How Chronic Illness Helped My Relationship Grow

When people hear that my wife has multiple sclerosis (MS) and can’t walk, they cringe painfully. Sure it’s not good news—but they assume it’s a nightmare disaster of a situation with no upside, and that we can’t possibly have a life. They’re so wrong.

I always knew what to expect. Caroline warned me repeatedly, “Go! Save yourself.” She was being practical, but I didn’t care. Here was an empathic, intelligent woman who listened to my story and took the time to understand. The depression I’d been in for months fell away. I hardly spoke in those days, but she had me talking volubly and confessionally about my past, my present and my dreams. I was shocked by how many I still had, and she loved them. We were on the same wavelength! For the first time in years, I could breathe with another human being.

As our relationship progressed so did the MS. Its unpredictability is part of the pain. With very little neural feedback from her fingertips, Caroline can hardly button a blouse or put in ear-rings. Picking up a pill from a plate is an exercise in frustration, and getting it to her mouth is a game of chance. Everything is laborious. Falling over is a constant threat. It takes a full minute for her to open the fridge, reach for something and get it safely onto the counter behind her. So when she baked a beautiful Bundt cake for my birthday last week, you can imagine what that meant to me.

Being anxious to help, I sometimes make things worse. I see her struggling, take over, and leave her feeling helpless. Or she tells me to bug off. She feels perfectly healthy, apart from the things she can't do. Then I’m the one to agonize and feel helpless. An inner voice insists that I must fix the unfixable, and accepts no excuses. We don’t let any of these feeling fester. Everything’s up for discussion, making it that much easier to let things go.

Not everybody has MS, but everybody has something. Even if you’re in perfect health, you won’t stay that way forever. As for the emotional struggles of life, you can’t face them alone and come out unscathed. I tried. Even with eight ears of monastic training and the finest self-help tools, I got lost and didn’t even realize it until that unflinching conversation with Caroline. It goes on.

People say that as long as you’ve got your health you’ve got everything. Not many stop to think how that makes people like Caroline feel. I hate hearing it not just because it’s thoughtless—it’s also ridiculous. If you want a philosophy that helps you grow through life, you can’t just focus on the upside. The key is to face the struggle without losing balance. That’s what Caroline and I have been working on since the day we met. That’s what gives our lives meaning and that’s why her clients love her as much as I do.

A New Way to Learn

For me, mindfulness isn’t just a way to stay calm. I was still a young man when it became the most important thing in my life, even though no one else had the faintest idea what I was doing. Nothing was harder for me than living in the moment, and yet there was nothing I wanted more.

The first time I really ‘experienced’ the present moment I couldn’t believe it. It was so simple! I thought I’d ‘got’ it—but then I forgot. That's when I saw where the real practice is—walking through each day with your eyes wide open, balanced between focusing and letting go. If you don’t use your newfound skill, you lose it.

Caroline and I have set up Mindfulness Support for two reasons: First of all, we want you to understand the full potential of this practice and how different it is from ordinary meditation. After all, it does much more than manage stress. As mindfulness enters your life, you're increasingly able to identify and let go of the reactive patterns that keep hurting you.

Secondly—most importantly—we want to help you actually do it, day by day, week by week. No matter how much you understand, it only works when you practice.

Our dream is for you to sit down every day for at least a few minutes to check in with yourself. Join us on Facebook. You’ll meet other people who care like you. There’ll be posts and comments, and you can ask questions at any time; I’ll answer within 48 hours.

For those of you ready to build a regular practice, we offer Zoom meetings three times a week, at 12-noon ET. There’s a whole free month for you to see or yourself if you like it or not. After that, you’ll be hooked, and mindfulness will be something you won’t want to live without any more. And why should you?

Both Caroline and I have had difficult lives, but with the help of people like you we’ve been inspired to take every obstacle as an opportunity to learn and grow. We want to help you do the same. No one really ‘learns’ mindfulness from someone else. We know that. Only experience can teach you—and we also know the indispensable value of a support system that works, along with an experienced teacher and a clear way forward.

Cracking Open the Closed Mind

It’s been a bad year, out of control. As if Covid-19 wasn’t enough, we’re faced with extreme denial—a rotten stew of conspiracy theories and lazy thinking.

People on opposite political sides are mostly in the business of getting their biases confirmed. On both left and right, most see what they want to see and avoid what they don’t. They act as if one side’s always right and the other’s always wrong. It’s childish and absurd. It’s also corrosive. The periodic switching of governments between left and right has been the engine of political debate since the first parliament in 1215, but now respectful exchange has turned to cynicism—a social cancer. In the States of America, and in other countries too, large portions of each side believes the other is evil. This is leading nowhere good.

