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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.

23 September 2013

Accepting Limitations With Tonglen Practice

As has happened before during these past thirteen months, I have been unable to make regular posts on my blog due to school work and the migraines.Time to accept my limitations (an exercise I go through semi-regularly) and content myself with doing what I can, not what I think I should be doing.

I turn too far inward, I lose perspective, when the pain gets as bad as it was and for as many days as it lasted last week. I whine. I become depressed. I lose sight of what is good in my life. I am generally a pain in the butt. God bless my poor husband.

This morning I was reminded, as I sat full of despair about the hostage situation in a Nairobi mall, of a Buddhist practice called tonglen. Here is how Toni Bernhard, in her wonderful book, How To Be Sick, describes it:

"Tonglen practice is a compassion practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. ... In tonglen practice...we breathe in the suffering of the world and breathe out whatever kindness, serenity, and compassion we have to give. It's a counter-intuitive practice...tonglen reverses the ego's logic."

She describes how she used tonglen when trying to work part-time while quite ill. She lay down and breathed in the suffering of all those who must work when they are sick because they have no sick day benefits and who, 'if they didn't go to work...wouldn't be able to pay the rent or buy food for their families.' It lifted her out of despair and self-pity into the 'wonder' of '[f]inding our own storehouse of compassion' in the midst of the practice.

Taking my cue from Toni, I practiced tonglen for all those held hostage by other people or by illness and pain. It's not an easy thing to do. I feel overwhelmed enough by the pain of the world without deciding to breathe it in. But two things happened as I falteringly followed Toni's example.

My own pain and the limitations it causes were placed into perspective by helping me feel part of a larger, human reality. I felt less alone. I felt less singular in my suffering.

And whatever teensy amount of compassion and serenity I mustered was enough. Just what happened in tonglen this morning was sufficient.

These are not cognitive events. They are simply there as I practice. Beyond decision-making or ego machinations or the rationalizations of an orderly mind, they are there. And I am at peace.

23 August 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Suffering Comes From Resistance

If suffering comes from resistance, as Diane Mariechild says in today's reading (Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful), where does joyful acceptance come from? It may seem like a stupid question. After all, the title of the reading today 'Joyful Acceptance' so wouldn't I just read the piece to find out?

 Well, sorta.

I just find myself needing extra encouragement these days, extra patient explanations and more time for thought and realization. I have to read between the lines a little bit.

Charlotte Joko Beck says, in the quote at the top of the page :

A life of joy is not in seeking happiness, but in experiencing and simply being the circumstances of our life as they are.

I have posted often about acceptance, I have posted about joy, about suffering (see the Labels column to the right of this post). But the idea that resisting suffering has its opposite, at least in the way Mariechild discusses it, is a connection I had not made before.

The opposite of resisting is accepting; the opposite of suffering is joy. Instead of resisting suffering, I choose to look around and accept joy. Not manufacture joy, not choose or buy or find something that makes me joyful. Accept joy. Meaning joy, like suffering, is all around, is part of life, is there for the noticing and the intention to accept. Meaning that as available as suffering is in this life, so available is joy.

There for the noticing, there for the simple intention of accepting it.

How cool is that?

17 June 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Living Well

It's all very well to talk about living well, as does Diane Mariechild in today's reflection in Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful, but how do we do it when our lives seem --  or are -- far from "well"?

By not fleeing or denying or pretending.

By living consciously into each moment: by being fully present.

Fully present even to our pain, be it physical or emotional or spiritual; living consciously along with the difficulties presented to us.

That kind of presence to life doesn't happen, doesn't come to us just because we want it, although I am convinced that wanting it is a prerequisite for finding it. Over the years of living with chronic migraine pain, I have been taught and have developed on my own many practices for living life well despite pain. Not that I am really good at these practices always, or that I go through life in saintly fashion, smiling beneficently while courageously hiding physical suffering.

