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Sunday, March 8, 2015

2015 BIAOR Conference talk on Meditation and Brain Injury

Had Walmer
(503) 332-3046
I.) My Brain Injury Story

During my stay at the UC Davis Hospital my mother and father kept a journal that I treasure, here’s an opening entry, “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.”

This was on a clear day, mid-morning, the last day of 1977. We three college students were traveling north on Interstate-5. in a car, returning to Oregon.

This was the end trip of what we had planned to be a normal holiday ride ‘vacation and then back to school’, using the campus ride board (EARLY “social network”), We spent Christmas at my girlfriends’ house by Yosemite National Park, in the Sierra Mountains foothills – now, our track was back to school!

This shot me into the world of traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Unexpectedly we plowed into a car that had missed its exit and was actually backing up on the freeway at ten o’clock in the morning.

My head, with reading glasses on smashed into the car’s dashboard. The police report says we impacted at 66 mph, crushing the right front of our car, (SUICIDE SEAT) where I was seated.

This was before current seat belt laws and I was in a COMA instantly. Jaws-of-Life were required to free me from the confines of our smashed vehicle. I was the most severely hurt of all of us in the car. We were taken to the U.C. Davis Emergency Room, ICU

My entire brain swelled instantly, encased in the confines of my closed skull.  This caused secondary damage to the initial brain damage from the crash itself. Craniotomy, the removal of my skull’s plates to provide critical relief for my brain’s swelling was not an option on the table then, though this is now done with great results!

My father, a D.O. and mother an R.N. immediately flew across the country from Pennsylvania to be constantly by my side. I got loving bedside care on top of the superb conventional medical care from the UC Davis Hospital. In addition to this there was supernatural care. hundreds were praying for me in church, per my Catholic mothers’ request.

In this context I regained consciousness in a week. I came to with amnesia, a fractured skull, diplopia and a ‘serious TBI’. Serious TBI is defined as being unconscious for a week or greater. 

I was then 22 years of age, I had no idea of what this TBI would mean for me.   I went from the hospital to the care of my parents in Pennsylvania.

After 8 months at my parent’s home, that following Fall I went back to college thinking that life would continue to match my memories and be the same as previous times there.

Not knowing much about my TBI, I was automatically stepping back into the life story that I had been living before. All I knew then was to ‘put my head down’ and return to my previous life, back at school.

Less than a year later, my previous school environment was very much not there anymore. So much had changed.  You can imagine the immense frustrations that quickly would arise in my new TBI life, as I was not ‘all there’ anymore.

In the short instance of this accident I had been catapulted into a new life. From then on I was often in a fuzzy mental haze and only aware of that new and ‘hazy normal’ after it went away, when mental clarity reappeared. Though it would just as quickly depart.

The brief periods of clarity arose automatically, unbidden and this seemed to me to be impending recovery (“All better now”). However, these times of bright mental clarity were brief and only a false-recovery or delusion.  They didn’t last and I couldn’t sustain them.

That is the heart of my brain injury story, really it is the credential for me now sharing and teaching what I’ve found for rehabilitation and relief from TBI. I know this from the inside.

II.) Enter, the world of TBI

The facts of my TBI’s solid existence and its concomitant deficits would become painfully revealed to me in the years to follow.

Back at the university I had great difficulty learning in class. I was unable to organize my thoughts or speak them coherently.  I wasn’t stupid, yet my ability to learn was now far different than I knew before.

My memory was now Teflon for new learning, quick learning and easy recall was gone.  My social relations were in a disarray that I caused and couldn’t correct.

Though I was unaware of my TBI’s impact, it was now steering the ship of me.

At this time I was primarily a student, mainly concerned with going to school, learning and relating to friends. I didn’t understand much less communicate well about the different way that things were now occurring for me.

My thoughts were often a disorganized jumble. I cried occasionally and didn’t know what had happened to me. Frustration was the norm. My girlfriend and I broke up as I raged in frustration and was unable to mend our discords.

