Some of my students have been meditating for many years, while others are new to the practice. The value of sangha, the community of practitioners that comes together on a weekly basis, is not just the teachings that are shared, but the inspiration of fellow members. This week a relatively new meditator said that, although she loved meditating in the group, it was difficult to develop a regular practice at home on her own. We all totally understood and shared suggestions as to how to proceed. But the real challenge in establishing any new habit is the lack of any tangible benefit to remind us why we are making the effort. Advanced meditators have developed the habit, and they keep going because they feel the benefits of regular practice in their lives.
Without any experiences of her own to motivate her, the new meditator was helped by hearing about the benefits that others have experienced, (while being reminded that focusing on a goal of benefits is counterproductive!) One group member talked about the difference regular practice has made in her life over the years. And then I shared a story that I recently heard from a friend of mine named Linda, a talented artist who has been meditating for the better part of a decade.
A few months ago Linda went on a meditation retreat on the beach in the Yucatan. Lucky Linda, right? She was having a lovely illuminating experience. On the fourth morning of the retreat she rose early per instructions and went out into the early morning dark and headed for the beach for a walking meditation.
She describes her experience that morning:
“On my way down to the beach in the dark, the cement path in front of me was blocked by a group of people, so I stepped to my left to let them go by. My left foot went down into a four-foot deep hole with a cement floor. It was a spot to rinse off sand when leaving beach. It was unlit and had no rail. I fell on my side and couldn’t move so I called out in the darkness for help.
“A couple of hours later in the hospital, the orthopedic surgeon told me I had broken both leg bones, some ankle bones, and my hip. He said that the hip must be replaced, and the ankle repaired with two metal plates and many screws. He told me that the surgery must be done at one time due to the severity and would require about nine hours. Because I was geriatric, ‘a bad risk’ and might not survive the surgery, I had to have a family member sign for me.”
Her son was called, but he couldn’t get to her. So he called his brother, the one from whom Linda had been estranged for many years for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that this lack of contact with her son and grandchildren has been a source of great sorrow, as any mother or grandmother can well imagine. Over the years, with the help of meditation, Linda had come to some state of equanimity around it, but of course she always held some hope of a reunion.
And here it was. In this moment of crisis, with his mother quite possibly confronting death, her long-estranged son rushed to her side, and there in the hospital they had a brief but deep conversation that did a lot to heal Linda’s heart. And as to all those broken bones, the surgery was successful! In fact, when I saw her at a party a few months later, she looked more healthy and beautiful than ever. When she told me all that happened to her, I could hardly believe it, but here’s the part that she wanted me to know:
“Stephanie, I never took any pain medications. The doctors and nurses couldn’t believe it. I credit my meditation practice. I wasn’t being brave. I just didn’t need it.”
Now, wait a minute. I’m a longtime meditator, yet I appreciated the proffered pain medication after my hip replacement surgery. But Linda’s story reminded of the woman I shared the hospital room with. We were both in pain after surgery, but she was in traction with her leg up in the air, having fallen off a horse. She cried and yelled for more medication all through the night. I always assumed the difference in our post-op experiences had to do with the fact that my surgery had been planned for and it was just a matter of waiting to be pain free after years of hip pain. So it was easy for me to simply be present with my various sensations, to accept with gratitude the kindness of the nursing staff and my husband, and to be patient, knowing that this too shall pass.
My roommate’s experience was quite different: She was perfectly fine and painfree yesterday, riding along on her trusty steed having a wonderful time, I assume, and in a split second she suddenly found herself in an extremely painful and unexpected situation. Who wouldn’t be grumpy and terrified of what the future might hold? I figured. But she was the biggest pain in my experience with her constant yelling and moaning. The nurses all night told her she already had the maximum amount of medication they could give her, and told her to practice breathing slowly.
It was a long night, and I dozed off and on, but much of the time I was groggily awake and feeling that I should help her. Some inner wisdom told me I was in no state to do so, and that I needed to focus on my own healing for now. But in the early morning hours when I was feeling clearer and more myself, I said to her, ‘I’m a meditation teacher. Do you want some help?’ She said YES!!!! So I worked with her a bit and she found the little exercises I was able to share with her very useful. But since she had never tried anything like it before, it only had limited potential to ease her pain.
For years since then I have wondered how might her experience have been different had she been a practicing meditator. Or, put another way, how might I or any other experienced meditator have managed such an experience? And now, here was Linda telling me a story that in many ways sounded far worse. She described it this way:
“After surgery I woke up in ICU. There I had a beautiful, kind, loving nurse, an older Mexican woman, who was just an angel. A week and two transfusions later, my surgeon filled me in on my adventure. He told me that I had never gone into shock, which was amazing considering the trauma, and pain. He said that I never asked for pain meds, and that I was amazing.
“Four different new friends I met at the retreat came to visit me in the hospital, A good friend from home flew down to be with me, as my son had to return to work, and stayed with me for a week at the hotel, which was good enough to give us a room until I was well enough to fly home. My surgeon gave me a gift of a walker. My ICU nurse came and gave me a present, saying I had touched her life!! I flew home and was greeted with loving friends and my son, and I never lacked for food, or help, or visitors.
“My neighbors were there every day, with food, or a call just to check on me, and ask what I needed. I am truly filled with joy, and love; blessed beyond belief!! I am now walking, need no more surgery, and, much to my therapist’s disbelief, I am walking without a limp.
“I am certain that after four days of meditation, and the joy and peace I felt, I came through all of this with an ease that amazes people.”
So that is Linda’s story. By her own account, it would have been a very different story, and in many ways a significantly different outcome, if she had not been meditating. I know, I know, if she hadn’t been at a meditation retreat, none of this would have happened! But falling down and breaking bones happens all the time to women of a certain age. The difference here is quite significant. Perhaps you are thinking that Linda is just a naturally resilient and indomitable spirit who looks at life that way. But no. When I first met Linda she was in quite a different space, with quite a different vantage point. She credits the regular practice of meditation for her ability to be present with this experience in a way that not only made it easier for her, but uplifted those around her. Now that’s something!
So if you don’t have the habit of meditation practice, let this story inspire you. It is said that we practice not just to feel better in our lives now, but for those moments in life when we are most in need: moments of loss, moments of pain and the ultimate moment of our own transition. Our meditation practice supports us now and always.
Does Linda’s story bring up anything for you? Please comment, share your own stories, comments or questions.