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 Freedom and Happiness in Recovery

Quite worn, but I have carried this in my wallet for over 30 years!

I am thinking of how grateful I am for everything that I experienced over the past 65 years.  The payoff for me in three decades of recovery is contained in the section of the book Alcoholics Anonymous commonly referred to as the AA Promises.  The promises begin:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.  We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

Several years ago I wrote about this promise and focused on the freedom from not being obsessed with how I would get my next drink.  That freedom goes beyond the obsession with alcohol as a material substance.  As I wrote last week, sobriety today has less to do with the physical manifestations of being drunk and more the mental and spiritual recovery.  The same is true for the promised freedom.

I made the commitment in 1984 when checking into a detox rehab that I was not going to lie to anyone – I was going to tell my truth about life and addiction.  Since that time, I am consistently challenged to be more rigorously self-honest.  Freedom from self-deception and self-betrayal has led me on a path toward true self.

What is this true self?  Psychology and spiritual literature discuss this point in great detail.  I view true self as the opposite of an ego-driven false self.  A starting point for me is the line from Hamlet that appears on AA coins, “To Thine Own Self be True”.  I understand that first and foremost I got sober for me and not to keep anyone else happy.  However, in sobriety I am able to play a constructive role in community, and be in true relationship with others.  Self-worth is key.  Having self-worth is the difference between getting sober because I have treated all those around me terribly vs. getting sober because I have treated myself terribly and have not lived as a true member of humanity.

For me, the freedom in the promises allows me to take stock of who I am, what I have to offer, and how I might better be able to participate as one of 7 billion humans on this earth.  That is a tremendous freedom to explore!

 

Giving & Receiving in Recovery

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Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

The above words are commonly attributed to the 13th century Christian, Francis of Assisi though circumstantially, the attribution does not hold up.

The first half of the prayer talks about good and right things to aspire to sow.  But I have been thinking more about the “in giving that we receive” part.  And truly, without exception, when I take part in any “service” work in recovery, I am rewarded with a more meaningful existence.  I suspect this inherent desire to do service, to be a part of, to be in community with, or to share our experience, strength, and hope is something that is hard-wired into our True Selves.

Further, consider – when I deliver meals on wheels, serve food to the homeless, give money to a person in need, I always “feel better” after the fact.  My wife and I hosted a young woman from another country in our home for a couple of years while she was in graduate school.  Several of her family members attended her graduation.  They expressed very sincere and abundant thanks to us for hosting their daughter/niece/granddaughter.  I responded that I was very appreciative of their thanks, but needed to express my thanks to them for the opportunity to do the hosting and be in relationship.  I experience a similar sense of gratitude to the students I worked with over the years.

It is in giving that we receive.

I do not write this post to allege that I exude some sort of hyper level of altruism.  I don’t think that is the case.  I do believe that when we are mindful of “in giving that we receive” we recognize that basic truth.

The reciprocal situation is accepting from others so that they can experience the in “giving that we receive” as well.  My favorite Christmas card I received this year was from a man who “receives” where I go on Tuesday afternoons to help serve a meal and provide a night of shelter to homeless folks.  He handed me the card in an envelope.  Nothing was written on the card or the envelope.  When he gave me the card, he said, “This is not much but it is in the spirit of Christmas.”  I thanked him for the card.  I wondered if he was too rushed to sign the card.  I wondered if he had never received a Christmas card before and did not know that you were supposed to sign your name.  That is all pretty immaterial.  Accepting and thanking him for the card allowed him to be a part of the in “giving that we receive” equation.

The card sits on my desk today.

How do you take part on both sides of the “in giving we receive” equation?

On Success in Recovery

soberlivingIf I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this;  Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards, of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live.  If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.   – Thomas Merton, Love and Living, pp. 11-12

I like Thomas Merton a lot.  However, I both relate and take him with a grain of salt on the above quote.  I relate because like Merton and Augustine, I spent the first several decades of my existence living fully into practicing addictions – in my case drugs and alcohol.  By the time I hit early adulthood, I was completely fried and realized I simply would not be able to continue along that path, and opted for sobriety, as Merton and Augustine opted for a monastic environment.

For me, success then became measured by staying sober and that became rather rote after a while.  Next, I opted for education for a bunch of years to demonstrate my ability to further succeed, and escape having to deal with many life issues.  I knew how to do that.  Next, for some reason publishing a book seemed like a marker of success, but after doing that several times, that measure lost its luster.

For the past decade or so, the very concept of success has taken a back seat to my striving to live a life of meaning – with mixed success, as it were.  I find today that simply being on a path toward True Self seems to be a more worthy direction than past accolades.  The starting point for me on all of this is simply being on a recovery road.  An important piece of recovery is getting out of false self (ego/persona) and more aligned with True or Real Self that celebrates the potential of being a node on a luminous web of interconnectivity with all the world.

