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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.

27 March 2011

Reading "How to Be Sick" - There is Pain Here, But I am Not in Pain

This is sixth in a series of posts about Toni Bernhard's How To Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.

In my previous post, I discussed a practice Toni developed connected to the Buddhist concept of what she calls "the wheel of suffering."  In this post, I want to explore this concept some more through a story that Toni tells in the beginning of Chapter Five.  It's a story about a teacher, Munindra-ji, who, when quite old, went on a trip throughout India to view and experience the sacred sites.

One day they were waiting in a train station.  The train was five hours late.  It was blazing hot.  They had no food.  There were no restrooms.  The track where they were to catch the train kept changing, so they had to keep getting up and moving.  Munindra-ji would sit down in each new location and rest his head on his arm.  He looks so frail that [his traveling companion] began to worry about how he was holding up, especially since she and her friends were barely coping with the conditions.  She finally asked him if he was all right. 

He replied, "There is heat here, but I am not hot.  There is hunger here, but I am not hungry.  There is irritation here, but I am not irritated." 

What the teacher was referring to is what Buddhists call "anatta," which means "no fixed or unchanging self."  The Buddhists also speak of the Witness, or that eternal and immediate Presence that is ineffable, always calm.  As a person raised in the Christian tradition, I think that Christians might think of this as the "soul," or, as Quakers say, the piece of God that is in everyone.  American Indians have a beautiful way of talking about the oneness of the universe, at the Center of which is the Great Spirit - which is also the Center in all of us.  Hindus speak of Atman - the non-material self that never changes and is distinct from body and mind.  Muslims talk about three souls: the commanding soul and the blaming soul (which seem to me to be comparable to Western psychology's ego); and the soul at peace, which becomes a place of silence in which Allah's signs can be manifested.

I love it that so many of the world religions (and the above is just a smattering of the major religions) have a way to express the Infinite and the Divine that resides in all of us.  Of course, the details are not precisely the same, and Toni does a wonderful job of explaining (pages 38-42) how the Buddhists broke from Hinduism with the revolutionary concept of "anatta."  Yet still, when I read the above quote from Toni's book, I don't have to be Buddhist to understand it.  This is one of the reasons that I deeply regret the divisiveness that so easily arises between sects and religions.  To me, we are all saying things that probably are not so different, or wouldn't be if we could release our need to be right and to have The Answer.  It breaks my heart that we allow ego, pride and fear to cause such schism, violence and hatred.

For me, Buddhism does the best job of both explaining and helping one connect to the Witness, but my Christian background helps me to deepen that understanding.  As I have explained in previous posts, practices like Buddhist meditation and Christian centering prayer have been of major importance on my spiritual journey: they both lead to that place within me of deepest peace, acceptance and stillness in which my best Being resides.  

So, however we understand what Munindra-ji is saying, it remains wonderfully resonant for many of us, especially at a level below understanding where we simply Be with it.  And it allows for a practice that Toni talks about in her book:

I recalled [this] story one day as I lay in bed after becoming sick, so I silently said, "There is sickness here, but I am not sick."  The statement made no sense to me ... After a few minutes, I realized, "Of course!  There is sickness in the body, but I am not sick!"

As Munindra-ji said, "There is hunger here, but I am not hungry."  As a practice for the moodily swinging emotions that accompany living with chronic pain, it encourages me toward equanimity - a sense of calm stillness no matter what is going on around me or in my body.

This is reminding me of what St. Therese of Lisiuex once wrote:

"Nothing, not even my joy, can disturb my peace."

So I have been practicing with Toni, and finding that there are many, many situations and emotions that can be helped by this practice.  It points to the peaceful calm that is our heritage yet is so difficult to approach, let alone remain in.

"There is irritation here, but I am not irritated."
"There is anger here, but I am not angry."
"There is shyness here, but I am at peace."
"There is pain here, but I am not in pain."
"There is joy here, but I am at peace."

