Some time back, I heard someone speaking about having sustained a pretty serious head injury, which left them without any memory or any awareness of who they were for about 24 hours. They had a bad accident, which pretty much reconfigured their face, and left their brain blank, when it came to knowing who they were or what they were doing far from home with a bunch of other researchers.
They said that right after their accident, they had no idea what their name was, where they were, who they were with, or what they were doing there. They were on a research trip with a bunch of other scientists, and their job was to collect data. But after the accident, all that changed.
Their amnesia lasted about 24 hours, and then all of a sudden, they were back. They said they believed that the thing which brought them back was paying extremely close attention to every detail about their experience.
The air they breathed.
The food they ate.
The sounds they heard.
The feeling of their body.
Every sensation that they encountered, they focused in on it with their whole might.
And a day later, they were back.
What strikes me about that story — and the person who told it is a nationally recognized leader in their field with an avid following — is that they plunged full-on into their life experience after their brain injury. And decades later, they are a thought-leader in their chosen domain.
Now, who can say if their mindfulness was the thing that restored both their memory and their awareness of who they were, but they were convinced that this “extreme mindfulness” approach made all the difference for them.
And so am I. I’ve been thinking a lot about that story, since I first heard it several years ago, and I have been employing that approach more and more in my life. The principles behind it, as I think of them, are that when we engage our whole selves in our lives, noticing small details and really dwelling on our immediate experiences, we create new connections in our brains — new physical connections that really “fill in the blanks” for who we are. When we approach our lives as actively involved individuals, and we learn as we go (from trial and error, or just thinking things through very carefully ahead of time), we “build out” parts of our brains that may have been neglected before, or that may have gotten hurt in that accident. When we try new things, eat new foods, think new thoughts — and do it repeatedly — we lay in new connections that strengthen with repetition. We acclimate ourselves to the new life we have, and we find ourselves better and better able to function in this new way. (Or we discover that that new way really isn’t for us, and we go off to find another way.)
The process is gradual, but it can also jump us ahead in leaps and bounds, when we least expect it. That’s been my experience, anyway. But it’s a process. And my experience has been that it is cumulative and accumulative. It’s pretty cool.
The biggest threat to this process, from what I can see in my own life, is fear. Fear keeps us from engaging with our lives. It keeps us from getting involved. It keeps us at a “safe” distance, and it may make us feel smart (for detecting danger) or safe (for avoiding situations that we think are dangerous), but it doesn’t help our brains very much. If anything, it robs us of the chance to rebuild what we need to rebuild. It keeps us from building new connections, and it keeps us from developing as truly human beings. I know a number of people who are extremely fearful, and over the past several decades that I’ve known them, I’ve watched their lives become smaller and smaller, as my own has broadened. And it makes me sad to see it.
It’s also a good lesson for me. Every time I see them making choices that have to do with fear, instead of curiosity, I am reminded of the kind of life I do not want to have. And I start to make different choices of my own.
Now, fear can be a tricky thing. Some is good to have — fearless animals tend to be short-lived, and I want to live a long time. But having it run your life… that’s no good. And from personal experience — having had fear run my life for many, many years, when TBI-caused anxiety was wreaking havoc with my soul — I can say it’s no darned fun. And it keeps you from recovering what you need to get back.
Looking back at my life over the past 40+ years, I can see a direct correlation between the traumatic brain injuries/concussions I experienced, and a growing anxiety… which eventually built into a nasty case of post-traumatic stress. I was so wired all the time with anxiety and stress over constant fight-flight situations (that were induced by my TBI-related anxiety) that even though I wasn’t in immediate danger a lot of times, I felt like I was. I was often completely taken over by fear, which kept me from developing as a person and kept me from recovering from my injuries.
But since I’ve been actively dealing with the anxiety and agitation… and now that I understand the actual nature of my issues (they are neurological, not psycho-spiritual)… it’s taken the edge off my experience in ways that simply amaze me. And it makes it possible for me to engage fully with my life, day after day, as an actual human being, not a shell of the person I once was.
