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With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90  days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.

11 December 2010


I shall take a break from writing posts until after the new year.  For one thing, I'm beginning to repeat myself, and for another, I want to have time to imagine and implement new ways to approach this subject.

For example:
  1. Interviews and/or guest posts from others suffering from chronic pain (and I would appreciate being connected with anyone you know that would be appropriate);
  2. Research into the various ways that different spiritualities and religions deal with pain;
  3. Other ideas sent to me by readers at carold.marsh@gmail.com.  Hint.
I hope and pray your holiday season is a blessed one.

21 November 2010

Motivation for Change: Envisioning and Allowing to Be

The two previous posts have been about being motivated to change.  With chronic pain, there is a temptation to lock oneself into a way of coping that feels safe or that fits one's self-image. The person who is locked into victim mode and staying ill in mind and spirit as well as in body is not that much different from the person who keeps going in denial, not acting the victim yet ending up fatigued, impatient, angry: intolerant and intolerable. 

I know.  I have been locked in both of these modes, and of course there are others - I just use those two for illustration purposes.  For this post, the relevance of this insight is that even the motivation to change - in itself a very positive and pro-active decision - can become locked into that grasping, I-want-it mode that drains positive energy and obscures clear motivation. 

For example: the moment I feel a bit better or have a day with low pain and some energy, I tend to rush into my activities with an almost giddy glee that is understandable yet counter-productive.  It just feels so good to feel good!  An hour or so later, when my head is pounding and exhaustion is mounting, I realize that needing so desperately to get things done because I am (finally!) feeling better is simply a poor choice, however natural a response it may seem.

This is where the envisioning expands to encompass allowing.  It's a great thing to let go of a locked-in need, but not so helpful to then jump into yet another locked-in need to Be Productive or to Feel Responsible.  When the motivation for change also encompasses allowing the change to unfold without grasping or manipulating it, then the resulting change is organic, free of needs and addictions.  Organic change that is free of preconceptions and expectations is liberating and energetic in a way that my plans that follow my addictive needs never are.

It's not about censuring myself, or being mad and upset because I am once again prone on the couch with a throbbing head.  It's about realizing there is another way to be in the desire for change: one moment at a time, steadily and with clear mind assessing the possibilities and then going into action.  Perhaps that action will seem, in retrospect, a good choice, perhaps it will not.  No matter: if that action has arisen out of a peaceful, not a needful, center, then retrospective assessment will also be peaceful.  And that allows for further organic change that is aligned with quiet wisdom, which is so much more productive and compassionate than a clutching change that circles endlessly around unconscious needs.

Compassion.  That is the concept to explore, along with its relation to being in chronic pain, in my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the COMMENT box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

14 November 2010

Motivation for Change: Envision Another Way to Be

The 12-Step program calls it "sick and tired of being sick and tired."  Many recovering drug and alcohol addicts have told me that they could not make the choice for sobriety until things got so bad in their lives that they were motivated to change by their disgust with themselves or with how awful they felt.  This happens at a different point for everyone - your rock bottom may be my half-way down - but when you get there, you know it.

To me, part of the genius of the 12-Step program is how applicable it is to other situations in life aside from the alcohol (and then drugs) for which it was created.  There exist such programs now for codependence, anger, shopping, etc.  I used the 12-Step program to aid in my recovery from flaming codependence, and am now using its principles - along with other methods - to help me with my chronic pain.

Wait.  How does having chronic pain equate with being a drug addict or alcoholic?  How does living with three or four migraines per week remind me of codependence and the need for recovery? 

It's not so much about a one-to-one comparison between getting migraines and being codependent, it's about how the spirit of the 12-Steps helps me cope with a situation over which I feel powerless.  There are two main ways that this happens, one of which I have blogged about before (see Befriending Pain: Part 3, 21 September), and the second of which is the topic of this post.

ONE - It helps to bring me out of victim status.  TWO - It helps me envision another way to be.


There are many ways to respond to chronic pain, and I have probably hit on all of them at one time or another: feeling victimized; depression; denial; pushing through until I am really sick; giving up and going to bed for a few days; pretending everything is all right; pretending everything is awful.  Bouncing around emotionally is not conducive to the inner peace that attracts me and that I desire for myself, so there came a time when I realized I was tired of the chaos I was either creating or allowing to happen inside me. 

I have called upon a variety of support systems such as faith, spirituality, yoga, accupuncture, medication, meditation, prayer and relaxation, many of which I have blogged about and each of which has helped me in its own way.  What makes the 12-Steps particularly relevant to this post is that from the peace that my spirituality, its practices, the accupuncture and yoga afforded me, the 12-Steps then allowed for the vision of another kind of change.

For chronic pain, that change has to do with leaving behind the emotional roller coaster (although I do think it necessary to take a few rides on it before being willing to change), claiming an inner peace that is wonderfully present whether one is in pain or having a good day, and learning to stop allowing one's own pain to cause pain to others (in the form of impatience and anger, emotions that are all too prevalent with chronic pain).

There is another benefit: a kind of constructive energy that helps me to learn how to use the resources I have in new ways.  For example, I cannot hold down a job, given the upredictable and debilitating nature of the migraines, but I can take a couple hours at a time to write a post or work on other writing.  Working only a couple of hours at a time might seem lame, or even giving up, but when the alternatives are pushing through until I am thoroughly sick or lying around until I am thoroughly depressed, a couple hours at a time is a wonderful solution.

So, I am helped to see the possibilities for not only coping with the pain in better ways and for building better relationships with others, but for a life that does encompass constructive work and accomplishment.  This is not about quantity at all, which, in a city that idolizes long, long work days and amount of power, is kind of a radical statement.  Which is another benefit of all this: I have learned that two hours of peacefully focused work is no poor substitute for 12-hour days: it is just right for me.

05 November 2010

Motivation for Change: The Role of Pain

This is my first post since October 10, making it the longest interval yet between posts.  I have been busy with another project and, more importantly, have been emotionally fatigued.  To be brief, life has presented its share of sorrows to me lately: two persons dear to me have undergone radical surgeries - one for a life-threatening disease; a close friend has been laid off her job of 12 years; the economy has forced serious changes in the lives of many people I love.

All of this got me thinking about how emotional pain affects physical pain and how the combination of the two can motivate change in the way we approach our lives.  This is shaping up as a 2-post subject, so today's post will be about emotional pain and physical pain together, the next post about motivation for change.

We all know that stress affects our bodies, but take a look at this link to the American Institute of Stress: a page listing 50 physical symptoms of stress and a diagram of the parts of the body affected by it.  (It is interesting information unless you are a hypochondriac, in which case I don't encourage clicking the link.)  The page makes the point that stress affects different people in different ways, and so in that way is a highly subjective and personal phenomenon.

In the stressors of my life these past few months has been no physical stress aside from the chronic migraines: the new stressors have caused emotional pain.  So when I had one of those terrible headaches I call "crashers" on Sunday, then continual migraines from Monday to this morning, I realized that the stress of the past five months had finally taken its toll.  Or, at least, finally taken a toll that got my attention.  Which realization took me by surprise, as not even the stress last January of leaving the job and organization I loved was reflected so painfully in the migraines.  So, what is different?

1. Powerlessness: There has been little I can do to alleviate the suffering - mental and physical - of persons who mean an awful lot to me.  The decision to leave Miriam's House, as painful as it possibly could be, was still my decision and my decisive action.  I hated doing it, but the resolution was in my power, even though I was powerless over the migraines themselves.  Aside from helping out for a week and knitting needed comforting things, I have found that the current stressors feel out of control.

2. Expectations: I had expected by now - after ten months of rest, acupuncture, trying new medications, etc. - the migraines would have abated to the point that I could at least look for part-time work.  I let that expectation create a future for me that now turns from happy expectation to stressful upset because it has not come about.
I am not beating myself up about this - why add the pain of guilt and self-incrimination to the list? - but I do have a desire for honest self-awareness and -reflection.  It is so much more constructive to allow ourselves to be informed by our realizations of our human-ness rather than indulging in grandiose ideas that we should be perfect or, at least, should not still be having to learn new lessons.  Or, more accurately, old lessons learned again in a slightly different circumstance.

Without the denial and/or fear of blame, the honest reflection opens up doors to understanding and, ultimately, healing change.  Were I to refuse to look at how my powerlessness and expectations set me up for a physical reaction because I supposedly have learned that lesson already, I would be stuck not only with the migraines but with the paralysis of denial.

There's ego in it, also, naturally.  I had a hard time beginning this post because I realized that I'd recently forgotten practices and bits of wisdom I myself wrote about in this blog.  How embarrassing to have to write a blog in which I reveal that I lost track of the philosophy of staying in the moment, of using my yoga to help relieve both physical and emotional stress, and of realizing when to let go?

