Surviving grief…with meditation
When I sat down to write this, my idea was more educational than anything. My experience in twenty-five years of meditation off and on combined with the scientific data and research should be enough to convince you to give it a try. But something happened as I typed and came from a place of teaching (boring), the story just started to seep out. See, last summer was a doozy for me. I had three major events happen in a month and I truly believe that my meditation practice kept me from losing my shit. This is not so easy to talk or write about, and I suspect it is not so easy to read either. It is important though and gives permission to transcend the surface yuck making way for the real stuff beneath. Grab a cup of something and settle in…
Let’s just be honest, meditation is a weird word. Just about everyone you talk to will have a different definition, description, and way of thinking about meditation. For most, the image of a Yogi clothed in robes and a shaved head sitting on a serene mountain top is not far from their perception. Some see a cross-legged person, sitting in front of an alter with incense burning. Some collapse it with yoga, some with religion, some with mysticism. What is your view, definition, or thinking about it? Is it positive, negative, full of myth and mystery? Do you figure it is not for you? The most common reaction to the question of whether or not you meditate is, “I tried and I’m just not good at it.”
I have been meditating off and on for about twenty-five years. I started because I had to, well, sort of. As part of a body work and massage course, learning how to increase your “hara” or center of gravity, was taught through mandatory Zazen meditation. Not yet thirty years old, sitting for forty-five minutes each day was a task frequently full of dread instead of a training ground for the mind, body, and spirit. I do remember the impact sitting had on my personal energy or how powerful I felt in certain moments, but it was tough and when I stopped doing massage, I stopped sitting. Cut to a profound course in graduate school and a book called “Full Catastrophe Living,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, where meditation and mindfulness took on a new meaning. Kabat-Zinn’s MBSP (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) was studied in hospitals and he taught at University of Massachusetts Medical School. Humph. This must have something to it beyond the uncomfortable sitting of Zazen. And so, for the next decades or so, I would meditate in fits and spurts, with a weak and vague connection to the benefits I should be feeling but wasn’t so sure I was.
Fast forward to Corporate Trainer and the desperate need to meditate to save our stressed-out souls. Mindfulness has become a common term with not so common results—if you actually practice it. But again, everyone has a different definition, and for every definition there are a dozen reasons or excuses why not to. Peddling meditation from the front of a room full of busy people is not so far from selling door-to-door insurance. They all nod and agree, raise their eyebrows in rhythm with slight amusement at the promised results that they want to want to believe…but don’t. And so, with the constant shutting of front doors, I continued to meditate off and on, consistently inconsistent. I practiced enough to feel slightly better from a session, but the lasting effect hadn’t quite hit me. Perhaps my lack of faith was coming across from the front of the room? Can you really sell something you don’t buy?
When meditation began to really gain traction in the business culture was when research began to become available. I read an article almost ten years ago (long enough ago that I cannot find the citation again so bear with my memory) that looked at functional MRI studies of the brain before and after a meditation intervention. Subjects meditated for 20 minutes, two times per day for 3 months, and they measured the Amygdala and Hippocampus regions of the brain. The reason they measured the gray matter in those two areas of the brain is because they are part of the Limbic System and they are major players in your stress response system. The Amygdala is part of the fear response system and a larger Amygdala is linked to a higher risk for anxiety. The Hippocampus is highly involved in spacial memory (what, when, and where of memories), making it important for integration of past and present. It is also involved in learning, and who wouldn’t want more of that? What the study found was that after 3 months of meditation, the Amygdala decreased, and the Hippocampus increased in size. This would make you less reactive and more thoughtful. Now that was appealing to me. Even if my memory of this article is only 50% reliable, that is still an incredible reason to try meditation. It was this memory combined with a desire to be able to walk my talk from the front of the room that led me to a new commitment to meditation.
With the help of an app (Insight Timer), I committed to 20 minutes, twice a day, for 3 months of meditation. I figured changing the structure of my brain could only make me happier and healthier so why not. It was an experiment and I was my only subject. Like anything new, the novelty of the first few tries hid how bad the performance was. As the first few sessions went along, I realized just how bad I was at meditating. I was using guided meditations primarily and still my mind would wander off so completely that I would have no idea of what the guide had said and for how long. Did I mention this was during a guided meditation! Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun and has taught meditation to countless people over five decades. I remembered listening to an audio track of hers describing her mind during meditation. She had sat for over 40,000 hours at the time, taught tens of thousands of people to meditate, and she said, “and I’m still really bad at it.” Her admission of constant thoughts and distractions was perhaps one of the most powerful moments of my meditation practice skill set and gave me the umph to keep going. I was starting to feel some results in the form of a greater sense of calm and a faster recovery from getting upset. Perhaps the most amazing thing was I was beginning to look forward to my meditation sessions and that made me very happy.
And then, just two short months into my meditation experiment, a test like no other was upon me. While I was out of town, my beloved twenty-five-year-old horse, Coriall, had a sudden, unrecoverable colic and had to be put down. I was out of town, alone, and in shock. As I hung up the phone from the vet as the decision was made, I began to shake and cry. Having lost horses before, I knew what was coming. What I didn’t expect was the deep breath that instantly, almost reflexively took over my body, producing a grounding and a little bit of calm in a terrible moment. Then, I took the next one purposefully, and then some more. I kept crying but at the same time, I kept breathing. Grief is grief and there was no escaping it, however, the more I meditated during those first few days alone, the more profound my peace. It created a dual-zone in a way, I could grieve and then instantly recover into meditation or even just some breathing.
