“Now as we begin, just take a moment to get comfortable and then, when you’re ready,
start off with some nice big deep breaths” Andy’s voice intones these familiar words in my ears.
I have never met Andy Puddicombe, but after months of listening to his recorded meditations, I
feel like we’re old friends. I’ve received countless pieces of advice–sometimes conflicting, often
worthless–but meditation is one practice that actually helps me.
Andy’s resonant voice continues: “and with the next inhalation, just close your eyes and
settle back into the space around you. Now just gently bring the attention back to the body and
start noticing how it feels, taking note not only of the areas that feel uncomfortable, but those
areas that feel comfortable, too. Starting up at the top of the head, you can just scan down
towards the toes.”
The top of my head…that’s what struck the side of the car when we were hit. I wasn’t
wearing my seatbelt when it happened. We had only just piled into our seats when the truck
smashed into the side of the car–my side of the car. It happened in an instant, but I was thrown
in slow motion. I’ve never screamed like that before.
The top of my head took the brunt of the blow. No skin was broken to make a scar; not
even a bruise remained, but it was weeks before that sharp pain subsided. It’s long gone now.
On an inhale through my nose, I scan down the back of my head, which is sensitive to
touch. The sensitivity is caused by nerve pain, but I didn’t know that until six months after I was
injured, when I first saw my neurologist: “I guess I just started sleeping on my stomach to avoid
putting pressure on it. I didn’t even think about it until now…but I never slept like that before
I release the air through my mouth on an exhale and notice that my eyes are clenched
tightly closed. Sensitive to even the softest light and struggling to focus, my eyes were strained
for weeks after I was injured. I thought they relaxed sooner than they did, but I really just forgot
I was squinting.
The neurologist told me that difficulty focusing and light sensitivity are classic lingering
symptoms. “It will go away with time,” he assured me, but my first doctor said the same thing.
She also cleared me of my symptoms two months after the accident and yet there I was, talking
to a neurologist six months later, with all of my symptoms as acute as they were right after I
was injured. They were triggered again when I tried to go on my mission.
The night before they sent me home, I cried harder than I ever had before. Big and puffy
and bruised, I didn’t know if my eyelids would ever recover. On my last day, I insisted on taking
pictures with the missionaries from my district, but my face was so swollen that I can hardly
recognize myself in those photos. My missionaries have been in Sweden now for almost four
months; I still talk to them every week. My puffy eyelids looked bruised for days after we
parted, but they did, eventually, recover.
Lying on my back, I let the last bit of air release from my lungs and, amazingly, so does
the tension in my lids.
My next breath goes down a little further into my neck and I gently nod my head the
way my physical therapist showed me to, turning on my deep neck flexors. Teaching me how to
activate those muscles, the physical therapist said “it might feel a little uncomfortable at first,
like you’re restricting your breathing a bit.” I spent weeks choking back sobs, so this is a familiar
sensation. As those little muscles activate, I feel the desired release in my sub-occipital region.
I didn’t even know what a sub-occipital was before I saw a neurologist but, as with me
and Andy, I now feel like the sub-occs and I are old pals. “Whiplash will correct itself after a few
weeks.” That’s what my first doctor said. Six months later, my sub-occipitals begged to differ.
The neurologist thought micro tears or inflammation in my neck might be the source of my
debilitating headaches. I doubted his diagnosis because I didn’t feel anything like the tension he
described, but when they did an ultrasound to check, they found the entire muscle group in
spasm. It was like that for so long that I didn’t even know I was in pain until after they injected
the medicine- then I noticed a difference.
I had three rounds of those injections and four months of physical therapy, massage
therapy and yoga classes and now I haven’t had a headache in months, which is an all-time
record for me, including the time before I was injured.
My chest rises and falls with the next breath and I am conscious of the place where I
used to pin my missionary nametag. I was on my mission for less than 18 days, but it was much
longer than that before I stopped reaching for the badge I thought I would wear for 18 months.
