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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.

31 December 2012

Reading Mariechild Together

I have not posted in this blog since September. My first semester of school was rigorous, as I sometimes struggled to balance the writing and reading assignments with the migraines. Additionally, I felt I was repeating myself in the posts, something that has caused me to take a break from this blog before. But since the semester ended in mid-December, I have been thinking about ways to resume this writing. It is a good discipline. I think I can maintain it if I make it a bit easier to post (more about that below). I am, after all, in grad school for writing and I need to keep a writer's presence here.

My second semester begins in two weeks. That gives me time to settle into a blogging routine and a slightly different format for posting. My sister, Joan, and I have decided to read together -- at a distance of 110 miles -- a daily meditation book: Open Mind: Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful, by Diane Mariechild. Here is a bit from the back cover:

From the author of Mother Wit, the much-loved guide to women's spirituality, come crystalline daily readings that inspire and guide women toward mindfulness, compassion, and centered contemplation. [The book] leads readers through the year with guided visualizations, advice, parables, and quiet inspiration that draws seekers toward the serene and ancient wisdom of Buddhism.

 Here is what I propose to do:

1. Post regularly about that day's "crystalline" (don't you just love that description?) reading;
2. Continue with my theme, although it is not the book's theme, of the interplay between my spiritual life and being in chronic pain;
3. Welcome others to get the book (whether living with chronic pain or not -- we all deal with pain of some sort or another) and join us in reading it, and in feeling free to leave comments and begin thoughtful discussion in the Comments section, below.

As I develop this series, I may change the format, but this will do for a start. I will make my first post tomorrow, January 1. Happy New Year!

20 August 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Dreamless Sleep

In my June 25 post, I began to write about Chapter Seven of Eckhart Tolle's book, "The Power of Now."  In this chapter, Tolle writes about what he calls "portals" that take us to the Unmanifested.  Today, I want to speak of the first portal, dreamless sleep, as it relates to those of us living with chronic pain.

Please refer to my June 25 post (link in first sentence, above) for a brief review of how Tolle talks about the Manifested and Unmanifested Worlds.

I don't know about you, but just the sound of the phrase, "dreamless sleep," can make me feel calmer: it's an attractive concept, evoking a quiet mind, a peaceful heart.  Yet, as someone whose chronic pain often keeps her from deep sleep, it also can make me feel frustrated.  Some nights, I'd be glad just to sleep, dreamless or not, and not be awakened by pain. 

I'm dealing with this "portal" first because it's the one over which I feel I have least control, and assume others with chronic pain may feel the same way.  Since I cannot control it, I have to let it go.  Otherwise, I add concern about missing a portal to the list of other things I might worry about when I cannot sleep. 

But I do have tools for dealing with sleeplessness.  There are plenty of places to find good advice on how to improve your sleep experience.  Here are a few:

Advice on "sleep hygiene": Mayo Clinic; and How to Sleep BetterPlease note that even a helpful list can be frustrating for someone dealing with chronic pain.  For example -- it's hard to follow advice about keeping a strict bedtime/arising routine when pain interrupts sleep several nights a week.  But other tips are useful, like avoiding heavy meals late in the evening.

Information on insomnia: WebMD.

I have cobbled together a set of practices for insomnia that accomodate the realities of the migraines.  Advice that is impossible to follow I just ignore.  Advice that I can follow, I add to my practice. 

If you have other resources, ideas and tips about sleep, please let me know. 

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

13 August 2012

Resuming the Discipline

I have not posted since late June, partly due to loss of discipline after a week with no Internet, partly because I was preparing for a 2-week residency at Goucher College -- the beginning of earning a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree.  Having returned from the residency with a much better sense of the amount of work (a lot) I have to do between now and December, I'm not sure I can maintain the regular schedule of bi-weekly posts recommended by blog gurus.  However, I have decided to try.

Rather than launch immediately into the subject of my June 25 post (Chapter Seven of Eckhart Tolle's book, "The Power of Now"), I will write today about the two intensive weeks of workshops and lectures and readings and managing the chronic pain of migraines.

It wasn't easy.  And it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be.

Before I'd left DC for Towson, Maryland, I'd purchased some items that I thought would help provide for my physical comfort and for migraine mitigation.  Some of these were expensive, yet there is not one I wish I had not purchased.

1. A study pillow with good back support, Cequal Bedlounger.

2. A pair of non-prescription, tinted and lightweight glasses for use in rooms with fluorescent lighting and when on the computer: TheraSpecs.

3. A thick and supportive mattress pad: Tempurpedic.

4. A plastic pot in which to boil water for tea: Hot Pot.

5. Plenty of my favorite tea bags (Mighty Leaf Breakfast Tea); fresh-ground peanut butter from the Yes! Market down the street; rice crackers.

The car was loaded with stuff in a way that was almost embarrassing.  Had I not been so sure that I needed these things in order to not just get through the residency but really thrive in it, I would have felt like a spoiled child.  But I did need them, they did help me through the residency, and I am glad for all of them.

I only missed one workshop and one lecture. That's not to say I did not have migraine pain any other day. That's to say there was only one day when the pain was so bad that I could not sit up.  On the other days, the pain was manageable if I rested and napped during the breaks and took great care with my diet.  Yet these practices would not have helped much had I not a pair of glasses that just about eliminated the deleterious effects of fluorescent lights and computer screen glare; a mattress pad that supported my ailing back and allowed me good sleep; a pot in my room for boiling water for tea; a study pillow that supported my head and so allowed me to work on the computer even when I had a migraine; and my snacks that tided me over to the next meal.

The point of this post is to say that we need not be ashamed of what is required to support our engagement with life.  After more than two years of resting and hoping the migraines would ease, setting out for school was exciting, affirming and good for me.  I could not have managed either the thought of going or the actual being there had I not planned so carefully to take care of myself.

Do what it takes to care well for your pain-filled self!  Perhaps you will find, as I did, that you will then be able to engage in life at a new level.

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

25 June 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Portals

Twenty fourth in a series.

In this series on Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now," I have been going through the book chapter by chapter, pulling out concepts and ideas and models that can be applied to lives with chronic pain.  With this post, I am at Chapter Seven: Portals into the Unmanifested.

The two concepts essential to working with "portals" are: (1) the Manifested; and (2) the Unmanifested.  Simply put, the Manifested is the world we live in, including our physical bodies and our thoughts; the Unmanifested is

"...[T]he invisible Source of all things, the Being within all Beings.  It is a realm of deep stillness and peace, but also of joy and intense aliveness."  (page 130)

But I don't want to state this too simply, so must add that these two are not separate, and Tolle is not trying to say that they are.  The definitions are simplistic, as language often must be, but the concepts are complex and thus better understood more in the realm of the spirit, beyond mind and body -- yet not separate from mind and body.  Indeed, the paradox is that awareness of the body takes us to the inner body, where we can merge into a trascendent state of non-duality.  We are using the body to take us beyond the body.

Tolle further says that the Unmanifested, to which he also refers as the "formless realm," is a place of liberation from "bondage to form and identification with form."  And this what the subtitle of the book --"A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment" -- is referring to, I believe.  Of course, it is not a new concept.  All religions and spiritualities from Christianity to Judaism to Animism to Buddhism to Hinduism (etc.) contain a message of Oneness, a spirituality that lifts one beyond this world and into communion with the Sublime.  Furthermore, Tolle is not claiming to be the originator of this concept, but he is trying to state it in new and different ways: "...I have endeavored to use terminology as neutral as possible in order to reach a wide range of people." page 10

In Chapter Seven, Tolle teaches us about the various "portals" there are that we can use to take us to the Unmanifested, the spiritual enlightenment for which humans have been searching these many centuries.  He lists six of them, (pp 133-136):
* dreamless sleep
* the Now
* cessation of thinking
* surrender (letting go of mental-emotional resistance)
* silence
* space

In my next several posts, I will write about these portals and how they can work for those of us who live with chronic pain.

