Not two months after being released from the Trauma Institute at the Psychological Institute of Washington (D.C.) my brother passed away suddenly. About a week before he passed away, he had called me to chat. I let it go to voicemail but called back later. He didn’t answer, so I left him a voicemail message telling him he didn’t need to call back. I’d be in Michigan and see him soon.
I remember, like it was yesterday, getting a group text from my then sister-in-law. It said something along the line of “I’m so sorry. If there is anything I can do at all, let me know.” My sister sent a text back thanking her. I sent a text asking what happened. Radio silence. I felt my heart pounding and was no longer fully present with Ian at the public pool. I tried to give him more time to swim, but I could only muster about 30 minutes. As we were packing up our towels, goggles, and sunscreen, Tim called asking me where we were. He was supposed to be at work. Why was he home?
The following several days were so, so difficult. Looking back, I don’t know how I made it through with the skills I had. Probably everyone in my life thought I would end up back in the hospital. I didn’t. It was shortly after that I began yoga, transitioning to mindfulness meditation. I needed a larger set of skills.
Some of the things true of me regarding trauma are my discomfort in and with my own body, being in close proximity to others, and sharing my thoughts and emotions. Relatable, right? Well, in light of needing a sturdy set of skills to get me through the difficulties and disappointments of life, past, present, and future, I signed up for a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. It was 8 weeks and included an all-day Saturday silent retreat. It was a very new and uncomfortable practice for me. It was a large group, and we frequently discussed our experiences in group. I remember one of the instructors saying that if we felt our hearts beating hard during a time of sharing, it was likely because we needed to share. Despite the discomfort, I embraced that feeling and gave voice to my experiences. Four years later, I am taking the course again. I recognize the benefits of the skills I learned AND realized I wanted a refresher.
Okay, here is what I really want to share. The first time I took the course, I was in an emotionally unavailable space. For years, if someone cried, I would shut myself off. When we (I) can’t handle our (my) own emotions, how can we (I) handle the emotions of others. It used to make me mad when someone would say things like “You can’t love others if you can’t love yourself.” I have come to understand a speck of truth in that though. Don’t get me wrong, I love people. I always have. I SEE people. I genuinely care for and about people. What I have struggled with is being close when they need connection. I HAVE to care from a distance; otherwise I feel the pain in my own soul. The pain of others is tolerable when I can’t relate, but when I can, it can be extremely overwhelming to sit with it. And even more so if I have to FEEL it.
Week one of MBSR caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting instantaneous connection with others, especially with people who I had just met. The instructor asked us to break into groups of three and answer a question. “Why are you here?”
-Person 1 shared. Their answer was possibly what many of us were hoping to get out of the course. It was standard but genuine.
-Person 2 shared. Their answer started out with the same answer as Person 1. Then, they paused and shared a life situation.
There was a shift in emotion. It suddenly felt heavy in my group. I immediately noticed the discomfort. Previously, I would have reacted by immediately introducing myself and sharing why I was there. Two thoughts came to mind before I stepped into my old habit patterns though.
First, I recognized that in stepping in to share, I would be “rescuing” the person from their discomfort. They probably needed to sit with that feeling a little longer. Me stepping in immediately would have been for my own comfort, and selfishly so.
Second, I thought of a Brene Brown quote. “My mom taught us to never look away from people’s pain. The lesson was simple: Don’t look away. Don’t pretend not to see hurt. Look people in the eye. Even when their pain is overwhelming. And when you’re in pain, find the people who can look you in the eye. We need to know we’re not alone – especially when we’re hurting. This lesson is one of the greatest gifts of my life.” I recognized the need for me to start showing up completely for others, even those who I don’t know well. Though I did not relate to the individual’s story, I was able to sit with the heaviness and pain without looking away.
It is the little moments that prepare us for the larger, more difficult ones. We reconvened and had the opportunity to share with the larger group why we were in the MBSR class. A different individual shared something personal and painful. It wasn’t just something painful to her. I imagine not one person in that room was unaffected. I know I was. The Brene Brown quote popped into my head again. I was tempted to let my mind drift away. Instead, I repeated over and over, “Don’t look away.” I felt sadness and grief wash over me like a wave. One minute I was overwhelmed by it, both for the individual and myself, and the next minute it was a dull ache. It was a bearable dull ache, but it sits on my chest even now.
Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash
When I first began meditating, I remember being told that mindfulness would, in a way, slow things down; it would simplify life by resting in the present moment. I bucked hard against that. Being constantly in the present seemed immensely overwhelming. Yet, in that moment, during the first class, I was wholly present and completely at rest amid the pain. Being present is not overwhelming. In fact, it slows things down and makes them manageable, among other things.
3 thoughts on “Mindfulness: Don’t Look Away”
Thank you for sharing your personal journey with mindfulness and how it has helped you cope with trauma. Your vulnerability and honesty are truly inspiring. I’m curious, have you found that practicing mindfulness has also helped you in other areas of your life beyond dealing with difficult emotions?
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Hi! Thank you for asking. Yes, I have found mindfulness to help me with focus and attention at work. I have an orange matchbox racecar sitting on my desk at work to remind me to slow down and breathe. In my home, I’ve noticed a greater ability to sit and relax, focus on things I like such as reading and writing, and being present with my husband and son. Oh my goodness, being outside and having greater awareness of my surroundings and nature has been one of my favorites. Finally, I have Lupus and frequent migraines. I was also recently diagnosed with colitis. With those three things, I have experienced quite a bit of pain. By being curious and allowing myself to move in and out of pain, breath, sound, or whatever, I can manage almost anything without things like pain meds.
I will be posting more about mindfulness as I continue through this course. Currently, I have 2 more posts to publish (both from my experience with week 2).
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I’ll look forward to reading them.