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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Holding

Since my doctor took me off of a medication I’ve been on for the past 20 years, one that I feel like has contributed to a lot of pain I’ve experienced, I have found new insights and had a shift in my body awareness.

I don’t have the same level of chronically tightened muscles. In the past, I’ve had horrible muscle tension in my traps, shoulders, upper neck, jaw, temples, and occipital area. My muscles feel more pliable and relaxed unless I am having an issue with a migraine. Then my body tightens up but seems to better relax when I have the occasional day without pain. And I still have referred pain and trigger points but again, they don’t seem to be as intense all the time.

What I have become aware of is what I refer to as holding. I may be laying in bed, “relaxing” and find that I’ve braved my body. I may have my jaw clenched or have a part of my body stiffened. I can be laying there and realize that if I take a deep breath and exhale, I can sink into the bed or the pillows more fully.

I find I am more aware of this absent-minded behavior at a variety of times. I may be sitting at the kitchen table watching the birds. Or I may be laying on my yoga mat, sitting on the couch crocheting, etc. I’m not sure what originally caused me to do this — I’ve injured my spine several times, have been in several car accidents, and had some sort of chronic pain on and off for 30 years. Perhaps at first it was a positive adaptation? But it has long since lost its effectiveness and is contributing to my overall pain and suffering.

I find that simple breath work and I asking to myself, once I become aware of the tension seems to help. But I always try to change the situation in a mindful, thoughtful way so that I train my body that it’s overkill or exaggerated or unnecessary.

So, scan your body right now. Simply allow your mind to become aware of how your body feels starting with your head. Move this awareness down to your neck, shoulders, upper back, arms, etc. Do you feel any excessive “holding”, bracing, tightness, or do you even feel like you are holding your breath? If so, simply say to yourself “relax”, breath in, and consciously release the muscles and allow them to loosen up. Scan different parts of your body, initially scan large areas first. As you get comfortable with the practice, let your mindfulness get more specific. Over time, you will find you don’t even have to scan as much or you will see a pattern of where you chronically hold yourself and start there.

I dedicate the benefits of this new awareness to all those who are in pain and who are suffering. May the awareness that I have found be helpful to anyone suffering with chronic or acute pain.

After you have tried the exercise a time or two, please drop a note and let me know how it goes. Feel free to share any insight, changes, or experiences you have.

May you be free from suffering and the roots of suffering. May you be at ease and find comfort.

Self-Aggression

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I wonder if there is a fundamental self-aggression in humans or is it fostered over time? January is a particularly distasteful month for all of our self-annihilation, believing we aren’t healthy enough, not thin enough, too stressed, etc. But what if we have just been fed a line to make us want, to make us search? What if we have been trained to not be satisfied with what is going on here and now? People can’t sell us books, potions, or other snake oil charms if we are satisfied.

I’m reading a book on meditation, The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron and have all kinds of things going through my head tonight. It’s part of what happens when you live with chronic pain and meds make you so tired that your days and nights get swapped. It’s quiet now so it’s hardly a bad thing. I can actually hear the questions I ask myself.

As children do we think we are less than or not good enough or do people tell us that? What makes us believe them? Why do we think anyone else could know how to be us any better?

Meditation seems to be about sitting and accepting what is, in any given moment. So I wonder if this is one of the reasons so many people run from the zafu? Where I spent all my time before I saw a lot of people running around trying to be busy and it seemed like those people were the ones who took things or used things to hide from what was going on, like they used their busy-ness to hide. I wonder if it was this primordial dissatisfaction with ourselves and our world that made them run and run? And is it really any better to sit and sit?

Using Rosenberg’s Exercise

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So, it was after midnight my time on New Year’s Eve. . .well, technically, New Year’s morning and my family had finally gone to sleep.  I climbed into the overstuffed recliner and threw a cozy blanket over me.  The room was only lit with the white lights of the Christmas tree and the only noise was a few fireworks being shot off my some neighbors.

I settled into the chair and spent some time on the Basic Exercise.  I looked to the left for 90 seconds and looked to the right for 90 seconds with my hands behind my head.  And then I did the Salamander Exercise which is similar to the Basic Exercise.  I never experienced a sigh or a yawn but I felt very relaxed and my neck and shoulders stretched out.  I spent some time, before sitting up, moving my neck in circles and moving my head from side to side.  I sat up and did some shoulder rolls and another stretch I just learned in a yoga video.

The room seemed a little brighter and I felt tired.  Of course it was between 1-2 am and it had been a long day without my usual nap.  But the pain that I constantly have in my shoulder (my trapezoid) seemed to ease a bit.  This shoulder has been chronically in pain for over 20 years and despite Botox and trigger point shots has given me a lot of trouble.  My neck moved more freely before I went to bed but as I moved it, the movement was jerky and awkward.  Still, it was better range of motion than before.

This morning I woke up and had no pain in my should and for almost all of today, the pain stayed at bay.  Today was the first day in months that I showed no sign of migraine and did not need to take a NSAID or muscle relaxant.  Was it the exercise?  I’m not sure.  I plan to do them again in a few days but it was nice to start the new day off with no pain and a decent amount of energy.  I’ve learned to savor these days because they are few and far between.  Rosenberry has some other activities that I plan to do this week and will refer to them as I finish my posts on his book and the Polyvagal Theory.

So tonight, may you be free from suffering and the roots of suffering.  May you find the grace to live with your problems but not be defined by them.  May you have the good fortune to have a loving family and a deeply connected family of friends that stand by your side through the good and bad.  May you be at ease and know pain-free moments.

These are my wishes for you.