Memoir 3rd Excerpt – Barbara Stowe

Taming Attention; Overcoming a Phobia; Pain Begins to Recede


I arrived home from Penticton in a heightened state. It felt like energy was pouring off my body. Sunlight was dancing rainbows off the prisms in the kitchen window as Joe and I sat down to talk. He was sipping cappucino from the beautiful footed-cup he’d made but I was too wired for caffeine and he could hardly get a word in edgewise as I babbled on and on about Pearson’s techniques.

His green eyes narrowed and his face took on a hard ness I’d rarely seen before.

“Snake oil!” he sneered.

Joe learns faster than anyone I’ve ever met. He’d learned me, that’s for sure. He knew how to make me laugh, when to wrap me in his arms to comfort me and how to end an argument before it turned ugly. But he couldn’t stop my pain, and I knew it must hurt that I’d left home for three days to consult a man whose methods Joe didn’t even believe in.

“It’s not snake oil!” I shot back, and to prove it I turned on the computer, opened youtube and found the recorded lectures assigned as education about how pain works.

Joe stood up and I thought he was going to storm out of the room. But he didn’t, and neither did he once sneer or scoff as we watched all three videos. The pain science was peppered with stories of patients Pearson’s hospital team had worked with. One, an elevator mechanic, had sustained such serious injuries when the elevator he was working on suddenly dropped six stories, he’d almost died.

“He did really, really well with our pain management program,” Pearson recounted. Eventually, the mechanic was able to return to work, and he was doing fine until he got a call for a repair job in the building where he’d had the accident.

“I walked into that building and the pain started,” he told the team. He walked out the front door, and it stopped. He walked back in, and his back tightened up again. He couldn’t believe that (as he put it) “an inanimate object can cause me pain”.

Stories like this helped shore up my new belief that persistent pain was not simply due to structural or tissue damage. They obviously changed Joe’s mind, too, because when we’d finished watching the talks he posted a link to them on his Facebook page with a respectful comment.

Knowing my husband “had my back” with this program was an immense relief. Now I could relax, feeling supported instead of battling disapproval. Now, I could begin to heal.

The heightened state continued. I felt blissed out, and joy muted pain. Strangely, though, this intensely pleasurable sensitivity could turn bliss itself turn into pain. Music hurt, and not just loud or discordant sound either but quiet melodic pieces that had always soothed me. Sound seemed to shatter the inner peace I’d found, and this sensory overload extended to conversation. When a friend came over I found it impossible to engage much in conversation, and after about half an hour I sent her away with an apology and retreated to lie down in a darkened room. Fortunately, this state soon receded, leaving only a pleasant lingering edge of awareness and sensitivity.

One morning, a stranger appeared in the neighbour’s backyard, doing Tai Chi. After he’d completed an elegant set, we chatted briefly over the fence. I’d done Tai Chi on and off for years but pain had stopped my practise, and I missed it.

“Divide your attention between your breath, body tension, your emotions and your thoughts,” Pearson had instructed. I took off my shoes. Barefoot in the cool grass, dew tickling my soles, I practised this awareness technique while doing a few moves, and began to see how breathing, thoughts, emotions and tension all played into the pain, and could heighten or lessen it. When I focused on pain, my body tightened and breathing became shallow and constricted. When pain permeated my thoughts, it got worse. I never thought I had a choice in all this. As the days went by, I continued to practise, and sometimes it felt like an exercise in frustration, but when I succeeded it was as if my world grew larger. Something bigger than me stood back and watched anger, helplessness and frustration arise, and pass away. Then I could wind the pain down a few notches instead of getting all wound up.

Not for long, though. My breath didn’t like being watched, my mind didn’t like being spied upon, I was inexperienced at this practise, and after awhile everything inside me would rebel and tense up. I was reminded of studying for exams in school, that focused concentration, and how when you study too hard you have to stop and let your attention wander where it will. But it was revelatory, and gave me hope.

“Notice, and let go,” the body scan CDs instructed. It was a surprise to discover that my attention clung like sticky tape to thoughts, emotions, pain, everything. In sporadic experiments into sitting meditation over four decades I’d never been able to just notice thoughts and emotional states and let them float by, but now I was starting to get a handle on it, and it felt like cheating! My idea of meditating was sitting upright cross-legged on the floor, not lying comfortably in a cosy bed, listening to a soothing voice! It was supposed to be hard, an achievement, the result of much struggle. It wasn’t supposed to be about comfort, relaxation and ease.

