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Home » Shannon Paige: Mindfulness and Healing at TEDxBoulder (Transcript)

Shannon Paige: Mindfulness and Healing at TEDxBoulder (Transcript)

Shannon Paige at TEDxBoulder

Shannon Paige – TRANSCRIPT

It’s 1994, and I’m in the barn with my first husband, and we’re putting away our horses for the night when the barn phone rings, and it’s my mom. And she skips over all of the niceties, and she says very clearly and urgently: “I dreamt that you are sick, alone and dying.” Well, I fell silent, but because it was true. It was a perfect mirror to the words I’d gotten earlier in the week: “Cancer, cancer, cancer,” and hadn’t told anyone because that was all too real, and realness was something that I couldn’t quite deal with.

So I said, “Momma, I’m so sorry, but I have cancer. And I guess I haven’t told you because I’m confused and I’m scared.” And my ex-husband, obviously overhearing all of this that he had not heard, seemed unaffected. And he went through and did the rest of his barn chores, and then he walked over quietly to the barn doors and turned off the barn light and walked out, leaving me to finish my call with my momma in the dark.

So, I walked into the house, a few moments later, somewhat prepared to face his reaction, and instead of turning away from the TV, he yelled over his shoulder, “This’ll be the last time we talk about this, and you’re going to be just fine.” You have to understand, I’m 21 years old. Alone, I faced the diagnosis of a lifetime, cervical cancer. The treatment? Radical hysterectomy.

Radiation? Survival rate of 90%, but no kids. And all of this news was delivered really professionally and seemingly thoughtfully, but with a really kind of quick, “You’re so lucky.” Well, I did not feel lucky. In fact, I would like to give the luck back. And so, refusing to accept the unacceptable, I did battle; I battled cancer.

But I also battled the doctors; I battled the recommended therapies. I battled the luck itself. I battled to save the uterus. I battled and I battled with marginal surgeries and experimental chemotherapy, and I battled and I battled, and I got further, and further, and further, and further away from “why?” Because cancer, it’s hard. And cancer, it’s gross.

And cancer, it’s mean. I actually dissolved somewhere behind these skeletorish, really black, sunken-in eyes and protruding cheekbones. And, thank God, this hippie, Boulder, amazing, all-powerful wizard of a doctor stepped into that wellspring of ick and falling hair, and said to me, “You are going to live. But we have to get you back into your body. So you are going to follow a sound medical protocol, and you are going to volunteer with horses and with children, most of them as unlucky as you are. Oh, and you’re going to go to yoga.”

Well, I was lost, and I was exhausted, and I had absolutely no fight left. So, I nodded meekly, and I let this kind woman point me in the direction of future that at least she could see for me. Well, the battle with my uterus, I lost. Then the battle with the cancer, I won. Yeah. But that’s not why I’m here. The battle with depression; I was just beginning. I had survived, right? And I had proven statistics right; I had chalked one more up for science and sound medical protocols, and survival is the very definition of hope. Right? Wrong.

Wrong. Because all of the pressure and the anxiety of how I should feel – lucky – was actually killing me slowly. I felt so much shame trying to convince people that I was okay, and/or sharing with them the truth that the depth of my down was so down, regardless of survival, that I was sinking I was sinking, and I was given the response: “But you’re so lucky. You’ve got so much to live for. Cheer up.” Well, I faked it for them, and I learned, as many people in the same position, to just get through.

See, that’s what they don’t tell you about cancer and other really serious life circumstances someone might survive is that it takes an exorbitant amount of energy to convince everyone else that you’re okay. And when life circumstances actually rob you of your ability to take tomorrow for granted, it might also take away from you your ability to smile for real, your ability to connect, and your ability to hope. Why? Because depression is hard.

And depression is gross. And depression is mean. So through the battle with that depression that was so mean, I began to follow her protocol, and I began to get back into my body. And as crazy as that volunteering and getting to the yoga mat seemed, it worked. And I didn’t know how it worked, but I knew if I showed up with the horses and moved with them, and chased the kids around, and did all I was expected to do, I somehow felt better. And if I stood on my hands and awkwardly wobbled with myself, I somehow felt better. My battle with depression was at least as difficult as my battle with cancer.

So it took me years to figure out why it actually worked. It took me years to actually wonder if my path on the edge of depression and anxiety might actually help somebody else. Perhaps it’s because what was going on had nothing to do with cognition. Depression and anxiety are hardwired grooves in the brain.

