#Injuries to the #Mind, #Brain and #Psyche that Cause Difficulties with #Meditation

I have been noticing, since the fall that injured my brain via a #concussion in early April, that I have had unusual and unique (to me) difficulties with meditation (and life) ever since. Add to this several other “injuries” to my mind and psyche due to: disastrous #heartbreak; a difficult #move cross-country (i.e., getting rid of almost everything, going far away from my spiritual/ meditation teacher and spiritual community/ sangha to relocate to my childhood hometown); long-term, chronic #unemployment; disappointing #ebook sales (due to my having been incapacitated during key #marketing time after my accident); unexpected and painful changes to my #health; turning 60, which have led to my noticing many other problems with my #meditation practice in the last several months that I’ve never had before this (I’ve been meditating since 1972 and doing this practice since 1999).

I think, under these circumstances, which would put me over the top on any stressors test, I am doing quite well. However, I want to meditate, not just do well. Why does my mind keep skittering away from my focus when I try to meditate? What is happening in this brain/mind of mine? I have done many retreats, some as long as eleven weeks, and never had anything like these problems before. My talks with other meditators without brain injuries confirmed that only we injured seem to have these types of difficulties.

But, why? And, what to do about them?

I kept hearing this quote as I continued my attempts:

meditation better than nothing

I pray that this is true….

Since I am a life-long researcher and the internet provides endless opportunities for me to look for “answers,” I looked around for others’ stories, cautionary tales or suggestions. I wanted to find more injured meditators I could commiserate with or teachers who could offer me advice.

What did I find? See below.

Not surprisingly, when I looked for links between “stress” and “meditation,” I found millions of links (17,700,000) referring to the help that meditation provides us when we’re stressed. Meditation for stress reduction, managing stress, alleviating stress, etc., abound on the internet and elsewhere.

NOT ONE article or study to be found that discusses how stress impacts meditation. Really? Really.

Here was my “path”:
“Searches related to meditation problems life stressors” which then provided these other key word strings:

  • meditation for stress

  • meditation for stress relief

  • guided meditation for stress

  • meditation for stress and anxiety

  • meditation for stress management

  • meditation depression

  • meditation for stress or sudden shock

  • meditation for stress and anger

Frontal lobe meditation before and after

image from: http://www.paramyogaindia.wordpress.com

I also tried: “Searches related to impact of stress on meditation,” which yielded about 6 million results, but always in the reverse: how meditation helps with stress.

Okay. I must be going about this all wrong. I tried the verbal “OKAY GOOGLE” command and asked: “OKAY GOOGLE: Why am I having trouble meditating?”

I got 1,020,000 results, but these all revolved around problems “beginners” have with “monkey-mind,” or problems many have with setting aside time, being consistent, staying with meditation once they start, etc. I couldn’t look at all one million results, but the associated key word strings confirmed my suspicions: OKAY GOOGLE still did not understand my problem.

Google did offer other choices (some quite hilarious, under the circumstances):

“Searches related to why am I having trouble meditating”:

  • i am having trouble pooping

  • i am having trouble getting pregnant

  • i am having trouble sleeping at night

  • i am having trouble breathing

  • i am having trouble breathing and my chest hurts

  • i am having trouble swallowing

  • i am having trouble breathing deeply

  • i am having trouble logging into my facebook account

I even tried getting more specific with OKAY GOOGLE, asking: “Why does my concussion make it hard for me to meditate?” This query led me to even stranger associations than before, including recommendations for those with concussions to meditate to help heal from their concussions.


I don’t know whether to be flattered or to cry when this also had my own article from my blog post in May as the number 3 listing among 11,000,000 results:

concussion | Sally Ember, Ed.D.


May 2, 2014

If I’m one of the “experts,” here, we’re all in trouble.

Don't follow me I'm already lost

image from http:///funny-pictures.picphotos.net

So, I was going to give up on finding “help” but then I tried this search string: “research meditation frontal lobe injuries” and hit the jackpot.

