Cancer as Yoga: Joining the Outer Self With the Inner Self

I've often heard from people who've gone through traumatic experiences that their perspectives shifted and revealed previously unknown qualities.

This attitude of silent observation is the very foundation of yoga.

—Sri Nisargaddata Maharaj

During a recent counseling session, a client was sharing with me the current stressors in his life. He was feeling increasing pressure both at home and at work and it was exacting a heavy toll on his overall health. At some point during our talk he mentioned that he is a cancer survivor, having been through treatment, recurrence, and a second treatment. He proudly pointed to the scar on his chest where his port had been and talked about what it was like to see a “dying face in the mirror everyday” only to find the courage to face another round of chemotherapy.

As I listened, recalling my own scars from the cancer trek, he hit upon a theme that I have found in many of the people I've worked with who've been through life-altering experiences. This theme, which I have to confess I find within myself, he expressed as “I can’t believe I’m letting these little things in life bother me again.”

I've often heard from people who've gone through traumatic experiences that their perspectives shifted and revealed previously unknown qualities. The self that each discovered was more resilient, courageous and balanced. Upon reflection, many see this as one of the gifts that come from living with an uncertain future. The eventual return to the more familiar self, filled with worries, lacking in self-confidence and a victim of past and future, is what I refer to as the persistence of personality. This was crystallized for me by a young woman who had been through treatment for breast cancer who said, “I was a better person while going through treatment.”

The fact that the shock of a cancer diagnosis and the journey into the labyrinth of treatment, can bring about dramatic shifts in one's self has deep roots in psychology. It can even be said that the primary aim of psychotherapy is to help facilitate such transformations. That these changes often don’t become permanent is a testament to the strength of our egoic selves — the mind-made sense of who we are — and the habitual manner in which most of us live our lives.

The great news for anyone who has had this experience and now laments the loss of the “Now I see what’s important” self, is that it is not lost. The even greater news is that, rather than a temporary response, arising momentarily out of chaos, it is, in fact, our true nature. It is the shattering impact of a cancer diagnosis that shakes the foundations of the ego and cracks its hard shell. Through these cracks emerges the ever-present, shining, true self.

For many of us survivors, the further we move away from the treatment experience, the less contact we seem to have with the "better person." Looking at the world again through old eyes, molehills once again become mountains, it rains on every parade and our fantasy football picks are hurt on the first play from scrimmage; life starts to hurt again. At this point, some survivors will practice the mantra of "I’ve been through worse.” While certainly true, this chant seldom works for very long as memory is never as powerful as our here-and-now experience.

In my work as a therapist, a leader of a cancer support group tand five years into my own survivorship, I find the middle path works the best when it comes to the persistence of personality. When working with clients I will suggest that they see the return of their old patterns of thinking and behaving as a natural rebound effect. It is the ego’s job to try to maintain a sense of familiarity, to include our idiosyncrasies and dysfunctional behaviors. I try to help them see that this self only grows stronger when they resist and try to fight. I will then remind them that their true selves emerged during their time of crisis not due to their effort, but to surrender. It was there in the shadows just waiting for the moment when their attempts to control life failed.

Upon further investigation, we understand that it was not the cancer that brought about these changes (good news for those who want the experience without the illness), it was the shift into a level of present moment awareness we seldom allow ourselves.

When we no longer live in a remembered past and imagined future we experience what Eckhart Tolle has called, "the power of now." In this state, fears, worries and anxieties are transmuted into peace. In this way, cancer itself becomes yoga; a joining the outer self, with its habitual patterns of fight and flight, with the inner self and its reflexive response of equanimity. The timeless act of dividing the world, if even just for a moment, ends and duality merges into the absolute oneness.