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Medicine and Meditation to Rewire My Brain

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2014-04-02-52Staples.jpgOn March 3, I had brain surgery. It was a 14-hour procedure that drilled down into my brain stem to remove a tumor the size of a small child's fist. The surgery lasted 14 hours. The acute rehabilitation lasted two weeks. And while the journey itself is an ongoing process of discovery that has given me a rare insight into how the brain works, how meditation works, and what it takes to rewire the brain from the ground up. These are just three of the meditations I learned from my experience and the lessons you can grow from.


The first 14 hours of my journey were led by two outstanding neurosurgeons from NYU Langone, Dr. Golfinos and Dr. Sen. One is the Chair of the NYU Department of Neurosurgery. The other is vice chair for education and the director of the Benign Tumor & Cranial Nerve Program. Having lived through eight craniotomies in the past 20 years, I can say with some level of experience that they are two of the finest neurosurgeons around, especially when dealing with a tumor this deep in the brain.

They worked relentlessly in an unimaginably small space, carefully moving past my occipital lobes, my optical lobes and my cerebellum to slowly slice away at a tumor that was slowly growing on top of my brain stem. In those hours they returned again and again to remove the tumor and retract each piece through an opening in my skull that I imagine was roughly the size of a small pea.

Each pass took them past delicate lobes and nerve bundles and into an area where there is no redundancy. It was an exercise in focus and concentration that few people could maintain for an hour, let alone a day. How they were able to maintain the level of focus and attention needed to do this was explained to me before the surgery by Dr. Sen, an expert at deep brain surgeries. For him, it was a form of meditation -- a slow and methodical approach to overcoming the distractions so many of us assume are simply a part of our lives, so that he could remove micro-slice after micro-slice after micro-slice for hours without stopping.


At the center of the operation lay the cerebellum. It is a very old part of the brain that is often called the brain's traffic cop. It coordinates the motor functions to make everything work together and in a coordinated manner. It enables you to move and focus both eyes on a single object, so that you have a single point of focus. It ensures that your lips, your tongue and voice box work together to give you intelligible speech. It brings all of your motor skills together so that you can stand and walk down an empty hallway.

Without your cerebellum your world becomes a blur of double vision, your tongue responds with the finesse of a sponge and the simple act of standing upright is impossible. I learned this because when I woke up in the ICU, I was not able to do any of these things. I also learned that the only way out of my predicament was through a very slow process of re-training and re-wiring my brain to function as one again.

This is how I spent my March -- recovering and rewiring my brain with the help of modern meditation and a team of amazing therapists led by Dr. Jaime Levine at the Rusk Acute Care Center. Rusk is a facility where I was fortunate enough to go after my operation. I spent two weeks there learning to familiarize my brain with the tiny muscles that moved my eyes, my tongue and my legs. In effect, I reprogrammed my brain so that I could see, read, speak and walk again.

When I started my vision was so bad that I could not recognize people sitting across from me. I could not recognize the letters or words on a page. I could barely speak as my lips no longer coordinated with my tongue. I could not walk because I no longer balanced like I used to. The only way out was to overcome my fear and my frustration and to relearn how to do it all over again, from the ground up.

Under the direction of some incredibly patient therapists I started by relearning how it felt to use the tiny muscles behind my eyes. Together we taught my brain what it felt like when those muscles contracted and focused together. I relearned how to speak by repeating vowels and consonants -- fa, fe, fi, fo, fu -- over and over again, before bringing them together to form words and eventually sentences. Yes, in time I even learned to stand on my own. And no, I doubt you can understand the joy I felt when I was allowed to walk in a park to feel the sunlight on my face.

All of the successes I felt meant taking a series of long and frustrating steps backwards before I could move forward. My morning meditations helped me remove the fear, the anxiety and the ego that was calling for me to run before I had learned to walk. Each meditation reduced the noise so that I was able to focus and spend the time it took to learn the most basics movements of life once again.

Throughout it all I kept reminding myself that if my doctors could spend 14 hours removing slice after slice of tumor, if my therapists could spend days helping me learn to use the muscles in my mouth and my eyes, then I could certainly overcome my own impatience and apply myself to the minutiae that my eyes, my mouth, my mind and my body required to live again.


I remembered reading an article before my surgery from the Journal of Clinical Oncology. It was about breast cancer survivors and meditation. Those who practiced meditation were found to have an increased sense of calm and wellbeing, as well as better sleep and less physical pain than those who did not. There were also clinical trials by Oxford University that showed meditation to be as effective as antidepressants I reducing depression in many cases. In some cases meditation reduced the recurrence rate of depression by 40-50 percent compared with just traditional care. In my own work I can attest how many of my clients found modern meditation techniques helped them overcome depression in their own lives.

I started every morning in a seated meditation. I ended every day in meditation. As important I turned many of the exercises into a mindful exercise of breathing, focus and single-mindedness. Needless to say I walked out of the Rusk Center in just two weeks. There was no depression. I didn't waste time worrying about "what if," but instead was able to deal with "what is" on a much clearer level.

And yes, from my own account, by removing the worry and the fear that comes after a surgery like mine I was able to focus solely on healing. In short, by keeping my "eye on the prize," as I told one nurse, and focusing 100 percent of my energy on the minutely repetitive tasks I needed to, I was able to reach a far greater success than many thought possible.

In fact, I was able to do just what my surgeons and my rehabilitation doctors and therapists did.

As a teacher of modern meditation, I am still fascinated by how my brain and body reconnected to each other. It is not the first time I have seen this. But it is the first time I was able to watch my brain re-familiarize and re-wire itself with the individual muscles it needed to on such a level.

Today I am able to walk up the stairs to my apartment without a second thought. I am able to see and speak clearly. In another week or so I will be able to start yoga again and build my muscle-memory back on a more physical level.

In a month, who knows, but my goal is to be 120 percent of what I was before the surgery.

The point of all of this and the lesson I want to pass on is that anything is possible if you can overcome your own fears and your own ego and remind yourself again and again that the life you have now is not the life you have to have in the future. Yes, the cerebellum may be the traffic cop for the brain, but you're the commissioner. It is your body and your brain, and neither is the boss of you. As long as you stay calm and focused on whatever it is you have dedicated yourself to doing, there is nothing you cannot overcome and nothing you cannot achieve.


So join me in modern meditation. Not to float on a cloud, but to live your life YOUR way.

To learn more about modern meditation and rewiring your life, visit me here, at:

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