Active mindfulness is actually pretty radical, if you think about it. When I say “radical” I mean “Relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.” I mean, it turns me 180 degrees in a different direction from where I’m going when I’m stuck in fear. Diving into my life experiences, and not holding back because “there’s something wrong with me” has proven utterly transformational for my life, my relationships, my sense of self, and my sense of well-being.
And the weird thing is, even though to this day I don’t feel like I’m the person I used to be, and I have this nagging sense that something about me is “missing”… that doesn’t matter to me nearly as much as it used to. I can accept that I’ve changed, that my life has changed, that I’ve lost the things I’ve lost. Because now I realize that I’m actually gaining a lot of things I didn’t have before. I have a much deeper and higher-quality of everyday experience, each and every day. And I am involved in my life and my relationships and my work on a far deeper level than I can ever remember being, before I got help for my TBI issues. Life is a series of losses and gains, and when I can accept that and get on with the gaining, instead of getting stuck in the losses, that only helps.
Now, thinking about it, I am struck by how this approach — total, full-on engagement with the world around them — can compliment the directions we’re receiving from doctors and athletic trainers, to rest the brain completely while recovering from concussion.
I am NOT a doctor. Nor am I an athletic trainer. I have not received their level of education and training, and in no way can I compare myself to their expertise or even rival their formal knowledge. But I really believe, based on what I’ve read, that the concept of total rest after a brain injury is 100% right, and I often wonder what might have happened, had I actually taken the time to rest after my injuries, to give myself time to heal and give my brain a chance to sort itself out.
Now, each and every person is different. Each and every brain injury is different. There is so much we don’t know. And I don’t know any of the other details of this radically mindful post-TBI individual’s full experience that might shed light on why they came back from their amnesia so quickly, and why they lived out such a high-achieving life. What we do know is that there is still a whole lot of uncharted waters out there, when it comes to what-to-do-about-concussion/brain-injury, and we may just find different ways of approaching the injury, based on the individual and their own scenarios.
I really support the wisdom of pulling student athletes from play and keeping them out for extended periods of time. I also believe the science behind the biochemical cascade that happens when concussion takes place. And I only wish that the NFL and NHL and student sports leagues would pay attention to what we now know about concussion and traumatic brain injury, and take full responsibility for what their sponsored activities make possible — damaging, potentially catastrophic traumatic brain injury.
At the same time, I think that something more needs to follow the initial resting period. We need to manage concussions not only immediately after the injury, but over the long term. We need to find ways to help the injured — and that includes veterans returning with TBI, as well as countless other individuals who experience brain injury each year — re-engage fully with their lives, on a whole new level. Experiencing life as it comes up, learning to taste and feel and see and hear all that is around us, each and every day, can help the brain create whole new connections and pathways that “fill in the blanks” that TBI can leave. It might not fix the “busted parts” 100%, but it can create new parts and new connections, where none previously existed. And in the creation of these new parts, we can turn our minds from focusing on what we don’t have, to focusing on what we can have.
I hope that others who have been concussed or brain-injured can find this same kind of experience, that they can find ways to overcome the anxiety and agitation that wreak havoc with our minds and our brains and our spirits. And I hope the same for those who live with them and care for/about them. Beyond the initial recovery period, there is a whole world to discover out there — a world that I found severely limited by my rigid thinking and my inflexible attitudes, which were really cemented in place by anxiety and agitation.
Most of all, I hope that we can all keep open minds when it comes to what will work for individuals, that we can all learn about what has worked for people who have “been there”… and continue to look beyond the initial mechanics of concussion and traumatic brain injury, to seek out longer-term approaches to restoring life after TBI. Standard protocols of immediate response and treatment are very important, in my opinion. And so is innovation and an open mind — as well as a truly scientific approach that keeps the doors of the mind slightly ajar when it comes to alternatives and workable approaches.
In the end, we have to keep learning – fortunately, we’ve got tons of opportunity to do exactly that.