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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.

30 July 2010

Managing Pain and Practicing Presence

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Today's Post:

How Practicing Presence Helps to Manage Pain

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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".

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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

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TODAY'S POST:

Reminds Me of the Time - Watching Mary

Gratitude

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Reminds Me of the Time
Stories

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.


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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

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

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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.

BREATH
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.

BODY

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.

DEEP RELAXATION

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.

MEDITATAION

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.


PRAYER PRACTICES

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

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RESOURCES
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

Meditation
* Some definitions

* An introduction to meditation

* A meditation video

Prayers
* 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)

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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

21 July 2010

21July: It's Not Only Ego

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Today's Post:
* Reminds Me of the Time - Why Doris Roared
* It's Not Only Ego

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Reminds Me of The Time
Why Doris Roared

As I found out almost as soon as I met her, Doris was a formidable force when she was angry or upset, something that was not apparent in her polite and reserved demeanor. I met Doris outside my office for a welcoming hug on the day she arrived at Miriam's House. What little I knew of her - that she'd been drinking most of her 59 years and had only just recently been diagnosed with AIDS - didn't begin to tell me about this woman who would become so beloved of all of us. Nor did it tell me the lesson she would teach me that very day - the day I made Doris roar.

On the afternoon that my impatient and impulsive action brought Doris to my office in a well-justified rage, I was only vaguely aware of the moving-in activities going on outside my office. Thank God for Donna, our Office Manager, and the interns, who handled these things: I was glued to the computer trying to finish a grant application due the next day. These deadlines are written in stone - if you don't get the application in by the exact minute of the deadline, your application will not be considered. Knowing this, I was more than nervous as I realized how much I had left to do.

So, glad to close my door and settle in, I gratefully left the moving-in protocol to staff members, the protocol that, we'd learned the hard way, needed to include the Roach Inspection. Many of our residents came to us from shelters, which are not the cleanest places from which to bring bags of clothing and cardboard boxes filled with old paper and stale bags of chips. Other creatures sometimes accompanied a new resident - most particularly, roaches.

I cannot stand roaches. Mice, I'm OK with. Spiders, thousand-leggers, etc., I might scream when I see them but I am not afraid to grab a tissue, sweep 'em up and flush 'em. But a roach gives me the creeps as does no other living creature (possibly excepting Mike Meyers playing that slimy, Bond-esque secret agent). That's why Donna knocked on my door so tentatively.

"Carol, I need to ask you something."

Ugh. Donna never interrupted me unless it was important. "Oh, no."

"Yeah. Well, we just inspected Doris' things and found roaches in her TV."

Following close on her heels was Necie, the Personal Care Aide on shift that afternoon. Necie had a vivid way of expressing herself. "Miss Carol, don't go near that TV. Must be a thousand roaches up in there, hiding in the dark, ready to creep out at night ..."

Unsuccessfully suppressing a shudder and near desperation at the thought of my now-neglected grant application, I sort of exploded. "Where's the TV?"

"In front. I put it in a bag. Should we bomb it?

"No. I'm pitching it." I swept past a startled-looking Donna and an amused-looking Necie and out the front door. Grabbing the bag - which, thank God, was tightly knotted - I hustled it to the back of the building, heaved it into the dumpster, and hurried back inside to wash my hands and return to my computer.

Or so I thought. Within seconds, Doris was at my office door. I don't actually know what she said. It's not faded memory after all these years, it's that she did not speak, or even shout, so much as ROAR at me. That is the only way I can describe the shock wave of sound booming from her mouth. The sole distinguishable word: "... TV! ..."

There was only one other time in the 14 years of my life at Miriam's House that I was terrified of a resident. In this instance, I did not stop to think: not about my application, not about whether we might salvage the dumped TV, not about anything other than my gut reaction to Doris roaring. I lingered only for the few seconds it took to utter a hasty assurance, and I was out of there.

One hour later, I returned with a television. For Doris: a 19-inch, color screen and remote control.

