Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spiritual Wincing

I pay attention to what makes me wince- words in my head or those that are spoken that make my toes curl a little and my shoulders head for my ears in a defensive posture.

I’ve figured out that in matters of spirituality there are two things that my radar regularly picks up and shies away from: spiritual cheerleading and harsh admonishments disguised as spiritual truths. Of course these are both easier to spot when they come from another, but I’m not immune from using either on myself. Depending on the day, either one can make me want to hide out.

The cheerleading of spiritual ambition is in the slogans that focus on what You Can Achieve Now! In writing they're usually like that- short phrases with lots of capitalized words most often punctuated with multiple exclamation marks. Even on the page they generally make me feel like someone is shouting at me. Things like: Live Your Ultimate (or Most Authentic or Biggest or Greatest or Grandest or Wildest. . . . ) Life!!

It’s not that I don’t want to live authentically. It’s just that I don’t find general slogans helpful for navigating the challenges of the human heart and daily life. More importantly they seem to exacerbate a push that is all too prevalent in the rest of the culture, urging us to try harder, do more, run faster, work longer, climb higher, get more. . . . when maybe- from a spiritual perspective- what we need to do (at least some of the time) is slow down, sit down or drop down more deeply into our experience of just this moment. These kinds of slogans feel all too in-tune with an economic system built on convincing people to buy what they don’t need and can’t afford to maintain a way of life that is basically unsustainable for us and the rest of the planet. They make me weary.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for supporting each other's dreams and celebrating each other’s successes- although I am more likely to define success in terms that include things like not internally or externally growling at the driver who cut me off in traffic, or opening my heart to a person or myself when one of us is behaving badly because, in a moment of pure grace, I'm able to perceive the fear or pain behind less-than-stellar behaviour.

I’d like my spirituality to have a little less cheer-leading and a little more cherishing of the moment- whether or not it is an extroverted moment of sharing or an introverted moment of solitude. When Jungian analyst, James Hollis, was in Toronto he mentioned that the Jungian Association was lobbying against a move to include "introversion" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Really! Now the DSM has always been a reflection of the culture (at one time homosexuality was listed as a mental illness) and certainly the culture in North America over-values extroversion. And maybe that’s why so many of these slogans feel like cheerleading to me- because they feel focused on outward achievement even as they claim to be about an inner journey.

Closely tied to notions of spiritual achievement is the intolerance for the pacing of slower aspects of the self. I’ve come to recognize it in the hard edge buried beneath the seemingly benign advice to “accept and move on;” (reflecting a fear that without prodding one might not move on according to some ideal and speedy timetable) “forgive and let go;” (which similarly, as one FB comment pointed out, can be a way of saying- we’ve had enough of hearing about your pain/grief) and the judgement laden language of-“let’s not have a pity party,” “I don’t like to wallow,” and “you’re only a victim if you choose to be”- all of which point toward an underlying harshness toward our sorrows and losses.

Rereading Stephen Levin’s book Unattended Sorrows, I’m reminded of the real long-term cost to our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health when we do not give ourselves permission to tend our sorrows and grieve our losses. Stephen chronicles how these unattended sorrows are held in the body and heart and are sometimes triggered by small daily losses, leaving us bewildered when we unravel in the face of a missed deadline or a failed recipe.

The thing is, the overwhelming majority of us we will move on, forgive, let go, move out of self-pity and recover our sense of agency in the world, if we allow ourselves to heal from the inside out. And that takes whatever time it takes. Most of us are already dancing as fast as we can. Urging more speed will not help.

It occurs to me that the both the achievement-oriented cheerleading and the admonishments to pick up the pace of healing are about the same thing: a lack of faith in how we are made.

I have faith that we are made for life- for healing, for continuing and deepening and expanding our capacity to live from compassion and kindness, and for the co-creativity that will find new ways of sustainable living. I know we get stuck sometimes but if, in our fear of getting stuck, we keep pushing and pulling ourselves and each other it becomes difficult if not impossible for us to slow down and hear the life that is calling to us.

I have faith that our essential nature is capable of holding it all: the joy and the sorrow; the births and the deaths. So, maybe a quiet “nicely done,” or “I love your ability to be with him/her/yourself,” or just a silent companioning of each other is all that is needed.