And yet, my deepest meditative experience to date had come effortlessly and unbidden when I was lying down, deeply relaxed.

It was all very confusing.

Letting go of feelings was far from easy. I’d always been proud of my feeling self. My ballet teacher had bestowed a rare compliment when I was a teenager. “Barbara has ‘feeling'”, she told the class, and I hugged those words deep inside to shore up an often bruised and battered ego.

Miss Lewis had graduated from the National Ballet of Canada school, notorious for discipline so rigid, it was whispered that those who went there often gave up dancing forever. Not Miss Lewis. She went on to dance with the company, and in the dressing rooms of ballet schools all over Vancouver it was muttered that if you wanted to really learn good technique, and didn’t mind having your ego destroyed, you should go to Miss Lewis.

Not only was she exceedingly stingy with praise, she frightened us. She even scared poor grey-haired Miss Walker, half-hidden behind the piano and clouds of cigarette smoke (invariably, there’d be a cigarette smoldering away in an ashtray on top of the old upright). When she played well, I’d soar higher in a grand jeté or balance effortlessly in arabesque. But when Miss Lewis barked a harsh command at her, Miss Walker would gracelessly plunk out a classical chestnut with shaking fingers, and my legs would cramp and burn as I fell out of a pirouette. Feeling was unreliable, a gift and a curse.

Now, I resisted letting go of my “gift” when it came to happiness. Every scrap of joy seemed to ease my way. Hadn’t Pearson himself said, “Joy is very important?” I found it in what he called “mindfulness”.

Nowadays, mindfulness is the new black, but in 2012 the word was hardly mainstream, and I’d never heard it until Pearson said it. Slow down and pay attention, was the instruction given, really pay attention to what you’re doing. Notice how it feels.

It seemed very self-indulgent to dwell on pleasure, but there was good science behind it. The brain could release endorphins and other powerful chemicals to dampen and even override pain. I went through my days in slow-mo, tuning in to the feeling of running water on my skin as I rinsed a dish, the “brrrrr” of a hummingbird and flash of its iridescent feathers at the feeder outside, the buttery crunch of a toasted English muffin. In slow-mo, every sensation was either pleasurable, or at the least, interesting, and pleasure and curiosity both diminished pain. My constant companion never left, but pleasure began to permeate my days, and I found myself wanting to explore this state deeper and deeper.

Pearson had said I could send the occasional note detailing progress, so I emailed him, extolling the bliss of mindfulness, and he wrote back: “Not everyone responds to the exercises like you do.” I felt great respect for those who travelled this road without benefit of the pleasure that was easing my journey. I knew I’d never have that kind of persistence, that willpower. It was humbling.

I was dutifully making a daily plan and following it, but there was one area I avoided. I did calming breaths, body awareness scans, yoga and gentle Tai Chi, but ignored the part about challenging fear.

Finally, after about six weeks, I faced it. What are you really afraid of? I asked myself one morning.

The answer came swiftly: wasps! Whenever one buzzed near I’d just scream and run. I was ashamed of myself, but fear just took over. I decided then and there that my challenge for the day would be to get a little closer to two large wasps that were crawling around on a table in the backyard.

But how? Just thinking about it made me shaky and chilled. I opened the door, but couldn’t force myself outside.

Pearson had agreed when I asked if I could substitute heart meditation for one of 5 daily calm breathing practises assigned. I lay down on the couch and began to imagine that my breath was entering the area around my heart and going out through my solar plexus.

I learned heart meditation in 2007, from a slim book I found in a local library. At the time, I was working with producers on a screenplay of mine that they’d optioned. They kept pressuring me to make changes I couldn’t stomach, we fought constantly, and I was going around in a rage all the time.

A novice screenwriter, I’d read that this “development hell” was par for the course, but had been hoping to somehow avoid it. It often had to do with money. Producers demand changes to make scripts more saleable to targeted backers. The more money backers put down, the more ownership they feel over the project, and then, they start demanding changes, too. All this can make a horrible stew out of a promising script.

I wasn’t used to being angry all the time, and I didn’t like it. The title, “Transforming Anger”, jumped out at me as I browsed, but the words “HeartMath Solution” in the subtitle dampened my enthusiasm. How could you mix hearts and math? Stupid, I thought contemptuously.

Nonetheless, I took the book home and began to do the exercises. The effect was profound. After just one practise, for the first time ever I felt completely calm and tranquil and at peace, happy just being, doing nothing.

As I continued to practise, extraordinary things began to happen. I quit my day job. I bought a painting of a bull. I’d never bought a painting before and was saving every penny, worrying about my future. I had no business buying art!