For me: no roaches.

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It's Not Only Ego

As if the admissions of my 19July post (Get Thee Behind Me, Ego) weren't humbling enough, honesty compels me to reveal that I possess other flaws that prevent me from being present to God.

I know. Shocking, isn't it?

I might as well just list them:
* Laziness - Another word to use is inertia. If I am at rest, I really want to stay at rest, which, in this context, often means lazing on my comfortable chair with a cup of tea and a piece of pumpkin bread beside me.

* Distraction - For example, an NPR broadcast that I simply MUST listen to, even though I know that if I do, I'll not have time in the day's schedule for my morning meditation and yoga.

* Impatience - Sometimes I resist as too slow-moving the reality of the moment - as in: won't you please get on with your story; won't you please speed up so that I won't get stuck at next light; won't you please just do what I want you to do?

* Writing this blog - Even as I type those words, I realize that I have neglected my morning meditation out of excitement and eagerness to edit tomorrow's post and draft this post. (I create the first draft of my posts at least one week ahead of publishing them.)

It's not only my morning routine that is affected by the above characteristics. I allow laziness, impatience, distractions and busy-ness to keep me from phoning a friend or reaching out to someone I know is in need; to affect my ability to be lovingly present in conversation; to make spur-of-the-moment decisions that I almost always regret later (see Reminds Me of the Time, above); to enhance my isolation and feeling of separateness. And because it's simply not possible to be present to the people in my life or to the Now (as Ekhart Tolle would term it) when I am in these states, it is certainly not possible to be present to God, either.

DISCLAIMER: I do not mean that laziness, being distracted, having an ego and a blog to write are always bad. I try to avoid such categorical statements because they are just not true 98.9% of the time. And what looks like laziness for me might be good practice for you. I am not trying to create a mandate for how to practice the presence of God.

And now I must go to my quiet space for my morning meditation, prayer and quiet.

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Next Post: Methods for Practicing Presence

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

19 July 2010

Week of 19July: So Where AM I in All This?

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Today's post:
* Get Thee Behind Me, Ego
* Painful Poetry - A Sonnet to Pain (in the tradition of Shakespeare, more or less)

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Get Thee Behind Me, Ego

I hope that the posts thus far have established a few points about my spiritual life:

1. I do not care for or need the more intellectual exercises of theology and doctrine at this point in my spiritual journey.

2. Deep relaxation and prayerful meditation are essential to my spiritual life, the more so when I am in pain.

3. Connection to God is the guiding desire of all my spiritual practice, although I do not attempt to define or name God in any of the traditional ways. Simply, God is. To me, this means that God is always present - it is the human condition and my own fallacies that keep me from knowing and feeling God.

4. I feel a constant tension between my own language for God and the need to write in this blog in a way that is accessible. I have not resloved this tension. At this point, my default position is to use more traditional language most of the time.

So, my basic premise: God is always, wondrously and lovingly present to me. If, as I said in the final sentence of my 16July post, the more important question is not where is God in this, but where am I in this, then I need to explore what keeps me from being present to God?

Number one on the list: my ego. (Please note that I take a good bit of what follows from my understanding of how Ekhart Tolle speaks of ego, particularly in his book, "A New Earth", Chapters Three and Four.)

In this context, I define ego as a thought, habit or state of mind that takes me away from presence to God (this is mine, not Tolle's). What I understand Tolle saying about ego is that it serves the essential function of forming our identity and giving us space for establishing the self, but that its darker side shows in the way we create separations and identities that feed our egos and thus our need to be different, or better. This keeps us from understanding our one-ness with all of creation. Nota bene: This is a paraphrase, you should read the book.

For example: I am driving down the street and I pass a car that is parked more than a foot away from the curb, and crooked to boot. Maybe I have to slow down and maneuver past it, and as I do so, I scoff, "Who taught you to park? You don't need that SUV if that's the best you can do."