Oh, well, my secret is out.  A big surprise to no one but myself, surely.

So, here we are: emotional stress and pain enhance and affect physical pain.  And it is easy to get lost in the midst of the hurting, difficult days.  It happens that life can overwhelm our ability to make wise choices, even to stick to the wise ones we know worked for us before.  Ironically - or thankfully - our bodies have a way of showing us what we are trying not to know, so that the added pain finally becomes enough of a burden that we simply have to stop, take a look and reflect.

It is at this point that motivation for change can happen, and that will be the topic of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please click on the Commnet box, below, or contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

24 October 2010

Living in the Present, We Create Our Future

The title of this post is a quote from a book I am reading by Thubten Chodron, Open Heart, Clear Mind.  I love the idea and spirit of it so much that I decided to make it the subject of a post or two, and to explore what it means when the present includes - at least in one of its aspects - being in pain.

The sentence occurs on page 95, in the chapter on Karma.  Here is the sentence that follows it:

"We have the ability to determine who we will be and what happens to us and to ensure happiness for ourselves and others."

I am not writing this post as a debate about karma vs. predestination vs. original sin vs. the resurrection of the body, or any other doctrine that seem close in spirit.  I'll simply say that I find it fascinating how many similarities I can find just between Buddhist and Christian beliefs and how, as I read this book, Biblical scriptures often come to mind as apt illustrations of what Thubten Chodron is saying about Buddhism. 

But for today: what does it mean that living in the present creates my future when my present seems mainly to be about pain?

First - it means that the choices I make in reaction and relation to a migraine affect my next moment in a way that I experience immediately, and also affect my spirit in ways that may not be apparent now or in the future.  Obviously, if I choose to moan and complain, tensing my mind and my body around the pain, the next moments and hours will be a lot less bearable than if I choose to breathe slowly, practice deep muscle relaxation and accept the pain without judgment or analysis.  Not so obvious is the potential for this practice to open my spirit and my heart to wisdom and compassion, attributes that are a long time in their development, yet which rely on small moments of wise choices for their blossoming.

Second - it means that, having practised wise choices in a present that includes pain, I am more able to make wise choices in a present that includes other sorts of discomforts.  In this way, practicing wisdom and compassion during a migraine helps me to almost automatically practice wisdom and compassion during a difficult conversation with a friend, if I choose to connect to that wisdom in the moment.  And what is really noticeable and beneficial is that making these choices in hard times can mean that such quiet and centeredness gradually becomes a part of me without much effort.  It's almost as though the practice in pain makes the practice in non-pain a piece of cake.  Who wouldn't be able to breathe in and quiet the body and mind during a long walk on a lovely fall day, if the usual practice is to do so during debilitating pain?

Lest I sound like I am approaching Buddha-hood, let me honestly state that these changes are manifest mostly in the realm of inclination.  I am not constantly centered and calm and at peace with the moment - just ask my husband.  But the change toward greater peace and inner stillness is marked enough that I notice two things about it:
(1) that it becomes gradually easier to choose this inner state at any particular moment, and;
(2) that when I am in a less settled state, I am not only more readily aware of it, but less and less comfortable with remaining there.

That degree of un-comfortability with what used to be my normal, unaware state (a certain level of anxiety accompanied by random, running and constant thinking) has become a strong motivation for change.  And that will be the subject of the next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

14 October 2010

A Simple Inventory: Responsibility Without Shame

No, I am not responsible for the fact that I have chronic pain - for me, that means chronic migraines.

Yes, I am responsible for sometimes acting in ways that trigger migraines.

These two statements are not mutually exclusive.  In my previous post (12 October), I wrote about taking responsibility without shame in the context of acknowledging that I sometimes take a piece of birthday cake at 4pm even though I know that sugary foods on an empty stomach usually trigger a migraine.  The question is how to deal with this without shaming myself, which is destructive, but by taking realistic responsibility, which is constructive?

For me, it's a quiet, reflective time that opens a clear-sighted look at recent choices and behaviors without falling into guilt and shame.  The method?  One I learned when I made a 30-day spiritual retreat based on St. Ignatius'  Spiritual Exercises.  I am not Catholic, and I really am not sure most people would call me Christian any more, but I love the simplicity of what is now called the consciousness examen, or examination of consciousness.  Although centuries old, this practice reminds me strongly of the 12-Step practice of "taking inventory" that is the Fourth Step, and that continues throughout life in recovery.

Here is a link to some descriptions and articles about it: The consciousness examen

Below is a simple list to use as a guide:
1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.

I believe that it does not matter how you read the first step: whether you imagine the traditional Christian God, or Shiva, or Allah, or Jehovah, or the Divine Creator, Mother God ---- you get the idea.  Just become aware of What or Who it is that brings you to your spiritual center.

St. Ignatius made gratitude the beginning of all his spirituality: the Spiritual Exercises begin with a day or so of gratitude, as does the consciousness examen (second step, above).  I have found it to be a wonderful practice that relates so well to the 12-Step idea of the "attitude of gratitude."

Paying attention to emotions includes being honest about naming them while trying not to label them negative or positive.  This third step is most helpful to me when I make it less about searching for all the ways I have messed up during the day (or all the ways I have been wonderful), and more about simply getting quiet and allowing emotions to arise in me.

Out of these arising emotions, one usually seems more insistent or calls to me for attention, so that is the one I bring to the fourth step

The fifth step, the look toward tomorrow, is about learning from the meditation and prayer of the process so far.  If what has arisen involves the memory of losing my temper, ignoring a need, succumbing to addiction, etc., then it is positive and constructive to imagine behaving differently tomorrow.

The whole process need only take up to 15 minutes, and is obviously not only for folks dealing with chronic pain: this is a deeply spiritual and ages-old practice that is immensely beneficial for all people. 

 I would love to hear from you.  Click on Comment below, or contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

10 October 2010

Taking Responsibility Without Feeling Guilty

In yesterday's post, "Feeling Guilty For Our Pain,' I provided a link to the 12 Steps For Chronic Pain.  I provide it again, as I'll be using the steps in this post as well:

12 Steps for Chronic Pain
One of the questions I have worked with as I have learned to live with the migraines is this:  How do I see clearly and name where my responsibility is without feeling guilty?  In yesterday's post, I talked about the ways we can both make ourselves and be made by others to feel guilty about our chronic pain.  There are steps we can take to understand how destructive this is and to keep ourselves from getting sucked in to this kind of thinking.  It's bad enough to deal with the physical pain without adding the emotional and spiritual pain of guilt and its counterpart, shame.

Yet there are areas in which I do have some control over how I use what I have learned about pain and about migraines to alleviate the pain or to make its effects less overwhelming.  For example, my diet, how much sleep I get, and what I do when I feel the pain building in my head.

So what about when I eat a piece of birthday cake at about 4:00pm, long enough after lunch that my stomach is empty, when I know that having sugar on an empty stomach causes a migraine?

What about when I stay up late to watch a movie, knowing that watching TV can trigger a migraine, as can changing my sleep habits too much?

If I get a migraine within half an hour of eating cake in the afternoon, then I can be pretty sure that I am responsible for that migraine.  I know this from my own experience and from what I have read about migraine triggers.  I suppose I could feel guilty about it, or let a friend who knows me well enough shame me with the obvious - "You knew you'd get a migraine if you ate that cake."  But I'd rather not allow that, because shame is destructive and guilt feelings do not teach me or help me progress.

For one thing, it is completely understandable that every once in a while I am tired of avoiding cake while everyone is celebrating, or that I can't resist if it's a chocolate cake.  It helped me to understand the residents of Miriam's House when I worked there, especially the women told they should not eat fried or fatty foods.  When they walked into the kitchen where other residents were frying dinner, it must have been almost impossible to resist fixing their own fried dinner - as comfort food, if nothing else.  If I have trouble resisting the occasional piece of cake, how can they resist the daily smell of frying food?

So, we are human.  We want certain things and don't enjoy substitutes or changes when it comes to food, or coffee (tea, in my case), or our work habits, or our shopping habits.  And even migraine pain is forgotten in the moment that iced and decorated slice of birthday cake is offered to me by the birthday woman in the community. 

Thus we have the Third Step (see link above) that talks about a "fearless inventory" of the past, of relationships, and of work.  The object is to come to peace with the present by being honest about the past.  One of the features of chronic pain is that it limits our patience or it stimulates our anger, and quite often, those emotions spill out onto those around us.  Frankly, I finally became so tired of picking up the pieces of the hurt feelings I'd caused at my work that I became adept at realizing when I'd hurt a co-worker and ready to apologize for what I'd done.  Gradually, I learned to rise above the pain so that it would not show in my manner.  But that took a long time, and left me with a lot of inventory-taking to do.