As I write this I have an image and a body sense of us all taking one long full breath together and allowing our shoulders to just drop a little as the breath leaves our bodies.

Ready? Inhale. . . .exhale. . . . Ahhhhh. . . .

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Finding What Was Lost

I am making my way back to God.

God is the first word I learned to point to the sacred Presence that was with me when I was a child. When I was young I could taste that Presence within and around me all of the time. I talked with this Presence, I lived inside that holy heart beat. Walking down school hallways, sitting in classrooms, crossing the frozen river on the way home in the darkness of a northern afternoon, I could hear the voice of what some call God and others call Love surround me. And when the frozen river heaved and cracked, ice buckling and rising, long fissures opening, I was not afraid. I knew the Beloved was with me there, like the cloud of ice crystals forming with every breath- warm moisture from one small self meeting and greeting the dark vastness of the atmosphere at forty degrees below zero.

Years later, I reached out and felt the soft breath of Spirit on my skin when purple welts rose from the place where my face hit the kitchen floor. The angry young man I’d married had thrown me across the room. Even then, I could pray and knew I was not abandoned.

What do we do when we pray? Surely we do not summon what has never left us, what lives within and around us.

Prayer is our way of coming into alignment with that which is always there, waking ourselves up to what has become hidden by distraction and preoccupation with things that will not last. Prayer can be a movement- a way of finding and following the rhythm we sense within all things. It can be a song, a phrase of music, a story or a poem. It can be tears or terror brought to the surface by heart break. It can be surrendering to or wrestling with the pain of heart ache. But it is always sending out a voice that signals a willingness to be found, a willingness to come into alignment with something more than our small worries about life and death.

I did not think I would ever move outside the possibility of prayer found with ease.

But I did.

For the last few years of my marriage, I would open my mouth and there would be no music with meaning, no words that held connection, no way to find the willingness. I was not, you understand, unwilling. I was just so deeply disconnected from my own awareness that I could find no way to cry out. Laying in bed, staring into the darkness I thought- perhaps, I am. . . . just. . . . done. I could hear my heart beat, but I wondered, was curious to know if I was dying.

Nothing anyone else has ever done could have rendered me unable to pray.

What I did- abandoning who I was in an attempt to pay for a love I thought had to be earned- is what made prayer feel impossible. I whittled away at who I was, cutting off little pieces- an ear lobe here, a pinkie there, my love of ideas and my intensity of being, the things he found “too much." Hoping to create, or to become someone the other one would want, I lost myself.

And even then, although I could no longer feel the Presence that was with me, it reached out and shook me awake.

My angels are old women with dark skin and long grey hair. Some have eyes of light. The eyes of others are bottomless pools of darkness that lead to inner worlds. They have come to me in my dreams for years. In that time of forsaking myself it took them a couple of years to get one clear message through the fog of my disorientation. When I finally heard them, I was startled.

“Get out of here now!” they whispered. “Wake up! Your house is on fire.”

And I awoke in a smoke-filled dream and finally moved to save my life.

I am making my way back to all I ever wanted with my whole being: God, the awareness that is awaring itself in all things. Back to the kiss I wanted with my whole life, the scent of what has always been home, the Sacred Mystery.

I am like someone who used to run and then had a terrible fall that disrupts messages between mind and muscle, like someone who has to learn all over again how to crawl and walk, how to balance upright, how to move one step at a time. I used to be someone who ran with ease, without thinking, simply for the pleasure of the wind on my skin, skimming along the ground lightly. Prayer was first nature to me and now, learning it again I see things I could not see when it came so naturally.

Moving deliberately, consciously one step at a time, I pray with my whole being- body-heart-mind-soul-self. And the holy song finds me in a way it could not before.

Sometimes we pray for ease, for things to move without struggle. Understandable really. But sometimes, it is the thing that is consciously sought and welcomed, the thing that demands a re-learning that is not easy that teaches us to rejoice, that opens us to a deeper gratitude.

What has been lost and found is savoured and appreciated more deeply.

I am making my way back to God with each breath.

