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Our Use of Language Affects Our State of Health.

Mindfulness practice allows us to see our thoughts and to disentangle from them.

“I’m Terminal” Is a Dangerous Use of Language

It’s common to hear someone with very advanced cancer say, “I’m terminal.” In the last stages of the disease, this acceptance of death is healthy and allows for a more peaceful dying process; the dying phase is a time to accept and make peace with dying. But identifying and attaching to a diagnosis or prognosis when there is still a chance of recovery can cause unnecessary additional suffering and is not conducive to health and well-being. In my training at the Simonton Cancer Center, I occasionally met program participants who referred to themselves as being “terminal” at a stage when it was still reasonable to hope for recovery. Perhaps you can see that this is a slippery slope because although it is important to maintain hope, it is also important to not become attached to getting well. Mindfulness practice offers a way to negotiate this complex terrain.

Living as Normal

Some people living with debilitating chronic medical conditions or life-threatening conditions are committed to going about their lives as if they were healthy, and this works fine for some people. Others of us can do this for a certain percentage of the time but are then struck down with fatigue, malaise, or some other disabling condition that makes living the life of a normal, healthy person impossible. 

Although people with chronic illness would certainly like to live as everyone else does, the reality is that sometimes we can and sometimes we can’t. Still, a large percentage of us are able to have productive careers, a rich family and social life—and a lot of fun. We may simply have to do these things a little differently from the way healthy people do them, taking into account our limitations. 

Vulnerability and the Illusion of Control

It is very frightening to think that no matter what we do to take care of ourselves, we are still vulnerable to serious medical problems. One time when I was trying on a new pair of shoes I got talking to a young woman who looked like a world-class athlete. I asked her what sport she competed in and that discussion led to my sharing about having been involved in ski racing in my teens and twenties, and the fact that I hadn’t skied since age thirty. She asked why I had quit skiing at such a young age, and I decided to tell her about the very debilitating connective tissue problems that had led to my giving it up, among other things. Whenever I get into a conversation like this with athletes, at some point they invariably want to know what caused all my health problems. I can tell by the way they ask that their concern relates to their belief that such things will never happen to them because they eat the perfect diet, exercise properly, get enough sleep, and manage their stress. The conversation always takes a negative turn when I explain that I was already doing everything right prior to developing serious health problems; they begin to look worried and the conversation ends abruptly.

Metaphorically, we can’t stop the big waves of life, but we can learn to ride them.

Even if we do everything right, we cannot control our health, but we can learn how to de-fuse or disentangle from the types of thoughts that otherwise lead to fear of illness and death.

As my first Buddhist meditation teacher once said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

3 replies
  1. Susan james
    Susan james says:

    I couldnt help but comment further. This stuff about people being able to control all illnesses and misfortune-ie if you have something go wrong is made up of at least TWO bastardizations. One is a bastardization of the Eastern concept of ‘Karma’. People applying a cheap and self-centered ignorant version of this deep meaningful idea, and also using it as a weapon. Two- is -if you think about it for any amount of time- it holds no water to blame people for not being able to control everything- FOR- if you do, what you are saying is that humans are Gods. The grandiosity of such ideas stands out to me,
    And worse these ideas are currently, it seems to me, being marketed under the label of “spirituality’. It creeps me out. Ive never come across any such teaching in Buddha, Jesus,etc. the ideas of the great prophets were always things like compassion is the great chasllenge to achieve, and to love one another as I have loved you, and the like. Hard things to achieve,. But its so outrageous what is being marketed- and selling an industry of- as spiritual growth.
    The ideas of all spiritual paths is to look at oneself for ways to become more free of fear and judgement, and to become useful. Not to become ignorant psuedo doctors and psychiatrists who apparently know the cause of all illness. But-rather- someone who can respond in kindness and usefulness in ones own and anothers distress. I dont think Im alone in that basic knowledge.(despite being far from achieving it!). This other stuff seems to me a way to justify the neglect of others and feel good about it. Anyway thats my rave.

    • Larry Berkelhammer
      Larry Berkelhammer says:

      Susan,
      Thank you for both of your comments. As someone living with life-long chronic illness, I have long been quite disheartened by all the new-age, mumbo-jumbo, hype that promises that if you buy a certain herbal or other supplement, you can be perfectly healthy. Over the years, many well-meaning people, including healers, have suggested a certain product or treatment. But then when I examine the research on it, all I find is poorly controlled studies by the maker of the product, which were published in some new-age tabloid or magazine, which has no peer-reviewed process.

      Although I no longer see clients, all my writing and speaking (I only speak in the SF Bay Area because of my difficulty in traveling) focuses on living as full and as happy a life as possible, and to not get too invested in being free of whatever medical condition we live with. Of course, it is essential to take good care of ourselves in terms of nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress-management, social support, good medical care, and to find meaning and purpose.

  2. Susan james
    Susan james says:

    Thank God,
    Many people are talking about this disease of self-will that has been aroung during my growing up (I am 50). A brutal judgemental attitude to human existence, saying that willpower can conquer all, that people who are sick are not doing enough good thind, plus this aggressive positivity, to coin a phrase already around being used on this website.
    i could really go on and on- becuase finally the things Ive felt up the back of my neck- are being spoken of. But I oughtnt go into slander and names. (Id bloodywell like to).
    Here is something wiser though,than what I could come up with– a quote from Carl Jung:-
    ” ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’ is the superstion of our times.” -cARL jUNG

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