letting go

2017 has been quite a tumultuous year. January began the 6 months of hell with my Crohn’s  disease. I had been steadily worsening over the last several years. January saw fit to shift into overdrive. All of my symptoms intensified – fatigue, bathroom issues, flu-like symptoms, fuzzy brain, and pain. Especially pain. It became a daily thing, even hourly. Horrible spikes that left me writhing on my bed, looking for my breath, practicing progressive relaxation, sometimes weeping or raging when I could no longer stand the fact that I wasn’t getting a break. I began to be able to eat less and less, finally existing on juice, broth, and an occasional bite or two of the few things that I could sometimes hold down. Eating brought more pain. I lost weight, became mostly housebound, quite often unable to leave my bed.

Then finally I was able to have surgery. Bowel resection, about a foot. It frightened me, but I agreed with enthusiasm because my life had become almost unbearable. I suffered, not only for myself, but for my loved ones who had to witness my decline. So I said yes to surgery and began to hope to be one of the lucky ones who experience a temporary remission, from months up to 5 years. I began to dream of all I could do if I went into remission. How I could exercise, take walks, become healthy and strong. How I could leave the house, go to restaurants again, walk the beach. Maybe even do volunteer work with Hospice, a dream of mine. And travel. Go to see my sister, my mom. Go to visit siblings. Take Matt out to the northwest to see the wonders of nature.

My surgery went well. I came home after only 2 days, unusual. I began to really work on recovery. Complications brought on by my malnourished state set me back, but not for long. I began to eat all the things I had let go over the years. Popcorn! Salads! Fresh fruit! When Matt handed me my first piece of fruit, a juicy nectarine, I wept. In fact, I wept on and off all day with the memory of how amazing that nectarine was and how wonderful to eat it. For 6 glorious weeks, I ate whatever I wanted, I focused on recovery, I felt sure this was remission.

Then, my hopes were dashed by the return of symptoms. No remission for me. For some reason, this brought me to the brink of despair. I was angry, depressed, and felt utterly defeated. I sat with the knowledge for a couple of weeks, then did the hard work of telling Matt and Rae. I felt so sad for Matt. His life has been affected by my illness and I had hoped for his sake to have a break.

So, now I am working on finding my peace, my equanimity. Letting go, once again. Working on stopping resistance. Working on acceptance. Finding my way back to allowing what is to be enough. Not what was or what I wish would be, but what is. This is my reality. My illness, my guru. Now I go back to the things it has taught me, I return to letting go, to gratitude, to rejoicing in this precious human life. I don’t want to waste time resisting, resentful and bitter. No, I want to remember that each day that I wake is a miracle. Each moment is pregnant with possibility. Each breath is a new beginning.

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summer reading

Along with novels and assorted other books, I’ve decided to spend some time this summer reading some women’s memoirs. Here is my list:

Anne Morrow Lindbergh – Gift from the Sea (read)

Annie Dillard – An American Childhood

MFK Fisher – As they Were

Anais Nin – Diary

Marguerite Duras – The War

Eva Hoffman – Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (reading now)

Maya Angelou – I Know why the Caged Bird Sings (read)

Tenzin Palmo – Cave in the Snow (Vicki Mackenzie)

Florida Scott-Maxwell – Measure of My Days

Lillian Hellman – Pentimento

I love reading memoirs. I love seeing a life unfold that I might not have imagined, a life in another time, another place, with untold lessons for my simple life.

 

 

Change happens – notes from my journal 1/31/2016

An observation about the process of self-transformation (through reflection, contemplation, mindfulness, spiritual practices, etc): Hang on tight! Change happens.

It can seem a very slow process. I think of the time between the initial spark of insight and the realization in day to day life as feeling sometimes interminable. It feels like a long trudge up a steep hill. Not impossible, but trying. And tiring.

But there comes a day when all of the neurons have been re-wired and you notice that you’re motoring down a new neural pathway with no effort – this is now a default road! Yay! It can then seem as if you’re on a zip-line, racing through effortlessly.

zip-line-photo

I’ve just had a zip-line moment and it is wonderful and also tough to describe. I would like to note that I had observed myself feeling a bit raw, emotions on the surface, tears flowing, circumstances aligning to tenderize my heart. I think there is a connection there that I want to remember. Perhaps in the future I could notice when I’m feeling this tenderness and upheaval in my emotions and consider that perhaps a knot is being loosened and coming (finally) untied. Perhaps inner liberation is at work.

“To be born in soul again and again is a positive experience, but it also involves pain. It means entering a new kind of life just when the old one might have grown comfortable. Familiarity can bring you tranquility, but you also need the sting and chaos of the new. To be alive entails both of these qualities, the yin and yang of peace and pain.

