ISSUE #014 - May 07, 2019

Positive Neuroplasticity: Resilience for Thriving During Cancer Treatment

Robert Rose

Soon after a diagnosis of Stage IV Kidney cancer in the fall of 2014 I experienced a profound sense of what I initially described as “calm-abiding” to those who asked about my relatively serene demeanor in the face of that diagnosis, as well as a very discouraging prognosis. Now, with what I have learned as a student in the “Neuroplasticity, Yoga and Contemplative Science” Certificate Program, I see how the reflective journaling, meditation, and yoga practices I engaged in over the prior decade created a pre-existing condition of what Rick Hanson has described as “positive neuroplasticity” to manage stress, to be resilient, and to creatively synergize spiritual practices with medical science (chemotherapy and then immunotherapy treatment) to thrive along the way.

A local cancer community support coordinator here, speaking of stress management for cancer patients and their families, once noted how wise it is to see an opportunity for “post-traumatic growth” rather than stress in what we experience as patients. Often, my response when members of the support community or my treatment team asked how I felt then was, and is now, “mentally, emotionally and spiritually, I am well.” My experience of such growth, informed now with scientific findings from neuroscience and spirituality, provides solid and exciting grounds for continued hope and healing as I share it with members of local cancer support groups and practitioners of complementary healing modalities (Reiki and Healing Touch, for example) among my circle of friends and family.

Reframing stress as opportunity for growth rather than as a driver of illness has also been a healing practice for me as I continually record reflective affirmations in my journal, hopeful aphorisms I describe as “synergy sutras.” An early affirmation, “I am not my body,” allowed me to keep and maintain a positive perspective through the early, distressful days of chemotherapy. My synergy sutras were also featured in “Synergize the Power Within You,” an article published in the January/February 2018 issue of Unity Magazine, a well-known publication of the New Thought community. The encouragement, confidence, and support I experience through writing practice also reflects the wisdom of Rick Hanson’s insight:

In essence, mental health – brain health – means being able to pull the spotlight of attention away from what hurts, and hold it onto something that helps” (“Positive Neuroplasticity: The Neuroscience of Mindfulness,” From Loizzo, J., Neale, M., Wolf, E., Eds. (2017). Advances in Contemplative Psychotherapy: Accelerating Healing and Transformation. New York: Routledge.)

In subsequent years, though unable to continue with a regular hatha yoga practice, I have shifted to an on-the-spot practice of calm-abiding, mindfulness of the breath, and regular opening to loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (the brahma-vihārāḥ). Sitting with cancer survivors in support group and blessed with the support of loving friends and family, I am activating subtle healing energies. This is a process of spiritual adaptation to the challenge of cancer.

Rick Hanson’s development of positive neuroplasticity (detailed in the article referenced above) has captured my attention now as an accurate and exciting process of healing and ongoing neurogenesis, for continued learning and down-regulation of stress during treatment. “The good news,” Hanson notes, “is that in addition to the mental evidence for the possibility of healing and recovery from trauma, there is a growing body of neural evidence for the possibility of preventing our natural vulnerability to stress and trauma.”

In particular, Hanson continues, “the activation of the amygdala can be down-regulated.” The amygdala is a set of neurons that processes emotion to create emotional responses, such as fear and stress.  The “down-regulated” amygdala, cultivated through a variety of meditation and relaxation techniques offered in mindfulness training, promotes resilience rather than stress.  As I allowed myself to own childhood experiences of rage and shame with mindfulness and yoga I was, according to Hanson, establishing the positive neuroplasticity associated with “processing in the prefrontal cortex, the executive system of the brain,” and thereby down-regulating the activation of harmful reactive patterns. Through many years now I have minimal to no bouts of the panic or anger that often dogged my midlife years.

My first guided meditation experiences with the “down-regulating” came through an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at a local hospital about ten years ago. Hanson’s work on positive neuroplasticity offers a welcome cognitive evaluation of the sitting meditation, body-scan, and mindful check-in practices I was introduced to then. When I first learned these techniques, I often expressed my understanding of it as simply taking to time to “attend.” Hanson takes note of this aspect of attending: “Because attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner, it illuminates what it finds on the stage of awareness and sucks it into our brain. Improving regulation of that spotlight/vacuum cleaner is the foundation of harnessing the ongoing structure- building processes in the nervous system.”