They are so powerful, in fact, that they can create a full-system, cognitive, embodied lock-down. Not just in the body or in the mind, but out of your life. I was locked out of my life, and being locked out of my life, and moving and finding some effect in movement, I began to realize that amidst all of this, there was hope, real hope, and this hope was that I believe – no, I want you to understand – I believe to the very core of my being that the body can change the mind. I believe that the body can create empowered states of physical activity that actually inform emotional states of cognitive healing, emotional healing, mental healing. But how? I want to be entirely transparent and very clear that yoga can’t heal depression. Sorry.

It can’t heal depression because downward-facing dog can’t fix your life. And sticking your foot behind your head can’t heal a broken heart. But getting in your skin can. So if depression isn’t busy solving – If yoga isn’t busy solving depression, then how does it work? Well, yoga works in a bunch of different ways, arguably, but this is my theory. Yoga works by creating the mind-body-breath connection.

And a mind-body-breath connection is this: We’ll start with the breath. So, we all have breath; we all have access to respiration. But we don’t all always breathe fully, completely or even smoothly. And, interestingly enough, a recent Johns Hopkins’ study came out that confirmed cancer cannot live in a high-oxygen environment. Interestingly enough, neither can depression or anxiety.

So it goes without saying that if we take deeper breaths – if we learn to breathe fuller experiences of ourselves – we can actually pattern or even repattern and heal and move towards wholeness, wellness and fullness. And then the body: Okay, so the body has a profound connection to the breath, but maybe in a way you haven’t yet heard. So, the body actually interacts with the breath at a specific point in the breath to give you a place where you learn new information, both mental and muscular. At the very emptiest point of every breath that you have, just before the breath becomes an inhale, you have the capacity to learn something new. Just depends on what you’re learning.

Is it the same old wiring? Next, a common misconception is that all we do in yoga is create patterns of peace and calm, all day long. Funny, people think I have the calmest life ever. In fact, what most contemporary yogas do is we create really strong tension: strength, radical integration, shaking even – many of you have experienced that. And then we teach you to release it. And then we reintegrate you.

And then you release it. We create feeling states so you become aware of this muscle is strong, and that muscle needs to lengthen, and this muscle is tired, and this muscle is fatiguing, and, wow, that’s different from relaxation. So when you put these things together, when you put together the very fact of breath, being able to create a high-oxygen environment of healing, and when you put together the very fact that we have the capacity within the breath to learn something new and change an old embodied pattern, you can do it in a space of a pulse. So as you breathe in, you can create tension. As you breathe out, you can release the tension.

And then as you breathe in, you can safely go back to the tension. And you can teach yourself empowerment, and structure and stability; you can teach yourself a new way. You can actually line up to change. It works. Shall we try it together? Alright, so invite your palms out.

Just your palms, just up. This is yoga, but nothing crazy will happen. I am a trained professional. So, I want you just to notice your state of being as how you arrived, just right now – you’ve been sitting for nearly four hours. I thank you for your time.

And you’re probably really inspired. I mean, you might want to take Christin’s men’s group class, or you might want to build bridges that grant access. But you just notice, this is all layered on top of who you are when you came in, so it’s all totally normal and natural. Just breathe all the way out Now as you inhale, squeeze and make thick fists, tight fists.

Shake. Then as you exhale, release and extend the fingers. Then inhale again and recreate the fists. Exhale and release right there you have the capacity to learn something. Inhale, squeeze. Let’s layer onto that. Exhale and release the tension and now think of someone that you love. Inhale. Integrate that. And exhale. Just let go, physically. And once more, inhale, squeeze.

Exhale. Think of someone that loves you. And then release your hands. Now you might not feel entirely different, you might not feel saved. But I’m standing here watching 2000 people, and when I said, “Think about someone you love,” you all sat up a little taller. Which means you breathed a little deeper. Which means that together, we’re not even in a cognitive-thinking state.

Together, 2000 people, we are in an embodied healing state. So, we have the capacity to line up to something so edge-of-experience, life-shifting and cataclysmically awesome, by the simple act of knowing where we are in our skin. You will never hear me say, “Open your heart,” but you will always hear me say, “Take up more space in it.” In our lives, can we line up to change to that moment when things change directions and breathe with it? I don’t know. But I hope we can.

So, I’d like to take us back to 1994, to that 21-year-old girl, in the barn, afraid to deal with anything real. And she’s you. And she’s me. And she’s us. She’s any one at a given point on all these paths in this auditorium.

And I’d like to issue a challenge for her, for you, for me, for us. Over the next seven days, let’s attend to how we breathe and commit to taking five deeper breaths within the course of a day. Let’s see if we can’t be aware of taking up more space in our own hearts, and let’s see if we can’t be bold enough and brave enough to line up to that instant where we have the capacity to change – to respond rather than to react. Maybe your yoga, the living-in-the-world, will actually teach us to be more “response-able” rather than reactionary. Thank you so much.

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