The machinery of me was now discombobulated. Familiar ways didn’t work anymore.  I needed an operating system upgrade. I didn’t know how, with this newly changed brain, how to study and remember the new things I wanted to learn.  Rage erupted with these frustrations and challenges of my school life. There are several dented sheetrock walls from punch or kick (how embarrassing to even say this)

Life continues and welcome to my second life. We are somehow given a live to live. Something about a sperm and egg uniting, we get born.  The biggest question, I say is, “What is worth doing with this life?” What is the unfulfilled destiny stated in my parents’ journal that I can now create?

I’ll be brief here, I now stories can be tedious, please listen for the statement of TBI difficulties that appear, and then I will move on the main theme of this talk –
 meditation and its many benefits. Thank you for your empathetic and interested listening.

III.) Having and knowing you have TBI

I struggled within a range of new and of course unfamiliar cognitive deficits.  My TBI was only vaguely recognized by me, or by others around me (TBI is the hidden or invisible disability). I just knew that things were not as they had been before and I was running into my deficits.

Boundary issues and very slow mental processing made for a whole new mix in my social and personal world.
Frustration from this change was a persistent undercurrent in my entire life.

Apathy and pendulum swings in emotion and motivation replaced my previously enlivened focus at college work. I was often depressed.

Things had changed and who was I now?  In retrospect I had to learn to befriend this new me, to embark on the journey of discovering what mattered now and to discover what commitments worth my while in this new life.

I was a newcomer to the strange-new-world of TBI. Learning wouldn’t hold. Various enterprises and projects started with inspiration would end unsuccessfully.

As you can see, many of my descriptions of my life at this time overlap with what could be called ‘typical college life experience’.  Trust me it was typical college life, with a new addition of Traumatic Brain Injury.

IV.) Relationship
Bright light! I met my wife Faith in 1982.  In her no nonsense manner she encouraged me with loving support to actually get out and DO what I said I wanted to do: within a year I completed my bachelors degree and then got the first of many jobs. Love is an incredible support.

Faith is a professional employment specialist with Trellis. She counsels and finds sustainable employment for people with TBI.  Job seekers are referred to her by The State Dept. of Vocational Rehabilitation.

I trained her well in this great skill; , she will talk next.  

Fortunately, with that encouragement from Faith I was able to successfully put myself out and get work.
Unfortunately, this was to become a repeating cycle:  get work, do it for a year or two, then lose this job for various TBI related deficits, get work again, repeat.

This went on for many jobs. For twenty years.  Given these conditions, as you can see I was desperate for control of mind and aching for inner peace.

We now have three fantastic grown children who say that they were actually nurtured by being raised in our family that made a strong commitment to and acted to surmount these recurring difficulties. We are proud parents; they have completed college and are married and living well.  They are all doing quite well! Faith and I have been promoted to Grandparenthood and are now, loving grandparents: “Papaw and Bubby”!

Before moving back to Oregon, we were living down in the San Francisco Bay Area.  After a few years of getting by, with indispensable support from my wife and family; I was in that cycle of getting work, thinking I’d never lose it, then losing it due to TBI deficits.

Faith and I have been together now for thirty years and this focus and commitment to the brain injury community is much of who we are!

 V.) Guided Meditation

Has anyone here meditated before? Were in the laboratory! We’re going to do a five minute guided Meditation.

Stay in a comfortable seated position.  Relax and just follow my instructions. This is not about any previous ideas you may have about what meditation is.  You don’t have to stop your mind from thinking; we’re bringing in here the observing and knowing mind, this is directed awareness.

The central thing to do is choose an object of awareness, say your breathing.  Put your mind’s focus on that, feel wherever it is that you notice the sensations of breathing, perhaps in your nostrils, or chest movement, or your belly moving. Again, this is NOT about ideas in your head, FEEL THE BREATH, your friend for life.

You know its not going to be a thousand breaths before your mind wanders. It’ll likely be one, maybe three, maybe just half a breath! Then, kindly return your attention to just the breath your are breathing now.

You can’t do anything wrong here, when you notice that you’ve gone off into thinking (“I shouldn’t have come to this workshop, this guy isn’t worth listening to, I don't want to be here”, whatever,

then return your attention to sensations of breathing each time you notice that mind has wandered into thinking thoughts;
Wake up to that, notice the wandering mind. Attend to just sensations of breathing, no words, Repeat.

