Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bringing mindfulness to Fern Forest


Fern Forest Treehouse guest Jeff and I have at least one thing in common—we both have messed up hands. I broke my right wrist and shoulder in a fall down a flight of stairs. Why didn’t we have a nightlight in the bathroom like everyone else? It’s dark in Vermont in the middle of the night! Anyway, I’m healing. A week after the break I had surgery to put a titanium plate (with eight screws) into the wrist—the shoulder is on its own.

Jeff, on the other hand (pun intended), wasn’t so lucky. He was doing a semester of study in India, living with a family who spoke very little English. At a restaurant, a glass fell off a tray and with his quick reflexes, he grabbed for it. He grabbed so hard that the glass broke in his hand and severed a tendon. Medical care in the southern village where he lived was sketchy at best, and a doctor bandaged the hand and sent him home. He had little use of the hand for the next two months, and when he got back to the states his doctor dad took a look at the hand and sent him to a surgeon. He underwent surgery and physical therapy to get function back, and now the hand looks pretty good—except he’ll never be able to straighten his little finger again.

But a bum hand didn’t affect his mental acuity. He graduated college with a focus on neuroscience and has been working at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, where he met girlfriend Meghan, who joined him for a couple nights in the treehouse loft. Although she slept forty feet above the snow, Meghan is down to earth. She was captain of the Brown women’s soccer team and still likes to spring up and down the field. This vivacious blonde is completely unpretentious and good company. At McLean’s, which specializes in OCD patients, she runs a mindfulness workshop.

“How do you do that?” I asked.

“I might, for example, give each person a raisin. Then I’ll tell them to look at the raisin closely, to feel its texture, to smell it. Finally, they eat the raisin and describe its flavor, the way it feels in the mouth. I do the same thing with a penny—but they don’t eat it, of course.”

Being able to use only my left hand, I’m attempting to practice mindfulness myself, moving slowly and deliberately, thinking about every task in detail. You try it: tuck your dominant hand behind your back and spend a day--or even an hour--using only your nondominant hand. I guarantee you'll be mindful of every action. The raisin/penny trick's a good one, too.

Jeff and Meghan were with us for two nights. They took a long snowshoe in the woods, soaked in the spa, gazed at Mt. Abe, and wandered down to the Bobcat for a meal. I’m grateful for the work they’re doing with mental illness. They’ve each applied to twenty PhD programs. Megan is interested in clinical psychology, and Jeff wants to research how the body and mind respond to prescription drugs. They seem well suited for each other, and, since their four arms work just fine, I hope they land in schools where they can keep within arms’ reach.

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