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Clearing the Crime-Scene Cobwebs: Meditation for Skeptics, Old-Schoolers & Beginners

Contributing Authors: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair

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The bigs.

“I was born to do this,” I congratulated myself as I brushed my teeth, wondering how many hours until daylight.

I was out of law school only a few months, just into my role of prosecuting traffic citations in justice court, the lowest deputy county attorney handling the lowest priority cases in the court of least jurisdiction, when called-out to my first middle-of-the-night crime scene. It was my inaugural shift as an on-call prosecutor and the first time I’d ever carried a cell phone (I know I’m carbon-dating myself), so when it rang it took me a minute to wake up, figure out how to flip it open in the dark, and accept the call. It was my boss.

“Do you have a pen? Write down this address and meet me down there. It’ll take me about fifteen minutes.”

This is it. Finally! I’ve been called to handle some real crime.

I don’t recall what time it was when I pulled into the narrow, vacant area in the dirt between the gravel and the dilapidated mobile home. The stars seemed blotted out and a dim yellowish back-light coming from a distant power pole faintly illuminated the boxy shapes of the 70’s-era trailer park. Other than that, it was really dark and oddly quiet, given the density of people packed into the twenty or so aging trailers packed inside a single square block. Maybe a dog barked.

My boss, the County Attorney, met me at the door and offered a quick briefing. The suspect had slashed the victim’s neck and fled on foot, leaving the victim bleeding out on the dirty floor of the old trailer, amidst garbage, half-finished crosswords and animal waste. By the time I got there, the victim had been taken to the hospital and detectives were already processing the scene — taking photos, gathering evidence and swabbing for forensics.

As I stared at the coagulating pools, I was struck by two things that have stayed with me for the last 25 years: my awe of the human body’s capacity to hold and lose so much fluid; and that smell — the distinct mixture of blood, alcohol and squalor.

In the decades to follow, there were countless more crime scenes, gruesome photographs, horrific stories, broken kids and jury trials.

Career prosecutors who handle crimes of violence and human tragedy will often say that the most effective prosecutors are those who deeply connect with other people — their circumstances, their stories, their traumas — and then authentically convey the essence of human tragedy to jurors. It is no coincidence that prosecutors, especially the good ones, suffer the classic symptoms of long-term exposure to secondary trauma, which can mirror the symptoms of PTSD. Left to stagnate, the effects can be devastating.

What’s so great about meditation?

I was one of biggest skeptics of anything woo-woo or new-agey. I’m still not a fan of group activities, “getting to know you” games or “team building” exercises. I scoffed at things not detectable to the human eye and wore my grit like a badge. Until I discovered the benefits of meditation.

For the last 10 years, we’ve been bombarded with self-help-ish suggestions to do yoga, go vegan and meditate. We all know we could do better at maintaining our aging bodies, but with time-crunches and pressure from every direction, we need to invest in activities that get us the biggest bang for our precious time. Is meditation really the answer? What is meditation, actually? It is different for everyone.

What finally led me to meditation?

Vanity. In the midst of a protracted, work-related whirlwind, shortly after I was first elected as the County Attorney, my metabolism went bonkers due to unmanaged stress and I packed on about 10 unwelcome pounds. My naturopath recommended the audio book Meditate Your Weight, A 21-Day Retreat to Optimize Your Metabolism and Feel Great, by Tiffany Cruikshank, LAC, MAOM where, according to the publisher’s summary, the author teaches “How to get started: advice for new meditators (no weird positions or chants required).” Really? It doesn’t have to be weird? I’ll try the first one and, if it gets to woo-woo, return the book.

I didn’t return the book. I finished it. More than once. I learned that meditation is not tricky, not necessarily spiritual or even time-consuming. And I felt better, so I kept at it.

It really does help.

New research published in Forbes offers evidence that yoga and meditation benefit our short and long-term physical and mental health.

Brian Pennie, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, explained, in 3 Things to Do If You Want a Brain That’s 10 Years Younger,

Research shows that a regular mindfulness practice weakens the amygdala’s ability to hijack your emotions. This happens in two ways. First, the amygdala decreases in physical size. Second, connections between the amygdala and the parts of the cortex associated with fear are weakened,” he writes. “I have literally shrunk the fear center of my brain, and as a result, I simply don’t feel anxiety like I used to.

It is kind of like a charging dock for humans. Yeah, there are other ways we recharge our batteries — for me, horseback riding, painting, running, beaches, cooking — but we all have a battery pack with various types of batteries that all need charging. And meditation charges something different, something bigger, deeper, and I wouldn’t trade those minutes every morning for a trip to the Big Island. OK, I would, but I’d still meditate on the beach.

How to meditate.

Andrea Parsons, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist explains in Prevention, “Meditation is the practice of intentionally awakening to our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the mental space of observance and acceptance. Meditation asks us to be the observer of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations rather than the critic of them.”

There are many kinds of meditation to suit various styles, schedules and goals, including mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, movement meditation, and many others. There is no single right way to do it.

Try starting by just sitting for one minute. Pop in your earbuds with some soothing ambient music, waves or other white noise. Find a comfortable spot with fewer distractions, sit and close your eyes. Try to turn down your thoughts, just for one minute, and absorb the stillness and quiet.

But my mind wanders.

Everyone’s mind wanders. Meditation helps us work toward finding calm and observing our thoughts and emotions. If your mind wanders, and you notice a thought pop in, gently let it go and return back to the quiet. Remember, noticing your thoughts is an indicator that you are increasing your awareness, which is the point of meditation! Nice work.

Will meditation fix me?

Probably not in one minute. But as part of a repetitive, holistic practice that includes exercise, healthy diet and connection with others, it can greatly improve your quality of life. And it can help us metabolize years of secondary trauma and crime scene residue that often presents as cynicism, burnout and disease. It has for me.

Where to find more.

The zeitgeist of YouTube has more meditation videos than can be counted, with more being added every day, from ambient music to short, guided morning meditations, you are sure to find something that fits your comfort level.

Insight Timer is a free comprehensive app for anxiety, sleep and stress and has thousands of meditations, courses, lectures and inspirations. It is a great resource.

Here is a great BBC documentary on meditation

ABC Science and The Science of Meditation

10-minute morning meditation by Jason Stephenson

Helpful tips from a master, Deepak Chopra

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Pictured: Kirsten Pabst

Kirsten Pabst chairs NDAA’s Well-being Task Force and serves at the County Attorney for Missoula County, Montana.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

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