Facing Our Worst Fears

Meditation can offer solace in dark days

It could happen to anyone, and most of us have imagined it: the unexplained lump or pain, the unwelcome test results, the unacceptable conclusion. No one is sheltered from the chilling possibility of a life-threatening health diagnosis. Facing mortality is considered one of the most difficult things a person can experience, causing feelings of fear, anxiety, and loss.

But other feelings are still possible. In her new book, Leaves Falling Gently: Living Fully with Serious and Life-Limiting Illness through Mindfulness, Compassion, and Connectedness, Susan Bauer-Wu, associate professor of nursing at Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, offers practical guidance on using mindfulness meditation for coping with physical pain and life changes or when faced with serious conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, or caregiver stress.

“When a person is diagnosed with a serious illness, they often feel they have lost control, and they worry that they still have much to do,” says Bauer-Wu, a Georgia Cancer Center Coalition Distinguished Scholar. “My goal is to help people cultivate mindfulness, compassion, and a sense of connectedness—to loved ones and with what matters most—so that they can live well despite challenges beyond their control.”

Through clinical and personal stories and research-based guided mindfulness exercises, readers can foster clarity, acceptance, and strength. Each short chapter offers guidance for coping with symptoms, relating to loved ones, and staying mindful even when under medical treatment or while in a hospital.

Bauer-Wu has studied the effects of meditation on patients and caregivers for more than a dozen years. Her research joins other Emory-based studies showing that meditation can bolster physical and mental health.

According to Bauer-Wu, mindfulness is a way of bringing awareness to one’s experience in the present moment with a sense of openness rather than resistance.

“Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere and anytime,” Bauer-Wu says. “There are countless opportunities to practice it in the course of a regular day during routine activities, like eating, walking, doing household chores, working, or brushing your teeth. The more you practice it, the more it will become part of you.”

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