I want to spend some time linking these six posts to pain management, about which I have written before and which I want to review in light of the learnings from Toni's book.  And that will be the subject of my next post.

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


25 March 2011

Reading "How to Be Sick" - The Wheel of Suffering

This is the fifth in a series of posts about Toni Bernhard's How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspsired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers.

The purpose of this blog, which is stated in my 5 July 2010 post, is to explore the ways in which being in chronic pain affects my spiritual life and the ways in which my spiritual life affects being in chronic pain.  It's not about a particular religion or doctrine, nor do I make any theological arguments.  This blog is for any of us who live deeply in the spirit and also happen to have chronic pain - pain that we do not allow to pull us away from the life of the spirit.  We allow our chronic pain to draw us closer into the life of the spirit.

Toni's book, about which I have been writing lately, is a wonderful tool box for me because it helps me do just that - to learn how pain can enhance my spiritual life and deepen my life's journey.  One of the teachings that I believe will have a long-term effect on me is that of "the wheel of suffering" as Toni calls it.  This phrase is her interpretation of the Buddhist term paticca-samuppada, a detailed and somewhat difficult concept that yields a simple practice with profound implications.

Toni writes about paticca-samuppada in Chapter Ten.  This post will not spend much time on an explanation of the concept - you can read the book for that - but will focus on the practice that comes out of it: breaking the cycle of suffering.  Briefly, the idea is to stop the cycle of frustration or anger or [insert emotion here] arising in our minds before it takes hold and changes our mood or our perception of a person or situation.  Toni uses the example of traffic: someone cuts in front of us and, often enough, a pleasant drive suddenly becomes a combative, competitive activity that raises blood pressure and sends us into angry reaction.

In the realm of spirit and chronic pain, the practice of breaking the cycle of suffering is like a prayer or quick meditation in the moment.  Tapping into the deeps of our spirits instead of the shallows of our reactive minds, it uses the tool of awareness to break through reaction. 

"When someone merges in front of us in traffic even though we have the right-of-way, we can just observe that the sensation is unpleasant and leave the experience at that -- without reacting to it as anything more than one of the thousands of momentary contacts we encounter every day." page 92

For the person in chronic pain, the traffic analogy is apt.  Say I have been looking forward to an outing with friends all week, then the rude migraine cuts in front of my plans and forces me off the road.  I end up with a cup of tea and my old friend, the blindfold, miserably cursing the pain that is still speeding along while I am broken down on the shoulder.

To re-phrase Toni's above quote: When the pain cuts us off from our plans even though we were excited and happy to see our friends, we can just observe the unpleasantness of the frustration and self-pity and understand it as one more experience among the many of our day.  This is the first part of the practice - the awareness that catches the first spin of the wheel of suffering before it gains momentum.

The second part of the practice gets us off the roadside where we sit feeling sorry for ourselves.  For those of us who want our pain to lead us deeper into the spiritual life, Toni's suggestion is perfect: we choose a completely different route - one that leads us to compassion and prayer and avoids completely the heavily used road we were just on.  We turn the wheel in a different direction and move into life with peaceful presence.

How does she do this?  She turns to the Four Noble Truths, invoking them in order to cultivate compassion, loving-kindness and equanimity.  I am not so well versed in Buddhist philosophy, so I do not yet have the automatic understanding that enables their use in the moment.  But there are other ways to follow Toni's lead.

After our awareness catches and stops the wheel that, if it keeps turning, cycles us into suffering, we can:
1. Take one or two deep breaths
2. Conduct a body scan, notice tense muscles and relax them
3. Allow compassion for ourselves to arise in place of the unpleasant emotions
4. Pray, or meditate, or say a mantra.

This works especially well if deep breathing, body scans, relaxation and prayer/meditation are regular tools in our repertoire (I have posted about this before).  The more familiar they are, the more handy they are and can be used even in the space of a few moments in most situations, not just when we are quiet, alone and have time.

There is a story in Toni's book that works well with this practice, and 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.

