Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

A couple of weeks ago I went to Gaia House in Devon for a silent retreat. My experience of meditation is limited – our antenatal course last summer was called Mindful Breath Birthing and was rooted (obviously) in mindfulness, and since then I’ve tried to meditate for 10-20 minutes each day, with many missed days and many aborted attempts where any state of peace and quiet seemed far away. So it was with not a little trepidation that I set off for Devon, wondering what I’d let myself in for. I was terrified of the silence (surely it would be awkward and embarrassing!) and that I wouldn’t be able to meditate properly and would show myself up as a novice.

I arrived on Friday afternoon and immediately felt relaxed. Weird, right? Gaia House is in an old convent and I used to teach in a monastery school; I think I just like religious houses. It’s quite an ugly building on the outside but the gardens are stunning (and practical – they grow all their own food) and the rooms and corridors are airy and quiet. It’s all quiet! There are people there on long term personal retreat so even before a group retreat has started, a lot of the building is silent. It’s a lovely, warm silence though. I had the afternoon to explore a bit which I was glad of as it made me feel more at home. The lounge is silent and is a beautiful, light, warm room. There were always people sitting there in front of the enormous windows, meditating or thinking or napping. The library is gorgeous (I want a library at home. Badly.) and similarly peaceful. On group retreats you’re not allowed to read but personal retreatants can do so if they wish. The dining room is large and bright, with white stone walls and big tables and benches. There’s a permanent tea/coffee station so you can help yourself whenever you need a drink, and I was relieved that there was caffeine on offer as well as plenty of herbal teas!

I was in a dorm of six women and over the course of the afternoon they all arrived and we were able to chat and get to know each other a little bit. One of the things I’d worried about was sharing a room with people I didn’t know and not being able to talk to them and so get to trust them, so it was nice to have the opportunity to talk to each other and find out what had brought each of us there. Strangely, three of us had been to the same university and done the same course, but at different times!

Supper was served in the early evening and was delicious. In fact, all the food was delicious. I had been worried (again – yes, I’d worried about a lot!) that the food would be awful because, frankly, I had visions of school dinners, but it was seriously good. It’s all vegetarian (and largely vegan) and all home grown. Amazing. I am not a wonderful cook and it was a revelation to me that vegetarian food can be so varied and so good. The food is all put out on a central table and people just help themselves – in the mornings the breakfast was enormous pots of porridge which was miraculously brilliant and not gloopy like it usually is when made in vast quantities, with loads of different toppings – local honey, homemade jam, nuts, seeds etc. Yum. Anyway, I digress. Foooood…

After supper we went to the meditation hall for the opening talk, which was mainly practicalities and introductions. The teacher was Yanai Postelnik, who is apparently quite famous in his field, not that I knew that at the time, and he was very warm and friendly. We had one sit of about half an hour (I picked a chair rather than a mat) and the silence started. Yanai said to us that it was ok to smile at people and be friendly while silent but it was also ok to not want to look at people at all, and so not to be offended if someone didn’t make eye contact with you, which was nice to hear as I was wondering about how social niceties would work when noone could talk. On leaving the hall at about 9.30pm I went to my bedroom/dorm and pretty much went straight to sleep. The other women in the room did the same and it felt quite companiable and not awkward like I had feared.

The whole of Saturday and the Sunday morning were spent meditating. Bear in mind I’d done a maximum of about 20 minutes at a time of guided meditation before this, and now I had 45 minutes of sitting followed by 45 minutes of walking followed by 45 minutes of sitting…and repeat. Nearly all unguided. There was also working meditation (washing up in my case) but that was only once a day. Otherwise it was sit, walk, sit, walk, occasionally stand, sit, walk…plus meals of course. This was seriously bloody hard. My bum was so numb by the end of some sessions that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand. I switched around between the floor and a chair to try and keep my circulation going and tried desperately to meditate through the discomfort. There were 70 year olds in there who sat on the floor cross legged all weekend for God’s sake, and I could hardly sit in a chair for 45 minutes without my mind wandering off to whether this kind of back pain could be considered torture! I had flashes of peace and wonderful moments of pure tranquility and then my mind would realise that I was doing it and I’d mentally congratulate myself and so ruin it. I spent whole sessions day-dreaming and trying not to, getting increasingly frustrated with my internal inability to shut the fuck up. I missed my husband and children. I sat there with my eyes closed and wondered what they were doing and whether they missed me and I had a few tears about why I was so far from home, doing something so hard that I clearly wasn’t cut out for. I had been worried about the silence – my God the silence was the easy bit! The silence was wonderful. The meditation was fucking. hard.