To circle back to the topic of this post, we need to take responsibility for the ways in which we cause ourselves pain, too - like the birthday cake migraine.  The inventory of this Step Three need not only be about the big things like relationships.  It can be a simple, daily, clear-sighted and non-shaming review that shows us where we have faltered and allows us to imagine behaving differently the next time.

To summarize: I refuse to feel guilty about having chronic pain, and I will proactively take non-shaming responsibility when I understand that I have caused myself, or another, pain.  A regular and simple review process is helpful, and that will be the topic of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

09 October 2010

Feeling Guilty for Our Pain

This week a thought arose in me without warning, bubbling up and surprising me because I thought I'd finished with such feelings:

"What is wrong with me?  What am I doing wrong?"
It was on Friday morning, after I'd lost most of Wednesday evening and then all throughout Thursday to Friday morning to a really, really bad migraine.

I call them "crashers", these migraines.  But that is not the point of this post, because I'd like to explore the feelings of guilt that were in me when I faced Friday still in pain.  As I said above, it caught me by surprise, even though I know that it is typically such unguarded and vulnerable moments that have special power as teachers.

The guilt was about two things that I can see at this point, now that it is Saturday morning and I am blessedly free of that pain.  The first was about my body's inability to handle strong medications; the second was about the many tasks not getting done while I lay in pain.  I had begun a new, prophylactic medication called Lamictal on Sunday after having tried several others in recent years that proved too strong - even at the smallest doses - so that I could not tolerate the side effects.  I was afraid this headache was a result of the Lamictal.  And the laundry was sitting, still dirty, beside the clothes washer, I hadn't been grocery shopping, etc.

Aside from those details, what about guilt and pain?  Why do we have feelings of guilt about something that is absolutely out of our control?  You may recall from other posts (28 September, 2 October) that one of the ways to handle chronic pain is to choose one's reaction to it.  That, I believe, is in one's power: the pain itself, most often, is not.  Once we have chosen a constructive, proactive and management-type reaction to the pain, why the guilt about having it?

This is a huge subject - spiritually, socially, metaphysically, emotionally - and I do not at all think that I can explore and explain what smarter minds than mine have been considering for ages.  So I am not trying to write a treatise, but I am wanting to explore and work with the guilt that can go along with chronic pain in this and the next few posts.

There are some fairly simple answers to the emotional component.  Many a parent or responsible adult - myself included - have impatiently indicated to a child that their pain or upset is not real: "Oh, you're not really hurt that much."  "Just hush."  "I'll give you something to cry about."  It simply is not possible to respond to each moment in the emotional roller coaster of a child's life with complete sympathy, and so sometimes the message is that the amount of our pain is somehow our fault.  The adult version of this is, "Just talk yourself out of the pain."  "You seem fine to me." 

Additionally, there are many things in life over which we have assumed control - or, at least, the illusion of control.  We have overcome odds in order to complete our education, or to start a new business, to be in recovery over our addictions, to get out of a destructive relationship, living space, etc.  We begin to believe what our society believes, that if we only apply ourselves, or really want something, or stop being self-indulgent, or just say or think the right thing, we can control all situations.  Life has given us lemons from which we have made lemonade, and we are justifiably proud of that.  It's just that our ability to move mountains becomes puny and ineffective when it comes to stopping chronic pain.  And so we feel guilty.

I recently found a website (thanks to a suggestion from my sister, Joan Sparks) in which there is a page devoted to 12 Steps of Living With Chronic Pain.  Based on the 12 Steps of AA/NA, these steps are wonderfully full of wisdom that takes the guilt - our own and that imposed on us by others - and then clearly indicate where we do have power, where we can grow in emotional health.  I will not repeat all the steps here because the link above taking you straight to them, but I do want to comment on several of the steps in the context of this post.

The second step begins with the words, "I refuse to feel guilty ..." and I just love the strength in that.  Although it surely takes a while to get to the point of being able to internalize and actually believe them, these words go directly to the heart of where we do have some power.  After the first step focuses on our powerlessness over the pain, the second step heads straight to one of the most debilitating points of our emotional reaction to being in chronic pain.  Then it goes on to use the phrase, "... that limits but does not stop my life."

This is encouraging to me.  Yes, my life is limited: Tim and I had to cancel dinner with dear friends on Thursday evening, and that was only the most recent example of what is a regular occurence for me and for us.  Plans with me are tentative because the migraines limit my ability to be up and moving.  But that does not mean I never make plans, and I am grateful in a way that is also beneficial to my spiritual life when I can do the simple things that I should guess are taken for granted by folks who do not live with chronic pain.  Being able to walk a few blocks to the grocery store to pick up fresh fish for dinner is a joy to me.  Would I notice the way the sunlight plays on the tree leaves and the way the their bright green makes beautiful contrast with the blue sky if this were something I could do every day whenever I wanted?  I think not, knowing myself.

I like the realization that while my life is limited by pain it is not stopped by pain, and actually take some pride in knowing that there are often times that I am in pain but choose not to cancel plans.  Furthermore, I can choose, to the best of my physical ability at the time, to act as though I am not in pain.  My best friends can always tell anyway, but I do believe I fool most of the people most of the time.

So the laundry takes 4 days to get done - it IS getting done.  So we eat a lot of leftovers because I have learned to cook large amounts for dinner, not knowing if I will be able to cook the next day - I DO cook.  So I had to cancel dinner plans this week - I WILL get out today with Donna for a visit to LOOPED, our friend's new yarn store in DC.

If we can honestly say when the pain is too much and just as honestly rejoice when we can accomplish even small things, then we are enhancing our ability to live in a healthy way with our chroic pain.  It is not a matter of one or the other, and that is where I think it is easy to lose perspective.  It is both/and:  pain stops my life some days AND it only limits my life some days.  Knowing this helps me to take responsibility in my life, about which I will which in my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or write me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

03 October 2010

Miraculous Anti-Aging Practice!

I really do not intend this blog to track sensational news, but this is too cool to let pass.

If you listened to "Being" (used to be called "Speaking of Faith") on National Public Radio this morning, you heard Krista Tippett interview Doris Taylor about her work with stem cells.

Nota bene: the stem cells that Taylor uses in her research are obtained from in vitro fertilization companies.  They would have otherwise been discarded.  Of course, I know that stem cell research is controversial, and I love Taylor's answer to the controversy (to paraphrase): she speaks of the common misperception that stem cells all come from aborted fetuses - they do not; and she asks folks who are so adamantly opposed to spend a week in a neonatal ICU; she notes that people whose children or loved ones are affected by a disease that could or has benefitted from stem cell research will most often come to allow and be grateful for it.
Now, back to the subject of my post today: Taylor talks about the fact that we all have stem cells in our bodies, working for us all the time.  She uses the example of a wound in the skin, which leaves an inflamation that she sees as the body's call to the stem cells do come and work their healing magic.  In other words, we are all using and benefitting from our own stem cells.  Further, she says that aging is really the process of stem cells losing their effecitveness.

Here is the cool part: research has showed that meditation increases the number and health of stem cells in the person practicing it.

Now, I do not have any evidence so credible as scientific research.  But what this made me think of is that, in the past year or so - and despite the chronic pain of the migraines - numerous people have told me in very surprised tones of voice how good I look.  Meaning healthy, I assume, and I always leave such conversations shaking my metaphorical head and wondering how that is possible, when I am feeling so poorly.  Maybe it's the meditation!

I could really get carried away with this.  Perhaps I could create one of those infomercials, appearing in chic clothing (which I would have to buy, as no one has ever accused me of dressing a la mode), dye my hair a younger color (not blonde, maybe auburn), adopt a dramatically energetic manner while extolling the benefits of meditation and telling people they simply MUST buy my DVD ...


So I just want to thank the NPR radio show, Being, for giving me the opportunity to write a light-hearted post today.  I needed that.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

02 October 2010

Choosing Patience: Active, Not Passive

Just to set this post in context: this morning I awoke at 5:30am with a migraine.  My wonderful husband brought me a cup of tea and my medication so I could stay in the bed and move in and out of sleep in comfort.  I know from experience that the best thing for me to do is to sleep as long as my body tells me I need to.  This morning, I didn't get up until 9:00am.  After my usual bowl of oatmeal, which sometimes revives me, I still don't feel well and that makes for the disappointment of having to cancel something I was anticipating.

My dear friend, Donna, and I had plans to go to Crafty Bastards, an outdoor market of all things hand-made that is taking place in Adams Morgan today.  Our friend and Miriam's House knitting teacher, Susan, and her partner have recently opened a yarn shop just above DuPont Circle: Looped. They have a booth at Crafty Bastards that Donna and I were going to visit, bringing our knitting so that we could join their Sit and Knit for a while.

