"Winning Meditation" by Dr. Tjorvi Perry
A few years ago (Beginning, Middle and End), I committed to a meditation practice. I had tried and failed many times over the years, but as I had come to rest at the ocean’s bottom (What’s Your Anchor), hungry for air, not committing wasn’t an option. Resolved to find stillness, I brought my hopes, my fears, my compassion, my shame, my curiosity, and my confusion.
I took a seat on my cushion. Having read the recipe for appropriate posture, I was sure to keep my spine straight, and my ears and shoulders in line. I pushed the back of my head up toward the ceiling, pulled my chin down, and pressed my diaphragm down toward my lower abdomen. I crossed my legs. Not being able to assume the full lotus position and knowing full well what was at stake, I was sure to rest my left hand on top of my right, with my thumbs touching lightly to form an oval. I then pressed my elbows in toward my sides to bring the oval up against my navel. I had read that, “To take this posture is itself to have the right state of mind.” I relaxed my gaze on the floor in front of me, and took three cleansing breaths. I even threw in a slight Buddha smile, just in case there were bonus points on the table. I felt confident that, so far, I was doing everything right.
Tw…in my peripheral vision I could see a young woman. I could see how much better my posture was, and how much more I was getting out of my meditation.
Thr…on my other side, an old man kept shifting on his cushion. More validation that I was getting quite a bit more out of my commitment than he.
Fi…someone kept coughing behind me. I was new to this, but nowhere had I read that coughing was a part of a sustainable meditation practice. In fact, quite the opposite.
Sev…across the room, a young man who had had enough, stood up and walked out. Bad for him, good for me. One less meditator to worry about.
Along with my hopes, fears, compassion, shame, curiosity, and confusion, it seems as though I had brought my competitive nature. I was determined to win…win at meditation.
The cardiac operating room is a special place for me. Sometimes loud and violent. Other times delicate and precise. I like almost everything about the cardiac operating room. The size and shape. The sights, the sounds and the energy. I like how people look at each other, and what they say. I like the powerful history invoked every time a patient’s heart is fixed. It’s a hub for curiosity, innovation and collaboration. It’s not that I always like how I feel in the cardiac operating room, but rather that I feel.
There’s a space inside the cardiac operating room to where I’m particularly drawn. It’s a small space that has no particular landmarks or characteristic features. It’s a space that appears only after the patient has been sent off to sleep and safely tucked in, after the patient’s skin has been washed and the surgical drapes have covered all but where the incision will be made. A place in the operating room where I peer over and into the patient’s open chest. Where just on the other side is the surgeon and her assistant. No matter the chaos, it’s a place that has a stillness. As violent and raw as the operating room can become, there is a safety to this space that I’ve found nowhere else in my life.
I’m not religious, but if I were, I’d imagine that space might be my church. As an anesthesiologist, I’ve attended to this space cumulatively for years. It’s a place in which I’ve learned things about my colleagues, my patients and myself. Meaningful things. Tilts of the head, raises of the eyebrow, whispers, sighs, questions and sometimes answers. Even the silence in this space means something. Those present in this space, know. And when the sanctity of this space is violated, those present also know.
I continued to sit on my cushion. Not daily, but often. At first, I could only sit for three minutes at a time. I set a timer on my iPhone, so I’d know. I sat mostly at home, facing the wall, just as I had been told to do. With time, I could sit for five minutes, then 10 minutes, and sometimes even 20 minutes. As my endurance improved, I attended the local Zen Center more often. But I wasn’t feeling any different. Where were the results? My return on investment? I still peeked at the young woman who’s posture wasn’t as good as mine. I still gloated at the old man who couldn’t sit still. And I still basked in the glory of having out-sat the young man across from me.
On a recent overnight at the hospital, having relieved a colleague from an uneventful kidney transplantation, I pressed up against the surgical drape and peered over onto the surgical field. I was without judgement, without fear or anxiety. I felt safe. “The patient’s heart rate has been slowing over the past few hours,” I whispered to the surgeon, “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, just letting you know.”
“What did YOU do?!,” he snapped at me, “I didn’t do anything”, he said with disdain. My body froze and my ears rang. My entire body flushed, numb. I was between defense and shame. There was a violent ringing, like after being jerked awake by a cold splash of water, or stunned by an open hand slamming down on a table.
I breathed into the ringing. His words hung in the air, unchallenged.
They hung there long enough for both of us to hear them for what they were, and for both of use to understand from where they came. Fear, shame, frustration, anger. His and mine.
Was he really responding to me or what I had said? Maybe I looked like someone he had met the day before, or someone he had known many years ago. Maybe it was someone who had bullied him, or scolded him or shamed him. Maybe I looked like one of his elementary school classmates, or a high school football coach. Maybe I looked like his department Chair. Maybe I reminded him of his father.
And there the two of us were, likely feeling the very exact thing for very similar reasons. I didn’t peek, gloat or bask, as I had done on so many occasions from my cushion. I was silent, and so was he. There was a stillness, and in that stillness, we had both learned something about ourselves and about each other. I knew that at the very core, his pain was the exact same as mine, and I knew there was nothing for me to win. There was only that momentary connection founded in pain and facilitated by stillness.
I continue to sit on my cushion. Not daily, but often. There is a safety to my cushion that I’ve found almost nowhere else in my life.