Notice thoughts and feelings as they arise.
Return your focus and attention to now,
this breath.

I’ll ring the gong twice to end our session, enjoy this time.
(5 Minutes)

>Welcome back to the conference. Does anyone care to share any experience they have just had?  Are you interested in learning some more?
See notes on the handout for classes starting next week.

VI.) Mindfulness Meditation
I accepted an invitation from a friend and fellow parent to attend a meditation session at nearby Spirit Rock Meditation Center lead by Jack Kornfield who is now a well-known meditation teacher.

Who here has heard of him?  This was the start of something new for me that I continue to this day!

There is something whole and complete in a damaged brain that we can still access.

I know this is a bold claim, please listen to what I have to say here and then at the end of our talk, we’ll take time to converse about any questions.

Here is the good story of a POSSIBILITY, that I have learned in my real life experience – Transforming life from survive to thrive. This is the best do it yourself project I have ever done!

I call it The Gold Mind Meditation Project.
The basis of this project is our natural capacity as human beings to liberate ourselves from suffering or dissatisfaction through our own conscious effort.

I’m sharing that this is rehab and life support, self-prescribed (your motivation arises from within’, not cause I said it should). I’ve lived 37 years with my TBI and now have 27 years of meditation practice under my belt. (think  ‘practicing the piano’).   This is for the long haul. Not Woo Woo. It works.

VII.) Gold Mind Meditation Project
   for survivors, family and friends

Gold Mind Meditation Project teaches the skill of MINDFULNESS.  This is knowing FOCUS, AWARENESS OF YOUR PERCEPTIONS and learning to be present with these things through meditation. This is called MINDFULNESS, it’s not theory rather it is practice you can learn.

Every head injury is unique and the transformational rehabilitation of mindfulness meditation teaches each survivor or PEER to relate to his or her injury on it’s own terms, in their day-to-day lives.

Mindfulness meditation enables us to access other areas of our brain. There is a large overlap of neuroscience and dharma study.  The healing transformation can be known in anyone’s life, brain injured or not.  Anyone can benefit! Suffering is inherent in life - as are birth, sickness, old age and death.

This is a heart and mind intervention; it’s self-induced by your actions. The process is available anytime, day or night. You are the prime-mover here.  We’re actually going under the hood for some neural rewiring!

This PROJECT is ‘thinking outside the box’, this years conference title.
We're going to use the most highly developed neuro machinery ever created.  It's the human brain inside each of our skulls: 3 pounds of tofu-like tissue containing 100 billion neurons, or so neuro scientists tell us.
And - this project is about meditation,

I’ve been drawn to the practice of meditation by the light I see from within the mental trenches or cognitive deficits of my own severe traumatic brain injury.

My wife and I are committed in work we do to benefit the brain injury community. We are not just giving you a map or description here; this is from our on-the-ground participation.
In our work with Brain Injury Connections, NW we support peers, friends and family in creating satisfying lives through meditation and social activities in this support group.

See the handouts for scheduled classes.  You are invited to attend any number of classes at Legacy Good Sam here in Portland next week, Weds. Evenings. There will be ten classes, one evening a week with homework. No charge, lots to learn! Anyone is welcome. It's fun!

Gold Mind Meditation Project is my intention to embody Metta, which is loving-kindness and making the awakening occurs from available to my fellow TBI survivors - empowering them to end their own suffering and dissatisfaction.

If you don’t meditate – please hear me out and listen to what I have to say, you are in the right place. As I said this can be used by anyone.

The brain can get damaged and traumatized.  The whole world lives in our mind, yet the mind is malleable with mindfulness from meditation, which can alter the brain in positive ways.  We’ve each got the key to access new neural pathways; let’s do something positive and start this practice. It’s worth it!

I direct this to my peers, fellow brain injury survivors. The practice of Insight Meditation that I teach leads to an awakening of inner peace and wellness. In the face of those tormenting symptoms I mentioned it is deeply welcomed.  You can see freedom from suffering and secondary stress brought on by both the brain injury and then the negative self talk or demand that symptoms be different than they are.

