About Me

My photo

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.

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.