The Zen of Illness

Lucy sacked out

 

Sometimes a  formal daily meditation practice just isn’t enough, even if you have been at it for over 25 years.  A retreat can become necessary.  If, like me, you haven’t been proactive and made plans for one in too many years the Universe may provide one for you.

In my case, it was the flu.  My last post was all euphoria and rainbows because it was the first “healthy” day I had experienced since approximately the end of September.  I had been on a rollercoaster both emotionally and physically and was rejoicing that it finally seemed to be over.  I had such a fun day; adventuring with my ever-loyal sister, finding real Greek food, and going to a delightful movie.

Surprise! Within 24 hours of that post I was knocked flat on my tush by the latest strain of influenza.  All of my grand plans had to be cancelled. Big ideas and ambitions were relegated to pages of notes.  It has been a literal, enforced hibernation during the coldest and darkest time of the year.  The dye studio in the garage has remained a mess, grant paperwork is left undone, and other projects have fallen by the wayside.

The meditation retreats I have attended involved intentionally removing yourself from every day distractions for an extended period of time. The whole point of the rituals and customs, whatever they may be, is to bring the meditator into greater awareness of the mind’s patterns and reactions.  Daily interviews with a leader/ teacher/guru are usually sessions for processing the angst and dodging that comes when faced with your own bullshit.  When it is just you and the contents of your head all sorts of boogeymen may make an appearance.

The rituals involved in most meditation practices produce definite changes in neurochemistry  and brain waves through postures and breathing patterns which then induce the sense of calm and, sometimes, euphoria that many meditators report.  Counting breaths, mantras, and chanting help the meditator remain focused.  Sitting in a particular manner is aimed to prevent falling asleep.

There are some meditation techniques involving certain visualizations and mantras that are aimed at digging the spider-webs out of particularly dark corners of the psyche and are best done under the supervision of an experienced practitioner.  With that being said, they all come back around to the basics; sitting still and breathing steadily, watching your thoughts and allowing them to roll on by without grabbing onto them.  It has always reminded me of sitting on the bank of a river watching detritus float by.  Look!  There goes a stick.  And here a leaf.  A beer can.  A turtle.  I am not sure where I picked up that metaphor.

When the ol’ bod refuses to cooperate and the energy is just not there to do more than the basics, if that much, there isn’t much left to do besides turn inward.  Foggy brains and constant trips to the toilet do not allow for intellectual rigor.  Daily distractions and business were ignored due to lack of energy to pay attention to them.   It can be an accomplishment to sit still and remain awake.

I won’t claim major revelations or astounding insights from my involuntary retreat. I did stop railing against being sick and feeling sorry for myself.  I became more accepting of the situation and stopped resisting it.  I had the space to examine and deal with some interpersonal issues that had been bugging me, recognizing and acknowledging the emotions I had been trying to ignore.  I began to reevaluate some projects that were very important to me and realized that they are not as urgent as I thought they were.  I became more grateful for the basics: food, shelter, and friends who care for me.

At this writing I am still sick, slowly shedding the annoying symptoms that have kept me inactive, but more or less on house arrest and still considered contagious.   Life feels like the Fruitbasket Turnover game we played in grade school; a game similar to musical chairs the teacher would have us play when we were becoming too restless.

My Buddha buddies and I used to make jokes about the shock of reentry after an extended retreat.  Things we were numb to before the retreat would be glaringly obvious and grated on our nerves afterward.  It was a further exercise in discipline to avoid overreacting to them; a constant reminder to detach, pull back, let go.  Maintaining equanimity is easy when the environment is quiet and calm and controlled.  The challenges come when we are just another face in the crowd and the world rolls on around us.

It will be interesting to watch how, and if, things in my life have changed when I am back to full functioning again.   I wonder what I will have given up and what I have gained.  I guess I won’t know until I get there.

I have always loved the old Zen proverb about “chop wood and carry water.”  I expect that will continue.

