I am still leaking cerebrospinal fluid after six weeks of bedrest, so I am now waiting on my appointment at Duke for blood patching later this autumn. It’s been a big mental challenge to have participated in society again for six months after working so hard in tandem with my doctors to get sealed. Months of careful movement and research later, I was able to walk up Mount Royal and explore Montreal again on foot. It felt exhilarating to be mildly mobile. I took nothing for granted, overwhelmed to the point of tears during many of my daily wanders.
I’ve had a difficult time wrestling with my hopelessness during this relapse, and returned to a more robust meditation schedule as part of my coping mechanism. As many readers also have a meditation practice, I had the beautiful thought of us all meditating together. Previously, I likened the global support for this journey as lights on a map, blinking on from different locations.
All these wonderful supportive dots all over the map, united by a common 30 minute calm? What a lovely thought!
I polled my readers on Facebook and Instagram, asking who might be interested. I expected about 10-20 people.
I was wrong.
The first week had 400 people signed up, and voted on a time that was convenient. Given time zones and work schedules, I’ve settled on two times on Sundays.
Legal Nomads Group Meditation Schedule
Given that more and more people have expressed interest in the meditations, I wanted to create a “living tree” post here on the site where I can continually add the tracks I’ve chosen and why. That way readers who are not on social (there are many of you who email me saying “don’t stop blogging because I don’t use social media!) can participate too.
More importantly, the many readers with chronic pain or neurological conditions seem to be the ones with less social media and they may also be the ones who can benefit greatly from this group session.
I’m not an expert in meditation, nor am I a teacher. I am, however, good at bringing disparate people together to explore a new thing. Whether it’s soup, or cow head tacos, or safety whistles (for the earlier readers out there!), much of my career is based on my enthusiasm translating in some way to my wonderful readers.
While I can’t travel any longer, I can still explore with my mind and share my excitement with everyone here.
So, the schedule: Sundays, 10am EST and 8pm EST.
I do both meditations, and apparently so do others.
Group Meditation: WEEK 1, Metta (Loving Kindness)
For the first week, I chose a metta meditation. Metta means loving-kindness in Pali, and refers to an unconditional, wise love. A love that is exclusive, and doesn’t have strings attached.
The choice was simple: the meditation starts with ourselves, then spirals out to friends, family, and eventually to all living things.
With this new leak deriving from my movement (sitting on the floor, a natural movement and certainly not a risk, I thought!), I’ve been fighting off the self blame. Metta has no hoops to jump through – all deserve it. It has no expectations of anything in return.
This is a track from Tara Brach, who wrote Radical Acceptance – a very important book for the perfectionists out there. I’m one of them, and in the spirit of starting with loving-kindness toward ourselves we are starting with metta.
Metta takes concentration, whereas Vipassana includes awareness of constant change – awareness without consistently obsessing over it. Vipassana (the course I did and the practice I keep up) added a space between me and my reactions. Metta, in contrast, feels more like a deep focus on primordial, compassionate love.
I’m no meditation expert, but these practices have helped me stay steady during this very difficult year.
Further reading about loving-kindness and acceptance:
Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach.
Group Meditation: WEEK 2, Body Scan
For our second group meditation, we moved from the first week’s metta (loving kindness) to a simple body scan. While leaking CSF, I feel lots of pain but also a sense of distance from my body. CSF outside the dura also does a number on the central nervous system, and muscles are rarely relaxed. And of course emotionally I’m quite attached to the desired outcome of walking again.
Enter the body scan.
For one, it’s done lying down – so we are all flat for this meditation.
But also it’s a deep, moment-to-moment investigation into what the body is experiencing. We all carry stress in the body, but while we may feel pain resulting from that tension, we don’t necessarily know where it resides.
With awareness and open acceptance of what one feels during the scan on a micro level, the goal is to notice what is happening on that minute level, helping voice where the pain is and what it says.
I find that by following these meditations, I have a sense of release, relaxation, and calm.
While metta had us bringing attention to all beings and things, the body scan turns that focus to the body itself, beginning with the left foot and ending at the top of the head.
I chose an abbreviated 30-min scan for this week, but in a few weeks I’ll share a 45-min one. I personally started doing body scan meditations after reading John Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living and reading about his mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
For newer readers, more info about why I chose this book – and others that can help with chronic pain – at my post here.
Funny enough when I first heard this meditation, I hadn’t yet gone to the Vipassana course. I emailed a friend saying, “I tried the meditation but I think something is wrong with the audio – there were all these periods of silence? So I just didn’t bother?” Of course now I know the silence is WHEN YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE MEDITATING. All this to say, it’s a practice, not necessarily something that feels intuitive or natural.
John Kabat-Zinn on the body scan meditation: “The body scan is not for everybody, and it is not always the meditation of choice even for those who love it. But it is extremely useful and good to know about and practice from time to time, whatever your circumstances or condition. If you think of your body as a musical instrument, the body scan is a way of tuning it. If you think of it as a universe, the body scan is a way to come to know it. If you think of your body as a house, the body scan is a way to throw open all the windows and doors and let the fresh air of awareness sweep it clean.”
Further reading about mindfulness and pain:
Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Preface by Thich Nhat Hanh)
Group Meditation: WEEK 3, Mindful Breathing
The mindfulness of breath is a calming practice, one that steadies the mind and encourages concentration. Vipassana is considered an insight meditation, whereby through the practice of continued close attention to sensation, “one ultimately sees the true nature of existence.” In the Vipassana course I attended, the first days were devoted to breath meditations, and only on day 4 did we move into Vipassana itself. The rationale, we were told, was that one must first develop calm and concentration, and then move into insight and awareness of more.