First, this quote (unattributed) kept appearing: “Meditation is a frontal lobe activity,” which affected me deeply. My accident, for those who don’t know, involved my hitting a wall face-first, breaking my nose and impacting my forehead, behind which is the frontal lobe.

Here are some selected quotes from the best article I found, from the UK, that clarifies a lot about the functions of the frontal lobe, its effects on and participation in the activity of meditation, and many other aspects of my experience: very illuminating and helpful.

Case study on function of the frontal lobe

“The frontal lobes play a major role in the regulation of our emotions and behaviour as well as planning, decision making, social conduct, and executive functions. They are vulnerable to damage… [and] are thought to be our emotional control centre [sic; UK spelling] and home to our personality.”

“The frontal lobes are vulnerable to injury and damage due to their location at the front of the skull and their ample size. Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies have revealed that the frontal area is the most frequent region of damage following brain injury (Levin et al., 1987). Statistics show that there is no other component of the brain in which impairment can cause such a wide array of symptoms (Kolb and Wishaw, 1990).”

This began to intrigue me, especially the part about the “wide array of symptoms,” which I can attest to experiencing. Some of my “symptoms” have seemed to be unclearly connected to the concussion until I read more of this article.

“The frontal lobes are involved in problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgement [sic; UK spelling], impulse control, social cognition (Benson, 1996) and sexual behaviour. Motor function is also seen to be controlled by the frontal lobes (Leonard et al., 1988).”

I have noticed my balance is off, my proprioceptors are off, my sense of security on my feet is reduced, but until I read this, I wasn’t sure if I was suffering from a bit of PTSD and wariness about falling again or actually having trouble. The latter, I believe now, is the case.

“Broca’s Aphasia has also been linked with frontal lobe damage (Brown, 1972). It is supported that frontal lobe damage has an effect on memory and attention (Stuss et al., 1985).”

Ding ding ding: points for all. Unfortunately.

“Mesulam (1986) pointed out from his studies, that some people who have suffered frontal lobe damage show impairments in their everyday life; however they show little or no impairment on clinical neurological assessment tests….[One injured patient was] unable to make decisions and plan…often unable to make simple everyday decisions, such as which toothpaste to buy, what restaurant to go to, or what to wear even after endless comparisons and contrasts Damasio (1985)….This may be characterised as a failure of future memory, the ability to encode delayed intentions, and act on those intentions when the appropriate time arrives.”

Usually I am extremely decisive. Even when there are complex factors, even when I feel ambivalence: before this accident and its injuries to my brain, I was considered a person others could rely on to make the choices they could or would not make. Since then, I have had hesitation, confusion, bewilderment, inability to weigh costs and benefits and many other unusual reactions to being asked to choose even the simplest things. Now I know the reasons for this befuddlement. Good.

“Interestingly, some patients who suffer from frontal lobe damage often do not show any defects on neuropsychological tests. However, when observed in unstructured real world settings, patients frequently demonstrate cognitive difficulties, neurobehavioral symptoms, and deficits in their executive functions.”

I would say, without a doubt, that the most severe deficit to my executive functions has been first my complete inability and then my reduced ability to meditate, since meditation has become the foundation for all the thinking, choosing and behaving in my life via values, personality and habit changes.

TBI as a puzzle

image from: http://www.brainline.org

I can see ways I’ve regressed since the accident and these are disturbing in deep and superficial ways. I’m more impatient, more quick to anger, easily provoked to sadness or hurt. I hide it from those close to me but take it out on customer service representatives of mega-corporations which happen to provide terrible service. Not proud of this at all.

“Studies have found high frontal lobe activation during meditation (Herzog et al, 1990; Lazer et al, 2000).”

IF I COULD MEDITATE, I would, also. I miss meditating so much. But, now I know a bit more about the reasons for my difficulties.

