Spirituality in the face of illness

Can it help you heal?

Donald Vowels learned he had cancer in 2011. After years of rigorous treatment and follow-up, he celebrated being cancer-free in 2014 with a renewed appreciation for how precious life is. He resumed his favorite activities having learned to enjoy every moment.

“I got back to life and was conscious of the fact that life and time were a gift,” he said.

Then cancer struck again.

Yet Vowels, a psychotherapist and spiritual counselor who has counseled many cancer patients, doesn’t view himself as someone with cancer but someone with a challenge to face. He credits his spirituality for his outlook and his peace of mind.

Today he is in his third clinical trial to treat an inoperable tumor in his chest. His strong sense of spirit has gotten him through the lowest and sickest of times as he endured round after round of chemotherapy.

“Questioning why this happened to me has never entered my mind,” he said. “Instead I ask, ‘How can I use this to understand myself better and grow closer to God?’ ”

For him — and for many facing a serious diagnosis or any crisis — the challenge is not allowing fear, worry and anxiety about the future to take over.

“I must constantly monitor those thoughts, choose not to entertain them and bring my thoughts back to this moment, to where I am in the present,” he said. Vowels does this through mindful meditation. This means he is mindfully present in whatever he does so that his attention is on only what is around and before him in the moment. It takes practice, but the payoff is peace of mind. He believes it also can help heal the body. After all, the body, mind and spirit are interconnected.

Vowels explains that the mind can be a protector from negativity. If you change the way you think, you change the way you feel.

“Do all you can to remove negative thoughts. They add more burden to the burden you are already bearing,” he said. “Thoughts of the future can produce anxiety. Anxiety releases chemicals in the body that rev us up for a threat — a threat that in that moment doesn’t exist. Mindful awareness of our thoughts pulls us back into the present and into the truth and peace of that moment.”

His religious upbringing may have helped him reach this place in his life, but for those who do not consider themselves religious, they can still tap into the power of spirituality.

“Whether you call it spiritual practice or religion or mind over matter — regardless of your beliefs — if it helps you feel more connected to yourself and brings you inner peace amid chaos, it cannot help but impact your body’s healing,” he said. “For me, spirituality is the connectedness to all that is. It is the oneness of body, mind and spirit. It is too expansive to be contained within the structure of a religion. It’s an unseen strength or energy that brings with it the courage to surrender to the reality of our present circumstances as they are, not how we might want them to be.”

Vowels explained that surrender is not resignation; it is accepting what is. This is a daunting task that takes work. And it takes even more work for someone going through a health crisis.

“It’s something I work at every day, every hour, every minute,” he said. “But I make the decision to do it, because it is a pathway to peace for me. Resignation sounds like defeat or giving up. Surrender is an active choice to accept what is and let go of what I cannot control.”

Would you like to learn more about mindful meditation? Try walking meditation. View the video below to discover how you can incorporate it into your life and find renewed peace of mind.

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