Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Tough Teacher

I once saw a Youtube video of an “Enlightened Teacher” who said that if we are fully in the present moment we will never feel any pain. I admit, I muttered at the screen, “Oh yeah, put your hand on the table here and let’s see what happens if I just give it a little rap with a hammer.”

Most of us understand the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is the searing agony that has ripped me out of sleep for ten nights in a row between two and six am, a silent scream from nerves in different parts of my body. It’s not new, although I admit it has been awhile since I’ve had the acute pain that is sometimes part of the chronic illness that has been part of my life for thirty years (CFS/ME/FM.) 

As with other times the particular precipitating cause is a mystery, which is both frustrating and hopeful- presumably it could end as unexpectedly as it began.

What surprises me is how- even with all these years of experience (some years being much better than others)- pain can still be a challenge. It wears me out, muddies my thinking, makes me grumpy and scares me (particularly by Day 10.)

Sometimes pain- emotional or physical- can be useful, can point us toward something that needs to be tended, healed. But after three decades my faith in the usefulness of these periods of inexplicable and acute agony has waned. When it feels as if muscles are being pulled from bones or a heated ice pick is being inserted into an eye socket, all spiritual aspirations go out the window. I just want the pain to stop. So I do the things I know sometimes help (and believe me, there really isn’t anything I have not tried- and some things do help to some degree, some of the time,) and I wait for the pain to diminish.

But the real challenge is to keep the suffering in check. Suffering is the fear-fueled-speculative-stories that pain stirs- that this will never end, that I will not be able to bear it, that I've done something "wrong" to cause this, that the pain will stop me from ever doing the things I love (like writing and studying.) These kinds of frantic mental meanderings pop up and create suffering when my guard is down and the pain is high- often just as I wake up.

This is all I really know about stopping suffering: I have to be simultaneously firm and tender with the franticness that arises if I am to cope with the pain in this moment and not drive myself over the cliff of unbearable agony. 

So I speak to myself as I would to anyone I love, whispering to the inner voice that is hypothesizing unending anguish and predicting imminent disaster: “Shhhhh. . . .breathe. You cannot know what the next hour or day will bring. Stay here, stay with your breath. What do you hear?. . . . The breath moving in and out of the body, bringing life; the children in the park; a lone robin singing spring into being. Soften around the pain. There. . . . let it be as it is. . . . do not pull away . . .Another breath. . . and another. . . . one at a time. . . each one softer. . . . . lean into the breath and the pain. . . . . let it be. . . ." 

And I pray, I call on the ancestors who love me, the powers of Love and Goodness and Healing and the divine Presence that is called God, the Sacred Mystery, the Great Mother to hold me, to help me. And I keep praying, tears streaming down my face, slowly feeling myself held by something larger, a Love that can help me bear all pain and turn away from suffering.

Pain is tough teacher. It can stir frantic suffering or teach boundless compassion. Most often I find it creates some of both. But the fact that the compassion can ease the suffering is what cracks me open to the blessing of being human, is what opens the door to an impossible gratitude that carries me to the next breath and the next. . . . 

Oriah House (c) 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Learning To Love

Self-love spills over, ripples out to include others.

The same can be said for self-hatred and self-abuse or neglect. That too spills over, contaminates those around us, ripples out into the world.

I am not suggesting that we remove ourselves from life or others until we have learned self-love. It is often the world and others that teach us about love of self and others. 

It’s not a one-way linear process. Giving birth to my sons opened me to a well-spring of loving that I did not even know existed within me. Some days, when self-love feels impossible, when I don’t even know what it would look like in a given situation, I think of Brendan and Nathan and ask myself how I would offer my presence, my heart to them if they were feeling the way I am. And suddenly I know, perhaps only a little, but at least a place to start, a way to offer something that is self-loving.

And the reverse is also true. When someone – friend or stranger- is behaving badly and I barely check the impulse to judge them or say something nasty, I can pause and think about a time when I have not been at my best, have perhaps behaved badly because I am angry or frightened or feeling pressed beyond my resources. And, I consider how I hope others would respond, what kind of response might stop the spiral of my bad behaviour, and in doing so find a way to respond to the other who is having a less-than-stellar moment.

We don’t learn self-love or how to love others and the world alone in our room. Although we can send love out from solitude, we learn how to love- how to find and act on that feeling of connection and caring- in the fires of daily living in community where so much is beyond our control.

The Grandmothers who have spoken to me in my night dreams for thirty years say, “Intimacy heals.” That’s what love is about- a willingness to intimately be with ourselves or the other, hearts open, feeling the joy or the anguish.