My resolution for the 2017 New Year is to be open to the possibilities that a True Self oriented life has to offer.  I know that resolve cannot be accomplished by making a list of measurable goals in my shiny new bullet journal, except to be following a recovery path.  As my short four months of retirement and living in a new city have shown, and abundantly so – had I made plans to measure my success this past September, I likely would have failed at what I expected to happen.  However, being open to possibilities led me on even more profound and meaningful directions than I could have predicted while on that six-hour drive south after my retirement party.  This experience is completely consistent with everything about my recovery over the years.  I can never stand in the present, look back five years into the past and say “I saw that coming.” In fact, what has always come has been far greater than what I could conjure in my head.  In this sense, success can mean just showing up and being ready.  I can’t wait to see where that leads me five years from now.  I don’t really have a clue at this point!

Mutual Interdependence in Recovery and Life

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Belonging is the innate human desire to part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown, 2010, Hazelden

Human strength admires autonomy; God’s mystery rests in mutuality. . . We admire needing no one; apparently, the Trinity admires needing. . . Needing everything – total communion with all things and all being . . . We’re practiced at hiding and self-protecting, not at showing all our cards.  God seems to be into total disclosure.

The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr, 2016, Whitaker House, pp. 59-60.

Like much in life, the obvious eludes me for a long period of time, and then it becomes clear. I have known for a while that much of my existence is a process of working out where it is I belong. Brené Brown’s quote, causes me to reflect on my past professional existence in higher education.  I wanted to be part of a team, but with egos, including my own, there was not an interest in team play but only maximizing individual benefit – what tenure track jobs in higher education demand. So, I spent years trying to fit in, but realized if I were going to align with True Self , I needed to go down a different road.

But the belonging of which Brown speaks remains – and where my life in recovery comes into play.  I have long known and thrived on the understanding that in 12-Step meetings, I do belong.  No one is turned away at the door because they have not done a 4th Step, met with their sponsor, relapsed 100 times, and so forth.  In fact, regardless of an person’s sobriety/abstinence, the most common refrain is to “keep coming back.”

Which is where the Richard Rohr quote comes in.  As a practicing addict, I believed I could do it on my own – so long as I could get everyone else to behave according to my plans.  I well recall in 1971, when dropping out of my B.A. program for the third time after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA, I told my academic advisor how I did not need his “bourgeois” education, that I would make it on my own.  In 1984, I had enough of my autonomy and made a decision to enter the mutual existence of a detox center for 30 days.

Looking back over the past three decades of 12-Step recovery – of mutual existence – I have begun to learn to live life on life’s terms.  In fact, that simple goal is the primary thing I have in common with the people sitting in 12-Step rooms.  Other than that we are a diverse lot.  The ability to live into that goal has little to do with any piece of demographic data such as age, race, gender, or academic degree.  I experienced a similar common goal when participating in medical or house building missions in Central America.  When I look around the room of those participants, we don’t have much in common beyond the goal of bringing medical care to the underserved.  As an autonomous person, I never got sober nor did I even consider medical care issues in Honduras or Panama.

I recently joined a faith community that nourishes and thrives in that mutuality with a rather simple mission of “Shining the Light of God’s Love and Grace.”  The congregation “is a community of faith and love representing, celebrating, and embracing all God’s children as persons of sacred worth regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, culture, tradition, sexual orientation or gender identity, personal and family history, or station in life.”  So, we do not need to debate all of that.  Rather, as mutual community, we can live into the mission.  There is no debate about the mission, rather consideration of how best to practice the mission.

Mutuality of community around a common mission seems of critical importance as we go forward in the world today.  Gaining debaters points on who did what and who won in electoral politics assures only that we will continue in a quagmire of inaction and decay where innocent people are slaughtered, the environment becomes more toxic and human dignity has no value.  Mutually agreeing on common goals around these issues and working toward the ends seems a more productive path.  The paths may be many, but they will only be accomplished through belonging within a mutually committed community.

Again, Richard Rohr (pp. 80-81):

. . . virtue of hope applies first of all to the collective before the individual . . . It is very hard for individuals to enjoy faith, hope, and love, or even to preach faith, hope, and love – which alone last – unless society itself first enjoys faith, hope, and love in some collective way.  This is much of our problem today; we have not given the world any message of cosmic hope, but only threatening messages of Apocalypse and Armageddon.