To get a feel for whom I am talking to. Please raise your hand, you may fit into more than one category.
Who here is a peer or fellow survivor?
Who is family or friend?
Who is a professional working with brain injury?

I train students and inform them of already existing meditation centers to learn further as they continue practice on their own. I am not a new Meditation Center. I practice meditation here in Portland with two existing communities: PIMC, Portland Insight Meditation Center and PFOD, Portland Friends Of The Dhamma.

“Enlightenment is accidental. Meditation just makes you more accident-prone” Trungpa Rinpoche, a great teacher.

I began to attend Monday evening sessions weekly with Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in fall of 1988. Within a short time I had beautiful experiences of inner peace, of mental clarity and focused energy that appeared directly for me.

With those positive results I became eager to continue and that motivation continues to this day!  I liked learning the basic skills of mindfulness meditation and these awakening factors:
Joy or rapture
Relaxation or tranquility

Though they seemed fleeting at the time, the positive experiences have steadily grown and I now count on them.
That can be called faith, based on experience.
Here was a community of fellow meditators I could learn the practice with.  Others who I met there shared similar experiences of awareness and concentration they were learning.  Here is a technology of mind actually practiced by millions. It can be learned by anyone who chooses to learn the practice.
I was introduced to this specific form of meditation, which is called Insight Meditation or Vipassana Meditation. Mindfulness is literally keeping something in mind with ardency and continuous effort, like the focus on your sensations of breath in the five-minute meditation.  That is the training of meditation practice, which we just did - keeping the breath in mind, doing it on purpose, by returning attention when mind wanders.

I emphasize that this practice is part of being human and is A-religious; you can meditate and practice meditation with any other or no religion. My Jewish wife cracks up at the names of some of my teachers: Kornfield, Goldstein, Boorstein.
This is laying the groundwork for our mind’s ability to change the brain as an effect of sustained attention.

This meditation practice is clearly mapped out for me in a large number of interesting books in plain English and easily accessed online dharma talks. (Please see the handout, Resource List) It is spoken and written of by both neuroscientists and well-trained dharma teachers.  There is a large area of overlap between meditation and neuropsychology and neuroscience.  The practice of mindfulness and meditation is very real, not just interesting philosophy for others.

For example, I was stressing over doing this presentation RIGHT, I noticed that and acknowledged that I was doing the best I can now and let go of the stressing.  I learn to honor exactly how I am in the moment and not have a background demand running in the background that I be some other way than I actually am, that only causes stress and suffering. It is self-talk that I can have some say in. Not always immediately, but surely over time.

Through sitting meditation and then being aware of your experience in the present moment, paying attention to the way my life is occurring, we actually transform the present moment by letting go of demands that we be different than we are.  That's exactly where the peace that is available and can show up in our experience. We can learn our own set of deficits and thus proactively cut out the stress about them.  They exist.

Suffering and being awake in the present moment are incompatible.  Arising in me was a profound experience of well being, literally a lasting experience of ‘no problem’, things are as they are. Sometimes giddy positive descriptions sound like crazy devotees.

Try this out and you’ll see.  Start simply with the declaration, “I’m mindful”.  This will open the question, what do I mean by being mindful? Give it time, you will move from that concept to a way of being, Mindful – able to be with yourself and things as they are.

Sitting meditation practice is the first step.  When you make the choice to learn this practice you can be empowered to follow your own authentic path.  Waking up to the present moment how it is for you now is basic training.  You can do it now, in this moment – intentionally. Watch each breath you breath, it’s only ever in the present moment. This steady awareness ripples out into the rest of your life. We set our intentions consciously. I declare that I’m on the path of living mindfully with brain injury.

Not too long ago this meditation was considered alternative. Now I observe it’s quite mainstream, anyone can benefit from mindfulness practice. It really works if you engage with the practice.

Mindfulness has opened me to new possibilities for myself, going beyond past-created conditioning that limits how I enter into new situations. I see daily the power of giving my word from a new perspective and having the integrity to communicate if things change.