Example: I am in a group discussion, listening to someone ask questions for which I'd figured out the answers ten minutes earlier. Restraining my impatience, I console myself about the waste of time with the condescending thought that not everyone picks things up as quickly as I do.

Example: I am in a group discussion, asking questions and realizing that the person across the circle is looking annoyed and squirming impatiently. I console myself about my hurt feelings by telling myself that I have a finer attention to detail and clearly have a lot more patience.

Example: A friend tells me that she is training to run a marathon. Maybe my pride is stung by this, as I have long wanted to run but have never disciplined myself. Or, maybe I am self-involved at the moment and unable to be present to her. So I say, "Oh, really? I used to run in high school."

I could go on. The point is that we - in the service of our egos - find many ways, all the time, to separate ourselves from others by making ourselves better, or separate:
* gossip
* fault-finding
* complaining
* resistance to the reality of the moment
* excessive airing of grievances, including clinging to victim status
* violence and warfare

I love what Tolle says about the ego: it would rather be right than at peace.

Tolle's point is that all of this is a natural function of the ego, that entity that helps us learn confidence, self-identity and self-understanding, but the problem is that it then goes to extreme because what the ego wants to do is justify and magnify its existence, which it does by creating the other - the wrong, not-as-good-as other. (Again, read the book, Tolle says it much better and more clearly. Chapters 3 and 4 are particularly helpful.)

When I am heeding my ego, which is about difference and insularity, I cannot be present to God, ultimate Love for and presence to everything and everyone. When I cannot be present to God, the pain in my head is that much more problematic in several ways:
* I expend energy in emotions or behaviours that sap my stamina instead of harboring my strength for surviving the headache.

* Muscles tense as emotions tense, making pain worse.

* I find myself in a sort of rut, or groove, running on an energy that is self-perpetuating, so that I cannot see a way out of it even though I understand its destructiveness.

Next Post: "It's Not Only Ego"

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Painful Poetry
Original if Awkward Attempts to Find Humor in Pain

A Sonnet to Pain (in the tradition of Shakespeare, more or less)

O! thou who fillst me daily overmuch
And of my life prov'st naught but hellish bane
Could I with craven visage find a crutch
wouldst not I forsake thee? Thy pure disdain
notwithstanding, I'd hie away and flee
thy fullsome clutch that harks of mythic lore.
Lo! of mortals, most joyous would I be
when 'pon thy fearsome form I look no more!
Yet thou in constant presence to me are,
ne'er moment am I of thy sense bereft
So should'st I let thee alway this day mar,
Have I not learnt I, too, in ways am deft?
Yes! Triumph shall I o'er this mortal coil
and Fie! no longer let thee my life spoil.

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I'd love to hear from you: click the Comment link below or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

16 July 2010

16July Presence to God

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Next Week's Topic: So Where AM I in All This?

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Presence to God

I could stop at the physical and emotional letting go process explained in the previous two posts, and simply use meditation, some yoga and deep relaxation as a foundation for dealing with chronic pain. It is certainly possible to manage pain without reference to the spiritual life - there are many, many websites, books, and articles for that. But what redeems the pain for me is placing it and my practices to manage it in the context of the Divine, or God.

As I said before, I am not interested either in my own spiritual life or in this blog to discuss who God is and what God does or does not do. That presents some difficulty - I have set myself the task of talking about a Divinity to which I am quite reluctant to assign attributes, characteristics and motives. There is only one thing that I feel I can be sure about God: God is Love. I could also say, Allah is Love, Jehovah is Love, etc.

The scriptures and literature that seem most germane to me:

1. Exodus 3:14. Moses' first encounter with God, and God's way of describing Himself is this - "I am that I am."

2. Revelation 1:8 - "... the Alpha and the Omega..." It boggles the mind to try to cognitively understand how God can be the beginning and the end. That's the point: the mind boggles, the spirit comprehends.

3. The Tao te Ching, Verse I - the Name that we can name is not the eternal Name.

4. The Lankavatara Sutra (Zen) - the finger that you use to point to the moon is not the moon. Or, the words and ideas we use to discuss God are not God.