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

20 June 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Our Greatest Teacher

Twenty third in a series.

"Do you truly know what is positive and what is negative? Do you have the total picture?  There have been many people for whom limitation, failure, loss, illness or pain in whatever form have turned out to be their greatest teacher."  Eckhart Tolle, "The Power of Now" page 177

I'd really rather not have chronic migraine disease.  I'd rather be able to work at a job that I love and that challenges and nurtures me, like I had two years ago before pain made me resign.  I'd rather be able to drive a car whenever I feel like it; to choose to meet friends or travel or spend time with family as most other people can.  I'd really rather not face the ignorance and non-sympathy of people who cannot know and refuse to try to understand what I am going through.


We do have our chronic diseases; we do live very restricted lives; we do come in contact with unsympathetic people.  Should we mope all the time? Whine?  Make our own lives even more miserable, not to mention those of our family and friends?  Surely not.

That's not to say there aren't legitimately difficult times during which we become anxious, depressed, deeply upset, even suicidal.  These reactions to chronic pain are natural: when they threaten to take over our being, however, then it is time to get help in the form of counseling, support groups, medication, spiritual consolation, or any of the many ways we can reach outside ourselves for help in a life that threatens to overwhelm our stability.

It is not easy to learn to live with chronic pain.  I don't at all mean for the above paragraph to glibly, with facile answers, discard the emotional and mental pain that accompany chronic physical pain. 

But I think that we do not get to the point of allowing pain to be our greatest teacher -- as in the quote that begins this post -- until we have already come to the point of plumbing the depths of our feelings and our emotional and spiritual pain.  At that place, where we are cracked open into a hurt vulnerability that humbly knows its need for wisdom beyond itself, then are we able to allow pain to teach us.

Perhaps it is this that others cannot understand: that, in order to learn the most from our pain, we must have tapped its deeps.  Perhaps that looks to others like we are wallowing in our pain.  Perhaps what we are doing is frightening to someone who cannot or will not do the same in their own lives. 

It's a spiritual truth that we must be broken open in order to be made whole, and that life will inevitably bring us the means of that breaking.  We can choose to white-knuckle the entire ride, denying our hidden vulnerability and brokenness and forgoing the spiritual journey that brings us closer to the Divine (or God, Allah, Jehovah, Shiva, Great Spirit...). 

If it is physical pain that life brings us, then we can choose to allow it to break us open so that wisdom and love and compassion may pour in, or we can choose to turn our backs to the possibilities for growth and change.  In that case, I think, we are choosing fear instead of hope; sickness instead of healing; death instead of life.

"This day I have called heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, that you and your children may live."  Deuteronomy 30:19

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

16 June 2012

Beyond Theory and Discussion

When we are in pain, and when it is severe enough, all of the blogs and books and articles we have read, discussed and reflected on seem like so much drivel. 

When I am in pain, when it is severe enough that all I can do is lie, whimpering, on the bed, I could not care less about my blog, or any particular post, or anything I have written.

Pain humbles me.  Pain supersedes all efforts of my mind to make sense of life or the world around me.  Serious migraine pain -- which, I am so very grateful to say, occurs only about once a month --reduces me to rubble.  It's not a pretty sight.

At such times, it is not possible -- even if I were so inclined -- to pick up a book and read up on pain management tools, or to refer to a blog post that might help.  I cannot think.  I cannot open my photo-sensitive eyes, let alone read.  I just want relief, and sometimes even the migraine medication I take is not available to me, either because I have taken one too recently, or because it's toward the end of the month and I have already taken all nine pills that are allowed me, or because I need to ration them out to last for the month and have already taken too many.

So, then what?  The "inner body" is what.

Having practiced regularly, for meditation and for calming nerves and for pain management, I turn almost without thought to my inner body.

I usually begin with my feet, feeling the energy within, focusing on that subtle yet pleasing sensation of life.  I allow the sensation to begin to relax my feet.  Sometimes I picture cells or muscles slightly vibrating, or being enveloped in a golden, soothing light. 

I breathe deeply and slowly, two or three times, imagining that the breath reaches all the way to my feet and softly fills the empty spaces.

And so for the rest of my body: ankles, calves, knees, thighs, pelvic area, buttocks...all the way up to my head, slowly, deliberately, and always taking those slow and deep breaths before proceeding to the next area.

When I get to the location of the pain, my head, I go even more gently. 

I imagine the breath as a swirling energy that delicately gathers the shards of pain, softening their edges and lifting them away.  I imagine that the pain, which had seemed like a solid, impenetrable block in my head, is made permeable and less substantive. 

Then, usually, I fall asleep for a few blessed hours.

Inner body trumps thinking every time.

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

12 June 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: The Inner Body

Twenty-second in a series.

"Water? What do you mean by that?  I don't understand it."  That is what a fish would say if it had a human mind.  Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, page 107

When I first encountered Tolle's writings several years ago, I was most confused about what he calls the "inner body."  Here is how he writes about this:

In your natural state of connectedness with Being, [a] deeper reality can be felt at every moment by the invisible inner body, the animating presence within you.  from the website, SpiritLibrary.

What I call the inner body isn't really the body any more, but life energy, the bridge between form and formlessness.  from Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose

When you are in touch with the inner body, you are not in touch with your body any more, nor are you identified with your mind.  from Tolle's A New Earth

What really helped me with the concept was to follow his advice on page 112 of "The Power of Now": "[d]irect your attention into the body.  Feel it from within...Can you feel the subtle energy field that pervades the entire body and gives vibrant life to every organ and cell?"  He recommends beginning with your hands: direct your attention to your hands and let yourself feel the life within, then expand your awareness -- gradually -- to your entire body.

How does this relate to pain management?

Because becoming aware of the inner body takes us out of and away from the mind, which is where we create suffering with worry, fear, upset, judgement and disappointment.

Because using the outer body to become aware of the inner body reduces the importance (I just love this paradox) of the pain-filled outer body.  

Because we find that -- having gone beyond our thought-filled and egocentric minds, through our pain-racked bodies, and into awareness of the inner body (Presence) -- we have developed a remarkably effective pain management tool.

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

08 June 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Deeply Rooted

Twenty-first in a series.

"[T]here's a sense of presence, of awareness that, while serene, still holds an element of anticipation, of waiting, of allowing the body in its awake state to be a conduit to the divine." (from my post of June 4, 2012)

I wrote that while reflecting on and writing about Chapter Five of Eckhart Tolle's book, "The Power of Now."   At the time, I was headed -- rhetorically speaking -- toward more discussion around the subject of the blog: how chronic pain relates to and is enhanced by and enhances our spiritual lives -- and vice versa.  This week, however, has given me a new way to appreciate what Tolle calls Presence and what I have been writing about pain.

It's one of those simple-yet-hard-to-explain concepts, and so I run the risk of over-statement and over-complication; a danger made worse by this morning's migraine and the fact that it has taken me more than 30 minutes just to get to this third paragraph.  But I have promised myself to post twice a week, both in order to maintain discipline in my writing life and because that's what blogging gurus say is the minimum to do.   Onward.

