Loving You As You Age

Dear —

I know right now you’re going through a lot of changes and they can’t be easy for you; things that you used to do before are now more difficult. They take more energy, they take more thought, they even may take more skill than you have right now. And I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that the process of aging strips us from so much. We lose friends over time. We lose a job that we’ve done all our lives and therefore much of our identity that went along with that job. We start to feel that the world doesn’t need us anymore. That what we have to offer, to teach, to share, just doesn’t mean anything and that has got to be strangely isolating and scary and I would think from time to time that you might be wondering so what’s next.

I feel that pain and though I don’t know what it’s like to be older and aging or losing my capacity for doing things I’ve done all my life, I do know what fear and change and chaos I’ll feel like. I know what it’s like to have the feeling of not being needed or that your voice doesn’t matter, or even that you don’t matter. I know what it feels like to have someone tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about or that your ideas are outdated. As I sit and watch you, I wonder if maybe you’re having those feelings right now?

My heart opens and I can feel sadness for what’s going on right now. It’s not easy to be compassionate for ourselves when we’re feeling so bad. It’s not easy to be compassionate to one another when every day hassles seem to become bigger and more difficult to cope with. But instead of frustration or fear, I propose that we handle these things with love.

You know, maybe the kind of love that we were never given as kids. Maybe the kind of love we never found in our life. Or maybe the kind of love we’re not even sure we are capable of giving. But just love and acceptance for what’s going on and compassion for any pain that there might be, whether it be physical or mental or emotional or even spiritual.

Let today be the day that this gets turned around, that we give more love and more patience, more deep breaths, and even more sighs, if they’re able to bring into the here now and be present to each other.

So starting now I vow to give you more love than I feel like I ever received from you.

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How to Suffer Well

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“Train in taking and sending alternatively; put them on the breath” How to Be Sick:  A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard.

I used to joke in graduate school that in my study of existentialism taught me that life is suffering and you need to suck it up but my study of Buddhism taught me that life is suffering and be compassionate anyway.  My plan was to marry both.

I love the practice of Tonglen, that I was introduced to in the work of Pema Chodron.  Now there is a very specific way of practicing Tonglen but Pema talked about “on-the-spot” Tonglen and I found that I liked that a lot and try to practice it when I can.  The point of the specific practice, like any other practice, is to get it to become second nature to you so that when a situation arises, you have the skills.

Think about CPR.  You will probably never need it but if you do, you will remember the chest compressions should be 100 beats per minute because you have had to get re-certified every year.

Conventional wisdom, when it comes to relaxation, tells us to breathe in and think of concepts like peace, love, compassion, relaxation, a warm hug, etc and breathe out negativity, stress, fear, etc.  Tonglen actually teaches the opposite and it can be a bit counter-intuitive.  Let me give you an example I have used in the past.

I hate going to the dentist.  Hate is not strong enough of a word.  I had dental appointments as a kid like everyone else.  I also had two years of orthodontics.  I hated the orthodontist’s and that I think that’s when I developed so much anxiety about it.  I’ve had a lot of other dental work done and for me, there are few things worse.

When I had to get a bunch of dental work done while I was working for hospice, I “brought my patients with me”.  What?  Let me explain.  Hospice is pretty terrific at helping patients with both pain and suffering through the use of an amazing group of professionals, medication, volunteer support, etc.  But there is still so much pain and suffering involved in the dying process.

When I would go to the dentist, I would play music on my iPhone and I would focus on my breathing.  As feelings came up — anxiety, fear, physical pain, achiness in my neck, etc I would breathe it in.  I could imagine that my patients and their families might be feeling very similar things at that very moment and I would focus on being present to those experiences.

As I breathed out, I would focus on a warm, soft blanket, or the sound of my mother’s heart beat, or calm, relaxation, peace, etc.  And I would say, in my mind, if I am going to experience this anyway,  which apparently I was going to, let me experience it and give my patients a break.

To me this practice was similar to The Prayer of St Francis (Let me be light where there is dark, where there is despair let me sow hope, etc).  Did I really take any suffering away from any patient or any family member?  I don’t know.  But, it was my intention that there should be something positive that comes from my suffering.

