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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.

30 January 2012

LEGACIES: Old Reputations, Young Lives

My father attended Penn State on the GI Bill after serving in World War II.  Throughout his life, he never stopped expressing his loyalty to the former and his gratitude for the latter.  Other family members have attended that fine university, have lauded its educational standards and cheered for its teams.  So I write this commentary with a long-time sense of how a school can shape generations.

It is deeply sad that Joe Paterno's last months were overshadowed by his firing because of what happened on his staff, in his domain.  By all accounts, this was a man of integrity, intelligence, love for his atheletes, and a generous loyalty to his university that he made manifest in how he managed his salary as well as in the gifts he made to school and students. 

It is infinitely heartbreaking that so many boys' lives are now overshadowed by the evil perpetrated upon them by Sandusky and all those who allowed it to go unaddressed.  By all accounts, this horror was known by most of the persons with power to stop it, and all of them chose to protect their own and the school's legacy rather than that of these vulnerable boys.

Let's put this into perspective.

I am sad for Mr. Paterno and his family.  I am outraged for the boys and their families.

Mr. Paterno will ever have an asterisk attached to his otherwise wonderful legacy.  The abused and then ignored boys will ever bear in their hearts and minds and bodies a torturous indignity that is the legacy of sexual abuse.

Mr. Paterno suffered greatly, I have no doubt, after the firing from his job in what turned out to be the last months of his life.  The abused and then ignored boys suffered  and will suffer greatly, I have no doubt, in the long years ahead of them that will be fraught with mental and emotional anguish.

"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." (Attributed variously to Mahatma Ghandi, Winston Churchill and others)

As long as we place our reputations, our work, our institutional stability, the sports we follow, our wealth, our power and whatever else we hold valuable before the protection of the least among us, we are not a great people.

' "Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or needing clothes, or sick or in prison did we not help you?"  He will reply, "I tell you the truth: whatever you did not do for the least among you, you did not do for me."' (Matthew 25:45)



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

17 January 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain Management: Love, Joy, Peace

Sixth in a series

"And when I base my pain management on my spiritual life and in God, the coming together of physical practice, mental ease and spiritual depth results in much more than just managing of pain: it results in a better quality of life, and, I pray, makes me a better person."

That is a sentence from a previous post.  I repeat it now because it's a nice segue to today's post.  A few days after writing that sentence, I found myself commenting, on the blog of a friend, that I may not be working or accomplishing much because of the almost-constant migraine pain, but I can still strive to become a better person.

My spiritual life has always been about making me a more loving, joyful and peaceful person, regardless of my life circumstance.  Why shouldn't pain management be about that, too?  It's not that much of a leap, especially with Eckhart Tolle's help.

The best way I can think to explain what I mean is by a kind of rough syllogism:

  1. Love and joy are "inseparable from your natural state of inner connectedness with Being."  ("The Power of Now", Tolle, page 29)
  2. Pain management that is based in spirituality brings me to my inner connectedness with Being.
  3. Therefore, pain management is about love and joy.

And that is how I become a better person through managing my pain: I become more loving, more joyful as I begin to feel that I am inseparable from Being, from the Divine.

Notice that none of this is about thinking.  We cannot think our way into connectedness with God.  Tolle says that love, joy and peace arise from beyond the mind (page 29), and so the mind has no power to bring us to that state of inner connectedness to God. 

No more can I think my way into pain management.  My mind wants to wail about missing that party or fume about yet another day stuck indoors with the blindfold on.  It's human to think like this, but that excuse quickly wears thin as pain perpetuates itself.  Maybe it's human, and understandable, but it's also counter-productive.

Speaking of pain, this migraine is bothering me.  It's time to practice what I preach.  I'll continue these thoughts 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 .


09 January 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain Management: Tools (2)

Fifth in a series.

Eckhart Tolle says that enlightenment is "your natural state of felt oneness with Being.

"It is a state if connectedness with something immeasurable and indestructible, something that, almost paradoxically, is essentially you and yet is much greater than you." (The Power of Now, p. 12)

He goes on to say that it is the inability to feel this connection that creates the illusion of separation from the world around us, from the people around us, from God.  Today's post is about how this concept comes together with pain management.

One of the paradoxes of pain management is that, instead of fleeing from or anesthetizing the pain, our best practice is to be aware of it -- to embrace it, as it were.  Several years ago I read a book by Stephen and Ondrea Levine entitled, Who Dies?, in which they explain that, when we turn toward the pain, paying attention to it and then flooding it with awareness, we take away its power over us.  For me, it  seems to recede, become less significant; it loses that monolithic presence that looms over me and affects all I do.

There is only one way to test this theory: try it.  I want to share with you some techniques I have developed over the years of nearly constant migraine pain, in the hope that they will help you.

1. Deep relaxation
I have posted about this practice before, in a discussion about inhabiting our bodies.  For now, I'll just summarize by saying that deep relaxation is essential for my meditation and pain management practices.  Deep relaxation methods include using the breath, focusing on major muscle groups, and practicing body awareness and visualization.  There are many websites that teach deep relaxation.  Here are a few:
* Inner Health Studio
* Mayo Clinic
* University of Maryland

A wonderful aspect of deep relaxation is that, after daily practice, it becomes so much a way of life that you don't need basic tools any more: your body simply learns to relax into pain and other unpleasant stimuli.  You find yourself taking a deep breath during confrontation or stress or pain without ever having been aware that you decided to go into deep relaxation. 

