Tag: yoga

Learning mindfulness, mediation and tranquility

Through this ordeal I have learned a lot about concussions and traumatic brain injury. Every time I stress out and continue to blackout and hit my head, I could cause major neurologic and psychological problems. I finally took this seriously and decided I could not power on through.  In the next few paragraphs, I will give you a summary about stress, concussions and brain injury.  It’s a little dry taken from Mayo Clinic and a few other scientific publications but its helpful in your understanding why mediation is so important for those of us who are workaholics or survivors of traumatic brain injury.

Every year, 1.5 million Americans sustain traumatic brain injuries.  In a concussion, your neural cells are damaged and your brain must recover to rebuild these cells.  If you are always stressed your levels of cortisol will be high and the brain will take even more time to recover.  Cortisol is a corticosteroid hormone that is released by your adrenal gland during stressful situations. When your highly stressed then a large amount of cortisol remains in your brain. It generates more overproduction of myelin-producing cells and fewer neurons than normal. This can result in adverse effects that can impair important cognitive structures in your brain, like damage to your hippocampus (responsible for the processing and storage of short-term memory).  In addition, it affects the differences in the volume of gray matter versus white matter (creating more white matter and increasing atrophy in the white matter), as well as the and size and connectivity of the amygdala (is the integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation).  The “gray matter” of the brain is densely packed with nerve cell bodies and is responsible for the brain’s higher functions, such as thinking, computing, and decision-making.

Multiple concussions reduce the amount of gray matter and decreases the number of stem cells that mature into neurons affecting learning, memory, decision making, multi-tasking and concentration. In post-concussion syndrome you can have symptoms like fatigue, sleep difficulties, irritability, balance and coordination problems, agitation, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, altered consciousness and difficulty processing information. I was suffering from all of these!  Studies and research have shown that Mindfulness meditation helps to reduce the symptoms and distress on the brain and helps increase gray matter in the insula, frontal cortex and sensory regions.  Researchers found that the frontal regions, anterior cingulate, limbic system and parietal lobes were affected during meditation and that there were different patterns of cerebral blood flow between the two meditation states i.e.“focused-based” practice and a “breath-based” practice.

Meditation increases regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in the prefrontal cortex.  As reported by researchers the cerebral blood flow of long-term meditators was significantly higher compared to non-meditators in the prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, thalamus, putamen, caudate, and midbrain. In brief body-scans of meditators show meditation practice improves somatosensory perceptual decision making.  Meditation enhances cortical remapping and brain functions while it also helps to uplift mental health and causes healthy changes in the brain. It was time to take my meditation practice seriously!

So, for ten years I was trying to learn how to meditate but never had truly made a practice.  I had read a number of books on meditation, mindfulness and how to radiate calmness.  I even went to mediation workshops but I never stuck to it.  Now I had to or I may never get better.  In the beginning, trying to calm my monkey mind was impossible.  I would start focusing on my breath and then the next minute I would be thinking about what I would knit next, go back to my breath and then think about a new recipe to try.  I could never sit there for more than 5 minutes without having to twitch or move or scratch.

If you are a crazy Type A person, whose mind is always thinking and nerving on something.  The best way to get into a mediation practice is to start with guided meditation for sleep, called Yoga Nidra.  I started with this one and then later I downloaded the Insight Timer App from the Google Store, it is amazing and I highly recommend it. My first few weeks I focused on mediating for 15 minutes lying down in bed before sleep during my afternoon nap and right before bed. Your brain can much more easily focus on the voice.   Like what my favorite Tibetan Buddhist Meditation master: Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche says, “You must give your monkey mind a part-time job to be able to meditate.”  As I did these guided meditations, I began to really focus on breathing meditation.

So, a couple times a week before I got up to start my day, I would switch off my audiobook and focus on my breath.   I would chant in my mind rising and falling with the rise and fall of my breath.  When my mind would wonder to something I could hear I would chant hearing, hearing.  Then when it would calm I would go back to my breath and chanting rising and falling.  When I would feel my mind wandering and want to scratch or move my leg, I would start chanting feeling and I would then not need to move and then go back to focusing on my breath.  Soon I was building mindfulness and awareness.  Once again, I was only doing this for 10-15 minutes.  I could feel my energy increase, my twitching and constant need to move to slow.

I am also now enjoying chanting mediation called Om mani padme hum.  I took this from the Tibetan Culture website “Om mani padme hum, which is an ancient mantra that is related to the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.  Every Tibetan child is taught the mantra by their parents, and they all use it very commonly in daily life, and especially if they make a prayer walk (kora) or go to the temple, or pray using a rosary (mala).  Basically, any mantra is “a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of ‘creating transformation.’”  There are great examples and guides on the Insight Timer App.

