April 2018

Saturday, October 25, 2014

My Own Private Diaphragm

All my life, I've believed that my diaphragm is below my belly, but recently I've learned in Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living that my diaphragm is actually attached to my lower ribs. This changes everything. 

In our kindergarten class at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, I watched Mrs. Mackee put her hand to her belly and tried to follow as she directed us to breathe into our diaphragms like they were balloons. We could feel our diaphragm expand as we held our little hands to our little stomachs. For the next 45 years, as music teachers and coaches told me to breathe into my diaphragm, I didn't understand why I never got a deep breath in this way. I thought maybe lungs just didn't have the capacity of others' lungs. 

Sometimes, some observation would bump against this belief, inviting me to reconsider. Before neurosurgery, for example, my primary care doctor told me that the surgeons would love my lungs because they were so big and clear. This puzzled me as I had learned to believe my story that my lungs had unusually low capacity, but I was preparing for brain surgery and didn't reflect on the new information. This time, like all the other times that my misunderstanding had been challenged, I returned to trying to understand my breathing in the context of the diaphragm-under-the-belly paradigm. Like the students in the film, "My Own Private Universe," who held onto misconceptions even when experiential evidence might have led them to a new belief, I continued to believe my version of my diaphragm: My Own Private Diaphragm. 

Now that I know where my diaphragm is, I am breathing more easily, more deeply. This is good because I'm taking a meditation class—Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction—and we focus a lot on breathing. Watching the breath is becoming like watching waves hit the shore, one falling after another, with great energy and no effort. 

Once a week I go to a class of people experiencing anxiety-provoking health conditions where we focus on our breathing, ask questions, hear responses and a little poetry, and breathe some more. We cannot control our experiences, the teaching goes: we cannot control our disabilities, fatigue, cancers, heart conditions, pain, or anxieties. We can learn to control our response to our experiences. We can learn that though we have pain, we are not our pain: our pain is separate from us. 

Our teacher, Carolyn McManus, tells us to find the resting place beneath the words. She tells us that if a thought comes to mind, that’s no problem. We should just recognize the thought, invite it to float in the sky of our mind like a cloud in a blue sky. She speaks slowly and deliberately, like a poet.

To get beneath the words, she tells us we might focus on words or phrases like "in" on the in-breath and "out" on the out-breath. Or "May I be peaceful and joyful. May I experience an abiding peace and joy not dependent on circumstances being agreeable, but something deeper and sustaining." That's a lot of words for not focusing on the words. When she tells us to rest below the words by focusing on words, I think of Walt Whitman's "Do I contract myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes." I suppose this is how truth is, apparently contradictory, but really only contradictory in my world schema. 

I am learning that I cannot change that schema by thinking through it. I can only change it through experience of another reality, a reality that does not make sense to me, but I glimpse it as through a glass darkly, so I try to practice though I don’t understand what I’m practicing. 

Carolyn says that in meditation we expand, we and our worlds become bigger. She says that life has taught me that my ideas of life are too small for what life is. "Mindfulness," she says, "is not about peace and relaxation. It's about being present to what is. We're trained in distraction; we're not trained in the present focus. The goal is to be with the moment.... The mind is like a jar of murky water. We need to let it sit, and it will become clear."

I have traveled through so much of my life—a half century—unaware of myself and my present. When life has presented me with evidence of my misunderstanding, I have skillfully ignored the evidence. For example, at the breakfast for my first wedding, I sobbed through my eggs and grits. Though I wouldn’t let myself look at the fear of the life that I thought I was accepting for myself, my body knew. And it sobbed. And I tried to quiet it, to put that terror and that grief into a dark closet of myself where I wouldn’t have to look at it. One day, it would come out and would not go back in. (As a lesbian, I’m aware of the phrase “in the closet.”)

My brain tumors have given me much-needed lessons about being in the present, humility, surrendering control, the violence of rushing, and gratitude.  I am mostly calm and centered in a way that I was not before these tumors.

I am no Buddha, however, and sometimes I am surprised by how events can trigger my earlier self or my traumas—I am not sure which, or maybe they are the same thing. Last week, I was at a training where a kind man who had introduced himself as an “odd duck” (because I was an ugly duckling myself, I like all things duck—except on a plate.) I liked him, and yet at one time it seemed to me that he was correcting me, being condescending, trying to explain the experiences of people who had experienced traumatic brain injury.

My perception of his comments and tone took me back to the speech therapists who tried to work with me after my surgery. I thought these people would not be straight-forward with me about what they were trying to learn and to understand. Though I generally loved my doctors and other health care workers, I refused to work with these speech therapists who didn’t seem to respect me as a person who was hurt but was still a person.

When the odd duck spoke to me, I was instantly furious. Who was he to tell me about the experiences of people with traumatic brain injury? “As a person who has had a traumatic brain injury,” I told him and the assembled social workers, “I hated that kind of interaction when I was in the hospital.”

I’m not sure that he recognized my anger.  I did, and when Ann picked me up after the training, I shared the story with her. I thought she would be appalled, too, but she thought what he’d said sounded reasonable.

This puzzled me, so I kept thinking about it. Twenty-four hours later, I recognized that I’d been triggered by my previous experiences, not by the odd duck. Maybe the fact that I eventually recognized my role in my response shows that I’m making some progress.

I know I’m not supposed to be tied to outcomes, but I’m hoping that one day I’ll be so grounded that I’ll recognize the trigger immediately and watch it float by like a cloud in a big blue sky.

On that day, perhaps I’ll be wise. But I’m not there yet. For now, it’s just me, Mary, bumbling along and trying to be at peace with myself and my world.

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