Shelly Gill Murray | 01.29.21
Heading to my cabin in Wisconsin, I passed the Franconia Sculpture Park in an unmown hay field adjacent to County Road 8. Among its giant recycled material sculptures, one installation is a pair of road signs. The first, outlined in red, says, “I worried.” The other, shaped like a highway sign, says, “I saw that worrying came to nothing.”
Being a kidney transplant recipient with a suppressed immune system since age 16 gave me plenty to worry about. In 2009, when my transplanted kidney began to fail after 28 years, I suffered from tangential illnesses—little things warning me of bigger problems trying to surface. A tweak of medication would balance things out for a short time before another problem arose. It was like patching holes on a swimming pool air mattress—once the hole is repaired, another breaks open.
My Body Was Dying
Every time the lab checked my blood levels for proteins, potassium and kidney function, one was too high or too low, forcing me to eliminate more foods from my diet. Because healthy foods like vegetables and proteins carry the most nutrients and require more work for my body, they had to be eliminated. My body was dying, and the recommended fix was minimal amounts of unhealthy food! If I hadn’t been so damn exhausted, the whole situation would’ve seemed funny.
Despite my deflating air mattress body, I tried to keep up with my running routine, just to feel normal. I’m a runner in every sense of the word. The endorphins from daily three-mile runs give me a punch like caffeine and center me for the day. For 35 years I have relished the release of sweat, breath of fresh air, and forward motion because they lower my stress. I’m also productive—my mind focuses with the music and rhythm of each stride. In fact, I formed the words on this page during a run.
You Need a Transplant
Once you are a runner, it’s hard to be anything else—even when your focused mind is not very settled. One day my regular nephrologist was out of town, so I met with a new one. He reviewed my chart and noted that I was living on 3 percent kidney function. He fixed his knowing eyes on me and said, gently, but emphatically, “There is nothing more we can do for this kidney. You need a transplant.”
It was a gut punch that had me wishing for my regular nephrologist. But it was what I needed for my mind to finally accept what my body was telling it. My Scandinavian roots insisted, “I am fine.” My driven self believed, “I can make this last a few more years.” Neither was right. I was trying to outrun the fear instead of focusing on the new life that awaited me.
Ten years later, new kidney functioning well, I have come to realize that you can either run away from something or run toward it. After my daughter’s 2020 high school graduation, months of pandemic-related sheltering in place and the eventual start of college for my “baby,” I became an empty nester.
I decided to spend some time at our cabin where I felt the winds of time whisking me into a new season of my life. The lake was turning over and algae bloom formed a pea soup film. One afternoon as my sister steered our pontoon up to the dock, I hopped off with rope in hand, pulling the pontoon in to tie it up.
As the pontoon began to pivot away from the dock, I reached for the side, but instead fell to the bottom of the lake, plopping onto the muck and overgrown weeds. Bobbing to the surface, I was as astonished as my dog, who stared at me from the front of the boat as if even she knew it was past swimming season. I have docked this pontoon a thousand times and never fallen in!
Loving Kindness Meditation
Two weeks later, I crashed my bike within a block of my house. I am not a clumsy person, but I was clearly feeling off balance. My empty house, the pandemic, racial unrest, and a contentious election made everything seem off balance. For the first time in 20 years, I felt untethered like a pivoting pontoon.
What to do with all this angst? “Learn to meditate,” said everyone I know, “Get your mindset right.” I could no longer run from what seemed like deafening silence. I needed to find a way to pass through the porous boundary between anxious loneliness and peaceful solitude. So, I committed to a month of meditation using a Loving Kindness Meditation: “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from all pain.”
Backed by Research
I chose a meditation featured in a study by University of Minnesota researchers in which CaringBridge users reported less stress and more emotional wellbeing after three weeks. That sounded encouraging.
Although a meditation novice, I understood repetition and breathing to be the key, while focusing on yourself at the center. Then, like growth rings on a tree, you build on the circle by adding one for your loved ones, then acquaintances, then strangers, then the greater world. Each ring provides another source of protection, depth and support for your inner self. How hard could it be?
Day 1: I repeated the meditation until I added enough rings to grow a Redwood that a 1965 Buick Electra could drive through. My mind couldn’t settle. Being inactive is hard as hell for me. I repeated “trust the process” and began again the next day.
Day 2: I noticed what my body was doing. I breathed in and out while loosely resting my wrists on the chair, palms facing up. I noticed my hands were open, welcoming. My arms relaxed, my feet firmly on the floor. As I breathed, I felt my muscles relax, depleting my aches. I kept my mind focused on the exercise by touching a thumb to each finger as I said, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free of all pain,” to myself, my family, my neighbors, strangers, all creatures, the cosmos. Then I grasped at each individual star, hoping my anxious thoughts would disappear, but they didn’t. I thought, “How long does this process take? Running is fast, meditation is slow. I guess that’s why they called it a ‘practice.'”
By Day 23, patience, a byproduct of meditation, paid off. As I reached the greater rings on the circle of life around me, I felt calm. My emotions radiated out like warmth to the world. I used the words to reorient myself and let all thoughts come and go, dissipating like the ripples formed when a stone is thrown into the lake.
Helping Your Mind Breathe
Meditation teaches your mind to breathe. Meditation directs you back to a silence of graceful solitude. Like roots on a tree, planting your feet on the ground once a day increases your resiliency when physical and emotional challenges arise.
Finally, meditation liberates you from the need to run from what’s weighing on your mind. I can’t stop a pandemic, make the world anti-racist, or turn off the machine of politics. But for my empty nest life, I will breathe my way out of harmful participation into compassionate activism. If you practice, as the sign says, worrying does come to nothing.
About the Research
Since 2015, scientists from research institutions including the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic have been studying the effects on CaringBridge users who have participated in such practices as a loving kindness meditation, gratitude practice, reflective writing and spiritual support.
In a research study on Loving Kindness Meditation that was conducted on CaringBridge by Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, RN, FAAN and colleagues, participants who engaged in a 21-day meditation showed statistically significant reductions in stress as well as increases in self-compassion and social connection. Dr. Kreitzer is also on the advisory panel for How We Heal, an ongoing project by CaringBridge.
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