 

What Recovery/Sobriety/Abstinence Means to Me.

vinetreeFor the past 7 months I have been “abstinent” in Overeaters Anonymous.  I define that abstinence by not adding sugar to what I eat, not eating something in which one of the first three ingredients is sugar, and not bingeing on food.  I have been nicotine free following a 12-Step program for some 18 years.  In one week I will be sober in Alcoholics Anonymous for 32 years.  What does all of this really mean?  A few points:

  • I am reasonably in awe of the fact that were I not in recovery, most of what I do today would not happen.  As I write this, I am sitting in a colleague’s house in Lima, Peru.  The colleague was a childhood friend of the daughter of my wife.  I met my wife when I worked in Northeast Louisiana after receiving a graduate degree from the University of Illinois, where I had received a full scholarship after graduating with an MA from the University of Cincinnati where I had gone back to college in 1985 after waiting the recommended one year before making any major life decisions in sobriety.  As my pre-recovery attempt at college produced a whopping 0.7 GPA, I can reasonably attribute sobriety to launching me on the path that led me to sitting in Lima, Peru, today, where I type this post.
  • For alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, “sobriety” is unambiguous – I don’t put those substances in my body.  Abstinence from compulsive overeating is not so universally defined.  In OA the individual defines their own abstinence.  To some, such a self-definition is the equivalent of deciding to drink only beer and not hard liquor, etc for a self-defined sobriety.  I view abstinence as the same as sobriety in abstaining from those foods or eating behaviors that cause me problems.  Sugar is one.  Binge eating is another.
  • In recovery from compulsive overeating, a rigid adherence to a set of rules or regulations would be akin to a diet – something that has never worked for me.
  • I have learned in the past 30 years that recovery has little to do with actual substance to which I am addicted.  Putting down the bottle, the pill, the cigarette, the food only allows me the clarity to begin living life on life’s terms and a path toward discovery of true self that I masked with my various drugs of choice.
  • In this way, when I entered the University of Cincinnati in 1985 with one year of sobriety, being physically sober allowed me the clarity and the ability to take tests, write papers and perform the mechanics of going to school and being accountable.  But the process of recovery, an attitude of gratitude, a belief in hope, and a desire to live life fully enables me to take those steps forward and to climb out of the bottle of addiction.
  • In this way, recovery is marked less by the date I stopped using a specific substance to avoid living life, but rather the day I decided to move forward with living life fully on life’s terms and to begin the journey to discover my true self.

 

From Entitlement to Action in Recovery

entitleagencyEntitlement is “I deserve this just because I want it” and agency is “I know I can do this.”  The combination of fear of disappointment, entitlement, and performance pressure is a recipe for hopelessness and self-doubt.

– Brené Brown The Gifts of Imperfection

Dr. Brown’s quote is quite revealing.  I witnessed a dramatic shift from entitlement to agency in my recovery – and like everything, the shift is a process and not an event.  But I was not a total slouch, born with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth.  In fact, I had my first factory job when I was 16, and have been generally financially self-supporting my entire life – never unemployed for more than a couple of weeks between jobs.  But, I was incredibly resentful of my state in life compared to others.  I had a ready excuse to explain why my relative brilliance was not recognized by the world.  I recollect well, after accumulating a whopping 0.7 GPA during my first try at college, telling my academic advisor I did not need his bourgeois education – I was going to make it on my own.  All of which led me to a detox unit some ten years later.  I have posted about some of this before.

But in recovery self-doubt has remained.  I was about seven-years sober, finally earned BA and MA degrees and was awarded a full scholarship to a PhD program.  I distinctly remember driving across the Indiana cornfields to register for classes and thinking “who am I trying to fool” and “what will happen when they find out.”  As good as I could get on the agency thing at that time was convincing myself that I was going to give this my best shot, and also give myself permission to drop out after the first semester if I was clearly in over my head.

In less than five years I graduated, got my dream job, but again was incredibly concerned about being found out.  Fast forward 20 years and I am now retiring from a different dream job.  Over the years the “I know I can do this” has become a bigger part of my existence.  Take writing.  The “publish or perish” higher education mantra is impressed upon students along with the pecking order of prestigious publications.  I have published well above average over the years, but not until the last five years have I felt I truly found my writing voice.  My best writing is in my “professional blog” that would fill another four or five books but that is considered the lowest on prestige chart.  But I find everything except my blog writing to actually be a rather tedious unenjoyable process.  The only real exception to that has been my last edited volume.  I believe this is the case because the last book is one that most expresses my values and interests.

So, I might add to Dr. Brown’s definition that “I know I can do this and I want to do this

The process of finding and then living into true self has been the most exciting part of my life in recovery.  My “bourgeois education” provided some equipment for that process, but, without question what I have received through the 12-steps and other related recovery is where I have learned how to use that equipment . . . and I am always pleased to know that the process is never done!