A brain injury can be a precious gift. The existential crisis that more than likely occurs when you have an injured brain is a catalyst that can change your life positively forever.
Many of us are conditioned through years of formal education to believe that processes occurring in the mind are the keys to everything. The truth is the mind can sometimes work against an individual’s greatest good; and in the case of someone with an injured brain, the mind can become a torturous prison. Many spiritual and psychological traditions agree that the essence of who we are is not found in our brains. In fact, most contend, the soul and all of its truth about us lies in the gut, while love, compassion, kindness, and courage are found in the heart. A traumatic brain injury forces us into this awareness, and practicing meditation or mindfulness can transform us from a prisoner of the mind into its master.
I was desperate for help after two major concussions within two months of each other. Dealing with the constant painful, buzzing sensation in my head and severe sensory issues plaguing every waking second for a year and a half was misery. I spent my time at home in a quiet, dark room or shuffling around the house like a zombie. My mind was full of anxiety; obsessing over all the things I couldn’t do anymore. The future with my new limitations was terrifying. I was self- conscious about having to wear earplugs and sunglasses wherever I went. I felt guilty and useless for having to rest the entire day if I ran one errand. I began to question my sanity. I wanted to escape the waking coma that I experienced, so I decided to try meditation. I needed something dramatic - I went on a silent meditation retreat that was suitable for beginners.
The silence was amazing. I realized how much talking irritated my head and caused my anxiety to worsen. The noises of cars, other people talking, the TV, cell phones, even doors shutting—all of it was gone, and my head was less irritated just by eliminating the extra stimuli. The lights were dim everywhere, and it was heaven. Incense burning, however, made me extremely nauseous, but I was able to tell the teacher of my condition, and she stopped burning it (you can speak for accommodations).
Then came the work of learning to meditate. I found that meditating with my eyes open worsened my visual processing issues, so I switched to eyes closed. And I learned that, like with anything new, you have to practice every day and create a routine. Such a commitment would have seemed more daunting and difficult to integrate into my life had I not been on medical leave. But what did I have to lose?
I put the routine in place when I got home. The meditation began to help me cope with the pain of the injuries as well as with the emotional and psychological issues. As my meditation practice progressed, I discovered a space in between thoughts that was very relieving to my symptoms. I began to accept the losses and let go of who I was before the injuries. I recognized that I must get out of my head and back into the rest of my body; in turn, I began to give my body what it really needed. I learned to treat my healing process with kindness and compassion. I found that being present, instead of trying to escape like I had originally planned to do with my meditation, was the key to my survival. I became aware of many skills, some abandoned after childhood and others brand new, that I now had time to try again. Further, I recognized that I am not my head. I have a heart and soul, and I can live life even better with those as my source. One day I wrote down 33 lessons I had learned from the brain injuries. And I was grateful.
It is our choice to evolve from a head injury. We can choose to:
- Be isolated or be in a quiet place of solitude
- Resist or accept
- Be stagnant or go on an inner journey
- Disassociate from ourselves or embrace ourselves
- Be terrified in our heads or be courageous in our hearts
- Push ourselves through in futility or treat ourselves gently and kindly so we can heal
- Hate ourselves for our new limitations or treat ourselves with compassion
- Obsess over the future or be in the present
- Think about what we can not do or look within ourselves for new skills
- Hold on to the past or let it go
For centuries human beings have been trying to quiet the mind. There are many ancient and modern spiritual and psychological frameworks created for getting into the body, being present, feeling grateful, and acting from the soul and heart with kindness, compassion, truth, and courage. Teachers from various traditions agree that if you are open and start looking, the right meditation or mindfulness teacher will come along, whether online or in person.
Do you choose to be a prisoner or a master?
Note: if you have experienced any type of abuse, you may want to start with a mental health practitioner who uses mindfulness in their therapeutic practice or work in conjunction with a mental health practitioner.
About the Author
Rachel Derrington is an adjunct professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work where she currently teaches online. She is also a writer and photographer. Ms. Derrington has a Masters in Social Work and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Denver. She is the mother of twin boys.