Mindfulness keeps Charlene grounded and grateful

Charlene Avery

Charlene Avery is no stranger to the UW Health Mindfulness Program. Now in her 50s, Charlene started practicing mindfulness in her early 30s.

While struggling with a persistent, undiagnosed health problem over the past four years, Charlene credits her experience with the practice of mindfulness for helping her navigate an arduous journey.

Charlene’s symptoms began in 2019, accelerating like the pitter-patter of raindrops at the beginning of a storm. Dizziness, fatigue and difficulty with balance were among the most persistent. Intertwined with these symptoms, Charlene suffered three whiplash incidents over several months, including a fall in her yard that resulted in eight joint sprains.

Over time, Charlene found it harder to organize things or solve problems. Her mind-body connection was hampered, evidenced by not being able to walk in the UW Health water therapy pool and count her steps out loud at the same time.

An occupational therapist for 28 years, Charlene had to retire shortly after turning 51. As more symptoms surfaced, she regretfully gave up her hobby as an aspiring writer of children’s books. After seeing doctors from primary care to neurology to cardiology to ear/nose/throat, Charlene came away with few answers.

She describes her condition as a traumatic brain injury, although the phrase is more of a conversational placeholder for what remains an undiagnosed condition.

A prescription for mindfulness

“The one thing every doctor agreed on was that I should practice mindfulness,” Charlene said. “I didn’t need much convincing because I was familiar with the practice for more than two decades.”

One of the core principles of mindfulness is being kind to yourself, something Charlene struggled with as routine activities became more challenging. After enrolling in one of the Mindfulness Program’s graduate courses, Charlene began to feel more centered, thanks to the class’s focus on self-love, self-care and compassion.

Charlene vividly recalls a moment when Lisa Thomas Prince, who manages the Mindfulness Program, read an excerpt from the teachings of American Tibetan Buddhist, author and teacher Pema Chödrön. Two lines from Chödrön are:

Be kinder to yourself. And then let your kindness flood the world.
You’re not ruining your practice just by being you.

“These words really hit home to me,” Charlene said. “They reinforced how important it is to be kind to ourselves, even when a mindfulness practice doesn’t go the way we think it should.”

Thomas Prince added: “The Chödrön teachings helped Charlene appreciate that despite the ongoing frustration of her symptoms and missing out on some things she enjoyed, there was liberation in accepting things as they are. As I’ve gotten to know Charlene, I can say that she truly embodies many of the core aspects of mindfulness, including patience, diligence and kindness.”

Another mindfulness component, known as “Beginner’s mind,” helps Charlene manage some of the anxiety or difficulty presented by a situation.

Author Leo Babauta describes “Beginner’s mind” as “dropping our expectations and preconceived ideas about something, and seeing things with an open mind, fresh eyes, just like a beginner.”

Charlene applies “Beginner’s mind” in many situations, such as meeting a friend or sitting down to breakfast.

“If you approach something as if you’ve never done it before, it makes you less prone to ruminate on ‘what if’ scenarios that may never happen,” she said.

Living in the moment

Charlene also tries to practice “non-judging” and “non-striving” to help her live in the moment, rather than focusing on past happenings or future — something our minds do all the time.

“These principles help me stay curious and focus on learning and being, rather than doing,” Charlene said. “Most of us get entangled in stories generated by our busy mind. I think of it as a big ball of yarn and sometimes the stories and tangles get pretty messy. That’s when I picture myself sitting high up on a hill. It helps me visualize my thoughts and ideas passing by, as if they’re on a train rumbling along below or like clouds floating by. I just don’t have to go along for the ride."

Despite the frustration of living with an undiagnosed condition, Charlene is experiencing progress with treatment and feels happier and more energized than she has in some time.

She loves walking her dog, Rex, and being outdoors, whether tending to her garden or enjoying the beauty of nature while riding her bicycle. She and her husband, Aaron, also have a couple of trips to look forward to later this year.

Without question, mindfulness has played a pivotal role in Charlene’s comeback.

“I have so much gratitude for the Mindfulness Program,” she said. “I could not have gotten to this point without it. It’s been a huge part of my recovery.”