What can we do? Tell people they’re in denial and they’ll just deny it! Which brings us to the question of the day—how to talk to the other side?
I learned from my debate teacher Geshe Rabten that the best way to win an argument isn’t to challenge your adversary’s ideas. Rather, you question them, drawing out each argument and exposing every weaknesses until they contradict themselves. Hurling your truths at them just hardens their position.

You get into the other person’s head with empathy. It doesn’t mean you agree with them, only that you listen without letting your own beliefs get in the way. It’s exactly the same open mind you need to do science—no prejudice, no expectations. It doesn’t come naturally. You have to pry the mind open, especially when it comes to ideas you personally identify with.

Confirmation bias is a natural human instinct that we rely on every day. The more it operates unconsciously, the more ingrained it becomes. On the other hand, mindfulness over time brings it to the surface. It loses its power, and objectivity becomes an option. It’s not easy to see your own biases. It takes a sort of awakening.

For example, speaking recently to a lady who supported Donald Trump, I asked, “Do you think he’s a decent man?” She was visibly stressed by the question, and went to great lengths to avoid saying ‘no.’ However she couldn’t bring herself to say, ‘yes.’ Her confidence was shaken; a chink of daylight got it. I don’t need her to agree with me. I just want her to doubt herself, and I want the doubt to sink in. Why bombard her with ideas she already hates?

Two promising vaccines were announced this week and it looks like there’ll be an endgame to Covid-19. Deniers, however, will always be with us. You can’t just shoot a vaccine into their brains. They have to see their own biases and confront them with honesty and humility. Most people will never do this, but there are always some, as the Buddha put it, with little dust on their eyes.

That would be you. So go out there and create some mindful, empathic chinks. Make them doubt themselves. Go on, I know you can do it.

Getting Along with Covid-19

“THANK GOD WE GET ALONG!”

I’m not sure how many times I’ve said that to Caroline since we went into lockdown—but a lot. There’s just the two of us here. We work, play, eat and sleep together 24/7. I’m not just being polite—I really am grateful for the way we live together. Not that we never disagree or fight. That would be weird. We’ve both lived through toxic relationships and divorce. In fact, we became friends talking about them, figuring out how we got ourselves so stuck.

Of course we’re grateful now. For so many people, the extra hours at home with people they’re supposed to love aren’t relaxing at all. They add to the Covid-19 stress. For us, they're an opportunity to learn more about each other but sadly, people are not spending money on professional help when they need it the most.

Caroline works with women in difficult relationships, and they're under additional stress right now. However, if social isolation is bringing things to a head, that makes it a perfect time to explore options. Caroline’s always available to help you get back on track, or even build a better relationship.

What’s the secret? There isn’t one. Caroline and I built our love together brick by brick. We talk about it every day. It’s like building a house. No matter how sturdy it is, unexpected things happen. It always needs maintenance. Ignore those little imperfections and they grow large. Things get stressful. Once you start down this road, you become preoccupied with how bad the other person makes you feel.

Healthy relationships work the other way around: by looking at how you make the other person feel. This isn't a natural instinct. It takes effort, starting perhaps by reaching out to a coach. It signals that you’re ready for change.

You can keep on reacting the same old way, nurse the same old resentments and distract yourself from the emptiness of an unfulfilled relationship. Or, you can work on the issues and build it into something beautiful and strong.

Love never just happens. Every human has the essential skills to construct a solid foundation, but not everyone bothers. What sort of person would you rather be with?

You can reach Caroline at www.courey.com, 450-853-0616 or caroline.courey@gmail.com. Social distancing not required as meetings are conveniently done by video conference.

After George Floyd

Racial Harmony Painting by Sachin Jagtap
Racial Harmony Painting by Sachin Jagtap

I’m not a racist.

At least, I don’t believe in racism. I think it’s wrong.

However, even though I try not to be, I see that I am racist. Aren’t we all?

Our ancestors living in a cave must have looked with suspicion on dwellers of the next cave down. If not, it would be a common enemy that brought them together. They’d exaggerate every difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’—the same way tribes do today. The more ‘they’ look, sound and smell different, the easier it is to objectify them. Whether it’s Sapiens versus Neanderthal or black versus white, a tribal people’s instinct is to identify and look down upon others.