A few minutes ago, I called Donna to cancel.  I do not feel well enough for all the walking, and even sitting is problematic when I feel this way because I cannot hold my head erect unsupported.

The subject of this post, following my post of 26 September, is about patient suffering and how, despite its seeming passivity, it is an active and positive choice with benefit to the spiritual life.  So I tell this little story of today's disappointment as a way to illustrate how I choose to manage these things.

For me, choosing the quiet peace of patience is a positive move.  It does not mean giving up or sinking passively into inaction.  It is an act.  Emotionally, as I said in my last post, this lifts me out of feeling sorry for myself, a place in which I find myself regularly enough, and in which I refuse to remain for long.  Naturally, I feel the disapointment - who wouldn't?  These sorts of cancelations and postponements are a regular feature of my life.  All my friends know that plans with me are tentative.  I do become weary of being unable to simply go out for a morning with a friend, or plan to attend a concert knowing I'll probably actually be able to go.  These are facts of my life, have been for the past 5 years, and denying them or their impact on me is just as unhealthy as falling passively onto the pity pot.

The spiritual side of this involves simple honesty about the reality of the moment: I am disappointed/frustrated/angry/sorrowful about the effect this migraine is having on my life today.  Naming those feelings has a powerful way of bringing them to the Light, to God, so that they are illuminated by Truth.  Denying them and pretending they are not in me has a powerful way of hiding them in the shadow, hidden by Lies. 

So, step One: honestly name the emotions I am feeling.

Step Two: Make a choice to either swim into them and sink, or rise through and above them.  Rising above does not necessarily make me feel happier, more optimistic.  More often, it gets me to the place from which I can choose patience and the lovely serenity that accompanies it.  Sometimes, I hurt so much that there is not even lovely serenity, and choosing patience is made difficult because I feel no difference.  There is no magic to choosing patience and often one is choosing simple endurance without a sense of when or where it all will end.

One thought about all this: I am very aware that I write this from a place of good mental health.  I could not have said any of this during the years that I struggled with intense anxiety and the depression that goes along with it.   My heart goes out to those who are not only living with chronic pain but who have the added burden of depression, or anxiety, or any of the other mental ills.  There is no simple answer for such things, and I do not intend this post - or anything in this blog - to imply that just reading and following what I say will change mental health, or is even possible when struggling with things of such magnitude.

Finally, the act of choosing patience lets me pray and meditate, things I cannot do when I have chosen victimhood, which is stultifying, paralyzing.  And to restate - all this does not really make me jump up and down for joy, changing my life and making me a hilariously happy person to be around.  I am not pretending that two simple steps make it all OK.  I am saying that, in the choice between being a victim and patiently suffering, I choose the latter because I perceive some spiritual and emotional benefits in that choice.

Now I'll go rest.  Maybe I'll feel better after a while, call Donna, and visit Crafty Bastards.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

28 September 2010

The Art of Patient Suffering

If you keep in mind the Latin root for the word patient - "pati", to suffer - then the title of this post is redundant, as in The Art of Suffering Suffering.  In English, there are a few different definitions of the verb, "to suffer", the difference being if it is transitive (takes a direct object) or intransitive.

The definitions are maddeningly similar (at least when one is trying to sort them out while suffering a migraine):

* As a verb without the direct object, to suffer means "to undergo or feel pain or distress, to undergo or sustain injury or loss."   As in, today I am still suffering.

* As a verb with the direct object, to suffer means "to undergo, be subjected to or endure pain, distress, injury, loss or anything unpleasant."  As in, today I am suffering a migraine.
With a direct object - migraine - I name the source of the suffering.  Without the direct object, I am simply suffering.

OK, this is not just an academic exercise, and I happen to love parsing words and etymology like this, although I realize not everyone else does.  But here is the richness I can mine from this exploration of the verb, "to suffer."

If I focus on the direct object - migraine - and stay there, then my suffering is focused, one-dimensional, self-perpetuating.    I suffer from migraines.  That is simply a fact, and nowhere else to go with it, so it is easy to get stuck there.  And being stuck there means the pity pot, it means being in victim mode. 

But when I allow the intransitive form of the verb, suffering loosens up and patience can enter in.  It is paying attention to and choosing the quality of the suffering that redeems the whole experience for me, and it is the intransitive verb that opens up and allows this redemption.  Here is where the art of patient suffering, or the art of suffering suffering, is meaningful for me.  Grammatically speaking, the adverb that follows the intransitive verb is important, and it is what I get to choose: I suffer patiently.

I want to choose that adverb: patiently, as opposed to impatiently; peacefully, as opposed to angrily.  Choosing not only changes my perspective on the pain, it gives me the only sense of having some power with something that otherwise is completely out of my control.  I don't choose the migraines, but I do choose the manner in which I will suffer them.

This is a choice made regularly, if not daily.  Each migraine presents its own opportunity to either sink into victim mode or rise to patient endurance.  It's odd, but the other thing about patient endurance vs. victim mode is that, although the former sounds passive, it is actually energized in a quiet way, and a good place from which to contemplate creative ways of dealing with the pain.  It is the latter - victim mode - that paralyzes me, keeping me from seeking relief in the myriad of forms (medical, spiritual, emotional) in which it may be available to me.

Naturally, choosing patience has spiritual benefits as well, which will be the subject of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.  Thank you.

26 September 2010

Patience and Suffering

During this morning's quiet time, I turned to a book of icons ("Behold the Beauty of the Lord - Praying with Icons", Henri J. M. Nouwen).  I find icons to be a wonderful aide to centering on those days - which are plenty - when I find it difficult to simply enter into a meditative state.  Nouwen was Catholic, so much of what he says about the icon (for example, focusing on the virginity of Mary) does not interest me, but still his words and the way he writes help to bring me to peaceful stillness whether or not I share his doctrinal beliefs. 

The icon that attracted me this morning was The Virgin of Vladimir.  My focus went to Mary's eyes, in which I saw suffering and peace.  It is here - in the understanding of Mary as a poor woman of a disenfranchised minority and who, in her lifetime, suffered much physical and emotional pain - that my attention settled.  The artist painted her eyes directed outward yet obviously and beautifully in deep contemplation.  There is a patient quality to her expression that speaks of the deep love and centeredness in God that can arise from allowing oneself to be lovingly present to suffering.

I think one of the reasons this meant so much to me this morning is that I was unable to be in that place yesterday when a migraine began to build.  I'd been to see my neurologist on Wednesday and had a new treatment - an injection called an occipital nerve block - that had the potential of stopping the pain of the migraines, and about which I was very hopeful.  Thus, when on Saturday morning I felt the familiar symptoms of the migraine's beginning, I became depressed.  I'd been so hopeful.

I spent the hours of the migraine struggling, not very successfully, against frustration and discouragement.  I know that such emotions only make the pain worse.  I have written about living in the moment as it is, knowing that nothing is permanent and so railing against reality is not only futile but counter-productive.  I probably should have gone back and read some of my old posts.  But I was stuck until some dear friends (thank you, Juliana, Meredith, and Sonya) popped in for a surprise visit.  The joy, laughter and sharing of those hours raised my spirits immeasurably.  So it was with a different perspective that I went to my quiet time this morning.

The combination of suffering and peace on the face of Mary sent me to the text to find out what Nouwen said about her.  He says (page 36) that the word "patience" comes from the Latin "pati" - to suffer.  (Which also means that the word "patient" comes from the same root, which is fascinating.  In my work at Miriam's House, I often wondered about the similarity between these two words.)
"She knows what it means to poor, oppressed, a refugee, to be uncertain and confused about the future, to be kept at a distance, to stand under the cross and to be the bearer of thoughts and feelings that cannot be shared with anyone."
Yesterday, uncertain and confused about the future, having thoughts and feelings I could not share with anyone else, I was unable to be patient with the suffering of that migraine.  I do not say this to castigate myself, but just to state the reality of my being on one particular day as a way to learn from it and - prayerfully - change.

 In my last post (21 September), I quoted Paul's words about suffering, endurance, character and hope, and I cited Buddhism's Four Noble Truths.  And today I find Henri Nouwen speaking about suffering in a similar way.

* Paul says that suffering produces endurance, then character, then hope;
* Buddhism suggests we accept suffering without grabbing for alternatives, as it is simply the reality of the moment which will pass;
* Nouwen shows that the Latin root of "patience" means "to suffer".

What I see on Sunday, having fought with the suffering of Saturday, is the possibility - even the opportunity - of patient suffering.  That will be the subject of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

21 September 2010

The Spirituality of Getting Off the Pity Pot

The final paragraph of my previous post (20 September) states that just taking the energy to get up off the pity pot of feeling victimized by the migraines opens me to the greater possibilities of the moment.  There is something about the intention and action of that decision - to get up and off the pot - that moves both my emotions and my spirit.

