“I promise myself that I will enjoy every minute of the day that is given me to live,” wrote the ‘Father of Mindfulness’ Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hang. These are words that Sean Vail strives to live his life by since he was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the colon in 2016. Living in Skibbereen, the retired physio, whose many and varied careers have ranged from floristry to farming – he was also almost ordained a Franciscan Friar – has embraced mindfulness since his cancer diagnosis and is currently studying for a Masters in Cognitive psychology and mindfulness with the aim of being able to provide free counselling for members of the LGBT+ community in West Cork.
“We all have a choice whether we will die happy or sad,” says Sean, who says that today he looks for the lesson in everything in order to move forward.
Given three months to live when he fell sick while on a business trip to the UK in 2016, Sean was offered an experimental surgery that involved removing most of his colon and 26 lymph nodes. “I ended up with a collapsed left lung, pulmonary embolism in my right lung and blood clot in the superior mesenteric vein,” shares Sean. “I was told that if I made it to the following morning I’d be lucky.
“When you’re given that kind of a diagnosis, something changes inside you and your perception and outlook on life completely changes,” he says. “With death imminent, I found that I had a fierce tenacity and will to live.”
Sean is a strong proponent of accessing the mind-body connection and the power of visualisation for healing. Visualisation is based on the neuroscience that when we visualise an action, the same brain regions are stimulated as when we physically perform an action.
Desperate and unwilling to let go of life, Sean and his sister spent the next ten days doing the only thing they could do, practicing visualisation; swimming through the veins and arteries in Sean’s body and using pick axes to tear the blood clot apart and repair his lungs!
“I like to think it helped because contrary to all the doctors expectations my body grew veins around the blood clot and restored blood flow to my intestines,” shares Sean, who went on to have chemotherapy treatment.
While it has been a difficult path to recovery, currently there is no cancer detectable in Sean’s body. Mindfulness, he says, has been his saviour on this journey. “I don’t think I’d be alive today without it,” he shares. Reading ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ by stress-relief and meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zinn in particular was life-changing. Kabat-Zinn created the revolutionary eight-week programme called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
“I used to be very stressed all of the time but I have gone from having zero patience to having the patience of Job,” says Sean, who now uses mindfulness in the classroom when he is teaching english to children.
An active member and advocate of the LGBT+ community in Ireland, Sean first arrived in the country in 1991 at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal act. Once he has his Master’s Degree, his hope is to offer free counselling to members of the LGBT+ community in West Cork. “It’s not easy being gay,” says Sean. “You’re always looking over your shoulder. I was bullied and beaten every single day of my school years.”
Born into a military family in Michigan, Sean joined the Navy at the age of 17 and was one of the first service members to be honourably discharged when he revealed his sexual orientation to his superior following the death of his partner.
After being discharged, he returned home. “My parents’ attitude was that this is what God does to people like me and they threw me out of the house,” says Sean. “I didn’t have the luxury of coming out, I was thrown out..of the navy, my family, my home.” Sean settled into the thriving gay community of Fort Worth, Texas, where he spent most of the eighties being a part of a new civil rights movement.
Today he is working on a project to bridge the gap between younger and older LGBT+ people in rural West Cork.
Proficient in many skills, from carpentry to crochet, Sean says he doesn’t feel like he’s the average gay man, which has played a part in his own struggle to identify. “I’ve built my own home twice and I’m a farmer and carpenter,” he says. “While I’m not shy about sharing my lifestyle and sexuality, when you’re bullied on a daily basis like I was as a child, it can cause developmental delays and issues. Many younger LGBT+ people become social hermits or use unhealthy coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol. One of the reasons I went into psychology is because I really wanted to understand how this happens,” says Sean.
Sean starts each day with five things that he’s grateful for.
“I’m grateful for so many things,” he shares, as he points out one of the beautiful biotope aquariums that he has created in his home; a little piece of nature indoors that has been proven to reduce heart rate by as much as three per cent in just 10 minutes and have a positive effect on a person’s wellbeing.
“I’m content,” he says when asked if he’s happy. “I do feel lonely sometimes – the thought creeps in that ‘nobody wants me’ but I remind myself that loneliness is a state of mind so I look at it and ask myself where it’s coming from. Mindfulness teaches you how to create a distance between your authentic self and a situation, a thought or an emotion and to intellectually respond rather than react to it. Our brain is malleable and it is possible for anyone to change through repetitive meditation practice.