No, my practice must include regular, if not constant, reminders to slow down, stop whining, breathe deeply, and look into my tool box of pain management techniques. Even after all these years, I need to remind myself. Even after all these years, I still want to flee or deny or complain. Thank goodness I learned long ago to smile wryly at my foibles, shake my head and re-resolve to change.

Whatever practice works for my pain -- meditation, deep breathing, deep muscle relaxation, inhabiting the body, chanting and mantras (all of which I have posted about; see the Labels list to the right of this column) --  also works in my spiritual life, helping me to let go of desired outcomes; nudging me to leave aside the worry about lack of productivity and inability to hold down a job; teaching me to accept the moment and therein find God.

An odd blessing it is, that migraine pain has led and continues to lead me to spiritual depths unavailable in my busy, productive life before the migraines got bad. It is the sort of blessing surely awaiting us, simply available through quiet acceptance of what is Now.

You can email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Comments on this post can be made through GooglePlus.

13 June 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: What Brings True Happiness?

The quality of our life changes when we live with chronic pain, and it is easy to submit to feelings of depression, anger and loss. Yet -- and even though such emotions are surely natural and understandable -- who wants to live perpetually in anger, however natural the reasons are?

Here is where being in pain can help lead us to spiritual wisdom, as I have posted recently.

For me, the pain and other effects of migraine keep me from engaging in life as I used to. But I do not want to give up on life completely, so I have been forced to seek meaning within the pain and discomfort. Much to my initial surprise, meaning was there. It was very much different from the supposed joys and productivity of the life I'd left behind -- activity, work, better purchase power, more time to seek out what the world calls 'pleasure.'

"We might spend our whole lives attempting to gain sensory pleasures, yet pleasures are transitory. The belief that the physical world is solid and unchanging and can bring true happiness is an illusion created by the mind. The deepest peace and greatest joy are beyond material and sensory pleasure." (Diane Mariechild in Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful)

Hidden inside our pain-filled lives is the truth about what constitutes real fulfillment, true happiness. When we have seek out meaning in our lives despite the pain we can find what Diane Mariechild calls "deepest peace and greatest joy".

You can contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Comments to this post can be made through GooglePlus.

09 June 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: The Ego By Any Other Name

In the throes of my deepest codependence long ago, I just knew that if I acted a certain way or said the right thing I could fix the relationship that was going wrong, the anxiety buzzing within me, depression's weight in my gut. I could say just the right affirmation, follow the dictates of this great self-help book and I would have a perfect life.

Here is what Diane Mariechild (in Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) has to say about that:

"It is easy to delude ourselves by thinking that we can make things totally convenient and comfortable and eliminate all pain. This unrealistic thinking is disconnected from the truth of physical life...another way of disguising the ego's need for control with positive, upbeat language."

What she is pointing toward is the Buddhist concept, equanimity.

"She who loves roses must be patient and
not cry out when she is pierced by thorns." (Olga Broumas)

We who love life must be patient when life disappoints us, hurts us, betrays us. (I believe in "crying out" sometimes, so cannot accept that limitation on our approach to life. Sometimes a quick whine or a good cry is what I need in order to move on.)

We who love life must not allow our ego to delude us into believing we have control.

And though we do not have control, we do have choice: we can choose to be aware of the ego's machinations, of our need to have things our own way; we can choose to accept life's situations and circumstances and joys and difficulties without layering onto them the suffering of anger, frustration, expectation, and neediness.

Realizing that we have this choice is our power in life, not over life. Exercising this choice is the beginning of wisdom.

Contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. You can make comments through GooglePlus.

07 June 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Natural Peace

The place from which to endure and manage chronic pain is the natural peace that is our intended state; the state from which our culture, relationships and our reactions to them drag us every day, every minute.

Add pain to that mix and we are even more tied up in confusion, chaos, disorder.

"We have become accustomed to living in conflict and don't realize there is another way to live... Once we are willing to directly perceive and deeply explore this conflict the conflicted energy dissolves and natural peace emerges." (Diane Mariechild, Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Reflections For Becoming Mindful)

How we deal with chronic pain can lead us to the peace -- the natural peace -- about which Mariechild writes; it can be the doorway to a more constructive, wise way of being in this world. If we allow it, the burden of pain becomes the blessing of peace.

