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I can't meditate! Or can I?
Two years ago I would never have thought that I would be sitting on the floor listening to myself breathing. Having a heart attack changes a guy though. I wrote this post for the AHA Support Network at the beginning of the year to try to connect with others who may have shared the same biases I had at the time. I called it “On losing my shirt and meditation” as it was running that first showed me that there is something about meditative thinking that can impact a person in many positive ways.
You should know I am not an inner peace guru. I’m just a regular guy with a slightly stressful career path and an overly active mind. And yet, for those of you who have one form or another of a cardiac event or condition, who have had anxiety and panic attacks as a side effect, this is for you. When you are gripped by fear that something bad is happening, or my favorite, may happen how do you cope? I can tell you that I started having panic attacks after my first heart attack and stent in my LAD region. I’d become involved in a mental loop that would eventually flood out all other thoughts until all that remained was the worst case scenario and I’d end up in a sweat and fear for hours. This would last sometimes for the better part of two days in my case.
I got professional help and learned that meditation, also prayer, can help to put a person into a state of consciousness that basically trains our minds to observe things without reacting unless we choose to do so. Now there’s a catch. A panic attack causes a physiological reaction in our bodies. That’s OK though. I’ve become better able to observe the tidal wave of fear in my head and body after practicing for a little over a year now. It’s been subtle but measurable in my experience with anxiety and panic attacks, however.
My heart attack taught me that I am not, in fact, invulnerable and that I will die. It also showed me that I really love life. So living one day at a time became part of my lingo. And yet the critical piece of that which was missing was the how component. I’d like to open up a thread related to all of our life-threatening heart and vascular conditions and talk about how you can possibly use meditation. Not just to possibly benefit your heart health but to reclaim our lives and inner peace on a day to day basis.
If you could practice for 10 minutes a day what would you expect to gain? Is there anything I can help explain about how I have incorporated meditation into my life to help jump-start your own practices?
JeffB, September 28, 2017 10:11am ESTHere is the post link: https://supportnetwork.heart.org/blog-news/jeff-breece-on-losing-my-shirt-and-meditation/
AHAASAKatie, September 28, 2017 2:12pm ESTGood afternoon Jeff and all our Support Network Members! I am sharing exciting new information about exactly this topic- Meditation may decrease the risk of heart disease https://news.heart.org/meditation-may-decrease-risk-heart-disease/ I urge you to read this great article on Mediation and a new Journal of the American Heart Association Scientific statement released today! We look forward to having a great discussion on this topic and your meditation experiences. Best Katie
JeffB, September 28, 2017 6:13pm ESTI wanted to leave one extra note behind for anyone who finds this helpful. The thing about meditation that was difficult for me was that I had the misconception that I was supposed to “clear my head” somehow. Which was maddening. Every time I sat down and started listening to my breathing I would start thinking about a million other things. It was not until much later that I learned that is exactly the point and real part of the practice of meditation. Getting distracted and then returning, for a fraction of a second, to the breath. In fact, there is one specific meditation called the “cloud meditation” that talks about thoughts are like clouds and are true selves are like the sky. Empty but full of clouds, or thoughts. The shift between focusing on one’s thoughts and back to the space in between them is the thing that gives us the skill we need to combat anxiety by simply refocusing our attention. Even for the smallest amount of time. It’s like lifting weights. The more you do it, the better trained you are to handle things differently. To observe without reacting unless you actively decide that you need or want to do so. Not the other way around where anxiety is shouting at you and turning on fire alarms inside our heads. The thing is, we can choose to be calmer.
