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.

 

 

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The Message

I, the Empress,

Put forth decries so that

Others know how to

Behave in this

Society grasping with

Being so very unenlightened.

 

As I woke this morning

I sprang forth to start

The day,

Eager to rule wisely,

Justly,

Compassionately

Despite how other rulers

May comport themselves

In these trying times.

 

I made my way to the window,

To get my first glimpse

Of this miraculous land

Before starting the day’s work

Of performing rites

And making sure

Justice prevailed.

 

As I pulled back the curtain,

Before I could even be struck by

The awe that the dawn brings with it,

I found that a messenger was

Upon my private balcony.

 

“What business do you have here Crone?”

I asked this majestic creature,

Sitting silent and sturdy,

Basking in the first rays of light.

 

There were no immediate words

From this being.

A pregnant pause

That seemed to last unending

Was broken with a twitch

Of her tail and prick of her ears.

 

The Wise hare

Whispered her message

Before scurrying off into

The brush and bushes.

 

Why would the Great Mother

Not call for me

Or deliver her communique

Directly I asked myself

As I slipped on my

Dark cloak.

 

I picked up my quill to leave

A message for those who might

Attempt to call me back

While I am situated on

My cushion to contemplate

The fate of this world.

 

“Let me be

Between the worlds

And do not break my fast.

The destiny of Being-kind

May well rest in the silence I seek”.

1/17/18

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.  

 

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.

 

This Time

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The magic of the circle. . .

Never born, never dies

The magic of the night

Calls out the spell

To being me home and to

Bring me out of myself.

 

I hold your hand as I have

For a thousand life times,

And you lead me into the

Realm of the deepest Unknown,

As time and space dissolve

Into our very cell memory.

 

But this journey is different

As never before, and never again.

Enchantment is but a fleeting moment

Not a lifetime’s art and craft.

 

We have made an oath to seek each other

Until time no longer is.

This dance between spirits has

Been altered by the elements, the wind, and the sea.

 

Instead of intermingling, entwining,

Dancing like fire fairies

Free and unencumbered

We walk mindfully

Step in front of step

Parallel and similar and yet secluded

Toward the same goal.

 

Our closeness is distant.

The spin of the wheel, the Infinite Circle of All,

And things are altered so quickly.

Birth and death are but one fleeting moment

And will not be changed,

awaiting the next round to begin.

 

Only one choice and

Heaven and Earth revolve until

Sense cannot be found and logic is but like the mist

On the dawn’s eve.

 

Prayers upon a flame

Seem to fly off into the night sky

Never to be heard by man,

But only by the gods.

9/4/04

 

 

Friends Needed

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I’ve forgotten how much I need friends in my life.  For various reasons, I have not had any friends close by for the past 8 years.  Well, I do know why.  My pain got so bad and when it did, my world became smaller and smaller.

If you have never suffered from prolonged pain, and I’m not sure which word to emphasize there. . . suffer, prolonged, pain. . . then you might not know or understand that the person in pain can develop tunnel vision.  You see, my life became a horrible ritual.  I got up every morning, exhausted, in pain from head to foot, angry, frustrated, hurt, sad, jealous, and crushed.  I went to a job that was not congruent with any part of my life, except possibly my purse and even that was questionable.  I prayed throughout the day for the day to speed by but instead, by the end, each moment ticked by in agonizing slowness.  Every experience chipped away at my soul and every encounter hurt — someone’s voice being too loud, someone’s stale cigar smoke and body odor was overwhelming strong, someone’s laugh bore right into my bones, or someone’s criticism or demands on me sent my spirit crashing because I had no energy to give to anything or anyone.

The other thing that I found is that nothing seemed to fill the voids.  Sleep didn’t solve exhaustion.  Medications didn’t relax muscles or take away anxiety like their names promised.  And it wasn’t just one medication, it was egg cartons of them.  Ok, that is an exaggeration.  But at one time, I probably took a total of 10 pills a day and still had horrible pain more than half of any given week or month.  I prayed a lot.  For sleep to come quickly.  For the hours of 5:30-10:30pm to speed up so that I did not have hours of pain after work that would be filled with sitting in a dark living room, just staring.  And it would start again the next day.  Every weekend, I spent time at my family’s house, checking in on my elderly parents, and trying to act semi-social and not let my pain ruin those relationships.

But, yes, other people meant pain or pain triggers.  I had no control over sights, smells, energy levels, etc.  And pain or pain triggers?  Heck, I had enough of them in my life, why would I want other people to contribute to that?  I remember saying to someone, “No, I’m not going to lunch.  I don’t like that person enough to possibly end up in a situation where I’d have pain because of them.”  When the pain was bad, things like going to the grocery store was a nightmare.  Yes, I had to gone down the aisle with all the scented products, that was bad enough.  But then there were food triggers I had to avoid and when you are tired, in pain, trying to avoid more pain, and just wanting to go home and cease to exist, every food seems scary and a pain threat potential.

