When Your Mind Goes Haywire…Begin Again

A tale of rampant mindlessness, coughing fits, and lessons not learned.

robodread/Dollar Photo Club

As I lie on the floor whimpering in pain, all of the things that are about to become difficult swirl through my head: I have three articles to finish writing and a podcast to edit, my daughter needs to be picked up from school soon, I have to go food shopping because we’re out of bread, the girls’ clothes are upstairs and need to be cleaned for tomorrow…

I feel my youngest daughter’s hand on my shoulder and it brings me out of my thought spiral.

“Mom, are you okay?”

My dog walks over and nudges me on the cheek, as if to mirror my daughter’s question.

“Yes,” I manage to squeak out, not that convincingly.

I stand up and try to look like I’m not in pain.

“I just hurt my ankle. A little ice will help.” I hop over to the freezer and grab an ice pack. My daughter skips away, humming, and returns to building a fort in the living room.

Shit. I hate being hurt, I complain to myself. The ice pack feels like glass shards shredding my skin.

I text my husband:

“I just sprained my ankle really badly”

(He’ll later compliment me on my proper adverb use.)

I sit at the kitchen table, trying to breathe.

I can walk this off, I think. I stand up and place some weight on my left foot. Pain races up my leg so fast I feel it in my lips.

I take a step and my ankle clicks and cracks and sounds like a branch breaking underfoot. Shit.

I hop back to the chair and sit there listening to my daughter humming in the other room.

Breathe in, breathe out, I tell myself. Feel your breath come into your belly and fill it up. Then feel the air go out.

You’d think the pain in my ankle would be enough to keep me in my body, but my wandering, busy brain won’t have it. After just one breath my brain is off on another “this sucks” tangent:

There goes our hiking trip this weekend… Oh, I’m supposed to fly to Halifax for work in three weeks. Isn’t it bad to fly with a broken bone? I wonder if I broke it? I hope I didn’t tear a ligament…

New At This Mindfulness Thing

I’m still new at practicing mindfulness. It seems straightforward enough: Focus on your breath, recognize when your mind wanders, and then come back to your breath when you catch your mind wandering. Easy, right? Turns out, it takes a lot of practice to be able to do those three simple things.

My very first formal meditation experience happened not long ago, when I was sitting in a conference hall filled with 500 people, having been invited to attend a mindfulness conference in DC as part of my job interview for Mindful. It was the first time I’d meet my potential colleagues face-to-face.

Of course, I started getting a cold the day I left for DC.

On the first morning of the conference, moments after meeting the publisher and editors, I sat in a packed hall, squeezed between the editor-in-chief and one of the editors-at-large. The man running the meditation told us all to feel our bodies in our chairs, get comfortable, and focus on our breath. He struck a bell and began the meditation.

I settled into my chair a bit. It squeaked as I moved. My feet were on the floor, my back was straight; I had put my bag at my feet in case I needed to reach for a tissue.

I started to focus on my breath, in and out, like the man said. I felt calm, relaxed.

And then I thought, I hope I don’t get a tickle in my throat and start coughing in this room full of quiet meditating people.

As soon as the thought entered my mind I felt the first tickle. I cleared my throat a little, hoping it would pass, but no…it had other plans.

The tickle lodged itself in the back of my throat, wrapped itself around my windpipe, and dug in deep.

I took a small breath, trying to relax. And then I began the loudest, most obnoxious coughing fit humanly possible.

The first one welled up from my belly and shook my whole body. I bent forward a little trying to catch my breath. The more I tried to contain them, the more I coughed. Snot started dripping out of my nose. I rummaged in my bag for a tissue, found a lozenge and opened it. The crinkly paper echoed through the hall as 499 meditators silently breathed in and breathed out.

I managed to get the lozenge in my mouth and take a small breath, trying to calm my body for a moment. I pulled the water bottle out of my bag, hoping that a sip would help settle this bronchial spasm. I twisted the cap on the bottle with just my thumb and index finger, the lozenge wrapper and tissue still crumpled up in a ball in my hand. The cap fell off and rolled on the ground under the EIC’s feet as he sat in silence. I ignored the cap and took a quick sip. As soon as the water hit the back of my throat, the tickle squeezed my esophagus shut. I choked on the water, and another violent coughing spell took over. Coughs rolled through my body as I tried desperately to take at least one full breath.

All the while, the rest of the room silently breathed in and breathed out.

When I finally got control of my body, my eyes were full of tears, my hands full of tissues, lozenge wrappers, and a water bottle with one sip taken from it, and snot glistened on my nose.

The man running the meditation struck the bell and the rest of the room started to stir.

Begin Again

As I sit at my kitchen table with ice stinging my ankle, trying to remember how to breathe, only to make it one breath before my mind starts wandering again, I remember something that Sharon Salzberg said to me recently:

“Beginning again is the most important part of the whole process. We’re always starting over and starting over and starting over.”

I breathe in. I hear my daughter humming. I exhale.

For the first time, I notice that my shoulders are hunched over as if guarding my body against further harm. My jaw is clenched from the pain. I relax my jaw and breathe in. I let my shoulders fall back, releasing them from their protector duty.

Some space clears in my mind. I take another breath and feel it make more room in my head.

My phone rings. It’s my husband. He’s coming home.

Slow Down and Pay Attention

After a trip to the emergency clinic (where they tell me it’s just a sprain) and a phone call the next day from a doctor at the clinic who reviewed my x-rays, I find out I fractured my ankle and need to see an orthopedist.

Two days later, when I finally get to see the orthopedist (three cheers for the US health care system!), he asks me the question I’ve been dreading:

“What did you do?”

I start talking fast to get it over with: “Well, I was at my kitchen table, editing an article for work. I was sitting on my foot as I typed and I didn’t realize that my foot had fallen asleep. I stood up to see what my daughter was up to and, as soon as I put weight on my foot, my ankle rolled out from under me and I face-planted on the floor.”


The doctor looks at me for a long second.

“That’s a really terrible story. You can’t tell that to anybody. You need to make something up.”

Yep, it’s a really bad story.

I was so caught up in getting my work done, working on an article about mindfulness, that I didn’t feel my own body enough to realize that my foot was asleep.

Clearly, I have a lot to learn and a long way to go on my path to mindfulness. Luckily, I’ve got four to six weeks of sitting ahead of me to practice slowing down, breathing, and starting over.

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