Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Hazards of Unguarded Mind

She's been my teacher for the last week. 

Being with Betty has been a dramatic lesson in the perils of mind, when it has been unguarded for too long.  Betty's got an anxiety disorder so severe that she can no longer function. Her throat closes up and  she feels as if she is going to choke. Her legs go numb, and she is overtaken by weakness. Her mind fills up with thoughts of death and she begs to be shot. Her heart vacillates between terror and occasional bursts of anger. She cannot be left alone. Only drugs, and the continuous company of doctors and nurses bring her a tiny bit or relief. 

Layers after layers of accumulated mindlessness, exposed and wrapped up in pathology.

Slumped over in the couch, her hands entrusted in mine, she begs me to please relieve her from her misery. She wants to know that I care, and that I believe in the reality of her suffering. That I can do. When she tells me she is going to die, I see deluded mind in action. And I tell her. It may feel as if you are going to die, because your breath's gotten shallow, and your mind is visited by terrible thoughts. I suggest, instead of saying 'I am going to die', tell yourself 'It feels as if I am going to die, but I know better, I am not. I am still breathing, and talking.' Also, give your mind a bit of rest, and practice new thoughts. 'May I be at peace, may I be at ease. May I be at peace, may I be at ease.' Relaxing the mind.

There is work to do also with the body. Tightness all over needs to be dealt with. First, recognizing it, which is no problem for Betty. Where she goes wrong is in what she does with her perception and awareness. Not seeing the tensing against the primary tension, and how it contributes to her feeling more and more out of control. Being aware of the whole experience: the body's long held habit of reacting with tension, overlaid with great dislike and fear about that experience, then leading to more tension, ending in a knot so tight that air, and blood can barely pass through. 'Don't talk to me about deep breathing anymore. It does not work, only makes me worse.' Somewhere, Betty has learned that breath is to be used for her condition. The fact that she has been taught wrong has turned breath into a new enemy. Figuring we have enough to deal with, I decide to leave that one aside, for now at least . . . and to use the body instead. Focusing on the hands, and the sensations there. 'I feel cold and warm.' In that moment, Betty's mind is no longer focused on the tightness. Giving the mind a rest, purifying it. 

"Give me a shot, now!" In this moment, Betty believes only drugs can relieve her from her suffering. Another delusion to be addressed. Using mind against mind, and the power of memory to remember the extra suffering by the use of drugs when they wear out. And reintroducing the knowledge that working with her thoughts is as powerful and without the side effects. "You are forgetting the power of your mind. There is a lot you can do with your thoughts, and how you choose to deal with the panic." She nods. I take it as a small victory. 

"What did you use to enjoy before the panic came?" "I like music, classical music." Getting the mind out of its rut. One wholesome thought, one wholesome action at a time . . . She is open to listening to a Mozart CD.

There is the panic, and what led to it in the first place. Digging down deeper, and accessing the anger beneath. Lots of it. Another hindrance that's been marching for years into Betty's life. Meeting with her relatives, Betty's voice grows loud and she tells them how she feels. Betty's got a lot of work to do. She needs to see a therapist. 

Betty did not know. She let her house get so dirty over the years, that she can no longer live in it. Now is the time for heavy cleanup crew, and she has to roll up her sleeves. 

No need to wait that long. The fresher the grime, the easier to remove. Betty is calling me (us) to the tedious work of ongoing mindfulness. 


  1. A painful and dramatic story. One thing I wonder: "deep breathing" is not the only kind of healing breath. Did she try/did you advise breathing shallow?

  2. Thank you Peter. And yes, I did suggest being with shallow breath, or rather breath as it is. But at this point, she has developed an aversion to the word breathing itself . . . Hence, not going there, at least for now. Body is as good as breath anyway, and there are plenty of parts in the body, and always one, however small that remains free of tension.

  3. Such a poignant story... The work you are doing is so kind and compassionate...truly the work of a bodhisattva! My heart cries out and also sees the deep conditioning, the karma that has led to this inclination of mind. She is blessed to have you at her side offering the possibility of a different way of being... even if it is only one moment at a time, a possibility of ease, of relaxing, of release from this habitual clenching against the world...just your presence is a gateway for some ease and respite.

  4. Thank you, Lori. You are kind. What strikes me with Betty is how much suffering has been added to her lot, by a medical system not anchored in mindfulness practice and also not set up to adequately fund the intensive psychotherapy she would have needed earlier on. Now, she has to deal with addiction to anti-anxiety medications, automatic clenching of body and mind, and a poisonous cocktail of delusion, unrecognized fear, and obliterating terror.