No amount of meditation will allow me to unhear the sickening thud of my toddler’s head as it made impact with the edge of our wooden coffee table.
The diabolical table, purchased before our child was born, had been a sleek, hulking anxiety inducer for my wife and me ever since the kid had learned how to walk. We had covered its menacing blond-wood edges with protective plastic, but had been unable — either because of laziness or sunk-cost bias — to bring ourselves to remove it.
It was a Sunday night, and we had given our 2-year old, Alexander, permission to jump on the couch before bed. Like any neurotic first-time dad from the Upper West Side, I had propped up big, fluffy throw pillows against the side of the table, and then positioned myself on the floor to monitor the situation. I was not distracted; I didn’t even have my phone with me — as I would later point out, perhaps a little too emphatically, to my wife.
I looked over at the other side of the room for a second, during which time Alexander somehow managed to launch himself off the couch, over the protective pillows and right down on the table’s edge, whose plastic covering was no match for the blow. I turned around just in time to catch the final collision.
The wailing was immediate. But it wasn’t until I was able to unfold his crumpled little body that I was able to get a look at the gaping gash on his forehead, directly above his right eyebrow.
This seems like a good place to mention that for the past nine years, I have been a committed daily meditator — a practice I embraced warily, after long assuming it was only for fans of patchouli and Enya. I’ve even written a few books on the subject, intended to appeal to my fellow skeptics.
In this moment, however, meditation was doing me no discernible good whatsoever. I was both panicked and nauseated. My wife, Bianca — who is a doctor and happens to be very good under pressure — rushed over from the other room and began tending to Alexander’s wound, while also demanding to know what the hell had happened. This is when I began issuing my compulsive, high-pitched assurances that my phone was not on my person at the time. I was watching him, I swear! Bianca announced that we’d have to go to the emergency room.
The Buddhists have an excellent word to describe the kind of mental commotion I was experiencing: prapanca. This Sanskrit term translates roughly to “the imperialistic tendency of mind.” Something bad happens, and then we immediately construct a phantasmagoric future.
As I scooped up my son and carried him to the E.R. (which, luckily, is right across the street), my prapanca was going something like this:
Alexander is going to have a permanent, disfiguring scar. Maybe he has a concussion? My wife is never going to leave me alone with him ever again. The nurses are going to think we’re child abusers.
For better or for worse, the staff at the E.R. didn’t seem nearly as concerned about Alexander’s forehead as we were. They sent us to an exam room and told us to wait for the plastic surgeon, who would be coming from home. I paced around, questioning how sanitary the place was, while Alexander, who by now was calmer than I, took advantage of the sudden suspension of regular order to binge-watch “Masha and the Bear” on his mother’s phone.
After what seemed to me like entirely too much time, the plastic surgeon arrived. He examined Alexander’s forehead and, in an even voice, pronounced, “This is bad.”
Then he told us that we would have to tie Alexander up.
Rather than sedate our son, the doctor would rely on local anesthesia to numb the area. But that meant we had to subdue Alexander so that the surgeon could do his work. That entailed wrapping the kid in bedsheets, all the while telling him we were playing a game called the mummy. The doctor then instructed me to hold down Alexander’s torso while Bianca got his legs. By the time our son figured out what was going on, he started screaming and writhing. He wasn’t in pain; he was just scared. Holding him down was agony. He was staring directly into my eyes and yelling, “I don’t like the mummy!”
More prapanca: This is all my fault. He’s never going to forgive me. I’m going to end up on the cover of Bad Parent magazine.
The doctor worked with remarkable speed. After a few minutes, Alexander was stitched up and unwrapped. He was sweaty from all the crying, but he recovered quickly, curling up in Bianca’s arms, returning to his cartoons. I, meanwhile, resumed my pacing, if only to make sure I didn’t faint.
At this point, though, it dawned on me that maybe my meditation practice was actually working. True, guilt and fear had been coursing through my veins, but the point of meditation is not to ensure that you never experience difficult emotions, but to help you not be so yanked around by whatever you’re feeling. And in this case, I realized, I had been reasonably good at seeing my anxiety and prapanca clearly, so that they didn’t completely govern me, which allowed me to be present with my son when he really needed me. As I often remind my readers, meditation is not supposed to propel you into a permanent bubble of bliss, but rather to enable you to handle life’s vicissitudes with more equanimity.
My meditation practice also helped prevent what could have been a nasty fight with my wife. Instead of reflexively retreating to a defensive crouch when she pointed out that I needed to be more careful, I acknowledged her point (albeit with a few more “I didn’t have my phone” protestations), and moved on.
It’s a good thing I was calm because, as the doctor prepared to leave, he looked me and said, “Hey, are you the meditation guy?” (He explained that he, too, was a converted skeptic.)
By the time we arrived back at our apartment building, I was still pretty shaky, but Alexander seemed totally fine. He walked into the lobby on his own steam, and after explaining to the doormen how brave he’d been, he wheeled back around, waving his index finger in the air, declaring, “But I don’t like the mummy!”
Two months have now passed. The wound has healed nicely. (Apparently doctors who meditate do nice work.) And I’m more confident than ever about the efficacy of my practice.
Also, the coffee table has been removed — and our son has been told that he is not allowed to jump on the couch until he turns 18.