Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Of what use pain?

My left hip is the most painful, and my right knee has hurt for the longest time. Yet in a recent Reiki session, those two places were completely open. Sometimes Reiki energy is sucked up by an off-kilter part of the body like dry earth thirsting for water. This was different. Energy flowed freely into my hip and knee - no obstruction at all - as if it was poured through empty space.

What if chronic pain is not just the unhappy indicator of a broken body? What if a body in pain is not even broken. What if pain is the side effect of the body serving a purpose - and doing this job well?

Yes, my sciatica results from decades of poor skeletal alignment. Yes, that skeletal misalignment was caused by muscles held tight all my life - with other muscles pulling improperly to compensate. Yes, those muscles first froze into a trauma response during childhood. And, yes, that scenario created an unbalanced whole whose misplaced wear ended up pinching and inflaming sensitive, sciatic nerves.

But what if, ultimately, pain serves another purpose than pointing up failed function of a purely physical machine? Perhaps an invitation to life-style change. Perhaps a call to heal buried trauma. Perhaps a loving-parent-push out of the comfort zone and onto the road of spiritual awakening.

Or perhaps a sign that the body is clearing and opening to receive greater energy.


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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fallen Woman

I'm falling down a deep chasm, grabbing desperately at branches, only to have my hand slide down, stripping the leaves off, and go on falling. There's the constant niggling of home repair when I have little energy and no money, the anxiety of poorly-paid, part-time employment, the suffering of chronic pain with no access to health care, and the struggle to give good care to my uncle.

"Why not just fall free?" my friend asked.

What a relief. Desperation and the mad scrabble to hang on is so exhausting. How much sweeter just to let go and fall.

Yet I am poor, aging, in bad health, and overwhelmed by unfamiliar responsibility. My choices led to this life, one that society judges as failure. So I feel shame as well as fear for my future .

Spiritual teachers say to live in the present. Can't say I've managed that when I was often swamped by regret and what-ifs. But I've lived as if I had no fear for the future - abandoning social and financial security when I felt called (by my creative muse or by God - feel free to choose the label you prefer). Not that I didn't notice the fear, but I set it aside pretty easily as unimportant. Until recently, I had no dependents - which allowed me the freedom to do so.

"Maybe it was never so easy to make fearless choices," my friend said, "but you weren't present enough to feel your fear until now."

This is likely. So is my present work to be fearless while truly feeling the fear? Not distracting from, suppressing or denying fear, but feeling how strong it is, acknowledging it, and then setting it aside as a bad guide?

Every morning I practice being grateful before I get out of bed. I have never lacked for any necessity. I lack for nothing now. If anything, I have too much. Okay, I have physical and emotional toil, but those struggles aren't the problem. It is fear and shame that fill my inner space with grinding tension as if I chewed on greasy metal filings.

My choices led to a life that society judges as failure and left me open to certain material challenges. That doesn't mean the choices were wrong. Not if what matters is doing my divine work in the world.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Chronic Pain and the Freedom of Constraint

Every North American I've met on the spiritual path (including myself) was forced onto it by chronic pain - physical, emotional, or relational. For me it was all three.

For 30-odd years, I suffered from depression and terrible insomnia. During the worst of it, I slept less than four hours a night and often not at all. Suicidally depressed, I dragged myself through an unending land of sodden ash--no color, not even grey.

In a desperate search for relief, I stumbled onto spiritual practices. Yet I never stopped crying for pain-free "normality," or railing against my unfair burden. It took a good long time to realize what a gift that pain had been. I had to uncover and heal my childhood wounds or die of suicide. I had to do spiritual practices or be consumed by a hell of regret, self-hate, and anger. Eventually I became grateful I was forced onto the dark road--despite the dangers. Because the dark journey bestows spiritual gifts of great value that can not be gained any other way.

Near two decades out of the dark, rigorous sleep hygiene still limits my life. More constraining is growing, chronic physical pain. Pain radiates from my back down my thighs and legs into my feet. Sometimes I gasp as a sharp pain shoots down a leg; more often it flows in a slow burn like lava. The first wisps appeared in my mid-forties. Now at 57, I'm never not hurting. At night, the low ferrous rumble of pain mutters in my dreams. No chair is comfortable, and I often can't stand for more than a few minutes. Occasionally my legs just melt away, as if they'd turned to mushy jello. To date, the last feeling comes and goes fast so I haven't fallen.