20 March 2011

Reading "How to Be Sick" - Pianos and the Open Heart

This is the fourth in a series of posts about Toni Bernhard's book, How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.

Here is a lovely definition of compassion from Thubten Chodron's book, Open Heart, Clear Mind:

"Compassion is a realistic attitude wishing everyone to be free from all unsatisfactory and miserable conditions."

Add to that Toni Berhard's words in How to Be Sick (also quoted in the previous post):

"... [A] new compassion practice ... [O]pening my heart to the full range of emotions that life has in store for me."

If I have considered myself to be a compassionate person, it is usually in relation to how my compassion has been manifested in action: words, deeds, life-choices.  Now that I live with chronic pain and spend most of my day alone and unable to act much at all, these definitions - along with the practices Toni describes in her wonderful book - are guiding me gently to a new understanding of what it is to be a compassionate person.

As I have posted previously, among the difficulties presented to the chronically ill is the problem of learning to treat ourselves with understanding and love even as we are losing much of what comprises our self-identity: career and relations with friends and family, for example.  So much is lost in the life that becomes isolated and radically changed by chronic pain.  It is important and necessary to allow, name and acknowledge the roiling emotions that accompany these changes because anger, impatience, grief and feelings of low self-worth do not obligingly go away one day when we grow tired of them.  Working through these emotions is long and hard work, as is most of life's work that is basic to spiritual growth.

Yet the depths of our work can be so much greater if we approach it employing the sounding board of compassion: with our hearts open to all the emotions of life and wishing that everyone (mainly ourselves, in this instance) could be free of misery.  It is a vastly different thing to allow our anger to arise and take over than it is to allow anger to arise over compassion's sounding board.

A sounding board is the part of a piano that neither moves nor acts, yet serves, in its seeming passivity, as a reflector, resonator and amplifier for the strings attached to each key.  The resonance of the strings depends on the presence of this thin board; the strings would still sound as the keys are struck, but the sound itself would be thinly one-dimensional, would not carry far, and would lack the beauty and power we associate with this instrument.

I like the sounding board analogy as it relates to compassion.  With compassion as my sounding board, the keys - such as anger and sorrow - that I strike are made to resonate deeply within and through me.  They carve out a space in me from which I am enabled to not only name and acknowledge them, but process them thoroughly.  My compassion sounding board, situated in one place yet resonating throughout my being, brings great depth to spiritual growth and change.

Well, it does so if I make a practice of nurturing it.  And this is where Toni's sharing about her own efforts to develop compassion are so instructive.  I have been sharing about coming to a new level of acceptance (and the emotions that inevitably come with it) of the long-term effects these migraines have upon my life.  Each new stage of acceptance brings its own quality to the spiritual journey: struggles I may have thought I'd dispensed with long ago return to be processed at a deeper level.  I am finding, as I struggle through this dark time, that Toni has a message about compassion that is transformative.

I love the practice of re-framing negative and self-abusing thoughts, detailed in a previous post.  Only just learned a week ago, this has already become habit.  Another Toni-inspired habit has to do with how she names and sits with her emotions.   As she describes it on pages 69-70 of her book, she gently labels the emotion arising in her ("Fear, fear") instead of striking out at it in impatience or anger ("It's time to go away, fear.  Get out of here now!").  This allows for a shift in her consciousness as she opens to the fear.  The resulting expansiveness makes room for a new thought to arise, ("My heart is big enough to hold this fear.")  From there flows the next moment - a gentle smile on her lips that seems to welcome this old friend, fear:

"And so the seed was sown for a new compassion practice: opening my heart to the full range of emotions that life has in store for me."

"Patient endurance" is the third practice that is helping me so much these days.  Toni describes it well (pages 64-69).  As it is a difficult concept to which I could not possibly do justice writing in this limited space, I refer the reader to the book with just one quote that helps to clarify: 

"Patient endurance suggests that, in addition to being patient (that is, serene and uncomplaining), we actively 'endure' ... 'to experience hardship without giving up'."

