What an MRI Machine Taught Me About Mindfulness

Note: A friend expressed concern and mentioned that, in the U.S., people only have MRIs if something is seriously wrong. In Canada, MRI is sometimes used in place of other screening technologies; this was just a checkup.

Ok, I admit, this is a bit of a departure from the whole nature and walking thing. Bear with me.

I had an MRI today. If you’ve never had one, it’s a giant circular magnet that looks remarkably like how you might imagine an alien testing site. A person lies on a platform in the middle, and the ring is moved over the area to be scanned. The machine then takes thousands of pictures, at different frequencies, to show what’s happening in a given area of the body.

Because the images have to stack up precisely, one of the most important factors is that the person inside remain completely still—no movement at all—for the duration. In my case, that was to be 20 minutes.

I asked the technician whether the subtle movement created by breathing would be an issue. “No” she said, and then, with a slightly alarmed face that suggested this might have happened before, she said, “Keep breathing. Whatever happens, don’t stop breathing.” I had to laugh (and so did she), but it gave me the idea that maybe I could actually meditate inside the scanner.

As I lay down on the platform, the technician asked what kind of music I’d like to listen to. I really wanted to ask if she had any meditation music, but I went with classical instead.

She positioned me precisely, then told me not to move (stillness!) and placed enormous headphones over my ears. A piano sonata began streaming through; I closed my eyes (which helped me pretend I wasn’t surrounded by a huge metal magnet) and began focusing on my breath. Rise, fall. Rise, fall. It was…surprisingly like meditation. Quiet. It’s not loud at all, I thought.

And then she turned the machine on.

It was loud.

So loud.

Like, jackhammer-loud.

The piano sonata was completely drowned out by the sounds of the machine.

After my initial startle-response, I realized I had a choice: I could be annoyed by the loud noises, or I could simply notice them without judgment. This is a practice I use at the dentist regularly: paying attention to the sensations without creating stories around them. (I realize the irony; I’m creating a story about my experience. My thinking mind is tricky that way.)

The sounds were rhythmic. And there were different tones.

I began paying attention to sounds, and I continued to focus on the breath, rotating with focusing on the sensations in my (very, very still) hands and feet.

Every two or three minutes, the machine would turn off (silence! Piano music!) And then it would start again with a different sounds in a different pattern (I later learned that these were the different image frequencies).

I let myself become fascinated by the qualities of sounds, tones and patterns.

One pattern sounded like it was actually saying “click-click-click.”

Another sounded like a conversation between machines, with one pattern of sounds on the right and a brief echo, as if the machine on the left were noting a confirmation.

Then came a fast-paced one that initially sounded to me like a jackhammer—my initial aversive reaction was that it was unbearably loud—but then the sounds faded into the words “breathe, breathe, breathe” (albeit at a superfast pace. More like “hyperventilate, hyperventilate, hyperventilate.”) Followed by another pattern that morphed into, “Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move.”

Breath. Hands. Feet. Breath. Sounds.

My mind wandered, of course, including to “How can I make sure I remember all this?” I just kept bringing it back to the sensations.

About 15 minutes in, my nose began itching. Of course. When I’m meditating outside a giant metal tube, I usually make a note, then scratch my nose anyway. But this time, I had no choice but to accept it, to notice it, to focus on the breath and remember that everything passes. (Admittedly, I really hoped this itch would pass quickly), and in the meantime, I focused on feeling my feet.

At the end of the scan, I felt remarkably relaxed. On one level, I couldn’t wait to leave the hospital, because I’m not fond of that environment. But by turning the scan into an impromptu meditation, I avoided not only rumination about the results, but also the judgments my mind would likely make, of “being here is bad; loud noise is bad; outdoors and quiet are good.”

Next time I start thinking, “Oh, I don’t have time to meditate,” (so…tomorrow probably) or I start thinking about waiting until I can meditate outside on a sunny day, I’m going to remind myself of this post. It’s really possible to meditate anywhere, any time. Or maybe, even, to turn life into a meditation.

(c) Can Stock Photo

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.

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