The Power of The Positive

Moushumi Chakrabarty

© Copyright 2002 Moushumi Chakrabarty


Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.

A new kind of stress has invaded our lives. The hum of a low-flying airplane makes us glance upward with unease. Analysts are saying we must learn to live with the fear, not let it take over our lives.

That is exactly what my family has being doing for the past year.

Late last December our world came crashing down when my only sister Rinku was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was only 27. Suddenly we found ourselves on the edge of a precipice, staring down an abyss.

I had rushed from Toronto to India with my kids to be with Rinku. She herself had left her husband behind in Bangalore to move to Poona, where our parents live, to receive a six-month course of chemotherapy. For the next six months we were one family again, under one roof.

Our initial terror at Rinku's diagnosis soon gave way to anger. Should we blame God, Fate? We chose neither. Instead, Rinku and I decided to fight. We vowed to return to the fun times we had always enjoyed together. We wouldn't let "this thing" get the better of us. Nor would we let our parents collapse from grief.

We have kept our pledge, and it, in turn, has kept us from falling prey to despair and depression. As Rinku underwent chemotherapy, we discovered uncharted territories of inner strength.

What were we doing?

We were harnessing the power of our will and imagination to utilize three of our greatest tools for coping with crisis: positive thinking, creative visualization, and affirmation.

Accentuating the Positive

Positive thinking is not some esoteric new age religion. It is a traditional survival tactic that humans have always used to cope in difficult times.

People differ in attitude, and these differences alone can cause the rain or sunshine in a person's life. As Abraham Lincoln observed, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their mind to be."

Often in the evenings when my sister, housebound by the debilitating effects of the chemotherapy wistfully watched the strolling passersby, we would take a walk together down memory lane. We readily found much to laugh about the antics of relatives, picnic disasters of long ago, even our eccentric college professors. We would read from Dale Carnegie's How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Worry, he emphasized, only shortens our lives.

Whenever we were bogged down by doubts and fears, we made a conscious effort to look beyond the immediate. If Rinku awoke one morning in low spirits, I made sure we took our teacups straight to the living room. There, my kids could distract her with stories about school, or my parents could consult her about the menu for lunch.

Often we would listen to a CD of the holy Gayatri mantra. The Gayatri mantra is one of the most uplifting of Hindu religious texts. It addresses the Supreme Power as the remover of suffering and pain and bestower of happiness. It appeals to God to guide our intellect. Listening to the mantra always helped us put the crisis in perspective: it is not permanent, it will pass.

My children also taught me positive thinking. One rainy evening, I was moaning about how miserable it was when my 10-year-old daughter piped up: "The car is getting a free wash. Think how much it will shine tomorrow!"

In How To Be a Successful Student, educator Donald Martin outlines "the three C's" of positive thought and action:

Commitment. Make a positive commitment to yourself, to learning, to work, family, friends, nature, and other worthwhile causes. Praise yourself and others. Dream of success. Be enthusiastic.

Control. Keep your mind focussed on important things. Set goals and priorities for what you think and do. Visualize to practise your actions. Develop a strategy for dealing with problems. Learn to relax. Enjoy successes. Be honest with yourself.

Challenge. Be courageous. Change and improve each day. Do your best and don't look back. See learning and change as opportunities. Try new things. Consider several options. Meet new people. Ask lots of questions. Keep track of your mental and physical health. Be optimistic.

According to Martin, "Studies show that people with these characteristics are winners in good times and survivors in hard times." We also need to bring about a radical shift in what Martin calls our constant "inner conversations" - if they are keeping us from being positive. We would do well to listen to the dean of positive thinkers, Norman Vincent Peale:

Every day remind yourself of your own ability, of your good mind, and affirm that you can make something really good out of your life.

Visualizing Change

According to Patrick Fanning, author of Visualization For Change, creative visualization is "the conscious volitional creation of mental sense impressions for the purpose of changing yourself." Mental sense impressions, because visualization is not strictly visual; it can involve other senses too.

Unlike daydreaming, creative visualization is proactive. My sister, who has learned to look at her illness as a passage, not a life sentence, has found it helps to imagine the things we will do together as a family when she gets well. She visualizes doing all the things she loves cooking, buying curios, chatting with friends and family, reading, watching movies with her husband. She has made herself believe it will come true.

Here are the basics of how my sister and I practice creative visualization:

First, try lying down it really works. Don't be afraid that you will fall asleep: answers often come in dreams. Rotate your eyeballs and look towards the centre of your forehead. The rotation creates more relaxing alpha brain waves, helping you to go deeper into a calm, meditative state. Imagine yourself descending from a high mountain, slowly counting backwards 10, 9, 8 . . . At the count of 1, your body and mind are totally at peace. Think serenity, stillness. Now start your creative visualization process. Use your intuition to create a beautiful nature scene. My favourite is of a meadow by a forest, with tall mountain ranges in the distance. Involve as many of your senses as you can. Smell the fresh air, feel the wind in your hair, see the colourful flowers, touch the rough tree bark . . . In this private place, imagine you're happy and at one with nature. This will make you even more receptive to the gifts of your imagination. Now, in a series of small "movie frames," picture the change you want in your life. For instance, you could see yourself onstage receiving the Best Gardener Award at the town hall, smiling to a round of warm applause. Or handling your difficult child with enviable calm. I practice creative visualization every day. I see my sister well and strong again, the two of us laughing at a picnic with our families. I also know and affirm it will come true. During her six months of chemotherapy, my sister found it helped to focus on visualizations of health and wellbeing. She actually imagined her insides were being "cleaned up" by the medicines. When the side effects were really bad, she would think: "The medicines are really working. This nausea is the body's way of telling me that."

Making the Positive Firm

Simply put, affirmation means "to make firm." It means mentally reinforcing a wishful statement or visualization by asserting it already is so. Your colon is healthy. Your teenager is a responsible person with sound values.

Experts say affirmations work best when certain guidelines are followed:

Never say affirmations by rote. Try to inject real feeling into them. Believe.

Always be specific. Don't affirm: "everything is going to be alright." Say, "my tomato plants are the best in town."

Affirm in the present tense, as if your wish is already a reality.

Affirm the positive; don't deny the negative. "My lungs love fresh air," not "I don't crave cigarettes."

Write short, simple affirmations in a journal.

Repeat your affirmations every day for at least ten minutes.

Rinku returned to Bangalore in June. Her doctor has advised her to lead as normal a life as possible. She and her husband are taking it easy. They go for short walks, watch their favourite movies, practise yoga, meet friends and Rinku continues to think positive.

"These techniques," she tells me, "have helped me cope. They will continue to be in my repertoire for a long time."

Though Rinku still tires easily and cannot do everything she wants, she is learning to adjust to life in the slow lane. For now.

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