It was 1979. I met her for an appointment in her office. The meeting was related to my new assignment. It was part of the orientation. I was assigned to be the chaplain for the oncology team at the teaching hospital where I worked.
The nurse-oncologist asked me what I knew about cancer. I shared the basics as I understood them, addressing the differences in treatment among surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. She then handed me a book that had just been published: Carl Siminton’s Getting Well Again. This guide for people living with cancer would revolutionize treatment resulting in a dynamic shift in the value of self-help approaches to living with illness.
I read the book eagerly. In subsequent meetings, I worked with the nurse-oncologist developing approaches to visualization and guided imagery for people living with cancer. While I had fun encouraging people to imagine that chemotherapy was like Ms. Packman who gobbled up the cancer cells as though they were dots in the video game, I focused more on helping people to use religious imagery as part of their treatment. With a background in spirituality, this was simple enough. What’s known in Christian spiritual practice as discursive meditation includes the use of imagination and imagery in a focused way.
Today, more than thirty years later, a solid body of research provides a clear foundation to support our contemporary understanding that not only does engaging one’s mind in positive imagery support health, but also that regular practice in meditation and prayer enhance both health and mental health.
While it is true that many people on the oncology unit died because of cancer, it is also true that many people lived longer and fuller lives because of the use of visualization and imagination to empower themselves as active participants in their treatment. We can’t escape the fact that we all will die from something. However, the way in which we live, including in the face of serious illness and the dying process, is something over which we have a good deal of control. Spiritual practices, including meditation and visualization, have the ability to enhance and improve our quality of life and support the process of treatment for physical and mental illnesses.
As a Christian, during these weeks, I am observing what is known as the season of Lent: a time to refocus spiritual practice in observance of the stories surrounding the death and resurrection of the Christ. In this Lent, I am finding it helpful to consider the ways in which moving through death dealing situations can lead to new life within the human experience. It is our nature as human beings to be resilient and to find positive opportunities in the midst of life’s challenges. This is true even when faced with serious illnesses including cancer.
My experiences working with people living with cancers, HIV/AIDS, and a host of other serious illnesses have taught me that regular spiritual practice and the use of imagery and visualization make positive contributions to the effectiveness of treatment, the quality of life, and the ability to honestly assess one’s own condition of health. The practices of meditation and visualization enable people to move through the frightening death-dealing experience to find life in a new way.
In 1987, I facilitated a meditation group for people living with AIDS. All the members of the group were people who had been previously hospitalized with complications related to AIDS. They had given up employment and were living on disability. Most of them experienced various levels of depression. The format of the group was simple: 20 minutes of a silent meditation followed by a 20 minute discussion from an affirming page-a-day book on living with AIDS. Members agreed to practice meditation and read the affirmation page each day between meetings. After about six months, the group decided to disband. Why? No one had died. Instead, one gave up disability and went back to work; another decided to travel and see things he had not; another chose to return to school to finish a degree not completed some years back. There were seven people in the group: all began to fill their lives with living. They each attributed the change to the experience of the group and regular meditation. While the members stayed in contact and did meet informally, the regular weekly meetings ended because the participants were just too busy. Yes, in time, each of the members did die from complications due to HIV/AIDS. But before death, they found life in new ways that was rich and meaningful.
While religious beliefs often focus on finding new life in the great beyond or another life through reincarnation, one of the gifts of regular spiritual practice and meditation provides is the ability to find life in new ways in the here and now. Our ability to find life in the present moment, even when confronted with serious illness, is part of what it means to be human. Indeed, our human spirit is amazingly resilient. Further, just imagining it makes it so.
© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.