So, there is long precedent for acknowledging that words cannot be assigned to God, even as a name. That we do this by using words is a tremendous - and sort of funny - irony, the inherent tension of which serves both as frustration and to keep me from becoming complacent. I have just written a lot of words and used a lot of concepts to say that I don't want to force words or concepts into a box and call it God. It's amusingly humbling.

So where IS God in all this? The paradox that is the problem of needing to name and know and describe a God that is unnameable, unknowable, and indescribable illuminates the powerful, intuitive nature of meditation. In the ineffable world of the Spirit, words fall away, concepts are pointless and it just doesn't matter that there is really no way to describe it. God is. I do not come to that understanding by intellectualizing about it. It comes to me in the stillness of deep meditation, a practice that I have been led to through a long and intense search for Love.

The more important question, at least to me, is next week's topic: So Where Am I in all This?

I'd love to hear from you: click the Comment link below or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

06 July 2010

14July: Letting God

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14 JULY:

* Today's post - "Letting God"
* Painful Poetry - "How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Migraine?"

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Letting God


There's a reason that "let God" comes after "let go" in the popular phrase. In the context of serious physical pain, my ability to turn to God is hampered by the tightening of muscles, thoughts, and emotions around the pain. Letting God means first letting go of and releasing the tension, nerves and emotions built up around the pain.

Not that this is easy. It is as though the pain is the deadly center of a whirling hurricane of emotional and physical tension and, sometimes, fear. But, easy or not, it is very important to me to listen for the "still, small voice" (Old Testament; 2Kings, chapter 2)that has become the center of my spiritual life, and I know that the whirl of tension effectively blocks out not just the Voice, but my ability to attune my spirit's hearing to it.

A later topic in this blog will be the mind/body/spirit connection, the exploration and experiencing of which has been an important component of my spiritual life. When I am in pain and my body is knotted around the pain, my mind (thoughts and emotions) and spirit are correspondingly knotted. If I ignore this reality, or try to push through it in order to get something done, then I can do little in relation to the pain except endure it - even as it worsens, the knots that I am refusing to unloose becoming that much more tense as time passes. Predictably, this results in an increase my tension, impatience, and inability to concentrate. This escalation takes me further and further away from that which is most important to me: centeredness in God.

In the previous post (12July: Letting Go), I briefly described the method I use to untie those knots and thus become ready to turn toward God (and also included resources for learning deep relaxation). This untying - as wonderfully effective as it may be - is not enough for me: connection to God, is, if anything, even more important when I am in pain.

My regular meditative and prayerful practice has sometimes led me to a flood of peace, the feeling of Divine Love, and a sense of ultimate connectedness. In the context of being in pain, it all becomes a blessing that reduces the pain's importance.

Two points:
1) Pain is not a helpful forum in which to learn to meditate or calm the mind and spirit. A regular practice of meditation, mindfulness, reflection, quiet time and/or yoga is essential to building the skills for practicing while in pain.

2) I have not experienced an actual reduction in pain after meditation and/or deep relaxation, which is why I used the phrase (above), "...[I]t all becomes a blessing that reduces the pain's importance." I also note that it's not the pain that is changed, but my relationship to it.

When I "let God" after letting go, the pain is redeemed by becoming part of my spiritual life, an expression of my yearning to be present to God. Pain is somehow transformed into a means to this ultimate end of my existence. This is not to say that I welcome pain: after six months of rest, I am baffled and frustrated because I have experienced no change in the frequency and intensity of the migraines. It is, however, to say that when I allow the pain to become a path to God, it is less a bothersome distraction and more a functioning part of my spiritual life.

