In a TV commercial a mom is sitting alone in a room, meditating, and children noises from nearby are getting louder and louder. Suddenly she screams, “Shut up! I’m trying to meditate!” It’s a common misconception that you need a quiet place without distraction to meditate, or that distraction is something we are never supposed to engage in.
Certainly it helps when we are just learning meditation to set up where we won’t be distracted or interrupted. And as beginners we often discover that the ways we distract ourselves is often not beneficial. Mindfulness and distraction seem to be at odds. But the real beauty of mindfulness meditation and mindful distraction is that these are the most useful tools to have in the midst of difficulty, stress, and downright panic.
Recently I had to have an MRI. I’m extremely claustrophobic, and was so stressed over it I was having difficulty sleeping or focusing on work. I reminded myself I did have my practice to rely on. In fact, I learned mindfulness of breath in a similar situation, in fear, with the arising of claustrophobia, and had believed I couldn’t deal with it. I knew better now.
I arrived at my appointment, nervous, reminding myself over and over, I have air. I have air! It seemed to work briefly, then anxiety arose. They were running an hour past schedule, and my anxiety was growing.
When brought into that torture chamber, I walked around the machine, looked inside, assured myself it was open on both ends. I was going to have to be in this thing for 30 minutes, and I was already experiencing a racing heart. I laid down on the cold metal bed, feeling my heart thumping. This was fear. Just fear. Not claustrophobic yet.
I closed my eyes and sent my mind back to another time that felt just like this. My tiny dive instructor stood in front of me. “Dana, you CAN do this.” I was trying to zip my wet-suit closed. I had managed to get into it but was terrified of pulling up the zipper. I was hot, smothering. I pulled up, and felt the suit seal tight. Oh god. I groaned. “Breathe!” Laureen grabbed my shoulders. “You have air. Just BREATHE.” I inhaled, exhaled, in and out. “Now walk, and breathe.” I walked and I breathed. I walked and I breathed. That helped!
The table moved and slid me into the tube. My entire body tensed. Breathe! I focused on the cool air passing over my face, going into my nostrils, filling my lungs. I exhaled. I inhaled. I had air. I was breathing. Oh god I’m closed in!
Over the speaker, “Dana, are you ok?” Hell no! But I said, “Yes, I’m good.” Why did I say that? I wanted out, but I had air. I was breathing. The voice over speaker, “This first round will last about three and a half minutes.” I took another deep breath, and exhaled slowly.
Chug, chug, chug, one, two, three, chug, chug, chug, one, two, three. I listened to the repetition of sounds, felt my breathing. My heart pounded but I was breathing normally. I thought back . . .
I looked across the sea water at Laureen. We bobbed on the watery surface with the dive buoy beside us. I gripped it tightly. Water sloshed into my mouth. I spat it out. “Laureen, I’m scared. I don’t think I can do this!”
Laureen gazed at me through her dive mask, and spoke in a quiet voice I could barely hear through the thick neoprene hood. “Put your regulator back in your mouth. And breathe”. I popped it in, just as a small wave hit me in the face. I breathed. I had air. “Trust me. It’s always scary at the surface, but when we get to the bottom, it’ll be fine. Trust me, OK?”
Laureen had gotten me through the trauma of pouring myself into a suit, in the buoyancy vest, through adding a heavy tank and a 24 pound weight belt. I had managed to walk, in the heat of summer, from the beach into the cool ocean, wearing 70 pounds of dive gear without losing my mind. Trust her I did!
We descended slowly into the murky, green sea. I could barely see her only two feet away. A tiny stream of bubbles left her regulator and floated to the surface. My bubbles gushed. I looked overhead, watching them rush away to the brightly lit surface. Suddenly, I hit bottom. I looked down and all around me. Three feet off the sandy bottom the water was clear and a carpet of sea stars lie before me! Hundreds of sea stars everywhere. I was in HEAVEN.
Silence. My heart started pounding again. The MRI. Panic, that feeling of adrenaline rushing through my body. I sucked in my breath. Ugh! Breathe in, breathe out. It was OK. I wasn’t locked in. The machine is OPEN, Dana. It only feels closed. I breathed in, perception. I breathed out, perception. Let the thoughts go, let them go. Only the thoughts were making the situation worse. Let go!
The voice over the speaker. “Dana, are you doing ok?” I answered yes again. Why did I keep saying that! Breathe in, breathe out. I focused on the air in my nostrils. “This round will last 4 minutes,” she said. “OK.”
This time the sound was like a jack hammer but not as loud. Bam, bam, bam, bam. Bam, bam, bam, bam. I focused on the repetition while also being mindful of my breath. My heart rate calmed. I allowed distraction back in, back to my fourth dive.
Now I sat on the edge of a rubber zodiac. The ocean pitched us up and down. I was sick to my stomach, the waves tossing us about. “Just roll backwards into the water,” Laureen yelled at me. I was scared to death. I eyed the shore. I wished I was there. I couldn’t do this. “Come on, Dana, you can do it. Just fall back and let the water catch you.” I popped my regulator in, breathed, and fell backwards. The sea closed around me.