The paradoxical experience of santosa, or contentment, that I felt at the outset of cancer treatment was vivid for me; an uncanny sense that in the midst of it all I was, in essence, complete, fulfilled and perfect, as if I had arrived at the telos (goal, end, fulfillment) of my life. I wrote in my journal then a striking phrase that reflects this contentment and fulfillment: I have come to the “end” of my life, and I am whole. Progressively, in the years since my first experiences with MBSR, I have developed a settled awareness of fundamental trust.

After some time, the “attending” awareness I mentioned above became my default practice after extended sitting meditation and asana practices was no longer feasible due to the side-effects of treatment (fatigue and lymphedema).  This, in turn, lead to a heightened mindfulness of everyday experiences.  Hanson also comments on the value of this: “From an evolutionary standpoint, certain experiences have a very high restorative value. Everyday beneficial experiences – relaxing while exhaling, taking in the friendly smile of another person, recognizing some good quality in oneself – have the power to bring us out of the ‘red zone’ of stress and trauma back into the ‘green zone’ of well-being, which is our resting state, our home base.”

Tonglen, the “taking and sending” practice I first learned of while listening to CDs from Pema Chodron and Judith Lief correlates well with the “absorb” stage of Hanson’s HEAL method.  HEAL is an acronym that Hanson explains as follows:

H reminds us that we need to have positive experiences first of all. E Reminds us that we are more likely to register and install them if we enrich that experience. A reminds us that we need to absorb the experience. L reminds us that we can more fully install the experience if we link it to other experiences which are significant to us.

Although I adapted tonglen to allow me to visualize the taking-in, the absorbing of treatment drugs through the “unhurt” essence of the Anāhata chakra, and a flowing of the cancer out and down through the Mūlādhāra chakra to the grounding, securing safety of the earth. Dhammapada 80 affirms: “The wise shape their mind,” and Hanson’s work confirms, for me, and many others, the healing potential of positive neuroplasticity.

I find a rich resonance to a well-known New Thought principle in Hanson’s findings: “Thoughts held in mind produce after their kind.” I am grateful, mindful, and healthly because of these practices, findings, and experiences. I am also optimistic about the potential of positive neuroplasticity for continued well-being while living with cancer.

As I continue with treatment and personal spiritual practice, while participating in small group gatherings for healing, I also become a resource for others in the cancer support community and beyond. Healing visualization practice, in addition to writing and reflecting in my journal, has been and continues to be a simple method of stress-reduction that I utilize often. During a stress-reduction meditation session several years ago I was prompted to record in writing the following visualization in rudimentary form. Later, I developed it as a script for a guided meditation called “Send Your Baggage Packing.” Several friends and yoga teachers informed me later that they used it during their own sessions.  I offer it here with the hope it will continue to guide others:

During a brief meditation experience recently, I allowed the gentle sound of a train whistle in the distance, approaching and then passing, to carry my meditation into a healing visualization.

To begin, sit comfortably, back and spine straight to support the head, allowing it to lift on an in-breath, and to gently settle on the out-breath…

… now, bring attention to the breath…

… let it deepen and slow, sensing how it receives, taking in, flowing from the nose to the belly on the inhale, and from the belly to the nose, sending energy out and on with the exhale…

… let this flow carry on for a few minutes…

… sense the calm arising.

In the calm, listen… and now hear the gentle whistle of an approaching train.  It nears, and comes to a stop before you.  An attendant steps forward and calls the “All Aboard,” but not for passengers… for baggage only.

You are grateful now for an opportunity to unload all of your concerns, your stresses, and your cares, and to send them on, to send them away.

Now, the last whistle sounds and the train pulls away…

… the baggage is gone, and you are here…

… remaining…

… sitting…

… breathing…

… and free to be… at peace.

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ISSUE #014

On Somatic Healing & Social Justice
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