An MRI machine is a curious thing. It’s as if someone asked you what would make you the most unbearably uncomfortable and then, having heard the details about your claustrophobia, went out and created the MRI—a tailor-made torture chamber. Fortunately, a well-meaning soul—an ingenuous sidekick with a sparkling eye who was obviously not out to torture—came up with the idea of adding a tiny mirror that gives one the comforting illusion that there actually is some space in the world outside the cylinder.
I knew some of this before I went to the hospital, but I hadn’t quite grasped just how small the space was going to be. I pride myself on being brave—overcoming has always sounded better to me than submitting—so I was going to do this with dignity. As I was slowly propelled into the MRI’s inner sanctum, I had to remind myself to breathe. “Oh boy, this is much worse than I expected,” I remember thinking. I closed my eyes and vowed not to bolt. (Which, in retrospect, was a little bit like vowing not to leap out of a body cast!)
Another fact that had escaped my pre-MRI experience consciousness was that it was going to be noisy. No one had told me that! The attendant offered me ear phones before enshrouding me in the mechanism. He even seemed to offer me a choice between classical and rock—I thought I said classical, but the earphones emitted rock. And it was better that way—I would never have been able to detect a single note of a Mozart string quartet over the device’s clanging cacophony, but a few bars of acid rock tinkled weakly in my ears.
I was speaking internally the whole time: I began by reminding myself that many thousands of people had done this, and I hadn’t yet read of a fatal MRI attack. I remembered that it was a finite experience. This was not going to last the rest of my life. There would be a moment when it was all over.
I discovered that lying with eyes closed was the most bearable and, on those occasions when I did open my eyes, I was careful to look directly at the mirror which would optically catapult me across the room. If I shifted my eyes just a little bit, I saw the ceiling of the chamber a scant inch above my face. I learned quickly that was not comfortable.
In the midst of this experience, on the very brink of summoning the attendant with a frightful shriek, I recalled a practice that has become part of our Wednesday morning class with Sylvia Boorstein at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. We say the names softly, but aloud, of people to whom we want to send special good wishes. We call it metta or lovingkindness practice. Call it prayer, call it holding someone in your heart, call it magic.
So, amid the bangings and clangings of the machine, the rock and roll in the earphones, and barely-under-control panic, I began to do metta for all the people in my life, to wish them well on their diverse journeys. “May she be peaceful. . . may he be happy. . . .”
I closed my eyes, took a couple of deep breaths, and started naming to myself people in the San Francisco Bay Area who are most immediately in my life. Then, my mind and heart fanned out across the country. I went north to Portland, Oregon, stopped in Chicago, moved on to Rochester, New York, swooped over to Boston, and then down to Glastonbury, Connecticut. I made several metta stops in New York City, two in Atlanta, and mentally meandered back to friends in Southern California via Denver. I hopped on the Concorde making metta wishes for friends who live in Paris; in Brussels; in Aarhus, Denmark, and silently instructed the pilot to fly over Africa so I could whisper special wishes for a friend who lives on a mountaintop in Uganda.
I said the names slowly, concentrating intently on each one, and time passed. The MRI noises grew faint; the rock music vanished; and I was lying languidly in a field full of orange poppies, yawning and stretching like a cat in the warmth of the sun.