by Vanessa Potter

Ten years ago I would never have imagined that one day I would become a meditation advocate — or that I’d regularly practice meditation. Yet in 2012 when a rare illness left me blind and paralysed for almost a year I needed new ways to manage the trauma I suffered.

Waking up on the morning of our daughter’s fifth birthday, something wasn’t right. Everything was much darker than it should have been. On the drive to the hospital all I could see was fog, even though it was sunny outside. Wringing my hands in anguish, I noticed my fingertips had gone numb. In hospital the doctors scratched their heads and quickly named me the ‘mystery patient. A rare neurological illness was ravaging my body and within three days I was blind and paralysed.

Even now I am still amazed at how quickly my unconscious mind took over. Without thinking about it, I started using self-hypnosis and breathing techniques I’d learnt during antenatal classes to soothe myself. These stopped my body from shaking and eased the panic l felt.

I was sent home two weeks later with some sight returning. I could hobble with a stick, but I needed to re-learn how to walk. Wavering between optimism and despair, my children championed me on. After 12 months the paralysis had gone and I was left partially sighted. My illness had opened up the spirituality doors but I was still curious to explore how meditating could improve other aspects of my life. 

As my children got older tempers frayed and I sometimes felt disconnected from others. I worried about the future and suffered insomnia. In 2017 I began a meditation experiment with Cambridge scientists. For the next three years I explored ten different ways to ‘train my mind’ while wearing an EEG (electroencephalography) headset. This recorded my brain activity via electrodes on my scalp. The experiment threw me in the deep end and it was exciting to try techniques I had never heard of before.

I started my experiment with an MBCT course (mindfulness based cognitive therapy) which taught me breath, walking and body-scanning techniques. Sitting in the first class my thoughts raced as I remembered all of the things I’d forgotten to do. Thankfully this was normal. The course made me realise how much time I spent in automatic pilot, unaware of how I felt or what I was doing. 

Over the next three years I explored a diverse range of techniques that each impacted my life in varying ways — from the strict practice of Zazen (part of Zen Buddhism) to Christian meditation to visualising a feisty green goddess called Tara. I also explored self-hypnosis, kundalini yoga and breath work and attended a 10-day silent retreat and finally a legal psychedelics retreat. It was a humbling experience. I learnt new ways to accept my failings, heal my past, overcome insomnia and increase my concentration. 

I never expected to learn so much from my experiment, or that it would provide a roadmap for others wishing to take up a meditation practice. My husband Ed tells me I smile more and I’ve introduced mindfulness to my children too. I may have lost some sight, but my future is bright.