And I am grateful.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Learning from Fried Friends

I’ve just read the new book by my dear friend Joan Borysenko- Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive. Joan’s sharing of personal stories along with her well-trained scientific mind offers a profound and insightful guide to recognizing and recovering from burnout.

Fried has given me an incredible gift, although it’s not one I’d anticipated.

First, let me say- I have experienced burnout. In 1974 I was nineteen and assistant director at a children’s residential summer camp. Because the rest of the staff were headed to far-flung campuses (while I was returning to Ryerson in Toronto) I was left with closing down the camp. Alone. This was after a summer of supervising the program and staff for a rotating group of one hundred and fifty campers a week, many high risk kids from impoverished homes who’d already been involved in criminal activity. Everyone on staff was exhausted by the end. After the back-breaking work of closing the camp, I went back to school (already a week behind in full-time classes and the fifteen hours a week of social work field placement,) and the two part-time jobs I had in the city, moving my belongings to a new shared living arrangement with The Roommate from Hell. By October I was, as Joan so eloquently puts it: toast.

Joan's book charts the stages of burnout offering us ways to recognize when we are on the way to becoming crispy critters (my personal favourites being “Driven by an Ideal” and the emergence of the “Bitch in the Basement” -not a pretty picture.) From there she offers insights into why some of us are prone to run screaming toward any responsibility that’s up for grabs whether or not we have the time or energy to handle it gracefully. She also offers practical suggestions for reigniting your pilot light.

So here’s the surprise that the book held for me: I don’t have burnout. I cannot tell you how difficult it is for me to acknowledge this. Because as debilitating as burnout is, you can recover from it. I have done and continue to do most if not all of the things Joan suggests and documents as creating recovery from burnout. And I still can’t go out after six in the evening or write for more than two hours a day without ending up in bed unable to even read for days.

Because I don't have burnout- I have CFS/ME (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis outside North America.) And, although I have openly acknowledged that I have had this illness for twenty-seven years, internally I’ve been clinging to the semi-conscious hope/belief that I have burnout.

An MD specializing in CFC/ME once asked me, “So you think you caused this illness by overdoing?” I nodded. She was emphatic. “We may not know half of the factors that cause this illness but we do know that there is at least one pathogen involved and that you do not get it from overdoing.” Softening her tone a little she added, “Oriah, if that was the case, ninety-nine percent of the population would have it. You can make it worse with overdoing now, but that’s not what caused it.”

She was trying to discourage self-blame, but what I heard was: you didn`t cause it so you can`t fix it. This is not in your control.

Reading Fried I was confronted with my denial of what is. Joan even offers a story that explains my denial, telling us of an experiment where a rat is able to push a bar to turn off mild electric shocks. A second rat is similarly effected- shocked when rat #1 is shocked and not shocked when rat #1 presses the bar. Both animals get exactly the same amount of discomfort, but rat #2 has absolutely no control over the shocks. In just a couple of days rat #2 develops bleeding ulcers because “having control rescues you from stress.” Joan continues, “Rising to a challenge- as long as you can overcome it- is a positive experience.”

And that’s why I’ve been semi-consciously clinging to the idea that I have burnout- because we can heal from and learn to avoid burnout, can have some control. With CFS/ME things are more. . . . uncertain. A lot more uncertain.

It occurs to me that the study of the rats tells us how stressful it is to focus on things over which we have little or no control. It also points to why it is hard to not to focus on what is painful even when we have no control over it. I’ve long ago reconciled myself to not travelling around the world and to missing birthday parties or other social gatherings. And I do not give up on trying things that might bring healing. Just this week I’ve researched new treatment protocols and am sitting with whether or not any of them might assist me in being as healthy as possible.

Coming to terms with what is, is a process. We do as much as we can, as we can. And Joan’s book, Fried, just helped me take another step closer to consciously living with what is. And I’m grateful for this. Because joy is accessed through being in the present. But the catch is that there is only one place to be in the present- here: with this body-self, in the conditions of mind-heart-body-spirit that exist right now- not the ones that used to be, not the ones that might be someday (because I have faith in infinite possibilities) but with the ones that are, right now.To pretend that this illness is something other than what it is takes away from being here.

