The overhead exam light pierced into every corner of the room. The patient in his yellow gown sat at the edge of the bed. A tall, slender family member stood at the couch. When we entered the room he came directly at me with violence in his voice, “What is your name? What is your name?”
Registering his tone and aligning myself with neutral energy, I said, “I’m Paula. I’ll be the nurse today.” He ignored my words and immediately turned to the night nurse. His energy surged ahead of him as he walked in her direction, exclaiming, “What is your name? Come here. Outside. Outside. Come on. We need to talk.” The whites of his eyes were bloodshot. He emanated anger as he forced the woman out of the room and into the hall.
Afterward, he came back in with a swagger and sat seething on the couch wringing his hands. She entered behind him and with a calm tone addressed the patient to ensure he was well and to remind him of his last pain medication.
I left the room to notify the charge nurse. There was no way I was going to put up with this today. “Hey, are you in charge today? You need to know that the family member in this room was just violently threatening and aggressive with the night nurse.” Within minutes, she was on the phone with the hospital supervisor to inform them of the incident. It’s 6:53 on a Sunday morning, the start of my shift.
The demands on my nervous system are relentless throughout the shift. No nurse aide, constant alarms and call lights, a new admission, a transfer to ICU, an onslaught of new orders to address changes in patient status’; problem after problem without much support.
I skid from one task to the next on a flurry of adrenaline, “If I could just get this one thing done, then maybe I’d have a chance to catch up on charting or take a breath or drink some water or go to the bathroom.” And without fail, I get only ten seconds sitting at the computer before one or both of my phones ring, a patient family member accosts me, or a call light sounds with no one but me to answer it.
Yea, I leave on time but my nervous system is in ablaze. Near constant demands on my time and energy for twelve hours, both critical and non-critical, leave me wide-eyed and frazzled. I make the long drive home praying for ease. I take my tense body into the shower. I swoon over the water that rinses me of the day’s stress, and I give gratitude for its ability to purify and cleanse; “Wash away what is not mine and return to me all that is.”
This is a normal day in the life of a bedside nurse. I do this three days a week.
The next morning I snuggle my blush pink comforter up to my chin and incidentally nudge my eye mask. A slit of light peaks beneath the black shield and my mind starts, “What time is it? What should I do today? What’s most important? What’s best? How would it feel to do this or that?”
I sleep a few extra minutes but a buzz of energy circulates through my body. Heaviness weighs me down, pushing me towards the bed (more sleep, more sleep!) while a lightness and excitement tingle in my extremities. Sleep has no place here anymore.
As I’m drawn out of bed, my mind continues, “How should I do my morning? What’s there to do today? When will I rest? How will I get all my tasks done and feel spacious and rested? Will I get to do soul work? How will I do soul work? How will I know this is right for me?”
This anxiety takes hold before I even wipe my eyes of sleep. A clinching tension akin to the tight, task-oriented adrenaline I feel on any given day of work. I’m squarely in its grips and unsure of how to respond.
I go for a run. The humid air, the hot sun, the smell of cow manure, the fresh cut farm field, the swooping birds. My breath draws long and hard and then short and fast. I walk a little. It gets hotter and my forehead wonders why I left her so exposed to the rays of the sun. I keep going, and I think about meditation.
In America, we’ve become pretty good at dismantling other culture’s lineages. Yoga is one of them. Originally, yoga includes not only the series of asanas that most people know yoga to be today but it also includes spiritual teachings as well as meditation.
Meditation has always been a core part of yoga with the asanas completed beforehand as an essential precursory practice. The asanas are intended to bring the body into alignment with the mind. Asanas stretch, strengthen, warm, and align the muscles and bones of the body. All of which calms and soothes the nervous system through the use of breath and mindfulness as each pose is enacted. By the time the poses are complete, the body is calm, open, heated, and relaxed – and so is the mind, mostly.
The body has a big impact on our ability to calm our minds. When our body is tight, rigid, and tense our minds won’t relax, open, and unwind. First, tend to the body. Calm the nervous system, warm and stretch the muscles, expend some energy. Then sit in meditation. A calm body helps the mind to be calm and the meditator is better able to drop into deep focus. Once the body is prepared the mind becomes less frantic and meditation becomes easier to do.
My run today is my way of dropping into my body and loosening the hold of nervous tension. But despite the run, my mind still chatters endlessly. I worry about my worries. I’m confused about how to get it to stop so I can sink into inspiration and flow. It’s no coincidence meditation came to mind while I was out hitting the pavement one foot after the next.
I make my way to my large purple chair in front of my window with a view of the farmer’s field. I get comfortable and close my eyes. Inside I go. Within minutes the outside world falls away and a stillness takes over. Gratitude arises; thankful I took the time to tame the body before sitting to meditate. I can feel the difference.
The chatter of my mind quiets and I realize that intentional stillness offers medicine for my overworked nervous system. A nervous system habituated to near-constant stimulation and demands. But at this moment, she unfurls.
A warm, yummy feeling swirls in my belly. Satisfaction. This is just what I needed to recover from work and my other non-work stressors. Now how will I commit to truly providing what I need for myself on a regular basis? Because – on a regular basis – is what I need.
Making time and committing to some variation of my own yoga feels imperative even though there’s a part of me that’s more than willing to convince me that I’m too tired or there’s not enough time. But I know that my wellness depends on some version of these practices: movement and meditation. It’s up to me to take this knowing and act on it. Otherwise, these reflections and insights lay waste while my nervous system runs amok.
But not today. Refreshed, I open my eyes. Stillness oozes from my center as the garage door slams shut, four dogs start barking, and chatter erupts downstairs. A moment is all I need in this frenzy that is life; tame the body, quiet the mind, and our nervous systems will soothe and soften.