Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Choosing To Forget- Or Not

Recently I heard a radio ad for a documentary about a surgical technique that might someday be able to remove memories that are causing ptsd (post-traumatic stress disorder.) I wondered if my negative reaction to the idea was simply because, with two parents with Alzheimer's, I am all too aware of the painful process of involuntarily losing memories. When someone recently left a Facebook comment that, "In the end all we have are our memories," all I could think was- if we're lucky.

Putting aside the brain's complex structure which may make this procedure impossible, I started thinking about some of the things that have happened in my life that have been particularly difficult, wondering if I would want my memory of them purged.

When I was a young woman I was raped, and it took considerable amounts of healing work to alleviate the suffering that my memory of this incident created. But, if I think about removing my memory of the rape, my immediate gut response is a resounding, No. I am no longer traumatized by the memory and being able to recall what happened- how I felt, what helped (and what did not)- has been useful in my work with women who have been raped. I know something of the territory they are traversing and so hopefully, am more helpful than I might be if that memory was wiped clean.

Oh, I am not making virtue out of necessity. I would not wish rape on anyone, and I do not think that the learning I gleaned from being raped is the "reason" (cause of) why it happened. This would be to claim something I cannot know. I feel no ill will toward the man who raped me at this point and sincerely hope he has healed from whatever darkness led to him make the choice to rape. But I do not think he chose to rape to "teach" me what I needed to learned (as a New Age teacher once suggested to me,) or even that a higher power orchestrated the rape for these lessons. I do not experience any such harshness in the Presence within and around me

But, what if someone is unable or unwilling to do the healing work needed to remove the trauma held in their body/heart/mind?  My father, having lost awareness of much of his past and present (where he is, who he is, who others are etc.) due to dementia has, at times, found himself adrift in memories of childhood abuse, striking out at those around him in fear. Robbed of the ability to contain or work with the memories that shaped some of his values and choices in life, perhaps he would now be better off without them.

Of course, I wonder if erasing a memory- even if this was possible and desirable- would necessarily erase the wounding held in psyche and body. Some seek and find healing for wounds created by events they can't and may never fully recall because the trauma happened at a very early age or has been repressed deep into the unconscious. 

For myself, I suppose the bottom line is that each time I think about the benefits that might be accrued by erasing a memory of a traumatic event, the cost feels too high. I am unwilling to give up the learning, insight, and strength gained from moving beyond survival to using the challenges that have shaped me to offer what I can to the world and deepen my appreciation of the life I have.

We are shaped and informed by the things that happen in our lives and, perhaps more importantly, by what we do with what happens- how we live with it or bury it, how we let it open or close us to aspects of self and the world. Would that be equally so if we could not remember- however incompletely or inaccurately- what had happened?

Since I am writing about choice these days, I would love to hear from you here. What do you think? If you really could choose to erase the memory of a particular event, would you? What do you imagine you might gain or lose? How does contemplating the possibility effect how you see your life? 

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tangled Intentions

There’s an old joke about a man who prays daily asking to win the lottery to no avail. Finally, one day, in the midst of his prayers he hears the voice of God saying, “Buy a ticket!”

Whether it is a prayer or a desire, a clear intention or a wish, we need to act in accordance if we want to give ourselves and the universe a chance at manifestation. Honest self-examination bringing to consciousness our unconscious ambivalence can go a long way in helping us see where we get in our own way. It’s best if we can do this inner exploration lightly, with some honest curiosity and as little judgement as possible. Let me use a simple example from my all-too-human life.

If I want to be well-rested tomorrow but stay up late watching videos tonight, I have to ask myself- What is going on here? Is there an immediate anxiety or sorrow that I am trying to avoid, or perhaps some ambivalence about bringing the fullness of my energy to tomorrow’s commitments?

Lately, when this happens, one of the contributing factors is simply discouragement over the "non-restorative sleep" that is sometimes a feature of the chronic illness I live with. That's the medical term for diligently going to bed at a reasonable time, sleeping soundly for eight or nine hours and waking up as tired as when you went to bed. In a kind of adolescent shoot-myself-in-the-foot-way a week of this can inspire me to think, "What the heck- may as well have some fun since I am going to be exhausted anyway!" 