It's a paradox. The pain that frustrates, upsets and creates disorder within us is leading us to inner peace. If we allow it to lead us, if we make the decision to let it take us through that paradox by living into the tension between two seeming opposites, we can choose peace.

Contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Comments can be made through GooglePlus.

06 June 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Life As Practice

"Life is our practice. If we listen deeply to what's going on -- if we're involved down to the very bottom with our life situation -- this is our true teacher, the most venerable teacher. Life -- roshi!" Maurine Stuart

This quote begins today's reflection in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Women's Daily Reflections for Becoming Mindful.

Notice that Maurine Stuart does not qualify what life must be like in order for it to be our teacher. Any life -- our own lives -- are the teacher. What she does qualify is how we respond to life: if we listen, if we are involved down to the very bottom, that is when life can be our teacher.

So it's not just about living, it's not just about going through the motions, half-awake, unaware, uninvolved with life's depths. It's about plunging in, being aware, remaining open to the lessons.

It's about asking questions: what does this event/circumstance/person have to teach me? Will I allow myself to be transformed?

If we explore our pain, if we plunge into its depths with a mind- and heart-set of wanting it to teach us, then our lives of chronic pain can become, instead of burden, teacher.

You can contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Comments can be made through Google Plus.

30 May 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Potential to Awaken

For today's post I am going back to the reflection for May 27 (in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful), which I missed while busy with a school assignment.

She begins the reflection with a quote from Pema Chodron, one of my favorite spiritual writers:

"Taking refuge in the Buddha means that you are willing to spend your life acknowledging or reconnecting with your awakeness [sic], learning that every time you meet the dragon you take off more armor, particularly the armor that covers your heart."

That takes a lot of courage, to take off the armor with which we have protected ourselves, our hearts. It's difficult enough to do in relatively safe relationships and circumstances, let alone when we are meeting "the dragon."

And what is this dragon? Perhaps the dragon is whatever makes us fearful or angry or withdrawn: whatever we allow to move us away from our birthright of peacefulness and compassion.

In this sense, our pain -- physical and emotional -- can be viewed as a dragon. This week I had four consecutive days of migraine and, although I have been through such periods and longer many times, by the fourth morning I awakened frustrated and angry (quite naturally -- I do not blame myself for being upset at four days of pain) that the pain was still there. It took me a while in meditation to make friends with the pain, as I like to say; in Pema's words, to take off some armor.

So I gradually took off the armor of frustration and anger, those shields that I have created over a lifetime of sensitivity to hurt. And what is below or beyond the shields? Softness, vulnerability, quiet acceptance, reluctance to fight. That's why it takes courage to disarm before the dragon: we are left defenseless, or so it seems.

Yet if we can understand this defenselessness as courage to be awake, if we can accept the pain without any hard armor in that acceptance, then we have not only become more awake and thus softer, more compassionate, we have opened a lovely space in which to practice pain management skills. (See the list of Labels to the right for links to previous posts about pain management, methods and acceptance.)

We also have a lovely space in which to have compassion for our hurting selves.

Contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Comments can be made through Google Plus.

29 May 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Deep Seeing

I have not posted in a week because I have been concentrating on completing a school assignment. Having just now emailed it to my mentor, I am ready to resume blogging.

Mariechild's reflection for today (in Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) talks about deep seeing: becoming present to the immediate experience; noticing what we are seeing.

"'Let us, through our movements, open in our bodies to the freshness of the air and the life above us, around us, and below us. Let us open and accept it.' ...We don't often do this...[t]he mind becomes busy with comparisons, evaluations and memories."

All very well and good if one is healthy and pain-free. Not so well and good if one is suffering with, say, a migraine. Who can do all that -- open, accept, notice -- when physical pain seems overwhelming?