I then re-read all my meditation books, I highly recommend the following:

·         The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, By Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche with Eric Swanson, Daniel Goleman

·         Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom, By Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche with Eric Swanson

·         Turning Confusion into Clarity: A Guide to the Foundation Practices of Tibetan Buddhism, By Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche with Helen Tworkov, Matthieu Ricard      ranemediating

Rane mediating at our Beach House in Newport, Oregon

They now began to make more sense to me.  I now tried walking mediation when I went on my walks in Shevlin Park and around the golf course.  Trust me it’s not easy, I would have good weeks and have weeks in which I did no mediation and forgot about my practice.  But I wanted my brain to heal so I would then make sure even if it was only 5 minutes I did some type of mediation each day.  Then my friend Maribel taught me Hong Sau Mediation, which I love and can do for 30 minutes a day now.  I highly suggest this for beginners, here is a link to a great guide.

Today, I am focused on loving kindness and mindfulness mediation called Metta Bhavana.  In this practice, you start focusing on yourself and feelings of peace and calmness and then nurture your state of mind into strength and confidence while chanting ‘may I be well, may I be happy, may I be healthy and may I be free from suffering’ and cultivate the love within your heart.  The next stage you focus on a close friend.  Think about your connections, why you love this person, why you are encouraged by this person and begin chanting ‘may he/she be well and happy’ as you feel the love in your heart for that person grow.  Think of a person you are neutral with and have neither strong love or dislike for and think about this person’s humanity, what actions this person can make you feel encouraged and could make you love this person.  Begin chanting ‘may he/she be well and happy.’ Now think of someone you really dislike and have ill feelings toward (an enemy) and don’t concentrate on their negative actions but think about their positive actions, how can you think about the good intent he/she may have, how could you grow to love this person, how can you encourage this person and have good will towards this person.  Now chant ‘may he/she be well and happy.’ Lastly, in this practice you will think about all four people in positive light, now extend those thoughts to all the people you know, all the people in your neighborhood, all the people in your town, all the people in your region, all the people in your country, all the people and beings on earth.  Feel the love, encouragement, kindness you have for all these people.  Begin chanting ‘may all the people on earth be well and happy.  Slowly focus back on your heart and the love and kindness you are feeling and then step away from your practice.  This has grown into a 45-minute practice for me now.  Some great guides come from the buddhist centre.

My aspiration is for my experiences through mediation to help you in your desire to grow your meditation practice.  My greatest wish is this helps other Type A’s who feel: I really want to meditate but I just don’t have time or patience or the ability to focus their brain that way.  I am here to tell you, you can’t afford not to!  If you are a stress junkie like myself, you must start mediating ASAP you really want to repair the damage you are doing to your brain.   I am hopeful that this is helping my brain and in turn yours.  I am on twenty months of no blackouts and my migraines are diminishing.  I believe my memory is getting better.  I am also working much more on the right side of my brain with art, crafts, playing music but that is the next blog post.  Till next week, I hope you try a few of the practices above.

How to Rest a Type A Brain

So, what became my biggest struggle and the thing holding back my recovery was rest!  I needed to give my monkey mind a part-time job!  You would think when your employer, doctors, family and friends all tell you don’t worry about anything we got it, just focus on your health and getting better, it would make it easier.  It would give you the excuse and confidence you need to finally rest, sleep in, relax and finally be okay to do ‘nothing’.  For a person who is constantly on the go this was worse than Dante’s Inferno. I was anxious, since I was four years old I had been on the go, constantly a full schedule.  Back then it was Brownies (like Boy Scouts for girls), soccer, ballet, gymnastics and school now it was job, mentoring, volunteering, boards, committees, running, exercising, yoga, friends, family the list went on and on. I couldn’t get my brain to relax when I was going to bed when I was normal, how am I going to rest my brain 24-7?  What a nightmare!

multitaskingRane

Rane multi-tasking working on two computers, three screens, writing a report, on a conference call and doing email.

For the first five days, sleeping in and having my husband wait on me hand and foot was a pleasure!  I had been here before and I knew I could not afford to do what I did last time.  I could not ignore my doctors’ orders and begin using my cellphone, emails, and texts.  I only allowed myself to text friends but I otherwise had to ignore the cellphone.  I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t read a book, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t have any screen time, I couldn’t go to the grocery store, I couldn’t leave the house, I was dying of boredom!

I was also so scared, it took me 6 months to recover the last time and still the doctors had no idea why I was blacking out.  I had surgery to implant a heart monitor to see if I had a heart issue and after pain and $35,000, good news I don’t have a heart condition but bad news I am so healthy doctors can’t figure out why am I blacking out so much and how to remedy the situation.