This is crude and animalistic. It’s natural too. It’s not that we’re born evil or innocent, but that we’re prone to biases, and keep picking up more. They’re a survival mechanism, and they’re barely conscious. Whether it’s about the food you hate, the race you prefer or the class you aspire to, biases are not chosen; they’re inherited. Children mostly like and dislike what their tribe tells them to.

I grew up in England’s West Country, in the 1960s. On our road was a house everyone sniggered at, because there lived, “the two queers.” I made my share of stupid, hurtful jokes. Then, at the bottom of Barton Street, across the railway tracks, you’d encounter all sorts of brown and black people. Everyone (i.e., everyone white) said they preferred to keep to themselves. In our innocent minds, the fact that they rarely came into town had nothing to do with us or how we made them feel. I cringe to remember.

It shocks me as much as you. I’m ashamed. “At least,” I tell myself, “I’m not like that now”—but is that enough? I think not. Have you (if you’re white) ever been with a person of color thinking, “OMG, this is a person of color. Act natural! What if they see me acting differently?”

This isn’t as nasty as believing in racism, but it’s still racism. Imagine how the other person feels. You don’t see them. Choosing to not believe in a perverse political philosophy isn’t enough. It takes committed, ongoing effort to free yourself from unconscious bias.

I’m a mindfulness teacher and biographer. Human beings fascinate and terrify me. While trying to understand, I’ve learned to never judge them by their beliefs; that doesn’t signify much. If you want to know what people are really like, watch how they treat others.

Announcing, “I’m not a racist,” is a denial of your animal instincts. You can rise above it, but if you’re not committed to actively looking for those subconscious triggers, your claim is just a smokescreen.

That active looking is mindfulness. When I notice a different skin color before I notice the actual person, I tell myself, “That’s racism.” There’s subconscious stuff going on in there, screaming for conscious attention—and that’s the way to real change. It’s a learning process. It takes time, and a bit more honesty than you might be comfortable with.

But now, after George Floyd, change is upon us. To make a difference you don’t have to join a political rally or write a confession. Just stop acting like racism’s got nothing to do with you.

George Floyd
May 2020

Calming the Storm of Cancer

Getty Images
Everyone is touched sooner or later by cancer. I’m no exception. It took my father. My sister is a survivor. I could go on.
I’ve also had cancer patients and survivors in my mindfulness workshops and among my clients, and what I’ve noticed is that they’re already contemplative. They find mindfulness training helpful and life-enhancing. In the midst of cancer’s negativity, it’s a positive source.
So when I heard that the West Island Cancer Wellness Centre was open to volunteers, I wanted to be a part of it. I met with Programming Coordinator Louise Bilodeau in her office. Like the entire building, it’s bright and spacious. I mentioned to her the lovely smile I received from a lady on the way out. She wore a scarf wrapped around her head. “Before I even set foot in the building,” I said, “I felt the welcome.”
Louise is soft-spoken and direct. The proximity of cancer resets any priorities you might have thought important. “When you no longer expect life to be easy,” she said, “it gets easier.”
Cancer isn’t just a physical disease. It’s a storm that disrupts your sense of what’s normal and triggers a stress response that may compromise the immune function just when it’s most needed. It depends how you respond.
Some people put that stress to good use by considering something they’d never considered before: to sit down, do nothing and say nothing, in other words to start meditating. When we’re all wrapped up in worldly pursuits and feeling indestructible, it’s the hardest step to take. At times like this though, it’s more like going home.
Most of my students and clients with cancer admitted that before, they’d never have considered meditation. They finally came because they were ready to try anything. Then they discovered they liked it.
Linda Carlson at McGill University measured levels of stress, anxiety, depression and anger in cancer patients and found a 65% reduction in mood disturbances, measurably aiding them in their treatment and recovery.
And afterwards? Well, you’re left with a new set of priorities. Whether you call it mindfulness or not, you want to be fully present to your own life now that you’ve seen how fragile it is.

If you’d like to talk—to know more about cancer and mindfulness or anything else—message me or call 450-458-8030.

The Healing Power of Mindfulness

All his life Lindsay counted himself lucky—until the day he woke up with tinnitus. The ringing in his ears started just like that. It’s coming up to a year and a half now and he still can’t believe it. He has little reason to hope it will go away. He’s told it might—but who knows?

It’s changed his life. He’s more cautious, less sociable, more self-conscious. For the first time in his life now, he sometimes gets depressed.

He showed up at my last workshop and sat through six classes that I don’t think would have otherwise interested him.

Not that I promised or even suggested anything. All I said was, “Let’s take a look at the way you respond to the ringing in your ears; maybe you’ll see something you haven’t noticed before.”

