Self-Compassion and Cancer

Painting by Emma Connolly

I am currently enrolled in the eight-week Cultivating Compassion course offered through the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans.  The course leader is Dr. William Thiele, the School’s Founding Director and author of the book Monks in the World.  William went through a year-long Compassion Cultivation Training program at Stanford University in preparation to lead the local sessions.  Dr. Thupten Jinpa at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford developed the course.  More about the course development can be found in Dr. Jinpa’s book A Fearless Heart.  Dr. Jinpa is otherwise known for being the official translator for The Dalai Lama since 1985.

The course approach to compassion convinced me to spend my Sunday afternoons for the next couple of months in the seminar setting.  Dr. Thupten defines compassion in A Fearless Heart (2015:xxii) as “. . . a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”  Also, I was intrigued that one session would be devoted to self-compassion.

The self-compassion session took place this past Sunday. In the session, William encouraged the participants to consider a personal circumstance or event that caused us to be filled with doubt and self-blame.  I was somewhat surprised that what immediately came to my mind was my stage 4 cancer diagnosis of one year ago.  In fact, the session brought me to view an aspect of the cancer diagnosis I had not discussed with anyone, but only internalized.

Last year, during the initial speculation on the primary source of the cancer, I immediately focused on my complicity in the disease:

  • As I was a cigarette smoker from the age of 10 until my mid-40s, I felt assured that I had lung cancer.  That proved not to be the case – my lungs are in great shape.
  • My general practitioners first guess was colon cancer and I immediately felt guilt for procrastinating and never having a colonoscopy despite the recommendation of my general practitioner 15 years ago.  However, my colonoscopy last August revealed a cancer-free GI system.
  • Next my oncologist ruminated that perhaps the cancer originated in my liver based on some blood test results.  I immediately then experienced the shame and self-blame of my years of alcohol and drug abuse.  However, subsequent PET and CAT scans showed my liver is free of any cancer as well.

Another exercise in today’s session was to respond to “If anything were possible,

  • What would I love to find in my life?
  • How would I want to grow as a person?
  • What would I want to offer the world?”

An immediate and legitimate response to the first question seemingly would be to deal with my health issues.  But with a bit of reflection, I thought otherwise, responding to the questions, respectively as follows:

  • for my thoughts and actions to align with a direction toward my true self
  • to prioritize how I expend my time and resources toward that alignment
  • my true self

These response make sense to me when I consider the popular Biblical adage, (Mark 8:36) “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”

True self has been the trajectory of my recovery for the past three decades – coming to terms with what I am truly called to be and do in all of my relationships with self, family, friends, and the world.  I cannot imagine having traveled that path without my road out of addiction.  I expect that my current health issues will provide me the same opportunities for growth and direction toward that true self.  Being self-compassionate clearly includes fully embracing those possibilities on that journey.

A New Look at Gratitude

I have posted many times before about the importance of gratitude in my recovery.  Having an “attitude of gratitude” is a platitude that I recollect hearing quite often during my 30-day detox program and in my first AA meetings over three decades ago.  I am grateful for my recovery from alcoholism, a better than expected cancer prognosis, and a strong reason to get out of bed every morning.  I touched on this concept of gratitude in my last post.  Today, a part of my morning ritual is writing down three things for which I am grateful.

In our School for Contemplative Living group we are reading Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks by Diana Butler Bass that articulates an understanding of gratitude I find quite important.  She writes (p. xxiv):

There is, however, an alternative structure of gratefulness, one that holds out the possibility of spiritual and ethical transformation – that of gift and response.  In this mode, gifts exist before benefactors.  The universe is a gift.  Life is a gift.  Air, light, soil, and water are gifts.  Friendship, love, sex, and family are gifts.  We live on a gifted planet.  Everything we need is here, with us.  We freely respond to these gifts by choosing a life of mutual care.

I see this understanding of gratitude not from the personal circumstances of my life, but from life itself.  Viewing life, the universe, natural resources as gifts freely given is true grace.  Butler Bass continues (p. 20-21):

Gifts are not commodities.  Gifts are the nature of the universe itself, given by God or the natural order.  Grace reminds us that every good thing is a gift – that somehow the rising of the sun and being alive are indiscriminate daily offerings to us – and then we understand all benefactors are also beneficiaries and all beneficiaries can be benefactors . . . We do not really give gifts.  We recognize gifts, we receive them and we pass them on . . . We all share them.

In the Jewish tradition the Prophets held the people accountable for this gift.  For example, the Prophet Amos speaks less from the perspective of social justice, but our responsibility for the stewardship mandated by God for the earth in the Genesis creation story.

What will we do with these freely given gifts we all share without regard for ethnicity, gender, national origin?  How can we express our gratitude?  As stewards for the natural resources of our earth, how can we express our gratitude to this freely given gift that allows us to live and thrive?

Butler Bass notes (p. 22) that:

. . . if gratitude is mutual reliance upon (instead of payback for) shared gifts, we awaken to a profound awareness of our interdependence.  Dependence may enslave the soul, but interdependence frees us.

This interdependence is the very essence of what I have learned over the years in 12 Step Recovery.  To extend this interdependence to the world stage, gratitude will require us to build bridges instead of walls, welcome the stranger with the radical hospitality of Abraham and Sarah instead of detention centers, share in the bounty of resources, knowledge, and technology instead of selling to the highest bidder.  These are challenges to extend my gratitude beyond platitudes and lists.

Our interdependence is appropriate to think about as in the U.S. we celebrate Independence Day.