I am not actually sure that I have understood and internalized what patient endurance means for me, but know that for now it is simply enough to repeat the phrase quietly when I feel the angry impatience bubbling up through the pain.  At any rate, it is not my mind that will make use of this concept, but my spirit (as in spirituality), and since the mind is of restricted usefulness in such matters anyway, the simple repetition is probably best at this time.

So, three practices learned from Toni for developing compassion toward our painfully ill bodies and minds:

1. Re-framing our self-abusive thoughts: "How idiotic it is to be so tired and inactive!" to "How difficult for me that I am so tired that even taking a shower fatigues me!"
2. Allowing, naming and befriending the emotions that threaten to overwhelm us with negativity and self-pity.
3. Patient endurance, or experiencing our difficulties with serenity even while refusing to give up.

Practicing these methods for developing compassion opens the door for newness and transformation at other places within me.  One that particularly attracts me in the way it addresses our tendency to stay in victim-mode (as I have posted before), is what Toni calls "getting off the wheel of suffering."  That will be the subject of my next post.

May this writing strike a chord in each reader and resonate to the power of love in each one's spirit.

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

17 March 2011

Reading "How to be Sick" - Compassion Is Opening the Heart

This is the third in a series of posts about Toni Bernhard's book, How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers.

In an email message to me about the previous post, Alida Brill, author and blogger, noted that compassion practice for oneself seemed particularly appropriate this week as we watch the terrible events in Japan.  Immediately, I understood what she meant on one level - that out of our own ability to hold ourselves in compassion arises our compassion for others - yet realized that on another level, I was way behind her.  She was practicing for the Japanese: I was practicing, still, for myself.

In the book that is the focus of these posts, Toni writes (page 70) that her practice of self-compassion guided her to "a new compassion practice: opening my  heart to the full range of emotions that life has in store for me."  Not the full range that sickness has in store, or that pain has in store, but that life has in store for her.

Toni and Alida point the way to redeeming our suffering as persons living with chronic pain.  The first part of this redemption must always be the development of gently loving and understanding thoughts of and perceptions about ourselves.  And the next step follows naturally, or at least it does if we listen to wise persons like Alida and Toni: the opening of the heart that comes from this self-practice blossoms to enfold all the world's (and the individuals in it) emotions as well.

Their wisdom comes at a perfect time for me.  When I left my well-loved job at Miriam's House in December 2009, I believed it would be for some months - surely not more than six or eight - of rest and healing that would allow me to return to the kind of work to which I felt so called.  Now it is fourteen months later and the migraines continue to force me several days a week into dark, quiet rooms with a blindfold over my eyes.  The question I am asking myself these days, as I have posted before, has to do with what I had thought was my life's calling to living and working in close, loving presence to persons who are poor and disenfranchised.

For so many of us, living with chronic pain means living without cherished, important work and life activities.  Toni had been a law professor for twenty years, I had founded and led Miriam's House for seventeen years: much-loved work that is now impossible for us.  I cannot pretend that what I am writing about in this post has reconciled me to losing my ability to live actively into my passion for social justice, but I do feel a loosening around my heart, a slight unraveling of the knot of pain.

I will explore in more detail these practices in my next post.  Frankly, I just don't feel ready to write about compassion for the world when in my own life I still need to practice compassion for myself.  I would feel hypocritical if I did that.  But I am finding it helpful to use the practice from the previous post as a small step toward compassion for the world.

When I think to myself, "How hard it is for me to wake up and realize this is now a 72-hour migraine," I can also think to myself, "How hard it is for mothers in Japan to wake up in a shelter knowing their children are hungry."

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

13 March 2011

Reading "How To Be Sick" - Developing Compassion for Ourselves

(Second in a series of posts about Toni Bernhard's How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers.")

I recall hearing once that the Dalai Lama was appalled when he learned that low self-esteem is a pervasive problem among Americans.  As I heard it, he said something like, "How is this possible when each of us is so precious and important in the world?"

