The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

On Feeling Un-F***ed with Mindfulness

by David VictorsonProfessor of Medical Social Sciences, Research Associate Director at Cancer Survivorship Institute at Northwestern UniversitySeptember 24, 2021View more posts from David Victorson

I just got back from co-leading a mindfulness in nature retreat in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a group of eight incredible young adult women from across the country who didn’t know each other before they arrived, but are all card-carrying members of the same exclusive club to which none of them wants to belong.

During our time together, everyone shared their personal story about some of the perks of club membership. One person’s membership included a spouse of several years asking for a divorce shortly after her diagnosis. Another person’s membership plan included recurring once again and having to go on temporary disability. Another membership included becoming a foster parent, which in itself was a blessing, but was the only option left to become a mother after her reproductive ability was taken from her. Many memberships came with additional bonus features like how do I meet a person now with whom I can form an intimate, loving and meaningful relationship? And of course, many plans included free access to hang out in the “I used to” membership lounge – I used to be spontaneous. I used to be fun. I used to like the way I looked. I used to be easy going. A universal membership benefit that was included for signing up early in life was experiencing regular panic, fear, sadness, and anxiety, not only about unknown bodily sensations or upcoming scans, but about regular, everyday things, like: Am I getting enough sleep? Is this healthy to eat? Am I standing in the sun too long? Did I just say something that sounded stupid? What is wrong with me? Am I worthy of anything good coming my way? During our retreat time together, I was incredibly privileged to be able to learn more about how club membership has affected their lives – a club they were all forced to join and pay unimaginable dues, with a membership they all desperately wished they could just cancel.

Some refer to this association as the “Big C” club, but that letter alone doesn’t do justice to these perks without also adding an F, a U, and a K, because whether you just finished treatment or you’re on your five-year cancerversary, everyone affected by this can have moments where they just feel fucked sometimes. Fucked with. Fucked over. Fucked-up. Are you fucking kidding me? Fuck this. Fuck me. What the fuck? Not to mention times of feeling fucking stressed, fucking pissed, fucking scared, fucking sad, fucking tired, fucking different, fucking lost. Bucket lists become fuck-it lists. There’s no fucking manual to read. Sometimes it can be hard to even give a fuck. So yeah, fuck the Big C. But is there a way to ever start to feel un-fucked by all of this? Or better yet, unfuckwithable?

Between time spent connecting with the spaciousness of nature and the graciousness of peers, a third, crucial connection of True North Treks is time spent connecting with the tenaciousness of ourselves through MAPS, or mindful awareness practices. And when you’re a member of this club, connecting with yourself in this way can be one of the hardest yet most important things one can do. It is at the root of starting to feel un-fucked, and even unfuckwithable, or those moments in our lives of feeling so connected and at peace and in touch with ourselves that nothing anyone says or does can get to us, and no negativity or drama can touch us.

We started our hike together through the Hiawatha National Forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where from time to time a serene, inland lake could be seen through the trees and bushes. As we started walking, we heard the haunting wail of a loon echoing off in the distance. The type of eerie, longing call this loon made indicated its wish to interact with others and find its community. We generally start our hikes without any instruction except to call out stumps or branches to the person behind us. As soon as the group began walking, in a matter of seconds everyone began talking, which is lovely and normal, and some of the best conversations can happen when we’re shoulder to shoulder with someone or looking at their backpack. At some point, we stopped for a drink and asked everyone to join us in a little experiment. On the next section of the trail, we would all enter into a period of collective silence and see if we could try to actually be in and with the forest itself, with each step, and with each breath, noticing the colors, textures, shapes, tactile sensations, different sounds and smells, and to just stay with these things as long as we could. And then to see if we could become aware each time our distractible little puppy minds would go racing off to different thoughts, feelings, and emotions about the past or the future, and each time it did, to gently call our attention back with kindness and warmth, and to just redirect our awareness back to the forest again with each step and with each breath.

This experiment quickly reminded me how scary and uncomfortable it can be to just be quiet with ourselves, even in such a beautiful place and with such beautiful and supportive people all around us. To an outsider passing by, we probably just looked like a group of healthy and happy people on a leisurely saunter through the woods, but on the inside of many who were on this silent hike, this silence could at times be a deafening reverberation of their lives.

After about 20 minutes of silent hiking, we stopped to hydrate and debrief a bit on what people noticed and observed about this experience. Some initial observations focused on the beauty of the sunlight piercing through the treetops, the maple leaves on the verge of changing colors, or the realization that the forest floor was made up of dead, decomposing material, which provided life and nourishment to all the vibrant hardwoods shooting toward the sky. Then someone shared an observation that the silence itself was very anxiety provoking, to which many heads nodded in agreement. Another shared that she noticed herself start to feel panicked as the silence seemed to let in a bombardment of racing thoughts and feelings about everything going on in her life. Another person observed that to cope with this onslaught of noise in her head she tried to focus on repeating everyone’s first and last name, hometown, and diagnosis. Another person observed that she started doubting her ability to do this the right way because she’s never been good at it.

As a mindfulness practitioner, teacher, and researcher, I often hear comments like these. I even get them myself every now and then. What’s usually surprising but reaffirming to most is the mere fact that they were able to observe their puppy minds racing away and share that with us; even if it was racing to an unpleasant place of anxiety, they were doing real work that was strengthening their mindfulness muscles. They were practicing. And as one of the participants wisely stated, “Mindfulness is called a practice for a reason,” and our lives are the real meditations where we get to practice again and again and again. In Rumi’s poem “The Guest House,” he advises us to welcome, entertain, and be grateful for whatever unexpected visitor knocks on our doors, whether it’s a joy, a depression, a meanness, a dark thought, shame, malice, or even a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep our house empty of its furniture. He asks us to invite and treat all of these guests honorably, as they may be clearing us out for something new or sent as a guide from beyond. Feeling un-fucked or unfuckwithable is no different, and by making time to practice intentionally dropping into our direct experiences with mindful awareness, we might be able to know moments from time to time where no negativity or drama can touch us.

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