Yet the advice holds, because when we allow ourselves to expand in awareness beyond our misery, we create a cushioning space around the misery. However, this is really hard to do for the first time when in the midst of pain, so it's better to practice when feeling relatively well. Making perceiving and noticing a habit means that it is readily available when we are suffering.

Contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Comments can be made through Google Plus.

22 May 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Attachment

My friend, David Hilfiker, is blogging about being diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's disease (or mild cognitive impairment) at Watching the Lights Go Out. His most recent post strikes me as being one to which many of us with chronic pain can relate. It is about the frustration of having a disease that offers (so far) relatively nebulous symptoms:

"When, in conversation with another person about my Alzheimer's, I mention one of my particularly frustrating symptoms, they'll often respond with something like, 'Yeah, I know what you mean, I've been getting a lot more forgetful, too.'

"It drives me nuts."

He explains that the symptoms this early in the disease do not seem definitive and almost always are not noticed by friends and even, sometimes, family. He, himself, who is experiencing a decline in his heretofore impressive intellectual abilities, can get confused:

"So do I always feel absolutely certain? Well, mostly I do. ... And that little bit of uncertainty makes this difficult disease even more difficult."

At this point, the particulars diverge from those of other chronic diseases, but the subject is still relevant. Take, for example, migraine, or any other pain that is not outwardly manifested. I read a lot of other migraine and pain blogs, and the list of complaints and frustrations are legion. We do not feel understood or accepted; we field comments like, "Well, you look great," that seem to deny our pain; we deal with physicians who have no patience for us when their medications don't work; we endure the upset of others with whom we must cancel plans for the umpteenth time.

And we second-guess ourselves. Is this migraine that bad? Am I being too careful, too willing to give up? Is the pain at the same level it used to be -- maybe it is getting better?

It drives us nuts.

This is the sort of suffering that I have posted about before: the suffering that we layer over our pain. We make things worse with our worry, our hurt pride when we are not believed or understood, our upset at our own confusion and uncertainty, and the way we allow our emotions to overwhelm us.

We don't get to choose what other people say to us or how they react to us; we don't get to choose what is happening within our bodies. We do get to choose how we react to other people; how we are present to our emotions; how we bear with the realities of our disease; whether or not we allow the mind to take over.

That is the end of suffering, when we can let go of the mind's machinations and the ego's needs. Here is what Charlotte Joko Beck says in today's reflection in Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations For Becoming Mindful.

"Our mind doesn't matter. What matters is nonattachment to the activities of the mind. And our emotions are harmless unless they dominate us (that is, if we are attached to them) -- then they create disharmony for everyone."

Not that it's easy, this nonattachment to something to which we have carefully nurtured our attachment all of our lives. But just being aware that nonattachment is a way out of suffering is a major step. Simply choosing to be aware, that's where to start.

If you'd like other perspectives on suffering and the ego, please click on the word Suffering or on the word Ego in the Labels column to the right of this post. Thank you.

14 May 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Purpose Despite Pain

This quote from Rosa Parks begins the reflection for May 11 in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful:

"To this day I believe we are here on earth to live, grow and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom."

Now, how does that work if we suffer with chronic pain that limits our lives, activities and relationships? For me, it has become a matter of forgetting about scale or importance.

 For seventeen years I was Founding Executive Director of a residence for homeless women living with AIDS; my husband, who also worked for the organization, and I lived in the building with the women. I felt relevant, like I was doing something worthwhile in the world, and I was doing work I loved.

When the chronic migraines drove me away from my work and my home in 2009, I lost purpose while I grieved. When the grieving was finished, I looked around and thought, now what? Where was my grand plan, my integrated life, my joy in participating in something larger than myself, my (I have to admit) pride in doing what I was doing?

A couple of months ago I confessed to the Womens' Spirituality Group in which I have participated for over ten years that I sometimes felt inadequate, my passion for working with the poor muted and unexpressed. I am doing nothing for social justice, I said.

My friend Kathy said, you pray and that is not nothing.

She said it so sincerely, and then repeated it when walking out the door at the end of the meeting, giving me a hug before she left.

