Friday, March 26, 2010

In a daze...on purpose

When someone says the word meditation do you think of a granola head sitting cross legged on a pillow with their fingers held daintily just so making a weird noise? While meditation can be a spiritual practice, it is basically about learning to consciously alter and control the brain waves. Done with regularity, it actually physically changes your brain. It has been a large part of my recovery from a brain injury. I do it every day, and, OK, I do eat granola.

Everybody already does light meditation even if they don't know it. It occurs when you are doing any activity in which you become so engrossed that you loose sense of time and you aren't thinking about the bills or your to do list. Your attention is only on the task at hand while experiencing a sense of calm and a laser beam focus. This can occur while gardening, taking a walk in nature, writing or even cooking - anything. I have a friend who says he experiences this while riding his motorcycle. This is an alpha state in the brain. It is the most relaxed a person can be while remaining awake.

Deep meditation takes this further into that half asleep, half awake state where a person is aware of their surroundings, but they are not actively conscious of them or interacting. Although, there are moving meditations such as tai chi, yoga, and labyrinth walking. At this level, the brain produces theta waves which are the first stages of sleep.

While in theta, the happy chemical, serotonin, is released and blood pressure lowers. Brain scans of people who practice meditation show higher activity in the frontal lobes which are basically the the parts of the brain that make us human. There is also increased activity in the thalamus which helps different parts of the brain talk to one another and is very involved in the processing of sensory information. This happens even when not meditating. Meditation literally changes how the brain works.

There is no right or wrong way to meditate. To put a lot of pressure on yourself to meditate "the right way" kind of defeats the purpose. There are many different flavors of meditation - some vanilla versions and some down right strange, but basically, all practices involve three essentials: 1) Focus on something simple and non thought provoking like the breath or a single word or sound. 2) Consciously relax the body. 3) Exercise a passive awareness of the mind.

I started meditating in an effort to reduce the extreme anxiety shown in my brain waves on a qEEG. I have to admit, at first, I had no idea what I was really trying to do. I read books and listened to cd's. I have tried it with my eyes open staring into space and staring into a candle flame. (did not work for me at all!) I have developed my own method of meditating/visualizing with my eyes closed while music is playing, and I kind of hum.

I like to feel the vibration of the music so it has to be loud. Drums, chants, Celtic songs, classical music with the chords of a piano or violin. Are you following me here? I even have some where Monks sound sort of like they are being strangled under water, but the vibrations of it are remarkably peaceful and transcending if you can imagine. I also hum on the exhale because I can really feel it in my throat and nasal passages. I have a lingering speech impediment due to the brain injury, and I can feel this healing and working on and sending energy to those areas.

The third one, "exercising passive awareness of the mind," I find ridiculously hard, but therein is the most beneficial work. The goal here is to become detached from your thoughts and just observe them and not get all wrapped up in them. I have heard it described as noticing your thoughts like you would a passing cloud. Just say "Oh, lookie!" and let it go on by. When this happens, and, it most certainly will, just label it as "thinking," and return your focus back to your breath or your word or sound.

This building awareness of and detachment from your thoughts is the goal. It is this manner of being consciously aware of your thoughts which you are learning and why it is called a practice. I have been meditating for two years and still find myself thinking about the crud in the dog's ear and wonder with a chuckle "How in the hell did I get here?"

The concept and understanding that I am not my thoughts was huge for me. I used to think I was an absolutely horrible person because of some of the thoughts I had. Now, I still have shocking and not so nice and wacky thoughts - we all do if we are honest, but I am just amused by them and do not define myself by them. I choose which thoughts I buy into and act on and, in turn, allow to define me. It is a choice. You can't choose what you think, but you can choose which ones you put energy into. Choose wisely.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Picture this!

You are watching a scary movie that you've seen a million times before, and when the music gets creepy and the circumstances get hairy, your heart starts racing, your breathing becomes a shallow pant and the muscles in your neck tense up. This is even though you know nothing bad is going to happen and everything will turn out OK.

These bodily reactions are produced by make believe images and sounds, not real life situations. You can put the same happenings to work for you by creating pictures in your mind with "creative visualization."

The thoughts, words and images that run through your mind have very real physiological consequences for your body. Your brain sends the same messages to the central nervous system whether something is being imagined or actually experienced. So be very careful what you think! Seriously, consciously being aware of and controlling your thoughts is a huge way we can change our realities. Magic!

