Sunday, February 24, 2008

Excruciatingly Personal Blog Post No.3

The first stage is always the hardest. I'm struggling to climb up a steep hill which is covered in boulders of grey stone. They're loose, and keep tumbling down. Eventually I'm able to get higher, where the ground levels out a bit, where the stones stop sliding, and where tufts of grass start appearing between the rocks. Another effort of will, and I'm further on, where the ground is covered in grass so I can walk barefoot. A month or so later, I look up in surprise one day and see a tree, like a small birch, with leaves of green and silver flickering in the sunshine. Another day I see a little yellow flower like a dandelion; or a small yellow or white butterfly.

I walk along further and come to a little spring of water, flowing swiftly enough for me to sit on the edge and wash my feet. I walk along upstream against its gentle current, a mixture of bathing and walking, until I climb up into a deeper pool. At first this was pretty austere, surrounded by grey stone, but as the months have gone on, the pool is now surrounded by columns of golden stone, intricately carved, and interlaced with shiny green vines and climbing plants, and framing skies of Athenian blue. I swim here, quietly, stretching out, cleansed, in the pure water, fed by another spring.

And then I am summoned. A woman comes for me and I walk with her into a place of sun and light. I look up and feel myself bathed in sparkling light, a crystalline shower of light and water, and feel myself blessed and cleansed by the goddess, who is both invisible, and yet somehow radiant.

I walk on, inside, this time, into a dark hall with large doors that stand open into the sunlight. I find a large recumbent statue — a Buddha, I suppose — with an extraordinary property: I climb into its lap and whatever position I assume there is instantly peaceful. I stay there and sleep, or lie still and watch the motes of dust entering the room down shafts of sunlight.


And this is as far as I have got.

When I was reading my way into the world of breast cancer, I read about meditation as a form of pain management and relaxation. I took to it reluctantly, and still struggle hugely to still my mind enough to stop fretting about all those other things, the boulders that tumble down on me in the first stage. I'm also deeply dependent on my physical surroundings: sunlight and warmth figure hugely in this dream-vision narrative, and so I often need to be sitting outside, feeling the sun on my skin before I can begin.

But the true beginning was actually in the radiotherapy chamber. At the time, just over a year ago now, I wrote about my daily trips to the hospital here and here, but when the technicians had left the room, I would close my eyes and try and visualise the effect of the rays on the cancer cells. Years ago, I read about cancer patients playing Space Invaders with their cancer cells, zapping them into oblivion, fighting the evil invading cells as if they were so many aliens. I never felt comfortable with such military analogies, and so I visualised the machine showering me with health- and life-giving radiance, like a shower of pure water glistening in the sunshine, a shower that would wash me clean, would rinse and wash away the damaged cells.

So now, when I take my walk, I get to a certain point along the creek, and I stand and breathe in and hold my breath, and as I exhale I address any remaining cancer cells. I know which ones they are: the ones that the Tamoxifen has "locked" against oestrogen. So I say to them, "loosen; detach; dissolve", and they do; they slip from their moorings, move into my bloodstream and out at my feet into the waters of the Merri.

When I visualise the waters of the Merri moving down to Dights Falls, to join the Yarra, and out into the bay, I think I am seeing satellite images from Google Maps to help me. When I think about my dream-vision landscape, I think about the bits of Jung I have read. When I visualise moving into a large hall, with the possibility of moving through its doors into the sun again, I think about Joel's video games, the endless chambers and corridors of the Zelda games. When I think about being cleansed and showered with light and radiance by the goddess, I'm embarrassed, but I think about a whole range of conversations with various folk about health and peace and the world of spirit, which is not a world where I have spent much time at all. If I call her Athena, and think of her as goddess of learning, it helps a little to find something - a being - beyond myself, who has only my interests at heart. And indeed, I wrote about my wonderful
surgeon
as a figure for Athena, too.

But if this landscape needs those external triggers, it's also a landscape I can take with me. In September last year, I climbed alone to the One Tree lookout over Ormiston Gorge, west of Alice Springs. I reached the top and looked over the other side of the gorge, and saw the rocks and grasses of my visionary landscape. I even poured a libation to Athena from my water bottle into the red sand of the cliff, and watched as steam rose up instantly from the hot rock. This was a week before my first annual mammogram and ultrasound. I then climbed down and swam in the dark waters of the gorge, in afternoon light.

Several weeks ago, too, I drove to Barwon Heads and walked along the beach to Ocean Grove and beyond. After about half an hour I turned back, and walked into the afternoon sun. The tide was out, and the flat smooth beach was covered in sheets and sheets of sparkling water, as shallow waves spread up the beach and receded, washing the beach again and again. Easy, then, to still the mind once more, and be transported into a state where I could sense light and water cleansing me of disease.