Somehow I was given the grace to accept her offering without qualification or judgment. She enabled me to embrace what is mine now: to pray and to live into this journey on the spiritual path.

If there were a quietly wise and loving friend who could do the same for you, what would she say to you and would you allow it to change you?

You can email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com, or comment below if you are on Google+. Thank you.

10 May 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Self-Identity and Pain

Diane Mariechild's reflection for yesterday, April 9 (in Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful), says this:

"Usually we identify ourselves by...work...age...where we live, sexual identity...cherished beliefs and opinions. The labels we attach to ourselves can be useful in moving through the world. Trouble begins when we become attached to these definitions and believe in the absolute existence of this separate self."

My previous post is about the concept of No-Self and how I use it to enhance pain management practice. This reflection takes that concept a step further: how our labeling of our Self causes us suffering by giving us stories that make the Self real. As I said before, this concept is alien to the Western mind and difficult for me to explain. Use the links provided in my previous post for information about No-Self.

The point Mariechild makes is that all our labels reinforce the idea that we possess a Self that is solid, always there and always ours. This leads to suffering.

The point I make is that our pain labels cause us suffering by making our pain worse, or at best, making pain management more difficult. When I think only about the pain, how awful it is and how it is ruining my life, I add emotional suffering to the physical pain; I give it all my attention and allow it to overwhelm all other perceptions.

But when I let go of identifying with the pain I am able to broaden my perceptions. I do this with meditation, visualization, deep relaxation, deep breathing, or any combination of these that works in the moment. (You can read past posts about these methods by using the Labels column to the right and clicking on the words method, or inhabit the body, or relaxation.)

When I allow my pain Self to dissolve, the result is not so much that the pain goes away as that it is put into perspective. From the still, peaceful, very broad and deep place that my practice puts me, I experience the pain as less important, not overwhelming, insignificant somehow.

Thus my pain management becomes a spiritual practice that takes me to the place of connectedness with that which is larger, encompassing, inclusive, mystical. Christians and Jews speak of this place as being with God; Buddhists call it No-Self; other spiritualities -- Native American, for example -- describe the world as animated with the Creation Spirit that connects us all. 

However, lest I sound like some kind of pain management saint, I will admit that there are times when I just want to lie still and be distracted. I put on a Seinfeld DVD and veg out. All this noble talk about meditation and spirituality is fine, but some days you just want something else.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on  the envelope, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

07 May 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Pain and No-Self

One of the best pain management tools I have is based upon the concept of No-Self, about which Diane Mariechild writes in today's reflection (in Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful). By the way, if you are new to this blog, you might like to know that I am devoting the posts of 2013 to the Diane Mariechid book noted above. You can get it on Amazon if you'd like to join us: click here.

The concept of No-Self, or attana, is Buddhist, and I have also learned a lot about it from Eckhart Tolle's writings about Presence and about the ego. I have posted about this before: here and here.

It's a complicated thing, is the concept of No-Self, and I am not going to try and explain it in one post, which is why I provide the links above. But Mariechild's way of writing about No-Self lends itself easily to my pain management practice and understanding so I'll focus on reflection about her words.

I am an inveterate list maker, partly because I just am and partly because when I am in pain it's impossible to remember theory or argument: I just want relief. An easily memorized list is something that comes to mind despite pain, especially if I have practiced regularly as part of my daily meditation.

So here is the step-by-step list (with my own embellishments) for how the idea of No-Self enhances pain management as I have gleaned it from Mariechild's reflection for today, May 7:

1. Stop thinking about the pain -- i.e., analyzing it and its effects on you, worrying about, becoming angry about, agonizing over it.

2. Pay attention to how the pain feels in your body. Examine it without judgment or emotional reaction. Notice that the pain changes the longer you attend to it, and so do the words you use to describe it. It may throb for a while then subside to a faint pulsing only to come back as a dull ache.

3. Become aware of your reactions to this pain. Again, do this without judgment or emotions: simply note that when the pain is stabbing, you feel a spike of fear; when the pain pulses, you feel annoyed.

