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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.

19 December 2011

"The Power of Now" and Pain Management: The Mind

Third in a series.

This post continues the theme of my previous post about how our enslavement to the mind causes suffering, increasing our pain.  Recognizing this and developing tools to mitigate its effects are essential to pain management; the spiritual life is essential to that recognition and development.

The first chapter of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now is titled "You are Not Your Mind."  Surely, this is not a new teaching: haven't Buddhists been saying this for centuries - that the mind is given to delusions, and is "ultimately mistaken about the way in which reality exists"; didn't Yahweh refuse to be categorized, conceptualized or named - "I am that I am" (Exodus 3:14)?  And Zen teachings speak constantly of a false mind that leads us away from Truth due to its attachment to mental and physical constructs it mistakes for reality.

These teachings are relevant for pain management because our mind is an integral part of our response to pain.  It leaps into action when physical pain arises.  There are survival benefits to this: pain may be a signal that something is awry in our bodies, bringing our attention to what needs healing; it can indicate danger, making us jerk our hand away from that hot burner.  But when pain is constant, these natural reactions become habituated and, ultimately, unhealthy as the brain searches for ways to deal with the now chronic pain that result in muscle tension, depression and anxiety.  These, in turn, wreak their own havoc on our bodies, causing more stress and poor health, and creating a vicious cycle so ingrained we do not even know it is present.  Clearly, the solution is to turn off the mind's obsessing, and, for me, that is where spirituality enters in.

A reminder: I do not know that Tolle would use the word "spirituality" in describing his teachings: he certainly refuses to use the word "religion" or even the concept of "belief." 

If I am not my mind, what am I?  If I am not my pain-filled body, what am I?  How do I cease worrying about the way I am feeling?  How do I re-cast my identity as a migraineur, as a person whose life is circumscribed by pain?  I have in my searching found the only real answer to these questions in God, the Divine, Creator, Allah, Buddha-nature...to me, it matters not what name we use for that ineffable Source of All.  And when I base my pain management on my spiritual life and in God, the coming together of physical practice, mental ease and spiritual depth results in much more than just managing of pain: it results in a better quality of life, and, I pray, makes me a better person.

I don't want this series of posts about Tolle's book to be all theory and discussion.  So in my next post I will review some posts of the past in which I have shared techniques for easing the mind's obsessing, also putting them in the context of Tolle's work.

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

16 December 2011

"The Power of Now" and Pain Management: Thinking

Eckhart Tolle, in his now famous book, "The Power of Now," brings incisive reflection to spirituality and what it means to be human.  He purposely is not proposing a belief system nor is he espousing any particular religion.  Yet I find his writing very hopeful, because he believes that a profound transformation of human consciousness has begun, and that this transformation has to do with freeing ourselves from our enslavement to the mind.

In this series of blog posts, I do not attempt to recapitulate or review the book in the traditional fashion.  All I want to do is to share how the book has affected my spiritual life as it relates to pain management.  Thus, there is much that I will leave out of discussion, not because I do not agree with or consider it unimportant, but because I am focusing on this one matter: pain management and spirituality.

This quote from the final page of the Introduction helps put things into perspective, as far as this blog is concerned, anyway:

"This book can be seen as a restatement for our time of that one timeless spiritual teaching, the essence of all religions.  It is not derived from external sources, but from the one true Source within, so it contains no theory or speculation."

From the beginning, this blog has been about spirituality, not religion.  I have tried to call upon the wisdom of many different religions and philosophies: pain and suffering are universal and so I take a universal approach.  It's a simple as this: when I am in pain, I do not care for theological arguments or doctrinal matters, I care about relieving, managing and living with the pain.

One of the early concepts in the book gets to the heart of pain management: in chapter one, Tolle writes about how, in our enslavement to our minds, we cause ourselves suffering.  He reminds us that the Buddha's definition of enlightenment is "the end of suffering." (page 12)  An important distinction here is that between pain and suffering.  Here is how I see it: pain is the migraine - stabbing, pounding - and is physical; suffering is the contortions - worry, fear, despair - and is mental.

I have little or no control over migraine pain (behind that statement, there is a long saga of therapies tried, drugs taken, and alternative medicine explored), and that can lead to a sense of helplessness that is truly depressing.  So there is something hopeful, something liberating in the knowledge that there is one area in which I have control: how I relate to the pain, or, how my mind thinks about it.

It's the ancient Buddhist saying, pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.  For those of us with chronic pain, the physical discomfort is inevitable.  We are trying everything we can to alleviate it, and until something works for us, the hopeful news is we do not have to resign ourselves to being victims of it.

Where does spirituality come in?  For me, spirituality is the essence of being, the essential Being that is at the center of all life, and that has to do, ultimately and eternally, with Love.  Nota bene: Tolle refuses to use the word God, saying it "has become empty of meaning through thousands of years of misuse" that "give rise to absurd beliefs, assertions and egoic delusions such as 'My or our God is the only true God..." (page 13) 

We forget the ineffable nature of this concept, and so our mental constructs about God become exercises in futility that are dangerous when taken literally.

It is in our ability to choose to leave the egoic mind and turn toward Being that we become most fully and wonderfully human.  Here we find what Jesus called, "the peace that passes all understanding." (Philippians 4:7)  And here is where I have found my most effective and healing pain management practice, in a calm of body and tranquility of mind that somehow miraculously reduces in significance the pain of my body, while eliminating the suffering of my mind.

And so intersect pain management and spirituality: suffering of the mental sort that accompanies physical pain is about relieving the mind of its incessant, obsessive need to think and have emotion.  Relieving the mind of thinking and emoting is about connecting to one's essential Being.  This is the journey to Wholeness that must take into account and include our body with its pain and our mind with its suffering.  Perhaps that is the hidden blessing in chronic pain: it makes impossible the human tendency to split body and mind, thereby opening the door to our spirituality.

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