Every adult knows that any life can be loosely divided up into experiences that are ‘good,’ or ‘positive,’ and those that are ‘bad,’ or ‘negative.’ Joy is pretty easy –we can all do that. But our suffering is where we generally require either guidance, or lengthy, meaningful and dedicated meditation.
Whether it is spiritual, psychological, or a mix of the two, any guidance we receive will only come from people who have done their own very practical psychological or spiritual ‘work.’ If there was a way to ‘learn’ our way around suffering, everyone who took psychology classes or who attended places of worship would have miraculous, pain-free lives –and yet we know this does not happen.
In the end, it is only experience that truly teaches us. This is why one of my favourite testimonials for my work comes from a very talented and successful cinematographer who wrote, in part, “The training gets you in the Moment. It’s experiential. Unlike reading about living in the present, this actually lets you do it. It’s the difference between reading about swimming and taking swimming lessons.”
That last sentence is smarter than anything I could have written about what I do. It’s a brilliant metaphor and it is the reason I will undertake this series of posts about how I psychologically managed what would commonly be seen as a very bad situation.
Using my recent eye operation as the example, it would be easy to describe my complex situation and intense pain as being a ‘bad’ experience. But can it really be called ‘bad’ if I live in a place with first class care, and that I was able to help some young medical residents learn to be better doctors, or if I can use the experience to help others through this writing or through my work helping others?
My own story began with good news –I was at a dinner with beloved friends. Due to my heavy workload and the care I provide for my aging parents, this was an extremely rare night out. I remain grateful that such a happy and warm event was my springboard into the most serious medical issue I have ever faced since the childhood accident that ultimately lead me to write so passionately about life in this blog.
Being seated where I was, it was late in the dinner before I noticed the blacked-out semi-circle of darkness that had taken the lower left portion of the vision in my right eye. Thanks to a story told by a friend, I was lead to torque my vision hard enough to the right that it lead me to realize that the spot was there, and something likely worthy of quick medical attention.
Being a scientific sort of person with a penchant for experimenting, rather than immediately follow a course of fearful thinking, I chose instead to focus on testing the eye for both pain and capability.
I diligently used those tests to gather information I felt would be useful to any diagnosing doctor. This included the shape and density of the darkness, as well as its specific location, and whether or not it moved as my eye moved. I was also grateful that it did not hurt. I also thought about the preceding days in case I could find an injury or impact that might explain it (a minor impact from playing hockey was my best candidate).
Thanks to a lifetime of learning about all manner of weird things, I rightly guessed that what I was experiencing was likely a detached retina. My first question was to ask myself how useful or helpful any fear might be.
This represents the moment in which we can all choose to use our thoughts as tools, rather than having them blindly, habitually and emotionally control us. It was like the situation had shown me fear on a menu. My job was to decide whether or not I wanted to request more of those thoughts to actually ‘consume’ with my consciousness.
Since I could find no rational reason that fear could serve a purpose beyond motivating me to get care, I chose not to pursue that line of thinking. The fear had already done its job so I gratefully accepted it as a signal, and after that I largely dismissed it from my consciousness.
Because I have grown up in Canada where hockey is a common sport, I knew that detached retinas were something experienced by athletes who experience impacts to the head. With no recollection of ever hearing about a player’s career ending because of one, my working assumption was that there was likely a fix that would allow some form of ‘normal’ life. That helped to keep me calm.
Following my personal and quite logical test of my vision, my internal thought process would have sounded much like this:
Clearly there is a black spot in the right eye that likely has physical causes. It is fortunate that something that serious is only in one eye. I’ve collected as much useful data for a diagnosing doctor that I can think of. This does not appear to impede my ability to drive, so I should probably leave the dinner as soon as possible and do some immediate reading of some scientific papers and relevant medical websites.