I had no idea if I could ever take a shower alone again.  Going through my mind was blacking out and drowning. The last time I went to the bathroom and blacked out and woke up on the floor my family was scared to leave me alone.  Could I ever be alone again? My poor husband was with me 24-7, watching me like a hawk and stressed out beyond belief.  I knew from last time, I had to make myself a schedule or I would go crazy.  I had to fill my day.

So, I went back to listening to audiobooks, cooking healthy meals, and going on long walks on the many Bend trails with my husband and dog Bode.  Indica Marijuana was great to help me finally calm down and actually sleep.   A nap in the afternoon helped to ward off the migraine headaches.  I passed the time listening to audiobooks (this was a great distraction- I became a huge fan of Michael Connelly and crime fiction with more than 60 books I could listen to), knitting so many hours in a day that my hands felt like they were going to fall off, then yoga and meditation before bed and of course more audiobooks.  I would have ear buds in almost all the time, it started driving my husband crazy, as I would always say I didn’t hear you as he would try to have a conversation for me.  I went from an obsessive workaholic to an obsessive book listener, listening to at least 3 books a week.  An obsessive knitter, finishing knitting project every two days. An obsessive home chef, trying new recipes for every meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner) probably the best meals my husband had our entire relationship with fresh homemade foods every day.  The only way my husband got peace was taking me outdoors hiking, walking, kayaking, paddling and away from the house to get my mind to finally turn off and enjoy the fresh smell and beauty of the Oregon high desert.

KayakingRane

Greg, Bode and I on the Deschutes River August 2015

My migraines were worse than the first time, seemed like all day every day, I was so dizzy and nauseous and I couldn’t remember anything.  I just forced myself to push through (later I would find out that is the worst thing you can do and would delay the brain healing and made myself worse) the migraines, I wasn’t going to lay in bed in the dark anymore.  I was just in a constant haze and in miserable pain and probably not a joy to be around.  It drove me nuts how much I searched for the words that were on the tip of my tongue and would come out totally wrong, like botching an idiom.  I had no focus and would be doing one thing and a minute later start something else and totally forget about what I was doing before.  If I tried to multitask, I would get a worse migraine.  This lasted for months before I was ready to see and talk to friends again.  I love being around people and I didn’t want to see anyone but my husband and dog.

All the while, I would be contacting Microsoft every two weeks saying I can’t come back to work, but I was still answering any emergency email or giving directions on the phone on important issues or projects.  I skimmed emails to see only if there were important ones to answer, when my boss came back and said you are on short term disability and on medical leave you cannot be online.  You must stop or I will lock you out of the system.   He had to threaten me with this several times before I finally took it seriously.

Finally, my neurologist said you are out for a minimum of 9 months, no more calling work, no more answering emails on the side, no more volunteering, your declining and not getting better, you are done!  Your husband is to hide your computer and you must relax your brain.  We have one last area we haven’t tried, so I would like you to go to OHSU and test you for seizures.  I believe you don’t have them but let’s make sure.  Since we have tested you for everything and they all come back negative.

So another doctor to visit and I went to OHSU, I had a sleep deprived EEG to replicate stress.  I blacked out during the test.  So, the doctor informed me I didn’t have seizures but to put it in laymen terms, I had Vasovagal syncope and stress was the trigger.  When I get stressed my body’s Vagus nerve freaks out and not enough blood and oxygen goes to my brain.  I had low blood pressure and my blood pressure was so low I was in hypotension.  So when the Vagus nerve wouldn’t work my blood pressure wasn’t high enough to pump the blood and oxygen to my brain, so I would blackout and hit my head on the ground since I got no indication it was happening or was on its way.  There is nothing you can do but bring down your stress, there are no magic bullets to take for this.  Great, my doc is telling a Type A, who thrives on stress, that I can no longer have stress in my life!  WTF! How the hell was I going to do this?  My husband was on a mission, remove all stress from my life.

All I could do now was light exercise (nothing that bounces my concussed brain too much), enjoy the outdoors, listen to audiobooks, meditate, do yoga, knit, paint, cook and nap.  Who would ever think you could fill a day with just those activities?  Thank goodness for all the outreach and activities I did in Bend, it resulted in a lot of friends who I could go on walks with and have a decaf coffee and kombucha with since I was no longer allowed to have caffeine or alcohol.