4. Realize that pain is not an unchanging and solid entity in your body. It is not a thing to be battled: it is a rather ephemeral and boundary-less sensation, coming and going, ebbing and flowing.

Realizing that your pain is not a solid entity with its own existence correlates to No-Self because that concept teaches us that we ourselves are not solid, not "real" in the way our minds would have us believe. It sounds heretical to the Western mind, yet it is very freeing to be released from all the shoulds and blaming and repetitive nonsense of the tapes that play in our minds.
 Mariechild explains that we cease creating stories around the Self when we realize that nothing is solid and unchanging. For managing our pain, being able to release our stories about it frees up precious energy and stamina for management and, ultimately, significant change in how we live with our pain. And that takes the imprisonment out of pain, starting us on the journey to freedom.

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

06 May 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Clear Thinking

 One of the untruths about chronic pain is that we have, for reasons known or unknown, chosen it. That if we really wanted to get well, we would.

I do not deny that there is temptation to be a victim, or that there may be things we have done in the past that we know or suspect contributed to our current situation. I do not deny that we can learn from our pain and thereby discover its hidden blessings and even be grateful. But I do deny that we choose to be in pain all or most of the time.

So when I read today's reflection by Diane Mariechild (in Open Mind -- Womens' Spiritual Inspirations for Becoming Mindful), I am glad for the distinction she makes between harmful thinking and clear (or skillful) thinking, using the example of rape and how badly stigmatized it is:

"There is a body of 'new age' thinking that says we choose each of our life experiences because there is something we need to learn. This statement, while containing a partial truth, also contains much confusion...lead[ing] women to feel guilty for 'choosing rape'..."

"Every experience is a powerful teacher," writes Judith Ragir, who is quoted at the top of the page.

Neither Mariechild nor Ragir is saying that we choose our experiences. They are saying that we choose to learn from our experiences. The difference between these two statements is the difference between crippling shame and self-empowerment.

To paraphrase Mariechild: harmful thinking is -- I have chosen chronic pain to learn a lesson; clear thinking is -- I have chronic pain and I choose to transform it into a kind of healing. I have posted often about how chronic pain can be transformed into healing: here and here, for example.

 If we have chronic pain our lives are difficult enough without the added burden of thinking ourselves somehow to blame for it or allowing someone to treat us as though we have chosen to be debilitated. Transforming shame to empowerment eases such burdens, and not just for ourselves:

"...I am able to take the energy of this horrible and painful experience and transform it. Then I will heal and this healing will be of benefit for us all because of our deep and often unseen connections."

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

01 May 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Balance, Part II -- Presence and Equanimity

In my previous post I wrote about balancing our energy like a professional dancer (to use Diane Mariechild's analogy in Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful), relating it to how we with chronic pain must learn the delicate balance between pushing ourselves too much and giving in to the pain too much. The analogy of the dancer using just as much energy as she needs -- no more, no less -- works just as well for finding balance in emotional and spiritual energy.

It is easy, even tempting, to allow our emotional and spiritual pain to weigh us down, make us feel helpless and hopeless. In terms of balance and the dancer analogy, we are using less energy than we could. On the other hand, it is easy and even tempting to charge through the pain and seek solutions without reflection: we are using more energy than we could. One could also say that in these two extremes we might be applying the right amount of energy, just in the wrong place.

"The spiritual life, learning to be present to each moment, opens us to the fear, the terror, the joy and the ecstasy of the world. This presence is the courage to open to the pain...When supported by equanimity, this [presence] doesn't weigh us down: it allows us to do what needs to be done with a light heart." Diane Mariechild, reflection for May 1

As Mariechild sees it, presence -- being open to and aware of the world around us -- is balanced by equanimity -- the "ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love" -- in such a way that the equanimity supports our ability to remain present to a world that can be so frightful.