This little story is one of the things that started me on the path to exploring Buddhism.  Today, as I am again reminded of it in planning this post, it takes on another significance for me, living as I am with chronic pain.  If low self-esteem is a general issue among us Americans (and, I daresay, in other areas of the world), then how much more problematic must it be for those of us living with chronic pain and illness?

Just a few hours ago I said to my friend, Juliana, "This morning all I've done is walk the dog and shower, but now I am tired.  How pathetic!"  Compassionately quick to respond, Juliana disagreed about it being pathetic.  As she did so, I remembered that I was planning to write this post about Toni's chapter on compassion for ourselves.  I need to read the chapter again, I thought, and I need to be honest about my own disgust and impatience with my condition.  I have often said that I am writing this blog more for me than for anyone else.  Here is a case in point.

"In this chapter, I'm going to focus on cultivating compassion for ourselves - which for many of us is harder than cultivating compassion for others." page 57

Realistically, and not to be self-absorbed about my own lack of self-esteem, it is so very natural for those of us living with chronic pain to become upset by the restrictions it places on our lives, not to mention how it strips away our life goals and heart's desires.  From there it is an easy step to thinking of oneself as pathetic, or useless, or unworthy.  Yet who among us would really choose such negative, self-abusing thoughts and words given a real choice? 

What Toni says is that we do have a choice if we want to make it, and the first step is to be aware of these pernicious, ever-present thoughts and the way they affect our spirits.  When I begin the day talking aloud about how pathetic I am, how am I to grow spiritually, how am I to learn what I long to learn, which is to live each moment in peaceful acceptance without futile and frustrating desire for things to be different?  And if I don't catch those thoughts and words even as they are formed (thanks, Juliana), they live in my heart, mind and spirit like dark and heavy shadows.

Simply noticing the words themselves is what helped Toni to the realization that the irony of using derogatory language about herself was that she would never allow such words to be spoken of another.

"Would I ever call [my husband] "dumb" or "stupid" or an "idiot"?  No! And what's more, if I ever heard some stranger talking like this to someone I cared about -- or even a stranger! -- I would at least feel the impulse to intervene ... From then on, when I'd catch myself using that language, I'd stop and reflect on how I'd never talk to others that way.  After a few months, I had "re-conditioned" my mind to treat my own difficulties with compassion." page 59

After the first step of simply becoming aware of how poorly we speak about ourselves, the next step is "re-conditioning" the mind.  I have heard it said that it requires three to six months to change a habit, and Toni herself says it took her a few months.  Even so, Toni's wisdom about all this and her re-conditioned mind were challenged when she became sick and was forced to learn the lessons anew.  Becoming chronically ill assaults our feelings of self-love and -worth at entirely new levels.   Toni faces these new challenges with wonderfully intentional, conscious ways to cultivate compassion in the moment - I will write about them in another post.

For now I want to review how Toni, after becoming aware of the self-destructive words she used to think and talk about herself, turned the practice into self-compassion.

"... I turn to karuna and cultivate compassion for the suffering I'm experiencing ... I comfort myself with whatever words come to mind, something like, "It's so hard to be at home when I want so badly to be having fun with [family]." page 58

Following Toni's lead, I can re-phrase my complaint of the morning by saying quietly and softly to myself, "How hard it is to be so tired when the day has only just begun."  Just writing this sentence and then repeating it aloud to myself, I can feel a softening in my belly.  I take a deep breath, marveling at the loosening of muscle, mind and heart.

Try it: remember a critical phrase you recently used about yourself, and then reframe it in Toni's way.  Say it softly to yourself.  Then take a deep breath and allow it to permeate your body and spirit.  

It's might be a good idea to enlist the help of friends and family when making this change - they often hear what we are saying with more immediacy and clarity than we do.  I needed my friend to notice what I'd said and make me aware of it, and though I would not want to rely on others in this way for very long, it surely is helpful at the start.