Living with chronic pain coexists with other difficulties life presents us.  And a lot of these other difficulties have an unprecedented aspect: a long-term disagreement with a family member tumbles to new depths; hoped-for political outcomes far beyond our control savagely disappoint us; sudden illness or accident -- our own or of someone dear.  Life, is all it is: life layered over our already-chronic pain. 

The temptation is to pull the sheets over the head.  Yet if we have been letting Tolle teach us about Presence, and using the chronic nature of our pain to be the means of delivery of that lesson, then we have skills and tools that are transferable to life's layers.   

On days that are otherwise calm, when I practice Presence because the pain is there and I want to learn from it and with it, I am building skills that will serve me very, very well when a relationship that is dear to me explodes.  I have cherished and nurtured a serene awareness in times of physical pain that also works for times of emotional and spiritual suffering.  Not that either type of pain goes away or resolves just because I am Present: the migraine is still there, the relationship is still damaged.  This is not about easy fixes. 

As I said in the previous post, the pain is not resolved, but it is relegated.  Another word for it: perspective.

And there is one more thing: Presence also teaches me that the only control I wield is over how I handle, or react to, the pain.  The migraine and the relationship are beyond my control, beyond my ability to fix them.  They are not, however, beyond my ability to allow them to carve out in me the deep places that then become wells for wisdom and compassion.

Joy and Sorrow // Kahlil Gibran

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

04 June 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Waiting

Twentieth in a series

"To stay present in everyday life, it helps to be deeply rooted within yourself; otherwise the mind, which has incredible momentum, will drag you along like a wild river...[Rooted within yourself] means to inhabit your body fully.  To always have some of your attention in the inner energy field of your body."  Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, page 94

I have posted before about the seeming conundrum -- for those of us living with chronic pain, anyway -- in Tolle's teachings about inhabiting the body: here and here, for example.  In today's post, I want to go a bit further than the "why would I want to inhabit this body that is causing me so much pain?" question, and talk about waiting as an aspect of being deeply rooted in our pain-filled selves.

Tolle advocates for a kind of alert waiting, a deep presence to one's body and to the world that transcends the "egoic mind" and so places us in a state of awareness in which we are most fully ourselves.  There is a rich spiritual tradition across religions for this state of being:

* Zen Buddhism speaks of satori, the essence of Zen that is the ultimate goal and indication of enlightenment.  It is also called no mind.

* Jesus tells parables of the bridesmaids waiting with their lamps so that they don't miss the bridegroom and the wedding; and of the waiting servant who "...stays awake, alert, poised, still, lest he miss the master's arrival." page 95

* Hindus developed the practice of yoga, the goal of which is to unite the human with the divine by way of the body/self.  Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy and serenity. We need only be awake, alive in the present moment. -Thich Nhat Hanh-

So there's a sense of presence, of awareness that, while serene, still holds an element of anticipation, of waiting, of allowing the body in its awake state to be a conduit to the divine. 

What does waiting mean to those of us who are daily attended by pain?

It means that we nurture the world around and beyond and within our bodies rather than narrow our focus to the endless ache.  It means that we then let this broader sense of what life offers us to ever so slightly reduce the meaning and the significance of our pain.  And it means that, as we welcome and enter into that which is sacred, our pain takes its relative place: not cured, but relegated, so that we are finding our way through and with our pain.

Thus, we embody the paradox, and our pain-racked bodies become not the barrier to but the conductor of the sacred within and without.

But when it gets really bad, we take a pill and go to bed, because while we may be pilgrims, we are not masochists.

It's about balance.

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

28 May 2012

Stout-hearted Man

It's Memorial Day, and I miss my father, who served in the O.S.S. in World War II.  He talked a lot about the war when I was young, but in a way sanitized for my youth.  He told me that he and his buddy, Paul Arthur, won the war each with one hand tied behind his back, and I would imagine the two men, ropes around their waists and left hands pinioned, looming over a battlefield like giants swatting at fleas.  He imitated the Tennessee corporal who spoke French with a southern accent ("Pah-lay view fransah-ee?), and I saw a group of men around a fire, trying out the native language and laughing at one another.  I saw the French farmer, on a gray, freezing day, emerging from the barn and indelibly into my father's memory, rubbing his hands together and shouting, "Ne fait pas chaud, n'est ce pas?"  And I remember begging him to sing a war-era song that I liked not so much for the words or the tune, but for the way he would bellow, bass voice booming; assume an expression of exaggerated sternness on his broad, amiable face; and march in place, stiff and straight.  That is how I imagined him looking as he strode down the poplar-lined avenues of France.   

Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men
And I'll soon find you ten-thousand more.

It was delightful.

But it's Memorial Day, and I miss my father, who died in 2006.  He told me once, with no detail or explanation, and when I was in college and old enough, I guess, to hear it: he had taken part in the liberation of a concentration camp.

And I imagine - not because he told me, but because he didn't -- my father opening a gate and stepping into hell.

And I want to tell him, I want to say to my father: thank you.

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

23 May 2012

Redeeming Pain

Recently, someone said to me that the attention I pay to the migraines -- specifically, writing this blog -- is insulting to anyone who has "real," life-threatening diseases like cancer.  The comment seemed so beside the point to what this blog is about, to what I am about, that I tossed it aside without much consideration.  But this morning, it has come back to me as relevant for many of us living with chronic pain, and so I want to address this issue: our pain is often minimized, misunderstood or even derided by others.

(Just to put the subject to rest so I can get on with this post, I have never equated my migraine pain with the horrors of cancer and like diseases. But that migraine pain is not life-threatening is no reason to leave it unexplored or to refuse to learn its lessons.)

If seeing is believing, then the pain of diseases like migraine or, say, fibromyalgia, is not to be believed.  Ours is a society rooted in the visible, the concrete, the material.  What is invisible, untouchable, ineffable, tends to stay on the periphery.  I write about pain and spirituality, subjects that are peripheral at best; often more comfortably ignored than attended to. 

Additionally, it is so much more gratifying to deal with the fixable: the broken leg gets a cast; the degenerating discs in the spine benefit from physical therapy; the surgeon removes the problem pancreas.  There is a lot of trauma and suffering here -- God forbid I should be mis-read as minimizing the pain and difficulty of broken bones and surgeries -- but the difference between the well-documented mechanics of setting a bone and poorly understood migraine pain means that the former is healed while the latter worsens.

Finally, there's the matter of objective versus subjective: objective as in verifiable or confirmable by numerous persons; subjective as in verifiable or confirmable by just one person.  We see a surgical scar or an arm in a cast and we can agree: she had surgery on that knee, or, he broke his arm skiing.  But how to verify or confirm chronic pain that has no outward, physical manifestation?  All we have is the individual's report about pain that we cannot experience for ourselves.

Chronic pain is not visible.  It's is, by definition, not fixable (if it were, it wouldn't be chronic).  And it is absolutely subjective. 

Kind of like the life of the spirit.

We are human, we sufferers of chronic pain.  We whine every once in a while.  We get depressed when a promising new medication has no beneficial effect.  We become angry at our restricted lives, friendships neglected, jobs lost, parties unattended.  We suppress a sigh at yet one more doctor who stands, long before we have our concerns and questions addressed, with his hand on the doorknob while mumbling about not being late for the next patient.  We get tired of people telling us how good we look, as though this proves we must not be in very much pain; or implying we should just suck it up and get on with life; or insisting that our pain is not worthy of consideration because we are not dying.

So what redeems the pain?  Perhaps we are in an unfixable and subjective situation, but can we not refuse to remain invisible?  And how to do that without indulging in self-pity or assuming the victim role? 