To be a person means to be faced every minute with the decision to live or to die, to accept the invitations for yet more vitality or to decline them out of fear or lethargy.” ~Thomas Merton

And from the Tao Te Ching 15 ~ Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Feeling safe

Lying in bed last night, doing a body scan (progressive relaxation), trying to unclench my body that was tight with pain, I had an insight. I hope I can articulate the thought. It felt like one of those epiphanies that is simple but hard to express.

As I was doing the relaxation practice, I began to add a loving-kindness practice to it. While I relaxed my eyes I told them I  loved them and thanked them for all these years of sight, the miracle of seeing my children as babies and watching them grow, the beauty of nature they had allowed me to take in, the thousands of books I’ve read that have enriched and transformed my life. And on to other parts of the body. When I got to my gut, I spoke to the Crohn’s as I never had before. I thanked it for trying to help me, unguided as the help might be. I endeavored to have a friendly feeling, to let go of resistance to it, resentment of it, and fear towards it. It was uncanny how quickly and almost completely the pain abated.

Then came the insight. I recognized the soothing of my sympathetic nervous system, that lizard brain that houses the fight or flight and the negativity bias. That part that is kept on alert by our crazy lives full of a constant buzz of low key stress. When I turned towards the Crohn’s with an open heart and affection, this part of my brain was soothed and the parasympathetic nervous system took over, calming me, comforting me, helping me to feel safe. I’ve noticed this response in my body when doing a practice to deal with intense pain.

Suddenly, I considered how important it is for us to feel safe, to keep the lizard feeling cozy and drowsy. I thought about how we are more open to our experience when we feel safe. Then I thought about how feeling safe plays into relationships. I turned it over in my head, how feeling safe may be the most important element in a close relationship. When you feel safe, your walls go down, your heart opens and intimacy is possible.

Then it struck me how impactful this thought trail was to the practice of befriending oneself. One of the obstacles to becoming a friend to ourselves is the critical self-talk we all struggle with. The way we feel devalued by our own inner conversation, the negative and limiting beliefs we develop about ourselves. Our critical inner voice can become quite abusive. Consider living with an abusive person, one who belittles you, diminishes and humiliates you. Would you feel safe? Wouldn’t you hide your heart behind impenetrable armor, would there be any real intimacy?

And so it is with our efforts to befriend ourselves. We need to feel safe. When we feel safe, we can let down our inner walls and come to a friendly and non-judgmental intimacy with all we are. How miraculous and marvelous and also how wrong-headed and stunted we can be. We can come to know and appreciate all of our own quirks and become patient when there is a misstep, past or present. We begin to treat ourselves as we would the most precious person in our heart, like our child or dear mother. When we feel safe, the process of self-knowledge, self-understanding, and self-appreciation becomes so much easier.

And how to feel safe with ourselves? Noticing our limiting beliefs and harsh inner critic is the first step. Recognizing that this is brought on by years of incidents with family members and society and reinforced by our desire to be good, to be acceptable. To be safe. So, soothe the voice when you hear it. When the blaming/shaming/catastrophizing begins, let it know that you are okay, that you are safe. That all is well. That the catastrophe isn’t happening, that the end isn’t near, that you aren’t hopeless. Soothe the inner turmoil and the lizard brain will fall asleep and your mammalian brain, that nurturing part of our brains, will awaken. The parasympathetic nervous system will also take over from the sympathetic. Rather than feeling on high alert, your heartbeat will slow, your breath will deepen, you will feel safe.

I don’t know how clear I’ve made this. It is hard for me to put it into words. The best visual for me is to imagine my inner voice as a child who is trying and who needs to feel safe. Handling ourselves with tenderness will accomplish this and quiet the lizard. To me, this makes more sense than trying to shut it up or feel guilty about the critical voice. I did this for years with little progress. This type of practice, soothing and reassuring the inner voice that all is well, that I am safe, brings a quick quieting of the noise and intensity so that I have space to remember that these are just thoughts, not who I am. And it seems that each time I reassure myself it gets easier and more effective. My friendship with myself has grown by leaps and bounds as well as my compassion and tenderness towards others.

child with flowers

notes from my journal ~ January 18, 2016

My focus for this year is equanimity. I’ve been reading about the bodhichitta practices (awakening and nurturing open-heartedness). One of the teachings is of the “Four Limitless Qualities”. These are: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

The last line of my metta practice is “may my life flow smoothly, with ease”. It is slowly dawning on me that this is a prayer for equanimity and that it has little to do with the circumstances – rather it is about coming to a place of rest and ease in all circumstances. Asking for ease isn’t about asking for a break from the unrelenting challenges but rather asking for the expansion of my heart-mind that allows all things with the same open heart and peaceful mind. It is saying an unconditional “yes” to all of life as it unfolds. It is learning to surf the waves of Samara.