If we can bring a little tenderness to what seems (and may be) blatant self-sabotage, we may start to notice when and under what conditions we find it hard to act in accordance with what we are sure are our clear intentions. We begin to see what are the real choice points in acting on what we intend.

My odds of getting a restful night’s sleep go up if I stop staring at any kind of screen by eight in the evening. I am more likely to do this if I have a great juicy novel on hand, do not eat anything after seven, and listen to wonderful soothing music as I do the final household tasks for the day. When I don’t want or manage to do these things- when I lie in bed watching hours of old episodes of Law and Order while eating salted cashews and gluten-free macaroons glazed with dark chocolate- I know that something else is up. 

In this particular episode of why-am-I-not-exercising-good-self-care I find that the only way out is to soften to  my own  discouragement, to allow it to be there, to hold it tenderly and offer myself the kind of support that I would offer another. "Yes, I may wake up as tired as I am now. But I know, at some point this will change. There will be restorative rest again. Taking care of myself before bedtime is something I can change, even if the quality of sleep is something beyond my immediate control." And slowly, I coax myself into the self-care I know helps me enjoy the life I have been given.

Because the great thing is, as long as life and love endure, I get another chance to do it all tomorrow- to clarify my intentions, to send out my prayers, to ask for help and take action that is in alignment with Spirit (within and around me,) in accordance with what serves life in me and the world.

Even as I write this I am overwhelmed by how loved we are- how we are held in endless mercy, how the generosity of life keeps giving us the opportunity to learn and deepen our lives, to forgive ourselves for going unconscious over and over, to simply do the best we can. 

Oriah House (c) 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Gift & Burden of Choice

Someone recently mentioned "the burden of choice" to me. Having two parents with Alzheimer's I am aware of the flip side- the burden of losing choice. When we're growing up there is a gradual progression- we get to make more and more of our own choices, we look forward to being increasingly "in charge" of our own lives (until we figure out that's not exactly how it works in every instance) and often, particularly in the teenage years, imagine we will do things "better," or at least very differently than the adults around us.

My father's disease has advanced to the point where it is clear that he cannot make most of his own choices, although his daily caregivers give him as much autonomy as possible. It may not seem like much to decide what you will eat or where you will walk, but I can see my father's spirit is fed by being able to make even these small choices.

My mother is still in-between where her ability to make choices changes continually and is not so clear. Just because someone is unable make some choices, doesn't mean they can't make any choices for themselves. It's tricky, in part because we do not want to cause suffering by either prematurely removing a choice or by allowing a choice (like driving) that might endanger others.

It occurs to me that this is an essential aspect of our experience as human beings: decisions/choices consciously and unconsciously being made. Not to decide is in itself a choice with its own consequences. Sometimes we feel there should be someone else- someone wiser, kinder, less neurotic and more balanced and compassionate than us- to make the really Big Choices, particularly the ones that potentially impact others.

Of course we can and sometimes do draw upon resources that are larger than our own small perspective- the resources of community, the knowledge and wisdom of those who have walked this way before, and the guidance of that sacred wholeness we may call God or the Mystery. But it all still gets filtered through and acted upon by us- small human beings with our prejudices and unconscious fears, our incomplete knowledge and intermittent intuition, with our instincts and feelings and our desire to do what it truly best for all.

It's messy. At times it can feel like a burden, something for which we are ill-equipped. But I cannot help but feel it is also a gift, the core of what being here is about: learnin to make the best choices we are able to make knowing we are human, knowing there will be unanticipated consequences and changing conditions (inner and outer- many beyond our control) that will necessitate making new choices again and again.

It's a strange dance, a movement born of the tension between what we do not control and the ever-changing abilities we have to respond (our response-ability) for those choices that are ours. Somehow, in this tension- perhaps because of it- we grown up, we learn to do the best we can, we develop the ability to hold with tenderness our shared fallibility and limitations. In the shamanic teachings with which I have worked, we describe this process of shifting from unconscious reactivity to making compassionate choices to the best of our ability as moving from being a "two-legged" to being fully human.

It's why we are here.

