“How can we bring wisdom, love, gratitude and purpose into the cancer journey so healing occurs naturally?” This talk is an inspirational mix of true stories of remarkable survivors, the science of the mind-body connection, and a perspective on healing that transcends physical medicine.” By Dr. Rob Rutledge
Blog by Dr. Timothy Walker
Bonnie and Self Compassion
Bonnie was at the first retreat when we started to film and interview the participants to find out more about their cancer journeys. She was articulate in describing what we had seen time and time again; strong, smart and loving women and men, deeply conditioned to go beyond their limits to be there for others in many ways, often to the detriment of their own wellbeing. When our self-image and self-esteem are based on meeting the expectations of others in a fast-paced digital world of immediate gratification, sometimes the only limit we allow ourselves is the break-down of our own health. Not to assign blame to those with a stressful life for their cancer in any way or to suggest there is a clear and direct causation between cancer and stress; the science is not clear. But a cancer diagnosis can serve as a crisis/opportunity to re-examine one’s life and one’s conditioning (or what I like to call our software) and to deeply question ourselves to find our own true priorities in life.
To turn around a lifetime of this kind of conditioning you’d need to deliberately cultivate a daily practice of self-compassion. It is not enough to simply read self-help books and think about loving yourself. It is important to slow down the impulses to respond to every outside request and instead turn part of your attention inward to listen to the signs and signals your body sends. Signs like fatigue, muscle tightness, aches and pains, as well as psychological symptoms like anxiety, inability to sleep, emotional extremes and racing thoughts. Gradually you can train yourself to see these as important signposts for behaviour change. There is someone inside of you crying out, someone who really needs your attention, someone who is very important to you – yourself.
Practicing mindfulness of body, or what I like to call synchronizing body and mind, is what we do when we practice mindful yoga, soft-belly breathing and the relaxing mindful body-scan. This aspect of meditation – paying attention to your body deliberately with repeated, daily discipline – has been shown through neuroscience to strengthen the connection between different parts of the brain. Cultivating self-compassion in this way brings the wise part of our human brain into a position of oversight with clarity and calming that settles the more primitive structures of the brain responsible for stress, emotions and physiological regulation. So when Bonnie says she has made her yoga and mindfulness practices a priority that she protects fiercely, we begin to understand why. In doing so she is shifting a well rehearsed lifetime pattern of letting others – work, family and friends – pull her away from her own wellbeing.
Paddling her own kayak ultimately means that she now knows that she is the only one who can consistently regulate her inner system toward health and wellbeing. When we are pulled around by the demands of the outside world, it’s like being caught in an undertow that pulls us further and further from our own true nature, from natural contentment, happiness and wellbeing. This is also why we recommend retreat practice. In a retreat we break away from the ordinary demands of everyday life to focus on the cultivation of mindfulness and reconnecting with ourselves. A retreat can be just a weekend like our Skills for Healing Weekend Retreat or it could be a week a month or a year. It can also be those few precious moments that we take first thing in the morning or last thing at night to tap in with ourselves in silence, with mindful attention and self-compassion.
Timothy Walker Ph.D. is a mindfulness teacher and psychotherapist living in Halifax Nova Scotia with over 30 years experience integrating mindfulness into counselling, education and healthcare. He is co-author of the The Healing Circle: integrating science, wisdom and compassion in reclaiming wholeness on the cancer journey and co-founded with Dr Rob Rutledge the Healing and Cancer Foundation. He designed and has taught with Dr. Rutledge the Skills for Healing Weekend Retreats for people living with cancer and their family members 42 times since 1999 in 20 cities across North America touching the lives of more than 1600 people. He has taught at Dalhousie University, Acadia University, and Mount St. Vincent University as well as hundreds of workshops, seminars and retreats Internationally. In his private practice, The Healing Circle, Timothy sees individuals, couples and families and welcomes distant consultations.