Marilyn Judson has studied vipassanā meditation with Shinzen Young for the past nine years, and with Thich Nhat Hanh for five years before that. She has a daily sitting meditation practice, meets weekly with her sangha for dharma and discussion and sitting practice, and attends several vipassanā retreats each year.
I was lying in my hospital room and starting to feel desperate and afraid. I had a suction tube down my throat, an I.V. in my arm, and I hadn’t eaten in three days. Twenty-four hours earlier, my husband had driven me to the hospital’s emergency room after several days of intermittent vomiting and severe abdominal pain. An x-ray at that time revealed that I had an obstructed bowel and would require major surgery as soon as an operating room was available in the over-crowded hospital. In the meantime, I waited, and I worried. Although morphine pain shots were keeping me relatively comfortable, the tube in my throat felt like a snake, I was desperate to eat, and I was impatient to have the surgery over with. I just wanted this nightmare to end.
So, what to do during the four days of waiting for an operating room? Fortunately, my situation put me in mind of my meditation teacher’s story about his first significant meditation experience, which was in Japan in the early 1970’s. Shinzen Young’s admission to a community of Buddhist monks was conditional upon his spending 100 days in isolation and in silence in a simple hut in the middle of the mountains during the cold Japanese winter. He was to have no human contact other than a brief visit from a monk who brought him a meager meal each day. The hut was not heated, and he had to bathe in an outdoor shower in the mountain wind with freezing cold water that felt like razor blades cutting into his skin. After the second day, he realized that he would either be in abject misery for the next 98 days or would need to use his nascent meditation skills to transcend this painful and frightening experience. He chose the latter and came down from that mountain a changed person.
I felt that I was in a less extreme, but similar position. I really felt that I was on the edge of “emotional freak-out” from the stress of the tube down my throat, the hunger pangs, and the waiting. Some very old patterns of fear and despair were knocking at my door and threatening to cause me to spiral down into a deep depression. I realized that I could either let myself fall into that black hole, or I could find a way to use this experience to my advantage. It was crystal clear to me that I had only those two choices.
Fortunately, after 13 years of daily meditation practice and about five years of 12-step work, I had enough “tools” at my disposal that I was able to turn toward growth. This is not to say that the next four days of waiting for the surgery (plus another four days post-operative) were without periods of depression, anxiety, and tears. However, the majority of my experience was filled with an intentional, deliberate focus on whatever I could find that was positive in my environment. It was one of the few times when I consistently directed my focus in that direction, instead of toward the imperfections of my life and of the world in general. My situation was so clearly NOT perfect that I was, for once, able to let that impulse go. What an incredible gift.
So, how exactly did I achieve this shift? I called my Al-anon sponsor, who let me cry to her over the phone and then supported me in my making a list of everything about this illness for which I was grateful. So, I took pencil to paper and started to write down things as they occurred to me. The list included my husband who visited daily, brought me spiritual literature from home and was totally “in my comer,” as he has been so often during our 33 years together. My list also included friends, family and neighbors who visited, sent cards or telephoned, as well as a young nephew who spent two long afternoons playing Scrabble with me: a truly blessed distraction. It included living in a Western country where excellent medical care and pain management are available. It included the hospital’s compassionate and professional nursing staff, who were able to laugh at a good joke, as well as to hold my hand when I needed to cry. In sum: It included the kinds of things that I often take for granted in my daily life.
How did I use my meditation practice? When I started to feel sad or despairing, I noticed where those feelings “registered” in my body: usually it was a tightening of my jaw or a tense feeling in my chest or gut. Shinzen Young taught me this awareness of body sensations, which he claims is standard vipassanā meditation technique. I also used awareness of my breath whenever my “Old Friend Fear” was threatening to dominate my consciousness. I especially felt a lot of trepidation when the G.I. tube was inserted through my nasal cavity into my throat, when the effects of the pain medication were wearing off or when I was being stuck with a needle for a new I.V.
Instead of tensing up and gritting my teeth during these scary situations, I tried to relax into them by noticing my breath and scanning my body for sensations. I tried not to resist each experience, since years of giving myself to smaller discomforts and pain (while on the cushion and in daily life) had taught me to open up to them as the best way to quickly move through them. I noticed how those sensations shifted in spatial location, in size, and in shape within each location. I noticed how the pain ebbed and flowed: that it was rarely static. This practice usually took the edge off the pain or fear and allowed awareness of a “bigger vessel” in which I was able to contain those frightening doses of pain and those big emotions. I was reminded of Shinzen’s many dharma talks on the link between impermanence (anicca) and suffering (dukkha). This does not imply that such an awareness will always make me happy, but simply that it will make me less inclined to see myself as a victim of my circumstances.
Did I do this all the time? Did I do it perfectly? Of course not: There were times when I felt the possibility of panic or deep despair, but I simply turned my acceptance toward that possibility, instead of resisting it. I tried to remember to breathe into the panic or the tears, and to also notice how and where those emotions showed up in my chest or my face or my gut. I used everything I could recall from vipassanā meditation retreats that I have attended twice annually for the past 7 or 8 years. I also reminded myself that Shinzen had likened vipassanā practice to an inoculation that prepares one for just such times of medical or emotional crisis. I felt incredibly fortunate to have this technique at my disposal.
I tried to remember to breathe into the panic or the tears…I used everything I could recall from vipassanā meditation retreats.
An interesting blend of Al-anon technique and meditation occurred as I realized I needed to avoid obsessing on my illness. Thus, I limited the amount of time I was willing to spend discussing my symptoms and impending surgery with friends and family who visited or called. After a brief summary of my situation, I would shift the conversation to the other person or other subjects. I also put on make-up every morning, took frequent walks around the hospital corridors, learned everybody’s name, and chatted with the nursing staff as often as possible. Finally, I read a cheap detective novel as much as I was able to, given the morphine shots I required every three hours for pain management. In the evening my husband and I often watched a romantic comedy on the video player in my room. These were really very sweet times for us. Both my meditation experience and Al-anon principles allowed me to make a conscious effort to get outside of myself and to focus on others. This was very helpful in that it made my world bigger than just my hospital room, which could easily feel like a prison cell. It may also have been a small insight into the emptiness of self (anattā or the “No-Self,” in Shinzen’s parlance): that my reality may extend beyond my own skin, and that there may, indeed, be no separate “self” or entity that suffers with illness.
About two months have passed now since my moment of decision in the hospital room to turn away from despair and toward growth. I’m trying to continue to use that experience to remind myself that my life is, indeed, a gift and that to wring my hands about all its imperfections is a way of discounting this gift. I’m trying to continue to acknowledge my fear and anger when they are present, but not to let those emotions shape my attitude or drive my actions. I’m trying to continue to focus on my blessings and not always on what’s lacking. Of course, I don’t do this all the time: Old habits are hard to change. But, my illness taught me that my habit of silent or verbal complaining is not as justified as I thought, and that I would be well-served to let it slowly be replaced by gratitude and acceptance. Both are greatly aided by my daily vipassanā practice.