“Today, doctors understand the brain’s ability to reorganize and rewire itself to compensate for traumatic brain injury. … But at the time of my accident, I’m told that my brain damage is permanent.”
AS I PULL OUT OF the parking garage in Los Angeles, I’m looking forward to the drive home to Encinitas. After three weeks in the city on a work project, I know that the 115-mile drive down the California coast—smelling the salty tang of the ocean air and listening to the roar of the surf against the shore—will invigorate me.
I head for the freeway, making a left at the first intersection. That’s when a woman runs the red light and rams into my car, pleating its side against my thigh. The impact spins me like a top. I hit three other cars, ricochet down the block, and come to a stop in front of an old stone church.
My consciousness instantly splits in two. My ego, rabid from the fear of annihilation, screams, while another voice inside my head—impatient, imperious—declares, “Who is this woman screaming and will she pul-eese shut up!”
The accident, which happened in 1997, leaves me with enough brain damage to blunt my ability to understand and communicate information. I lose 80 percent of my peripheral vision and a prodigious chunk of memory. I stutter. My sense of direction is erased; I get lost everywhere I go. When I go out—if I go out—I cup my hands over my eyes in an attempt to reduce my visual field so that the sights around me don’t overwhelm my brain. One day, during a neuropsych examination, I’m so agitated by my inability to complete some of the tests that I lash out at the technician and burst into tears. Still, I don’t consciously entertain that something is amiss. Such is the power of denial.
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“Meditation is the only thing I know of that has no inherent limitations, no pedantic judgment, no negative side effects, no dependence on technology.”
Today, doctors understand neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize and rewire itself to compensate for an injury. People with a traumatic brain injury like the one I had receive various kinds of therapy—physical, occupational, recreational, speech—to help their brains forge these new neural connections. But at the time of my accident, I’m told that my brain damage is permanent, a diagnosis that leaves me with an alchemical mix of emotions. There’s anger at being told I would never regain the brain function I lost, coupled with a sense of relief: I’m a clean slate, as if I am once again in my mother’s womb—unformed, waiting for the chance to express my potential (even though I’m not yet fully equipped to do so). But I do have three things going for me: a supportive neurologist, a fierce desire to reclaim my life, and my meditation practice.
Following Intuitive Guidance
I’ve been meditating since I was 21. It is the only thing I know of that has no inherent limitations, no pedantic judgment, no negative side effects, no dependence on technology. After my diagnosis, I make a plan to meditate for an hour each morning and evening, and follow the intuitive guidance I receive during this practice. I also see my neurologist monthly to discuss my progress.
While my meditation during this time holds little semblance of its former calm, concentration, or order, I anchor my practice in a passage from God Talks with Arjuna, Paramahansa Yogananda’s interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita: “To those who meditate on Me as their Very Own, ever united to Me by incessant worship, I supply their deficiencies and make permanent their gains.”
In the months following my accident, I also adopt a variety of other self-care practices. I take long walks by the ocean. I clean up my diet. I pray for guidance. In response to my prayers, I’m led to alternative modalities that mitigate my symptoms: a Brain Gym therapist who calms the stutter and my incessant struggle with word retrieval; a chiropractor who escorts me through layers of embedded PTSD images; a neuro-acupuncturist who restores most of my visual field; an osteopath who helps me strengthen my mind-body connection. My contribution to the process is to continue to meditate.
The Return to Tell the Story
Two years into my recovery, I decide to write a book about how women use their spiritual practice as a compass to navigate the dark nights in their lives. Though I struggle to string intelligible sentences together, I trust Krishna’s words in the Gita. God would “supply my deficiencies” and do whatever my brain could not.
Over the next two and a half years, I talk with 14 famous women—Sister Helen Prejean, Katherine Dunham, Zainab Salbi, and others—about how their personal relationship with the Divine informs their life. Keeping company with these women and editing their words remakes me. Giving them a forum to articulate their thoughts connects me more fully to my own voice.
My agent suggests I weave relevant bits and pieces of my own story into the book. It’s a scary proposition to go so public about having a brain injury. But I tell my story to bear witness to the boons and blessings of having a meditation practice, and to the refuge and faith that sustained commitment brings over time. I share my story to help people find the path through their story, and to extend an invitation to others to view the limitations of self and circumstance as an opportunity to awaken the richest possibilities within them.
The constancy of the process—the repetition and focus that writing and editing demands—becomes a means to “re-groove” the neural pathways in my brain, just as repeatedly taking the same route through a grassy meadow leaves a footpath for others to follow. It is neuroplasticity at its finest.
MARGARET WOLFF is an art therapist, retreat leader, and author of Coming Home: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda and In Sweet Company: Conversations with Extraordinary Women About Living a Spiritual Life. Visit ComingHomeStories.com. ■