Rebounding

RainbowGreetings, Beloveds.  I am on a manic rebound after being sick since the end of September.  There has been a trip to urgent care, 2 allergic drug reactions, constant antibiotics and antivirals,  and a hospitalization through the emergency room for which my insurance company has denied coverage.  And those are just the highlights.

Today is the first day since I don’t remember when that I have not been nauseated, in pain, or hugging the toilet.  It’s a hell of a way to lose 10 pounds.  I actually slept more than 4 hours in a row and was able to tolerate real Greek food yesterday without an immediate trip to the toilet within an hour of eating.  I went adventuring with my sister, had good food, and saw a wonderful movie.  I couldn’t ask for a better day or more fun.  It was sorely needed.

Somewhere in all the chaos and depression I initiated the process of writing a formal business plan and applying for grant funding to expand and develop Freak Flag Dye Company.  As part of the rebound my head is bursting with creative ideas and grand schemes.  I am rushing to get all the details on paper before I forget them and formulate plans to see them come to pass.  Reality will eventually settle in and I will have to buckle down and do the grunt work.  I am looking forward to seeing what eventually manifests. My experience at the moment is much like being inside a freshly shaken snow globe.

So. . . .deep breath. . . a few grounding exercises and hugs from my friends. . . additions to the ongoing list in my daily gratitude journal. . .time to get real.  Today I feel bulletproof, tomorrow I may be curled up under my blankie crying again.

Wish me luck.  Much love to you all.

 

Catching up

I was having a nice phone conversation with someone today who wanted to see this site.  As we were discussing the content I realized that there is a lot more stuff on Facebook than there is here.  What I post here is automatically posted to FB, but it is not the other way around (Fie on you, Mark Zuckerburg!)  So here is stuff you may not have seen.

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Unexpected Blessing

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I wrote yesterday about wanting to renovate my workspace.  I had been looking for a grant/ business loan or whatever in order to finance it. After spilling my guts in the previous post I pulled a very large check out of the mailbox.  It was an insurance reimbursement from a medical issue almost 4 years ago that I had forgotten about.  It is just enough to do what I need to do if managed carefully.

I am still in tears over it.

Of Shepherds and Sheep

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It is the dark of the year, the dormant time when nights are long and cold and the days are too short to accomplish much.  It is too cold in the garage to dye and I spend time wondering if I can afford to do the renovations required to make it an efficient dye studio.  I want space and equipment to turn my mental images into reality.  I follow other dyers on Facebook and goggle at the things they produce.  I want my own voice with color and pattern and chafe at my restrictions.  And I want validation.  I want others to like what I do and buy it.  I don’t want to have to pitch to the lowest common denominator in order to make a few dollars, but I need time and resources to practice and develop.  I feel guilty taking advantage of other’s differences in order to advance my own needs.  Compromising principles and ideals puts food on the table, however.  Finding the balance in that is always a problem.

Whine, whine, whine.  So easy to do when you are cold and lonely and recovering from yet another betrayal by the old body.  In my head I am still 30 yet my body is rapidly approaching 64.  Genetics, karma, and bad habits are catching up with me.  People say that age is just a number.  Will somebody please remind me of that  when my knees don’t want to bend the way I would like them to?

We incarnate here for the Great Work whether we are conscious of it or not.  In our own feeble, fumbling ways we are all searching for the Middle Path and the way back to the Source.  Robes and badges and ranks and tools and systems are just distractions.  Attachments to structures are useful, but are full of pitfalls.  We wonder why schisms develop and groups squabble among themselves.  Finding the balance between the tools we need to do our work and the Work itself is a struggle.

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It has been said that the Universe (whatever that is) recycles situations until we learn the lessons.  Life is a spiral.  Sacred geometry and all that. So now I am looking at a repeating situation in my life and wondering just what the Universal curriculum is in this particular turn of the screw. It ain’t my first rodeo and I am seeing a pattern here.  Methinks there is fuel for more therapy in this.

