The Sounds of Silence
August 12, 2014
It’s a normal question to ask, “How was your meditation retreat?” Yet every time I hear it I find myself immediately stumped. “It was…hmmm…well, parts of it were…” Now that I’m two weeks past the 4-day silent Vipassana (Buddhist meditation) weekend, I’m ready to more fully integrate the experience.
So how was it; to be among 100 other people and refrain from interacting; to rise at dawn each morning and spend the next 15 hours walking mindfully or sitting in a meditation hall with no outside distractions? I’d like to say it was pure bliss but I’d be lying.
Several weeks before the Vipassana weekend I began reading Paul Foxman’s The Worried Child. In his book, Paul describes the critical link between the physiological process of birth trauma and the development of childhood anxiety. My son, James’ entry into the world was far from peaceful (hence, my memoir available here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/valerie-r-mcmanus-lcsw-c/the-boy-who-birthed-me/paperback/product-21660301.html ) and, despite a strong support network, he has shown intermittent challenges with anxiety since a small child.
Aside from the day after his birth, there is only one other occasion during which I truly felt the trauma associated with my son’s close-call with death. Two years ago I attended an Infant Loss workshop designed for therapists. The facilitator shared a slide show of families artistically captured in their grief. Images flashed on the screen; mothers and fathers smiling tearfully witnessing their newborns taking their first and last breaths of life. Full-term still born babies, wrapped in blankets as if asleep. Once back to my car I found myself crying and shaking. Weeping in bed later with my husband, trying to ground myself from the images flashing in my head, all I could say was, “How could I have not realized? We almost had a dead baby!”
As the Vipassana retreat got underway on Thursday, I felt a tightening across my chest. Without the countless distractions of everyday life, all there was for me to do was breathe into this pain; just offer myself love and compassion. re-anchor my experience in my hands, in my feet, ride the waves of emotion, cry silently, breathe again, notice the sounds in the room and focus on the present moment. It was not the peaceful break I had envisioned for but I embraced the work, hopeful of where it may lead.
The next morning I gathered with eight other yogis and one of our retreat leaders, Ruth King, a wise healer and renowned author. Our small group meeting was intended to offer a short reprieve from silence, an opportunity to check-in and share how our experience was going. We all cried. Even the woman who described her experience as one of being cut off from her emotions was in tears as she described her pain. Then it was my turn.
I dissolved into tears, “I’m okay. Really, I’m okay, I just can’t seem to reel this back in.” Ruth nodded and offered, “Can we give this space? Can we just let it be here then for a moment?” I nodded and allowed for a few sobs to leave me unrestrained before quickly struggling to take back what was spilling out of me.
“I have been on a low dose of an antidepressant off and on for nearly 10 years since my son was born. This is the first time that I’m completely free of an SSRI in my system. What perfect timing for a meditation retreat!” My new friends laughed with me. Then I offered a brief synopsis of James’ birth as well as his current challenges.
“He’s starting with a therapist next week. I keep telling myself that he’s in pain because he almost died, that he came into this world dying and was not able to access comfort from his mom. He was just whisked away and taken through a whole slew of invasive medical interventions.” This time, when a sob erupted it was accompanied by trembling—my trauma sign.
At that moment, the man seated beside me turned his body towards me in an invaluable gesture of loving support. Though silent, his posture spoke to me,“Your pain is not too much.” The gesture gave me the courage to continue.
“Omigod. I just realized what’s going on. I think I’m processing more fully the trauma of my son’s birth. I’m so grateful for the medicine. It probably saved my life during the worst of my postpartum depression. But it’s also kept certain things protected from me, behind a screen. I never fully experienced the trauma of what happened and now I’m wrecked—10 years later. Amazing.”
The rest of Friday flowed out in front of me both daunting and curious. How unconscious we are in this culture rich with technology, food, drugs and endless distractions. Even when left to our own devices we are in a near constant state of planning, thinking, remembering, daydreaming, hypothesizing, preparing, intellectualizing. We are almost completely missing our actual lives. With this retreat came an expanse of time to simply be. Simply notice my body, notice my sensations, be present to my surroundings, experience the stillness and wonder, ride the waves of physical and emotional sensation and remember what it feels like to breathe. To sum it up, I cried a lot.
Friday night I had a vivid nightmare. In my dream, it was my daughter who was drowning, trapped in a plastic box full of water. I tried desperately to free her from her prison, unable to bust through the sealed lid, helpless. Finally, the lid gave beneath my prying hands and I pulled her out. She was suddenly small, blue, battered, limp and lifeless–the exact image of her brother upon his entry into the world. Desperately I tried to resuscitate her but she would not be revived. In my dream my body heaved with panicked sobs, still working frantically to save my baby girl, “She might already be dead!” I wailed just before awakening. My breath was quick and my heart raced. I lay frozen for just a moment, “Not real, not real.” I chanted to myself before leaving the bedroom altogether, hoping to shake off the remnants.
On Saturday morning I posted a note to Ruth on the cork board made available to us for communication, “I’m definitely experiencing some trauma and had a horrible nightmare last night. I’m not sure that continuing with the program as it’s outlined is most loving for me right now considering…” Despite my uncertainty, I entered the meditation hall for our morning sit, awaiting Ruth’s response. Tears again came, and I quietly rode wave after wave of fear, horror, grief. Unbenownst to me, Ruth tacked a note to the board, offering to meet with me that morning. I missed both her note and the meeting time while doing a walking mediation on the back lawn.
But in the meantime, something started to change. The waves of distress began to lessen in their height, became less painful to ride independently and the day wore on. My body was calmer, less activated. Mid-afternoon I went back to my room and slept for almost two hours. I woke more peaceful, less tearful and took a walk among the trees. I noticed the rays of light shining through the heavy cover of leaves, pressed my foot into the dirt and rocks, tasted wild raspberries and laughed at my own fears bubbling up, washing over me and floating away.
By evening I was tacking another note on the board, “Thanks for your note, Ruth. I think I’m okay now.” For the remainder of the retreat I found myself mostly in a state of ‘okay-ness.’ It was not one of meditative ecstasy nor was it one of deep pain and fear. While I have practiced a variety of medication techniques off and on over the years, enveloping myself in a meditative state for an extended period was new for me. It was a slow and curious existence both pleasant and unfamiliar.
Since the retreat has ended, I do feel calmer and more grounded around James’ mental health challenges. He is surrounded by loving support and guidance as well as harbors many internal resources including wisdom and compassion. And while I didn’t expect to be catapulted into something so raw, the circumstances of the retreat invited its movement in a much more expedited way.
But I’m also a little angry. Where, in my developing consciousness, were all the pink lotus blossoms, serene smooth lakes and peaceful smiling Buddha surrounded by candles and incense? Is that really a fair representation of what is more regularly experienced by many during meditation practice?
Perhaps, for now, I’ll follow the wisdom of Vipassana and simply let it be.