We let the pain reach us, teach us.  We do precisely what the world wants us not to do.  We do not just go away because we make others uncomfortable: we pay attention to our pain and we share what we have learned.  We let it incise its way into our spirits and into our spiritual lives, carving out that place that is then ready to receive the wisdom, presence and peace that have arisen from our refusal to deny our reality.

We allow our our pain to be our greatest teacher.

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

18 May 2012

Pain and Spirituality: Some Strategies

Nineteenth in a series.

At the end of my previous post, I wrote: "So, how to maintain and nurture our right minds, enhancing our pain management skills and letting pain take us to spiritual enlightenment? I will explore some strategies in my next post."

What was I thinking?  Who thinks she can explain all that at all, let alone in one post?  Way too ambitious, I realize, now that I come to actually write the post.  I must pull back on my expectations.

I think I'll just stick with the word, "strategies." 

Here are pain management strategies that I use and that also enhance my spiritual life.  Indeed, I often use them interchangeably:

I have posted about meditation here and here, and you will find other posts if you click on the meditation label in the column to the right.  So I am not going to repeat what is in them today.  But what I want to remark on today is how meditation and other calming practices (prayer beads, quiet reflection, small rituals -- as described in the second link, above), form a lovely, symbiotic relationship between pain management skills and spiritual growth.

Here's how it worked for me: I began meditation strictly as a spiritual practice; after a few years, and as my migraines worsened, I noticed that I felt better -- calmer, more relaxed, more accepting of the reality of my pain -- after meditating; I began using meditation tools such as deep breathing, mantras and focusing the mind when I was in pain; meditation for pain became meditation for spiritual growth became meditation for pain...

Another way to describe it is to say that bringing spiritual tools to pain management brought spirituality into pain management.  With chronic pain, the result is that spirituality pervades all of one's life: something I have longed for and tried to make happen with no success.  But here it is, having snuck up on me through the back door labeled, Migraines.


I have posted about deep relaxation and inhabiting the body here, and there are other posts to read if you click on the relaxation label in the column to the right. 

For today -- and briefly, because an on-coming migraine is affecting my ability to think and type -- the point about relaxation and paying attention to (or, inhabiting) one's body, is that there is a paradox here that leads us to a deep spiritual truth.  And that is this: when we fully inhabit our bodies, allowing muscles to relax, feeling our pain with judgment or fear, and feeling the fullness of life that is within, then we come closest to God.  Or Allah, or Jehovah, or Brahma, or the Divine, or the Now, or the Creator, or whatever we choose or have been taught for naming our Source.

Eckhart Tolle, in his book, The Power of Now, tells us that presence is a "higher dimension of consciousness" that opens the door to the Now.  And he says that the body is a portal to presence:

"Observe the rhythm of your breathing; feel the air flowing in and out, feel the life energy inside your body.  Allow everything to be [yes, even your pain - cdm], within and without."

The Hindu practice of yoga is a means to spiritual enlightenment through the body.  Some Christians practice body prayer.  Jewish spirituality includes sitting Shivah after a death; a way to express mourning with the body. There are, I am sure, many more religions that use the body as an entry to spiritual understanding and growth.  It works for pain as well.

And that is all I am capable of for now: it is time to practice some pain management skills and enhance my spiritual life.

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

15 May 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Deep Unconsciousness

Eighteenth in a series.

The unease of ordinary unconsciousness turns into the pain of deep unconsciousness -- a state of more acute and more obvious or suffering or unhappiness -- when things 'go wrong,' when the ego is threatened or there is a major challenge..."  Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, page 73.

In this series about Tolle's book, "The Power of Now," I am discussing, chapter by chapter, what Tolle has taught me about pain management.  And because this blog is about spirituality as well as about living with chronic pain, the book -- the subtitle of which is A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment -- gives me a lot of material.  I'm not trying to teach Tolle to my readers: that task is beyond my capabilities.  But I am trying to show how Tolle's guidance broadens, deepens and gives spiritual dimension to our desire to live well with chronic pain.  And allowing spirituality to infuse our pain and thus our lives means that our pain, rather than being a barrier to a fuller, richer life, becomes the doorway to a fuller, richer life.

In my previous post, I began with Chapter Four, in which Tolle discusses ordinary unconsciousness, and deep unconsciousness.  Tolle describes what he calls a constant "background static," that causes us a general unease.  When we live unaware of this human tendency to vague anxiety, it devolves into deep unconsciousness, described in the quote that begins this post.

Talk about background static!  How about this inner dialogue:  Oh, no, I feel a migraine coming on.  What about that meeting this evening - how am I going to manage that?  And I haven't even thought about dinner yet - is there anything in the fridge?  I hate this feeling.  Last thing I need right now is another migraine...  And on and on and on.

Left to itself, the inner pain dialogue feeds on its own momentum, sinking into the deep unconsciousness that Tolle describes.  What about that meeting? becomes I'm worthless, can't do anything any more.  I hate this feeling becomes It's hopeless and I can't do anything about it.  What Tolle is saying, though, is that these more destructive thoughts happen at a deeper level of the unconscious mind.  They take on a hidden power over all we do, including how we choose to live with our pain.  Really, we cannot choose how we live when we are in the power of this negativity that hides in the shadows of our minds.  We are under its control because we are "taken over by a reaction, which ultimately is some sort of fear, and pulled into deep unconsciousness." (page 74)

So there we are, not only in pain throughout much of our lives, but overpowered by fear and thrust into deep unconsciousness.  In our right minds, none of us would ever choose to be so miserable.  I think that Tolle might say that we simply are not in our right minds when pulled so far down by fear.

So, how to maintain and nurture our right minds, enhancing our pain management skills and letting pain take us to spiritual enlightenment?  I will explore some strategies in my next post.

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

07 May 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Presence

Seventeenth in a series

Chapter Four of The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is about what Tolle calls, "presence."  This is a difficult concept to grasp, and there is no way that I can do it justice.  Again, I suggest you read the book if you haven't yet, or if anything in this series intrigues and interests you.  I cannot and am not trying to explain Tolle: I am trying to relate what I have learned from him to living with chronic pain and my spiritual life.

That disclaimer being made, I turn my attention to his discussion of "ordinary unconsciousness."

"What I call ordinary consciousness means being identified with your thought processes and emotions, your reactions, desires and aversions.  It is most people's normal state...It is not a state of acute pain or unhappiness but of an almost continuous level of unease, discontent, boredom or nervousness -- a kind of background static."  (page 73)

If I allow this "almost continuous level of unease, discontent, boredom or nervousness" to coexist with my chronic pain, I am surely making things worse for myself.  So what attracts me about Tolle's spiritual teachings is that he shows me where I have a choice.  I have little power or control over the migraines, but I have immense power and control -- if I choose to wield it -- over my state of mind, over how I react to situations around me, and over whether or not I choose the Now.

This is empowering.  And it is not as easy as it may sound.  What Tolle says about ordinary unconsciousness being most people's normal state is a deep spiritual truth.  It is therefore often hard to hear, difficult to recognize in ourselves, and even more difficult to overcome.  But if we can choose to rise above (if that is the right way to put it) the "background static" as both a spiritual practice and a pain management skill, then we make our way much closer to the peace of heart and spirit that is the best pain management tool I know.

In the same section of Chapter Four as the quote above, Tolle also writes about "deep unconsciousness."  I'll write about that next time, and then put the two concepts together for a practical discussion of how they teach us pain management skills.

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

02 May 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Everything is Honored

This post picks up once more on the series about Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now."

Everything is honored, but nothing matters. (page 70)

This statement is a koan, isn't it?  It stops the mind by presenting a paradox.  It is a truth that is best understood not through clarity of word but through astounded contemplation of the the mind.

