Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Finding Encouragement

Last summer, in the midst of a difficult year (both parents with Alzheimer’s and a stressful time of marital separation sparking a CFS/ME relapse) an old and dear friend. . . . . well, she lost it. Frantic about my distress she said at one point, “This is never going to get better! You will always have this illness. Combined with aging, it will simply get worse and worse for the rest of your life! And your parents are physically healthy so this hell with their mental deterioration is going to go on for a long time. It could go on for twenty years!”

Now here’s what’s interesting about this: her frantic pronouncements shifted me in a good way. Hearing the words that no doubt some part of my semi-conscious mind was muttering regularly, I felt like I woke up. I thought, “Oh that’s just not true. My health changes all the time, sometime for the better. I don't believe I will only become more and more ill. And I can’t know what is going to happen with my parents.”

My poor friend, feeling panicked and unable to help, had helped me shift away from my own fear and into deeper self-care. It’s not that I recommend predicting gloom and doom to help your friends find their inner strength in challenging times. But, sometimes when we see some one we love in a distressing situation we panic. What surprised and pleased me was seeing the unpredictable ways psyche can use what is at hand to find its way back into hope and life.

Living a human life deeply with an open heart requires courage. There are inevitable losses and challenges. Some days it’s easy to hop out of bed, eager to face the day. And sometimes- occasionally for no immediately apparent reason- it takes a lot of courage to put your feet on the floor and move toward your familiar tasks.

When we face a challenge that needs to be dealt with over months or years, sometimes remembering that all things will pass just doesn’t help much. When I face these kinds of challenges I do three things to encourage my lagging spirit:

1) I reign in the terrified mind that is slipping into imagining “The Worst” by telling myself, “Stay here. . . Breathe. Inhale. . . . Exhale. . . . Stay here,”- for ten to twenty slow breaths (repeating as often as I need to during the day;)

2) I ask myself what needs to be done in the next five minutes and I do that one thing without thinking about what comes next (ie.- continuing to focus on my breath.) The more severe the pain (physical or emotional,) the more specific I become, changing for example, “make a cup of tea" to “fill the kettle with water.”

3) I set up small daily moments of appreciative self-care and skilful distraction. Appreciative self-care may include having something wonderful to eat, (preferably a tasty green smoothy instead of a bag of cookies) taking a slow walk in a local park, or having a conversation with a friend. Skilful distractions are things that occupy me fully- giving me a break- without leaving any kind of “hangover” (like watching a movie that makes me laugh- or even one that makes me cry if I need the release- instead of channel surfing for hours and becoming tired but wired.)

How we each encourage ourselves is, of course, very individual. On some level it's about recognizing that we are in need of encouragement- of finding that which feds our courage- whether we're dealing with difficult external circumstances or challenging internal states that are not entirely or immediately in the control of our will. Some days life unfolds with effortless ease, and other days. . . . well, other days we need a little encouragement. As my friend voiced her fears, no doubt mirroring some of my own, I was pleased to find that the instinctual desire to find ways and reasons to continue, to lean into life, was confirmed as an aspect of what we are. And I find that very encouraging.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

When There & Then Impacts Here & Now

A friend of mine was recently giving a seminar to a group when a shooting occurred in the shop next door. A man was killed and bullets penetrated the wall between the two rooms. People were understandably frightened, and she did her best to maintain calm.

Since the incident she has experienced unexpected moments of anxiety along with emotional and physical shakiness. These trauma-induced sensations and feelings happen in a present moment free of any threat, a present moment that is profoundly impacted by something that happened in the past. Because she has considerable self-awareness she has been able to figure out what has triggered the anxiety (on one occasion she was driving toward the general area where the shooting took place.) Knowing this does not stop the involuntary response of her body and emotions, so she is going to get help from healers skilled at assisting others with releasing trauma from the body, mind, and heart.

I’ve been thinking about this friend as I regularly read posts on Facebook admonishing everyone to “let go” of the past and “move on.” (Two pieces of advice, which even when they may be well intended and not entirely inappropriate, are about as helpful as telling someone experiencing tension to “relax.”) Generally, we are not masochistic. If we are able to let go and move on, we do. If we haven’t it’s because something more than a snappy slogan or spiritual ideal is needed.

Being fully present helps us live fully and deeply, enables us to find, cultivate and co-create peace within ourselves and the world. The decision and desire not to be perpetually traumatized or limited by the past is an instinctual desire for expanded life and freedom. But there is a real risk in believing in or stating this as if a simple mental decision or spiritual aspiration to let something go will or should instantaneously banish the effect of past experience on our present inner condition. In fact, insisting that we or others can and should “just let go” can be a way to reject the present moment when something uncomfortable that is related to or an echo of our past is arising. That’s not being present with what is. That’s denying what the present moment holds and clinging to the ideal of emotional amnesia (even as we cloak it in more “spiritual” terms) in the understandable hope that we can avoid pain and suffering.

