With 84% of those in education admitting to suffering mental health issues, meditation has become a key technique for many of us to help deal with stress and anxiety. Here Vanessa Potter, who over the course of 72 hours in 2012, dramatically lost her sight, explains how she used mediation and visualisation to cope and aid her recovery.
An overhead fan whirrs softly above my head, breathing a cool breeze over my skin and tickling the hairs on my arms. Sliding myself lazily off the bed, I tiptoe out of the wooden cabin that houses my sleeping family, and closing the door behind me, dig my feet deep into the warm sand that spans as far as the eye can see. As I pause here for a moment, I feel utter contentment. The early morning light is golden, a warm orange glow that hints at the hot day yet to come. There is a delicious freshness in the air, the sense of utter solitude and safety. My beach is deserted and beautiful, and as I slowly rotate my head around it paints my mind with colour…
‘Mum!’ I hear a shout from downstairs and reluctantly drag my mind back to my bedroom where I am sitting on the floor. ‘Mum!’ the voice yells again, becoming more insistent. Pulling my earphones out and switching off my Mp3 player, I open my eyes and leave my beach, the wispy memory still hovering somewhere in my mind’s eye, and return to the present.
I have used a variety of visualisation and meditation techniques for over 16 years on and off, and as I have grown older I can see how they have become interwoven into the strata of my life. These coping mechanisms were put to the ultimate test in 2012 when, out of the blue, I went blind. I had two small children under five at the time, and the rare neurological illness that wiped out my sight knocked my family and me for six. Lying in a hospital bed watching a thin crack of light slowly diminish into nothingness was horrifying. It took three days for my sight to go completely, and when it did I stared out disbelievingly into a black, suffocating abyss.
However, as my physical sight diminished, my inner sight took on a new strength. The circumstances I found myself in were so frightening that without conscious thought I transported myself mentally to this mystical and nourishing beach. Here I could see and breath freely again. Doing this regularly stimulated my visual system to conjure up a psychedelic sanctuary, and in truth you could say my beach saved me.
I didn't just use visualisation techniques, I also used breathing techniques, such as golden thread breath (a yogic breath commonly used in antenatal practices), and self-hypnosis. I commanded my body to relax, and to counter the fight-or-flight response that fear had triggered. Panic coursed through my body in unpredictable waves, but by using slow breathing I could mentally return to my beach, and my body would quickly relax and the maelstrom that was blowing a gale inside my head would subside – for a while at least. The slow breathing exercises even reduced the tremors that overtook my body at the peak of my illness. My nervous system was on red alert, yet I had resources lying dormant inside of me that could counter it.
The funny thing is I did all of this without knowing it. Little did I know that these mental skills (resulting from visits to Buddhist retreats and from attending meditation classes long before mindfulness became a buzz word) would prove to be so incredibly helpful. My body and mind knew what to do, and reminded me that I didn’t need fear – it was my choice how I responded to events in my life – even hideous ones.
I was cared for by a team of amazing specialists in hospital, and having my family with me 24 hours a day was also a big part of my recovery. All in all, it took a year for my sight to return to what it is today. It’s still not perfect, but I’m just grateful I can see my kids again.
Most of the time I remember to meditate on a daily basis, but the breathing reflexes are there all of the time. They’re just that – reflexes. If a stressful moment pops up, so does my breathing, and it’s like I am suddenly aware of where I am and of the negative spiral of thoughts I was caught up in. Nowadays, the breathing starts before I have even realised I am getting stressed, which blows me away. The human brain is really rather clever when you train it to help you.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be meditating daily now if I hadn’t had tangible evidence myself of how it could help me. Back in my 20s and 30s when I was experimenting with meditation I had no idea what effects it was having upon my brain. Yet, without realising it, I had built up a valuable arsenal. What I have come to realise, is that you don’t need a formal, dedicated practice – you don’t need to become a cross-legged, kaftan-wearing recluse to utilise these skills – and they are skills. I think that part sometimes gets missed in all of the media hype surrounding mindfulness today. All you need is an inclination. Mindfulness teachers call this an intention. What they really mean is you only need to try – to dabble – and there is no success or failure, you just need to do it.
Basically, I feel better when I meditate now, and I miss it when I don’t. I would never have dreamt that sitting still with my swirling, jumbled up thoughts could be so grounding, but it is. I just let the thoughts come, and gently step back from them, observing quietly, but not getting involved. That’s pretty much it. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just the doing it that counts. You never know when you might need it.
Vanessa Potter has written about her experiences in her new book Patient H69 which is available now from Bloomsbury. Enter PATIENT at the checkout to receive 30% discount.