I own the qualities of being ornery, independent, and rebellious.  My motto should be “The Emperor Has No Clothes” and if I ever get to change my current one I will most likely switch to that. Imperator non habet vestimenta.

In my rambling adventures through this particular life I have found myself again and again in situations requiring a level of obedience and submission that I struggle with.  I recognize the need for structure, organization,  and self-discipline in my life and will not argue that fact.  But there comes a breaking point.  That point occurs when the outer trappings of the inner work become more important than the work itself.  When rank and badges and testing and degrees cease becoming symbols and become validation for egos or, worse yet, distractions and a way of hiding from the unpleasant truth that the Work engenders.  We have to hug our Shadows.  I am old friends with Kali-ma, Hecate, Isis, and any other name you would like to hang on that archetype.

Where is the balance here?  There needs to be some system to communicate responsibilities within an organization.  Signals as to who to go to when certain needs arise.  Yet, repeatedly when I have reached out to others of “higher rank”, the “shepherds” or “leaders” of whatever group I am currently involved in I have been met with dead ends. Broken and crying in instructor’s offices, on meditation cushions, in the middle of ritual, in the hospital; I have lost count of the places and times and situations.  Poor, pitiful me.  I toss their rule book out the window and whine when they don’t like it.  My personal alphabet doesn’t aline with theirs and I want so badly to belong, yet I can’t swallow all of the Kool-Aid required to get there.

So, what is the lesson here?  That my path is my own and that I am my own shepherd?  Yes.  Always.  There is no arguing with that truth.  And I should give up asking for validation from other people?  Probably, but that is a tough one for me.  I feel like a single cell in a larger organism.  I am unable to isolate myself from what surrounds me.  I just ain’t wired like that.

BUT. . . .(you know there is always at least one of these). . . I wonder if I don’t know the correct way to ask for help and comfort. How many times have I been told that I am too blunt and too direct? Or is it ego and the shadow self coming forth?  and on and on and on ad infinitum with the navel gazing.  Or is it, as a good little Buddhist, am I once again tripping over my own expectations and here is something I need to let go of yet again? and again and again? ( I am nothing if not stubborn.)  And do I need  to recognize that those I ask for help have clay feet and love them anyway?  (The answer to that one is “of course.”)  Dukkha is a wobbly wheel.

I do not believe in separating myself from the world, of building up so much detachment that I do not react to what is around me.  I refuse to be “above it all” and I have no desire for a teflon shield. I came here voluntarily and I wallow in the world I have helped create.  I have found that the more time I have spent on the cushion or my knees, in prayer or meditation or whatever you want to call the act of plugging in to that which is greater than us, the more connected to the “all” I am.  The fewer defenses I have, the more my boundaries erode.  The more urgency I feel to respond to brokeness. And I try in my own small ways.  Daily I realize how little power I actually have when it comes to grand gestures and the birds remind me that it is the little things that matter as I fill the feeders.

Aaaaaaannnnnnddddd. . . . here we go with the pop psychology. . . .allow me to throw around a few familiar terms here: “healthy boundaries”, “self-care”, “empath”, “codependence”, “inner child”, “PTSD”, “12-steps”, “unresolved anger.” Had enough?  I can give you plenty more.

We all need our “tribe” and modern society no longer seems to support that.  If you look around you at many social groups; religious, spiritual, or otherwise; the “heavy lifting” seems to be done by single older women, largely because the men don’t seem to be able to live long enough.  The crones.  The ones with the time and resources to care for the children, volunteer, do the administrative work, count the birds, rescue the strays, and organize the thrift stores.  They are the ones who take up the slack when the “shepherds” can’t. I could go on a rant about who cares for the elders in our society. Too often it is a one-sided relationship.  And I could be ranting based on  anxiety about my own rapidly approaching elder-hood.

