Monday, March 30, 2020

Radical Embodiment In The Time of Covid-19

I ventured into the bowels of my local hospital this morning, Monday March 30th, for my 6-month follow-up scan. It was eerie being that out in the world, as if the zombie apocalypse had already passed and all that was left were a few abandoned cars scattered about in empty parking lots. I descended into the depths of the massive medical complex to the corner where cancer patients are injected with radioactive dye and wait in frigid, dark rooms to be scanned in a noisy scanner tube…but I never got that far.

At the registration desk, they told me my PET scan was canceled.

I was not only never notified, I spoke directly to someone in my oncologist’s office last week and we scheduled an April 1st follow-up tele-medicine visit to review my results. That person assured me the scan was on and that I would be contacted if there was a problem. When I didn’t receive my usual reminder call the day before the scan, I called to confirm. I spoke to a clerk and she connected me to the radiology doctor on-call, who told me that I was indeed on the schedule and she assured me that they would not cancel without contacting me…and yet they did.

I sat there at the registration desk feeling the heat rise in my masked face. My skin began to feel stretched so thin that I feared I would burst open. I felt so vulnerable. I was angry, disappointed, and frustrated, not to mention hungry and in caffeine withdrawal from the pointless fasting I did in preparation for the scan. I didn’t know whether to cry or yell, so I took a breath, thanked the clerk who was not at fault, grabbed the doorknob with a tissue, and ran to the deserted parking garage where I got in my car and cried. The magnitude of the social distancing in the cavernous garage meant that no one saw or heard me.

This is where my years of practice pay off. I can be patient and then I can wait a little more. I can wait for the emotional storm to pass, knowing that it is just bad weather and it will subside. I am thankful to be living with a non-aggressive cancer. I don’t fear that delaying my scan a month or 2 or even 3 will make that big of a difference in the big picture, even though I have had a bit more pain in my rib that has the largest mass of bone mets. M
y heart goes out to all those who have been recently diagnosed and need their scans and infusions and can’t wait until the pandemic passes. Life goes on during a pandemic, and so does disease. My gut sense is that mine can wait a bit.

Before driving home, I paused for a few minutes and dropped down into sensing how my body felt. I took a few breaths and exhaled for longer than I inhaled, and that allowed me to stay connected to my sense of Radical Embodiment. Why do I call it radical? Because what I learned in traditional health classes and "physical education" in school did not prepare me to deal with having cancer during a pandemic, but Continuum, Osteopathy, and meditation have given me those skills. These are all radical approaches to embodied living, ways of fundamentally changing the nature of something in a far-reaching, foundational, novel, and thorough manner.

Why do I call it embodiment and not mindfulness? Because I have come to not just believe, but experience that it is primarily through the body that we interact with our world, not through the mind. The body experiences things first, then thoughts happen. Embodiment is the conscious awareness of the many sensations that arise from inside the body that endow us with a sense of physical presence in the moment. Sensations keep us grounded because they only occur in the present. Cultivating a refined awareness of the many and varied nuances of sensations gives us a tremendous amount of information about our state of health, our environment, and allows us to choose where to put our attention, and what we need in order to care for ourselves more effectively.

Radical embodiment includes mindfulness; it’s not the other way around. Our silent-felt experience is primary, and mindfulness arises from the response to living that begins in the body and finds its way into awareness. Many people struggle with trying to access mindfulness through their thoughts, when it’s the body that holds the key.

Most people are oblivious of their bodies and take this amazing vehicle that carries them through life for granted. We don’t often acknowledge embodiment until something goes wrong, like illness, injury, or disappointment. Sensing what we feel inside our bodies increases self-awareness, self-reflection, self-regulation, and resilience. That’s what I needed this morning. I sat in my car and committed to my practice and my way of being in life. I felt my body respond and calm down with my prolonged exhalations. I felt the support of my seat and then decided that the sensation of the mask and gloves were no longer necessary or valuable and I ripped them off and tossed them in my plastic “contaminated bag.”

It's a strange time to be alive, but being alive is a good way to be. My body has the same basic needs and follows all the same rules, regardless of peace, war, or pandemic. Of course, I tailor the way I care for myself according to the necessity of the moment, but my body doesn’t respond differently because the governor told me to stay home. In fact, his directive has made me yearn for the wilderness. Since I can’t go on a trip right now, I can explore my own “portable wilderness”. I can discover the frontiers of my body’s wilderness anytime, anywhere. And that’s just what I did in the medical center parking lot before driving home. Sensing the wildness inside of my body refreshed me and readied me to face the rest of my day.

The fundamental basis of health is not the absence of disease, but the ability to adapt, and find ways to respond and adjust to whatever challenges we experience. Whether it is cancer, a paper cut, or disappointment, the body finds ways to repair itself as best it can, and then adapt to the new state of things. Health is not an object or a destination we will get to someday when the pandemic ends and things calm down. Being healthy is a work-in-progress, an on-going innovative, creative, adaptive process.

How are you creatively adapting to the state of the world right now?