Meditation, Medicine & ReWiring My Brain
On March 3rd two neurosurgeons made an incision into the back of my head. With that cut they began what would be a fourteen hour surgery to remove a tumor the size of a small child’s fist from atop my brain stem. It was not an easy process. It required a level of focus and patience that few people have to ease past the various lobes and nerve bundles of my brain to then slice away at a white mass that was now two inches in size. Theirs was an exacting process that removed one micro-thin slice of tumor at a time and then extracted each through a hole that was smaller than the size of a small pea.
One would almost have to say it was a living meditation of mindful work, meditation that lasted longer than the longest day of the year. While it is not something that I would wish upon anyone, in some ways I look at it as a gift that gave me a window into the inner-workings of the brain and what it takes to re-wire that magnificent organ that few people have been blessed to witness.
The neurosurgeons who performed this operation are Dr. Golfinos and Dr. Sen from NYU. One is the Chair of the NYU Langone Neurological Center. The other is the Vice Chair of Education and the Director of the Benign Brain Tumor and Cranial Nerve Program. Both are deep brain specialists.
Having lived through eight craniotomies in the past twenty years I can say with some level of experience that they happen to be two of the finest neurosurgeons I have ever met.
The neurosurgeons started their work at seven o’clock on Monday morning. Their work actually started weeks before then, but it was their incision that opened a door into the back of my head and began me on my journey. That incision was followed with the opening of a much smaller aperture through which they entered my skull. It was perhaps the size of a small pea.
Once inside they carefully separated my occipital lobes and then my optical lobes, before inching their way down past my cerebellum and toward the central core of my brain. It was on the top of my brain stem that the tumor had been growing for six years. It was extremely slow growing tumor, and yes I am convinced that my daily meditation practice helped to slow its growth by reducing the stress and chaos in my life. Yet even with all of the balancing of mind, body and spirit, that tumor was still able to engulf blood vessels and reach out to hijack the basic functions that we all take for granted.
For fourteen hours Dr. Golfinos and Dr. Sen returned again and again with an incredible level of focus down an impossibly narrow shaft to slice away at minute segments of the tumor. Each time they moved past delicate brain tissue and nerve bundles to retract what I imagine to be a white dot from deep within my brain.
How they were able to maintain the level of focus needed to do this agonizingly slow task is beyond me. Yet they did it without so much as touching any of the delicate structures that fill my skull. If I failed to mention it, the tumor sat in an area where there are no redundancies and no second chances. This is an area where the core functionality of the brain and body exist. It is so deep in the center that one slip could cost me the ability to see, to speak, or to walk. Yet this is how I was introduced to my cerebellum and to the process of rewiring my brain.
For those who don’t know, the cerebellum is part of the old brain. It is the traffic cop and the coordinator for the activities between the brain and the body. It makes sure your eyes point in the same direction and see the same object. It makes sure your tongue and lips and mouth work together so that you can form words that are intelligible. It coordinates your movements so that you can stand without assistance and make sense of the letters on a page, let alone the words those letters form.
I found out what life is like without a cerebellum when I woke up in the ICU. I could not see. I could not speak. I could not stand. And that was why I was sent to an acute rehabilitation facility called the Rusk Institute. It was there that a team of therapists working under the brilliant Dr. Levine showed me how to rewire each of these skills from the ground up.
In plain English they helped me relearn how to see, to speak and to stand. When I first woke up I could not see because my eyes did not work together. I could not read because I could not recognize the letters or the words on a page. I could barely speak because my lips no longer worked with my tongue and I could not walk because my legs no longer balanced like they used to.
At first I lived in a fantasy world of my brain’s creation. Yet with the slow and methodical direction of Dr. Levine’s team, I learned how to recognize each of my eye muscles until I could get my eyes to work in unison, I became familiar with the actions of my tongue and lips so that I could form words, and I even learned to stand without assistance.
Yes, meditation was a tremendous help on all fronts. It helped to remove the fear, the anxiety, and the anger that I felt so that I could focus my time and energy on those minutely repetitive tasks that were required to rewire my brain. As a teacher of Modern Meditation, I was fascinated to witness my own network once rebuild and reconnect itself. I had seen it happen in past surgeries, just not to this extent. It was as if I was receiving a PhD in familiarizing my brain with my own wiring.
Simple acts that I took for granted just days before were now tasks that I had to learn from the ground up. It took days, not always easy for someone eager to start living again. It was slow and sometimes tedious work, but in just two weeks I was able to walk out of the Rusk rehabilitation center and begin reeducating myself at home.
Today I am able to see one face and two eyes on the person across from me. I can read newsprint and guide people through meditations.
In a week I will be able to start slowly jogging again.
In a month – who knows – but I predict amazing things.
Throughout my journey, and it is far from over, I continue to learn that anything is possible. The key to doing so lies in quieting your own self-defeating thoughts and overcoming the fears your own brain creates for you. If you can see beyond your ego and remind yourself again and again that the life you have now is not the life you have to have in the future, then anything is possible.
Yes, the cerebellum may be the traffic cop for your brain and body, but you are the
If you can do this, there is nothing you cannot overcome and nothing you cannot achieve.commissioner. You are the boss of you and your brain. You just have to keep your eye on the ball and stay focused on whatever it is you want to achieve.