I honor my pain, but it does not matter.

All of my previous posts on "The Power of Now" come here.  But it is not time to think, or discuss.  Just sit with it.

Take a few deep, slow breaths.

Focus your mind on the quiet inrush or breath, or the lifting of your abdomen. 

Allow your body to relax: notice the feeling of warmth or tingling, the life in your toes, then ankles, then legs, and so on.

Take a few more deep, slow breaths.  Breathe as though you breathe with your entire, relaxed body.

Now, without trying to think about it or figure it out or come up with some erudite discourse, turn your attention to the koan.

I honor my pain, but it does not matter.

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

25 April 2012

Accept and Bear Reality: Five Stages of Grief

One last post about Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief before I return to my current series on Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now.   My previous post discussed how I relate the theme of accepting and bearing reality to the Five Stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  But theory and discussion can be nothing short of maddening when we are in pain.  So, today I want to get to some practicalities of pain management in the context of the Five Stages, or the grief model

FIRST: There is no shame in bobbing around in the lake of emotions that accompany chronic pain.  We do not have to become worried and upset when currents of depression overtake us just as we were sure we were ready to quietly tread the calm water of acceptance.  But that is enough of the water metaphor.

Without shame and without worrying about what is wrong with me?, we understand and accept that the Five Stages are not fixed, but are fluid (hence the overwrought water image of the preceding paragraph).  I discussed this in an earlier post

SECOND: Shame, worry and low self-esteem being cast aside -- if only for the moment -- we are able to simply admit where we are Now.  We have studied and understood and felt some relief about the Five Stages; now they are helping us to listen to our emotions and thoughts without judgment:

"Ugh...so depressed today I don't want to get out of bed." **  "#^&% this pain." **  "Well, if I just skip my exercises/medications/diet this once, I should be okay.  I deserve some fun."  **  "Here is the pain, today.  Breathe deeply and relax."

THIRD: Having accepted our reality, we can turn to the pain management tools we have learned, and about which I have posted before (use the Labels list in the right-hand column, click on breathing, methods, meditation, relaxation and tools and you will be directed to these posts).  I have always found that pain management practices are more effective when I have accepted where I am in the moment.  Emotions like anger or depression, mental gymnastics like bargaining with life only distract me from the task at hand: to deal directly and honestly with both my emotional and physical pain.

To summarize: I find the Five Stages useful as a preparation for settling into pain management practices like deep breathing, meditation, deep muscle relaxation, and others.  Seeing our all-too-human tendencies to pop between stages as inevitable, understanding what each stage means for our pain, and thus being able to go beyond it gets us closer to accepting and bearing our reality.

Next post, back to the Eckhart Tolle Power of Now series.

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

20 April 2012

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief and Pain Management

In my previous post, I discussed how Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief might be applied to living with chronic pain.  Specifically -- and in conjunction with my current series on Eckhart Tolle and his book, The Power of Now -- how this model might be of use in helping us come to the point of accepting and bearing our reality.

The first step is to see the relevance of Kubler-Ross' teachings to living the life of chronic pain.  They help us name and acknowledge our natural emotions.  In this discussion of the Stages, you will notice that I am not giving examples of each one, but instead examining how they relate to my theme, accepting and bearing reality.

1. DENIAL: We all have times when we pretend the pain is not affecting us physically, mentally and emotionally, and spiritually as much as it is.  This leads us to keep working (as I did) long after we have lost our effectiveness; to act as if our mental faculties are not affected by the pain and thus to make poor decisions for ourselves and others; to die a small spiritual death because we have not understood the toll denial takes on our spirits.

2. ANGER: If we do not allow our anger to surface to our awareness in order to be dealt with, it's inevitably going to come out in other ways.  And thus cause us stress: "In terms of physical health, it doesn't matter if you tend to lash out in rage or repress your anger."  Without going into all of the ways that lashing out and repressing affect our health, let's just say that unless we are honest about our anger and willing to assess its affect on us, we are raising our stress levels and making our health -- and thus, our pain -- worse.

3. BARGAINING: For me, bargaining has affected my ability to accept and bear the reality of living with chronic pain by making it harder for me to keep to practices I know are good for me.  I say to myself: "I have been strict in my diet and so confined for the past months: I can just drink this glass of wine for once."  But the glass of wine does not really help me to feel better, and often enough there soon comes a migraine because of it.  It's the same with certain foods I know I should not eat: fresh, warm yeast bread, for example.  "Just this once," becomes a day in bed with the blindfold on.

4. DEPRESSION: One of the side effects of many medications is depression -- it also is reality for anyone living with chronic pain.  Compounding the difficulty is that other therapies for depression -- such as exercise, a regular sleep schedule, get out with friends -- are made problematic or even impossible by our chronic pain.  We lose perspective, we retreat, we have no ability to see the beauty or joy in life.  Even writing about it is depressing. 

5. ACCEPTANCE: It is important to honestly, and with just the appropriate amount of whining, admit that pain has taken a good deal away from us.  We have died many little deaths in our relationships, our inability to hold a career, and greatly restricted lives, even aside from the sheer physical misery of chronic pain.  To accept these hard truths as facts of our lives keeps us out of what I call "victim mode", which is its own small death in and of itself.  With acceptance, we regain control.  We can choose whether or not to wallow in self-pity.  We can learn how far we can go before we have stepped over the line between healthy honesty and unhealthy self-pity.

Okay, so this post is a quick assessment of what the Five Stages might look like for someone with chronic pain.  In my next post, I will take the discussion further into more constructive, practical tools.

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


14 April 2012

Chronic Pain and Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief

In my previous post, I wrote my way into an idea for this post while discussing acknowledging and allowing our feelings.  The idea is to relate our feelings about chronic pain to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief.  It has been explored before, here, here, and here, for example, but I found that I wanted more out of the discussions, so this is my attempt to add to what is already out there.

To begin, these are the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

Kubler-Ross said that these stages are fluid:

"Also known as the ‘grief cycle’, it is important to bear in mind that K├╝bler-Ross did not intend this to be a rigid series of sequential or uniformly timed steps. It’s not a process as such, it’s a model or a framework. There is a subtle difference: a process implies something quite fixed and consistent; a model is less specific – more of a shape or guide." (from the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation website)

There is enough information available at the click of a mouse that I do not need to go into basics about the Grief Cycle.  Using the links in the paragraphs above will get you good, basic information if you want it.

So, what about this Grief Cycle vis-a-vis the life of chronic pain?  It's different than grieving the death of a loved one because death is its own closure.  Like all humans, I have grieved death of loved ones.  But, like fewer of us, I have also grieved the debilitating presence of pain as well as the life changes it causes.  So I am going to make a comparison, but I am in no way saying that one kind of grief is worse or more noteworthy than another.  I just want to explore the grief cycle and the concept of closure together, as a way to enter into a discussion about the Five Stages model and chronic pain.

There is no closure with chronic pain: we cycle through bad days and not-so-bad days and celebrate the occasional good day; we try new medications or alternative therapies that do not deliver as promised; we hope for cure and suffer the inevitable disappointment.  Chronic pain doesn't die, obviously.  Its sneaky, beady little eyes peek out from behind every bit of relief we might find, assessing the optimal moment to pop up and smack us upside the head yet one more time.

When a loved one dies, there comes a point at which we are able to take comfort in the knowledge that the knife-edge of our suffering will be blunted.  (Others often try to force or coerce us to this point with well-meaning but maddening phrases like, "you'll feel better after a while," but that is another topic.)  Although we will never forget, never lose that core of sorrow, the intensity of our grieving will change, becoming more and more bearable.