Yet, supported by a nightly 600 ml of ibuprofen, I'm in this play with duels (of which I have two) and a song & dance number. My part is minor, but I volunteered for a lot of crew (taking set pieces on and off). It feels better to move than to sit or stand still waiting (in a tiny theater where every backstage noise can be heard by the audience). Luckily nothing is heavy--even the swords are foam.

We are in tech week. The light crew is amazing--a smoothly-running team of mostly high-school-age kids who have been together through theater training. Watching them scale scaffolding to shift large light fixtures, I tell an equally young actor that at her age no one could have kept me off those scaffolds.

"You could still learn," she replies.

"Except that I now lack the physical ability," I say.

She commiserates, but I feel calm. Peaceful. No longing and no railing against an unfair universe.

"The thing is, if you turn your desire away from what you can no longer do, physical disability can open you to something you would never have found otherwise," I said, then stopped, astounded. The words came out of my mouth ringing with indisputable truth. Yet, I had no idea what they meant.

I once heard a calligrapher talk about the soaring creativity she experienced within the draconian constraints of her art. Strong limits gave her freedom to express herself. And energy, I imagine.

This was true in the monastery. I once spent so much energy deciding what to wear and when to wear it, what to eat and when to eat it, which entertainment to go out for or to stay home, running errands only to forget one thing and run out again--not to mention deciding when, how, and if to do my spiritual practices. All that energy was freed. All that mental space was freed. All the emotional space consumed by "should I or shouldn't I" was freed. I found myself in a huge space reverberating with energy, light, and creative possibility.

I no longer have the monastery's lovely schedule constraining my life by holding me in a rigid, outer carapace of no-choice.

But I do have chronic pain.

Perhaps when I learn to relax within my physical limits, and turn from mourning what I have lost, that same infinite inner space will open before me.

A little pain to live in such freedom? It is a worthwhile exchange.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Poverty of Mind

I'm in a play on the recent, Wisconsin political uproar. It has witty, fast-paced, fake-Shakespearean language. Duels. A song & dance number. A cast of thousands (Okay, 14 actors play 47 characters, but it feels like thousands).

I have a minor part. Occasionally I'm jealous of the rest of the cast with larger roles. Most of the time I'm grateful. I watch the other actors dance about the stage. Hugely talented, on the spur of the moment they toss off delicious physical comedy matched by high-flying, verbal acrobatics. If I committed all my physical and mental resources to the effort, I could force an approximation. These guys do all that, yet have energy to burn at the end of rehearsal.

I can't do what they are doing. A small part of me nostalgically longs for the days when I could. Most of me doesn't actually want to.

I'd rather be slow.

Not only was I a dancer, but a well-honed, mental athlete. With a very high IQ, I could leap, spin and dash intellectually without the least effort. I've long since lost my mental edge and stare stupidly at brain-teasers that were once obvious. A good bit was destroyed by sleep aids I downed without regard for safety through several decades of intense insomnia. The rest?

A friend said she noticed that meditation has a mental-slowing effect. In growing inner calm, she no longer longs for intellectual leaping about. Yet she also finds she simply can't do it.

It is another kind of poverty. And it also offers freedom.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Choose Poverty

"Choose poverty in order to be present to the world." The sentence rose into my dreamy, mental drift during a guided meditation. Choose poverty to gain the freedom to be fully present.

On a Friday in early March, 2005, I turned my credit cards over to the monastery's Formation Mistress and closed my bank accounts - on Sunday I was entering the novitiate. As I left the bank, I felt an exhilarating rush of freedom. The freedom not to own. The freedom not to fear the loss of things.

Didn't last long. On Monday, I found that an old check hadn't cleared and I was suddenly in debt. But even that much taste of real freedom was illuminating.

Recently a fire wiped out a large, upscale apartment complex in my town. One young man lost everything, but when asked how this felt, said it felt like freedom. I knew this is what he was talking about.

Of course, it is a lot easier to live free of fear when your shelter, food, clothing, medical care, books, work, and anything else you might need were guaranteed by a well-off monastic community. Those sisters' homes might be owned by a non-profit corporation, but they had control as the corporation board. And that corporation owned some pretty cushy digs - better than I'd ever afforded on my own.

Sometimes I heard sisters boast of their feelings of freedom compared to ordinary folks in the world - who are so often eaten up by worry. The sisters think it is their superior lifestyle and practices. Perhaps. But I imagine their security is an important factor.

Still, so many spiritual teachers insist it is possible for anyone - in the world or within a well-off monastery - to give up the control and fear that comes with ownership. I hope some day soon I can be like the man who lost it all in a fire: let go and rediscover what real freedom tastes like.

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