So there was no room for people, places, and things.  That’s not an excuse, that’s just what life became and I had no one to talk to about this.  No one to say, take a deep breath, and let’s figure out a way to live with your chronic pain.  Instead, my world became just me.  I had an incredible send off at my last job.  So much love and so many well-wishes.  I got lovely cards and clients who were so sad to see me go.  At that point, I was still good at hiding my pain from just about everyone.  It was so nice.  And many of my colleagues were just as sweet, some very good friends.  And I pushed them all away after I left.  I didn’t answer phone calls or cards.  I didn’t have the energy to drive an hour to have lunch or visit with them.  And they were all people whom I loved.  What if they wanted to go out for Asian food?  What if they had on cologne or fabric softener?  What if they laughed too loud or god, what if they wanted or expected something from me when I was now running for years on empty.  So, I pushed everyone away.  I even pushed long distance friends away.

I’m away from that life now.  And I’m rebuilding.  I’m revising my healing plan, dealing with my chronic illness in new ways, stretching my spiritual self, trying to eat healthier, do yoga, exercise, search, pray or chant, meditate, do biofeedback, journal, blog, write poetry, listen to books, read when not in pain, take up hobbies again, etc, etc, etc.  But somethings been missing and I have had a hard time putting my finger on it.

And then tonight, I got a call from an old friend, someone who knows me from decades ago, before the pain issues, in a different world.  We reconnected because of a post on facebook and when we talked tonight, it was like being in college again, or shortly thereafter.  It was someone who didn’t laugh at my accent or question my choice of words.  This person loves me and my story, my her-story and I felt so blessed.  This is one of my very favorite people and despite our lives going in very different ways and our temperaments being very different, this person is genuinely and honestly dear from the inside out.  What I noticed as she spoke was such a gentleness of spirit and a tender-heartedness.  I was so glad that we had reached out to one another and I made sure before we hung up that we planned to be in touch again.

What our call reminded me of was that I had been so one’s friend in the past.  I had people who I cared about and who cared about me.  There was a time when people weren’t scary or associated with pain or potential pain.  I knew that she wouldn’t judge me for not wearing make up or being or for being in a foul mood.  She knows me.  She’d probably laugh, tell me to take a nap, and call her when I felt better or she’d just say that she knew I was hurting and wished it wasn’t so.  Ah, how I miss having people around who could say that.  “I’m sorry it sucks and when you’re up for it, I’m here”.

If you know someone who has chronic pain, please don’t feel bad if they disappear and re-emerge.  Don’t be put off if they cancel plans or aren’t always there.  We never know what someone else is going through and most people don’t tell you what they are going through, even when you are super close.  But don’t turn away as it could be just when you don’t close the door that you save someone’s life.

To my friend, thank you from the bottom of my heart for being there and sharing your story.  The greatest gift you have ever given me has been that you have shared your heart and your spirit with me.

For everyone else, I wish you a peaceful evening.

As a reflection for tonight:

Think about the people or person that makes you feel like no one else can.  Imagine that person’s smile, either a time in your life when you shared laughter or that person gave you a smile, letting you know that everything would be okay.  Remember the laugh lines near the mouth, or the way the light bounced off their eyes.  Remember the way they tossed their hair or held their head.  Remember the moments you shared silently, not having to say a word but understanding that there was a deep un-ending compassion and complete unconditional regard and love between you.  Remember that moment when you feel alone or when you are in your darkest time.  Remember that look at 2am when you can’t reach out or 1000 miles away when you can’t feel that person’s hug.  Remember that part of a cultivated and lasting friendship is that that person touches within you the deepest, greatest, and best part of you and you do the same for that person.  If you feel alone, allow yourself to get in touch with that part of you that was fostered in relation to that person.

May you rise tomorrow to light and warmth.  May you be at ease and be free from lasting suffering.  

May you remember that this moment is the only moment that matters and that it is fleeting so pay attention to it and know that if your mind labels it bad or off or wrong, it will be over before you know it.  

May you always know that things change and don’t last.  For better and for worse, nothing lasts, except for true uncensored love.  

May you find freedom in your relationships, comfort in each other’s words, solace in each other’s smile, and delight in each other’s triumphs.  

May you never go to sleep without saying I’m sorry or forgive me.

May you feel your connection to everything in the world and remember that you and I are made of the stuff of stars.  

May you allow yourself to simply be.