With equanimity we are able to discern just how much emotional energy we need to give to the relationship that seems to be exploding; to the sorrow we feel about bombings and drone attacks; to the horror of sanctioned torture; to the anger we feel about priests and other authority figures molesting children; to the helplessness of watching someone die. This balance does not come in a moment. It is the result of trial and error and a deep understanding of our own, very individual ways of relating to the world.

As for the joy and ecstasy of being present to the world, equanimity teaches us just how much emotional and spiritual energy we need to put into the new car or cute outfit; with what zeal we attack a good meal; becoming honest about the hold our addictions or codependence have on us; excitement about the upcoming vacation or concert. Because an imbalance of joy's energy, although it certainly feels much better than an imbalance in pain's energy (not to mention being revered by our society), is just a destructive to our spirits.

When we are not forever swinging uncontrollably between upset or anxiety or depression to elation or exultation, we are able to live more deeply and broadly: the change in energy is the difference between the water bug skittering on the pond's surface and the trout living in the pond's depths.

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

29 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Balancing Our Energy

"Nurture the spirit, be sparing with energy,
As though holding a full bowl." Sun Bu-er

This saying of Sun Bu-er, a Taoist Master(ess?) in the 12th century, reminds me of the Buddhist concept of equanimity, about which I have posted before.

I think of equanimity as being about balance: Sun Bu-er advises me to balance my energy as though holding (balancing so as not to spill) a full bowl. And when we live with chronic pain, or even are going through a particularly difficult time emotionally or spiritually, balance is key to staying healthy and not making pain worse through suffering.

(I make a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is what happens to us as part of life; we have no control over it. Suffering is that which we layer on top of pain; fear, distress, upset, anger, feeling victimized, etc. It is a choice; we have control over how we regard our pain.)

Instead of layering suffering over our pain, we can allow pain to transform our ability to be conscious, alive to the Now; read this post for more about this.

The balancing that Sun Bu-er and Diane Mariechild (Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) are writing about has to do with energy. Our response to pain may be to push through it, denying its reality. This is a good strategy for sudden, non-recurring pain like a stubbed toe, but it is not a remedy for chronic pain, which requires our ability to name it and see clearly how it feels and how it affects us so that we can go on to good management practices. On the other end of that scale is the strategy of giving in completely to the pain. Again, this is often helpful when the pain is acute and won't last; it can also be the only thing to do when the pain is really terrible. But for chronic pain, giving in completely is the kind of imbalance that leads to depression and despair.

Each of us has our own formula for balancing our energy, like pacing during a workout or a distance race. We find that balance by trial and error. There's no other way than to let that pendulum swing back and forth from one extreme to the other until we find where it swings gently from a mid-point, arcing enough to allow us some freedom of choice but not so much that we bounce to one extreme or the other.

Diane Mariechild gives us the example of a fine dancer: "She is sparing with energy, using just as much effort as needed for each movement, no more and no less...We can put this wisdom into practice by making our bodies strong, flexible and balanced through a movement practice such as yoga or tai chi."

For myself I have learned that the exercises I do for my back (I have two degenerating discs in my lower back) have given me flexibility and stamina that I did not have before. I also do the exercises as though they are yoga: with mindfulness.

Mariechild talks about emotional energy as well as physical energy; I'll address that in my next post.

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

27 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Part II -- In Union We Cannot Harm

"The feminine energy, Buffalo Woman's energy, is very strong in many of our hearts at this time. Buffalo Woman is willing to shine out through each of us who quiet ourselves and call."  Brooke Medicine Eagle

In my previous post I wrote about this feminine energy in relation to how we live in this world. Today I want to talk about Buffalo Woman energy as it might relate to living with chronic pain.

Brooke Medicine Eagle says that this energy will shine out when we "quiet ourselves and call."

One of the most effective pain management techniques I know is meditation: quieting myself in body and mind and spirit, then allowing the vastness of life to dwarf the pain into perspective. In the sense of the words above, I call into life beyond me, larger than me.

It's not a miracle cure: the pain does not go away. But the expansion of my spirit into a broader realm is both calming and energizing, accepting and creative. And it is joyous.

