Taming the Turmoil

“Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

― Brene Brown

“What you will be doing is becoming aware, in each passing moment, and just accepting what is happening in yourself, looking at it clearly, and seeing it as it is, because it is already here. It is part of your experience in the moment, for better or for worse. Let go of the tendency we all have to want things to be different from how they are right now, and allow things to be exactly as you find them. Allow yourself to be exactly as you are.”

I was listening to the soothing voice of Jon Kabat-Zinn, trying out his guided meditation program for the first time. Settled onto the couch, propped up by cushions, I lay there, eyes closed, and attempting meditation for the first time.

Meditation was foreign to me. I knew about as much of the practice as I did about yoga when I arrived at the studio. In the months following Henni’s death, grief ginned up my anxiety. My mind whirred busily, one frantic thought piling atop another. As a confirmed head case, I was usually quite comfortable peering out at life from the lens of my intellect. But the pain, compounded by the intense energy of grief, revved up my central nervous system even more. My body ached, my mind raced, I slept poorly. (Henni’s death had occurred the year before my feet had settled into prolonged improvement and in fact, the grief compounded my physical pain at this point.)

And for the first time, I grew weary of my own brain’s constant chatter. I was looking for a way to put on the brakes, to disengage from my mind’s shrill inner voice. Thus I found myself stretched out on the couch, eyes closed, breathing deeply, listening to the voice of this medical doctor and researcher as he instructed my efforts to disengage from my anxiety, to simply observe the state of my body and my mind, and relax.

Just accept whatever emotion that may surface, Kabat-Zinn intoned. There’s no right or wrong way to feel; try not to judge whatever reaction you may have in the moment.

I took a deep breath, and settled more deeply into the couch. I brought my attention to my breath, concentrating on the rising and falling of my abdomen. As I focused on his single item, my thoughts slowed down, my body let go of more tension. A tiny distracting thought peeped: this wasn’t so hard, it was kinda nice…

And then he said this: “Let’s shift the focus of attention to the toes of your right foot. Just taking your mind and moving it away from your belly, all the way down your leg, to the foot and all the way out to your toes. Just become aware of whatever the feelings are in your body. There may be sensations of tingling, of itching of warmth. Whatever they are, it’s not important but just feel your toes as they are.”

Wait – what? My feet were ground zero for the pain and damage of CIPN. Really? You want me to pay attention to this part of my body? I noticed the damage: The sensations in my toes were of stabbing, sharp pain that travelled across the top of my foot and into the base of my heel. Notice this? I couldn’t escape it!

My mind began to chirp its objections: don’t judge this? Sure, Kabat-Zinn – you try to live in this body. Emotion edged out the brief relaxation I’d begun to feel. I opened my eyes, sat up, grabbed a pillow and sent it sailing across the room. Accept this, my mind hissed, as I pictured the object connecting with the good doctor’s smug face.

Like the yoga, meditation would prove to be a challenging journey. Maybe next time I’d do better, but for the moment the grief was too raw to manage more than a few minutes’ worth of mental stillness.

Before I rolled off the couch, I whispered my apologies to Henni. I wasn’t ready, yet, to let things be as they were. I wanted a world where my body wasn’t so broken. I wanted my friend back, alive and healthy.

The ensuing months would make it very clear that everything was connected: the pain in my body would resolve only to the degree that I let myself see and accept the layers of grief I’d buried. I’d had my first glimpse at the peaceful existence that I sought – but to get there, I’d have to traverse the raging landscape of my mind, and learn to tame both my whirling thoughts and emotion.

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