In Fried, Joan writes that all healing is “a deepening into one’s authentic nature.” And while healing may not be a cure, it is what helps us taste the sweetness of life under any conditions.

Finding my way into how the soul’s desires can be fully realized within conditions I may be able to influence but cannot control- that`s the adventure, the challenge and the privilege of being human- it’s what reveals who and what we are.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Unpredictable

Well, it’s inevitable really: the new year arrives, and we look back remembering where we’ve been and then consider where we hope or dream of going on our inner and outer journeys in the next year. Sunday I went to a gathering where the speaker asked us to remember January 2010 and bring to mind all that we had thought lay ahead for us. As it had turned out, I’d had absolutely no idea how 2010 was going to unfold.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that in April 2010 my marriage to Jeff ended. Twelve days earlier I’d discovered some unpleasant and unexpected truths about my marriage- truths that made staying impossible. What followed were the painful legal negotiations, emotional turmoil, physical dislocation and all around chaos and agony of separation.

So, when the speaker on Sunday asked us to consider what we’d hoped for and envisioned for 2010 next to what had happened, I felt a little dizzy just thinking about it. Realizing I was holding my breath, I inhaled deeply and felt something I feel increasingly as I get older: humility. Not humiliation. Humility.

Humility is the awareness of the vastness of what we do not know, the smallness of our own lives in the context of the cosmos and, never-the-less, our desire to tend the one small life we have been given, to continue to have hopes and dreams alongside the growing awareness of how much we don’t control. It’s the unpredictability of the losses that keeps us close to the reality of our own limitations. We all know that we and everyone we love will die someday. We know illness and natural disaster and financial crisis can and will happen. But we can’t anticipate when they will happen, and it’s probably just as well.

I think about that last weekend I spent with Jeff at home in the country, blissfully ignorant of how my world was about to crumble. It was lovely. We went to a small village nearby and wandered through the shops enjoying the warm spring afternoon. We ate at a local cafe. I bought a straw hat with a broad rim and Jeff took my picture when I wasn’t looking (always the best way to take my picture.)

Years ago, when I shared the story of how my dear friend Catherine had had a brain aneurism burst while she was at my home, I often said, “That’s what it’s like: One minute everything is fine and the next minute nothing will ever be as it once was. None of us knows if we are sixty seconds away from a brain aneurism.”

The older I get the closer I can sit with this reality, and the more easily I can be with the humility that comes when once again, I am caught off guard by an unexpected change that brings to an end some aspect of the story I am living. I’m actually delighted to discover my capacity to at least partially forget previous pain. (In places with accessible birth control, would there be any second children without this ability?) When the truth about my marriage came out, as unexpected as it was, it was not an entirely new truth. That’s what made it imperative to leave: it was not an isolated incident but a ten year pattern I could no longer hold or ignore, a situation I could no longer stretch to encompass without doing real harm to myself.

And, the truth is, I’m glad to discover I hadn’t anticipated it. I was there fully until I left. Despite past difficulties, I hadn’t been scouring the horizon for trouble, waiting for disaster. Did this mean I felt blind-sided when the end came? Absolutely. But that’s okay, because the alternative- living in a state of hyper-vigilance, anticipating and looking for what can go badly- can suck the joy out of the moments we do have.

If there’s one thing I do want to keep with me as I leave 2010 behind, it’s the awareness that the joy we are offered today is all the sweeter because we do not know what will happen next. So, I’ll make my plans and set my intentions and dream for myself and the planet- knowing that the future is not predictable and largely out of my control- which means of course that the excruciatingly difficult and the magnificently marvellous can and will happen. We just don’t know when.

(Like right now: as I write this a group of five year olds in the playground beside my balcony are, despite the snow, singing "Land of the silver birch, home of the beaver, where still the might moose wanders at will. . . " They are accompanied by a young man- their daycare worker- playing a penny whistle. I can hear every word despite my windows and doors being closed against the winter wind, and when I go to the window to have a look, there they are- bundled in snowsuits and scarves, their heads tipped back, singing at the top of their lungs. Now that's magnificently marvellous!)