And this I try to remind myself every day when I wake up in pain.  “Ok universe, if it is going to be one of those days, let my pain be for some benefit.  Let me have pain so my mom doesn’t.  Let me sit with these side effects hoping that it keeps someone else from having these side effects.  And even if it doesn’t, let me send out, in addition, the intention of comfort, relief, or solace.  For me, it helps give some meaning and purpose to  something that I cannot avoid, my own pain.  And who knows, maybe if there is such a thing as karma, I’ve helped someone else by sending out good will.

So today, I ask you:

  • What are you experiencing right now?
  • Can you imagine any one in the world having the same experience right here and right now?
  • Can you breathe in the pain, darkness, dis-ease, frustration, depression (whatever it may be)?
  • With your out breath, can you imagine exhaling something positive that another person could use?
  • It could be warmth on a cold night for homeless vets.  It could be deep, cleansing breath for an asthma patient.  Maybe the idea of a trusted teddy bear for a fearful child.

 

May you have ease and comfort in your life.  May the merit of all of the positive thoughts, feelings, and actions you have come back to you a thousand-fold.

 

 

Creating a Compassion Society Out of Suffering

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Thich Nhat Hanh opens his book No Mud, No Lotus with these words:  “In fact, the art of happiness is also the art of suffering well.  When we learn to acknowledge, embrace, and understand our suffering, we suffer much less.  Not only that, but we’re also able to go further into understanding, compassion, and joy for ourselves and for others.”

If you live with pain or disease Thich Nhat Hanh’s words are the cliff notes version to what you might learn in pain management or MBSR or CBT or even DBT.  Life is going to happen and suffering is your choice.  In the midst of chronic daily pain or especially in the midst of acute pain, I would want to punch someone for telling me that.  I wouldn’t do it but anger might take over how colored my view might be at the moment.  I remember saying to someone, in a very hateful manner, “meditation, that $%^ doesn’t work.”  And it wasn’t true.  It was just I was so deeply frustrated, anxious, in pain, and fearful that I wasn’t even treading water anymore.  I was drowning and it didn’t seem to matter to anyone.

The one thing that I have learned in the past six months is that we ask way to much of people who are ill and struggling.  What do I mean?  I think back to living on my own for my job and having no one around to stop at the grocery store because I was dehydrated or picking up a prescription that a doctor called in after hours of waiting and being in pain for days.  I remember sleepless nights because I was afraid I would not wake up for work the next morning, having no sick days and working in an unkind environment that had no flexibility for problems like that.  I would get so anxious, I would have 6 alarms set so that I would finally crawl out of bed.

And what about med changes?  I worked and got a higher degree and completed half of a second degree while living with chronic daily pain and the subsequent med changes.  Has a doctor ever had to get to work on time or “played well with others” after being put on 5 different meds or even adding one or two meds or taking one away?  Sometimes, you aren’t sure if the meds, the side effects, or the illness will kill you first?  Please hear me, I’m not saying that doctors are wrong in what they do.  I’m just not sure they maintain their compassion while doing it.  How can they?  A patient is going to scream out in pain when you reset their leg, but you still have to do it.  You end with a bit of a callous on your soul, in order to save your soul.

And all the things that people have suggested, (similar to things I will say in this blog), are tough to do when you are wondering how you are going to pay a bill, or what you can eat that won’t make you throw up, or losing a document at work, or feeling utterly alone in your misery.  They are tough to do when you don’t even have your basic needs met (Think Maslow).

Nhat Hanh says, “If, however, we are preoccupied with the fear and despair in us, we can’t help remove the suffering of others.  There is an art to suffering well.”  And that is what I am trying to learn how to do.  I have a disease that causes me to be in pain; that won’t change but I can live a lot better with it than I had been.

But all that worry and day to day stuff, my friends, all of that is suffering.  Well, they are all hassles and my interactions with those hassles (the fear, anxiety, fretting, etc) was suffering.  And much of it needless but given our society today, it is very much a real concern for so many people.  Why is it so tough for so many people to get disability?  Why do sick people have to fight with insurance companies?  Why do we have to move away from our communities and our families, are safety nets for things like work?  I am thinking back to another time, decades ago, when people who were ill were at home, when family and a community took care of people rather marginalized them?

