One afternoon in August, 1991 I found a tumour the size of a walnut in the right lobe of my thyroid gland; was prematurely diagnosed with glandular fever, only to realise after surgery it was in fact a malignant, stage 3 tumour and I was given 6 months to live. At the tender age of 24, this was my first initiation in facing a ‘wake up’ call.
Flatlining twice in the space of 24 hours after an immediate second surgery, I looked death squarely in the face. I experienced what is known as Near Death Experiences (NDEs) whereby an aspect of my conscious awareness was floating at the ceiling level, looking down at my physical body, fully aware of a connection to that physical body, but in a totally non-attached manner. It was surreal. It was peaceful. It was serene. That is, until a voice spoke assertively to me: “it’s not your time yet!” With that, I was catapulted back into my physical body. That happened twice.
I recall eventually regaining consciousness after being in the Intensive Care Unit for almost 2 weeks, fully aware of the NDEs and also fully aware of who had visited, what was said, who said what, and where in the room my visitors were seated… whilst being unconscious. It was a remarkable sense of heightened awareness – sometimes it’s even hard for me to get my logical mind around.
My life changed forever after this first experience with cancer:
- people no longer felt confident in how to relate with me
- people stopped touching me, in fear of ‘catching’ something from me
- I was confused and frightened, but equally (if not more) determined to fight for my life (rather than against the cancer)
- my workplace was placing pressure on me to return to work, not fully understanding what I was experiencing (this was before our openness or capacity to work from home)
- my marriage broke down (imagine two x 24yo’s making sense of this new reality with limited EQ)
- my family arranged our local pastor to visit and deliver a final rights ceremony
- recommendations were conflicting and I was overwhelmed and confused about how to handle this ‘wake up’ call
- I had far more questions than answers – everything I’d ever believed about life, about God, and about what I’d expected for myself was thrown up in the air for reflection and renegotiation… my own quest for Truth was awakened
And the list goes on… all the while, I was trying to make sense of what had happened during my time in the ICU and wanting to know I wasn’t going mad – that I didn’t need to be frightened, and that I hadn’t been hallucinating!
Even to this day I sometimes feel a fear that comes out of the dark and threatens to overwhelm me.
Practicing mindfulness and meditation helps me deal with those moments so that the fear doesn’t debilitate me. Meditation has become a way of life for me – so much so that I’m now a qualified instructor of meditation and MBSR, which is a wonderful complement to my coaching and resilience toolkits.
The biggest lesson for me in learning how to face a ‘wake up’ call is this: you can decide how you’re going to approach life’s challenges – you can either be a warrior or a victim. You always have choice. Too many people are victims ie. poor me, poor this, poor that. My meditation discipline prepares me to conquer setbacks. Bad stuff happens in life. The key word is responsibility – it means owning your ability to respond to situations outside your control, rather than react. Just like in sports, meditation keeps me in a ‘ready’ position for life.
Life is filled with inevitable external demands, challenges, illnesses etc. Science calls these stressors: ie. financial stressors, family stressors, job stressors, wellbeing stressors, social stressors. You can try to manage or minimise stressors, but the truth is that they will always be there. And these days, it seems we have little or no control over most of them.
The real issue is how we ‘react’ to those stressors. This is what scientists call our stress response. If we are well rested, thinking clearly, and on top of our game, we meet these stressors head-on. Afterwards, we feel good, invigorated, satisfied, ready for the next challenge. But if we are not sleeping well, not thinking particularly clearly, and feeling off, we get overwhelmed. We get stressed.
With chronic stress, we’re chronically acting from the ‘fear centre’ of the brain – the amygdala. Do you make good decisions when you’re stressed? Display sound judgement? Solve problems? Plan well? Of course not. With a hyperaroused amygdala, you overreact to just about everything. You don’t’ think as clearly, your memory is less reliable, you can get sick more often, and you just don’t feel ‘yourself.’
After discovering the value of meditation to me personally, I now recommend it to my coaching clients, many of whom now practise it regularly. In almost 20 years of practice, mindfulness and meditation stand out as the most powerful and effective techniques I have encountered for reducing stress and facing a ‘wake up’ call. You can try it for yourself and join me for free online practice each Monday at midday (AEST).
I’ll leave you with this to ponder:
“How then shall I live” is not a compelling question in times of ease. It’s a question that catches fire when things fall apart – a question that becomes insistent when we’re visited by misfortune. Think illness, death of loved ones, pandemic uncertainty, political unrest, global suffering, climate change and so forth.
I’ve been reflecting on different aspects of this “big question” deeply during the past months of terror, relief, pain, hope, and healing that continue for me. The hardest part is enduring the uncertainty. The best part is that uncertainty blocks the ego’s drive for premature closure – trying to tidy things up and recreate the life and beliefs that are so familiar.
I’ve thought a lot about how I want to spend my precious time going forward. So, from 2022 I’ll offer only a few programs, closest to my heart. Stay tuned for the new offerings.
Here’s a quote that guides me when facing a ‘wake up’ call, and during liminal times of rest, healing, and reflection:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen
Let me know what you thought of this article – I’d love to hear your reflections and what works for you when you are facing a ‘wake up’ call.
Until we connect again, stay safe, stay calm and stay well.
PS: Sharing is caring. If this message and practice could aide someone you know, please share it with them now. If you found this blog post helpful, I’d love to hear from you too – comment and share your experience with me.