Next post: "Presence to God"


I'd love to hear from you: click the Comment link below or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

Painful Poetry
Original if Awkward Attempts to Find Humor in Pain

(To the tune, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" from Sound of Music)

How do you solve a problem like a migraine?
How do you stop the vomit and keep it down?
How do you find a word that means a migraine?
A pain in the left lobe, ice pick to the head, a frown?
Many a day you know you're going under.
Many a time you cancel all your plans.
But how do you make it cease,
instead of the sure increase?
How do you get the throbs of pain in hand?
How do you solve a problem like a migraine?
How do you bear it once it has began?

When I have one I'm confused,
out of focus and bemused,
and I never know exactly where I am.
Any light will make me groan,
any movement cause a moan,
I can't stand it -
this pain, damn it -
it's no sham.
I'll spend hours getting rest
blindfold, dark room, no noise; lest
I should move and feel that stabbing pain again.
Don't come near me I might cry,
though I couldn't tell you why.
Nerves aquiver,
in a dither -
Let Me Die!

How do you solve a problem like a migraine?
etc.

12JulyWEEK: So Where IS God in All of This?

************

12 JULY:

* Today's post - "Letting Go"
* Reminds Me of the Time - "Blueberries, Victoria, and a Migraine"
* Resources - Web sites, etc for learning deep relaxation

************

Letting Go

"Let go and let God."

Don't you just hate it when these sorts of platitudes are used as nothing more than Band-Aids tossed at a gaping wound by someone who cannot or will not stay with you and your pain even for a moment? The words feel dismissive and insensitive, and so at best they are meaningless, at worst, one more statement that makes you feel like your pain is somehow your fault. Which also makes it easier for the platitude-dropping other to go on her way undisturbed by you.

Yes, that sounds cynical. Yet, cynical or not, it is honestly the way I react to the casual instruction when I am in pain. Being an impulsive and often impatient person, what I really feel is the spasmodic twitching of my right hand as I restrain it from grasping and then heaving the nearest heavy object at the speaker: "LET THIS!" I grudgingly refrain, not out of some loving, altruistic regard for the one who is mouthing idiocies at me, but because it would take too much of a toll on the precious little energy I have in reserve. Therefore, I have learned not to allow these feelings to show. Certainly, I already know not to throw dictionaries; what I have learned is to cover over the hurt. It is far too exhausting to pick up the pieces of the broken friendship after an impulsive, angered reaction. It takes less energy and time to respond with my own ever-ready platitude ("Amen!") and leave.

When I have a migraine, I am hypersensitive to almost everything. (See Reminds Me of the Time, below.) In the hot weather, even the movement over my skin of the cooling breeze of a fan, the hum of the air conditioner, and the squeaking of my beloved little dog's favorite toy pluck my nerves. In this state, it is easy to pile nerve-wracker upon nerve-wracker until I am nervous and upset about being so nervous and upset.

So that is when I say to myself, "Let go. Let God."

No, I do not immediately arise and clock myself upside the head with a lead crystal vase. Coming from deep within my spirit with the feel of a warm and loving hand resting lightly on my forehead, this is no platitude - this is powerful spiritual wisdom. In the small space that it allows me, I can begin to let go of the nervous frustration and fear.

"Let go." I am reminded to breathe deeply and restfully.

"Let go." In the exhalation's release begins the nerves' release.

"Let go." Attention to the inhalation allows attention to the quieting of my mind.

"Let go." The relaxed motion of the diaphragm encourages deep relaxation in tense muscles.

"Let go." The space created by deep, calm breaths makes spacious the knotted energy around the pain.

"Let go." Quiet mind, quiet body.

"Let God."

** Next post: Letting God **

Reminds Me of the Time
Stories

The kitchen at Miriam's House gets really hot in the summertime. It's a fairly large space, but filled as it is with heat-producing motors - on the ice machine, the three-door refrigerator and the freezer - a 10-burner stove and two ovens, even several ceiling vents releasing an air-conditioned breeze cannot keep up. So on the July Sunday that I was making breakfast for the house and feeling a migraine coming on, I was struggling to maintain my composure.

"Hey, whatcha cookin'?" Victoria, whom I loved, and whom I knew also as a chronic complainer: that she was also hilariously funny - something you could easily see in her lop-sided grin - helped. Most of the time.

