancer, it’s also about living with treatments and scans and tests and doctor appointments and doctor’s faces and doctor’s voices and all of the little nuances that only we as patients (or family members) pick up in the inflection of their voices. We don’t yet know how well my treatments are working (though I stay very positive that I am kicking some serious cancer ass) and all that waiting and wondering is starting to take its toll on me.

(And also, I don’t like tea. I wish I did – I know it’s so healthy for you and people ask if you’ve tried this kind of tea and that kind of tea and there’s green tea and black tea and on and on. It’s like when you tell people you don’t like fish. Oh, but have you tried it this way and that way?! I don’t like tea. Instead, I will invite my fears to have an iced soy latte with me. Now that I can get on board with).

The first thing Kris says to do is try not to get hysterical and open your heart, breathe and listen. It sounds utterly ridiculous when you’re in the throws of believing that death could be just around the corner, but I tried it that morning anyway.

First, I just took a deep breath. I didn’t ask my fears to go away, I didn’t try to sweep them under the rug and I didn’t interrupt my fear like I often do. What was it saying? What was it trying to tell me?

Next, I decided to figure out if my fear was constructive or destructive. OK fear, are you real? Of course. Are you silly? No, you’re totally reasonable. Can I just not react to this fear? Heck no.

I felt slightly embarrassed by my behavior. Not cool. Get it together before you walk in that door at work. What triggered this anyway? I have my reasons. But instead of feeling shame – like all of my spiritual talk was just a talk and not a walk – I let myself just feel plain old f***ing scared. All of a sudden I didn’t want to be alone, and I thought about who I could call. But then I decided that fear and I actually needed to have a little one-on-one without an interruption; this way, I reasoned, maybe fear would see that I could face it head on and be more apt to go away quicker.

Remember that gremlin – the one you let out of the closet and tried to show who’s boss? Here it is again.

Only I wish my monsters were the makings of a children’s movie like Monsters Inc., where the monsters are just doing their job and inside they’re all funny and squishy and happy. And they would never really hurt you.

I grounded myself. Today is Monday, December 19th, I thought to myself, and I’m going to work. “I have all that I need and more.” It’s such an overwhelmingly complex balance between keeping yourself grounded, spiritual and grateful and just wanting to turn around, drive home, get under the covers and, truthfully enough, never get out of bed again. Cancer does this: it brings our fears right out into the spotlight where it’s hard to ignore them. It makes us feel small, ashamed and yet sustained in the miracle of life all at once. It is so complicated!

Normally I could try to “take action” as Kris suggests; I find that writing or exercising at a time of deep anxiety can help, but I was in the car. So I thought of abundance instead. I thought, “I have all the makings of a good day.” Kind of like having the ingredients to make a stellar meal for yourself. Now you just have to actually create it.

I also thought, “You’re totally allowed to feel shitty.” Ahhh… Permission granted.

To end, Kris reminds us that “love is greater than fear.” For a long time I didn’t really understand this and maybe I still don’t completely. I thought it meant that I had so many people in my life who love me (and I them) that it would outweigh fear like on a see-saw or a scale. But then I realized what she meant was to actually love myself. Yes, sometimes my spiritual side gets dizzy and falls over and can’t stand upright, like a naughty colleague at a Christmas party. But through my meditation practice, I have been learning how to do that just that: love myself. Accept myself. Tumors, fatigue, red itchy eye and all. These are not necessarily “flaws.” This is just me. And as Kris reminds me every night in my meditation practice, “I will not abandon myself, no matter what.”

Being spiritual does not mean I can ever master having cancer.

Nobody really ever could.

And perhaps without this fear, I would not have come to realize that being spiritual and practicing being in the here-and-now cannot ever really, totally, erase our rational fears as human beings, nor is it supposed to. But we can practice! And so I do. I open my heart to self-care, forgiveness and trying not to judge others. But – this does not mean I will always get it “right!” It doesn’t mean I won’t ever get angry or say things I’ll regret (as I did the other night to my hubby. I didn’t know where to put all my fear so I took some and threw it at him). It doesn’t mean I’m able to go back to my practices every single time I’m upset or angry or sad and feel fine in a matter of minutes.

What does it mean? I’m still working on it. But here is what I have so far:

unspecified It means you love yourself and others. Yes, I’m stubborn and quirky and talk too much and eat brownies when I’m stressed out or nervous, but I can still love myself! I’m working on this “self” part, but this I know for sure: I love others. I love you. I love our planet, animals, stars, moon, sun and sky.

It means I bow to the light I see in you, and I am grateful that you bow to the light you see in me as well.

And then this. This amazing, awe-inspiring, totally awakening lesson:

I think about the book I read a few years ago, “No Mud No Lotus” by Thich Nan Hahn. It teaches us that unless we actually face that fear of suffering head on, we can never really be alive and present in our own lives.

You see, we try to cover up our pain with all kinds of things: technology, food, materialistic things – and this is exactly what I have been trying to do. Avoid suffering at all costs.

I don’t know how to handle the suffering.

I’m afraid to suffer.

What if I never stop suffering?

But he says:

“There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”

The lotus symbolizes a re-birth, if you will. A beautiful image that needs to grow out of dark, murky waters.

This, I believe, is everything. A game-changer. A way to finally set my mind free. A way to understand that the pain actually feeds the flower – the way that after a flower wilts, it becomes the compost, which then becomes the flower again.

This post originally appeared on Samantha’s blog, You Can Handle the Truth.

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