As I write, I am reflecting on the past two days of my life. The story of the last two days starts with a bigger story around a skin cancer (squamous cell carcinoma) located on my right calf that required surgical removal 16 days ago. A three-millimetre spot on my skin turned into a 50-millimetre incision requiring over a dozen stitches externally plus internal suturing (a lesson to all about keeping an eye on your skin). The location of the wound required me to be stationary with my right leg raised for a period of two weeks.
Eleven days after the surgery, I noticed a dull cramp-like throb in my lower leg. I visited the doctor and was told that if it got any worse, to go and have my leg scanned. Fourteen days after the surgery I found myself in a medical imaging facility being told I had a very large (twenty-two-centimetre) deep vein thrombosis in four major veins.
Dr Paul Callaghan explains that walking Country is an extremely purposeful activity that facilitates wellbeing of mind, body and spirit.Credit:iStock
Over the next five minutes, everything I thought and felt about the world was severely challenged. Time slowed down and every traffic light seemed to turn red as we approached it. As each minute passed far too slowly, I did my best to not let my mind overwhelm me with negative thoughts and scenarios.
The care I received once I hobbled into NSW’s Maitland Hospital Emergency was incredible. In the blink of an eye, I was in a bed being attended to by a doctor who was able to instantly put me at ease. After I returned home that night, I felt truly blessed to be alive. Facing my mortality in such an unexpected way had given me many things to think about.
In looking back at the last two days I learned:
- how important it is to listen to your body;
- how wonderful the Australian medical system is;
- how blessed I am to have such an amazing partner;
- how unexpectedly precarious life can be;
- how critical my belief system is in times of crisis;
- how I have no regrets in my life;
- how important it is to stay present in times of acute stress, even when your brain is doing everything it can to take you elsewhere; and
- how important it is to see the magic and special moments in every day.
Many people fail to see the special moments in each day because they don’t look for them. There are endless possible reasons for this, but a major culprit is our inclination to always be in a rush.
When you are next at a busy city railway station during peak hour, just stand still for a moment and watch what is happening around you. I bet you’ll see lots of the following:
- people with their eyes glued to their phones, not daring to connect with each other
- people pushing and shouldering each other even before the train stops
- people trying to alight from the train being blocked by those trying to get on
- people squeezing themselves inside the closing doors, even though the train is obviously full
- people running to jump into the train as the doors are about to close, even though there is another coming in 10 to 15 minutes’ time, or even less
- people inside the train placing bags next to them so others cannot sit down (a pre-COVID scenario)Loading
When I watch these behaviours, I can’t help wondering whether this is symbolic of these people’s lives – constant rushing, running, pushing, shoving, isolating, not sharing, not caring, and placing other people’s lives in danger?
If our Aboriginal Elders were to watch this scene, they would shake their heads. They would ask these sorts of questions:
- Why are people pushing and shoving?
- What is the rush?
- If this train is so important, why don’t they come a little bit earlier?
- Is waiting less than 10 minutes for another train so bad?
- Why don’t people talk to each other?
- Why don’t people share the seating that is there for everybody to use?
When we rush, we are at risk of triggering the fight, flight, freeze response outlined in the previous chapter. Unless there is a real and present danger, triggering this response isn’t good for our mind, body or spirit. In our daily lives, we can rush and trigger layer upon layer of anxiety or, alternatively, we can teach ourselves to slow down and embrace the moment no matter what that involves. Which of the two behaviours has more likelihood of supporting our wellbeing? We can all argue that a one-off sprint to catch a train is not a major crime, but how often does this happen? Is rushing a habit?
In traditional Aboriginal life, there was little need to rush. Each day provided a multitude of opportunities to savour what was around you. Do you spend your day savouring what is around you … or does each day seem like a race against the clock?
Given how precious our time is, it is understandable that we do as much as we can with it. The thing to contemplate is, when your time on this earth is almost finished and you look back at your life, how many of the things you rushed to do will you see as important or critical to your life story?
Our Old People teach us that the most important thing in our life is our story. Our story captures our actions from the past but it is built on what we do in the present. Upholding our responsibilities is an important part of what we do in the present. These responsibilities might include earning a living and servicing our basic needs for safety and survival, but they also include our responsibility to enjoy what surrounds us (the sound of a bird singing or the sight of a flower blossoming).
Aboriginal people have been doing this for over 60,000 years. Mindfulness and being present in the moment is practised when we walk Country, is practised when we share story and is practised when we are doing what appears to be nothing.
The myth of Aboriginal people appearing to be doing nothing is captured in the word “walkabout”, which came into existence through non-Aboriginal people observing a behaviour without understanding story. Had they learned our story, they would have realised that walking Country is an extremely purposeful activity that facilitates wellbeing of mind, body and spirit.
Had people understood our story, they would have realised that Aboriginal people carried out essential daily activities – such as food gathering, preparing meals, eating and creating shelter – in a way that ensured there was always an abundance of time for sitting, teaching and nurturing relationships. This was labelled as laziness by observers who didn’t understand that Country gave you all you need with minimal effort if you knew all about your Country.
It is very easy for our lives to become out of balance, and it can come about in an invisible way where we don’t recognise that it has happened. Constantly pushing ourselves to accommodate workplace demands, spending most of our time trying to please others, telling ourselves it is only a temporary thing (but it becomes an entrenched habit) and measuring our success through how much wealth and how many material possessions we have accrued are all behaviours that can create imbalance.
Acknowledge the benefits of being present (mindful) and anchor yourself in the now. By giving yourself permission to focus on you and allocating the time to carry out mindfulness exercises regularly, you might find you are more able to stop pressuring yourself to be continually busy. This might feel strange at first, but resist the temptation to slip back into the bad old habits of rushing.
How well do you connect with your surroundings? When did you last notice how good it feels to have sunlight on your skin? When did you last notice the colours of a sunset? When did you last notice the sound of laughter? When did you last notice the taste of butter on corn? When did you last notice the smell of freshly cut grass? Connecting with our senses and connecting with what is around us helps us to be present.
To help me create the habit of being in the present, I developed what I call the T.E.N.S.E routine. The letters in the acronym T.E.N.S.E prompt you to connect with your senses as follows:
If you commit yourself to 10 minutes of the T.E.N.S.E routine towards the end of every day (which equates to two minutes for each sense), you will be amazed at how much less tense you feel.
Edited Extract from The Dreaming Path (Pantera Press) by Dr Paul Callaghan, on sale Tuesday, February 1. Paul is a motivational speaker, author and Aboriginal man belonging to the land of the Worimi people, on the coast of NSW.
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