Buddhists say (in the Four Noble Truths) that impermanence is a fact of life, and that it is our fight against that fact that causes us suffering.

If I can quietly remember that a migraine does not last forever, it is easier to let go of my need to be the victim of the pain.  But if I grasp onto the self-pity that often arises, feeding it with emotion, then I am layering my self-caused suffering on top of the migraine pain.

Romans 5:3-4 - "... we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character, hope."

I find little hope in the migraine itself, yet the very act of persevering through it will strengthen my character, and that is what leads me to hope.

The two are not exactly the same - Buddhists would say, I think, that suffering in order to get to hope is just another way to deny the impermanence of life.  If you get to hope and grab it, then you are causing yourself the inevitable suffering that will come when hope fades - which it will, because all things are impermanent. But there is similarity in the Christian and Buddhist acknowledgement that life is full of suffering, and that there is spiritual value in the redemption of suffering through letting it be what it is.

Paul would tell me that by allowing the pain of the migraines, I am persevering in a way that builds my character, which in turn will lead me to hope.  In hope is where I find God: "And Hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out Love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit..."  (verse 5).

The Buddhists would say that the migraine is not always going to be there, so let go of any desire for it to change or anger about its presence.  Wanting what I don't have and cannot have (cessation of the migraines) is an endless cycle: want no migraine - don't get what I want - be sad or angry or self-pitying about that - want no migraine ...

Very different results come from the Christian and the Buddhist, yet both are teaching me the spiritual benefits of allowing the pain to be what it is instead of wishing for something else or fighting the reality of the moment.

At the top of this post I said that just making the decision to get up off the pity pot moves my emotions and spirit.  Maybe Buddha would say that I am allowing the suffering to be what it is without desiring something else.  Maybe Paul would say that I am building character by persevering with and through the pain.  In my post of 20 September, I said that moving from victim mode broadens my sight to a 360-degree view that encompasses not only the pain of the migraine, but the many blessings of my life.

There is so much more to be said about all this, but I am beginning to confuse myself, and am not sure where I want to go with these thoughts.  My next post will likely focus on one of the points above in order to mine some richness out of it.

I would love to hear from you.  Click on the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

20 September 2010

Befriending pain, Part 3


Reminds Me of the Time (Stories) - Christmas with Sharon

Befriending Pain, Part 3: Refusing to be a Victim


Christmas with Sharon

Sharon was a cheerful person – you never saw her but what she wasn’t smilingly up for a chat or an adventure. Her short, kinky hair, the styling of which she had no patience for since becoming ill, often looked comical. It tended to stick out randomly at odd angles all over her head. Sharon was a tall woman of medium build who could have been imposing had she not carried that goofy smile and Alfalfa hair all the time. Though it was only her physical stature that had that potential; her personality was engaging, fun, and energetic.

 Sometimes it was hard to get residents to participate in activities around the house because illness and depression and recovery from addictions simply take their toll on a woman’s energy. But Sharon always participated, especially in the holiday decorating and partying. A photo I have shows Sharon and me at the Christmas tree: she is holding an ornament and smiling while we engage in considered discussion as to where to place it. I don’t have that great an eye for such things, so she was my consultant.

 “Where should I put this one? This Santa Claus with the funny face?” I put it in her hand.

 “Well, it needs a big spot – any of those left?” We had been decorating the tree for a while, and even though our only decorating scheme was to load the tree with as much as possible, there was always someone pointing out bare spots.

 “How about here – there’s a red ball on one side and a straw angel on the other.”

 “No. Angels do not go next to Santas.” She was adamant; I reconsidered.

 “OK – here’s a little green stocking next to a big space with a teddy bear on the other side.”

 “Good.” The photo shows me hanging the small ornament onto the agreed-upon branch while Sharon stands serenely, smiling. I had to be the one to actually place that Santa because Sharon couldn’t see to place it herself: Sharon was completely blind as a result of AIDS.
 There are so many cruelties about AIDS – two such cruel circumstances had visited Sharon: the blindness and the inability of this loving mother to raise her sons. So I marveled at her cheer and eagerness to embrace new experiences because I knew that, for a blind person, even the most mundane activities offer difficulties that we sighted people never think about.

  For example, decorating that Christmas tree. In the photo, Sharon is smiling, happy and even content to stand at the tree and go through the potentially frustrating process of listening to me describe one by one each ornament and each bare spot. She did not complain about how hard decorating a tree is for a blind person, did not mention the sons who were surely on her mind. As she did most of the time, Sharon was living into the moment, effortlessly drawing joy from it.

 For me, her example served as a humbling reminder. Knowing Sharon, how could I continue to complain about the petty things that bothered me? And I mean petty – I do indignant really well, and about really inconsequential things. Once Sharon’s face flashed across my mind, my spouting off about the poor parking job of the car ahead of me, or about my computer being slow was exposed for the vanity it was. “If Sharon can handle with such grace and cheer being blind, living with AIDS and separated from her children, then I can shut up about my computer and patiently wait.”

 Homeless. AIDS. Addicted. Mentally ill. Blind. Is there any more horrifying combination in our world today? And yet Sharon, to whom every one of those labels applied, was the person who showed me about living life more deeply by accepting and living into each moment as it is.

 Again and again, I was taught ageless wisdom in the example of one who is labeled and left: a woman whom Jesus would have termed his “little one”, who embodied the meek and who, surely, would inherit the earth.

Refusing to be a Victim

I want today to focus on a particular statement from my previous post of 14 September, which I made when explaining the benefits of befriending pain :

I have a sense of being not so much at the mercy of the migraines. As an intentional, pro-active decision to use a tool of my own devising, it leads me away from feeling victimized by pain.

The fact is that I need to be led away from feeling victimized by the pain (including disruption of and limitations on my life) of the migraines.  I love the phrase I learned from the 12-Steps: sitting on the pity pot.  It is mostly the example of the women at Miriam's House ("Christmas with Sharon", above) that taught me how easily inclined I am to sit on my pity pot. 

First let me say that I am a firm believer in being honest about my emotions.  If I am feeling sorry for myself, I say so, sometimes aloud - naming it helps me to set it aside.  When I am angry about missing an anticipated event because of a migraine I say so - giving vent to the anger helps to dissipate it.  This, too, is a spiritual practice: God "desires truth in the inward being" (RSV, Psalm 51:6), and whether or not one prays or speaks to a listening God, the wisdom still holds.

Falling into vicitm status, my pity pot, is a much different thing.  When I am caught up in naming myself as a victim, I am concentrating on one small aspect of life, of the world around me.  This is not truth, nor does being a victim lead me to greater truth - it really just leads me deeper into my own, false world.  In this sense, I mean truth as a 360-degree totality.  OK, it's true that I am feeling sorry for myself.  What is not true is that this is the only aspect of my life I could acknowledge in the moment.  It is also true that I am blessed with a loving husband, living in a house that is very comfortable, able to walk my dog down tree-lined streets and play with her in the back yard, not to mention being the beneficiary of marvelous technological advances like the clothes washer.

I'll take a moment here to celebrate the washing machine.  It used to be that, on wash day,  women could do nothing else, the hands-on process requiring their physical presence throughout.  It must have been exhausting, not to mention necessitating the leaving behind of all the other tasks and chores.  But I go to the machine, set the dials, add the soap, load the clothes, pull out a knob and walk away, able to accomplish another task - or rest - while the work of getting the clothes clean is done for me.  I never take this for granted.

The previous paragraph is not a digression, it is an example.  In vicitm mode, I plod down the basement stairs while complaining about the load in my arms and groaning about the throbbing in my head.  I grumpily dump the clothes in while wishing I could just rest on the futon upstairs, blindfold on and music playing. 
Thus, I am a victim of not just the migraine pain, but of my own inability to celebrate life's abundant blessings, which are there whether I see them or not.  In this way, choosing to be the victim makes me ever more a victim.  It makes me blind and deaf to the sacred beauty of God's abundant blessings.

Beyond keeping me aware of how truly blessed I am, there is benefit in exerting the energy to make the shift to something more positive and truth-full.  Really, just making the decision to get up off the pity pot opens me to the greater possibilities of the moment.  Which will be the subject of the next post: the spirituality of getting off the pity pot.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

14 September 2010

Befriending Pain, Part 2

In my 12 September post, I shared the practice I have developed over the years to mitigate migraine pain.  I have also found it effective for other physical pain, such as muscle spasms in my back.

There are several benefits to this practice:
* It helps me to manage pain without automatically resorting to medication, over-the-counter or prescribed.  I don't have to deal with side effects - which, for my migraine meds, include muscle fatigue and mild depression - and I worry less about the health of my liver and kidneys.

