Intention and Mastery

There is a universal human need to have some sense that we are in control of our lives. Our health and our happiness depend on it. People who live with chronic health challenges, especially if it involves chronic, unremitting pain, fatigue, malaise, or physical disability can easily fall into a sense of helplessness and despair.  This can be the result of having spent years trying every evidence-based and alternative treatment without success. It can also be the result of spending one’s life missing work, family, and play activities as a result of not feeling well. However, having a chronic medical condition provides an opportunity to cultivate mastery of the mind by learning to develop the psychological flexibility to ride the big waves that life throws at us.

We can’t stop the waves of life but we can learn to surf them!

Mastery is not about control—it is about being on the path of surfing the waves of life in order to feel in control. In fact, attempts to actually control the events in our lives paradoxically results in feeling helpless, hopeless, and depressed. Surfers don’t control the ocean or even the waves they ride, yet they feel in control by learning to ride what they can’t control.

Living well with serious medical conditions is possible when we learn to ride the waves of pain, fatigue, malaise, or disability instead of fighting against them.

More than any of the other skills discussed in my blog, intention and mindfulness practices can provide a way to develop mastery of the mind by teaching you how to disentangle from the types of thought patterns that lead to emotional distress and concomitant physiological stress. Intention and mindfulness practices can teach you how to ride the nasty, big waves. By using intention to stay present to all your thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions, blending with them, and riding the turbulence, you can enjoy mastery of the mind despite living with chronic health challenges.

Mastery is developed by learning to change your relationship to that which you cannot control, just as surfers learn to feel in control by changing their relationship to the wave. When you fight against something, it controls you; when you blend with it, riding it, you are in control.

The simple act of setting the intention to practice something serves to activate neural networks that relate to whatever it is that you practice, making it more likely to experience the qualities of the practice. Certain life practices have been found to correlate with health. Some of these include acceptance, loving self-care, meaning and purpose, social support, mindfulness, altruism, authenticity, challenge, choice, compassion, curiosity, empathy, and gratitude.

As will be apparent from all the studies and discussions presented in my blog, living with intention and mindfulness is associated with better health outcomes.  Emotional distress causes the release of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine, which in turn activates cytokines and chemokines in an inflammatory response, and that response in turn, over a long period of chronic, unremitting emotional distress can facilitate the growth and metastasis of tumors, and the inability to fight off diseases that we otherwise would be able to avoid.  In other words, emotional distress impairs the immune system, and that makes it more difficult for the immune system to do its job of identifying and killing cancer cells or even the common cold.  For example, natural killer (NK) cells, which normally kill cancer cells, do not even get activated when stress hormones are too high.

Despair and the inability to live with intention are immunosuppressive because of increased emotional distress. NK cells as well as T and B-lymphocytes are particularly sensitive to feelings of helplessness and despair.  When we believe we have absolutely no control over our lives, we lose the will to live, and that mindset is not conducive to a functioning immune system.  That lack of a sense of control over our lives impairs the immune system and all physiological functioning.

In the 1950s, psychooncologist Lawrence LeShan discovered that the cancer patients who did not do well were those who believed they had no control over their destiny.  They were the ones who had lost hope of ever regaining what they had, or had lost hope of ever living the life they had once dreamed of living, but never achieved.  In a study of 152 cancer patients, he found despair in 72 percent.  However, he found despair in only twelve percent in non-cancer patients. LeShan and others who teach metastatic cancer patients the mind training skills needed to improve their odds of recovering have all developed the ability to predict the patients’ likelihood of recovering.  Those who commit themselves to learning how to live with intention and mastery go on to recover, whereas those who maintain a hopeless and helpless attitude tend to die in the time frame predicted by their oncologists.

In general, anything that restores a sense of control to a patient can be a profound aid to a physician in treating serious illness. That sense of control is more than a mere mood or attitude, and may well be a vital pathway between the brain, the endocrine system, and the immune system. The assumed possibility is that it may serve as the basis for what may well be a profound advance in the knowledge of how to confront the challenge of serious illness. —Norman Cousins

One of the simplest ways to cultivate mastery is to become proactive in your healthcare, and become an expert in your particular medical conditions. This may be time consuming but it is very achievable by most people.

Living with intention and mastery does not mean surfing through life with supreme confidence in your ability to handle every daily challenge without experiencing doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, sadness, or anger. Instead, it refers to having enough psychological flexibility to tolerate those challenges and to ride those waves of change, getting stronger with each wave.

In addition to learning about the research, participation in my blog, and viewing of the various videos over time, can serve as instruction and guidance in the development of intention and mastery.