My next post will be about the other compassion practices Toni teaches us.  But before I can begin them, I want to take a few days to focus on the most important practice of all: compassion for myself.

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

11 March 2011

Reading "How to be Sick" - Not Just for the Ill

This is the first of a series of posts about Toni Berhard's book, How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Care givers.   The book, sent to me by my friend, Meredith, is very special as it often seems Toni is writing particularly for me and my journey with pain.  Although we have very different illnesses (mine is chronic, intractable migraines, hers is Chronic Fatigue and Immunodysfunction Syndrome - I try not to be jealous that hers is so much more impressive-sounding), Toni, like me, sees her illness as a spiritual matter as much as a physical one.  An added benefit of her writing is that it is founded in the Buddhist practice she began a decade before becoming ill, including retreats at Spirit Rock Meditiation Center and direct contact with many of the vipassana meditation gurus in America.

My own spirituality, an odd and eclectic blend of Christian and Buddhist influences with a mix of various aspects of Shia Muslim, Hindu and Native American spirituality that attract and inspire me, is no hindrance to sinking with deep relief into Toni's book.  As I have said before, it seems to me that there is more that is similar and simpatico in the world's religions than there is different and contentious.  So I recommend Toni's book to anyone in chronic pain and to their caregivers and loved ones. 

That leads me to another point about the book: it could just as aptly be titled, "How to be Well."  There are life practices and spiritual depths in this book of the sort that began to guide me long before the migraines became so bad, and for which I am grateful to be reminded now that I am ill.  The point I am making is that our spirituality, as the bedrock of every aspect of our lives, has specific application to particularities of our circumstances, yet even so is a constant presence regardless of those circumstances.  So - the book can be equally inspirational to the well as to the sick.  (I could also say, "to those who think they are well," but that will be my subject another time.)

In future posts, I will write about practices, Buddhist philosophies and personal anecdotes from the book.  For now, I'll simply comment on the table of contents, which in itself is a map of the journey Toni has taken.

How Everything Changed ... Accepting Pain ... Finding Joy and Love ... Turnarounds and Transformations ... From Isolation to Solitude: these are the phrases she uses to name the five divisions in the book.  Reminding me strongly of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, each section links Toni's personal struggle and experience with her emotions and the journey through which she goes.  Like Kubler-Ross's five stages, Toni's process is messy and so-very-human, a backward and forward progression through the strong emotions of loss and grieving that go with physical and emotional pain.  Her honesty is refreshing and helpful as she tells with lucid wisdom of her struggles and how she allows them to be transformed into teachers.

Some of my favorite passages have to do with compassion, and I will write about them 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.

07 March 2011

Accepting a New Fast

Can I fast now with the commitment and passion that were mine before the migraines changed so much in my life? 

That is the question I posed at the end of my previous post, in which I shared about Isaiah 58: 6-12 and how those verses had guided my life so completely - until, that is, a year ago.  January 2010 is when I left my much-loved work at Miriam's House because of the effects of chronic, intractable migraines.

For those of us living with chronic pain, our passions and activities and life efforts become things of memory: still important, yet left behind.  It's easy to become bitter, depressed, and to feel useless and ineffective.  What drove our work and gave our lives meaning has been stripped away.  More specifically, the active aspect of it has been stripped away, but, cruelly, not the passion for it.  So we are left with hearts and spirits that continue to yearn for our work even though we are unable to pursue it.

This is a reality of our lives.  I state it as plain fact, not for pity or self-pity.  It is so important to acknowledge the facts of one's life because that is a perquisite for moving beyond them when the time comes.  The balance is a delicate one, the line a fine one.  We find ourselves all too easily indulging in self-pity.  But that is not a reason to avoid it, that is a reason to practice maintaining that balance, walking that line.  We practice facing with simplicity and clarity the facts of our lives.  We do so with the emotions that arise as well.