I hope this post and the rest of this article (link, below) help others in similar predicaments.


Keep trying, keep going: got to believe it will improve.

I’m also going to see if I can talk (or video chat) with my meditation teacher some time soon. I need something.

A quote from Thich Nhat Hanh is what I plan to contemplate until my meditation practice gets back on track.

Thich Nhat Hanh quote

#iamsubject story: I Find Myself Wherever I Live and I Move A Lot!

I am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubject project http://www.iamsubject.com/the-iamsubject-project/. Here is my #iamsubject story.

I Find Myself Wherever I Live and I Move A Lot!

#iamsubject story: I Find Myself Wherever I Live and I Move A Lot!

Whenever I interact closely with females, my menstrual cycle changes its start date. I am never the anchor. I am a mover.


Maybe because I was born near the beginning of the last hour for a Leo to be born in St. Louis, MO, 1954, so I am almost a Virgo. Being on the cusp shows up all over my life. I don’t completely believe in astrology, but one astrologer read my chart and told me: “You will always be in transition. This is good for being a Buddhist. You are quite familiar with impermanence!”

Or, perhaps it’s due to my never quite belonging in any one place, group or category. Whenever I take a personality or any other kind of test whose results divide people into groups or types, my answers put me in more than one, straddling two or more, often.

Then, there is the ridiculous number of times I have relocated. I lived in fourteen places before the age of 22. During one three-year period, I moved with my infant, then toddler, and his father, my full upright piano, his woodworking tools and wood collection, three times every year)!

The number is about to hit 30 more, totaling 52 places of residence before I turn 60, averaging out to almost one per year. Most of those moves were not of my own choice, meaning: I didn’t want to be a nomad; I had to go. Next month (July, 2014), I have to move again.

I have lived in this place for fewer than eighteen months. Before that, I was housesitting nearby for three months. Before that–almost a record–I had practically seven years in my own place. Luckily, my next move is back to that same town, north of San Francisco, an area I dearly appreciate.

Some people believe that roots are important. I do not know.

The longest I’ve ever lived in one place is twelve years (twice), but even during those periods, I was away for two to four weeks during some summers, attending or working at camps. The longest circumstances have allowed me to stay in one job is almost five years (also twice).

How do I “find myself” when I am not located anywhere in particular? Many philosophers say: “Wherever you go, there you are.” I have become a lifetime believer in that aphorism.

By others’ reports, I am reliable, organized, stable and calm, yet I am also unpredictable, unusual and “different.” How am I “different” and from whom?

  • I do not identify with “stuff.” I do not collect anything for the sake of having a collection.

  • Even though I have framed pictures and art, I do not often hang or display most of it. In this current, almost 18-month tenure, I “never got around to it.”

  • I read constantly, but the books I own do not even fill one bookcase. I always belong to and avidly use libraries.

  • I don’t talk like anyone else in my family of origin. I have no regionally identifiable accent.

Because I’ve lived in so many places–Missouri, Wisconsin, every state in New England, New York state, New Mexico, California, the Philippines), I have an unusual conglomeration of ways to pronounce and articulate certain words, phrases and concepts. I also know some Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, French and Tibetan. It’s impossible to determine where I’m “from” by hearing me talk.

Another way I’m a “mover” is that I adapt to and adopt others’ cuisine, ways of living, schedules, customs, preferences and styles rather quickly. Most people see me as having my own unique, eclectic “style.” Little do they know that most of these “ways” aren’t originally “mine” or even from any one person or place.

“My weird ways”:

  • I get up between 3 and 5 AM.
    Because I attended or set up on my own several ten-day to eleven-week Buddhist meditation retreats for the last fifteen years, I got used to rising early. Before that, not my schedule.

  • I eat very differently from the way I was raised.
    Housemates brought me into eating and cooking organic, whole, healthy, mostly local foods in 1977. After a few years of that, the new food habits “stuck.”

