The Mighty Logo

How I Learned to Still My Mind When Worrying About My Illness

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

I participated in a study conducted at the National Institute of Health (NIH) a couple of years ago to determine the disease process of lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), and during my stay, I had a chaplain visit me in my room. She was a lovely, middle-aged woman with short hair whose voice was as soothing as her overall presence. She moved around the room gracefully and made no gestures with her hands as she spoke slowly, in a mild and even tone. All of this is in sharp contrast to my energy. I tend to use my hands a lot when speaking, and I rely on my facial expressions to not only enhance my speech, but often times in lieu of a verbal response – sort of like a real life emoticon.

During her visit, the chaplain brought up meditation as a way to cope with LAM and to invite stillness in my life. Maybe she interpreted my wild hand and facial gestures as a cry for help. It’s no surprise that I responded with “I can’t sit still long enough to meditate. It’s not my thing.”

She smiled knowingly and said, “You don’t have to be still to be still.” And that’s when she introduced me to mantra recitation. If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, here we go with the “woo woo” stuff, which was precisely my reaction. She went on to explain how reciting a mantra is simply a form of meditation that helps you still your mind, and you can do that without having to sit still.

The truth is, my mind is constantly racing throughout the day and this rapid-fire thinking often takes energy and attention away from my present being. I remember a time before the Internet, when I’d rewind my cassette player over and over again just so I could figure out the lyrics of a song. Or I’d fast forward so I could skip ahead to the next song. It wasn’t very often that I actually listened to a song in its entirety. Over time, the symbols on both buttons wore out, and yet the “play” button remained in tact.

Apparently not much has changed with the way I think, now that I’m an adult. I’m either engrossed in Monday-morning quarterbacking or I’m in fast-forward mode struggling with to-do lists. On my worst days, I’m agonizing over my future health outlook because of LAM. And what I’ve discovered is that you can’t hit “play” on your present life at the same time as rewind and forward. You have to pick one.

This is where mantra recitation helps, as the chaplain explained, because it brings the mind’s focus back to the present and helps still the mind from racing. It can also serve as a powerful reminder or affirmation in your life. And if you do it often enough, you can train your mind to use your mantra as your fallback thought.

She suggested I try the mantra “All will be well,” which is a prayer or promise of hope, that all will ultimately be put right by the universe, regardless of the day’s circumstances. As though sensing my resistance, she followed up with “If you can’t sit still to do it, then do it while you walk or run, or while you fold laundry, or pretty much whenever your mind wanders and leads you to worry or be anxious.” In my case, that means all day long.

Much to my surprise, I do find myself repeating “All will be well” every once in a while, especially when I get stuck in fast-forward mode with an overwhelming sense of despair. It does restore my hope in what tomorrow might bring — mostly. But I must confess, there are times when the claim of “All will be well” seems too distant and even incredulous. I suppose you could argue that’s when I need to recite the mantra the most.

As much as I tried, this mantra didn’t cut it when I discovered my lung function had declined and that would be my new normal, or when the oncologist told me we were out of treatment options for my mom’s brain cancer. Let’s face it, in the low points of my life, I can’t always find hope in my future when I have a rare, progressive lung disease for which there is no cure.

In those moments, I need something more immediate and within reach, so I’ve learned instead to turn to “Today I’m here.” This mantra is like a jolt because it forces me to examine where I am in the moment – sort of like hitting the stop button and then hitting “play.” It takes away any judgments and second-guessing from the past. It makes no promise of what the future will bring. Today, in this moment, I’m here, and that’s all I can control.

There’s also an acceptance with a note of gratitude to this mantra, which is liberating. No matter what my lung function test or kidney ultrasound indicates at my next doctor visit in three months, today, I’m here, and in this moment, I’m going to choose to be present in my life. I can’t second-guess if we could have caught the progression of my mother’s brain tumor any sooner because today we are here, and I have to enjoy what precious time we have left together. Those days when I can’t run because it feels like my lungs just won’t cooperate, I walk instead. I remind myself that while I may not be able to run at this moment, at least I can walk, and I’m OK with that.

I choose to hit “play” and repeat “Today I’m here.”

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Getty Images photo via Tverdohlib

Originally published: December 29, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home