At Spirit Rock I was inspired and had entered a compelling community and conversation for intentional awakening that I followed with the loving support of my wife and family –
It was ‘gold mind’.  Called the divine mind states: Loving-kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity.

Please note that family and friends support is essential at all levels of recovery. We are so intertwined with others that I can’t emphasize that support enough!  My wife Faith will speak some on this and how she has created family and support people’s support with Brain Injury Connections - NW.  There is ‘I’ in tribe and equally there is tribe in ‘I’, in each of us – we are here in a network of friendships and conversations with those friends. In meditation our close community of fellow practitioners is called Sangha. We depend on each other in networks of mutual support.

I saw that I was capable of learning the beneficial qualities spoken of in the dharma talks. It has upgraded my operating system.  Come to my classes and try on the upgrade. I teach based on what I have learned and know for myself with my brain injury.

I teach The Basics of Mindfulness classes to students with TBI at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital in NW Portland.  It’s under the auspices of Brain Injury Connections, NW. Their mission is to empower peers and I have benefitted strongly from several years of active participation with this group, actually starting Gold Mind Meditation Classes under them.

See handout page for the Basics Of Mindfulness starting NEXT Weds. Night, March 18, 6:30 – 8:00, at Legacy Good Samaritan, NW 22nd & Marshall in Wilcox B, follow the signs on the doors!

You can be encouraged to meditate daily now (encouraged by the well designed Insight Timer, it’s an App for meditators worldwide on smartphones and tablets, again called Insight Timer)

I know the difference this practice makes for me. That motivates me to schedule practice.  Mindfulness is a very forgiving practice. It is literally ‘win/win’; you practice skillfully and learn what’s needed for you by looking directly at your experience, that which is needing to be healed or attended to will be revealed.

By sitting mindfully you can stop reckless automatic movement by looking and seeing.  How is it now, in the present moment - there’s your direct feedback for growth! Eventually we’ll see that we will not walk through that wall and stop walking into it!  (this wall is any behavior you intend to change).

The meditation process is a positive feedback loop, of practice and learning, it’s self-correcting.  Direct awareness, seeing what is so in the present moment is fire for your awakening and a source of deep peace within.

With mindfulness it is possible to accept and gently hold whatever states arise in your mind, or to know when I’m becoming overloaded (‘flooded’ in TBI talk) and to back off.

Here you choose not to ‘go under’ mental confusion or conditioned behavior patterns.  Awareness can take a break from  ‘committee in the mind’ (Which you met in our meditation today)
You may wake up to new choices, not seen before. YAY!

Simply getting the mind to settle down slightly can transform how we BE in the world. In this practice is a path of transformation, and I have access to the machinery of finding peace with what needs to be called forth to be this new me. Transformation isn’t necessarily a changed circumstance; rather it is a bold shift in perspective that arises naturally with mindful awareness. It’s perhaps a new way of seeing the same circumstance.

The brain with billions of neuronal connections can be a crazy beast!  Mindfulness training grounds us in a sense of dignified inner wellness and peace of being aware in the present moment, what I am metaphorically calling ‘Gold Mind’, allowing for our lives’ ups and downs, having damages of TBI, not being victimized by them.  Present moment awareness is priceless peace.

This is IT!  It’s like this right now is a way to be in your awareness.  “Work with what you have”, asserts my teacher Ajahn Thanissaro.  By allowing myself to be as I am I get to appreciate and know the wonder of NOW.


“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Here is the bonus for regular meditators, NEUROPLASTICITY.
As a non-medical professional I am giving you reports from out in the field, as an active user. Neuroplasticity is the brain science word of the decade.  Our brains can heal themselves.  Getting better can happen because of neuroplasticity!

TBI is still very much a part of my daily life. I’ve learned compensatory strategies that usually work.  My condition hasn’t gone away or been totally cured. With growing awareness I do have some say in the rewiring of my mind.

