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Blog: Transient Global Amnesia

July 6, 2018

Something wasn’t right. It was the third full day of our nine-day meditation retreat. That morning I’d conducted eight meditation interviews. They had gone well. But gazing across the dining hall where the yogis were eating their mid-day meal, I couldn’t remember whom I’d talked to or what we’d talked about.

And something subtler was missing. Ordinarily the mind filters out most of the information impinging upon it and automatically weaves the remaining data into a coherent image of what’s going on. My mind was having difficulty weaving things together.

I waved to Erika, asking her to come over. “I’m disoriented,” I said. “No, not disoriented. I’m just not oriented. I’m having trouble making sense of what I see.”

She called Lance over. They decided to take me to the hospital.

The ride in the car felt similar to a dream I’d had the night before. I don’t remember saying anything to them about the dream. Apparently I told them about it at least two dozen times.

After seven hours, two CAT scans, an MRI, more tests, and consulting specialists, the diagnosis was Global Transient Amnesia or Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA). It was caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. The reduced oxygen was the result of a small amount of plaque and a large amount of stress that caused blood vessels to contract or collapse.

“Transient” meant it was a temporary. There already was some brain atrophy, but not as much as might be expected in a 70 year old. However there was no current damage. I’d dodged a bullet.

The Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Tejaniya is fond of saying, “Mindfulness alone is not enough.” We need to bring wisdom to awareness.

As the practice deepens, we drop some of the explicit supports. We don’t exactly stop any of the techniques. But they become wired in enough that they start to work automatically without so much effort.

I was humbled by how badly I’d misread my body signals. Unusual circumstances had made retreat preparation an up-hill climb. I knew I was tired. I had to recalibrate how I interpret those signals. I guess I’m not 35 any longer. Go figure. This was the wisdom coming out of the episode.

Sayadaw also says, “There are no mistakes. Only lessons.” I confess I thought about how I could stay on leading the retreat in a reduced capacity. But I was told the risk of a full stroke was much greater in the coming week. The wiser lesson was to leave the retreat, rest, consult with health care professionals, and sort out life-style choices before I did anything else.

I was worried the yogis would leave the retreat if I left. I was touched by how kind and loving they were toward me. They urged me to go and take care of myself. And I was encouraged that most had no intention of leaving. They would step up and figure out how to continue without me. I had deep faith in their collective wisdom. And I was heartened that they were confident as well. I left my dhamma talk notes with them.

Now the retreat is over. Many reported having a wonderful retreat.

As I reflect on the last ten days, two things stand out:

1. Thich Nhat Hahn suggests the next Buddha may be a community rather than an individual. When a group of people engage one another skillfully, the wisdom of the group is greater than the wisdom of anyone alone. A primary mode of dhamma transmission in the West has been through an individual teacher and a lecture, Q and A pedagogy. This has been called “the hungry bird” theory of teaching.

When I left the retreat, the yogis shifted from an individual to a collective style. The result was so successful that it encourages me to include much more collective engagement in how I teach.

2. The way the mind weaves together its model of ourselves and the world is so automatic that we hardly notice the process: “It’s just who I am.” When my mind stopped weaving so effortlessly, it was like looking inside myself and seeing a stranger: “That’s not who I am.” But there it was.

Today my familiar style of weaving has returned. But it’s much easier to see myself and the world as arbitrary constructs rather than solid realities. The view is fascinating and quietly exhilarating.

I recommend the view. I don’t recommend how I got there.


Copyright 2018 by Doug Kraft

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