I'm encouraged, too, by the sudden appearances of a flower, a butterfly, in my dream-vision (I'm calling it that because that's the term we Chaucerians use: there is something not totally un-House-of-Fame-ish about this sequence of rooms and landscapes). If I concentrate, if I keep going, even if I need the sun on my neck, or the sound and sight of water, I feel there might be more of this landscape to discover.

An abrupt ending. I don't know what the next paragraph is. This was the third of the three difficult and personal posts. And now I don't know what the next post will be. But then, I never do, anyway.

5 comments:

Pavlov's Cat said...

I loved reading this.

I've always found visualisations to be helpful but I've never had any that were as elaborate and beautiful and poetic as this. Mine are things like imagining the Panadeine Forte dissolving in my innards and being busily taken up and delivered by my blood to the place that hurts, which is usually my head.

I also have a rather useful one, for being overwhelmed with work, that involves pretending you are the planet Saturn (not difficult in my case) and everything you have to do or think about is sitting on the ring as on a luggage carousel and revolving around you very slowly. That way there is clear space between you and the stuff, so it can't get at you to overwhelm you; all the items are laid out neatly and separately; and they keep going round and round, so you never lose sight of any of them. Instant mental order.

I think meditation would have been good for you even if you had never had cancer. You and all my other fire-sign friends are very bad at slowing down.

David Thornby said...

This was a wonderful post. It's interesting, I think, that you're charting the universal again in this. I'm not much of a meditator, but in my hundreds of hours of counselling, my moments of clarity have mostly come through a visualisation revealed (or unveiled?) in what I think of as a sort of light trance -- a problem revealed as a black sphere which I must swallow, or else be swallowed by; the world waiting at my elbow and (I cringe to relate) feeling like a smile. It's like dreams: the mind has marvellous machinery for sorting our experiences and showing them back to us in ways that the non-verbal parts of us can absorb and understand, but it waits until the non-verbal parts of us are listening.

And on important dates I give a libation to the memory of my brother -- though he was never much of a water drinker...

As ever, thank you for sharing.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Ooh, these are all terrific. I love the idea of the world just waiting, benevolently. And also putting all my "things to do" on Pavlov's Cat's Saturn's rings. (Heh. Though I'm guessing she'd prefer I got my own!)

Any one else game to share? Really, it doesn't hurt nearly as much as you think it might...

Kathleen said...

Hmmm. I wrote a response the other day but ended up not posting it. But I'll be brave.

I've never been a fan of visualisations. My father suffered from a debilitating disease of the brain for the last ten years of his life, and I remained v. sceptical about how visualisations could help him. But, when I examine how I approach them myself, I realise that I do exactly what PC does with pain medications: I *do* actually visualise the Nurofen Plus flowing down to my stomach and loosening the horrible cramps. (And I too loved the idea of PC's orbiting rings of Saturn.)

If I'm honest, though, my scepticism doesn't make sense - because your description of visualisations working very much as a dream vision sits perfectly with me. I've been doing work on memory houses - the pseudo-Ciceronian idea that you can construct a mental house (or visualise your own), "place" objects around it, attach a significance/idea/component of a speech to the object, and then "retrieve" your speech/catechism/etc. by "walking" around the house and "seeing" those objects.

When I started that research, I was overwhelmed by the number of people I knew who told me they used similar systems: "filing" study notes, mentally, in a filing cabinet and then "retrieving" them while sitting in the exam room. (That's almost exactly the scenario described by the author of the Ad Herennium.)

In terms of my research, what's been puzzling me is the close link between standard memory houses and dream visions: Boccaccio's Amorosa visione, Chaucer's House of Fame, etc. They, too, domesticate memory, locate it in a specific architectural space (Carruthers, etc.).

And yet some aspect of my academic training - or perhaps that's a cop-out: some aspect of my personality - finds the idea of the visualisation in the healing process hard to grasp. I've always had trouble with the meditation at the end of yoga, for example. But - I loved reading this post. I moved along with you in your own dream vision, I was very moved by the description of your libations, I had a feeling of peace as I too visualised what you had visualised.

genevieve said...

Stephanie, I am a very lazy meditator - I only construct a visualisation if there is someone leading it in a class! but I can meditate for ten minutes without visualisation on the odd occasion, I often use a candle first as I prefer to focus on the reverse image with my eyes closed.

However you have brought back a very precious memory for me of directing simple relaxation and visualisation for my youngest son when he couldn't sleep. He would say, "tell me that nice story about walking along the beach..." Thanks for waking up that rather lovely visualisation for me, it is needed sometimes :-)