A couple of years ago I was given a precious opportunity to join a long study/meditation retreat at a lovely place in the Malverns, with a great bunch of friends and teachers. I’d been looking forward this for a long time. Then imagine my distress, when, 4 days into the retreat, I woke up with a high pitched ringing in my left ear and an uncomfortable feeling of fullness and heat in the left part of my head. My three month idyll turned into a very difficult and emotional slog as I struggled to come to terms with tinnitus. Those of us who suffer with tinnitus will know what a miserable thing it can be. Although it’s generally not painful, it can drive you crazy. When it started, I suffered from bad insomnia. My nights were sleepless and miserable. As soon as I sat down in a quiet room to meditate, I was immediately aware of the noise and it became difficult to concentrate. I was very frightened, sad, bewildered and, after a few weeks, completely exhausted. I wept at the slightest thing. I didn’t feel in control. Everything kept sliding away from me. I also felt very lonely, especially at night when I lay, wide awake as others slumbered, listening to my ringing ears.
Of course – I was in the right place! Not only was I studying the practice of mindfulness, but here I was with a cracking opportunity to practice it. And with people to help me too. The trouble was that the theory was much easier than the practice – turning towards tinnitus proved to be on of the most difficult things I have ever done, but in the event, also the most rewarding.
I had all the tests to rule out brain tumours and other horribles. They all came back clear. So there was relief, but also incomprehension. What caused this and why me?? My days were filled with fretful conversations about it, internet searches, mild to strong fits of panic, accumulating tiredness and lots of deep anxiety. About six weeks in, and with lots of time to observe what was happening, I knew that I was in a merry-go-round state of either pushing tinnitus away, trying to ignore it or seeking comfort through distraction. After six weeks, and at rock bottom, I knew that either I would have to face up to it – literally turn towards it, or I’d have to cash in the opportunity of a lifetime and go home.
So I started to really practice what others had been preaching about mindfulness; and discovered what had sounded so sensible and reasonable in theory, proved rather difficult to do at first. I started by being very brave, and counter intuitively listening to the sounds, rather than avoiding them. The first seconds of this turning were invariably the hardest, but I quite quickly learned that the most difficult bit would pass quickly. I tried to cultivate an attitude of interest, rather than fear. Helpful things happened. I met other people on the retreat who told me that they too had had bad tinnitus, but had either become accustomed to it, or it had abated . A tinnitus expert told me that the noise is not in your ears, it’s actually in your brain. It’s your brain interpreting sounds differently. She said ‘Just imagine it’s brain music’. That helped me a lot. Thinking of tinnitus as music rather than cacophony. Thinking of it as sound rather than noise. Thinking of it as small, rather than big.
So I made every effort to find space and quiet in my life to enable me to work with this moment to moment turning towards, instead of resorting to methods of avoidance.
I used mindfulness to systematically help me identify places and states and situations and activities which would make me feel easier. I quickly learned that certain things would do this. These are some that work for me:
- Going outside into the open air. The acoustics are completely different and the brain is enlivened and refocused by many other strong sensations.
- Seeking out comforting noises. The wind in the trees. Water flowing. Birdsong or the drone of distant traffic. Fires crackling. Music.
- Being with people who cared about me and made me laugh – I began to notice that the tinnitus always felt better.
- Laughter – jokes, TV comedy shows, funny movies or books
- Mindful meditation, with gentle background noise somewhere.
- Just doing ordinary things like housework, cooking, gardening, cleaning stuff. S-l-o-w-l-y.
- Going for a short walk – I always do the same one and try to notice what’s different each time. I like the familiarity and safe predictability but I also like to clock the changes.
It was meditation that I began to notice had a palpable effect and began to give me back a little sense of control. I’d sit upright or lie prone and comfortable, allowing myself to notice the ringing, but resolving to keep turning my attention to the rise and fall of my breath as well. Miraculously, I began to notice that after 20 minutes or so of this, my mind would stop noticing the tinnitus. It wouldn’t go, but it would ease and even become quieter or lower. And even more importantly, I would begin to feel calmer; more centered and sometimes actually happy and joyful. I focused on other pleasant sensations in my body. My bum warm on the cushion or my shoulders relaxing. I’d say to myself – no pain here, no discomfort there. Most importantly, if this didn’t happen (and sometimes it didn’t) I didn’t give up. I cultivated and then rested in the trust that if this worked for others, if it worked for me sometimes, then it could work for me again.
I began to notice things that made it worse and avoid them. These were some for me.
- Being with charged up, anxious people and in fraught conversations.
- Enclosed, small spaces, especially places with double glazing; lots of insulation and in cars. I always travelled with the windows open.
- Rushing around and getting tired.
- Busy, stressful conditions with lots of people, activity, sensory inputs and requirements for me to respond.
- Worrying if I couldn’t sleep.
- Fretting – doing the thing where I started telling myself stories about the future and then worrying about what I ought to be doing to avoid it.
One day I watched a British Tinnitus Society video in which three lovely, ordinary people with tinnitus talked about how they’d learned to deal with it. One of them said that she hardly noticed it now. I liked hearing about people who had ‘come out the other side’ as it were. It made me feel more confident.
Most importantly, somewhere along the way I let the belief that it would all be OK if only I did this, or that, or that... fall away. At some point I just accepted it. I said, well this is me now. I even tried to express affection and care for myself by stroking my ear or the side of my head if it became bothersome. Like I’d comfort my grandson if he hurt himself.
There was an evening in October, somewhere well into the retreat, after about 10 weeks of this ‘turning towards’ that I was trying to do, when I found myself sitting on my bed, staring out through the windows at dusk, watching the evening stars emerging and listening to the wind in the trees and thinking, this is so peaceful and beautiful; I don’t ever remember feeling happier or calmer. I remember checking in with the sounds in my ears and noticing that if I went looking, they were still there, still as present and still as ‘loud’. But then, if I took my attention out from this little part of the picture of my experience at that very moment, and into the big frame of everything else going on, then there was just ease and peacefulness and a tremendous feeling of satisfaction that I had come to learn ways of facing this and then living with it.
Three years on and it’s still there. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t stay the same. It comes and goes. There are bad days, or more usually, hours. When they happen I know what to do – and if that fails, I know that if I simply stay with it and have confidence, then soon it will change again. Mostly now there are good days, when it’s just a part of me, and when it calls my attention, I simply say ‘hallo again’, and not – ‘go away’. I say ‘now what can I do to comfort myself?