Intimacy- and in turn healing- of course flourishes where there are clear, healthy boundaries. Knowing that I can distinguish between what are my choices and what are yours, is what allows me to love, to be present with my heart open without fear of disappearing or interfering with your autonomy.

And healing happens. We’re built for it, made at a cellular/ energetic/ molecular level in the image of a sacred and creative life-force that always turns its face toward growth and healing, even in the moment before death (and on some level, even in the moments after as all that dies composts and nourishes new life.)

As to what else happens after death- I do not know, but I feel a strange and abiding peace and more than a little excitement about where the adventure will take us next. 

Oriah House (c) 2014

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Being Okay

I was recently on the phone with a friend who had just had a helpful but disturbing insight into her own less-than-life-enhancing patterns with others. Often the information we need to heal are insights that highlight a place where we have habitually gone unconscious. Doing the work to bring things to consciousness so we can deepen our participation in life can sometimes feel like a process where things get worse before they get better.

The revelation understandably made this person feel emotional. I could hear the tears in her voice. As we started to end the call, pulled to other commitments of the day, I asked her, "Are you okay?"

She hesitated for a moment, and than answered in a less than confident tone, "Yes . . . yes, I'm. . . okay."

I replied, "It's okay to feel emotional. Emotional doesn't mean you're not okay."

She laughed and confirmed. "Right. I can be emotional and be okay."

I've been reflecting on this conversation since it happened, realizing how often when we ask another if they are okay, we are (probably unconsciously) asking them to pull away, if only a little, from emotions that are uncomfortable for either or both of us to be with. And when we reassure another we are okay, we often cut off the feeling of the moment, suck up our tears and our shakiness and respond in a strong, clear voice we pull from some corner of our being, "Yes, I am okay."

What if we learned to say- to ourselves as much as to others- I am angry. . . or hurt. . . . or afraid. . . or sad. . . . and yes, I am okay.

What if we expanded our notion of okay to include having uncomfortable or difficult feelings that others can see or hear.

What if being okay really did just mean- I am a human being doing the best I can with what is arising right now, and I will continue. And that truly is, okay.

Oriah House (c) 2014

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Moving On

Woke up this morning thinking of an old friend.

Marie Claire was born in Paris shortly after WWII. She and her mother lived in abject poverty. She never knew her father. Marie Claire's mother told her many times that she had not wanted her, had tried unsuccessfully to abort her. In some ways this knowledge haunted Marie Claire and shaped a great deal of her life. 

Marie Claire and I were born on the same day, a decade apart. At the age I am now, she died of cancer. When I went to see her in the hospital she told me, “Here I am having to go through this alone as I have done with everything.”

I didn’t know what to say. In fact, Marie Claire had a loving husband she’d been with for decades- a chef who ran his own restaurant and brought her tasty meals daily during her stay in the hospital- and two grown daughters who came to see her regularly while caring for young children themselves. And I was there.

But the truth was, Marie Claire always felt as if she was scrambling to survive, was unsupported and on her own. That’s the experience she lived. When I’d gently point out that the reality of her life did not match this assumption she would cringe and agree, but I knew it changed nothing.

And it wasn’t only that Marie Claire was unable to receive from those around her. She also could not give to herself. She had a small successful skin-care business and dreamed of creating a healing spa for women, a place where spirit was tended even as the body was pampered. She told me once that she had the money to fulfil her dream, but she couldn’t do it- was afraid to spend the money, sure that it was too late or too early or not the right economic climate or the right place. . . . Honestly, I don’t think she ever really considered acting on her vision. In her own mind, she was still the unwanted daughter, the girl living on the street, barely surviving.

I remember once sitting with Marie Claire and feeling my own frustration at her inability to receive and enjoy the life she now had. I wanted to tell her to “let the past go,” to “move on.” I didn’t- because I knew these words don’t free someone from the past and can stir deep shame- and that never helps.

And, I knew something else: where we want to say, “Move past this!” to another, we are speaking from our inability to be with the other where they are. (And yes, sometimes we may need to take a break so we don’t start saying unhelpful things.)

And. . . . where we are feeling judgemental and frustrated about another’s failure to “move on,” we may well be feeling stuck ourselves, identified with or limited by something that has happened in our past and frustrated by our own inability to “let it go.”

We are wanting someone else to do something that we have not found a way to do.

Maybe we want them to show us it can be done.

So, as I woke up this morning filled with memories about Marie Claire I wondered: Where am I feeling caught in the past? Where am I missing the opportunity to lay down a burden and walk on with more freedom? Where am I refusing healing, afraid to be free, not allowing myself to receive fully what is offered to me now?  

And I offer a prayer for my old friend, grateful for what is stirred by remembering her, wishing her spirit deep peace and freedom.

Oriah House (c) 2014