As one who was born bossy and had responsibility foisted on me at a very young age, who does not know how to behave otherwise, and who has spent most of my life as a leader and instigator of one sort or another (often not voluntarily) as well as being a compulsive nurturer I have  fought many battles over the idea that those who lead others; call them “pastors”, “temple chiefs”, “sergeants”,”teachers”, “gurus”, or “managers”, as well as whatever other words you can dig up in the thesaurus, have a responsibility to care for their followers.  In my many years of battling corporations my biggest and most wearying task was making sure that my staff was cared for, that their needs were met. Because if my people were not whole they could not serve those who were not.  And I always thought that my staff should not have to ask or act out in order to get what they needed. They needed structure and rules and direction, but they also needed someone to realize when they needed support and propping up when the work became overwhelming.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was drilled into my head in school and daily I see how it can be applied.  I think if Jesus were to speak in contemporary jargon it would have been the basis for the Sermon on the Mount.

Spiritual types of the “mindfulness” persuasion talk about “presence.”  It is the quality of being there, in the moment, with whatever is going on, and not fighting it.  Sometimes it can be unsettling to be with someone who is present. They see through your smoke screens and love you anyway.   Often they love you in spite of/ because of your bullshit.

It is a quality I have often seen develop with age and experience as well as time spent in contemplation.  There are reasons that in some societies the elders gravitate toward the monastic life.  And I wonder if it is part of the reason that elders are no longer cared for in contemporary Western cultures.  Elders remind us that our physical containers wear out and “presence” reminds us to get our heads out of our own asses.  It is a daily practice to be present and we often fail at it more often than we succeed. The point is to keep trying.  Use whatever you need to use as a reminder.  One well known teacher uses the sound of a bell.  I often use a piece of jewelry.

It is when the mechanisms of mutual support break down that a group splinters.  Egos get in the way.   Much goes unspoken.  Hurts fester. Employees resign.  Customers get pissed off. Confusion reigns. People squabble and fight back.  A cohort gets pissed off over the interpretation of a verse in their version of the rules and trots off down the street to do their own thing and the cycle begins all over again.  It isn’t always a bad thing, growth often requires it, but it can also be an unecessary waste of time and energy as well as causing rifts between people who are already too isolated by their own egos.

Nothing lasts forever, but if we take on a task and set ourselves to accomplish it, the shepherds need to look after the sheep and quit worrying about all the shiny baubles, spiritual merit badges, certificates, and extraneous regalia.  We need each other, not the gadgets.

Going to therapy is all well and good, but it is no substitute for connection and community, for spending unstructured time together, hanging out and simply sharing who we are.  It takes time to be comfortable with each other and to be vulnerable. Strength comes from our vulnerability to each other and our mutual trust and interdependence.  We learn how our pieces fit together in order to build something greater.

As our society wobbles toward major changes, requiring uncomfortable and possibly dangerous conditions, all we are going to have is each other.  Would we not be better off to develop the skills and systems we need to build and support community now rather than picking up after the next major disaster? Or will the disasters and upheavals be the impetus we need to learn how to work with each other?  Funny how it often happens that way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Alchemy and Illness

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This post has nothing to do with dying or color.  I feel the need to talk about my recent adventures so please bear with me.

Here is what I have been through in the past month, and these are just the highlights.  All of this is on top of struggling to control my type 2 diabetes, with blood sugars all over the place and diabetic burnout on top of it all.  There has been fallout from recent attempts to adjust meds and an allergic reaction to a medication my endocrinologist tried because I was having unpleasant side effects from the one I had been on for 5 years.  So far 2017 has not been my year.

