Good Housekeeping (UK)
‘MEDITATION SAVED MY SIGHT & SANITY’
When Vanessa Potter was struck down by a terrifying brain illness, meditation kept her calm and helped her heal. Fascinated, she then embarked on a one-woman experiment to investigate the power of the mind…
Vanessa Potter shares her life-changing experience
I’ve always been a planner, ever since I was a child. I suspect it was my attention to detail that made me a successful producer working in the advertising industry in London. But in 2012, fate intervened and turned my life and all my plans upside down.
I’d just turned 40 and was fed up with working long hours. After a year of freelancing, I decided to escape the rat race to spend time with my two young children, who were then aged two and four. My husband, Ed, also worked long hours and, what with running the house and caring for two pre-schoolers, I was completely wrung out. All I wanted was to teach my son to ride his scooter and play tag with my daughter in the park. I planned my hiatus meticulously, aiming to return to work later in the year.
Opening my eyes on the morning of our daughter’s fifth birthday, I knew something wasn’t right. Hearing excited laughter downstairs, I peered around my room, only to find it much darker than it should have been. Stumbling out of bed, I rubbed my eyes and stared at my reflection in the mirror: my face was a blur; a brown fog obscured everything.
I made my way gingerly downstairs, where Ed took one look at me and insisted we go to A&E. As I sat in the car on the way to hospital, trying to keep my panic at bay, I realised, with a strangely detached curiosity, that my fingertips had gone numb.
Over the next 72 hours, my sight continued to deteriorate. I was transferred to a specialist ward, while doctors scratched their heads and dubbed me the ‘mystery patient’. The numbness I’d felt in my fingertips spread up my arms, then appeared in my feet, inching up my legs, leaving large patches of lifeless skin in its wake. My hands looked normal, but felt like rubber. A rare neurological illness was ravaging my body and my brain didn’t know how to respond. Within three days, I was blind and paralysed.
What’s extraordinary is that, even though it was utterly terrifying, my unconscious mind took over almost immediately and, without really thinking about it, I started using self-hypnosis and breathing techniques I’d learned during antenatal classes. These tools eased the panic l felt and stopped my body shaking. For the two weeks I was in hospital, I spent most of the time in a deeply meditative state, leading my mind off to a safe, beautiful, imaginary beach, where I strolled along golden sand and gazed at a dazzling sea. This ‘mental sanctuary’ offered time out from the horror of my situation.
It’s hard to explain, but deep down, I knew I was ‘healing myself’. Looking back, I believe meditation provided me with as much mental respite as any drug could have done, giving me a sense of empowerment and helping me ride the waves of terror. My family were all incredible, never leaving my side and my father, who was due to return home to South Africa, delayed his flight.
Two weeks later, when I could hobble with a stick and some of my sight was returning, I was sent home. The doctors couldn’t predict my recovery and this uncertainty meant it didn’t take long for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to hit me like a freight train. Racked with anxiety and unable to sleep, I felt helpless and alone, even with my family’s support. Once again, meditation was my saviour and using slow, yogic breathing and sitting quietly imagining myself being able to see again, I loosened the knot in my stomach and stopped myself spiralling into despair. Over the next year, my vision gradually improved; my children shrieked with joy when I could identify the edge of a door frame! I could only see in black and white, but could ‘see’ the colour blue if I spoke the word out loud. During daily walks, I tested my vision, using road signs to measure how much my acuity had improved. I wavered between optimism and desperation, but I knew I was slowly getting better.
A year after I became ill, the paralysis had gone and much of my vision was restored, though it still felt like I was staring through a dusty windscreen. It was then that I became curious to understand some of the strange visual experiences I’d had and why meditating had proved such a powerful ally.
I made contact with a team of neuroscientists at Cambridge University. They were fascinated to investigate how
I believe meditation provided me with as much mental respite as any drug could have done
meditation had benefited me during such a destabilising time and we believed my story could educate others on the power of the mind. Working with vision scientists, I discovered it wasn’t my eyes that ‘saw’, but my brain – my eyes were simply lenses that let in light. So, in the same way I’d strengthened my leg muscles post-paralysis by walking every day, I exercised what we call ‘vision centres’ inside my brain through visualisation and meditation; incredibly, it was this that helped me regain my sight.