Sometimes, what arises in the here and now is being profoundly affected by an experience we had there and then. If we repress awareness of how a past experience is sparking a reaction in the present moment because we believe we “should” have let go and moved on by force of our will, we become an unwitting menace to ourselves and others. Free will choice is directly proportional to conscious awareness of what is.

When I was a young woman, I was raped. I can honestly say that the only thing that sends even a ripple of fear through my body about that past incident now is seeing the man who raped me (I was once in my car at a stop light when he walked across the intersection- he did not notice me) or seeing someone built like him (he is a distinctive six feet seven inches tall) when I am in a place that may be potentially unsafe (like walking home alone at night.) But even on the rare occasion when this happens, the healing work I have done with skilled practitioners around this part of my past enables me to breathe into and be with the fear that arises, evaluate any present danger and recognize a reaction that is influenced by the past. I am also, these many years later, able to welcome these minute flashbacks as opportunities to feel and release residual trauma that is still held in the deepest recesses of my body, mind or heart.

I am confident that my friend will be able to release the trauma of the shooting incident. She has the knowledge, resources and willingness to seek skilled help, and she is doing so shortly after the incident. When past trauma is more severe, (and this is both subjective and related to the relative power we did or did not have at the time) when it was repeated, chronic or in the distant past, bringing it to consciousness and releasing it from all levels of being can take some deep and extended excavation. And that requires skilled assistance and great courage.

Like all organisms in nature we are built for healing, designed for surviving and thriving. We are incredibly, astonishingly resilient. We really do have the capacity to be present with whatever is in this moment- even when what is present is a memory or feeling about something from the past. There is no need to qualify our commitment to being here and now- we can be with this moment completely, even when it is coloured by what happened there and then.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Time Things Take

I have this feeling that I have not completely dropped down into my life here in Toronto. After a decade of living in a somewhat isolated country property my marriage ended and a small apartment in the city became my solitary home.

That was almost two years ago, and as much as I miss the quiet of the country, there many things I appreciate about living in the city. But I still feel like I have not completely resettled here. This came to mind today when thinking about wanting to reread a book I had to leave behind, and I realized I do not yet have a library card for the Toronto Public Library. This is, of course, easy to remedy but it is indicative of my not having completely dropped down into my new life in the city.

And I wonder why. What am I waiting for? Contemplating this I am brought back to a familiar observation: that change, particularly when it happens precipitously, takes time to filter down into all aspects of our being. Oh, we get it mentally- our first child is born and instantly, we become parents; a tornado or wildfire moves through the community where we live and we lose our homes; marriage ends and we are single once again.

But the truth is that absorbing, adapting to, and finding a way to be with major change on every level of inner and outer being, takes time. We sometimes try to speed it up. We often want to speed it up. But there is some kind of natural pacing that happens.

All living organisms live in time. However much some may claim that time is an illusion, we live our lives, make our plans, see the changes that occur in what at least appears to be a linear motion of time, much like a steady and relentless conveyor belt. (I am not saying there isn’t more to time than this, only that this is how we experience it in our daily awareness.)

But surely not all living organisms experience time at the same pace. I imagine it is to some degree relative to our overall life span. An insect who has an eight week life span may experience time differently than we do (presumably without the same kind of conscious sense of past and future that we do- but it’s hard to interview a black flu and find out.) When we die, although our bodies may shut down from disease over time, the line of distinction is pretty clear. One moment we are alive, the next we are dead. Trees, on the other hand, do not die the moment they are cut down. Large trees can continue to grow and sprout leaves after they've been chopped own. (I have read that our fingernails and hair similarly can continue to grow for a short time after death, so maybe we are not as different from trees as I think we are.)

All this is to say, that one of the facets of the reality of being human is to be an organism that has a particular sense of the passage of time. Around big changes in our lives, time is needed before the change can be absorbed as a new way of living. When we lose a loved one it can take days or weeks before the awareness of the loss does not hit us with the freshness of new and devastating information when we wake up each morning. It takes time for our psyche to absorb the loss, to remember that someone who was once with us is gone, to imagine a life without this person. Similarly it takes time to heal physically and emotionally.