I have used visualization daily for two years in my recovery from a brain injury, and it has been miraculous. It has been amazing to me that everything I have visualized has eventually come true. Not quick enough for me most of the time, but better late than never.

At first, I imagined the messages in my brain traveling along lines like an old telephone switchboard because connectivity and getting signals across the hippocampus was an issue for me. My grandmother used to be a switch board operator at a hotel so it worked for me and was comforting at the same time.

The images just naturally evolved as my healing progressed. I have imagined my brain like the old, card catalogue file that used to be used at the library - remember those? Now, I have graduated to picturing it as Google.

My mother has breast cancer. After her first round of chemo two weeks ago, her white blood cell count fell so low she was "isolated." She has been doing visualizations to bring up her white blood cell count. She has been using the mental pictures of a field of daisies bursting with blooms, snowflakes piling up, and white beans - don't know how that one works. Her white blood cell count before this last treatment was higher than even before she started chemo. It really works! Now she is visualizing something to do with glue to hopefully keep from losing her hair. Let you know how that one goes.

Visualization can be used for anything. It is a recognized mind-body therapy that is effective with any health concern especially stress related ones (aren't they all, basically?) It has also been shown to be extremely powerful in improving performance, changing behavior, or influencing an outcome. Although, I don't know that it is a good use of time to sit around and see yourself winning the lottery.

In her book Creative Visualization, Shakti Gawain offers the following guidelines:

1. Set a goal - decide something specific you would like to have, work toward, realize or create.
2. Create a clear idea or mental picture or feeling - This should be in present tense. Think of the situation already existing.
3. Focus on it frequently - Bring your idea to mind often in quiet meditation or casually through out your day. Make it part of your reality in a light, relaxed way.
4. Give it positive energy - Think about your goal in a positive, encouraging way. See yourself receiving it or achieving it. Feel it.

When you cut your finger, you do not have to tell your body, step-by-step, the specific details of how to heal the wound, thank goodness. If you are like me, you don't even know these. It just does it. It already has the natural wisdom and power. Creative visualization consciously directs these innate forces. Ready, set, pretend!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Nothing like a little pressure

You can live weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without oxygen. There is nothing the body needs more than oxygen. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (hbot) has made and continues to make a very dramatic difference in my recovery from a brain injury. Yes. It is that space capsule like thing Michael Jackson reportedly used to sleep in.

I wish I could tell you that my incredible intelligence and research led me to hbot, but as with most everything in my miraculous journey of recovery, I was guided to it. An inner voice told me "You need to watch Oprah today. There is something on there for you." Sure enough, Dr. Oz was talking about hyperbaric benefits. I knew immediately that was my message. Freaky? Great!

In hbot, a person is exposed to increased atmospheric pressure in an inflatable chamber. In this pressurized environment, the blood is able to dissolve up to 10 times more oxygen which allows it to pass into tissue, cells, and the brain more readily. In addition to greatly increasing the availability of oxygen, it also allows oxygen to reach areas of the body that it normally would be difficult to reach drastically improving healing.

It can really aid the body with just about anything, but has proven to be especially effective with autism, autoimmune diseases, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, slow-healing wounds and injuries, surgical and stroke recovery.

Hbot is widely used and is part of the established medical systems in most European countries and Canada. There is a wealth of research world wide confirming it's substantial benefits. The US medical community, in its arrogance, has failed to accept it as of yet. Research is just beginning to be done in the US, with very promising results.

My practitioner has seen what she refers to as many little miracles from hbot therapy. One client post stroke came in using a walker and couldn't speak or write because she had very little feeling in her hands. Within about a year, she was walking with no aid and speaking normally. She also could feel it when she burnt her hand on the stove. Who would have thought burning your hand could actually be a thing to celebrate?

She has also witnessed several autistic or brain damaged children begin to speak as a result of hbot. She has seen people with paralyzed limbs regain their use. Pretty amazing stuff! Why aren't doctors here using this already?!?

She has also had a couple of people claim to have eureka/spiritual/other world experiences in there. I have not experienced that. Darn it!