"Pancakes, bacon, home-fries, ..." I didn't even finish the list.

"Blueberry pancakes?"

I eyed her warily. "Well, no, Victoria, not this week." Uh, oh.

"You know that's my favorite. Last time you made them you didn't even make your blueberry syrup to go with them." Victoria never exactly pouted, but I have not known anyone who could so easily assume an expression of hurt betrayal. I studiously avoided looking at her face, knowing my patience was at gossamer strength. Luckily, the bacon needed tending, so unwillingness to look Victoria in the eyes wasn't added to the plain pancake affront.

"Blueberries are out of season, sweetie. And not all the residents like 'em, so I thought plain would be a good change."

"You said you'd make blueberry, remember? At the ER? When that guy took off his pants in front of you?"

"Good grief, Victoria, it wasn't in front of me, really, and how do you expect me to ..." Suddenly, the kitchen was swarmed by the residents who had been waiting for breakfast in the dining room and overheard the references to "took off his pants" and "in front of you".

"WHAT? Took his pants off in front of Miss Carol? Hahahahaha! When?" Interest in this juicy story made them deaf to my pleas to get out of the hot, crowded kitchen.

Victoria, an inveterate lover of attention, was in her element. "Rolls off his stretcher thing in the ER and stumbles around, like he don't know where he is. Drunk and ..."

It was my turn to interrupt. "GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN! How am I supposed to cook?"

As I rarely lost my temper - at least in front of the residents - six chastened women left in rather a hurry, surprised, I should guess, by my vehemence. I, of course, felt immediately guilty for shouting at them. I turned my frayed attention back to the bacon. The burning bacon.

Time for a deep breath, a sip of tea, a gathering of the shredded remnants of my patience. Victoria and her audience were huddled in the dining room for the highly dramatized (I had no doubt) denouement of the story as I went about trying to rescue the bacon. Great - plain pancakes and burned bacon for breakfast, AND I was hot and my head was starting to go. Could this morning get any more miserable?

At that moment, Victoria's voice rose above its stage whisper. I could hear it from where I stood at the stove and recognized in its tone the approach of the dramatic high point of the story. I had to giggle. It was a pretty funny story, and the way Victoria told it drew another giggle from me as well as a happily horrified gasp from the women around her:

"We saw it."


Resources for Deep Relaxaton

http://helpguide.org/mental/stress_relief_meditation_yoga_relaxation.htm - great site that explains deep relaxation, breathing techniques, and advises on ways to start a relaxation program while taking into account that many of us have busy lives

http://www.allaboutdepression.com/relax/ - Listen to audio recordings (uses quicktime)

There are plenty of audio CDs that teach deep relaxation and meditation: I found audio the best way to learn deep relaxation, because it is immediate and part of actual pratice (as opposed to reading a book then trying the technique). I use Amazon to see what's available and for an inexpensive way to try new recordings.

I'd love to hear from you: click the Comment link below or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

04 July 2010

5JulyWEEK: Overview

9 July: Living with Pain

Next week's topic: So Where IS God in all This?

Last week was one of my worst ever - "worst" in this case referring to pain and feeling ill. I am accustomed to constant pain wearing down my strength and have learned to pace myself through the day. But this was different, and I kept saying to Tim, "I don't know what's wrong. I feel so sick." Tim (my husband) and I speculated that it might be the heat and humidity. But when on Wednesday, after 5 bad days, I got what I call a "crasher" (pain so bad I cannot lift my head from the pillow for eight to twelve hours), something made me think of the new herbal and vitamin supplement I had begun taking the week before.

I contacted my neurologist and was told to discontinue the supplement. Within 24 hours, I felt much better, although the migraines continued.

