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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.

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.

17 February 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain Management: Emotions and Resistance

Eighth in a series.

The previous post and this one discuss this quote from chapter two of The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle:

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)

The purpose of this post is to deal with the negativity that arises from emotions.  Tolle's premise, as re-stated for those of us who live with chronic pain, is that we create our own suffering by not accepting the pain in the present moment, the Now: instead, we resist it unconsciously.  Mental resistance, or thought, is what I posted about in my last post.  Emotional resistance to our pain, the subject of this post, is expressed as negativity.

Before continuing, I want to reiterate two points:

It is only natural -- indeed, it arises out of our instinct for survival -- to resist or flee physical pain, so there is no need to feel guilty or cowardly or inadequate in some way.  It's built into us.

Although Tolle often uses the words "suffering" and "pain" interchangeably, I make a clear distinction between them.  Pain is physical -- it happens to us.  Suffering is mental and emotional -- we do it to ourselves.  Suffering is our inner commentary about the pain.

When my inner commentary is both below the conscious level and negative, I begin to whine.  Or complain.  Or get angry at small things.  Or sit around in a stupor.  Or take no pleasure in the goodness around me.  Or...you get the point.

Whining, complaining, being angry and all the things I do when caught in an unconscious reaction to pain only make the pain worse.  There are physiological, neurological and chemical reasons for this (this link provides good explanations specifically linked to stress, another word, as far as I am concerned, for causing ourselves suffering). 

So my goal becomes this: to learn how I am making the pain worse and stop doing it.  As with so many things in life, it's more complicated (or, at least, we make it more complicated) than it seems.  But here are a few steps to try:

1. Use the link two paragraphs above, or conduct your own search about how physical pain is made worse by our emotional and mental reactions to it.  It really helps me to understand that my stressed-out reactions actually increase muscle pain, make my head pound harder and my stomach more upset.  This understanding leads me to what is called a no-brainer: shall I continue making my pain worse, or shall I stop making my pain worse?

2. Given that it is natural to feel negative about pain, much of our emotional reaction to it springs from our unconscious mind.  That, of course, gives it more power over us.  So the second step is to bring our emotional and mental resistance to consciousness, which means simply to realize when we are doing it.  And that, since many of us live unconsciously most of the time (which is Tolle's main point in most of his writing), is not easy.  I will write about it in some detail in the next post, although your best bet is to get Tolle's book.

3. Now that I understand how I am making my pain worse and am practicing bringing my inner life to consciousness, I move on to the third step: I develop tools, strategies and practices that help me stop making my pain worse.  I have blogged about this many, many times, so rather than re-state, I'll just direct you to the right-hand column where you'll find a section called LABELS.  If you click on breathing, mantras, methods, tools, meditation and relaxation, you will find many ideas for pain management.

A brief summary:
1. Learn how your mental and emotional reactions to physical pain actually cause more physical pain.
2. Bring those reactions to consciousness, so you can take away their power over you.  
3. Develop tools, strategies and practices that help you stop making your pain worse.

Finally, by bringing our suffering to consciousness and accepting the pain without making it worse, we are learning to do what Tolle writes about -- live in the Now.  In the Now is where we find peace, tranquility, and wisdom.  The fact that it is our pain that led us there is just one of the great ironies of life.

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

09 February 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain Management: Resistance

Seventh in a series.

It took me a long time to learn what Eckhart Tolle meant when he said:

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)

The purpose of this series of posts about Tolle's book, The Power of Now, is to relate what he has to say about suffering, our minds and egos, and the present moment to life in chronic pain.  And what Tolle says about suffering and how we bring it upon ourselves has possibly even greater relevance -- or, at the least, urgency -- when we are in physical pain.

NOTE: Tolle tends to use the words, "suffering" and "pain" interchangeably.  For myself, and for the purposes of clarity, I like to keep them separate: suffering is what we cause ourselves and is mental or emotional; pain happens with illness or injury and is physical. 

So, back to the quote above -- specifically, what it means if you are living with chronic pain.  If the suffering we cause ourselves is some form of nonacceptance, a kind of unconscious resistance, isn't your first reaction to say, "Damn right!  The [whatever form of chronic pain you have] is killing me and I hate it.  I do not have to accept this pain."  That's natural, in the way it's natural to snatch your hand back from a hot burner.  Our ingrained survival habit is to flee or get rid of the pain, and there are all sorts of bodily responses that go along with that habit, including adrenaline rushes and muscles that leap into action.

But.  In the case of chronic pain, just because it's natural doesn't mean it's good for us.  These natural and inherited responses to pain become problematic with chronic pain because although perfectly understandable, they cause more pain.  I have written about this vicious cycle in several other posts, but in this and the next post I am focusing on the two forms of resistance as Tolle talks about them: thought, which is judgment; and emotion, which is negativity.

Tolle does not say that thinking and judging are bad in and of themselves.  But when they are habitual and unconscious, they take over our perceptions and bring us suffering.  Thus, when we have chronic pain, we judge it and in judging it, make it worse.

When I worked with recovering addicts, they would share about the trouble they caused themselves when they "got all up in their heads."  I like this phrase as a way to relate to suffering.  When I am all up in my head about a migraine, my thoughts go something like this:

"Oh, no.  This is not good.  It's coming, a right-side migraine, the worst.  It's already pounding.  Another day curled up on my bed with the blindfold on...how will I walk the dog?...and there's nothing to cook for dinner...can't go to the store now...starting to feel sick and how can I take the medicine on an upset stomach?"  I could go on with this, but I'll spare you.

The more I think like this, the more tense my muscles become in response to the mental stress.  The more tense my muscles, the more pain in my shoulders and neck, which makes the migraine pain worse.  And there's more.  As I think in this way, I become anxious, my stomach becomes more upset, my heart beats faster and that makes my head pound more.

So, I am all up in my head and the pain that I am judging so harshly and thinking about so obsessively is worse than it was before I started all the thinking.

It's time to learn to stop obsessive thinking and to re-frame the judging of the pain.  Meditation, meditative breathing, and practices such as yoga and chanting are my tools for halting obsessive thinking.  The resulting calm and quiet mental state is perfect for re-framing the judgment, although usuallyit's not needed because the mind is still.  But re-framing, if needed, would go something like this:

"A migraine."  Deep, slow breath.  "First, walk the dog, then find the blindfold, remember the glass of water."  Deep, slow breath. 

Pain felt in a relaxed body and mind is much easier to take than pain felt in a tense, upset body and mind.  It's as simple as that. 

The next post will be about emotional resistance to pain.

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