“I’ll try anything, “he said, and sure enough he sat there open minded, even when touchy-feely subjects like relationships came up. He had a great life and a great marriage, he told me; no need to dissect it.

I wasn’t sure how he felt about the workshop, but afterwards he started sitting with me one-on-one. He wasn’t ready to say that the meditation seemed to be helping.

I learned that Lindsay and his brother worked their whole lives together as builders. I’m sure he’s good at it because he’s intelligent, honest, and always looking to do his best. He’s a hard worker, not a dreamer.

However he’s taken to me. Our conversations are candid. He tells me shyly of his one-time visit to the Kirov Ballet back in the 1980s. He still seems surprised that he enjoyed it.

The T-word is never far from his lips though. Fond memories remind him that things now are not the same any more. “The ringing is so loud and persistent,” he says holding his head with a grimace, “Sometimes I think I just can’t take it any more.”

“Look,” I say. “I’m not sure what I can do about the tinnitus. I mean, how many causes might there be—physiological, neurological, psychological?”

Lindsay shook his head. “God knows. The doctors don’t.”

“What I can do is help you explore your reactivity. We’ll look at 1) what you pay attention to, 2) how it makes you feel, and 3) what habits those feelings trigger.”

I go on. “Right now I’m not sure you accept your condition.”

“I’m not sure I want to,” he says.

“Fair enough”, I say. “Let’s take a look.”

I lead Lindsay through a ten minute meditation and he admits, “Yes, for a moment here and there I forgot about the ringing. And even the ringing itself: it’s not so loud, so insistent. It’s died down a bit.”

He shed a tear, apologizing several times. It was years since he’d been ‘emotional,’ he said. He was embarrassed.

Lindsay’s a pleasure to work with. We agreed we would focus on his disbelief—one more form of denial from the prodigious human arsenal of defensive reflexes. Does denial have something to do with Lindsay’s experience of tinnitus?

Today I called to remind him he’d left his glasses in my office, but before I could say a word he blurted out, “My tinnitus today. It’s so little. It’s so quiet. It’s like it’s not there!”

He could hardly believe it.

“Hah!” I said. “Why d’you think that is?”

“You know, I realized from the meditation yesterday that the more stressed I feel the louder it is, so this morning I made a decision to not be stressed today, to take it easy and remember my mood from last night.”

“Okay.”

“And that’s what I did!”

“You know,” he went on, “I think that sometimes I’m stressed in ways that I don’t even notice. It’s like I don’t do it consciously. Isn’t that funny?”

“Really funny,” I agree. “Anyway, you gonna keep meditating?”

“You bet.”

Andrea Courey
—in search of why

Divorced with three children and no child support, Andrea Courey not only found the inner strength and focus to succeed as a small business owner, she became Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007!

Andrea has always been reflective about life, so when she embarked on her own business it was natural for her to ask, "Why am I doing this?" In this episode of Mindful Lives she shows how that question became the backbone of her will to succeed. Listen to her inspiring story here.

“One of the most difficult things I had to deal with was to get to work early every morning, leave late every night and know that the sun had risen, had made it all the way through the sky, and had set, and I had missed the sun that day.”

The Future

worldWhen you think about it, homo sapiens cuts a tragi-comic figure. We're an excessive number of hyper-organised dressed-up apes mismanaging an incredibly diverse ecosystem that's worked fine without our help for millions of years.

Once, before we were sapiens, our mission was the same as any other animal’s—merely to survive. Now, it's to get more and to be more—no matter what.

Did you know they’re even working on a cure for old age. Really! I suppose if they succeed there’ll be weird side-effects, but that’s not the only creepy thing. Imagine if people stopped dying. We'd have to start shipping them to other planets—eventually by the billions. We might even have the technology, but who's going to foot the bill? Besides, space ships are blowing up these days….

In general, I don't mind dying; once or twice when I was deathly ill I actually felt like letting go. On any other day though, I'd rather not. As for that cure they're working on, if it really could reverse arthritis and lengthen my telomeres I dare say I'd take it.

Ho-hum. One more paradox of being human. Cull the human race, but not me (or mine). We're far from being God's chosen; more like a scourge on the planet and on each other.

Now, just minutes before midnight some people are waking up to the dangers. Whether it's happening fast enough is another matter, but I'm going to hope we will—before it's too late—win over our somnambulant brothers and sisters and build a saner society. Who knows, we could even pretend we're on the same side.

The alternative isn't worth considering, since it includes our extinction. I mean, what’s the point of philosophy then?

We have to hope and try. Who else is going to?