This being a recent experience, it is on my mind as I write on this post's topic, Living with Pain. What is also fresh in my memory is the fear: it is frightening to be in that much pain. I am uncertain as to how long it will last and I know from experience that there is no medication to resolve it. I have these crashers several times a year and have learned they are not manageable in the way that less severe migraines are. For example, they do not respond to the PRN migraine medication. And the emergency room doctors I saw once or twice gave me, of course, narcotic pain medications. These, however, left me feeling so awful that I swore never to take them again.

After a crasher, a regular migraine is somewhat of a relief. This irony taught me that even pain is relative. In that relativity, there is space for a conscious exploration of the pain that reduces fear and enhances calm. In a calm mind is space for meditation and deep relaxation, both of which serve to quiet and relax pain-tightened muscles. The result: although the pain might still be present, my relation to it - my perception of it - have changed for the better.

Living with pain changes one. Pain that is also frightening in its power and duration changes one even more. It gives new meaning to the Twelve-Step concept of being powerless. Yet powerlessness over the pain does not have to mean powerlessness over my response to it. Years ago, after the first shock of experiencing 12 to 15 migraines per month receded, it was clear that I had a choice: I could give in completely or I could learn to live with them.

Now, lest I mislead you into thinking I was noble and brave, let me now assure you that I was neither. I whined ... a lot. I moaned and fretted about not getting things done - I had a more-than-full-time job at Miriam's House, and what is more, I loved it. It bothered me to be so absent from my desk, from meetings, from the community. As time went on and the migraines persisted unabated, I complained about life being curtailed to the point where all I did was work, have a migraine, recover from a migraine, and rest in anticipation of the next migraine.

In retrospect, it is clear I could have resigned my position as early as 2008, although the hope for help from different medications and/or therapies kept me plugging along. I always felt that better health was just around the corner.

No such corner - at least, not yet. Hence, this blog. Because living with pain has effected deep change in my spirit and in my spiritual practice. If it is true that we can find God in all things, then God is present in the pain of these migraines. This blog will explore and reflect on finding God in pain, living a spiritual life through pain, and finding hope in the spiritual practices and growth that arise from pain.

** Next post: Letting Go **

I'd love to hear from you: click the Comment link below or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com

01 July 2010

5July WEEK: Setting the Stage

7July - My Journey

I do not consider myself any sort of expert. In a town (Washington, DC) in which one's importance is frequently measured by the letters following a surname, I have no letters - not even a title, now that I am unemployed. My journey has not led me to academic achievements or membership in the power crowd. I am virtually unknown except in the small world that is the HIV/AIDS community in Washington, DC. And even that will gradually change now that I have resigned.

What I can say is this: I have been on an intense spiritual journey for the past 22 years; I have lived with chronic pain for the past 5-1/2 years; I had a wonderfully rich life while living and working at Miriam's House. Out of these experiences I would like to share life lessons learned; some thoughts and reflections with others who are:
(1) interested in the subject; and/or
(2) suffering from chronic pain themselves and willing to explore its spiritual aspects with me.

My spiritual journey has led me away from caring much about doctrine, Christology and theology, so this blog will not discuss subjects such as Jesus' divinity, or original sin, or predestination, or whether it's works or faith that is more important, and the like. These discussions, as Buddha said, do not tend to lead to edification.

What this means is that I have let go of the need to be certain. I care less and less about naming and describing a God of my imaginings and needs. Whatever beliefs I used to have about Jesus now seem far less important than Jesus' own message to "follow me"; I am impatient with religious arguments except for the broadest explorations with no accompanying categorical statements. That is why the word in this blog's title is "spirituality" and not "faith" or "religion". I do not expect to be in this place forever - the one salient fact of my spiritual journey is that it leads me to change. Rejecting certainty about doctrine and beliefs also means rejecting certainty about the permanence of any current state of my spirit and the way I view my spiritual life.

At the same time, my connection to the Divine (most would say God, but it seems I do not think of God in the way many Christians do, so I choose a different word) is beautifully deep and nurturing to me. Prayer and meditation constitute a very important part of my daily life, or they do, at least, when a migraine does not have me down. Yet even when I have a migraine, the practice of deep relaxation is a meditative and even prayerful one that not only nurtures my spirit but changes my perceptions of the pain.