I bid my fond farewells, headed home, and immediately began doing some preliminary research on good old Wikipedia, where I ensured I understood any important relevant terminology. I then visited sites for Harvard, The Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, (among others), as well as reading some relevant scientific papers. This further reinforced my belief that I was experiencing a retinal detachment, which every bit of reading suggested required immediate care.
Since I wasn’t sure if driving was wise in case the condition was neurological and not something actually relating to my physical eye, I chose to have a short sleep and then called a good friend in the morning and he kindly offered to drive me into Emergency.
Once there, I found a very busy waiting room and yet I was rushed in ahead of almost everyone. Since triage is about sorting the most serious cases first, I knew that this indicated that my situation was time sensitive. I was grateful for the quick response.
Since further fear served no useful purpose to me, I quieted my mind and surrendered to the process and did my best to focus on, and be cheerful about, anything I could. This left me free to actually help some other waiting room patients cope better with their own fears.
In the end a broken piece of diagnosis equipment meant that they could not get a pressure reading on my eye, but the emergency ophthalmologist arranged for me to get the very first appointment at the hospital’s eye care centre the next morning. That had me feeling lucky.
Following my diagnosis, the doctor asked if a resident could also put me through a quite uncomfortable diagnosis process because it would be good for the young doctor to see what a rare case looked like. Despite the real discomfort, I focused on the fact that I was in a rare position to assist in that doctor’s education. I was grateful to be able to help.
The attending surgical resident then arranged for an appointment as soon as possible at the Alberta Retinal Consultants offices. A visiting Australian doctor explained that the centre is a world-renowned, state-of-the-art facility that was the very reason he had travelled so far for his education. That had me feeling lucky to live where I do.
I will leave what followed for a following post about my potentially frightening diagnosis. But to conclude this portion of the experience I would like to note that, so far, I was simply aware that my situation was very serious, but otherwise I had felt fortunate to get such quick and quality care all the way through the process.
I had reacted quickly, had been given emergency priority, and I had a good friend who had offered to take me to what was the first appointment of the day at a world class facility. If a person isn’t choosing to follow a course of fearful thoughts, that really is a lot of good news.
It might seem strange to some of you that I felt fortunate at this stage. But, if we’re living in the moment, and we’re accepting about life and have no expectations that anyone would live their entire life without any serious medical issue, then the rest really was very positive news. That was the gratitude I focused on rather than investing my energy in worry.
My conscious choice to pursue that course of thinking is what allowed me to get a good night’s sleep before I went in to face what would be a somewhat daunting diagnosis.
No life is lived without some pain and suffering so I do not live with the expectation that I will be able to avoid experiences like this one. But I reminded myself that I come from a family where many had served in WWII and, no matter what my future held, I was still likely better off than many of my own relatives. That had me feeling fortunate again.
If maintaining this state of mind seems impossible to you, remember that I too learned to do this. Yes, I had the advantage of starting my lessons after my accident at only five years old, but whether we start high school at 10 years old or 40 years old, it’s still just high school. Everyone reading this can come to know what I know through practice.
By reading your way through my experience, it is my hope that you will glean something about the active process that allows me to see life in an overwhelmingly positive light.
You may need to find your own way through your own experiences but, in the end, the tool we use –our minds– and the way we use it, are universal principles shared by us all. That being the case, I sincerely hope you find comfort in the knowledge that you too are capable of this sort of beneficial perspective. Any thoughts you have to the contrary are merely limiting, self-imposed beliefs.
In the following post, as things grew more serious, I will attempt to convey my internal process so that you can even better understand how we can all use our minds and our thoughts to generate positive responses to every kind of life experience.
If any reader goes back to just focus on the italicized sections of what I wrote above, everyone will easily see that I was not lying to myself by being positive. I was merely focusing on the most positive, realistic thoughts I could. We can all do this, but first we must believe in our ability to do so. My hope is that this post will help you in that regard.
Until the next installment, value your vision. It’s not guaranteed to last our lifetime, so don’t forget to meaningful behold the faces and places that you love the most.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.