* I have a sense of being not so much at the mercy of the migraines.  As an intentional, pro-active decision to use a tool of my own devising, it leads me away from feeling victimized by pain.

* The spiritual effects are profound.   Buddhists have known it for thousands of years: becoming aware of, in tune with one own's body - whatever its state - is a doorway to the Divine.  I don't mean that I have ecstatic visions in the midst of alleviating my pain in this way, but that the closer connection to my own body facilitates my spiritual life and my sense of being whole.

This is the theme of this blog: chronic pain and spirituality - the ways in which living with and managing chronic pain can enhance the spiritual life, and vice versa.  One is hard put to find gratitude or to feel holy while suffering pain, yet, over time, a symbiotic relationship is revealed UNLESS one simply runs for the narcotics or Tylenol at the first twinge.  I am not advocating going around looking for chronic pain in order to become more holy.  Is there not plenty of pain in life as it presents itself to us? 

I am reminded of the ubiquitous Socrates quote,

"The unexamined life is not worth living."

In examining my pain instead of fleeing from it, I am also examining my life, my self.  The qualities I am not so proud of - impatience, self-pity, etc. - and the nobler qualities that I want to live into more fully - endurance, compassion, etc - are revealed to me.  This is a spiritual matter, whether aligned with a particular religion, system of beliefs, or not: any work we do to live a better life and be a better person surely brings us closer to God.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

12 September 2010

Befriending Pain



Befriending Pain


My dear friend, David Hilfiker, once said to me - referring to his clinical depression, "I think I need to learn how to make friends with it." 

Stephen and Ondrea Levine, in their book, "Who Dies?" explain and explore the practice of a close examination of physical pain.

I have come to define befriending my pain as having two parts: gentle examination of its physical presence, and changing my relationship to it away from regarding it as the enemy.

I know it seems counter-intuitive - it certainly did when I first encountered the idea five or six years ago.  Yet I have found that being willing to let go of expectations and reactions in order to openly-heartedly explore newness has often led to spiritual and emotional healing.  In this and the next few posts, I'll share some of that exploration, even continue it, and welcome thoughts and ideas from readers of this blog (click on the Comments box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com).

So, first of all, the practice of exploring physical pain.  (Nota bene: Emotional pain also benefits from this sort of exploration, and will be the subject of a future post).  This is a practice that I have developed over the years: I do not pretend to be an expert in pain management, I am simply sharing something that works for me.

  • First:  Take three slow, deep breaths, focusing on some particular aspect of the breath - the moment inhalation begins, or the moment of rest between breaths.
  • And then: Take ten regular breaths, continuing your focus.
  • And then: While still focusing on your breathing, gently stretch in a way that is comfortable for you.  If you want to and can stand up, fine.  If you want to and can stretch from your sitting or prone position, fine.  It helps to progress either from toes to head, or head to toes - that way, you tend to be attentive to most of the major muscle groups.  This is not about getting in shape - this is about relaxing physically as preparation for paying deep attention to one aspect of your physical reality: pain.
  • And then: three more slow, deep breaths.
  • And then: Allow your consciousness to approach the area of pain.  The less intellectual you are about this, the better; simple awareness is best for this practice.
  • And then: With quiet mind, note how the pain feels.  Note the words that come up: stabbing, throbbing, gripping, waves, vice-like, etc.  No judgement, no editorializing: simply note the words that float up into your consciousness. 
  • And then: Note whether or not the feelings vary.  For example, migraine pain never stays in one place or has only one, constant aspect: it recedes and then throbs forward again; it bounces around the head; it might be stabbing one moment and gentler the next.
  • And then: Having examined the pain, imagine creating space around it, a gentle, cushioning space.  It might help to help bathe the pain with light, or imagine a soft cloud pervading it, or imagine yourself breathing gently into it, loosening it.  If you like visualization, you can try seeing the pain as a knot that you loosen, or as a dry, hard bit of soil that you water.
  • And then: Just stay with that image for as long as feels good to you.
  • To finish: Three slow, deep breaths as you come back to more consciousness of the world around you; more gentle stretches; move gently and slowly into your next activity or purpose.
In the next post, I'll write about the benefits of this practice, and begin to explore more the concept of befriending pain.

I'd love to hear from you.  Click on the Comment box below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

31 August 2010

Stress Reduction, Pain and the Spirit

My post of last Friday drew quite a few views, and so I want to continue the theme.

The link at the end of this post connects to a you-tube video created last year for Miriam's House.  Photos by Tim Fretz, music by Sparx (Joan Sparks, flute and Ann Sullivan, harp).  The video was created to be a short, beautiful and meditative interlude during an otherwise busy day. 

Music and nature (even photos or paintings of nature) are proven stress reducers, used in health care settings for patient care and morale.  People in pain are limited in ability to move out into nature, and so creating accessible opportunities for our spirits to connect with nature is important.

Indeed, if you agree that the daily stress of a busy, information- and noise-filled life creates a kind of spiritual pain, then most uf us are in need of this method of stress reduction.

Before you click on the link to Garden at Miriam's House, settle in your chair, back straight, feet flat on the floor.   Or, if you are lying down, stretch out comfortably.

Now - three deep, slow breaths.

And now - ten regular breaths, counting "one" on the inhale, then "and" on the exhale ... "two" inhale, "and" exhale ...

And now - allow your muscles to relax.  If you need practice with this, here is a link for you - in the small box to the right, click on "progressive muscle relaxation".

And now - click on the link below.  May it bring you peace.

LINK  to Garden at Miriam's House.

27 August 2010

Stress and Spirit

It is important to me that I maintain a focus on the subject of this blog - chronic pain and the spiritual life: how they intersect and affect one another.  My most recent post (25August) was about Dr. Herbert Benson and his relaxation response, specifically, in regards to his new book about remembered visualization and meditation.  Briefly, today, I want to explain how I see this relating to the overall topic of my blog.

I have my brother, Bill Marsh, to thank for the idea of using photos as tools to meditation.

Try to commit to giving close attention to this photo, letting go of what you feel you should be doing right now:

Mt. Edith Cavell / Canadian Rockies

What do you  notice as you sit still and look? 

Perhaps some inner stillness rises to the surface of your attention, or your breath slows, some muscles suddenly let go of long-held tension, or you simply realize how driven you have been so far today.

Can you allow that feeling to deepen?

Moraine Lake / Canadian Rockies

Whatever you are touching right now in your spirit, however you name it, to Whom- or Whatever you attribute it, you have likely experienced a reduction, however slight, in the stress under which we all live day by day.

This space - this quieter, more still, deeper space - is what allows us to touch the Divine .... the Face of God ... the Greatness of Allah ...

Now, what Dr. Benson is saying is that our ability to reduce stress in our lives has a beneficial effect on our physical health and even can change our genetic predispositions as they are manifested in the way our brain responds to the stress of illness, daily life, or poor mental health.  As I said before, my own experience in overcoming generalized anxiety disorder attests that such changes are real.

Ice berg at the foot of Mt. Edith Cavell

You have just demonstrated to yourself that reducing stress allows you to approach the peaceful stillness of your spirit.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment section below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

25 August 2010

Stress, Relaxation and Visualization

Yesterday I listened to the Diane Rhem Show (National Public Radio) because her guest from 11am to 12pm was Herbert Benson, the physician who, 35 years ago, wrote "The Relaxation Response"  (available on Amazon).  His new book, "Relaxation Revolution: Enhancing Your Personal Health Through the Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing" was the subject of their discussion.

In earlier posts (27 and 30 July), I have described how I use the relaxation response and meditation as tools in pain management.  What is interesting about Dr. Benson's new book is that in it he takes the process one step further into visualization.  I do not have the book and so cannot write in depth, but found the interview interesting and potentially helpful enough that I decided to write about it today.  After I have read the book I will blog about it.

Dr. Benson has found that the effects of practicing the relaxation response can be enhanced  by a second step - visualization.  As I understood him during his interview with Ms. Rehm, it's a simple two-step process: 10 minutes evoking the relaxation response, then ten minutes visualizing by remembering (this is key) a time when you were living free of your current illness.  He emphasized that imagined visualization of the sort atheletes do - visualizing their performance in an up-coming race or event - is not what he studied: remembered visualization is essential to the process as he has developed and studied it.

Dr. Benson cited medical, scientific studies that prove the beneficial effects of this process.  And I, myself, have attested to the changes I have experienced as a result of practicing the relaxation response.  So I am in a position to believe him and to welcome his further studies.  I have long believed that our society in general and the medical establishment in particular ignore the mind-body-spirit connection.

Another important point is that the presence of stress in our lives is, to some extent, either causing or exacerbating our symptoms.  My migraines are worse when I am upset or angry, and I have learned that an emotionally explosive reaction can actually start a migraine.  Dr. Benson spoke of other illnesses, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and diabetes, the symptoms of which are worsened by the way stress affects us physically.