The question is, how do we use the Five Stages when what we are grieving is an endless cycle?  The pain does not naturally, over time, become more bearable.  (It strikes me as I write this that there are other instances of endless grief: the disappearance of a child and the MIA soldier, for example.  Frankly, I would rather have chronic pain, the hell of that sort of limbo being unimaginable to me.)

Interestingly enough, I come, unexpectedly yet quite organically, back to one of the discussion points in my current series on Eckhart Tolle and his book, The Power of Now

This endless cycle of pain has one redeeming feature: it affords us the opportunity to come to terms with it and thus to accept and bear the reality of our lives.  It teaches us that what we can control is our reaction to the pain. 

In my next post, I will go further and more practically -- meaning less theory and more tools -- into the uses of the Five Stages of Grief in helping us come to the point of accepting and bearing our reality.

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

11 April 2012

Reading "The Power of Now": The One Thing I Can Control

Seventeenth in a series

After we have taken our medication, followed our physician's instructions as to diet, exercise and other life style changes, researched (what did we do before the internet?) all the ins and outs of our painful condition, and listened patiently to all the well-meaning advice from others who do not suffer as we do ("Just take an Advil."), what if the pain is still there?  What if everything we do has only minimal, if any, effect?

It's depressing, upsetting, frustrating and maddening to do everything right and still be in pain.  We tend to feel like failures.  We blame ourselves when we are not blaming modern medicine, our physicians, or the Fickle Finger of Fate.  We turn to food, alcohol, drugs for relief.  We mourn the loss of independence, careers, social lives. 

All this is natural.  In my own experience, I find that acknowledging and allowing those feelings is an necessary part of the process of coming to terms with a life of chronic pain.  In a way, it's like the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  As a matter of fact, that's a great blog post: working with these stages of grief vis-a-vis our lives of chronic pain.  But that will be for next time.

Today, I just want to refer to a sentence from my previous post:

"I bring my attention to [the pain].  I explore it, feel it. Somehow, that takes its power away. Not that the pain recedes automatically, but that I control how I relate to it."

"...I control how I relate to it."  Really, what control do any of us -- pain-free or pain-full -- have in our lives, aside from what our delusional, wishful thinking tries to convince us we have?  We have control over how we react and relate to the circumstances and situations that life brings us.  For those of us with chronic pain, that means we only have control over how we relate to our pain.

I have blogged before about the practice of exploring pain as a pain management tool.  This is one of the ways I control how I react to the pain.  Granted, I often take time for a bit of whining before I get to the actual practice, although I feel better if I keep the whining to a minimum.  But having exercised some authority over the situation of my pain by deliberately and consciously turning my attention to it rather than running away from it, I have rejected the victim role so easily assumed, I have taken control over myself, my Self: ultimately, as I said above, the only control any of us have.

Here is how Eckhart Tolle teaches us to be in the Now.  These are suggestions and skills that apply to pain management as well, so I include this quote from page 63 of The Power of Now as a way to close this post:

"Use your senses fully.  Be where you are.  Look around.  Just look, don't interpret.  See the light, shape, colors textures.  Be aware of the silent presence of each thing. Be aware of the space that allows everything to be."

In exploring your pain, use your senses fully.  Be where you are - look around at the room you are in, feel the bed or chair beneath you, breathe slowly.  Look around without allowing the irritation of the pain, the frustration of your situation, to take you into negative thinking.  Let yourself see beyond the pain to the light, shapes, colors and textures.  Let your body feel beyond the pain to its own silent, peaceful presence and let that feeling expand: this is the space within.  That feeling of spaciousness is the context in which to explore and be present to your pain.

That feeling of spaciousness is your spirit's ability to relegate the pain to its proper place: not in control.  That feeling of spaciousness is your doorway to allowing you to choose how you relate to the pain: in control of your Self.

You cannot do any better than that.

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

06 April 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Make Some Room

Sixteenth in a series.

In this post I want to dig into the following sentence from my previous post:

"When we are focused on our pain, making it an emotional and mental problem in addition to it being physically distressing, "there is no room for anything new to enter, no room for a solution. So whenever you can, make some room, create some space, so that you find the life underneath your life situation." (page 63, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle)

That phrase -- "make some room" -- speaks to me today.  I awoke at 3:30am with a migraine that I treated with medication, a cup of tea and homemade muffin.  What I am thinking now ( a bit fuzzily, due to the after effects of the migraine and the side effects of the medication), is that such homey little rituals, these small comfort measures, are one of the ways I have learned to make some space around my pain.

I like to revert to simple, practical tools and methods after several posts that are mostly discussion and theory, so today I'm making a list. 

These are the things I do to make some room around my pain; they help me "find the life" underneath my life situation.  Most of these things I have posted about before: you can find links to these posts in the column to the left by clicking on these tags: methods, tools, relaxation, inhabit the body.

I do love a good list.  This one provides several examples of how I make some room around my pain.
  1. I have already mentioned the cup of tea and a homemade muffin.  Scones and biscuits do just as well.  These comfort measures make room around the pain by doing for myself what my mother used to do for me when I first began getting migraines at age 13.  I feel nurtured, cared for, and that I am doing it for myself keeps me out of victim mode.
  2. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the idea is not to flee from or deny the physical pain.  The idea is to inhabit it, befriend it.  Having offered myself some comfort and felt the space begin to open around the pain, I bring my attention to it.  I explore it, feel it.  Somehow, that takes its power away.  Not that the pain recedes automatically, but that I control how I relate to it.
  3. Another way to befriend the pain is to breathe into it.  There is nothing so common, so commonly taken for granted, and yet so wonderful for our spiritual health as is breathing.  I have posted often about this practice; use the column at the left and click on the label, breathing.
  4. Meditation and deep relaxation are the best for creating space around pain.  Yet a migraine robs me of my ability to concentrate, sort of a requisite for meditation.  Thank goodness, there are plenty of CDs out there with guided meditations, relaxing music and the like.  Look at all the examples here (guided meditation) and here (meditation music).

That's all for today.  It's time for another cup of tea.  And perhaps a muffin.

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

02 April 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Exercising our Power

Fifteenth in a series.

In my previous post, I said this:

Our life circumstance, chronic pain, can become a doorway to our spiritual enlightenment. We can choose to let our pain teach us to live in the Now, to open our hearts to reality, to show us the freedom of accepting what is. And all of the spiritual teachers I know say that this is the path to inner peace, to a loving heart, and to becoming a compassionate presence in this hurting world.

It took me a while to take it in, but the distinction that Eckhart Tolle makes between one's life circumstance and one's life is edifying.  Here is how it goes for those of us with chronic pain (in the list below, I am paraphrasing from The Power of Now, page 62-63):

  1. Our life is different from our life circumstance (or life situation).
  2. That means that our life is different from the suffering of chronic pain, which is a situation or circumstance of our life.
  3. Our life is Now: our suffering exists in time in that we pile what Tolle calls "mind stuff" on top of the physical pain.
  4. Our life is real: our situation, which is to say our suffering, is created in our mind and as such is unreal.
  5. When we are focused on our pain, making it an emotional and mental problem in addition to it being physically distressing, "there is no room for anything new to enter, no room for a solution.  So whenever you can, make some room, create some space, so that you find the life underneath your life situation." (page 63)
These concepts are not to be understood intellectually, and Tolle stresses this in his Introduction when he says, "Don't read with the mind only."  (page 7)  There is some danger in me trying to express these things in my clumsy way, and so I again urge you to read the book.  I do not claim to be a Tolle expert who can speak for him or get you to understand what he is saying.  My sole purpose is to explore and share how Tolle's teachings have helped me both spiritually and in living with chronic pain.