Deeper in my chest, I feel my heart beat a steady rhythm. I remember it pounding
frantically against my ribs as I surveyed the scene of the accident: what was once a car
resembled a crumpled soda can, standing perpendicular to the line of traffic in the middle of
the road. I stood on the sidewalk, comforting my sister and clutching my best friend, both of us
crying and swearing, but all, miraculously, alive.
The next time my heart pounded that hard, I was clutching the long-awaited envelope
telling me where I was to spend the next year and a half of my life in service. My heart leapt
with joy when I read, in disbelief, that I was going exactly where I wanted to go.
The last time my heart pounded that hard was in the missionary training center clinic,
when a doctor told me that missionaries with Post-Concussion Syndrome usually get sent
home. “That’s great,” I replied with a wry smile, “but I’m not going home. I am supposed to be
here and I will fight to be here until I can’t be here any more.”
My heart has yet to pound like that again. It pumps to a new rhythm, instead: a
stronger, steadier beat that may never again be so easily excited, but it won’t be so deeply
Likewise, my breath continues at a constant rate, with the next inhale flowing down
through my shoulders and arms and into my fingertips. I can hardly remember a time when I
wasn’t engaged in battle with my left shoulder. Along with my head, it collided with the side of
the car and absorbed its fair share of the impact.
“Pull your shoulder blades together,” the physical therapists say, “feel the bone rotate
in the joint and keep pinning back that left shoulder.” Becoming aware of the problem is half of
the fight, but increasing my awareness didn’t make the pain go away. I quickly began to hate
that left shoulder…and the other one, too. We came to a reconciliation when I laid my forehead
against my yoga mat and an instructor told me to surrender to my body. “Notice the tension,
but don’t try to correct it. Surrender to the pain and, eventually, it will go away.”
Down in my left hand, my fingers twitch; being away from the fingerboard of my
instrument for so long has left them fidgeting like disobedient children. They tap out Bach and
Bloch and Telemann–whatever is on my mind–and I have to remind them to be still.
Meanwhile, my right arm, that is, my bowing arm, has finally relaxed. The weight of your
arm is what guides your bow across the strings of the instrument, but if you try to force weight
into the bow with tension, your tone will suffer. So in my first music lesson after the accident–
almost a year later–my tone was terrible. My teacher extended her hands and said “Give me
the weight of your arm”.
When my arm refused to relax into her hands, she said, “I am strong; I can carry your
weight.” My arm shifted a little but the weight wouldn’t give. “I can see that you are physically
carrying a burden and you need to let it go. You have disappointed dreams, but that’s not your
fault. You aren’t the same person now as you were before, but that’s okay; I am not the same
person I was yesterday” she said, “you can let this go.”
I’ve seen innumerable physical therapists, internal medical doctors and emergency
room technicians, a biofeedback specialist, a neurologist, and a pain psychologist, but only the
Doctor of Music could get me to release my arm.
My breath travels farther and more freely now, down the back of my spine to my pelvis,
which is rotated, but that doesn’t bother me anymore because I learned how to correct it. I set
it in alignment and allow my next breath to travel down through my legs.
My legs, which have a good amount of mileage on them, felt soft and limp after weeks
of inactivity when they put me on mental and physical rest. In the months leading up to my
mission they got restless and twitchy, making me eager to run–I wanted to get out and just go.
Their weakness and agitation have now given way to a greater sense of balance and strength,
no longer shaped by pounding pavement, but by slower, more deliberate movement.
I finally send the next breath from my head all the way down to my feet. I once felt like
my feet were swept out from under me. When that happened, all I could think about was the
day when I could sprint forward on them again, but I consider their role differently now. My
feet are my foundation, planted firmly beneath me, supporting me. I think about rooting down
through my heels, my big toes, the sides of my feet. Once I find balance in them, they have the
power to carry me forward, one step at a time.
My breath now flows freely from the soles of my feet back up to the top of my head,
and I hear Andy’s voice again, saying, “and before you get on with your day, just take a moment
to notice how you feel. Just take note of whether you feel any different from how you felt
before you began this exercise. And then, in your own time, you can just gently blink your eyes