jlhyde85, September 29, 2017 10:07am ESTThanks Jeff! I was introduced to meditation as a high school student enrolled in an all-girl Catholic school in Southern California, where new-age ideas and world religions met this very specific form of Christianity. My religion teacher would play a Celine Dion song loosely associated with a lesson on the sacraments and we would lay on the floor, close our eyes, and let whatever ideas from the lesson sink into our minds. Years later, I learned that this did not occur at the boys school; in fact, their religion classes focused on lessons in philosophy, the teachings of St. Augustine, and other religious scholars I would have to find on my own in college. For a long time, I was upset that because I was a girl, my parents had paid a significant amount of money to educate me in a challenging environment, and that they had been duped by meditation, however now that I'm older I see that while the men were learning to decipher St. Augustine's rhetoric, his methods of finding spirituality, we were enacting it in my school. My insight does not come without a thorough critique the different forms of education men and women receive in gendered environments, however I am glad that I was introduced to meditation before I even knew what it was, before I was a fully-formed adult. I now find myself able to enact meditation by walking, most specifically in my one-mile commute home from the subway by foot to my apartment in north Brooklyn, NY. I pass a park the length of a city block. As I walk along the parameter of the park, I enter into a state of deep thinking on the efforts I'm making to advance my creative practice, enact kindness to the people I encounter, and reckon with the larger problems in our current world. When I come home, I most usually am energized, free and I spend an hour or so writing with a clear mind. To react after having made the conscious effort to slow my thinking, as you have described, makes me feel whole. I value the time I spend motionless, emotionally, while in motion, physically. I think my favorite description of meditation is Virgina Woolf's brief prose poem, "The Death of the Moth" at once a meditation on the WWII, mortality, life, and the briefness and grandness of our beauty. I believe one can listen to a recording of it here: https://youtu.be/YTbnOLIl_2M
GoREDGAIL, September 29, 2017 3:41pm ESTUntreated Hypertension caused my mother to develop cardio myopathy. My father had two heart attacks and a stroke, it was only time that I would become high risk for a heart attack. My daughter and son had hypertension as well. Through small simple changes that had up to big results we all reversed our hypertension. One of the things we did besides changing our diet and exercise is learning to shut our eyes and meditate doing guided imagery, also focusing on the breath.What is trully amazing is that if you shut your eyes and concentrate on your breathing and imagine a beautiful peaceful place you can significwntly lower your blood pressure while someone is taking your blood pressure. Stress is a risk factor for heart disease. I reversed my heart disease by eating, exercising and meditation! 65 pounds lighter,meditation and guided imagery helped me all along the way!
AmbassadorMR, October 2, 2017 12:35pm ESTHi Jeff, My name is Mark Ridder and I am an AHA Heart Valve Ambassador like Jen (above). I found your conversation on meditation to be quite interesting and enlightening since I too have started to incorporate meditation into my "new life start" following my aortic valve replacement surgery in November of 2012. I'm still a beginner in the process but I try to dedicate 20 minutes on most days to practice this new skill. Like you, I am a runner (jogger really) and I have always loved that peaceful feeling that comes from running and letting your mind go to where it wants (needs) to go. I have no doubt that any form of guided relaxation be it from meditation, prayer or other thoughtful practice can only be helpful to the heart and vascular system since they definitely are negatively impacted by prolonged exposure to anxiety, depression and the accompanying stress hormones. As the research into the mind/body connection continues, I encourage all of us of us as heart patients to pursue every avenue and technique available to support and encourage our mental and physical well-being and most of all, our gratitude for having been given this second chance at life. All the best to you in your continuing journey of discovery. MarkR
AmbassadorC, October 2, 2017 9:32pm ESTGood evening Jeff, Great article re: meditation. For me, when I was recovering from OHS, my father encouraged me to go back to my days of taking martial arts in high school when I used to meditate before my competitions. Before the matches, I would be used to seeing all the other competitors jump up and down during a warm up, however, I would go off to the sidelines, close my eyes, and practice meditation. While I am sure it was not in the "perfect" sense of meditation, I would visualize and see myself execute the moves, practice my breathing which in turn, gave me a sense of calm prior to the matches. While it was difficult to go back to during the recovery, because there was physical pain involved, I did attempt my best. I also found that as part of my "pre-op" preparations, I downloaded a Relaxing Music album, captioned " Relaxing Music - Music for Deep Relaxation Mediation" by New Age. This was a great instrument to accompany the days that I was in pain and needed to concentrate on relaxing my body in order to heal and more importantly, fall asleep. I firmly believe that a full recovery involves when mind, body and spirit become one. Meditation is a great tool for the mind! A more recent musical find for relaxation is call Weightless by Marconi Union and it reminds me of the reference you made about the clouds. This music makes you feel as though your body has truly become weightless and is floating through the clouds! Check it out!