IMS: Heart’s Release or Heart Attack?

I just got back from the cardiologist and passed my echo and stress test with flying colors. So this tale has a happy ending – now for the story itself: I had signed up for the April monastic retreat at IMS, but was on a long waiting list after the lottery. I also signed up for the May retreat with Kamala Masters, Debra Ratner and Mark Nunberg and figured if I got into the earlier one I could transfer my registration. Retreats at IMS are filling up earlier and earlier these days and the strategy often necessitates booking multiple retreats and playing the waiting list game. A week before the April retreat I decided to release my spot on the waiting list and drive up to Barre in May with my Dharma Buddies James and Linda. James had sat with Mark before, and Linda hadn’t been to IMS in many years. It would be a fun road trip and great to sit the retreat together. James had also just had an ablation two weeks earlier to address heart a-rhythmia A-Fib issues – so familiar from Michael’s history with all this. James would be glad to have some friends looking out for him just in case he had strange symptoms. Everyone thinks that going to a meditation retreat is all relaxation and bliss. Of course we know that it can be that, but it can also be a lot of other difficult things as well.

A week before the May retreat was to start, my aunt Isabelle, 98, passed away in RI. It was a very good death and rather sudden. My mom’s older sister was in remarkably good shape, but ready to be done when a little blood infection over took her system. I was very sad that I hadn’t spoken to her in several weeks. It also felt like the last chapter in the story of the older generation. She was the last elder to go and it brought up memories of my parents’ final days. My cousins from California had actually planned to be on the east coast for a family get together this very weekend, so I drove up to Connecticut on Friday to see them. I stayed over at my other cousins’ farm and we all went out for pizza and beer to celebrate Isabelle’s life and being together. On Saturday I drove home. On Sunday, I road my bike to Lambertville and back, 43 miles, and on Monday I taught a full day of voice students. By Tuesday morning, when we set out for Barre, I was physically and emotionally exhausted and ready for some peace and quiet.

The retreat started out a little bumpy. I loved my yogi job cleaning the Meditation Hall, straightening out all the cushions and dusting the beautiful altar, but I had to fight with my cushion in the first few days to get comfortable. I finally brought it to my room and used a buckwheat zafu from the IMS supplies. The man sitting next to me was also struggling, moving restlessly, breathing noisily, sighing loudly, but coming to every sitting without fail. I told myself that his breathing sounded like Hugo’s in the night, steady and calming, a dog deeply asleep. I started calling this man “Shaggy Dog” as he had a bit of a wild and unkempt look about him. I did compassion for him and tried not to make up wild stories about who he was or why he was suffering. At a certain point, he got into the habit of not getting up from a sitting until I did. Was he stalking me? I didn’t usually run into him except in the hall, but it felt a bit strange. One night I wanted to sit longer after the final bell. I stayed, and Shaggy Dog stayed as well, but I could tell that he didn’t want to. Should I get up so he can get up? Should I let him work it out for himself? What will happen? He finally left with a very noisy sigh. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

And speaking of crying, my little neighborhood in the hall was full of tears. This retreat was called “The Sure Heart’s Release” and the teachings were focused on matters of the heart and the intersection of wisdom and compassion. Shaggy Dog cried early on. The lady sitting in front of me cried periodically all week. After a day or so, I started feeling a familiar ache in my heart center that I have felt before sitting in times of stress and sadness. This certainly counted as that after the cancer summer, the death of Ev in March, the stress of the first Madison visit, the death of Isabelle and the two year anniversary of my mom’s passing. At a guided metta sitting, it all came up and I cried. It felt good and like a needed release. A day or so after that, arriving in the hall for the afternoon guided metta sitting, I noticed that neither James nor Linda were in their regular spots. My yogi mind immediately assumed that they had taken James to the Hospital with heart problems from his ablation. When I saw him later at tea I was hugely relieved and I cried as we walked together that evening in the beautiful Karuna House walking room.

The ache in my chest got more intense as the week went along. It was usually a constantly changing constellation of sensations that went away when I got up from sitting. I didn’t have any trouble going up and down the many flights of stairs in my bell ringing tour before the Dharma talk. But I did feel tired coming up the hill on Pleasant Street after walking the loop. Was that from lack of sleep? Was this sensation just indigestion from the very flavorful and highly spiced food and all the delicious things like raisins and peanut butter I don’t usually eat at home? I mentioned it to Kamala in our group interview. She just said “Oh, hummmm” and made a concerned face. I was very nervous before my private interview with Mark. He had actually been an undergraduate at Princeton in my time, class of ’80. We talked about doing metta and even letting go of wholesome states, and he said something that I didn’t quiet understand which will have to settle for a while before it makes sense. His teachings overall were very moving and inspiring, but he talked a lot about the squeezing of the heart. I’m such a good student – I do what the teacher says.

By Monday afternoon the chest pains were moving down my right arm – it is the left arm that is bad isn’t it? – and I was feeling clammy and having strong hot flashes to go with. Yikes, am I having a heart attack? Both my Mom and Dad had heart attacks and didn’t realize what they were. I felt fine during a lovely walk before lunch with my friend, mentor and teacher, Susan O’Brien. She remembered when I first mentioned these sensations back 15 years ago. “But now, you are of a certain age – probably not a bad idea to get it checked out at the Dr. just to make sure” she counseled. Did her advice add fuel to the fire? I felt remarkably calm, so not a panic attack, but I made sure I had my wallet in my room and my phone charged Monday night, just in case I had to go to the ER. Tuesday morning at the closing, Shaggy Dog and I had a sweet but intense interaction. I thanked our little neighborhood for providing a safe and accepting place to cry. Shaggy Dog agreed and said I had given him strength and calm in his turbulent times. We hugged and cried. I tried to get out and to the car as quickly as possible. Michael texted me the phone number of his wonderful cardiologist and I made an appointment for the next day.

On the ride home James shared his rapturous retreat full of gratitude and joy. Linda was wound up with all the things she had wanted to tell us all week. I laughed and cried as I told them about Shaggy Dog and James’ imagined trip to the hospital. After we got onto I84 on the other side of Hartford, I let someone else drive and told them about my chest pains. They were concerned and very supportive as I slipped into a funk the rest of the way home. I started to feel mildly crummy and wondered if I should go to the ER when I got home. Finally home with Michael I had a new appreciation of how he had felt all those times he was in A-fib or A-flutter and just wanted to lay low in his cave. We didn’t go to the ER, but I sobbed and sobbed in his arms letting all the stuff that needed to release pour out.

The next afternoon, while I was fully expecting Dr. Beatie to send me to the hospital, my EKG was completely fine. A week later, after feeling pretty normal but staying away from real exercise, my echocardiogram and stress test were also completely normal. What a relief, and at least now I know my heart is healthy and strong. But what was all that? – quite a mind and body state after holding things together for the past year. Grief has no rules, as Susan O’Brien has said.


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