Also, thank goodness, Greg oversaw a home renovation that included an outdoor sauna, jacuzzi, purchased a massage chair and elliptical training machine per my doctor’s suggestion.  Those all kept my mind off of work, feeling good, healthy and relaxed!  So my schedule was wake up 6am, listen to audiobook till 7am, cook breakfast, go for a 3-10 mile hike with the dog, sit in the sauna then shower, make lunch around 11:30am and eat, sit in the massage chair, meditate and then take a 2 hour nap, around 3:30pm paint, listen to audiobook, then cook dinner, listen to the TV and knit, yoga, shower and fall asleep to an audiobook around 7:45pm and start all over the next day.  Later I would find out this was too much (really this was the most relaxing schedule I have ever had in my life I don’t think I did this little when I was four years old) and I wasn’t giving my mind any time to rest, so I would have to take a 15-minute break between each activity and just close my eyes and do nothing.  (Oh my GOD, was that impossibly hard).

This schedule would continue for almost two years until I could begin adding back more computer time, reading and exercise back into my life.  Things were going well and I started to volunteer.  I volunteered at a soup kitchen, Bend Democrats to try and get Hillary Clinton elected, mentoring young women again via Skype and I organized a fundraiser for the Bethlehem Inn Homeless Shelter in town. I had reached almost 6 months with no blackouts and my migraines were slowing to just a few every couple of weeks.

Then my appeal for long term disability got denied, I would have to file a lawsuit to get my benefits (a few more blogs before for more details), Microsoft laid me off unofficially as I was on medical leave so I could not be laid off officially, but as soon as my medical leave ended I would be laid off.  (No stress what so ever in my life…)  Then two days before the big fundraiser I blacked out as I was walking down my stairs.  My husband Greg witnessed this and it freaked him out.

In his words, “It was very disturbing.  Rane was coming down the stairs and then all of the sudden she melted and fell to the ground.  I dashed toward her but was unable to break her fall as she came down on the stairs.  Luckily, I guess, she landed hard on her butt instead of her head this time just a slight hit on the back of the head but she also lost consciousness.  She was having a Vasovagal syncope, I was gently shaking Rane trying to revive her all the while she was unresponsive and her eyes were rolling back in her head.  It was a scary experience, where you feel totally helpless watching the one you love and not being able to help them or knowing what to do. He also told me he was tired of experiencing this stress and that it was causing him to be depressed and affected his health as well.”

Oh, no, everything has to start all over again.  As my husband carried me to bed, I began to cry would this ever end!  This time my doctor had a ‘come to Jesus meeting’ with me and everything had to stop.  No more thinking about jobs and my next steps on my journey of life, no more volunteering.  She asked me did I want to become a vegetable because if I had another serious concussion I could go into a coma or have permanent brain damage.  She reminded me in the last three years I had 13 concussions and my brain may not be able to handle many more.

I had to take my new lifestyle seriously not only for my sake but my husband, I did not want to have him have to take care of me for the rest of my life?  This finally got me to wake up and focus on thinking about this as an overdue sabbatical.  I had been working since I was 10 years old never taking more than 3 weeks off in any given time.  I had been an insomniac, workaholic, and stress junkie for over 30 years.  It was time for a long vacation.

It was time to enjoy life, the great outdoors, painting, reading, knitting and learning the guitar.  Things I had always wanted to do but never had the time.  Spend time with family and friends that I never had time to truly be engaged with since I was always on the road.  No more thinking about work, I always joked I was going to retire at 40 maybe I would really do it.  I realized then how lucky and blessed I was.  I had an amazing husband, great friends, I was super healthy other than a messed-up brain, low blood pressure and blacking out.

I live in a beautiful place that has 300 days of sun and every outdoor activity I could dream of to participate in (at least the one my doctors allowed me to do).  And for the first time in my life, I was getting permission to be selfish.  So many times, I was focused on everyone else but me, who could I help, who can I coach, who can I mentor, I have to do this because they need me.  But now I needed to think about me and for the first time I realized I did not have the option to focus on helping others but had to only concentrate on helping myself and maybe it was time I finally did that.  So, what occupied my time that I suggest for other Type A’s to finally do to help add a little balance in your life:

  1. Painting, start with watercolors very forgiving then move to acrylics- YouTube has all the videos you need to learn-here is one of my favorites.
  2. Download Libby from your app store and you can listen to free audiobooks from your public library: I highlight suggest the following fiction series: JA Jance Joanne Brady Series and JP Beaumont Series James Patterson Alex Cross Series, David Baldacci John Puller, Amos Decker and Will Robie Series, Michael Connelly Bosch, Mickey Haller Series,
  3. Learn to play an instrument, I focused on the acoustic guitar- great free YouTube videos to learn.
  4. Knitting is not just for grandma, it’s actually a lot of fun and gives you something to do when you are listening to TV and audiobooks.
  5. Stop and smell the roses and enjoy the outdoors. Take time to go on walks in nature, your neighborhood and around town.
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