I did three, hour long sessions a week until I got the recommended 50 under my belt. Now I do one session for two hours once a week, and I still feel it working. I love it. It is like being in a cozy cocoon where I get to read, listen to my iPod, and nap. Perfect for meditating. They even have portable DVD players and a good selection of movies for those who feel so inclined. But no popcorn. I just do try to make sure not to drink too much before going in. Only one time have I broken out in a sweat and considered ringing the little doorbell thingy provided inside in case you just can't wait.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

When my world was warped

When I read on Facebook about Marie Osmond's teenage son committing suicide, it brought knowing tears to my eyes. Of the 19 comments, not one of them mentioned compassion for the son. While my heart certainly does go out to those left behind, I immediately empathized with the excruciating pain and utter hopelessness he must have felt.

Having committed what is termed a "serious" suicide attempt - like some are just joking around?? - I have been in that terrifying place. While I cannot know what he or anyone else felt exactly, I have my ideas. Very surprisingly to me, no one has really asked me specifically about my feelings at that time. I think this is a big part of the ongoing problem. Such an act carries a huge, black cloud of shame and is hush hushed. It makes people squirm. I believe that only by sharing honestly can I heal fully and help others no matter how uncomfortable it makes some people.

I have heard many times that suicide is a selfish act. Let me tell you that I did not see it that way at all. I saw at as a selfless act. I know now how terribly skewed that sounds, but, then, I honestly thought that the world...especially my kids... would be better off without me.

When I tried to commit suicide, of course, I had a lot of what I considered then to be hellish, mitigating factors in my life. I had this blur of a movie running non-stop in my head. It played out in intricate, garish detail all the worst "what if" scenarios possible in the future. It replayed all the most horrible scenes of my past in full color. Over and over. I could not find the pause button. I hadn't slept for any amount of time in weeks. I really desperately wanted some peace and just to rest.

My brother, who was my best friend in the world, died 10 years earlier. I don't really know where I thought he was, but I wanted to go be with him wherever that was. I have had several close relatives commit suicide. The power of suggestion. I saw it as a viable option. I had just started a new antidepressant. For me, all of these and more were factors.

The bottom line is that I did not have the faith or the hope to see a way out nor did I have the tools or the forward energy to even begin to know how to get there. Almost three years later, I just want to scream at anyone who is suicidal and tell them that they will not always feel this way even if I know they probably won't believe me right then and would tell me to shut up. I know I did not want to hear it.

Life is a lot like the story of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. It is a journey which is gonna have good witches, skipping on the yellow brick road, and emerald castles, but it is also going to be filled constantly with tornadoes, bad witches and flying monkeys. Expect them. They are part of it.

The problem comes when we buy into the illusion of finding something out there that magically makes everything perfect, in this case, a wizard. He turns out to be nothing much behind a big, elaborate front. If you will remember, he high tails it in a balloon, leaving Dorothy once again to solve her own problems.

With the help of the ruby slippers which are a symbol of the power Dorothy has within herself all along, Dorothy makes her own wish come true in the end. Like Dorothy, we have the power to make our own wishes come true and transform our own realities. It is in our brain.

We each have to find what works for us. Whether it is changing the nuerochemical balance in the brain with other chemicals; whether it is consciously directing mental processes, which, in turn, alter the physical brain, such as meditating, practicing positive affirmations or keeping a gratitude journal; whether it is making behavioral, lifestyle changes such as exercising, eating healthier and not partaking in drugs and alcohol, and most likely a combination of some of these, we each have the power to change our lives for the better. We are already wearing the ruby slippers.

When someone is suicidal, they cannot fathom this. They will hate you for even suggesting it. That is OK. They will get over it. They are not thinking clearly. They do need someone to extend a hand, intervene with force if necessary, and keep them safe until they can do so themselves and begin to take the necessary steps.

I did not like it one bit and was mad as hell at those who had saved me and continued to ensure my life. I thought "How dare they?! This is my life! Why don't they mind their own business!?" Thank you immensely to the people who did so for me. I am forever grateful. So, be a bother. Butt in!

My advice to those in the dark place is to quit running and stop all the struggle. Exhale. Give up. Have a break down. Sink into the pain and despair. Feel it. Allow it to move through you. And it will. That is the first step in healing. Actually experiencing the feelings won't kill anybody. Suicide will. Seek help and then actually allow it. If the first thing doesn't work, and it probably won't, keep searching. And, if the fifth or the fifteenth thing doesn't work, keep at it. Before a hand ever grasps a gun or some pills, suicide first occurs in the brain and has to be addressed in the brain.