What I recall Dr. Benson saying (this is a layperson's interpretation) is that if you have a memory of feeling well and can call it up while relaxed and quiet, you can effect changes in your brain:
* Neuro pathways are created in response to pain, and brain function habituates to them.  A good example  of this is the phenomonon of the "phantom limb" - the sensation of pain or feeling in a limb that has been amputated.
* You can create new neuro pathways by visualizing a time when you were not ill or in pain, thus training your brain to function differently.
* Stress enters in as a constant reality in our lives, and as embodied in the way we respond to it.  The adrenalin and other chemicals released automatically in response to stress (which can be a sudden, loud noise, a difficult conversation, pain, a change in routine, etc) provoke the "flight or fight" response that is automatic.  What does not have to be automatic is how we handle the fact of stress in our lives. 
* This two-step process is only effective to the extent that stress is a part of our symptoms.  Dr. Benson is NOT saying that all we have to do is visualize being well and we will be healed.  What he is saying is to the extent that stress and our response to it is making our illness or symptoms worse, we can change that effect by using this process.

Again, the disclaimer - I am not pretending to be an expert in this subject having listened to a one-hour radio program.  For now, I am reporting from my memory of the interview, and will go into more depth and detail after reading the book.

It strikes me that mental health is positively affected also, and Dr. Benson spoke of the depression that accompanies chronic illness.  But I am certain that relaxation and meditation made a huge difference for me in changing a genetic disposition to anxiety and mild depression: along with medication, of which I am now taking a greatly reduced dose (and that mainly because it controls one of the migraine symptoms), the daily practice of quieting my mind and body for prayer and meditation had an enormously positive effect on my chronic anxiety.  Having listened to Dr. Benson yesterday, I now see that these practices worked to change the neuro pathways in my brain, with the result that my habitual response to stress is diametrically different than what it was my whole adult life.

More on this later!

I would love to hear from you.  Click on COMMENT , below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

09 August 2010

On Vacation

I’m on Vacation! I’ll be back to blogging on August 23, 2010.

In the meanwhile, here is an archive of posts by category:

Managing Pain* 30 July
* 27 July

Presence to God* 27 July
* 21 July
* 19 July
* 16 July

Letting Go and Letting God* 14 July
* 12 July

Miriam’s House Stories* 2 August
* 21 July
* 12 July
* 7 July
Thank you for checking in!

I’d love to hear from you: please use the Comment link below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

05 August 2010

5August: Gratitude



The Silver Lining to the Migraine Cloud

Painful Poetry: Haiku

During the week of 19 July, I blogged about “So Where IS God in all This?” My 2August post discussed how impossible it is for me to get to gratitude when I am in pain. Yet if I truly find the Divine in all things, then there surely is a way to connect with God through the migraines.

There is, it just doesn’t happen while I am in pain. It happens in other ways, and at other times, some cultivated, some simply by Grace.

For example, I am grateful for what the pain and the inconvenience of migraines has taught me:

* I have noted before (12July post) that a migraine stretches my nerves tight, making me impatient and abrupt. Given that patience is already not one of my stellar qualities, migraine or no, I’ve needed to learn a different way of being, or else I alienate those around me and isolate myself further. Learning to be patient while having a migraine has had an improving effect on my ability to be patient at other times.

* When I have no pain in my head, I am so grateful for that and for many small things of life that I would otherwise take for granted.

* I have also noted before (3August post) that practicing meditation, breathing and deep relaxation has changed my regular prayer practice immensely. It is much easier, now, to get to the deep quiet and peace that I crave, and for which I am grateful to the migraines.

* I am powerless over these migraines to the extent that my neurologist and I have found no medication that will help prevent them. I do have a PRN medication that alleviates the pain of most migraines, for which I am grateful. But it does not work 100% of the time, nor does it completely eliminate the pain in my head, nor have any effect on the strange fatigue and minor depression that accompany a migraine – except, ironically that fatigue and depression are side effects of this medication. So, what is there to be grateful for in this?
If you know the 12-Step Program, you know that the concept of powerlessness is at its heart. The lessons of powerlessness over the migraines seep out into other parts of my life, and I have noticed in myself a calmer, broader acceptance of circumstances and of my own and others’ behavior. That is truly a blessing.

So the upshot of this is that, although I cannot be grateful for the actual migraines, it is clear to me that there are aspects of my life that have changed for the better as a direct result of them.

This is how I find God and gratitude in the chronic pain of migraines.

I would love to hear from you. Click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com


Original, if Awkward, Attempts to Find Humor in Pain

A Pain Haiku

Tearing shards of pain -
We'll just watch my head explode.
Pick up the pieces.

30 July 2010

Managing Pain and Practicing Presence


Today's Post:

How Practicing Presence Helps to Manage Pain


In my previous post, I wrote about my own methods for practicing presence, including deep and measured breathing, use of mantras, meditation, prayer, etc. I realize that it might not be obvious how these methods help someone in pain, so I want to be more specific, and I would also like to add a few other methods that have served me well when I am in pain.

How Breathing and Deep Relaxation Help Pain

I think the Lamaze folks could answer this better than I: that method has been taught to mothers about to give birth for decades. Even though the Lamaze breathing technique is taught for the acute pain of childbirth, the concept still applies: focus on and control of the breath is a very effective pain management tool. So the point is not to go find the Lamaze site and learn to practice - although I have checked out some sites and found them helpful in the broader sense of explaining the reasons for using the breath for pain management - but it is to point out the well-understood benefits of pain management through breathing technique.

For chronic pain, using the breath as a tool helps in two main ways:
* it helps to focus the mind away from obsessing about pain
* it promotes relaxation of the body.

Focusing the mind away from the pain has clear benefits. When I direct my thoughts to my breath, then my thoughts are not circling frantically around the pain and the distress it causes me physically and mentally.

Relaxing the body releases the tension I unconsciously hold when in pain: I am regularly surprised at how my muscles tense in response to a migraine - and not only the muscles in my neck and shoulders. I also carry the tension of pain in my hands, lower back, abdomen, and jaw. Additionally, there's a symbiotic exchange happening in that relaxing the body helps to relax and focus the mind while relaxing and focusing the mind (by concentrating on a breathing practice) helps to relax the body and all those muscles I didn't even know I was tensing.

The use of mantras enhances these benefits: adding a simple phrase that is meaningful to me increases the focus of my mind on the breath.

How Prayer and Meditation Help Pain

This seems obvious, yet I know that not all of us have the kind of faith that turns us to a personal God or sacred figure in whom we trust and who we believe will heal us. Even as my own spiritual life has progressed and changed to the point that I can no longer say that I believe in the standard, traditional Christian view of God, I have continued to find my prayer life to be rich, healing and essential to my well-being, the more so when I am in pain. However we term it - reflection, meditation, prayer, centering, yoga, etc. - our practice can be a help whether we envision or speak to a traditional God or not.

Here's how it works for me: meditative prayer connects me to a sacred reality beyond my small self and my small concerns (not that I am able to call the pain of a migraine "small" when I am in its clutches) that is so peaceful and still, broad and deep that it seems to dwarf the pain and thus change my relationship to it. For me, there is also a quality of boundless, compassionate beauty in meditation that defies attempts to describe it. (That I am writing a description of this practice that insists it's indescribable highlights the inherent paradox of talking about the sacred.)

Here I want to underscore a point I have made before: what really makes this pain management effective is that the tools I use and the skills I have developed come out of my daily, prayerful practice. One cannot learn breathing and meditation in the midst of great pain.

Tools that Help the Focus

MUSIC, of course, is number one on the list. My preference is piano, instrumental or vocal music that is quiet and slow. I love CD's that include nature sounds - water, rain, ocean, birds, tree frogs - below the music, because I find them most soothing. I have several CD's by Sister Kathleen Deignan, whose lovely voice and sacred subject matter is healing to me.

DISTRACTIONS, like DVD's I know and love (I probably have all nine seasons of Seinfeld memorized), or NPR radio programs (Car Talk, or Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, or This American Life, or The Moth, for example) provide distracting amusement or intellectual interest for me. And, since I cannot read when I have a migriane, books on CD are an immense help, too.

TREATS can make a difference in quality of life, and I will say more about that next week, when my topic is, "Quality of Life and Chronic Pain".


I'd love to hear from you. Click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

27 July 2010

Week of 2August: Quality of Life - Gratitude



Reminds Me of the Time - Watching Mary


Reminds Me of the Time

Watching Mary

Life at Miriam's House afforded me many humbling moments. One such moment dramatically reversed a habit I had of complaining unthinkingly about minor irritations. It was Mary, who lived with us for 11 years and was the rock of our little community, who taught me a profound lesson about gratitude. That she did this without ever saying a word made the lesson immediate and indelibly printed in my memory.

