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Our Brain on Infertility: How Mindfulness Heals

Beth Heller, M.S.


I vividly remember what my brain was like “on infertility.”  A desire so strong that it wiped out every other goal I’d ever had.  The education I strived so long for was useless, my dream job was unfulfilling and everywhere I looked I saw pregnant women that made my empty belly ache.

That was my brain on infertility; clenched around the idea of having a baby and at war with each moment that didn’t bring me a positive pregnancy test.  Studies have shown that women dealing with infertility have anxiety and depression levels equals to women with cancer and HIV and I believe them.

Living with that sort of suffering for a day is difficult.  But my journey lasted a year, and then another year and yet another.  In fact it took seven years and five pregnancies to end up with two children.  At some point the universe took pity on me and sent me a message.  ”Wake up, Beth” a voice said.  ”You are missing your life and forgetting to live.  You need to make some space around this infertility thing.”


Well, I didn’t know it then but the call was an invitation to wake up from being the victim of my thoughts and attitudes.  I was being called to the concepts of “big mind” and the practice of meditation.

One of the most revered teachers in the tradition of Mindfulness Meditation, Gil Fronsdal, recently put it this way in a dharma talk.  Our brains have been conditioned to grasp and cling.  This conditioning, which we believe protects and helps us, actually limits our ability to live life fully.  Think about a hand clenched in a fist.  A fist is useful for some things, like smashing and punching.  It’s good for holding on to a rope, grasping at straws and gripping very tightly.  Now think of an open hand.  An open hand can paint, write, caress and clap with joy.  It can grip when it wants, and let go when it needs.  The soft and tender parts of the hand are hidden when the hand is clenched and exposed when the hand opens.

Now apply that metaphor to “our brain on infertility.” It’s the idea of a baby that we are grasping.  And it’s understandable – having a baby is a primal urge.  We clench with all our might around the idea that we want a baby and that we cannot be happy until we have one.  We clench on the pain of every baby shower, the sorrow of every miscarriage and the fear that maybe we will need to use donor eggs or adopt.  Our goal is to get pregnant and our happiness depends upon the fulfillment of that goal.

Let’s be clear.  This is not a personal flaw.  As humans we are culturally conditioned to grasp.  We have been trained to hold on tightly to our dreams.  We have internalized the belief that worrying about something means that we really care about it.  We learned that we must be goal-oriented and never let down our guard or lessen our effort to get the things we want. Yet there are inconvenient truths about clinging that we choose not to recognize.  First, clinging creates a tremendous amount of suffering.  When we begin to look deeply, we find that the energy of clinging is supplied by emotions of fear, jealousy and aggression.  We see that our mind functions like  a monkey swinging through the trees, reaching from one thought to the next in our desire to control, manage and satisfy our desires.  We can never find a place of  ”enough.”  It is exhausting.

Meditation is a powerful technique for learning how to “unclench” the mind and find happiness that is not dependent on anything outside ourself.   It’s simple, really.  We just sit and observe the sensations, thoughts and emotions that are present in our body and mind.  We watch our monkey mind.  We breathe.  Meditation is actually quite misunderstood.  Many people try meditation and quit because they “can’t” or “it’s not working.”   The expectation is that meditation will make them feel calmer, relaxed and blissful – I used to think I should find myself bathed in white light whenever I sat on my meditation cushion.  It is actually the reverse.  When we sit, the contents of our mind often seem turbulent and chaotic.  But the simple act of continuing to sit and observe this chaos begins to change our life outside of meditation.  At first there’s a subtle awareness of space, or “big mind.”  We are less reactive to stress, pain and suffering.  Behind the desire and aversion we find an awareness that is sensitive, flexible and joyful – independent of the outer conditions of our life.

Many women fear that becoming mindful and starting to meditate will make them passive in their quest for a child.  This simply isn’t so.  The wish for a child remains vibrant and active – it’s simply that happiness doesn’t depend on the fulfillment of this wish.  We have relaxed the grip a bit so our mind is free to explore, enjoy and create again.    Solutions and resolutions come for difficult questions because we have relaxed enough to allow them to surface.  The journey toward parenthood is still challenging, but it no longer defines us.  We find some joy again in spite of the pain.

If you can relate to my brain “on infertility,” I encourage you to learn more about meditation.  There are many opportunities to experience meditation at the Moon.  Our Reiki Meditation Circle for Women meets on Thursdays from 6 to 7 p.m. at our Chicago location.  We also teach meditation in our Yoga for Fertility program.  If you’re looking to get serious about a meditation practice, stay tuned to our website to learn more about our upcoming program “Mindfulness Training for Fertility.”  This collaborative program with the psychological support staff from Fertility Centers of Illinois will introduce you to the practice of mindfulness meditation with a specific focus on fertility.   Click here for more info/to register!