Because I connected my diagnosis with the need to deeply rethink, the mind-body link of meditation showed a possible way. I poignantly felt the limits of rational thought and wanted a different way to explore life.
My diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer at age 35 was a shock, also because I come from a family with no history of cancer. In disbelief, I was literally speechless—I lost my voice completely for several days. I grew up in the former Soviet Union and then in the newly independent Kyrgyzstan. My understanding of cancer and cancer treatment was on the level of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward—basically a death sentence that comes with much suffering. I was not able to comprehend my doctor’s words that it was treatable and curable in these first days after the diagnosis.
In retrospect (and in contradiction), my ignorance of modern cancer care had a positive side. It forced me to think in terms of life and death, the meaning of each, and consider my life and my own intention for it. As I read during my summer of treatment, “though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death may save us.”1
As I was taking in the diagnosis and thinking how to get through this, I found the language of illness or fight not helpful to me; since all the cells were my own, I did not want to fight myself. Intuitively, I felt that the concept of transformation could be a source to help me think about life and myself as part and manifestation of it. It was important that the idea of transformation held its own, even if time happened to be limited. For me, transformation was about deeper understanding of the world and life. I also intuitively felt the need to fundamentally rethink everything.
The Mind-Body Link of Meditation
I was terrified of treatment side effects and wanted to support myself the best I could. I needed to learn about cancer and so looked through the hospital website; the Integrative Medicine Center, with its emphasis on both physical and emotional well-being, made me trust Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). I realized that people at the hospital thoroughly searched and explored what could be helpful.
I decided to try meditation, which I had never tried before. Because I connected my diagnosis with the need to deeply rethink, the mind-body link of meditation showed a possible way. I poignantly felt the limits of rational thought—why did this happen—and wanted a different way to explore life. I wasn’t thinking this clearly then. It was my intuition, the desire and the choice of life that guided me.
It has been a year and half since I have started doing meditation. At first, as I was waiting for postsurgery test results that would guide my treatment, I started to meditate on my own, using the recordings on the MSKCC website. I felt the benefits: sleeping well and going through my days without being consumed by anxiety. As my treatment was ending, I began to attend a weekly group, which I joined when my schedule allowed—sometimes every week and other times every few months.
I was physically well with a good prognosis, but the uncertainty and fragility of life had become tangible. The world was not as familiar as it was before. I also started going for an individual session about once every 4 to 5 weeks, which I have been doing regularly for a year and a half. I continue to meditate two or three times a day on my own. In my individual session, we talk first and then we do a meditation. As my first year of sessions was coming to an end, the therapist asked why the talking part was important to me. It was a great question: the Ariadne’s thread that guided me through the process.
I remember my first sessions. I would talk, and then the therapist would observe something, in a short and precise phrase. I was always startled, because it was, without fail, an exacting observation but without judgment. It was recognizing something in my past, in my life, in my childhood, in previous generations that was there, yet I did not see it or think of it. It took another several days (or weeks) for things to sink in, and then I would always have a realization of some kind, an understanding of something. I wrote a journal as I was going through the treatment and now started to keep another notebook as a diary, so I could talk to myself in it. Something would always surface in the process of writing as well: The thoughts would form at my fingertips.
Changing Perceptions Through Writing
I came across an article in The New York Times citing research that through writing. it was possible “to change perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.”2 I read about the connection between language and perception, consciousness and awareness.3 Yet the most unexpected expression of this relationship I found in the work of Sándor Márai.
He tells the story of talking to a Russian soldier during the World War II siege of Budapest. The soldier asked what Márai’s profession was and, hearing that the latter was a writer, thought that it was good. Márai asked why: “It is good because if you are a writer, then you can tell us what we are thinking.4”
Perhaps by writing for myself, I can tell myself what I am thinking. “During his lifetime, man not only acts, speaks, thinks, and dreams; he also keeps silent about something. Throughout our entire lives we keep silent about who we are, about the one only we know and cannot reveal to anyone. But we know that the one and what we remain silent about is the “truth”: We are what we keep silent about.”4
I think of Márai’s prose: So often, it is a monologue of hero or heroine talking, confessing his or her story to an unnamed interlocutor. Márai lived in exile for over 40 years, continuing to write in his native Hungarian; his work from these years was not published during his lifetime.
I wrote about things I could not talk about, so the therapist could read and talk to me. Talking has been about accepting, becoming, being visible, and being present. Talking was an instrument for this, because it was part of the intentional relationship and connection with the therapist, which was profoundly healing. As we talked, I thought out loud about the aspects of my life that were defining: my profession (painting and sculpture), immigration, and relationships with other human beings.