So my head warned, but I followed my heart instead, and when Joe hung the painting up in my writing studio, I understood. I’d been writing about my father, and kept hitting a wall. The bull was strong and masculine, with an appealing softness in his gaze.

“That’s my father,” I told Joe. “That bull. He’s come to help me.”

Heart meditation had opened the way to reconcile decades of conflicted feelings about this powerful, loving, brilliant lawyer-turned-environmentalist.

A few months later, I found myself sailing through the Aleutian Islands on a Greenpeace ship. My parents had co-founded this environmental organization, which operated out of our house in the early 1970s, and I’d long felt two ways about it. In my teens I fundraised, circulated petitions and (with artist LeRoy Jensen) produced the first Greenpeace t-shirts, but when I was 19 my father died and I ran away to New York, where no one had ever heard of Greenpeace. I was an artist at heart, not an activist, and while I could throw myself wholeheartedly into campaigns like the anti-nuke actions, others — such as ones to stop seal hunting — gave me such serious pause that I didn’t want to be identified with the organization at all.

I kept my distance as Greenpeace expanded into 40 countries. And then, in 2007, the Esperanza sailed into the Vancouver harbour and Captain Pete Willcox invited my mother and brother on board to dine with the crew. To my surprise, I found myself telling my mother: “No. Let’s host them, instead.”

On the day, as I cleaned and cooked, preparing for our dinner guests, I felt only calm and peace and gratitude. By early evening, as Mum prepared a salmon for broiling and I made guacamole, I knew there was only one thing that could possibly account for this change in attitude. My heart swelled absurdly towards these strangers who’d soon be trooping into our home.

In the living room that night, drinking Granville Island Pale Ale and sharing stories with Captain Willcox, I heard someone passionately begging to join the ship’s Bering Witness voyage. It took a stunned moment to realize the voice was mine.

Several months later, watching whales breach and blow in the Bering Sea, and seeing Greenpeace begin to repair relations with seal-hunting communities, I finally understood how people could hold deeply conflicting views and still engage with love and gratitude. I didn’t have to run away anymore. I could set the boundaries I needed. Heart meditation had given me all of this.

After 2007, though, the powerful effects of this meditation lessened and I gradually fell out of the habit.

Now, lying on the couch, I savoured once more that sense of connection heart meditation could inspire. A colour came up, a favorite shade of pink, and the sweet scent of summer roses drifted in through the open window. I focused on these pleasurable sensations, allowing them to expand, and brought to mind people I knew, infusing their images with this rosy glow. Five minutes later I was walking to the door. Taking a deep breath, I stepped outside.

Terror clamped my chest tight as I neared the loud, buzzing wasps, bumping against the table with agitated movements, but I refused to let fear win and forced myself to walk by just a little bit closer than usual.

It worked! A tiny victory, but now, whenever I stepped out the back door, I knew what to do. I got closer and closer each day, and instead of fear began to feel only tenderness. One morning I was startled to hear myself think: “Oh, darling wasps!”

“This is ridiculous!” an inner grump groused. There was a security guard in my brain who was so accustomed to protecting me with fear, he was now upset at being sidelined. Giggling, I told him he could stand down.

Next, I tried the same technique with spiders, confronting an even worse phobia. Instead of shouting for Joe to come and deal with them, I’d open my heart, put them in a container and take them outside. Challenging fear with love didn’t always erase an initial tinge of hysteria, but whenever I made a sincere effort to open my heart, lo and behold, fear fled.

This was huge and wonderful and scary. If heart meditation could affect such changes, what else might such practises do? I felt so grateful to the HeartMath authors, to Pearson, and for the ageless spiritual knowledge such wisdom was based upon. Jesus Christ and the Beatles had both said it: “All you need is love.” My head scoffed, but the healing of a phobia could not be so easily dismissed, and deep down, I knew it was true.

Months later, it would occur to me that when Pearson had told me to challenge my fears, he probably hadn’t meant all my fears. More likely he was talking about fears around movement, because moving hurt. But it didn’t matter, because challenging phobias gave the courage to tackle fears about movement, too.

I could walk — stroll — for maybe five minutes, ten on a good day, I decided to increase that by one minute per week. My goal would be to walk for 20 minutes, fast enough to break a sweat. This scared me silly, but I knew now that that feeling of fear was something I had to run towards, not away from. That tingle of adrenalized terror was my best friend. I had to embrace it if I was going to continue to get better.