In this blog, I will quote from the Bible; draw upon my understanding of Buddhist philosophy; refer to the New Age-y books I've read in the Women's Spirituality Group in which I participate; quote from my favorite poet - the 14th-century Sufi poet, Hafiz; and speak of worship experiences with my Jewish friends and of wonderful conversations with my Sufi friend. I will undoubtedly continue to explore as the spiritual journey leads me, and offer thoughts and reflections on these explorations, also.

I so welcome your accompanying me on this journey.

** Next post: Living with Pain **


Reminds Me of the Time
Stories

"Miss Carol, why did God do this to me?"

Startled, I looked up from unlocking my office door - it was early in the morning and I didn't think anyone else was up, let alone realize Deborah was standing next to me. I did not have time to respond as she went on, partly because the look in her eyes silenced me. It was just so full of hurt.

Deborah, like most of the Miriam's House residents, came to us addicted to crack cocaine, ill with AIDS and its complications, and seriously depressed. Yet you wouldn't know her pain just looking at her: her beautiful face, always carefully made-up and framed by silky curls, did not show the ravages of her illness and the many years she'd spent in her addiction.

That pain showed in her spirit.

"What did I do to deserve this? I know God is punishing me, and I know I've done bad before, but why is it so awful?"

This was the first of many such conversations with women who understood God to be a stern figure doling out punishments in the form of physical ills, tragedy, and bad luck. It being the first, I was unprepared. "Come sit down with me."

"No, I have to go to my meeting. If I'm late they won't sign my sheet." She headed toward the stairs while I sort of frantically cast about in my mind for a way to end the brief exchange on a better note.

"Deborah, I just don't believe that God is a God of punishment." It was inadequate and I knew it when she just looked around at me with a wan smile.

"See you later."

The very fact that this agonized question had burst out of her even while she was engaged in the small activities of beginning her day indicated how devastating to her was this idea of God. I sat in my office almost dumbfounded at both the urgent hurt emanating from Deborah and the stark realization that if I chose not to take refuge in platitudes, I had some challenging work of my own to do.

This marked the beginning of years of examining my own beliefs and thoughts about God. My own spirit's reaction to Deborah told me that I did not in any way agree that God sits up in heaven pointing an angry finger at sinful mortals and devising macabre punishments to teach them a lesson. Given that, what did I believe about God? Once the questions started, they challenged me at deeper and deeper levels.

If God does not mete out punishment, does God toss around blessings? Who am I to receive blessings from God, blessings that include being born to a middle-class family and therefore having the benefit of a solid family life, good education, proper nutrition, and good health care, none of which I "deserve"? How am I better than Deborah that I should have been born a white, middle-class woman and she a black, poverty-stricken woman?

Am I willing to give up comforting, self-justifying images of God? Will I allow the journey into the grey areas of uncertainty about God and faith with the leadings of the Spirit and my experiences at Miriam's House?


What helped me was this understanding: that I could love Deborah as much as I did proved its origin in an immense Love that dwarfed yet fed any love in the human heart. However I named this Love, whatever uncertainties came from all the questioning, it was to be my cornerstone.

As for Deborah, whose questions drew from me a new spiritual integrity, she relapsed not long after that morning exchange. For so many of our residents over the years, there truly is one relapse too many, when it seems the body just cannot handle any more abuse. As a direct result of that relapse, Deborah died within five days, intubated and on a respirator in the intensive care unit at Washington Hospital Center.

Tim and I were on a weekend get-away when Annie - the resident intern - called me with the news. After checking to make sure she was OK and then reviewing procedures with her, I hung up the phone and sat numbly, staring out the hotel room window.

It had not been for me to help Deborah experience the incredible, all-forgiving Love of the God she thought she knew. Perhaps, even at that moment, Love Itself was teaching her.

I'd love to hear from you: click the Comment link below or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com