It was a chance observation in a moment of petty upset about some silly frustration - I don't even remember what was bothering me. I was upstairs in my apartment, ranting and pacing, when I happened to look out the window. What I saw stopped me mid-rant. Mary - tall, dignified, wise Mary - was making her way down the street below our window. Something about watching her from above, removed yet observant, jarred me out of my self-involvement.

Mary had had a stroke not long after she arrived at Miriam's House, had been to physical therapy and equipped with a walker. One leg dragged a bit, and balance was a bit precarious, so forward motion was very slow. Step ... move the walker forward a foot ... step ... move the walker forward a foot ... Such a contrast to my anxious, revved-up pacing was the peaceful dignity of this slow progression that even I, in my high anxiety, got it.

So, stopped short, I simply watched. Step ... move the walker a foot ... step ... move the walker a foot ... She was headed toward the Rite-Aid, three blocks away, a trip from which I could return in 15 minutes, but which I knew would take her at least an hour. She would return with that peaceful smile on her face, chat amiably about what she bought, and head for the kitchen to make her meal. Because Mary never, ever complained. We would have thought her perfectly justified to return from the Rite-Aid moaning about how tiring it was that a simple errand took her so much longer than it would have taken any of us. But Mary never complained, and, more than that, her dignified acceptance of life's circumstances allowed her an inner peace and an outer calm that made her the center of stability and balance at Miriam's House.

This is the Mary that I watched from my second-floor window that day. Until she was out of sight at the end of the block - which, given her pace, was several minutes - I watched, perfectly still. There was no need for a sermon. Indeed, I was reminded forcefully of St. Fracis' words, which Mary embodied more than any other person I have ever known:

Preach the gospel daily. When necessary, use words.


The 12-Steps program uses the phrase, "an attitude of gratitude". In the Catholic tradition, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius begin with reflecting on and experiencing gratitude to God. I have heard that cultivating gratitude in one's spirit is the best way to be close to the Divine. And doesn't Paul talk about finding God in all things?

But when I am in pain, it can be difficult to get to gratitude, notwithstanding my understanding of and agreement with these people who are far wiser than I. Sure, I get it that gratitude is an important element in my spirit - it certainly helps me to be in the moment without judgment or anxiety. Gratitude allows me to see beyond the narrow confines of my ego's assessment of circumstances in which I find myself; where my ego will judge based upon how it is being affected (and, most likely, add a complaint or two) gratitude moves me beyond such petty, self-centered concerns and opens me to the wondrous nature of the possibilities and opportunities of life.

So I try to cultivate gratitude throughout my life. Yet as much as I am certain that this practice transforms my daily life and relationships, gratitude mostly eludes me when I am in pain.

And, truthfully, I don't worry about that. Maybe some spiritual giant would be able to be grateful when suffering a migraine, but not me. Maybe I'll gain in maturity some day and selflessly praise God during those days when I am lying in a darkened room unable to move for the pain in my head and the accompanying nausea, but it's not happening right now.

The last thing I need to do when in that much pain is to layer around it some frustrated or guilty anxiety about not being a perfect saint when I hurt. (This is not meant to imply that I am a perfect saint when not in pain ... trust me on this.) One of the other qualities I have cultivated is self-honesty, so there is no deluding myself into believing I feel grateful when I patently do not. Neither does my practice of staying in the moment (or the Now, as Eckhart Tolle terms it), allow me the denial I would need to be able to act grateful when I am not.

Because along with self-honesty has come self-acceptance (well, it's all a work in progress, of course), I simply let it go that I can feel no gratitude nor can I take comfort in some "bigger plan" that God has for me.

Additionally, an important component in my spiritual life is to hold everything up to the Light, as I term it. Some would say, "give it all to God." I understand humans to be complicated organisms with chaotic intellectual and emotional processes, rarely experiencing a pure emotion. Thus, I expect to be conflicted much of the time: my joy, depending on the circumstances, might be tinged with sorrowful regret (this happened often at Miriam's House); I might feel anger and relief at the same time; my experience of hope can be tempered by a realistic assessment of the possibilities. I love the way Stephen Cope, in his CD, "Yoga for Emotional Flow" talks about this as he is describing how remarkably similar ancient yogic thinking on this is to Jungian thought. "The one thing often comes as two," he says, and that is just part of the human condition.

So, if there is some gratitude I feel during pain, it might be that Tim, my wonderful husband, has brought me a cup of tea, or that my meditation practice has relieved some of the difficulty. But this gratitude exists alongside real regret that I am spending yet another day incapacitated to some degree. And it certainly does not extend to being grateful for the migraine.

When I am not in pain, I am able to see how the migraines have changed me for the better, which is the Silver Lining to the Migraine Cloud, and the subject of my next post.

23 July 2010

27July - Presence to God, Part 2


Today's Post:
* Methods for Practicing Presence
* Resources


Methods for Practicing Presence

I'd like to share some practices I have developed, partly in the hope that you will use the comment section below to share your own practices for presence in God / Allah / the Divine / the Now / whatever name you use.

We all breathe all the time - that makes the breath a perfect tool for practicing presence.
* I quietly turn my attention to my breathing, to the release of my diaphragm at the start of the inhalation, or its feel on the back of my throat.

* Counting the breath helps me, and there are different ways to do this.
- Taking three slow, deep breaths is both a way to relax and a reminder of the quiet calm of my daily practice when I am in the midst of a difficult situation or conversation.
- Ten breaths - [inhale] and ... [exhale] one ... [inhale] and ... [exhale] two ... etc.

* Mantras are also helpful and can be more traditional ones (from scripture, prayers, sacred literature and historical practices) or of my own choosing or creation. I use a mantra in conjunction with the breath, similar to the 10-breath counting sequence above: [inhale] God is ... [exhale] Love ...etc.

If I have made my breathing practice an integral part of my regular quiet time, then it becomes an accessible tool for daily life, like when I become impatient in a traffic jam, or find myself in a challenging situation or conversation. Or, when I am on the bus and simply want to center.


We all have a body and we are in it all the time, so that makes the body a helpful tool for practicing presence.
* During my regular quiet times, I always place my hands in the same, relaxed open way on my lap. This becomes a cue to my body, so that when I place my hands that way during any other time, my body recognizes the cue and begins to relax. This response becomes stronger with time, as long as I continue to use it during my regular quiet times so that the gesture is associated physically with the quiet calm of my daily practice.

* Another cue that works in the same way: during meditation, I allow my lips to form a small, peaceful smile.

Similar to the breathing practices (above), these small habits become reminders in the moment to relax and maintain a quiet, peaceful presence. Even more powerful is associating the smile and hand placement with a deep, slow inhalation.


I won't try to recreate a deep relaxation session when there are so many resources available for learning it. See Resources, below.

I began deep relaxation when the migraines worsened and I learned that the relaxation response (as it is also termed) is taught at pain clinics. I have found it helpful when I am in pain - not that the pain goes away, but that my relationship to it changes. After a while, I noticed that the process of relaxing my body helped my meditation practice, which was a wonderful gift.


Again, I won't try to recreate a meditation session here when there is such a variety out there of published ways to learn meditation. See Resources, below.

I use the word meditation rather loosely. For Zen Buddhists, meditation is tantamount to emptying oneself completely. For other Bhuddists, meditation is associated with reflection (vipasana) or is grounded in breathing (anapanasati), or in mindfulness (sati). I find myself practicing any of these at any one time, not necessarily because they have been taught to me, but mostly because that is how my practice has evolved over time.

That last statement is important to me as it is the reason that I do not espouse a particular kind of meditation, let alone a particular religion or doctrine. It has to do with following the shape and direction of my spiritual journey, which has left me with no desire to tell anyone else what to do or how to do it.


Similar to meditation, there are a number of ways to pray (see Resources). I'll simply list a few that are most often part of my quiet times.
* Centering Prayer seems to me to be the Christian term for meditation.

* Lectio Divina

* Saying the Rosary or other prayer beads


Deep Relaxation
* The relaxation response - I like this source best because the instructions (you'll click on the phrase "eliciting the relaxation response" to get to them) include relaxing your muscles, which you have learned at:

* Deep(or Progressive) Muscle Relaxation

* Breath Relaxation

* Some definitions

* An introduction to meditation

* A meditation video

* Centering Prayer - this site goes into wonderful and helpful detail without proseletyzing, as do some other sites

* Lectio Divina

* Consciousness Examen - this is an Ignation practice (St. Ignatius, who wrote the Spiritual Exercises)


I'd love to hear from you about your own prayer or meditation practices: please click on Comment (below) or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com