Vacation was already planned and just a few days after returning following Coriall’s death, we headed to Cape Cod for our annual trip. This will be really good recovery, I thought. Long walks on the beach, disconnect from technology, grieve, and heal. But there were other plans in store. Three days into the trip, my sister called at a time of day she doesn’t usually call. As I walked the short distance to find my phone, a weird thought raced across my mind, “Mom’s sick.” And she was. Her colon had perforated, and she was in hospice already. She was not a surgical candidate based on her health and so it was now just a matter of time. One short week later and the same experience washed over me as I hung up the phone and began to shake. “Breathe, Jenny, just breathe,” I told myself. And thankfully, my breath was there to help calm down my physical and stress responses. I left the next morning for my ten-hour race to get to the hospital before my mom died. I made it and spent a magical day with family at her side as she transitioned from this body to whatever was next for her. In the midst of more emotions and events than I thought I could handle, I was handling it. My mom passed peacefully ten short days after my horse. My meditation began to take on a new and much more profound role in my life. It transformed from a detached goal to a part of my day, no, a part of my life. The thought of missing a session was no longer acceptable or negotiable. It was saving me, keeping me grounded, helping me grieve. I was truly grateful.
But the story doesn’t end yet. And I hesitate to tell this story because it is nearly inconceivable and difficult not only to tell, but to hear. Two weeks after my mom’s funeral, my dad was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive cancer and given six months to live. What the…? I barely told anyone. How the heck do you say this to someone? “Hey, good to see you, too. What have I been up to? Oh well, my horse died, ten days later my mom died, and then a couple of weeks later my dad was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live.” It is not that I couldn’t talk about it, it was that it was just impossible to talk about. The people in my life knew because my partner told them. It seemed easier to hear it from her instead of having to hear it from me, deal with your reaction to it, while at the same time trying to communicate awkwardly with me as you wondered how the heck I was still standing upright. I suppose not telling people was easier for me. I had enough to deal with each day that trying to take care of someone as I told them my news was a mountainous task at times. Once I did finally tell people, they were amazed at how well I was doing. Lots of people commented on how calm I was. It was the meditation; I just know it.
My dad is still alive and doing great ten months later, because I know you are wondering (thank you). But here is where the science and data part of the benefits of meditation come into play. Grief, upset, threat, anger, fear, frustration, etc., are all emotions that stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight) because they are innate signals to our brain that there is something to survive. When in a state of upset, the body reacts with certain chemicals which while they will help you survive physically, they kick your ass mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. Adrenaline and cortisol are the major threat hormones and just recovering from them takes time and energy physically. Add to that the mental, emotional, and psychological energy and you are exhausted. The body has something called the Vagus Nerve and it is the major mechanism behind the Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and digest), or the balancing arm for threat. Why do I give this biology lesson here? Well, because meditation helps to strengthen and train the Vagus Nerve. And a strong Vagus Nerve helps you calm down quicker, recover from upset more efficiently, and even keep you from getting upset in the first place (you know, losing your shit). The benefits of my newly strengthened Vagus Nerve were unbelievable during the first weeks of my dad’s diagnosis. Even though my dad is a doctor, that didn’t make him immune to “white coat syndrome,” especially when dealing with a deadly disease. I was with him at each turn, for each visit, doing the research, sorting through the options, and supporting him and his wife of 35 years as their world came crashing down. There were not very many decisions but each one was critical and being in my “right mind” was essential and ultimately life-saving. When we, as a family, decided to decline the invitation to do chemotherapy, the oncologist sort of freaked out. “You can’t, you just can’t decline chemo,” he said desperately. “In three months, you will be in the ICU in terrible pain and in six months, you will be dead,” emphasizing his point with a ball of spit flying from his lips. Breathe, calm, breathe, think, recover processing abilities, don’t react and cave because of fear and pure emotion, think. And we did. As a family, we charted a course from thought, not emotion, and we are all thriving as a result. Thank you, meditation-strength Vagus Nerve.
A year has not yet passed since the wrecking ball of July 2018, and I continue to meditate daily. There are many more parts to the stories begun to be told here and I will find the courage to tell them all as we go. I am not the same person I was in June 2018, but who could be after all of that? The work, the journey, the experience, the growth, all arrived in the form of tragedy and transformed over time with mindfulness. Over the weekend, I completed 365 days of meditation in a row. I thought it would be more monumental, like something I would celebrate, but it wasn’t. It is now as much a part of me as the mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, or psychological and I cherish my time each day spent in meditation practice. Just so you know, I’m still pretty bad at it but just trying to keep up with Pema on that front. Some days are mystical and magical, and others are tedious and irritating, but it doesn’t matter because they are all part of who I am and how I take care of myself. Meditation is not a magic pill, mostly because nothing is, but it is a tool and a practice. It takes time to get really bad at it, I mean good at it, and so if you are motivated to try it, you must commit to it. All those years of on and off were valuable in that they still trained the mechanism of the Vagus Nerve, and then when I became serious, so did my progress. My reflexive breathing in that moment of losing my horse and the hundreds of moments to follow that month were a result of training the mechanism allowing me to recover and be present, which came in the form of my daily practice. That is why we train, so that we can perform at will or survive when necessary. So, take care of yourself and train for the daily and the not-so-daily, whether it is through meditation or something else, strengthen yourself.