In my next post (this one is short because of this migraine), I will get to some practical methods for bringing these teachings into the life of chronic pain.

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

25 March 2012

Accept and Bear Reality

Fourteenth in a series

We who live with chronic pain feel powerless a good bit of the time.  Not only can we not control the pain -- it is chronic: by definition, out of our control -- but we are disabled in aspects of our lives that pain-free persons take for granted: travel, work, exercise, daily and basic choice.  It's worth a good whine every now and again, and I do indulge, as my husband can attest.  But one cannot whine very long without seriously damaging one's self-esteem.  So, what is left to us chronic-painers?

The same thing that is left to every other human being on this planet, that's what is left to us.

Long before I began living with migraine disease, I'd read various authors -- Anthony de Mello, Melody BeattyEckhart Tolle, Pema Chodron -- who all said essentially the same thing: when it comes right down to it, the only control any of us have in our lives is the control we exert over how we accept and bear reality.

This being the case, we with chronic pain are no different than any one else.  One of the realities of our lives is that we live with chronic pain.  It is a difficult reality, no doubt.  But we can choose to take it out of the victim-mode of this chronic pain is ruining my life and into the empowered-mode of this chronic pain is a reality I can choose to accept and bear just like every human being.

Suddenly, we don't feel so alone: Our task, our lot in life, is the same as any spiritually-evolving and -maturing person.  We don't feel absolutely powerless: We do have a choice.

We can choose how we deal with our life circumstance.  We have power over our own reactions.  We are in control of our Selves. 

Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now, makes a case for the human ego being the root of our inability to accept our reality, our Now.  My previous several posts have been discussing this.  He says that coming out of a mind- or ego-identity (he uses these terms interchangeably) brings us along on the journey to spiritual enlightenment.

Our life circumstance, chronic pain, can become a doorway to our spiritual enlightenment.  We can choose to let our pain teach us to live in the Now, to open our hearts to reality, to show us the freedom of accepting what is.  And all of the spiritual teachers I know say that this is the path to inner peace, to a loving heart, and to becoming a compassionate presence in this hurting world.

What more could we ask?

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

20 March 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Shame-Free Zone

Thirteenth in a series.

I have been posting about sensitive stuff lately.  It is not an easy matter to honestly turn our attention to our inner workings when we are speaking of the darker side of human nature.  I think that one of the main reasons it's not easy is that we have learned shame and guilt.

We get it from our religion, our parents, our teachers, and society in general.  We are taught shame, we are encouraged to feel guilty.  Maybe this is done to us for what seemed to be a good reason to some authority figure -- to help us learn a lesson, to show us a better way to live.  But the fact is that shame and guilt are unproductive emotions.  They harbor secrets and make us unwilling or unable to bring what is skulking in the dark into the light for healing. 

"Our secrets make us sick." (Alcoholics Anonymous saying)

In the context of this series of posts on Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, guilt and shame also keep us from being in the Now.  They keep us from experiencing the power of this moment because they anchor us in the past, they make us deny the present and fear the future. 

For example: if I am ashamed of that part of me that needs to stay sick because my ego identifies as a sick person, I am forced to keep it hidden under layers of guilt and fear.  I can never release that shame from its dark containers: I can never bring what is happening in my ego to the healing power of the reality of the present moment.  I am stuck, forever denying myself the liberation, the freedom of living in the Now.  Not to mention that it lowers my self-esteem and obliterates my self-honesty.

Many of us will feel defensive, angry, or upset reading a post like the one previous to this.  Please just accept those feelings, acknowledge them as human.  The reality of our lives is hard enough.  We have to deal with pain just about every day.  We have lost careers, relationships, income, mobility, choice.  Our lives are stripped down close to minimum.  We have little control over circumstances -- well, no one has control over circumstances, but we seem to be more at their mercy than many people we know.


Yet we do have control over one thing: how we deal with, accept, work with and live with the reality of our life in this moment.  This is where we overcome difficulties and darkness, in the choices we make to confront and be authentic about what is our Now.

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.  Thank you.

16 March 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Identifying with Pain

Twelfth in a series.

It is insidious, really, how easy it is to become identified with a life circumstance like chronic pain. There is nothing shameful about it -- we all do it by finding our identity in such things as our work, family, wealth, intelligence, experiences -- and Tolle says that our egos bear the responsibility.  The ego will grasp at anything to give it identity and meaning.

"Another aspect of the [suffering] that is an intrinsic part of the egoic mind is a deep-seated sense of lack or incompleteness, of not being whole.  In some people, this is conscious, in others unconscious.  If it is conscious, it manifests as the unsettling and constant feeling of not being worthy or good enough.  If it is unconscious, it will only be felt indirectly as an intense craving, wanting and needing...people will often enter into a compulsive pursuit of ego-gratification and things to identify with in order to fill this hole they feel within." (page 45)

If we are in chronic pain, there's not a whole lot to grasp on to.  In many cases, we have lost huge chunks of our lives: careers, relationships, income, and freedom of movement.  But what Tolle tells us is that, as counter-intuitive as it seems, we are still compelled by our egos to clutch at something to identify with.  For the insecure ego (and the ego is, by nature, insecure) being in pain is as good as anything else.

Here are some of the ways I catch my own ego grasping at the identity straw (I list these things because (1) it's good for my self-honesty to get them out there; (2) it strengthens my awareness, which helps to bring me into the Now; and (3) maybe you will recognize yourself and be relieved that you are not the only one):

1. Talking about my symptoms.  It is amazing how often I repeat the litany of what is wrong: why pain, where pain, when pain, how much pain.  Sometimes, I am sure, it makes sense -- for example, when my doctor asks me, or when another migraine-suffering soul wants to compare notes and connect.  However, there are many other times when I begin reciting my woes with very little provocation.  And sometimes, once I get started, it is really hard to stop.

2. Garnering sympathy.  I never knew it until my husband pointed it out to me (bless his heart), but I have certain dramatic tendencies in the way I talk about and relate to the world around me.  This served me well when I was on stage, back in another life, and still has its uses for story-telling and otherwise participating in a fun evening with friends.  But it loses its allure when I indulge in drama as a way of getting sympathy.  I am canny enough to be subtle about it, but it is still happening, and I do feel chagrin when I catch myself.

3. Fear.  Tolle says that the insecurity of the ego has its greatest outcome in fear.  "Because of its phantom nature, and despite elaborate defense mechanisms, the ego is very vulnerable and insecure, and it sees itself as constantly being under threat." (page 44)  This means that because my ego grasps at the person-in-chronic-pain identity, it fears having the pain taken away.  If my migraines are cured, my ego reasons, who am I?  No one.  I am dead.  How unsettling is that?  When it comes right down to it, there is a part of me that DOES NOT WANT TO GET WELL.

Phew.  It feels good to get that out there.

But now my head is hurting from all this honesty.  (See how I use my identity as person in pain to bring this post to a close?)  In my next post, I'll write about becoming aware of the ego and its machinations.

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

10 March 2012

The Power of Honesty

I wanted to write a post this morning.  I thought I'd follow my usual routine of reviewing my notes in Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, then spend an hour or two writing a post, the eleventh in this series.

Except that, come right down to it (come write down to it?), I am unable to muster the energy because this morning I have a migraine, which is not unusual; and I am low in spirits, which is unusual. 