My mantra for this year is “this too”. It is from this statement: “I accept unconditionally the unfolding of this present moment in whatever form it takes – this too is allowed and accepted”. To dwell in equanimity is to be free from attachment and aversion. This too. This small happiness, this moment of sorrow, this anxiety, this gratitude. All of it . All of life with its sorrows and joys, rowing towards that wonderful shore of “no preference”, where each moment is welcomed and cherished equally.

It came home to me strongly when I learned of my old blog/facebook friend and ally Nicholas Temple’s diagnosis of prostrate cancer. I began to speak metta over Nick. He was struggling to receive the meds he needed and that the VA wouldn’t pay for until April. Then he found a doctor to provide the meds! I rejoiced – this was an answer for his life to unfold with ease, surely! Then, yesterday he fell, couldn’t get up, was taken to the hospital where they did emergency surgery to remove a tumor from his spine. He won’t walk again.

I faltered. It woke me this morning just after 4:00 a.m. Suddenly, I realized that receiving the meds and losing his ability to walk had little to do with the metta. The smooth unfolding had to do instead with receiving each moment with equanimity. The joy and the happiness, but also the suffering and the tragedy.

We all – each one of us – will encounter illness, old age, loss, and death. Equanimity isn’t about escaping the difficulties in our lives. It’s about opening our hearts to them with equal measure to the joys of this precious life.

My year in books – 2016

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Well, it would seem I have been a busy little reader this year. 120 books worth of reading.

My goal for several years has been 100 books, which I usually meet or come close to, but this year I passed it by in a reading frenzy. Part of the reason for this is that when I find a writer I enjoy, I like to read all they have written. Or at least until I get burned out. This year I found James Lee Burke and read 28 of his books before I grew weary. There were also 16 of Harlan Coben’s books and 14 of Michael Connelly’s.

A pleasant surprise this year was realizing that I had missed a few of the novels by Elizabeth Berg, one of my favorite writers. I don’t know how I managed to miss them but it was delightful to read “The Art of Mending”, “What We Keep”, and “The Pull of the Moon”. I marked these three as 4 star books, along with “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout.

The rest of my 4 star books were non-fiction: 3 by Pema Chodron (When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, The Places That Scare You, and Comfortable with Uncertainty), and other Buddhist teachers: Thich Nhat Hanh (Living Buddha, Living Christ), Stephen Batchelor (The Faith to Doubt), Ezra Bayda (Being Zen), and Tara Brach (True Refuge). Also included were my beloved Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen Mitchell, a wonderful book on Yoga Philosophy by Donna Farhi (Bringing Yoga to LIfe, my 3rd reading),and a memoir by Jesuit priest James A. Connor (Silent Fire).

Out of the 120, 97 were fiction and only 23 were non-fiction. That fell far below my goal of 40% non-fiction. I blame James Lee Burke. And being sick a lot this year, which always increases my fun reading ratio. I’ve started out 2017 in better form, with 6 non-fiction and 2 fiction, so far.

And all but a small handful of these 120 books came from that most magical of places, West Florida Public Library. Thank you for the books, for the entertainment and education, for the inspiration and transformation. I would not be who I am today were it not for the wonder of reading.

2017

I’ve kept a journal almost all of my life. Keeping a journal has become my most treasured life practice. It’s a sanctuary. It keeps me honest. It helps me to live with intention. It teaches me and upholds me.

Every January I get a new notebook. A new year, a blank book to be filled with my struggles and insights. A new book to record my thoughts and to help me navigate the fog of uncertainty that is an unchanging reality of life.

I used to take the month of December to read back over the year’s entries. Since Anthony died, the holidays are harder to get through, so I wait until January to read back over the past year.

This is such a joy.

I can see recurring subjects, I can track the difficulties and notice the ways I made it through them. I can note the insights, often tightly connected to the struggles from which they arose. And I always, always have fresh insights from the re-reading of it all. It encourages and strengthens me. And it gives me direction for the year to come.

For the last several years I have chosen a word or idea for a focus for that year. I put in the opening pages, along with ideas or quotes or poems that move me. This makes it simple to return to it,a guiding focus, a north star. I drift if I don’t live with intentionality. Some past year’s north star? Open heartedness…let go…equanimity.  This years is “Choiceless Awareness”. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. It’s startling how different events appear when seen through the lens of a simple intention.