And then, late on the Saturday I sat down to meditate and it just clicked. I closed my eyes and then the bell rang and it was over – and in the 45 minutes between the two I was totally at peace, just gently watching my mind. I don’t think I really understood what meditation was before that, despite the fact that I’ve been attempting it regularly for almost a year. When the bell rang I found myself sitting with a massive, ridiculous grin on my face and tears rolling down my cheeks. I wish I could achieve that every time, but I fear I have a very, very long way to go before that’ll happen!

On the Saturday night there was a Dharma talk from Yanai that was really interesting. Obviously meditation has its roots in Buddhism – and I am not a Buddhist! – but he took the philosophy and made it really universal and fascinating, regardless of personal beliefs (or lack thereof). I definitely want to learn more about Buddhism now. There was also the opportunity to have a meeting with Yanai (and briefly break silence) to ask any questions, should you want to.

There were a few moments each day where we were ‘off timetable’ so to speak, and because we couldn’t read or craft or talk (!), I either went for walks or napped or simply sat on my bed and looked out of the window. There were branches right outside that knocked against the window a little when the wind blew, in vaguely Wuthering Heights style, and I stared at them and their thorns for what seemed like hours over the course of the weekend.

On the Sunday afternoon we had a closing talk and the silence was lifted. I didn’t want it to end – it’s amazing how peaceful and clear everything is when noone feels they have to talk. I turned my phone on – I had 2 missed calls (from 2am!), 3 texts, 4 WhatsApp messages, 3 Facebook Messages, 28 emails and 31 Facebook notifications. Most of them were junk. What madness that we are so constantly ‘notified’ of things other people say and the majority of the time, it’s completely unnecessary.

We packed up our room and chatted about our experience of the weekend and as I stripped my bed I looked out of the window and realised that the thorns I’d been staring at all weekend weren’t thorns at all, they were little green shoots. And maybe it was because I’d spent the weekend (and the year) attempting to find meaning and peace and a way to grow, but it felt like a metaphor.


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So while I’m here I thought I’d put up my birth story, which I wrote recently.  It’s long.  Sorry.

When I gave birth to E it was quite traumatic: it started with my waters going, I contracted for about 3 days, was eventually induced via the drip with a failed epidural and she got stuck at the shoulders and had to be hauled out in an emergency procedure. As well as the fact that she almost died, which was completely terrifying, the more I looked back on it the more I found the whole ordeal humiliating and infantilising. I didn’t trust my body and neither did the medical professionals, rightly or wrongly, and despite learning hypnobirthing exercises while pregnant, in the event I only found them useful for the early stages of labour, before I was told I had to be induced. I was determined that with my second birth things would be different!

We attended an antenatal class called Mindful Breath Birthing which at first seemed extremely hippyish but which we ended up finding invaluable. The basic premise was that if you were mindful and in the moment, experiencing each contraction and breathing through it without engaging through thinking, things would unfold as easily as they could as all the right hormones would be present. Calm and relaxed equals oxytocin flowing and a body that does what it’s made to do, while stressed, fearful and thinking equals a body that’s hampered by too much adrenaline and less likely to work properly. Obviously none of this accounts for emergencies with the baby, but I definitely felt that with E’s birth I had felt under so much pressure to give birth within a certain time frame due to my waters having gone that I was almost certainly too stressed and frightened for it to happen. If I hadn’t been so stressed, perhaps I would have laboured more quickly, not been induced, not been on my back with an epidural and not had shoulder dystocia.

The other thing we did differently this time around was to hire a doula, M. E’s birth had been traumatic for all of us, not just me, and at one point J had ended up literally shoved into a corner by doctors and midwives where he was left to try and see what was happening, convinced our baby had died or was dying. We wanted to have someone else there who we could trust had our best interests, and only our best interests, at heart. Midwives and doctors and nurses are amazing but they’re bound by the legal interests of the hospital as well as their commitment to the patient. Doulas are there purely to offer emotional and practical support. They don’t offer medical advice or get in the way of the professionals, but they protect the birthing mother’s space in a way that it’s difficult for the parents themselves to do when under pressure, in pain, or frightened. Over the weeks before the birth M helped me as I battled the hospital’s (wrong) diagnosis of gestational diabetes, attended emotional meetings with me where I was talked out of a home birth by midwives convinced this birth too would end in shoulder dystocia, hugged me when I was upset and provided constant, gentle support.