  • For over thirty years, I hated and altered my curly hair, then set it free.
    I tried to get my curly hair to “go straight”–I ironed it with a clothing iron, used chemicals, wrapped it in giant curlers or used my head as the largest curler, used hand dryers in public bathrooms–all in the pursuit of unnaturally straight/er hair. Every day, even when I stopped using methods, I brushed and tried to “tame” my wavy/curly hair, usually unsuccessfully. One day, one of my younger sisters who shares these genes of mine showed wearing her hair in an abundance of curls. I asked her how she managed them? She said: “I stopped brushing my hair.” This was a revelation! I haven’t brushed my hair since. It is cooperatively curling on most days.

  • For almost twelve years, I suffered through shaving, then happily stopped.
    I acquired numerous scars from cuts, had painfully ingrown hairs, developed awful deodorant rashes and a host of other problems. I hated shaving, but I kept doing it. One day in 1977, I arrived at an interview to teach in a parent-cooperative school in Rhode Island. The director, a woman a few years older than I, didn’t shave. I was fascinated. Since I was spending the late summer weekend with the group of parents, teachers and staff, I plucked up my courage to ask her about not shaving. She said: “Why shave? It wastes time, causes problems and isn’t necessary. Men have the choice. Why shouldn’t women? I choose not to shave.” Dumbfounded at the simplicity of her argument and eager to discard this horrible habit, I happily haven’t shaved since that day in 1977.

  • I hate bras. Always have.
    I used to wear bras. Mostly I don’t, now. Similarly, this same mentor demonstrated the irrelevance of bras. That was an amazing liberation to my 23-year-old self. I have eschewed bras ever since and research has vindicated us on that choice: bras are BAD for circulation, ventilation, and overall lymphatic health. PLUS, they do NOT prevent, but rather exacerbate gravity’s sagging effects. Unless aging hormones cause me to need “holders,” I do not wear them.

I can attribute my “personality quirks,” “life choices,” and many “unique characteristics” of “mine” to others’ influences. Yet, I don’t feel off-balance each time I incorporate a new aspect or habit, often from someone I am newly acquainted with or getting to know better. I am actually very choosy about which traits I adopt and whom I select to emulate. Having been around thousands of people spanning many places, I can be that particular.

My friends, bosses, colleagues, relatives, neighbors, housemates and acquaintances often offer up one habit of speaking, dressing, interacting, leading, thinking, living that I decided to make my own. THANKS to you all!

With each “move,” I re-affirm the central parts that comprise “me” and jettison everything extraneous. Paring down, weeding out, separating the wheat from the chaff, I spend time being grateful for and treasuring what (and whom) I keep in this peripatetic life.

Here I go, again. Let’s see who I become this time!

My best Give-Away Story: Our Family Table becomes Ryan and Gina’s Family Table

As most of you know, I am moving cross-country this week and spent the last month giving away almost everything substantial I own. By the time I leave, I will have shipped only 5 cardboard boxes and filled just my car (including my sister and HER carry-on bag!).

My mid-Swis, Ellen, and I are driving (after she flies up from LA to Oakland) from northern California to St. Louis, MO, where I will live with our mom. I grew up about 10 minutes from where my mom now lives.

I have had the BEST time arranging for where my “stuff” would next live. Friends, family members and then, strangers arrived in a steady stream to peruse and take things almost every day for the last three weeks. This relinquishing has been poignant, fun, interesting and a bit strange. I actually like to watch “my” things walk out the door, one by one (or by the bag or box), quickly becoming someone else’s possessions.

One of the last things to go (and I wasn’t sure I’d get anyone to take it) was my 5′-round, plywood table and its iron stand, which lived outdoors for the last 18 months.

Please read these emails to find out its story, then look at the photos.

Life can be very sweet!

One bit of background:
After Gina and I emailed back and forth a few times, it was determined, based on all of our schedules, that Gina’s father and Ryan, Gina’s financé, would come to get the table on Friday, mid-day, two days before I left. Ryan and Gina are about to be married.

