How to cope with a tough diagnosis using somatic meditation
Human life is fragile. When we get a tough call from the doctor, processing the news with our whole selves can help us move forward in a healthy way.
Her mother had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness which didn’t respond to medication. She asked me to write something to help her get through this time.
The next day my favourite aunt was diagnosed with an invasive cancer.
Receiving tough diagnoses for loved ones and for ourselves can bring up every kind of challenging emotion. And although I wish I could, I can’t make your monsters go away for you. But I can offer you this meditation tool to help you grapple with the monsters in a healthy way that will keep you moving forward with your precious life, for as long as you are here on this Earth.
Your hero is here to help
Right now, you need a hero on your side, to help get you through something so tough, it might feel impossible to get through. Fortunately, this hero is right here, ready, willing, and able to carry you through this time. This hero has all the unique tools that match your exact needs. This hero is more transformatively powerful than anyone else you know and has deeper wisdom to offer you than anyone else in your life.
This hero is you.
But whether you are ready to accept the help the hero inside you is ready to offer is entirely up to you!
Are you willing to open yourself up to the hero inside you? Are you willing to take the time to sit with them? Are you willing to listen to what they have to say?
Be here now
“Be here now” is simple to say and hard to do, even during the best of times. The human mind is a meaning-seeking, pattern-creating machine, that loves to react instead of respond, seeks the comfort of a negativity bias, and dreads unfamiliarity more than anything else in the world including pain. This creates a perfect storm of counterproductive self-storytelling during challenging times.
But getting swept up in a reactive mental story makes matters harder, not simpler. Ruminating adds to our stress and reinforces unhealthy thought patterns that make us less well equipped to deal with tough times.
Getting in touch with our felt physical bodies, however, takes us away from Story and returns us to the present. It gets us away from rumination and connects us with fact. It takes us away from self-judgment and connects us with objectivity. And it can help regulate our nervous systems back to a calmer state that can more healthily handle trauma.
So by pausing our ruminative mental story and tuning in to what our bodies have to tell us in an organised and grounded way, we can regain control of our experience. Instead of exhausting ourselves with panicked effort and drowning, we can swim safely to the shore that awaits us.
Give this meditative process a try, and remember that you can stop it at any point. Each step can help you. If all you can manage is the first step, that’s great. The first two steps, that’s great. Whatever. This is a tool to make you feel better, and you are always the one in charge.
Step #1, for when you are freaking out, when terrible things are happening, and when the Grim Reaper has just come knocking: stop. As soon as you notice your inner dialogue cranking up to tell you a story, tell yourself: stop.
If this new response feels uncomfortably different from your familiar mental patterns, and you need security, you could say, “just for right now, stop. You can go back to doing your thing later.”
Grounding means getting out of our heads and connecting with objective reality. You can only be useful to anyone, including yourself, if you ground first. If you don’t ground first, your Mental Story can carry you away like a crashing wave and its sucking undertow. If you ground, you will be able to surf.
There are many grounding techniques. For now, pick the first sense that comes to you and pay attention to it. If it’s feeling, ask yourself how your feet feel on the ground. If it’s sight, ask yourself to describe the first thing your eye falls on. If it’s sound, single out a sound and identify it as specifically as you can. Use the same principle for smell or taste.
Notice your breath. If that’s as much as you can do, great. Just pay attention to it for a few breaths. If you have room to tell yourself anything, tell yourself that whatever your breath is doing right now is wonderful. Then notice if it changes in any way.
If you can do more, ask yourself if it’s moving smoothly all the way through your body, or if it’s getting stuck. If you notice it getting stuck somewhere, invite breath to flow through that space. If it flows, great. If your body isn’t ready for that right now, that’s great too.
If you are still able to do more, try making your exhale longer than your inhale, as this has a calming effect on the nervous system. If you are still able to do more, try pausing at the bottom of the breath, for additional calming.
Tell yourself, “ok, Body. I am ready to listen to you. I want to be here with you and hear you out.”
Get out your imaginary Emotional Stethoscope and listen all through your body, searching for an area that demands your attention. Ask yourself, “where am I feeling something in my body that wants to tell me something?”
Do you feel a lump in your throat? A knot in your stomach? A dagger in your heart?