I had awful PGP in the final weeks of my pregnancy and on the 12th I had slipped in the bathroom and done the splits, which would have been painful enough at the best of times, much less when 41 weeks pregnant and suffering pelvic girdle pain. On the morning of the 13th I had been very relieved to get E into nursery for an extra day, so I could take the day off from toddler duty and just lie down attempting to get comfy. At about 5.30pm, lying on our bed I suddenly felt the tell tale ‘pop’, stood up and felt a familiar gush of waters. I managed to waddle to the bathroom but had forgotten that once they go, they keep going! I called J to tell him that things were starting, and he was about to finish work anyway and pick up E so he did that and got home by 6.30. I also texted M to alert her as she had her own childcare to sort out, but said that I didn’t know how quickly things would progress so not to come round yet. At 6 my contractions started but they were very mild and easily breathed through, so I didn’t consider them ‘real’ labour. When J got home he put the TENS machine on for me, as it works better if it’s on from early labour, and I called A, who was going to come and look after E for us if we had to go to hospital in the night. I told her not to come yet as we didn’t know whether we’d be going in that night at all, and it was her husband’s birthday! She completely ignored me and got in the car, so was with us by about 7.15, which turned out to be a very good instinct of hers. She and J gave E tea and put her to bed and at 8 I moved into the bathroom as the contractions were coming quite regularly now, about 3 in 10 minutes, though they were still relatively mild. I wanted to kneel and lean over my ball so the bathroom seemed the easiest place to be, as well as easily wipeable! I texted M again to say they were coming quite regularly now and she was with us by 8.15.

I was using the boost button during contractions and M brought candles, rubbed my back and gave me Clary Sage and Frankincense on flannels to sniff, as they’re both supposed to encourage the body to stay in labour once it’s started. She talked when I wanted to but was otherwise a quiet, calm presence. It was really comforting for me to have her there, and it also meant J could go off and do things like eat, pack up what we needed and not have to be with me all the time. At about 8.45 she asked whether I thought I’d like to go hospital but I was convinced that I wasn’t in full blown labour, despite the now very regular contractions, purely because the pain was so manageable. I remembered with E feeling like I was going to die of pain (!) and this was nothing like that. I said that I really didn’t want to go in only to be sent home again, and that I’d rather stay at home for as long as possible. At 9, with me getting quite a lot more vocal as I was doing a sort of loud hum through the contractions by now, she said that she thought if we were going to go to hospital, we should really go soon. In retrospect I realise that she and J were trying to convince me for a little while! I agreed as the contractions were feeling more intense now, and J called to tell them we were coming and packed the car while I went to the loo (which I was relieved about as a full bladder can get in the way of labour) and rocked through the contractions.

The drive to hospital was only 10 minutes (over a million speed bumps) and we were there by about 9.30. I was slightly annoyed because they initially took us into one room and then changed their minds because the lights didn’t work well enough – which I rather thought they could have checked out before we arrived – but very quickly we were in another room and M had turned the lights out for me anyway! One of the reasons I’m so glad we had her with us is that she made our birth plan just happen. It all seemed to fall into place and I didn’t even have to say a word; I had been worried that I would have to argue for some of it but she just quietly made things happen and I didn’t have to think about them at all. So the lights were extremely low, there were candles, everybody whispered, I had no vaginal examinations (something I had been certain I’d have to have an argument with the midwife about), I wasn’t coached to push and the midwife, F, barely spoke. I was completely free to focus on my breath and be mindful and in the moment. The contractions really stepped up as soon as we were in the room (testament to how relaxed I was feeling I think) and I was leaning over the back of a sofa, beginning to feel a bit ‘pushy.’ There was one moment in particular where I felt like I was getting out of control and I shouted ‘I can’t do it!’ and M was right there, pushing down firmly on my lower back and saying quietly, ‘you are doing it.’ It was exactly what I needed to hear and I had a funny little out of body moment where I suddenly thought, ‘I am in transition!’ Which was quite encouraging really, as it meant I had to finally realise that this really was labour.

By 9.45ish the pool was ready and I asked J and M to take off my TENS pads. I didn’t realise at the time, but they actually managed to electrocute themselves while doing this as they forgot to turn it off first – and it was up at full whack by this point! Once it was off I got in the pool and was able to start using gas and air to help with the pain. I don’t think it actually dulls the pain but it does a good job of distracting from it and it made me feel a bit woozy in quite a pleasant way. I tried a few different positions in the pool, which was a bit disappointingly shallow. I wanted to be on all fours as much as possible so I leant on the edge and kneeled. The next day my chin really hurt and I realised that when I was pushing in that position I’d managed to bruise it on the tiles. M was there with cool flannels and sips of water whenever I needed them, and J held my hand and kept whispering encouragement. The midwife wanted to check the baby’s heartbeat between contractions (and in retrospect was clearly quite scared about me being in the pool, given E’s birth, but she didn’t say a word at the time which I’m very grateful for) and I got a bit irritated because it meant I kept having to move back so she could get the doppler onto my stomach, so I switched to a sort of lying on my back position, where J and M held one hand on either side and I floated, pushing and squeezing their hands for support and something to press against. Each time I pushed my whole body and head bobbed down under the water a bit and M said afterwards that at one point she and J looked at each other and shared a ‘hope she doesn’t drown’ look! I still had the gas and air at this point and after I’d been pushing for a bit the midwife suggested I stop using it as it was making my pushing less effective. I was a bit reluctant to give it up but she was absolutely right because as soon as I stopped using it I was able to be much more mindful again and really focus on pushing. Part of me wishes I hadn’t used it at all as I think he’d have been born sooner, but it was nice at the time so I don’t regret it.