Here are two great teachers of great benefits showing up in Neuroplasticity and I suggest reading their work:
Norman Doidge M.D. has shown in two great books how neuroplasticity works:  1) The Brain That Changes Itself and it’s follow-up, just out last week 2)The Brain’s Way Of Healing.
Neuro psychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. in his books, Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness shows how the practice of mindfulness meditation can be used to cultivate happiness through working with our brains systems.

On average, each of the 100 billion neurons in your head has about 1000 connections with other neurons, creating a huge network of about 100 trillion synapses. Like a computer network built from one hundred trillion transistors, each representing a “bit” of information depending on whether it is “on” or “off.”
since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” by deliberately cultivating wholesome states of mind, over time you create permanent, structural changes in your brain. Those changes may be a matter of uncovering a Buddha Nature, or Transcendental Awareness, or True Self that was there all along – but the “removal of the obscurations” is still a change within a person’s brain.

 In our worlds of great flux and complexity, what is enduring is knowing the possibility of transformation and seeing that we get that clarity through regular practice (use Insight timer and create for yourself a community of practitioners – these both support new learning). Participate in your life! Your life depends on it.

I now identify with the symptoms of my TBI less, and see even this identifying with it, as unskillful behavior that I now can have a say in.  This transformation in my self identity gives me peace and ease, knowing that the symptoms are only part of who I am and that in my relationships with those I care about I must speak truthfully of who I am now, and of course clean up any messes I’ve made through miscommunication.

Gold Mind Meditation Project has the purpose and intended result of introducing you to mindfulness meditation practice, the basics. It empowers you to develop a sustaining nurturing practice, transforming your relationship with this persistent condition and really loving the life you get to live.

This is ‘transformational rehabilitation’ – you choose to do this practice by your own free choice.  Many deficits and damages of TBI can be fixed over time; you are healed by being with things, as they are, not demanding that they be some way they cannot. Here and now is the experience of equanimity and peace.

This is a path of supreme optimism for survivors of TBI, a basic tenant is that no human life or moments of experience are to be wasted or forgotten.  We can engage with and live our one precious life intentionally, and awaken fully.
Go for it! This is it! This is possible for you!

Please notice or get a sheet if you haven’t already the page listing free classes, an hour and a half each Weds evening
6:30 – 8:00 at Legacy Good Sam Hospital in Portland. Classes are free and you register by attending. Just show up.

Also on this sheet is web address for Insight Timer to encourage and record meditation sessions, a few books suggested, some are free online to learn further about mindfulness meditation and my web site and blog.

As I said, this is the best self-help project I’ve ever done.

Thank you.

Below, are notes I’m cutting from previous edits.
I am pleased to be offered a forum at this BIAOR Conference to present to you what I have discovered and found to be so very useful in my own life experience, in the years following my own life’s dramatic interrupt - of getting a serious traumatic brain injury. My intention has been to create the best life I can for myself and family, given that TBI may ‘get better’ yet it is here for the long term.
I will tell you my brain injury story, the subsequent problems and what I’ve learned to help me through meditation practice.  I will lead a five minute guided meditation to give you direct experience of a mind gone wild, your own!  I’ll end the talk with current exciting medical news of NEUROPLASTICITY, how our brains can change themselves and the healing power of meditation practice, directed by our own efforts.

This all falls clearly within the title of our entire conference: “Thinking Outside The Box”. Meditation is about exploring and waking up to a WORLD that we can be fully alive in.

It’s time to introduce my life partner and cohort in all things, my wife Faith Walmer. Her main forte and desire is nurturing and healing people through positive social and familial relationships. she knows this skill well from creating a wonderful life filled with love, satisfaction and fun together with me for the last 30 years. My life would in no way be what it is now without her loving support. It is no accident she is so powerfully active with Brain Injury Connections, NW Social Committee and facilitating the Friends and Family Support Group!


  1. Had, Very well put together and Knowledgeable. My new life quote is ‘Live and Learn Today as if it were your last and tomorrow will be beautiful’. See you soon!

    1. Thank you so much Karl, are you coming to class this Weds?
      See you if you do

  2. Good to know about the conference talk on meditation and brain injury. Really a informative blog you have shared here with us. Thanks for posting your blog. Keep updating!!