Mindfulness Practice and TBI,
The Gold Mind Meditation Project
“Until you have the inner discipline that brings calmness of mind, external facilities and conditions will never bring the joy and happiness you seek. On the other hand, if you possess this inner quality, it will be possible to live a happy and joyful life.” Dalai Lama
“Notes to our much loved son, Had - a time of agony, love, sense of loss and hope, encouragement and realization that you have been given life because of your unfulfilled destiny.”
Jan 21 6PM I'm finally enroute to see you. Tonight I will get to your room by 10 to 11 PM, hopefully. At any rate I will see you, hug you, and kiss you tonight. Just as I did when you were a little boy. As I look out of the window of this 707 the moon is almost full. How much effect do that moon and the planets have on one life and our destiny?”
From a journal kept by my father, H.C. Walmer D.O. and Acupuncturist at UC Davis Hospital during the time of my auto-accident, Dec. 31.
This is my story of transformational rehabilitation in life, a life lived with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Modern medicine has become very good at enabling us to survive a wide range of traumas that previously lead to death. We, as survivors of trauma, have had a world shattering experience. With ‘Mindfulness Practice’ that I will describe we can learn to befriend our new lives, join with others and find ease in the present moment. Much healing is possible. Here’s my story.
I was riding in a car with friends, returning to Oregon from California after my college’s winter break. Traveling north on the interstate we crashed into a car that had missed its exit and was backing up on I - 5. At 66 mph we impacted, crushing the right side of our car where I was seated. My head, with eyeglasses slammed into the dashboard and Jaws-Of-Life were required to free me from the vehicle. I was rushed to an Emergency Room in a coma.
My brain swelled in my skull. This was before essential state seat-belt laws, as well as the critical current medical relief mitigating the intracranial pressure of brain swelling. In six days, with the powerful help of my parents and formal medical care, I regained consciousness. I had amnesia, diplopia (double-vision w/ anisocoria, maximally dilated pupils), and severe TBI. I walked with great difficulty. In the short instant of this accident I was not who I used to be. My life was dramatically and forever changed.
I went home with my parents and slowly recuperated. Repeated Osteopathic treatments aided balance and motor coordination issues improved over time. Often I was in a foggy mental state, with occasional glimpses of clarity. Plans for my future existed only as fleeting positive images in my mind. That following Fall I went back to college thinking my life would be just the same as my previous times there. Not so. It wasn’t.
Those plans and images were now derailed, couldn’t get back on the tracks. I had great difficulty learning and people didn’t relate to me as they once did. I struggled with an array of unfamiliar cognitive deficits. I was back at the same place with a different me. This condition of TBI was only vaguely recognized.
New frustrations arose to surprise me. My romantic relationship split up, as I would often rage out of control within, emotionally and couldn’t figure it out. Anger would grab my sensibilities. My ability to be a ‘fast study’ was gone; I now had a memory that was effectively Teflon for new facts. Frustration was a persistent undercurrent of my entire life.
Boundary issues and very slow mental processing made for a whole new mix in my social and personal world. Who was I now? In short I needed to learn to befriend a new me. I was a newcomer to the land of TBI.
Fortunately in 1982 I met a wonderful and highly supportive woman. She encouraged me to complete my college degree, get work and we eventually married. She already had a wonderful son and we had two more incredible children and I cannot say enough about the treasure and contribution of our empowering and loving family relationship. As I lost one job after another I met and came to know more of my cognitive deficits. Many relationships break up with TBI. I was so fortunate in marrying this woman who has been strongly capable of holding all that occurred (super mother). As well and quite unbeknownst to me, she, with her character, was actually providing my missing executive functions.
Ten years after the accident, a friend said, “I’m going out to Spirit Rock this evening to sit with Jack Kornfield in meditation. You might like it.” Curious, I went and followed the sitting meditation instructions. In a matter of weeks I had experiences of peace and energy, arising. I was inspired. I saw clearly that I was capable of learning the beneficial qualities I heard spoken of in the Dharma Talks. I regularly went to the Monday evening meditation sits at Spirit Rock with Jack Kornfield and other dharma teachers. I find each of the “seven factors of awakening” coming into play now in my practice: investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, equanimity and mindfulness. This tangible result fuels my practice. I know that it makes a difference for me to do it. It’s self-motivating: participate, learn this skill and get positive benefits.