I bobbed up, I bobbed down. Waves slapped my face, pushing me back. I tried to swim but seemed unable. Where was the zodiac? Where was Laureen? I floundered, arms and legs everywhere. I was in full panic. I couldn’t see anyone. Water everywhere! I cried and screamed into my regulator. It vibrated weirdly. I was going to die!
“Dana, are you ok?” The MRI. “Yes, I am. Continue.” Hmmmmmmmmmmm, hmmmmmmmmmm, hmmmmmmmmm, beep, beep, beep, hmmmmmmmm.
Here in the MRI my heart was calm. I listened to the hmmm, the beeps. Thought provoking fears tried to arise. No, I am NOT closed in. Breathe in, breathe out.
“Dana, look at me!” I stared into Laureen’s mask. She had me by the shoulders. “Stop fighting the sea. Don’t fight it. Just stop. Relax. Breathe!”
I took a deep breath, and as I exhaled I watched the stream of bubbles between us. Laureen was a cork on the surface of an erratic sea, but oh so calm. She pulled my dive buddy closer to us. “OK, were going down now. I want you to stay together, stay calm, and enjoy yourselves!” She had to be kidding.
Instead of letting the air out gradually like I was supposed to, I squeezed too hard and fell like a stone to the bottom, my ears, thankfully, clearing on their own. I looked around as the sea tugged on me. My balance was off. I felt myself tumble along the sand. Kelp waved madly, my dive buddy was doing something that looked like a cartwheel, sea grass swished back and forth. Panic rose inside me. Breathe, breathe. I felt myself huffing and puffing. My exhaled bubbles swirled around me like a crazy cloud before flying upwards. I clutched madly at a clump of kelp and the side of a boulder. We didn’t belong here! Humans need to be on land. What in the fuck had I been thinking coming into this world?!
Then I saw Laureen about 20 feet away. She sat in Lotus position, about 3 feet off the bottom, her hands resting on her thighs, her fins extending outwards. A little Buddha, the water carrying her three feet to the left, stop, then three feet to the right, back and forth. A tiny stream of bubbles trickled from her regulator and trailed away from her before drifting upwards. Not only was she still and unafraid, but she was barely breathing.
Behind her I saw a group of rock fish. In unison, they drifted to the left three feet, then to the right, then to the left, all the while allowing the water to carry them. This was not chaos. This was the sea. This was exactly as it was supposed to be. I remembered what Laureen had said on the surface. Stop fighting the sea!
I relaxed. I released the kelp and felt the sea carry me forward, then carry me back. Ahhhhh! When it carried me forward, I kicked a little and was able to swim. I turned around. Could I swim in the opposite direction? Yes! Swimming against the water was futile. But to swim with the flow was effortless. Laureen later explained they call that surfing the surge. My heart still raced but now with excitement.
Laureen gave me the OK sign, asking if I was ok. I pulled the regulator from my mouth and gave her a big toothy grin.
“Dana, are you OK.” The MRI lady. Yes, I was! “Only two more cycles and we will be done.” The MRI machine hammered on. I breathed in, feeling my heart start to race again. I could do this. I could make it to the end. Breathe, breathe . . .
Laureen brought my dive buddy over to where a rock fish and I were staring at each other. Oh yeah dive buddy. I forgot about him! She checked our gauges, then I looked at mine. I still had half a tank of air in spite of my initial panic. I moved to swim off, but she grabbed my arm and pointed to the surface. I shook my head no, and showed her my computer again. She grabbed my dive buddy’s computer, and showed it to me. He had sucked his tank nearly empty. Begrudgingly, I started my ascent with them.
“That’s it, Dana. You did it and without a squawk out of you!” I felt the bed rolling, and breathed in deeply as the room opened up to me.
Laureen never mentioned mindfulness or Buddhism when she was my dive instructor, but 385 dives later when I had a falling accident on a dive boat that landed me on crutches for 5 months, she suggested I Google mindfulness. I was full of why me, why me? Her answer was for me to pursue mindfulness. THAT was how I discovered Buddhism.
Mindfulness and meditation and focused distraction are invaluable tools. And they are at their brightest in times of darkness, of emotional lows, when panic is about to overwhelm. It’s a mistake to try to keep your meditation times free of distractions, of problems, of pain. Those are our testing and practice grounds, that is where practice reaches perfection.
Mindfulness can help you determine if your using distraction as a crutch or if you are using it as a tool for benefit. It’s always nice to go to your favorite meditation place, and sit in quiet without distraction. I often went to the sea with my troubles. I’d take a day off work, and go to the cove and do a solo dive. I learned to cry under water. I’d flood my mask to wash out the snot, then return to land, lighter than I had gone in.
In places of solitude, you can practice concentration, mindfulness of letting go, such as letting go of thoughts as they arise, letting go of emotions as they arise, doing full body scans, and really honing in on every millimeter of the body.
But try meditating in noisy places. Go to a park where children are playing, where traffic is. Try sitting in the office and just being mindful of whatever arises and note your reaction to each thing. Experiment with focused distraction. All of these practices will come in handy when conditions are extremely difficult. These are tools in your back pocket to pull out when you need them.
I am ever grateful to Laureen Hudson for all her patience, and for always being my personal Buddha. What I learned from her example set the stage for many of years of practice and living there after.