I don't care to act the victim, or at least I try to catch myself when that temptation arises.  So I'm not vying for sympathy, here.  It's just that some days are harder than others, and there's no clear reason why, it just simply is that way.  I don't judge this mood, I don't wish it away, I take a deep breath and accept it as what is Now.  I am human, though, and I cannot resist just this one comment:

Chronic pain sucks.

05 March 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain Management: The Ego in Pain

Eleventh in a series.

In my previous post I shared a list that I derived from a paragraph in Chapter Two of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now.  It teaches us about the alchemy of taking the base metal of suffering and turning it into the gold of spiritual awareness.
  1. Focus attention on the emotions or thoughts that are causing you to suffer.
  2. Accept that the suffering is there.
  3. Let go of thinking about it, judging it, analyzing it, whining about it. ESPECIALLY avoid making an identity (like being a Victim; I have posted about this before) out of it.
  4. Continue to observe the suffering. This is called being present, or staying in the Now.

In this post, I want to discuss step #3: letting go of the impulse to make an identity out of being in pain. 

Tolle explains that it is the "egoic mind" that seeks to give us an identity:

"Since the ego is a derived sense of self, it needs to identify with external things.  It needs to be both defended and fed constantly.  The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and often also, political, nationalistic, racial, religious and other collective identifications.  None of these is you." (page 46)

I think that Tolle's ideas about the ego, stated briefly in the above quote, but also dealt with in many of his books, are the most important part of his teaching.  These are richly provocative, even radical teachings that could be the subject of many a blog post, book group meeting, or passionate discussion.  But as usual in this blog, I will stick to the subject at hand: chronic pain.

What Tolle is saying about the ego -- that it will grasp anything for identity out of a "...deep-seated sense of lack or incompleteness, of not being whole." (page 45) -- is true for those of us dealing with pain every day of our lives.  It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn't it?  I can just hear you thinking (as I did when first confronted with the idea): "WHAT? You think I WANT to be in this pain?  You think I take pride in it?  I'd let it go in an instant if I could."

Of course you would.  Yet the fact is -- and I believe this is why Jesus had to ask in John 5:6: "Do you want to be healed?" -- there are ways in which being in pain serves our ego.  If the insecure ego will grasp at anything for security, for an identity, then it will grasp at the role of suffering person in chronic pain just as quickly as it will grab at the role of smart person at the top of her industry.  And it will just as easily find ways to nurture itself in the role of victim of pain as well: on compassionate attention from others; on the emotional safety of having an easy excuse for avoiding unpleasant things in life;  on having something, anything, to identify with in an otherwise dramatically changed and circumscribed life.

These are not easy things to admit to ourselves.  They are not easy for anyone in any circumstance.  Tolle argues that we are so controlled by our egos and so accustomed to being so, that we do not even know it is happening.  Our very society is grounded in the workings of our egos: sages like the Buddha, Hafiz, Jesus, and Ghandi knew this and spoke words that continue to feel radical to this day.  To become aware, to allow the power of the Now to supplant power of the ego, is to approach spiritual enlightenment.

Just remember that your ego will quite happily grasp at the identity of spiritually aware person and then you are back where you started.  It's humbling, to say the least.

In my next post, I share some more details about identifying with the life of pain.

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

28 February 2012

The Alchemy of Transforming Suffering into Consciousness

Tenth in a series on Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now"

Alchemy -- an ancient philosophical tradition practiced by sages who claimed powers such as the ability to turn base metals into gold or silver -- is mentioned by Tolle in chapter two of "The Power of Now."  In the following quote (page 40), he explains how this early scientific method relates to his work in the present day:

"Sustained consciousness severs the link between [suffering] and your thought processes and brings about the process of transmutation...This is the esoteric meaning of the ancient art of alchemy:the transmutation of base metal into gold, of suffering into consciousness." (emphasis mine)

Isn't this the very essence of our work with chronic pain and the spiritual life?  The steps we take away from our mind- and emotion-caused suffering toward consciousness and choice are our very own alchemical process.  We believe that we can take the base metal of suffering and turn it into the gold of spiritual awareness and peaceful presence to what is.

Tolle tells us that we have the power, we are the alchemists:

"Let me summarize the process.  Focus attention on the feeling inside you.  Know that it is [suffering].  Accept that it is there.  Don't think about it--don't let the feeling turn into thinking.   Don't judge or analyze.  Don't make an identity out of yourself of it.  Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is going on inside you."  (page 41)

I love lists.  I love a simple, step-by-step explanation after I've heard the philosophical or spiritual basis for a practice.  My mind just works that way, in lists, and -- when I am in pain -- it is much easier to pay attention to and absorb the meaning of a few simply written items on a short list than it is a long treatise. 

Here is a list I made from the above qoute:

1. Focus attention on the emotions or thoughts that are causing you to suffer.
2. Accept that the suffering is there.
3. Let go of thinking about it, judging it, analyzing it, whining about it.  ESPECIALLY avoid making an identity (like being a Victim; I have posted about this before) out of it.
4. Continue to observe the suffering.  This is called being present, or staying in the Now.

 I have found that #3, above, is not as easy as it sounds, and that is probably one of the reasons that Tolle has written an entire book rather than stopping with a four-item list.  Later on in Chapter Two, Tolle begins to talk about the ego and how it loves to suffer because it loves to have an identity and loves to have something to fight against.  The ego is what makes #3 so difficult.  But I will save that discussion for my next post.

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

23 February 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain: Bringing Resistance to Consciousness

Ninth in a series.

In my previous post and the one before it, I have been reflecting on this quote, and how it relates to pain management, from Chapter Two of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now:

The [suffering] that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, resistance is some form of judgment. On the level of emotion, it is some form of negativity. (The Power of Now, page 33)

How do we bring our resistance to pain into consciousness?  We must know when we are doing it, or we cannot change it: when we are not aware that we are resisting, the thoughts grab hold and exert immense power over us.  Awareness is the key.  Indeed, awareness is what Tolle is writing about through the entire book, that and ego. 

By the way, I have found the work of Anthony deMello to be wonderful for teaching about awareness by showing us how asleep (as he says it) we are and guiding us with humor and compassion on the journey to greater awareness and greater love.

I have learned two ways to bring my inner resistance to the physical pain of the migraines to the conscious level:

1. Listen to my thoughts.
2. Pay attention to my body.

(You may have noticed that, whenever I make lists like this, they are very simple -- elemental, really.  That's because the last thing I need or want when in pain is some complicated or intellectual system that only frustrates me and stresses me out because it's really hard to think when the pain is bad.)

So, back to the list.

In reality, this is not as easy as it sounds.  As Tolle says, we are generally so immersed in our thoughts and so much at their mercy and so habituated to being that way that we are completely unaware it's happening.   So this pain management practice is really a spiritual discipline that must be practiced with deep and intentional attention.  There is the topic for my next post!

I have found this to be easier than listening to my thoughts, perhaps because I've been athletic most of my life.  This step actually has three sub-steps:
     a. Learn relaxation techniques.  I have posted about this here and here and here.
     b. Notice how various muscles and muscle groups feel when they are tense; feel the contrast with that relaxed sensation.
     c. Use your deep muscle relaxation skills for both focusing on the specific muscles when they tense up due to pain AND practice your deep muscle relaxation whenever you feel pain approaching.

If you practice yoga or are otherwise athletic, you are likely to have an easier time with this step.  And that leads me to the next point: it is only minimally effective to practice relaxation when the pain is upon you.  Think of this more as a spiritual discipline or a lifestyle change, and then your tools will be handy and more natural when you reach for them while in pain.

Now it is time for me to practice what I preach and go take care of this migraine.  May you be well and at peace today.

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