Oriah House (c) 2013

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Finding The Inner Wilderness

I love the wilderness of Northern Ontario: white birch trees, slender slivers of light amongst dark evergreens; the massive granite shoulders of the precambrian shield; the sound of the loons calling out from lake to lake; what those of us who grew up there call “the bush.” For many years I took people into the wilderness to do solo ceremonies of fasting and prayer- vision quests. I take myself there each summer for restoration of body and soul. For me, the bush hits the reset button on my nervous system, reminds me on a visceral level of how I belong in this world.

But some recent health blips mean I may not be able to go to the wilderness this summer. So, I started wondering about what the wilderness offers me, exploring ways to provide myself with what I need in the city. Of course, it won’t be the same. The quiet vastness of a natural area largely uninhabited and minimally impacted by humans cannot be duplicated in a city of 2.6 million. And yet, it feels like a worthwhile quest- this looking inward for the wilderness that feeds me.

In the wilderness my body lets go in places where I did not know I was holding on. I feel my smallness in a good way, a way that makes it clear to the embodied soul/en-souled body I am just how crazy trying to “hold on” is in a vast reality of constant change. Laying on a sun-warmed rock I become a molecule of an infinite universe and every cell in my body feels, “Home,” on this mother from which I come.

In the city it’s easy to forget that the earth that I touch in the wilderness is here beneath me amidst the asphalt and the concrete. But it is, and all we have built- the skyscrapers and underground garages and subways- is a mico-thin layer on the vastness of the earth beneath us. When I remember this, I pay attention to all the places where my body is touching a surface- feet on floor or in the grass, butt in chair or on the ground, muscle and bones supported by a bed or beach sand- and explore letting go a little more into gravity. With just this gentle prompt my body unwinds, sinks more into the knowledge that wherever I am is here, and here is always on the earth I love.

In the wilderness I expand my ability to be with and be enlivened by the creative chaos around me: new seedlings sprout and are nourished by the decaying bodies of what was alive and now is dead or dying; some seedlings fall where the sunlight is insufficient and shrivel, while others thrive; wind and water and birds and animals unwittingly carry seeds to new locations, creating new possibilities for life and death.

Writing here in the city, I feel how the past is compost for the seeds of new stories, new ways of seeing. Some seedlings will remain in the “Unused bits” file on my desktop while others find their way into published work. The wilderness teaches me to allow and embrace the chaos necessary for both creative work and new growth in an old forest. Remembering this, I let go of trying to “organize” material that is still forming, shy away from the temptation to pretend to know where the writing will take me, what the book will be. An oak cannot be foreseen by simply looking at the acorn.

And still there is something else. The “wild” in wilderness- like the knowledge of belonging and the power of creative chaos- lives in me. It is what is untamed and uncensored, what is free from considerations about how I might be seen or heard (or read by) others. In other years, when I spent weeks alone in the bush in the summer, I forgot about how I looked, was surprised to see my sun-browned skin and bright eyes in the rear-view mirror of my car when I drove out to get supplies. I slept when I was tired and rose when I awoke- sometimes to view the moon shining on still water

It’s not always easy to find our natural rhythm in the city. And yet, the animal-self that has not lost contact with body-wisdom speaks to me. When I rise early and drop down into the pre-dawn hour, I find the end of a thread that guides me to eat and sleep and move and be still according to an internal rhythm that is older than electric lights and the sounds of traffic.

I will go to the wilderness again, when I am able. But I will not abandon the wilderness within me, even here in the city. I set aside time- days, weeks- to follow no schedule but the one my body and the impulse to write set. I cover my walls with the images and stories that come to me from dreams and daylight, writing amidst the delightful debris as I would on the shore of a lake, without trying to “tidy” or “organize” growth around me.

This summer, I rise before dawn while the city sleeps, greeting the pale light and birdsong that announce a new day. I stand on my small balcony and let the smoke of burning smudge- cedar, sage, sweet grass and lavender- remind me of ancient rituals that recognize the earth and call on the spirits of water, air, earth and fire. I put my hands to my heart and bow to the four directions here, amidst tall buildings, from the centre of the wilderness within.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer (c) 2013