I think back to when I grew up.  We lived in the same house as my land lady and when she was diagnosed with cancer and my family took care of it.  It was a labor of love because that’s what you do for others.  We helped with getting groceries, giving medication, feeding her, changing her, etc.  Her kids came to visit but they lived 45 minutes away and we were right there.  There were two adults and a high school senior (my sibling) and they took turns.

But in today’s world with living so far from work or not knowing neighbors or grocery stores in the suburbs and rural areas are so far.  And people have so many more medical appointments.  Why do we not have a national system for this?  You want to help put people to work?  You want to take people’s social security away?  You want people to work until they are 76?  Why not pay retired people to help their parents or church members or neighbors?  Why not employ a stay at home mom to check in on a neighbor and make sure they are taking their pills?  Or pay their gas milage to pick up a few groceries?  Why don’t we think about those who are not active, producing, and healthy?

Thich Nhat Hanh, (or Thay, as his followers call him affectionately – Thay is Vietnamese for teacher) says in No Mud, No Lotus, “The hardest thing to practice is not allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by despair.  When you’re overwhelmed by despair, all you see is suffering everywhere you look.  You feel as if the worst thing is happening to you.” Can you imagine having some of the pressure taken off, not worrying about how you are going to get to an appointment in the snow or how you are going to drag yourself to the store while you’ve been vomiting all day?  Imagine what it might be like to have someone stop by and make sure you had a pitcher of water by your bed and to let you know that you are not alone.

Think about it.  You might not be able to sit in an office all day if you are ill or maybe you are retired and don’t want to work all day.    You might not be able to go to work every day but what if we took the concept of care teams, like AIDS patients did back in the 80s and applied it more globally?  Now, back then, it was friends of the AIDS patient, often times because family had abandoned the patient.  But what if we had local hubs where a retired person could work once a week, similar to a hospice volunteer.  They could stop by and make a pot of soup or a paraprofessional could make phone calls to an insurance company for a patient.  We need to wake up and think about the elderly baby boomers who set trends, changed the world (for better and worse) and think about our new world.  We don’t manufacture anymore, let’s face it.  And I don’t care if you were a coal miner, a returned vet, or a young person, you could play a part.  We could help to end some basic suffering in the world.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism state, “There is suffering, there is a course of action that generates suffering; suffering ceases; and there is a course of action leading to the cessation of suffering” (From No Mud, No Lotus).  There is a lot of pain and heartache out there in the world.  We have to look creatively at how to solve today’s problems.  One idea is to come together as a community again.  And let’s face it, until our country moves to something like a few countries have just moved to where all citizens are given a stipend to live alleviate basic needs, we have to think of merging old worlds and new worlds.  We can be there for each other, even make some money doing it, and help raise each other out of suffering and aloneness.

So, tonight, I ask you these things:

  • If you didn’t have to worry about a pay check, what would you honestly be willing to do?
    • Would you visit a neighbor?  Make a pot of soup?
    • Would you take a community member to the doctors or stop by and pick up some cans of soup for an elderly person?
  • Why can’t we help people rather than marginalize them?  Why can’t we move to a society that is more inclusive, where people don’t have cracks to fall through?  What if we made a few extra pb & j sandwiches for the kids who stand outside our door waiting for the bus?
  • How do we move from our pain and more importantly our suffering to help others?
  • How do we foster a sense of belonging in those who have been told don’t matter?

 

May all beings be at ease and know an end to their suffering.

May all beings feel whole and know they are cared for.

May all beings be given the time and space to heal as thoroughly as they need.

May you be safe and at peace.

 

 

 

 

New Practice for Healing

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So in the past, I have informally used a mala (prayer beads similar to a Catholic Rosary) and would use it to count my breaths.  It has 108 beads and you use it to keep track of how many breaths you are counting.  I’ve also used mantras like Om Mani Padme Hum (the Great Mantra of Compassion) that is well-known.  I’ve also used it to keep myself on track when using gathas by Thich Nhat Hanh — see my article.

But as I was watching a movie today, I was inspired to find a mantra for healing.  The movie had nothing to do with spiritual growth or healing but there was a word that made me think it would be good to use for a mantra.

So, I did a little research to decide what I was going to start with.  I decided I’d look around for the next week unless something comes to me before that.  By then or sooner, I will start my day and end my day with a mantra.