Meditation is a very forgiving practice. It’s ‘win win’, you practice skillfully or learn what’s needed in direct experience. That’s the actual process a positive feedback loop. Losing track of being attentive with a meditation object and going off into worlds of thought is a natural phenomenon of the mind. That is exactly what minds do and as a person meditating we get to simply observe this as a regular process. Wise instruction here is noticing what the mind has done and bringing attention back to any chosen object, say breathing or the body. When the mind wanders into thinking you haven’t done something wrong, you are gently developing the practice of mindfulness as people have done for thousands of years. Now, I am fruitfully bringing this practice to bear on all my life experiences. I savor being mindfully present with various life experiences, pleasing and unpleasing – yes, both sides. This is not living in fantasy, rather being present with things as they are – feeling emotions and all else as that arises within each of us and communicating honestly.
Regular meditation practice has brought deepened levels of clarity and awareness to how I relate to my self and world. I am more able to hold sustained attention to any chosen activity. I practice everyday either with time sitting or in being awake to the moments of my life experience. With this mindfulness I can accept and gently hold whatever states arise in my consciousness or know that if I’m overloaded, to back off. The mind can be a crazy beast. This training grounds me in a sense of dignified inner wellness and peace including the damages of TBI. Mindfulness practice isn’t about changing me into a better me, rather it’s about befriending who I am. Healing (through neuro-plasticity) is a long process. Mindfulness and meditation open me to energy and the choice I have in this moment to see clearly the effects arising from my TBI and then be more appropriate in my actions. Not throwing gas on the flames.
TBI is still very much a part of my daily life. It hasn’t gone away or been miraculously cured. I have learned to live skillfully with poor short-term memory. Emotional outbursts pass more quickly as I can see them, know they will pass and stop denying them. I have continuing difficulty with interpersonal boundaries. Though I am bright and cheerful, good at getting jobs, I continue to lose them. I identify with all of this much less and that gives me much peace and ease.
My wife and I are now ‘empty nesters.’ I savor the sweet memories of our children growing up as well as the amazing adults they now are. I’ve been practicing on this path for 23 years. Last year I had a ‘Bodhisattva insight’ (Buddhist noble goal, contributing to others) and with my dear wife’s encouragement I formulated this Mindfulness Meditation Project. I intend to share and teach mindfulness to fellow survivors in my TBI community –
I know this from the inside. Despite ongoing frustrations with the cognitive deficits, recurring fogginess and loss of jobs, mindfulness practice just works in creating peace of mind. It returns me to a joy and clarity in being with what I love. I am happier and more satisfied throughout my life. I am honestly grateful for the life I have.
TBI has stricken millions. It has often been misdiagnosed and thus poorly treated. In top-of-the line and expensive rehabilitation programs I was taught 'compensatory coping strategies’ for the 'cognitive deficits' of my brain injury. These strategies were well intended, but fell short of addressing my need for inner well being. I had to learn that necessary inner transformation for myself. I learned to sift gold from the gravel of my life experiences to find meaning and purpose for myself. This is not formal rehabilitation it is transformational, resting back into the present moment where neuro-plasticity and our bodies’ innate healing systems can engage. Acceptance and making peace with this condition arises powerfully for me from doing the mindfulness practice.
I recommend a variety of meditation techniques for different types of TBI. The first foundation of mindfulness is the body. Here we bring awareness to sensations we are experiencing, informing us that we have a body - pulsations, contact with clothing, feeling our weight, that which you sense directly - non-conceptual. Seated, standing, walking or lying down are all useful postures for your body in meditation. With awareness of the body in this way we can then return our attention to the chosen primary object of attention. I usually use the breath as this object, after all it’s everywhere I am and is always here to be observed. What I do is bring attention to breathing, changing it in no way. Watching the entire process: in and out and in and out, exactly as it is. We are developing a skill here, being present with the present moment, just as it is: patiently, attentively in a clear focus of attention: now. This is a starting point for our inner transformation, learning to be with what is, now and just as it is.
Head-injury is an invisible disability, not easily seen from the outside like a wheelchair or crutches. However, it’s still a disability known profoundly from inside, and of course to those close to us. It is very different for each person and family. We must each explore that which will work in your own situation. Gold Mind Meditation Project has the purpose and intended result of helping you transform your relationship with this persistent condition, not promising rehabilitation – you choose to do this practice intentionally, it
can have us be strong in the present moment, able to be with much that previously overwhelmed us. This is teaching a powerful skill of mind that can be learned with regular practice. It is with energy and joy I now work on actually teaching and using this extraordinary practice with peer-lead brain injury support groups here in Portland, OR.
Had Walmer, TBI survivor lives in Lake Oswego, OR has BS in Community Development from Oregon State University is founder of Gold Mind Meditation Project http://hadwalmer-goldmind.blogspot.com and of The Barking Dog Library, www.portlandinsight.org/library Vipassana/Insight Meditation practice for 24 years
“Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally to the unfolding experience of life moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn)
The class will be started in a workshop introduction including guided meditation.
5 evening classes will follow for one hour each and you are encouraged to sit every day for at least 5 minutes (see handout instructions)