  1. Acute diverticulitis flare requiring a trip to the local acute care, lots of belly pain, severe diarrhea and nausea from oral antibiotics, spending about a week flat on my back living on crackers and bananas.
  2. Severe allergic reaction to pravastatin, much muscle pain and weakness.  I had allowed a doctor to guilt me into taking the med against my better judgement.
  3. Unpleasant news resulting in much anxiety, shame, and emotional turmoil.  The result of a poor decision about a year and a half ago.
  4. Severe allergic reaction to topamax; psychosis and the pain of knowing my perceptions and emotions had no basis in reality but still experiencing the weirdness. Taken in an attempt to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder and stabilize the rollercoaster my mood has been on for most of this year, which is a whole other story.
  5.  Middle of the night hospital admission through ER for continued diverticulitis flare resulting in IV morphine and antibiotics, due in a large part to the GI upset resulting from oral antibiotics.
  6. An epic meltdown just prior to discharge from the hospital due to an administrative snafu resulting in my admission not being covered by my insurance company.  They could have discussed it with me after I had been there 24 hours, not after 4 days, and 3 hours before I was due to go home.  I think the mushroom cloud is still hanging over the hospital after that one and I am not through with them over it.

It is difficult not to be bitter and angry and feel sorry for myself, but I own my part in all that has happened.  I am not a helpless victim.  There have been good lessons presented and my heart has been touched in ways that may not have happened otherwise.

I have always been extremely independent, Type A, super competent, over responsible eldest child, self-educated; in no way a shrinking violet. rather a galloping extrovert. My style has been “full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes”.  I took care of others and did not trust others to take care of me. I had all the answers or knew where to look them up. Defense mechanisms from trauma, anyone?

I have had to learn to ask for help and to allow others to care for me and to realize that there is no shame in it.  Through all of this, I have learned who my real friends are.  I think my daily habit of keeping a gratitude journal has paid off because there has been so much reason for gratitude in all of this.  And I have been surprised at the people who have come forth.  Everyone has busy, full, lives and too many obligations and I deeply appreciate those who took the time to  show up and demonstrate compassion and care for me.  I cry a little thinking about all that has happened.

There was the friend who can barely keep herself fed and housed, but who brought a gift bag of things to distract me and who works night-shift but showed up on my doorstep one morning when I needed someone to talk to.

And the person who came every day, who brought my favorite chinese food in the middle of the night, who has also been a listening ear and a source for feedback when I have needed to talk, and who dropped everything and took me home from the hospital when I needed to leave earlier than planned.

Another person whom I have not known for very long, who drove 45 minutes to visit me and sat open-mouthed during a discussion I had with someone else about gastrointestinal illness and fecal transplants.  She later texted and said that she would offer her stool if it would help me get better.

Someone I had not seen in 2 years brought me flowers from her garden twice, and remembered that they were the ones my grandmother had nicknamed me for.  She also turned up in the hospital with a goodie bag and has promised me home-made french onion soup for behaving myself in the hospital.

My ever patient sister visited my house twice a day to feed my furbabies in addition to stopping by the hospital, and vacuumed up the ginormous dustbunnies that had accumulated in the corners of my house.  She provided entertainment for both me and the hospital staff by filling in daily goals and activities on the whiteboard in the room.

And there was the unfailing kindness and compassion of the hospital staff who took the time to crack jokes with me, provide extra bottles of shampoo to bring home when I talked about how nice it was to have fluffy hair, and gave me a tube of body cream because they thought I would like the way it smelled. They smuggled in real coffee when all the cafeteria would send was decaf.  They hung out in my room when they had time, told me their stories of kids and nursing school and crafts and gardening, traded medical care war stories, put up with my goofy jokes, and laughed at my snarky comments.  I do not handle confinement and restriction well and they made it much more tolerable.

Recent events have changed me.  I have learned, perhaps a little bit, to allow others to love me in their own ways and, maybe, to love myself a little more in the process. I have learned to ask for help.  Stubborn and hardheaded that I am, it often takes whacks from the Universal Baseball Bat to drive a lesson home.  Trying to be woke is an ongoing process, it comes in waves, and the Great Work is never accomplished in a straight line or through a tidy procedure.  We all wander and lessons are provided when and where they are needed.  To paraphrase a famous Rolling Stone song; we don’t always get what we want, but we get what we need.  We are ever the Fool about to step off the cliff.  What else can we do but laugh at the cosmic joke and keep on keeping on, remembering to be grateful and recognizing love in the little things?