Om Mani Padme Hum means “The jewel of Consciousness has reached the heart’s lotus” according to Thomas Ashley-Farrand.  This is the most chanted mantra in the world.  Well, things like OM, AUM, etc are probably used more often because they are powerful seeds but the great compassion mantra is a very popular mantra used in yoga, meditation, chanting, etc.  It is suggested to use this mantra when you want to united body and mind.

Om Shri Dhanvantre Namaha is at the top of my list.  It means, “Om and salutations to the Celestial Healer” according to Ashley-Ferrand.  That one would definitely be applicable to my journey right now and could not steer me wrong.

Another may be Om Purnayei Namaha, “om and salutations to She is who complete, unified, and perfect, without limitations of any kind” (Ashley-Ferrand).  I like the idea of invoking the feminine aspects of the universe.  My mom has had a great devotion to Mary of Lourdes and in invoking the feminine, that gives me a connection to my mom and her spirituality.  It also reminds me of a mentor of mine who died of breast cancer almost 20 years ago.  I like to believe that her energy is something I can connect with when I am in need.

The last idea I have right now is Shambhala.  It actually isn’t a mantra.  Shambhala is a mythical kingdom in Hindu and Tibetan where the teachings of the Buddha are said to be preserved.  It is also the name of a lineage of Buddhism founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche from Tibet.  It supposedly means a place of peace, tranquility, and happiness.  A student of Chogyam Trungpa is Pema Chodron who I think of as a root teacher of mine.

So, those are some ideas that I have.  What mantras do you use in your practices?  I’d love for you to share them here and tell us why you use it in your practice.  Once I decide, I’ll come back and post.

Until then, may you be at ease and be peace.

“Homage to Tara our Mother who conquers disease as its medicine”

Shakti Mantras by Thomas Ashley-Ferrand.

 

 

What Do You Think?

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I read time and time again, “The Body Heals Itself”.  What do you think about that?  Do you believe that the body is wise and eventually under the right circumstances rights itself and moves back to a state of healing?

Do you believe that we are born perfect and with time, wear and tear, and age, grow less perfect and more diseased and aged?

Do you believe that we are born with potential and grow and thrive?

Are we talking about the body anymore or are we talking about the whole of human existence?

Can we be healed but not cured?  Can we be unhealthy in body but stellar in mind and spirit?

If we have an affliction of the body, are mind and spirit automatically affected?

If any part of us, mind, body, or spirit is affected, can we be whole, healthy, perfect or perfectly good?

Do certain parts of your body hold certain emotions or messages for you?

Do we hold stress or fear or other strong emotions in our body or are our bodies a reflection of our psycho-spiritual state?

I’ll be honest.  I am not sure what I believe anymore.  My training was to believe that under the right circumstances, people moved toward healing.  With support in place, a container to maintain their needs, a safe space to explore, people healed that which was ill and that it was the lack of these things that created dis-ease in their lives.  But I’m not sure.

I’ve come off a time in my life, well, a “past life” so to speak, where I saw the worst in people.  I saw everyone hustling, playing the system, you know, working it.  I saw people always taking the path of least resistance and sometimes actually running away from opportunities for growth or nurturance.  It shattered all my beliefs, all that I had come to hold true and dear.  If you’ve read other posts, you know I’m on a search and creating a new life.  Part of that new life is looking at what I believe and throwing out what doesn’t work anymore and reconnecting with truths that still hit me in my core.

So I’m asking you, what do you believe?  Are we innately wise beings that find our way to healing?  Are we created in the image of something divine and whole and no matter what we are in this world, we are whole and perfect in another world?  Do you believe that we’re dealt a hand of cards and we are nothing more than muscle, tissue, synapses?

Until the next blog post,

May you be healthy and thriving.

May you be filled with light and joy.

May you reconnect with the little things that bring you great happiness.

May you have peace of mind and be on solid ground.

May you love and be compassionate while being loved and shown great forgiveness.

May you be at ease and at peace.  

 

The Breath of Transformation

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The bell of mindfulness

Invited me to wake up

And remember my breath

For just one moment.

I knew the news before

I heard her voice.

This messenger held no

Surprises for me.

 

Breathing in,

Breathing out,

A transformation takes place.

Breathing out,

And releasing,

Just releasing,

Until departing becomes arriving.

 

I checked the calendar

to see if today was an auspicious day,

For some reason,

Any reason,

To help me make sense

of this awaited loss.