So, as in so many things, we have this combination of the limits of the natural organism we are, and the free will choices we can make. We can, of course, promote healing by accepting and deliberately settling into the new (albeit always temporary) conditions. But there is a limit to how much we can speed up inner adaptations to outer conditions without going into denial, without trying to leave some aspect of self- perhaps the part of us that is grieving or just needing to move a little slower- behind.

The truth is, as humans- as embodied souls- we are always arriving in and meeting each present moment and the conditions it holds. So what’s the rush? Why the need to judge whether or not we are "moving on" quickly enough or taking the time we- or someone else- thinks we "should?" Time can be our ally, helping us find the sustainable pacing that allows our fullest and deepest unfolding.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My Prayer- My Life

In the ceremonial dance, we pray with our bodies, running to the tree at the centre of the sacred hoop and dancing back to our place on the circle, always facing the tree, honouring life. We hold feathers up to the sky and blow bone whistles as we dance to say, “Great Mystery, I am here. I send a voice. I send a prayer with my feet on this sacred earth.”

Over and over we run to the tree, following the heart beat of the drum from the first light of dawn until that blazing ball of light falls beneath the horizon. We do not stop. We do not eat or drink. We run forward and dance backward, our eyes always on the tree, always turned toward life.

At the start my intent is clear, my prayers prepared during days of fasting and meditation. I focus my attention on the longings of my heart: for healing, for the well-being of those I love, for wisdom in my work, for peace on the planet, for courage in community. I dance in gratitude for life, for all that we are given, for the beauty of this planet. My heart and my feet are light. I feel as if I could dance forever. Over and over to the tree and back.

The sky turns from pale blue to the brilliant hue that almost hurts your eyes to look at it as the sun climbs in the sky. My back begins to ache and my intentions blur. The prayers I have held in my mind become jumbled. Sweat pours down my face. My legs cramp.

I think of those who have pain in their bodies every day- those who are ill or injured, hungry, without medical care, alone or frightened, in areas of armed conflict. . . . . And I dance for them- that they may find peace, that they may be well.

I dance for my sons, and then I dance for all parents and their children, remembering especially those who have lost children or live in fear of losing children to sickness or starvation, to domestic or military violence. I dance in gratitude for the beauty and miracle of birth and remember the other children of Grandmother Earth- her plants and animals, the water and air, the rocks and minerals. And I dance for them, in gratitude for the beauty and sustenance they offer, asking that they be protected.

I give my body to the dance. My body is my prayer. Sometimes there is pain. Sometimes unexpected ease returns, and I dance with fresh energy, renewed from some unseen source. Resistance arises- the temptation to quit. The sun seems to stand still in the sky. I go to the tree one more time. . . . . and another. . . and another. Tears come and go. Exhaustion threatens to topple me. But I am there now without thought, all aspirations of being eloquent in my prayer, graceful in my dance sweated out, left behind. I stumble. I fall, coming down on one knee and struggle to get up.

This is how I pray- whether I am in a ceremonial dance or in the dance of an ordinary day. I get up and move toward life often with a focused prayer in my heart, on my lips. I buy carrots and squash at the market, make a soup for lunch, talk with a friend who is grieving the loss of her husband, write a poem, answer emails, get my teeth cleaned, revise a chapter, pay the electricity bill. . . . each move another run to the tree, a prayer in motion.

Sometimes I am awake and aware, and I consecrate this run- this task- to what is larger and sacred, bringing mindfulness to my movements. I pay the electricity bill with a prayer of thanks for the means to do so and for the power that heats my home, cooks my food and brings light to the darkness. I add a prayer that we develop and use sustainable ways to provide that power- ways that do no harm to this planet, our home.

Sometimes awareness is buried in busyness or weariness and I forget to dedicate my actions or moments to the Sacred Mystery that sustains me. But still, I move toward life allowing my actions to become my prayer, hoping it is enough.

And sometimes in that ordinary day, as in the ceremonial dance, I come to my knees and struggle to rise. And where I am unable to get up, my prayer is in the curve of my back and the tears in my throat, in accepting the limits of what my small will can do. I ask for help, I surrender, and something lifts me, holds and carries me. Sometimes this happens all at once, taking my breath away with instantaneous transformation. And sometimes it is a slow and gentle lifting, almost imperceptible, until I find myself back on my feet once more, filled with gratitude and renewed faith.

This is how I pray. One day at a time. Dancing until I cannot and that which brought me here lifts me up and carries me forward. The prayer is in the life lived with awareness, in the intention and even in the forgetting so the remembering may come again. It is in the joy and the sorrow, the struggle and the surrendering, in the opening that comes as we move more deeply into life, over and over again.

Oriah (c) 2012