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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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.

 

Mind-Body-Psychological Health

I’ve started reading a new book, Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, self-help exercises by Stanely Rosenberg.  Rosenberg has training in mind/body modalities such as craniosacral therapy and Rolfing and has worked in the field since 1983.  He has an interesting approach to dis-eases that we normally think of as purely psychological.

In the 30 some odd years I have lived with some sort of chronic pain, having been on multiple medications over the past 20 years to combat a specific aspect of my pain, I can tell you that any medication that you are put on from a cardiac medication to an antidepressant affect you on more levels than just what you are being treated for.    What do I mean?

Without going into the science and pharmacology behind it, cardiac meds can affect your stress level and outlook.  Psych meds like what are given for depression or bipolar affect you physically — either lowering or raising your blood pressure, causing constipation, dry mouth, headache, weight loss or gain, etc.  Medications can alter your perception, mood, and reality and after being on a med or two or dozen you come to realize that there is no such split as mind-body and you are the totality of your experiences in this life.

So I found it interesting that Rosenberg wrote this book.  What I like about his approach is that he looks at “psychological problems” from the stance of the central nervous system instead of brain chemistry which has been the norm for quite some time.  In his book, he looks at migraines, anxiety and panic attacks, phobias, domestic violence, PTSD, depression, etc by looking at dysfunction with nerves of the central nervous system.  And he uses the Polyvagal Theory by Porges as discussed in my blog post.  I was happy to find the book because although I knew about flight, fight, or freeze, I did not know about the whole theory or the wider implications of the Polyvagal Theory, the biggest implication is that there is not just one vagus nerve but multiple that all have different functions.  If you are old like I am, when you were in high school health class or biology or you were in Psychology 101, you learned about the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems that

The reason why I am writing a blog post on the book is because although I think the book is great, I found it to be really dense.  It didn’t seem like it was for practitioners when I bought it but having a background in mind-body medicine and psychology helped me to get through it.  (And admittedly, there were sections that were very physiological based that I skimmed over because they were certainly above my pay grade and my interest level).  So I thought I’d write a post about it because I think the information in it is important and the general public could really benefit from understanding the Polyvagal Theory given how many people in our country (and world) are plagued by what we continue to think of as mental health issues or worse character defects (which continues to be an unfair prejudice from mental health and physical health care practitioners and frustrated loved ones).

SO what did I learn?

 

Rosenberg describes a state of  “social engagement” is the term that Porges’ uses to describe a state that we used to describe as the parasympathetic nervous system.  Under the new theory, there is proper tone in the Ventral Vagal Nerve and it brings about the following:  a decrease in defensiveness and responses to triggers and

an increase in:

  • Digestion
  • Intestinal Motility
  • Resistance to Infection
  • Immune Response
  • Rest and Recouperation
  • Circulation to non-vital organs (skin, hands, legs, feet, arms)
  • Oxytocin (a neurotransmitter involved in social bonds like between a newborn and mother or other nurturing relationships)
  • Ability to relate and connect with others

With proper tone in the Ventral Vagal Nerve, a person is thought to be in “social engagement”.  They experience joy, groundedness, compassion, mindfulness, are open and curious, and are situated in the present moment.  This reminds me of the higher stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs where a person has their basic needs met and can focus on more than safety, food, shelter, and sex but focus on health, relationships, self-esteem, respect, intimacy, confidence, achievement, creativity, problem solving, etc.  That sounds like what we all long to achieve or are blessed to be experiencing already.

So what happens when there is dysfunction of the Spinal Sympathetic or Dorsal Vagal Systems?  Check back in the next few days when I will write about both.

Instead of questions to end this post, I will end it with a wish for everyone 2018:

May 2018 bring about great change in the world towards peace, equanimity, and growth. May the root of our problems be observable and be readily and easily changed.  May we be open to the support, love, and compassion of those around us.  May we understand that we suffer from trauma, grief, physical, psychological, and spiritual dis-ease and that the most compassionate thing we can do in the year to come is to take several deep breaths.  May we breathe deeply to change our nervous system and calm ourselves down.  May we breathe deeply and pause before we use hateful or hurtful speech.  May we breathe deeply and patiently and remember that we are all interconnected on this planet.

Wishing you gentle care, compassion, ease, and good health in the year to come.