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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 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.