In 2001 Donna Jackson Nakazawa – a journalist and mother – was paralyzed in a sudden onset of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis. She slowly regained her ability to walk and drive only to be paralyzed by another more serious attack in 2005. Along the way she was also diagnosed with thyroiditis, nerve damage, a clotting disorder, bowel problems, slipped discs, and strange fevers. Within a few years she’d gone from being able to swim 60 laps to being perpetually worried, exhausted, and in pain.
Having exhausted the usual medical options, and cognizant of studies showing the power of mind-body medicine to affect health, Donna engaged with Integrative Medicine specialist Dr. Anastasia Rowland-Seymour at Johns Hopkins to bring joy back into her life and hopefully improve her health. We’ve been following Donna’s progress in a blog series.
When you see and feel the sensations you are experiencing as sensations, pure and simple, you may see that these thoughts about the sensations are useless to you at that moment and they can actually make things worse than they need to be. John Kabat Zinn
Donna’s been doing her mindfulness “on the fly”, applying it as she goes about her day. Now she’s devoting a half-hour or an hour a day to doing that – she’s becoming a meditator. The goal as always is to quiet the mind.
As they settle into the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class Trish Magyari asks them to ask themselves “How am I doing right now”?
At that question every reason for not doing mindfulness – for escaping into some kind of distraction – blares into Donna’s mind. Her stomach pains, numb feet, headache, brain-fog, back spasms and the flu-like fatigue that’s ALWAYS present immediately come to the fore. This is why, she says, she never asks herself, how she is doing now. The response to that question is overwhelming – and depressing.
Hanging out with what is going on right now is Buddhism is all about, though. Instead of racing from painful sensations and negative emotions and thoughts you welcome them in. They’re part of your experience. The only to get through them is to be with them – to actually, in a sense welcome them. Trish recommends they meet discomfort and pain with a little kindness. This is not a Western way of doing things.
In her book “Radical Acceptance” Tara Brach, who experienced a four year bout with a chronic fatigue syndrome-like illness provides a guided meditation on the “Radical Acceptance of Pain”.
It involves a relaxation period, a gentle scanning of the body and then bringing “a receptive attention” directly to unpleasant sensations being experienced. She asks if the body and the mind are “clenched like a fist” in their efforts to resist the pain and asks the participant to soften their resistance to it and allow the unpleasant sensations to be just as they are. She suggests that one experience their awareness as a “soft space” that surrounds the pain.
As soon as this has been established she has the participant more precisely describe the pain. Is it burning pain? A stabbing or aching or twisting or throbbing pain? Does it feel like a knot or like a great weight has been pressed on it. (Some meditators ask if it has a certain color or shape.) This is using the analytical part of the brain to redefine the pain sensation. Instead of being a horrible thing it’s a throbbing thing or a weighty thing.
When resistance occurs she suggests the participant relax and let their body become like an open space. She asserts that doing this over time will allow your equanimity to increase.
Donna finds that giving the worrying and fearful mind some rein those judgments can get really loud. To counter that they take a three part breath – they fill their belly, then their stomach, then their chest areas with air and then hold it and then rapidly exhale as deeply and quickly as possible with a big haaaaaaaaa. Donna feels lighter – something has indeed been released.
As Donna moves in a little closer she is surprised to encounter not the usual feelings of frustration, anxiety and overwhelm she expected but a looming sense of sadness.
Then they’re asked to focus on the in and out of 10 breaths in a row. Research suggests that focusing on the breath for 12 seconds allows one to reach a state of concentration and doing that over and over again creates a “concentration grove” in one’s brain – a place of calmness one can return to over and over again amidst the storm.
Donna’s able to make it to three breaths – not bad really for someone who was sure she had a “meditation disability”. Trish suggests counting the breaths to help, and letting out a silent ahhh on the out breath. As her legs give her numb and prickly sensations she meets them with the words “This, too is okay”. At the end she is surprised to learn that her disturbing body sensations actually become okay. The fatigue, the unresponsive dead legs, the pain – it’s all okay. She’s transformed them from sensations she didn’t want to face to sensations it’s okay to have. They’re just sensations. Rocks are hard, water is wet and I am experiencing these body sensations.
Responding to the unpleasant elements of life with “This, too is okay” highlights a core teaching of Buddhism and other spiritual and transformational approaches. The goal is be okay with things just as they are. Resisting them causes suffering and keeps them persisting (“Whatever you resist, persists”).
Tara Brach’s audacious practice of saying “Yes” to everything in life is another form of this. The Landmark Education’s practice of “choosing” everything in your life; choosing everything, good or bad, to be just the way it is, another. The Christian practice of giving everything to God is another. All derive from the notion that suffering at its core derives from a struggle to have things be other than they are.
At home Donna practices Andrew Weil’s breath holding technique. She places her tongue against her upper row of teeth, breathes in through her nose to the count of four, holds her breath to the count of seven, then exhales through her mouth to the count of eight making a loud whooshing sound. She does this four times and then she meditates.
She feels a sweet sense of new openness that widens and widens. This time she doesn’t want to leave the moment…
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