I went for an MRI last week. After all the talk (Osteopaths, Physiotherapists etc etc) of needing one I’d never really considered how it would feel to suddenly be having one. I’m somewhat claustrophobic and I’ve heard so many people talk about how horrendous they are. The tiny confined space, the cold, the lack of air, the loneliness in the room and the thunderous, clanging noise. I once came pretty close to a panic attack cocooned in a warm papaya wrap in Thai spa. That feeling of being trapped, everything cloying and close, is overwhelming and, unable to calm myself by taking deep breaths because the wrap was tight, I freaked out. Luckily I called, they heard, and I was released. When the specialist told me I’d be having an MRI in two days time that memory came hurtling at me like an express train.
But in those subsequent two days I experienced a new level of how powerful Vipassana meditation and Bikram yoga have been in my life.
Each time I thought about having to go into that tiny tunnel and be surrounded by that all-consuming noise, I could feel a panic rising. The first few times my face would get hot, or my heartbeat would quicken but it wouldn’t last long. Soon though, the panic felt far away, it was there but in the distance, on the periphery. And before it got close enough for me to engage, it dissipated. It was as if all the equanimity and non-reaction I’d ever practised had distilled into one concentrated moment and it just happened in the background without me needing to choose it.
When the time came to lie still inside the tunnel a wave of hot panic brushed across my skin. I asked myself whether I wanted to engage with the hot panic and completely flip out. Or not. But before I could even finish asking myself the question, the sensation had dissolved. Each time that sensation arose, it took less time to dissolve, and it was happening without me actively practising it.
I had chosen classical music and spent the first few minutes replaying my colleague Lee, a tall well-built guy, doing ballet in a club. It’s how he dances and his joyful star child freedom always tickles me. It fulfilled its intended purpose and made me smile.
And then, as the noise increased I practised Vipassana.
Pretty soon I couldn’t find my edges. It’s a strangely comforting feeling. It’s not like there are no edges, it’s just that they expand and it becomes hard to decipher where you end and whatever’s next starts. There was no absolute edge to me and therefore no tunnel wall. The noise was inside me, outside of me, it was me. I breathed with it. By no means was I far away in la la land; I was acutely present and could hear and feel everything. The heat around my lower back and hips; the heat under my shoulder blades; the cold air on my feet; the distance between my mouth and the roof; every clunk chunk and whirr; my heartbeat; the panic ball in the palm of my hand, a part of my hand. I heard every word the radiographer said. It was all there, I was all there, I just wasn’t reacting to any of it.
The hot room will have prepared me for this too. You deal with so much in there – from the overwhelming heat, to the I-can’t-even-get-a-sweat-on cold: the fidgeting, the mind talk, the emotion, the humidity, too many people, the cloying closeness – that if you can take control of your mind inside the hot room, you really can take control of your life outside of the hot room. You learn to just deal with whatever happens in there. It may very well be too hot, tomorrow it will be too cold. It is what it is. You accept it and stay present and focussed.
After 30 minutes it was over and whilst I felt quite calm inside, I noticed that I was shaking a little. Five or six years ago I would have been totally unhinged and had a meltdown at the thought of an MRI. Thanks to meditation and Bikram yoga, last week I totally didn’t.