Tomorrow, Oct. 10, is World Mental Health Day. My former employer is giving employees the day off, so I decided to observe it today as well. My daughter and I are going to spend this top 10 weather day canoeing on the St. Croix River – we just have to get our work done this morning!
I work hard to tend to my own mental health, and I definitely get out of whack sometimes (last week I was in a tizzy because a fourth-grade teacher was using the word “anxious” on an assignment, when she meant “eager.” It’s a little too spot on when the word that’s making you feel crazy is “ANXIOUS”!!!)
This story and lesson from Father Clay gets at the heart of my own work – recognizing the trauma that lives in our bodies – often without us even being aware of it. I’ve heard him tell this story a number of times, and it has always helped me to be gentler and more curious when my own reactions seem disproportionate to a situation, as well as when I see my kids struggle with a hardship.
Struggling with Fear, Healing with Meditation
I am going to give you an example from my own experiences of the struggles I have had with fear. Then I’ll talk about how slowly and over a long period of time, meditation can help to loosen our automatic response and allow us to have more compassion for ourselves and for others. We can become more open and less judgmental. The deep experience of meditation and centering prayer can bring this about and is, I think, what Jesus wanted us to have.
So this is my story, which shows what can happen, and how it affected me. I was six years old. I know how old I was because down in New Ulm – where we moved when I was in first grade – we lived in this one house for just one year. And that’s when it happened.
I was going to have my tonsils out. I am not sure what this meant to me, but I crawled under the bed and I wouldn’t get out from under there. My parents had to drag me out. They then took me to the hospital where I was put on the operating table. I don’t remember this part very well, but my parents told me it took six people to hold me down on the table. Just thing. Here I was, scared out of my wits. Trapped. Held down. Then they gave me ether. This I remember. When I was going under ether, something was spiraling up and up and up and then exploded. Well, when I came out of that I got ice cream, so I thought everything was fine. Yeah. Everything was fine. Hmmm.
Then I remember something happening to me when I was about eight while I was horsing around in bed with my brother. My youngest brother was pretty little then. While horsing around, if I would have my arms underneath the covers and when was on top of me I would panic. I didn’t have any idea as to why. If my arms were on top of the covers, it didn’t bother me, but under the covers, I just froze. I would have flashbacks – or were they dreams? I didn’t really know. It’s all somewhat hazy. But I would get this same feeling – this spiraling, spiraling, and then bang! Everything explodes.
Then this I do remember. I was still pretty little. I was sick with something and had a fever. I had this same experience, and this was not a dream. This must have been a flashback with this spiraling and spiraling, and then an explosion – very scary to me. I was talking to my dad, and he said, “What’s wrong?” Maybe I had screamed or something. I said, “Well, you know.” I didn’t have the words for it. I didn’t know what it was, so I couldn’t explain it to him. “You know, the accident.” My dad thought I was out of my mind and having some reaction to the fever.
It happened when I got older, too. I was a priest in Richfield at the time and was in my early to mid-30s. I played softball for the church softball team, slow pitch softball. The recreation department was going to discuss sports and other recreational things and invited me to come. So I sat down with them, which was not a big deal, but I was absolutely frozen. I just couldn’t talk. I was frozen. Toward the end of the meeting, the chairman said, “Father, don’t you have something to say?” I just shook my head.
I was totally frozen in fear. I wondered, What the heck is going on here? I couldn’t understand it.
Another time, maybe a few years later than that, I was helping give out communion and I started to have a panic attack. It came right out of the blue. I quickly ran over to the rectory and lay down, and it passed. Then during my second big depression (haven’t I led a strange life?), especially when I was saying mass, I would get a panic attack and it felt like I was going to pass out.
All those things just happened, and I never put it together. Just recently I was reading about the brain and meditation. A scientist who is also a psychologist said that “medical occasions” can cause these kinds of automatic reactions, especially tonsillectomy with ether.
So this single experience of getting my tonsils out under ether has made me feel inappropriately scared to death all my life. What happens is, when I think of something that might be somewhat scary, it triggers a reaction and I start to sweat. It might not even be that big a deal, but do you see what has happened? It’s all about the experience of getting my tonsils out. Thankfully, I am much better now.
Now, who would ever give a thought to that? It’s a kid, He’ll get over it. That’s baloney. It goes in. So let’s think about this. It could happen if a kid falls down the stairs. Just let him get up. He’ll be fine. But in the fall, maybe something changed in his brain. Do you see? When we begin to realize this, we can’t judge each other, because ewe don’t know. I didn’t know why I was acting so crazy. I know now, but I didn’t all that time.
Stop to think. We don’t necessarily have to remember back to the experience like I did. Fortunately, I was able to discover and understand the reasons for my fear. But thinking and responding automatically – and we all do this at times – is behind much of what we do, things that don’t make any sense, things that hurt ourselves and others. So this kind of limbic-based automatic thinking can cause addictions and other kinds of irrational behavior. I suggest that everyone here experiences some of this. That’s why it is so hard for us to be good and sometimes so easy to be bad.
Fortunately for me, some years back I discovered centering prayer and meditation. These tools are not a substitute for proper medical care, but they can help loosen our bonds and free us from our… automatic thinking and responses.
Centering prayer and meditation are important because they help us develop love and compassion for ourselves. And as our love and compassion grows for ourselves, it is growing for other people too. As it grows for other people, it comes back to us, back and forth, back and forth. That is why centering prayer and meditation is such an incredibly valuable tool. There’s a tendency to reject using it, because it goes against our automatic responses. We resist change and may think all this is crazy, and that’s okay – but it is valuable.
I encourage you to take a minute or two to try it on your own, right now. Just become aware, and aware that you are aware. Aware of what’s going on in your body, of what’s going on in your emotions and thoughts. Just be aware. The very fact of intending to be aware of these things helps the process. Be aware. What are you thinking right now? Don’t judge. That destroys it. Just say, Oh, I think Father is nuts. That’s okay. That’s all right Or, Yeah! That’s what I’m thinking. Father’s right on. That’s fine. It doesn’t make any difference. Or, That person next to me is really strange.
That’s okay. Just be with your awareness, whatever it is, the feelings, the body, the emotions, the thoughts, whatever. Just have the intention of being aware of what’s going on, and change will happen. Maybe not tomorrow or next month – you have to stick with it.
We can practice this kind of meditation even momentarily, whenever some thought comes to our mind, whether it makes sense or doesn’t. Just say, Oh, Yeah, that’s what I am thinking. Most of the time we don’t even pay attention. Gradually, as we get used to paying attention, we will do it routinely and will find that our responses are not so automatic.
I guess there’s one good thing about what happened to me when I was six. Yes, I got into trouble. I developed that damaging automatic response from the negative experience of my tonsillectomy. But as screwed up as I have been for a good part of my life, it helps me as a priest to see that I am just as screwed up as you are. Seeing that is very valuable. Maybe that’s what we ought to do in the training of priests, have everybody examine their automatic responses, I think that often we don’t even realize what’s happening, and that’s when we do damage.
Acquiring automatic thinking and responses is a natural part of growing up = and we need to overcome this automatic tendency. Fortunately, we have tools for that. Meditation and centering prayer have worked for me. The trick is to become aware of what we’re thinking, and what that thinking prompts us to do. It’s all about having a choice.
From the homily “Hard to Be Good, Easy to Be Bad” by Father John Clay, Awesome Love, (c) 2013