This present moment

Was arising and descending

Right before me.

 

I knew that my dear new friend had,

in one breath,

become a part of my ancestral heritage

and my future all at once.

I bowed to him with gratitude and honor.

I knew to see his smile again

All I needed to do was close my eyes

And smile as I had when he was

there before me just a few hours before.

 

I hear my own voice in my mind ask,

“Friend, are you there?”

A full and jovial voice answered

with no hesitation,

“Friend, I’m neither here nor there.

I just am.  That’s all we ever are.”

And with a tear and a smile I said in return,

using his own words,

“I like, I like it

It makes me happy

when someone believes. . . ”

And I knew we were now one.

9/20/2003

For TM

Powerful Prayer

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One of my favorite prayers is actually not a prayer, well, not what most of you would think was a prayer.  It’s what is called a gathas, which I learned years ago when I became a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, a wise Vietnamese Monk who has made a huge difference in my life.

The words are simple and easy to remember, as easy to remember as “Now I lay me down to sleep. . . ” that we all remember learning as children.

I have arrived

I am home

In the here and

in the now

I am solid

I am free

In the ultimate I dwell

There is a translation of the gatha in the book “I have arrived, I am home:  Celebrating Twenty Years of Plum Village Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh.  There is also some simple sheet music and if I am not mistaken, there are a number of recordings of the gatha being sung on YouTube.

But, I have no singing voice despite being in choir as a child for 5 years so I use the gatha as a chant, with or without a mala.  Gathas, like mantras, can be powerful in helping a person deal with anxiety or panic.  Like affirmations, reciting a gatha (or a mantra) helps to focus your mind, fill your mind with positive thoughts, and help snuff out negative, self-limiting, harmful, or unhealthy thoughts.  They are also helpful when dealing with pain or disease like cancer (or coping with treatment).

This prayer reminds me of so many things.  First and foremost, I’m whole and right just as I am.  Every present moment is perfect and for a reason.  I haven’t always believed that but I think I do again.  If I don’t believe it, it is a belief I want to have.  If not, what’s the purpose?  I tried to be an existentialist and all I found is a lot of angst.  Instead, I choose to see the world from this point of view and believe there is meaning and purpose in the way things are.

When I was first introduced to this prayer, I cried and cried as I recited it because I felt so far from home.  I had moved away from my home state and felt like a stranger in a strange land.  I longed for the sun and seashore and felt so land-locked in the horridly flat and scorched plains I found myself living in.

But then I realized that it wasn’t about my home, my birthplace, and the millions of street corners and houses or sea shells I had left behind.  It wasn’t even about the people who I had loved when I lived there and the souls who had left me before I left.  It was about me and that I could be at home with myself, in myself, and that I could find solid footing anywhere my seat was.

And over time and because of circumstances, my chronic pain and other things I’ve written about in other posts, I got away from the practice of either chanting this gathas or taking time throughout the year to write about what this gatha means to me.  And that’s the great thing about gathas. . . each time you sit with them, well, over time, they come to mean different things.  They seem to unleash their wisdom in the moment, where you are in your life.  They are kind of like tarot cards in that they give you something to think about, something to reflect on and in return, they act as a mirror for what your interior experience is at any given time.

So I invite you, to sit with paper and pen, on your favorite chair or meditation cushion, in your car before you walk in from your day at work or when you take your lunch down to the river. . . and allow these words to fall over you like a warm mist.  Let them sink into your pores like a thick rich moisturizer and let your body and soul drink in the nourishment.  Allow the words to take their time and do their job.  There is no right or wrong way for you to relate to the words and perhaps they mean little to you, though, if you are reading this blog, even by chance, I know that the words will hold a special magic or a message for your soul.

Please share your thoughts, feelings, or comments about this gathas or share other prayers or sayings that touch you and give you pause to reflect.

Until the next time,

May your pen and paper be the vehicles for great freedom.  May your soul feel nurtured and cared for.  

May you have time in your busy-ness to reflect and ponder.  

May you remember to raise your eyes from your computer or phone screen and see what’s in front of you with soft eyes.   

May you be at ease and free from suffering.  

May you be surrounded in light and warmth or any other conditions that soothe your spirit.

May you be at peace or any other state that is congruent to your healing.