Essentially, it was two strangers talking, people who did not know each other: One was trained to understand another, and the other wanted to understand (life and oneself) and to be understood. It took me courage to talk, to say, to be as I am. I was talking out of a lonely place. I wondered what the therapist thought, whether I sounded silly or naive, whether it was boring to him as he heard so many people. But I talked, because I knew he was listening, and he was hearing beyond the talking, hearing things unsaid, which he then named. Talking was also about naming things, of giving form to life lived and unlived, so it can be lived.
The Human Connection
What this relationship has given me is the understanding and the experience of human connection that goes beyond cultures, backgrounds, ages, and language intentionally. It is about a fundamental occasion of being human and being present in this humanity, which is life changing. Simultaneously, it is a deliberate connection to and relationship with myself that goes beyond myself to include previous generations, various cultures, different aspects of and people in my life. It is a question that cannot be fully answered yet can be continuously explored: Who am I?
I came to this country 15 years ago. Only recently, I realized how confused and separated from myself I was for the first 10 years, as if I put aside and forgotten some parts of me. Perhaps, to leave my world, I had to say goodbye to parts of myself. My divorce prompted the awakening. As if one loss led me to another, initial one, so I could recover what was lost then. Having now grappled with my own eventual inevitable loss of life, I am able to go through what I recovered and make sense of and connections between different parts of my life.
Things were not forgotten, just put out of sight. I wonder whether the pain of being in an unfamiliar and often incomprehensible world (sometimes literally) affected how I saw and not saw where I was and am from. Did the pain of my diagnosis make me lose my ability to talk for a few days, yet it made my vision clearer: I have never seen the intensity of light as I did in these several days, cutting as in Matisse’s cut-outs. As I started talking, I slowly saw how loss could be about separation, integration, or transformation.
A Year of Self-Portraits
This year has also been a year of self-portraits and sustained thinking about seeing oneself quite literally. As I painted and thought, I realized to which extent self-portrait is only partially about seeing oneself, and only seeing via a reflection. It is so much about the visceral knowledge that comes from the body via brush. Here I am in the flesh, on the canvas, and in the mirror. I look at my own images of myself. I cannot see my face directly, yet I live in it and am recognized by it. Painting myself, I am my own subject, my own instrument, my own act of creation, and my own viewer. What do I see and from which point? And what don’t I see?
Once the therapist observed that in response to his story I looked like I was crying, which I wasn’t. I caught my thought and realized the pain that my face expressed was what I wanted to talk about before but could not then and now was able to. It is through talking, through the eyes of another, I learned both to listen to and feel my body.
The personal meditation practice was complementary to my practice of finding form (either with my brush or with words) and seeing. As I closed my eyes and focused on my breath, I lived in my body from inside, in my body that is not seen by me or others. I simply was. Unseen. Silent. Still. Sometimes I was caught in the web of my thoughts; other times they thawed. It is through meditation that I learned about nonjudgment, about just being as is, realizing how much I carry that is not seen by me and accepting it unseen.
This acceptance, which is a work in progress, helped me write, helped me talk, helped me be as I am, and see more of myself. Acceptance was about acknowledging the presence of more parts of myself, including those that were unfamiliar, letting them live finding from for themselves. Later, I came across Henry Miller’s understanding of cancer: “…To me cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start over completely from scratch.”5 By then, I disagreed because I understood that the change of course was the radical acceptance of oneself and others without judgment and that there was no starting from scratch, as we do not come here as tabula rasa (a blank slate).
At the time of diagnosis, I kept it private and shared it on a need-to-know basis. Slowly, I shared it with a few close friends, but even now, most people with whom I interact on a daily basis do not know about this part of my life. Initially, I wrote a draft of this essay in an attempt to record and understand my experience of mind-body work and as a testament to its profound benefit—not only to my recovery but to my life at large. However, it is the experience of unconditional kindness that makes it possible for me to share this with a larger community, bringing together writing, talking, and being. ■
Disclosure: Ms. Shkurpela reported no potential conflicts of interest.
1. Yalom ID: Existential Psychotherapy, p 4. New York, NY, Basic Books, 1980.
2. Parker-Pope T: Writing your way to happiness. The New York Times, January 19, 2015. Available at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/writing-your-way-to-happiness/?_r=0. Accessed February 10, 2016.
3. Carter R: The Human Brain Book, pp 146-147. London, DK, 2014.
4. Márai S: Memoir of Hungary 1944–1948. p 63. Budapest, Corvina Books, 2000.
5. Brassai: Henry Miller: The Paris Years, p 38. New York, NY, Arcade Publishing, 1995.