Just don't forget to breathe, deeply, slowly, throughout your practice.

2. Attend to the pain
Instead of running away from your pain, turn toward it.  Name how it feels -- throbbing, icy, stabbing, pressure, fiery -- and then pay attention to how it changes.  It can be helpful to know that pain does not remain a block of heavy and overwhelming feeling: it dances, it moves, it changes aspect.  Following and naming it -- a habit that, admittedly, takes some discipline at first -- floods your pain with your awareness.  Naming it takes some of the fear out of it.

3. Flood the pain
If you like and derive benefit from visualization, use your imagination: imagine a healing light, perhaps a soothing color, flooding the pain; picture a balmy summer breeze wafting through and dissipating it; visualize yourself by the ocean or in a sun-lit meadow.

4. Stay with it for a while
Remain in that calm state for a while.  Fall asleep.  Meditate.  When you first begin, you will find that any movement or conversation forces you immediately out of your relaxed state.  But as you practice, you will find that you are better able to maintain it even when moving on to the next activity.


After you have practised daily for a while, you will find that your body learns a new way of being, that you are able to call up the relaxation response without trouble, and even that it is readily available and already in gear before you consciously reach for it.  It goes back to the quote that begins this post, doesn't it?  Connecting with our pain connects us with our bodies.  The resulting calm connects us with our spirits, and thus with God, or Being.


May you find your state of Being through your pain.


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




05 January 2012

"The Power of Now" and Pain Management: Tools

Fourth in a series.

Pain management cannot be all theory and discussion, so I am following my first posts about Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now with some tools and skills. 

The dreadful enslavement to incessant thinking
In my previous post, I discussed the first chapter of Tolle's book and how it relates to pain management.  Briefly, it's important to understand that our mind creates suffering: the mind's addiction to thinking, worrying, and projecting into the future causes emotional and physical stress that exacerbate the pain.  Tolle speaks of the "false mind" and how it "casts a shadow of fear and suffering."  Enlightenment, on the other hand, is "a state of wholeness, of being at One and therefore at peace." (p. 15)

That sounds wonderful, yet to those of us in chronic pain, almost impossible.  How can we find peace in the midst of physical discomfort?  Since there is nothing in scripture or spiritual literature suggesting that people in pain are exempt from spiritual growth, there must be a way.  Perhaps it is a harder way, but it is surely there for us.  (One of the ironies of the migraine pain that has been my daily companion for seven years is that it has taken me deeper into my spirit and closer to God.  But that is a subject for another post.)

Stop identifying with the mind
Tolle takes ten chapters to make his case for dis-identification for the mind, but now it's time for practical help, so the theory will wait for future posts.  Now we need to try to change our habit of identifying with the mind in order to manage our pain.

Notice that nowhere have I written, "stop thinking." The mind thinks -- that's what it does. An instruction like stop thinking is nothing but frustrating because it's impossible. We may as well tell our blood to stop circulating. Meanwhile, we are still in pain.

Focusing on the breath is the easiest and oldest way to stop paying attention to all the thinking going on between our ears.  Here are three simple ways to teach yourself to focus on the breath - it's about how you breathe.

1. Practice breathing more deeply by relaxing from your diaphragm (stomach area) instead of from the top of your chest just below your collarbone.  Feel that the air fills your lungs to their very bottom.  Then, slowly relax the diaphragm, releasing all of the air.  Stop if you get light-headed. 
2. You can also expand the rib cage by stretching the intercostal muscles.  When you relax your diaphragm, try to feel your ribs move apart also, so that you are expanding that area of your abdomen for 360 degrees around. 
3. Do this intentionally, three breaths at a time at first, when you first wake up, during the day, as you lie down at night, whenever.  When you are accustomed to it, make it ten breaths.

Those of you who meditate know that breathing intentionally in this way is a wonderful tool for meditation, which is my most effective pain management tool.  I have posted before about meditation, especially for those of us who don't think we do it very well: Meditation for (Distracted) Dummies (Like Me).  Believe me, breathing like this, with a meditative focus on the physical process of breathing, is a wonderful pain management tool.  I do not say it cures or stops pain, I say it is a tool for managing pain.


Once you have practiced deep breathing so that it feels natural, try it when you are in pain:
1. Get into a position that is comfortable.  Forget those meditation gurus who insist you sit upright, with straight back and your feet on the floor.  Lie down, stretch out, curl up on your side: do whatever does not make the pain worse.
2.  Breathe.  Use your diaphragm in the way you have practiced.
3. Focus.  Count the breaths ten at a time, or focus on one particular aspect: its coolness or warmth as it enters and leaves your left nostril, for example, or how your stomach feels as it expands against the waistband of your pants.  Stay with that focus.
4. Allow the thoughts.  If you fight them, or wish them away, or feel inadequate because you cannot meditate properly, they have power over you and your pain.  Your efforts against them will make you feel worse.  When you realize you are thinking, simply name that ("thinking...thinking") and then re-focus on the breath.

This is a lot of information, so I will wait for my next post to explain deep muscle relaxation, which goes hand-in-hand with deep breathing.  In the meanwhile, have fun breathing!


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