For me, this means that I must both acknowledge the passion I have for being immediately and compassionately connected with the disenfranchised of our society and prepare to move beyond it because it is, for now, an impossible passion to fulfill.  This is hard to do: the emotions - grief, anger, regret - are readily present.  Frankly, I would rather not feel them.  Yet I know that to stuff them away or otherwise deny them is to place myself in a spiritual purgatory that at best represents stagnation, at worst, casting myself as a victim and refusing to take responsibility for my life.

Here is where compassion enters in.  Can I offer to myself the same compassionate understanding that I tried to offer the women of Miriam's House?  I am helped in this practice by a wonderful book I have just read,which will be the subject of my next series of posts: How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide For the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, by Toni Bernhard.

For now, my work is to remain compassionately present to the grieving, anger and regret I feel when I cast the inward glance.  During the past year, when I thought I would be healing and returning to the work I love, I have only found more of the same pain, restrictions and inactivity.  This is a new level of grieving that was not done 12 months ago when I had just left my job.  It is not quick work, it follows no schedule.  It is unevenly spattered with willingness, reluctance, compassion and impatience.  Yet it is the work that is mine to do today and in this moment.  There is no sense in focusing on outcomes and results, however tempting that may be - it is a lying temptation that promises relief but really only prolongs the agony of denial.

This is my fast for now.  May I accept it with grace and compassion.

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

02 March 2011

Is This the Fast That I Choose? Reconnecting to Isaiah 58

In my previous post, I shared some whining about how difficult it is for me to imagine following the practice of fasting and sacrifice embodied in the Christian season of Lent, the Muslim Ramdaan, and in many other religions and spiritualities.  Normally, I embrace what I learn from our wise ancestors when they are teaching me about spiritual growth.

Not this year, not this Lent.  The idea of fasting - set as it is in the context of my fourth month on a really restrictive diet and curtailing of all pain medications - is ludicrous.  Particularly because it seems the regimen is not even working: the migraines keep coming.

So I cast the inward glance, acknowledge my fatigue, and find a small bit of compassion for myself.  Honestly, who wouldn't, in my same situation, be reluctant to think of yet more abstinence or sacrifice?  Of course Lent seems impossible this year.  It makes me more tired just to admit that, to sit for a moment in the reality of the fatigued pain that is daily with me.  Just for a moment, however, and no wallowing in self pity: wallowing is not the same thing as acknowledging, and is a trap that captures me in victim mode.

When I do so, the momentary stillness allows a bit of scripture from the Old Testament to float up into my mind.  These are words that were instrumental in bringing me to Washington, DC twenty years ago to take up a volunteer position in a residence for homeless, pregnant women.

Is this the fast that I choose?

It is from Isaiah 58: 6-12.  Click here if you want to read the entire scripture.

Those years ago, I knew in the depths of my spirit that God had chosen a particular fast for me, and so I moved to DC for what I thought was a year but ended up to be twenty (and counting); started a nonprofit residence for homeless women living with AIDS, living and working there until the migraines forced me to resign. 

Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,

And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
7“Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

For those twenty years, my fast was my life, and although I lived it imperfectly and with plenty of difficult lessons to be slowly and painfully learned, it contained for me a wonderful and peaceful satisfaction.

So the question is not "how can I be expected to give up yet another food or activity this Lent?" but, "how do I live into this fast that seems to have been chosen for me?"

[Note: I am not of the belief that God "gives" us the circumstances of our lives, or that there is any entity at all who points the finger of fate and says, "You there ..."  My spirituality encompasses the thoughts and practices of several different religions, and I have no desire for doctrine, dogma or rigid systems of belief.  You can read more in this past post.]

The fast that is mine now is in many ways opposite to that which I was given for the past twenty years, when I was living my passion for social justice in active, immediate presence to those who are disenfranchised and neglected.  That is not possible any more.  I must let it go.  In its place is a fast that has to do with solitude and meditation, prayer and reflection, quietness and depths. 

Can I fast now with the commitment and passion that were mine before the migraines changed so much in my life?  That will be the subject of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Leave a comment below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.