When you identify a strong physical sensation, think, “I am feeling this feeling in my [wherever].” Baby steps help you step away from overwhelm and toward manageability.
Ask yourself, “how am I experiencing this feeling in my body?”
Is it sharp? Is it red? Is it cinnamon?
Take your time to allow your body to tell you what it’s feeling. Tell yourself what you noticed, in objective language. “I feel yellow in my head,” “I feel numb in my heart,” “I feel prickly in my skin,” helps normalise your experience and makes your somatic self feel heard and valued.
You might notice something that will tell you what your next steps are. For example, “I feel lightheaded” might be an indicator of rage, and it might also be an indicator that you’re unconsciously holding your breath. “I feel like someone is crushing my chest” or “I feel like someone is blocking my throat,” while authentically connected with feelings, can also be indicators that you’re not breathing. Emotions are constructed reactions based on thought and physical sensation, so a mechanical fix can abet an emotional situation.
Can you be present with the feeling, as it passes through you? Can you allow it to resonate through your body in the time it needs, without stopping it or denying it, but rather supporting it, allowing it to speak to you, and then letting it pass away without holding on to it?
Just trying is a great start. You can always try again later.
Ask the feeling what it has to say to you.
If you are present with the feeling, it will feel more intense than denying the feeling or packing it down where you don’t have to notice it, but then it will pass away instead of getting trapped in you, and instead of rankling, it will run its course, and you will have peace in its place. Sure, other feelings might come up in the future, but that particular one, you will have dealt with.
Sit with the feeling and allow it to say what it has to say. Let the feeling know that you are listening with patience. Show the feeling that you are not judging it, by echoing back to it what you notice in objective language, instead of qualitative or critical language. Because there is no such thing as a “bad” feeling or a “good” feeling. Feelings are amoral. They are information. What you choose to do with the information is up to you. Show the feeling that you have time for it and that it matters to you, by giving it your full attention. Show the feeling that you are curious about it and want to learn about it, by waiting for it to tell you, instead of assuming you already know, and interrupting.
Because that physical feeling is a big clue that is going to help you get where you’re going. You need the information that that feeling can unlock in you. And you’re only going to get that information by being humble and patient and allowing it to show you the way.
Invite yourself to bring some love to the part of you that you are noticing.
You could use your breath as the love conduit. Invite some love into the feeling place with some fluid, controlled breath, making the exhale longer than the inhale. Notice the quality, flavour, and sound of the breath.
You can also bring love to the feeling via your hands. While grounded and breathing, invite some love to flow into your hands.
Ask the feeling where it would like you to apply the love. Bring your hands full of love toward the part, listening all the way. Maybe the feeling wants your hands to hover two feet away. Maybe the feeling wants your hands to graze your skin. Maybe the feeling wants your hands to bear-hug it. You have to respond to what the feeling tells you. Then, listen and notice what happens between your hands and the feeling.
Do you feel energy? A reaction? An exchange? Do you feel something changing? Do you feel breath? How long does the feeling want you to leave your hands there?
Make sure you ask the feeling what it wants. “How do you want to be touched?” ask the feeling. “What would feel good for you?”
The feeling will tell you when it’s ready for you to let go.
When the feeling tells you that it’s had enough, thank it for giving you this opportunity to be present with it. Thank it for teaching you something, whether or not you understand what it taught you in the moment.
Invite the feeling to tell you what it would like you to do next.
If you are really listening to the feeling, instead of the story in your head, any answer will be a healthy answer that’s true for you. The feeling might suggest a jog, reaching out to friends and community, journalling, washing your face, a snack, a hug, music, work, a pause, a hike, a cup of tea, a marathon, learning a new skill. It will suggest something that’s authentically you.
As long as you are tuned in to the physical feeling, you can only go right.
So that’s it. I’ve shared this practice with you so that instead of reacting to a big life challenge by counterproductively getting all up in your head and drowning, or by denying yourself access to your own healing powers and thus getting stuck, you can respond in an integrated, present, whole way that will help you swim to shore. I’m not saying it will be easy, but then, a hero like you, I know you can handle it!
Life can throw us huge challenges. It’s up to us how we handle them. We have profound healing resources inside ourselves, if we are brave enough to accept these resources.
If we choose to allow ourselves, we can be our own greatest heroes.