Ask any great mindfulness teachers how they got their start, many will gladly share their personal stories. So often, it comes as a direct consequence of a life crisis—of hitting bottom and the redemption that begins by picking oneself off the floor. That’s what happened to psychologist Dr. Jenna Tedesco, who is paying it all forward by helping veterans suffering from PTSD pull their lives together. Multitalented, Dr. Tedesco is a classical vocalist (mezzo-soprano). She received her undergraduate degree in Russian language and English literature with minors in psychology and fine art. She went on to graduate school in psychology and eventually was trained in mindfulness practices.
Different kinds of suffering are just like different kinds of ice cream. It’s all suffering. I grew up in a family with parents who loved me very, very much. But they were very tormented by their own life histories and their own families. So I suffered excruciatingly painful abuse as a child. And I have had a lot of illness in my life, some of which came from some of the abuse that I’ve suffered. So I understand what suffering can be like. And my suffering pales in comparison to what my veterans experience. But I know enough of it to know that I can connect with them on that level. We get each other that way.
When I first began practicing mindfulness, I was struggling with addiction. I had gone through a terrible divorce. I had severe PTSD. Endometriosis had been recently diagnosed. And because of the traumas in my history and severe head injuries, I developed a seizure disorder. So I was in a very, very difficult place in my life.
So I started taking a mindfulness class at the University of Pennsylvania with Michael Baime. “This sounds like some hippie bullshit,” I said to myself. “But okay, what do I really have to lose?” Within the first session, we started with a sitting practice and I knew immediately that this was going to be life-changing. The next session, we did a body scan. For people with trauma, a body scan is not always so delightful. I wanted to run out of the room like my hair was on fire. I realized how difficult it was just sitting with my own body, one I perceived at the time as really quite broken. But I also realized it was going to reconnect me. Slowly, over time, I began to understand that being able to also hold myself in that same loving space and seeing things as they really and truly were that a capacity to love was liberated.
It’s both so simple and complicated. You just keep showing up. You keep showing up for your practice the way you keep showing up for your life. The more you resist the flow of your life, the more your life will set up blockages for you that will become really difficult. Just keep showing up. Wandering and returning. Noticing the judgment. Noticing the judging of the judgment. Have a laugh about it because you can’t make this shit up. We human beings are hilarious. Our lives are like the best sitcoms ever. They are tender and bitter and wonderful. Just keep showing up.
Mindfulness has a unique capacity to help people heal. How it does this is very different than other kinds of therapeutic techniques, because most work from the top down. Everything in the world of psychotherapy nowadays is cognitive and very focused on thinking.
But mindfulness actually changes the brain. In my many years of psychotherapy, the therapist would say, ‘Oh, just try to relax. Just try not to think about it. Just put that behind you.” Yeah, that’s great, but how do you do it? Nobody gives you a map. And the bad news is that if you’ve had traumatic stress and illness, your brain is changed. So it’s almost impossible to move through it without changing the brain back.
Mindfulness practice is very much like learning scales on the piano. If you want to play in Carnegie Hall, you, practice, practice, practice. The first time you do your scales, it is plink, plink, plink, where’s the next note? Eventually you develop a certain facility. Mindfulness practice is exactly the same thing. Something changes in your brain. The insula, a part of the brain, which is responsible for your capacity to feel present in your body, begins to get nice and big and juicy again. Anyone who has suffered from trauma feels cut off in this sensation. “If I don’t feel it, it doesn’t exist” is what their brain tells them. Suddenly, you’re present.
Next, the hippocampus that is otherwise so sensitive to stress turns back on. It’s responsible for short-term memory and emotionally encoded memory. This is the part of the brain that acts up when you can’t find your keys. The more aggravated you get, the less likely you are to find your keys until you sit and calm down. Other parts of the brain affected is the amygdala, which is responsible for fight and flight. For people who have experienced trauma, it only takes one trauma for that part of your brain to immediately rewire and become very reactive to everything—even that which is not really related to trauma
Dr. Jenna Tedesco’s meditation circle counseling veterans, Wilmington, Delaware
anymore. Add to this, is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex that does a lot of the planning and organizing. For veterans and others who have experienced trauma and illness, all these parts of the brain are compromised.
When you “sit in practice” as we say in mindfulness meditation, you begin to notice your breath. Your mind wanders off into the land of cheeseburgers and what you’re having for lunch. You realize it, and you bring your breath right back again. That’s one repetition. Before you know it, you’re out wandering again and you come back again. Accumulating repetitions, your brain changes as a result of this wandering and returning. Because something fundamental is shifting in the architecture means that a shifting in your actual life is now possible—and in ways you couldn’t imagine or even describe (because it’s nonverbal). I’m not making this up. The research is very clear. If I stick your head in a functional MRI machine at the beginning of an eight week MBSR program and compare it eight weeks later after you’ve gone
through training and done all your home practices, your brain looks different. The neuronal connections across the corpus callosum (the part that wires the two halves of your brain together) are thicker and juicier. You grow gray matter. You grow white matter. Your brain changes. Mindfulness has one basic intention—that is, we seek to drop into what is happening in the moment. That means not only the delightful things in the moment but also the crap—and vise versa. And at any given moment, both are happening at the same time. Our practice enables us to carry these things, the complexity in the space. You begin to look at how things really are, not how you think they are or how the world has told you things are. You begin to directly observe how interconnected we all are. You discover that each and every one of us has this capacity. With this interconnection, compassion shows up.
All enquiries re Dr. Jenna Tedesco’s work or the Veterans project, email [email protected]