I chose a breathing meditation for this week since I am preparing for blood patching again. Keeping my mind calm is very important.
Traditional mindfulness of breath meditations are called Anapanasati. It’s a straightforward term: translation is mindfulness (sati) of breathing (pana). The goal is to use the breath itself AS the focus when our mind wanders. For last week’s track, the focus was on specific parts / sensations in the body. In contrast, this is all physical sensations of breathing.
I chose a midway breathing track for this week, since it starts with a body scan and moves into some breathing work. Next week, the track will focus on breathing via a traditional Anapanasati guided meditation. They’re usually an hour-long but I will try to find a shorter one.
As with the other meditations we did, by putting less energy toward stressors or anxieties or pain during the meditation, we help our minds balance. With a regular mindful breathing practice, eventually that return to focusing on balance becomes more habitual, and carries to other aspects of our lives.
Group Meditation: WEEK 4, Mindful Breathing
As I mentioned last week, we are doing another mindful breathing meditation. Many are over an hour but I chose this 26 minute one because it focuses on the four stages I learned when I first was taught how to practice it.
It opens by bringing attention to the physicality of breathing, counting (1) first our outbreaths and then (2) our inbreaths. When the mind wanders – which of course it will – we start back at breath 1 again. After that, we (3) focus on breathing but without the counting to keep things on tempo. Just noticing instead the continuity of that inhalation and exhalation, an infinity of sensations in flow. And finally, we (4) hone in on the minutiae of breathing specifically around the nostrils.
As with last week, the focus is on the breath as a tool to calm the mind.
Group Meditation: WEEK 5, Self-Compassion
The next two weeks of our group meditations will focus on self-compassion. I’ve recommended Kristin Neff’s work in my post on coping with chronic pain, as I have found her work especially helpful as it relates to pain and progress. Her book about Self-Compassion has helped many readers too, as I’ve received quite a few emails from people who have done longer meditation programmes based on her work.
For week five, we are going to do a compassionate body scan. Unlike the Kabat-Zinn scan from a few weeks prior, this meditation starts at the crown of the head (not the left foot), and it is rooted in practices of self-compassion.
What does this mean? Per Neff, it is the skill of “treating yourself like you would treat a close friend who was struggling.” The idea of compassion generally (for all, not just ourselves) necessitates understanding suffering and feeling kindness and understanding in return, the desire to want to make those circumstances a little better. It involves the quiet acceptance of the fragile human condition. And self-compassion is simply compassion turned inward, directed to ourselves.
What is it not? Self-compassion is NOT self-pity, self-esteem, or self-indulgence.
Instead of chasing self-esteem, which Neff notes can flip into narcissism more quickly than we’d like, we’d all be best focusing on softening our self-recrimination. To focus on feeling good about ourselves by needing to be better than others (the pitfalls of self-esteem in excess), we also open the door to cycles of self-loathing.
The alternative, says Neff, is to to develop self-compassion. To “be kind to ourselves life goes awry or we notice something about ourselves we don’t like, rather than being cold or harshly self-critical.” A self-compassion practice acknowledges the imperfections inherent in simply BEING human, and focuses on connecting us to others when we stumble – instead of isolating ourselves in a trap of judgement.
1. Self compassion (not self judgement)
2. Common humanity (not isolation)
3. Mindfulness (not over-identification / obsessive thinking)
Yes, our old friend mindfulness! As with each of the Legal Nomads meditation practices we’ve done so far, self-compassion also involves mindfulness. It is important to recognize, accept without judgement, and observe the painful aspects of life as they arise moment to moment. Instead of doing what many of us do and push down the pain to suppress (or for some, to blow it up to magnificent scales for public drama), we take a BALANCED approach to negative emotions so that they are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.
(In my case, I’m a suppress-the-feelings person, not a have an epic meltdown kind of person, so this practice – and meditation generally – has helped me reach a state of more equanimity.)
Research in Neff’s book (below) demonstrates that self-compassion decreases depression, alleviates stress, can help ease the thinking behind disordered eating, and mitigate chronic pain. At the same time, it increases happiness, optimism, hope, healthy behaviours, and immune function.
At this time I’m still in Montreal and in a limbo state of seeing if my body can heal without further intervention. Throughout this leak journey, I’ve struggled with equanimity to not to beat myself up – and many times I’ve failed miserably. Example: I was beside myself that I sat on the floor and reopened this leak ( even my doctor said “you were just being HUMAN, Jodi”), and as I recovered slowly last year I was devastated when I made mistakes. But to err IS to be human, and in loosening the grip on that self-recrimination I have opened up more space for healing.
Neff’s guided meditations are more casual, almost like a friend guiding you along. Not for every session, but a nice contrast to last week’s anapanasati.
Further reading about self compassion:
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, by Pema Chodron
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin Neff
Group Meditation: WEEK 6, Self-Compassion
WEEK 6! As promised, this week’s meditation is another meditative approach to self-compassion. Chris Germer, alongside Kristin Neff from last week’s track, co-founded the Mindful Self Compassion course. It is an 8 week course built on the principles I discussed in last week’s post: treating yourself like you would treat a close friend who was struggling.
This will be the second of three weeks focusing on this topic, primarily because many of you have written me over the years sharing your stories as I have shared mine. And through those stories and my own is one very similar thread: a tendency to be AWFULLY hard on ourselves even when we are doing our best. And a tendency to push through instead of giving our bodies a little more grace.
So I’m spending three weeks on self- compassion, because I’ve decided we all really need it. 🙃
Next week will be a wider scope meditation, a beautiful combination of the loving-kindness track from our first week and the compassion meditation “to ourselves” from this week’s track.
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions, by Christopher K. Germer (author of this track above)