My pushing got a lot stronger and, just like with E, I felt that my body was sort of doing it without me. I could feel everything moving him down and the midwife could see his head but he wasn’t actually moving out. I didn’t think about shoulder dystocia at all (thankfully, as I’m sure if I’d thought about it I’d have freaked out and it would have all gone wrong) but I think J, M and F were all thinking about it. If it had happened I’d have had to get out of the pool to attempt to deliver. A woman from the antenatal course had told us the story that when she had her second baby he wasn’t moving out and she turned onto her left side and he was born, which suddenly popped into my head and I turned onto my left. J was holding both my hands, M was holding my right knee up and F had her little torch out but wasn’t touching me when all of a sudden, with one big push and me shouting ‘it stings!’ H swam into the world at 11.07pm. I couldn’t believe it! F guided him to the surface and into my arms. At some point a second midwife had come into the room and sat quietly in a corner; I only noticed when she just as quietly got up and left. No shoulder dystocia, no trauma, no emergency at all – I don’t think I’d really believed it was possible until it happened. The whole thing took less than 6 hours.

M continued to work her magic and J, H and I were left alone in the peaceful, calm dark for a good while, just staring at each other, having skin to skin and laughing and crying, just as we’d asked to happen on our birth plan. Eventually F came over and said the cord had stopped pulsating so we could cut it now if we were ready – she did ask if J or I wanted to but neither of us could quite bring ourselves to! The lights were all left low and the atmosphere was lovely. After I guess about half an hour I wanted to get out, so she helped me out of the pool and I sat on a recliner chair with H. She was doing some paperwork, M was tidying up her bits and pieces and J was picking up my clothes from the floor when I suddenly felt a bit pushy again so I just shifted slightly to the front of the chair and all of a sudden the placenta pretty much fell out of me – absolutely perfectly into a cardboard bowl that F had left there. It was weirdly funny at the time as it was so quick and I don’t think anyone expected me to accidentally ‘aim’ so well! She was quite excited by the fact that the third stage was natural as she was newly qualified and in her whole training she’d only ever seen women birth the placenta with the injection. It was also the first birth at which she’d ever met a doula, and it was her birthday! Once the placenta was out and we’d turned the lights up she got quite chatty and was absolutely lovely. I’m so grateful to her that she was willing to go with our hippyish ways and take the lead from M in terms of the birth plan – I think we were very lucky to get someone so amenable and so kind.

After a little more cuddling and some initial attempts to get H to breastfeed F examined me where I was sitting in the chair and said I’d need some stitches, so we ‘transferred’ across the corridor to the more medicalised rooms with beds, and she said I had a second degree tear and stitched me up. As with E’s birth the local anaesthetic didn’t work so I had gas and air for the stitching, which wasn’t too bad. M held my hand and J held baby H! Then M gave me a banana and a breakfast type bar, as it was about 2am and I hadn’t eaten tea and was starving, and we had lots more skin to skin and breastfeeding attempts. We could hear a woman next door screaming in pain and F said she was having a difficult birth but had a needle aversion so wasn’t having any pain relief. I felt awful for her – I wish she’d had a doula to calm her! M went home to get some sleep after giving me a witch hazel spray for my maternity pads and some herbal stuff for the bath to promote healing, F cleaned up and weighed H in at 8lbs 15ozs (on our birth plan we’d asked for him to not be taken off for cleaning and weighing until there had been lots of opportunity for skin to skin) and I had a shower while J had more baby cuddles. Then H had his first dose of vitamin K, which we wanted him to have orally rather than by injection. The final thing on our birth plan was that we didn’t want to be in hospital for any longer than absolutely necessary, and at about 4am F came and said we could go home once she’d finished up the paperwork. By 5am we were at home and at 7am E woke up, came into our room and said, ‘that’s my baby brother!’

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