I told them a few things about the table as they circled it, preparing to move it. As Ryan and his father-in-law picked up the tabletop to carry it to the truck, I asked Ryan: “How are you going to use the table?”
Ryan told me: “We are going to use it for our wedding!”
I smiled and asked: “And then what?”
He replied: “Then, we’re going to keep using it!”


On Friday, August 15, 2014 9:53 PM, Ryan wrote:

Hi Sally,

My father and I got right to work on the table. I attached some photos of the finished top and primered legs.

We will take great care of the table for you.

Thanks again,
Ryan & Gina

I wrote back on Saturday, 8/16, at 7 AM:

Hi, Ryan and Gina,

This makes me so happy!

Thanks so much for taking care of, fixing up and bringing our family/community table which hosted, from 1982 – 2013, countless holiday, birthday, graduation and other rituals’ parties, costume-making and other crafts and arts projects, games’ and toys’ foundations, family meals, work project meetings, tutoring sessions and homework/homeschooling (this table was even featured in the local newspaper in Keene, NH, in 1986, showing my son and me playing an educational game during a homeschool lesson!) into your lives and ceremonies.

This table started out on Court Street in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1982, our family’s first collective households in Keene. It was mounted on a tall barrel that was temporarily filled with fabric; the top was made to be removable so the co-maker, Bonnie, who was doing many sewing projects, could utilize the fabric. We were low on storage space, so, there it was! We celebrated our son’s 2nd birthday and many others’ birthdays in the three years we lived on Court Street with several housemates. We had Thanksgivings, Chanukahs, Christmases and other parties there.

The table came with us in 1985 when we moved to Leverett Street and then in 1986 when we moved to Water Street, also in Keene. We stayed on Water Street for 12 years. During that time, both my son and I had two graduations, each (my master’s and doctorate; his 8th-grade and high school), dozens of birthdays of our families and others, up to 11 people around it for holidays and other parties.

The barrel eventually dried out/fell apart despite many years of repairing and re-circling it with extra metal bands, so Christopher found/made its 4-legged, removable iron stand.

A fledgling Assisted Living/Buddhist Center my then-partner and others started with me in Saco, Maine, received the table when we moved to it in 1998, but then we sold that and we then moved the table and this community to Silver City, New Mexico, in 1999.

The table then followed my peripatetic existence as I lived in five different houses (and it lived on one patio) in Silver City before finding its way with me to Santa Rosa, CA, in late 2001.

There the table was in storage above my housemate’s garage for almost five years. In late 2005, the table happily came out to live with me in Sebastopol, CA, where I used it well for about 8 years.

In late 2013, I had to leave Sebastopol, so the table again went into storage until early 2014, when I moved to Hayward. The table didn’t fit into my little Cherryland house, so it lived outside (that is the way it became so weathered and needed your great craftspersonship to refinish and restore it!). Living alone and not knowing anyone in Hayward, it didn’t get much use but I knew it was there.

So, here we are. I gave the table to you! May you and your loved ones get to enjoy this well-used table in good health and happiness for another 30 years or more!

I’m CC’ing this to: the makers of the table (our friend, Bonnie Insull and my son’s father, Christopher [please forward this, Christopher, to Bonnie]); our son, Merlyn; my mom and some friends and family who lived with and/or enjoyed the use of this table many times with us: they will also be made happy by this news!

I feel much better about leaving it “behind” knowing it’s in such good hands! I love this whole story, so I’m posting it on my blog, with your photos and others I have. http://www.sallyember.com/blog The story will appear Monday, 8/18.

Best to you,


Sally Ember, Ed.D.
nonprofit manager/educator
author, The Spanners Series

PHOTOS of the Table

Original Craig’s List Give-Away photo, August, 2014:


Before and After Refinishing, 2014


table legs unfinished

table top unfinished


table top finished

table legs finished