By Melinda Rothouse
Instead of asking ourselves, “How can I find security and happiness?” we could ask ourselves, “Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace—disappointment in all its many forms—and let it open me?” This is the trick.
— Pema Chodron
I began a regular meditation practice in earnest during a time of intense crisis and upheaval in my life after moving to Austin, Texas. I had left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and then the traumatic breakup of a long-term relationship. It felt like my life had been turned upside down and shaken, leaving me feeling battered, bruised, and terribly alone. I experienced extreme anxiety, including panic attacks, along with intense feelings of anger and bewilderment. Though a longtime student of Eastern religions, I really began to appreciate the power of meditation during this time. I now understood in a very raw way the First and Second Noble Truths of Buddhism; that life is suffering, and this suffering is based in our grasping after permanence and stability when in fact everything is always changing.
Fortunately, I had nowhere to hide and nothing to do but to confront my situation directly and sit with my pain, experiencing it fully. That’s when I walked into a local meditation center and requested meditation instruction. There, I learned how to sit with myself and my experience just as it was, even in the midst of a panic attack. Thus, I discovered a powerful realization: I was ok, just as I was, in all my anger and anxiety and existential angst; in all my messiness and confusion.
Even with years of therapy under my belt, mindfulness meditation practice allowed me to begin to slow down, notice my habitual patterns and mental tendencies that exacerbated my suffering. It allowed a little bit of peace to open up. As Victor Frankl famously observed, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I discovered for myself that tiny space between action and reaction. It helped me to see how I could begin to make different choices my life, including how I wanted to respond in any given situation.
As I delved deeper into the practice of meditation and the study of Buddhist philosophy, my sense of well-being began to grow. I felt a new sense of meaning and purpose in my life. I became a poster-child for post-traumatic growth. As I began to see the tangible benefits of meditation, I aspired to share these insights with others. I trained to become a meditation instructor and teacher and eventually began working on a Ph.D. to study the psychology of mindfulness and creativity. I am currently completing my dissertation focusing on how mindfulness techniques can support creativity and collaboration among organizational teams.
But it was yet another crisis that truly showed me how meditation can facilitate healing in a very tangible way. In the fall of 2013, I fell down some stairs and sustained compression fractures in my spine (literally breaking my back.) Thus, began a long, slow journey of healing through tremendous, often nearly unbearable physical pain. One of the things that helped me through the months-long healing process was my meditation practice, as well as learning new meditation techniques specifically for dealing with physical pain. These meditations invited me to relax and lean into the pain, make friends with it even, rather than resisting it and tensing my body further. A few months into this process, as I slowly began to heal, I wrote a poem (later published in a poetry anthology on grief and loss):
Let the pain be your guide, they said.
So I opened my body and heart
to the curious sensations
of bones fractured, bruised and aching,
muscles clenching for dear life
to hold me upright–
keep me from succumbing once again
to the awful pull of gravity.
Some days the pain softened,
and I could move freely, make love,
even dance to the sweet sounds of gypsy jazz.
Other days my spine screamed in agony and
I simply could not attend to the basic necessities.
Found myself huddled
on the floor, in the pose of the child,
my nervous system frayed,
gasping for some reprieve.
But I discovered the pain was not so solid,
that my bones had become a barometer
of the cold front passing through,
the rains enveloping the earth,
of cruel words and tender acts of love,
all registering deeply within my marrow.
Walking the streets,
grateful for strong legs and supple flesh,
I drank in the vastness of the sky,
quivered with the cool caress of the wind
like never before.
Precious, precious gift, to be alive,
embodied within skeleton and tissue
that can sustain blunt trauma,
and yet heal, again to feel
the warm glow of sun on skin.
Melinda Rothouse is a professional creativity, leadership, and career coach, consultant, educator, and facilitator as well as a musician, songwriter, and performer. Her own writing and creative practices are informed by a lifelong love of learning, an emphasis on journey and process, and her involvement and training in mindfulness meditation practice and the contemplative arts.
Melinda holds a B.A. in Biopsychology from Vassar College, as well as Master’s degrees in Religious Studies from Indiana University and Performance Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is a current Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology with a Specialization in Creativity Studies at Saybrook University, where her research focuses on mindfulness techniques to facilitate organizational creativity and collaboration. She is also a certified meditation instructor and teacher of contemplative arts and photography with Shambhala International, and she regularly leads workshops and retreats on mindfulness, creativity, and contemplative arts.
Melinda’s approach to coaching and teaching draw on the principles of learner-centered education and humanistic psychology, as well as three decades of experience and training as an educator, coach, facilitator, consultant, and performer. She brings a commitment to mindfulness, deep listening, and engaged collaboration to her coaching and teaching work. http://www.melindarothouse.com