The Unexpected Gift: How Meditating Let Me Write Again
I was trying meditation out of desperation. I’d read that it could calm your thoughts and give you a sense of peace. My goal—to keep it together, to maintain functionality. My husband’s cancer had returned and this time it was terminal. The practice, as I understood it, was to focus on my breath for a period of time. I chose fifteen minutes. When I noticed my thoughts wandering, I was to acknowledge them, let them go, and come back to my breath. No matter how many times, just come back to the breath.
As I set a timer, I was fairly confident I could sit still that long. I settled on our bedroom floor and began meditating. A few minutes later I had a thought so powerful it propelled me across the room to the closed door. And yet, as I reached for the doorknob, I couldn’t remember what the thought was or where I was intent on going. I was so deeply entrenched in some narrative that my body became an unknowing puppet.
My husband made amazing meals every night. After his death, what would we do without him?
It was that time of day when the light would retreat from the room. The close of the workday. The dinner hour. The heater would kick on, and I’d approach the kitchen.
As I wrapped my hand around the refrigerator handle, my mind would take an inevitable journey: I’d see myself cook dinner, my children would eat said dinner, and they would become violently ill as a result of eating this dinner. I would rush them to the hospital, but it would be too late; they would die. All this before I even heard the suck of the refrigerator door opening.
Every night my throat would tighten and the pain in my chest would kick in. The panic attacking. Peter wasn’t coming home.
A Moment of Zen
Back in the 1990s, I enjoyed taking smoke breaks at work. A couple times a day, I would leave my desk saying, “I’m going out for a smoke; be back in a few minutes.” I could do that then. People were OK with that, because it was an improvement. Until recently, they had had to sit on the other side of an upholstered cubicle wall inhaling secondhand smoke. They were grateful. Go, they’d think, take that poison outside. Of course, some were jealous that they didn’t have the excuse of a recognized and still somewhat socially acceptable addiction that would justify their brief departure from the confines of their cubicle to the world outside with its natural light.
When my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, people—those who’d experienced the death of a close loved one and the therapist I’d started seeing—warned me that death would change my relationships. Those who I expected to be there for me might not be. Others, unexpected, would be. Death affects people profoundly. Some people can’t be around it for an array of reasons. They’re afraid or they’ve just been through it themselves. And it turned out to be true. People I barely knew showed up and people I thought would be my core support did not.
In a Silent Way
During my phone interview before the five-day silent mindfulness retreat, I asked the teacher if anyone had ever lost her mind. She laughed and said no, as if no one had ever asked that question before. This was worrisome. Obviously, she had never spent time alone with my brain. It wasn’t so much the not talking, although I am a talker and I do love to elicit people’s stories from them—it was the being aware of my own thoughts for five days that sincerely scared the hell out of me.
Dinner with Baba
In the winter of 2006 my sister Sarah Barr created “Dinner with Baba” as part of a series of photographs
called “Some Very Short Films.” She used an old-timey large format camera like those from over a century ago, the kind that needs to be mounted on a tripod and that requires the photographer to hide under a dark cloth that resembles a magician’s cape. With long exposures (20-30 seconds), the subjects must remain completely still while the shutter is open in order for their images to be clearly captured. Think of all those sepia-toned men and women with stiff collars and rigid backs appearing as if they were holding their breath, and perhaps they were. Think of lying in an MRI or CAT scan machine. Stillness is key for a true image.
Catching My Breath
I signed up for a yoga class for writers because I needed to focus.
I’d successfully written a novel; it was even published. But for the past year or so, I’d been unable to concentrate. During the first class in the series, which was about sound, Lisa, the instructor, rang a bell and we listened until the walls soaked up the ringing. We ohm-ed three times as a group, the room vibrated with sound. We could feel it against our skin. We stretched and repeated the sun salutation; our bodies morphed into snakes, cats, dogs, and children.