I never returned to advertising, but instead, carved out a new career as a writer and speaker. However, I wanted to explore how meditation could improve other areas of my life. I found that tempers frayed easily on the school run and I often felt disconnected from others. In addition, I spent a lot of time worrying about the future and often felt stressed. I decided to try some new techniques to see if they could target these issues.
In 2016, I started investigating different ways to ‘train my mind’ using hypnosis and meditation. I discovered that meditation was not a one-size-fits-all practice and there were many different styles. I had first-hand experience of using my mind to save my sight and my sanity, and hoped that by sharing these experiences, I could inspire others to find the right practice for them.
When I told the neuroscientists at Cambridge I was planning to explore 10 different mind-training techniques, I was thrilled when they asked me to be part of a study. They wanted to understand what went on inside the head of someone who is meditating; by using non-invasive brain-recording equipment called EEG (electroencephalography), they could access this private, inner view. They attached tiny electrodes to my scalp to track brain activity in real time. If I felt sleepy, distracted or emotional during a meditation, my EEG brain data would reflect this.
I started my ‘meditation road trip’ with an MBCT course (mindfulness-based
cognitive therapy). These nightly classes taught me breathing and body-scanning techniques to help me relax and connect better with my body. As I sat in the first class, my mind raced while I replayed a conversation I’d just had with my mother. I wasn’t focused on what my teacher was saying and zoned out. Pretty quickly, I realised mindfulness was a skill I really needed to learn. Our teacher also led us through a simple body scan: we had to lie down on mats with our eyes closed and focus on different parts of our bodies. I didn’t have to control my barrage of thoughts; I just had to observe them, without getting cross with myself for ‘not doing it right’. The course made me realise I spent much of my days on automatic pilot, unaware of how I felt or what I was doing.
LEARNING THE LESSONS
Slowly, I became more aware of myself and of how misunderstandings in the past had escalated. For example, if someone bumped into me in the street and didn’t apologise, I no longer felt annoyed, but instead understood that they, too, were simply ‘inside their own head’ and their behaviour had nothing to do with me.
These insights inspired me to try transcendental meditation (TM), which was taught over an intensive four-day course. My teacher gave me a mantra, a meaningless word that you repeat over and over, inside your mind. After eight weeks of twice-daily meditating, I could separate myself from my worries and deal with my emotions more rationally, which made me more patient with my family.
During the three years it took to complete my experiment, I tried Buddhist, Christian and compassion meditations, kundalini yoga, self-hypnosis, and breath work and I also attended a 10-day silent retreat. Each technique provided unique ways I could accept my failings, heal past wounds, overcome insomnia and increase my focus and concentration. I even learned how to slow down and zone in on joyful moments – like hearing the sound of spontaneous laughter or
I even learned how to slow down and zone in on joyful moments
noticing the sunlight in our garden. I started to acknowledge little bursts of happiness among the hubbub of my life.
Meditating radiated out into my family’s lives, too. My children commented: ‘You don’t shout as much!’ And Ed believes the experience brought us closer. The trauma of my sight loss had distanced me and meditating helped close that gap. Towards the end of my experiment, my dad returned to the UK permanently after he was diagnosed with cancer. I was devastated by the news, but so grateful for the patience and resilience the different meditation practices had given me.
I felt able to cope in ways I couldn’t have done before.
I never expected my experiment to be so life-changing. Meditation is not just a sticking plaster in a crisis; if you find the right method for you, it can be an effective antidote to a stressed life. I am now a meditation advocate and training to become a breath work practitioner. I may have lost some sight, but I’ve gained so much insight and I’ve learned to be grateful for the future I have.
• Finding My Right Mind: One Woman’s Experiment To Put Meditation To The Test (Trigger Publishing) by Vanessa Potter is out on 29 April. For more information, visit vanessapotter.com