In other words, it's an awful lot like Buffalo Woman's energy as described by Diane Mariechild (Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful): "energetic, creative, caring connection with all of life." "We must go beyond ego to a more subtle state of consciousness, one of realization or communion with the circle of life."

What a lovely thought -- that in meditating to manage pain I am tapping into the Buffalo Woman's energy of creation, of nurture and transformation. It is, indeed, within me for I have been connecting without conscious knowing. I have been reveling in this feminine energy and can agree with Mariechild that in this connection with all of life, "we cannot harm."

We sometime feel alone and worse, irrelevant, in the life that is absorbed in managing chronic pain. Here is a healing reality that brings relevancy and even a peaceful urgency to our practice: when we quiet ourselves and call we become part of the connection of all of life; we bring the feminine energy of creativity and healing and nurture and strength into this fractured world.

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

25 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: In Union We Cannot Harm

The reflection for April 24 (yesterday) begins with a verse from the writings of Brooke Medicine Eagle:

The feminine energy, Buffalo Woman's Energy, is very strong in many of our hearts at this time. Buffalo Woman is willing to shine out through each of us who quiet ourselves and call.

Diane Mariechild, in her reflection (Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) for the 24th, tells us that Buffalo Woman energy is "strong, creative, nurturing, and transformative feminine energy." It is within us, each of us, despite the language and the words sounding odd to our rational, Western minds. It arises from the Earth, it completes the integration of "the preconscious state into the present ego state" and then leads us to "a more subtle state of consciousness, one of realization or communion with the circle of life."

Buffalo Woman energy has power of the feminine order, something sadly lacking in our male-dominated lives. We women have in many ways allowed ourselves to be co-opted into thinking that the more aggressive, ego-driven, rational way of the male is to be emulated, is the highest and best use of our talents and time and gifts. We have come to celebrate the successful business woman over the loving mother: isn't that the origin of the "women can have it all" myth of today? What is "all"? Apparently, it is not motherhood or quiet lives of spirit and prayer or being simply joyous with life as it is. "All" in this case seems to only be ours when we assume male characteristics, get ahead and make a lot of money.

Not that this is bad in and of itself. Many of us women can benefit from a touch of aggression if we have been too passive. Many of us need to assert ourselves in the work place in order to be treated well and to earn a wage comparable to that of our male co-workers. Many of us need to come out of victim mode and into empowerment. In all these things, male energy can help us.

But I think that Mariechild and Medicine Woman are making a point about purely feminine energy, which has been denied and denigrated and thus hidden from all of us. I think they are asking us to reconnect with that which is purely feminine as a means to reconnect with the Earth and with one another.

"Connected with, in union with one another, we cannot harm."

Who can say what a renewal and revival of the feminine energy that cannot harm could do in the world that witnesses bombings in Boston, child murder in Newtown, suicide bombings in Kabul, drone attacks in Pakistan, starvation in Somalia?

We cannot say. We cannot know for sure until we try.

(In tomorrow's post, I will continue this subject from the point of view of living with chronic pain.)

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gail.com. Thank you.

18 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: A Meditation

(For pain.)

Imagine yourself in a favorite place in nature.

     The breeze off the ocean and the rhythm of the waves...the rustling leaves of forest trees...

Breathe. Slowly, softly, quietly. And deeply.

     Salty air fills your lungs...loamy scent from woodsy ground...clover meadows...pine...

Breathe in to your toes, fingertips, top of your head to soles of your feet.

Breathe out tension of muscle and sinew, thought and emotion.

And again.

Breathe in through the soles of your feet.

     Mother Earth...her waters...her soils...her life...her energy...Creation.

Breathe out tension of muscle and sinew, thought and emotion.

     Release to Mother Earth...to her waters...her soils...her life...her energy...Creation.

Breathe in Earth's energy.

Breathe out Love for Earth.

And again.

And again.

Receive Earth's Love.

Send Earth Love.

All is well. All is Peace.

(Inspired by the April 18 reflection in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful)

16 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Foremothers

My prayers today are especially with the people in Boston, where bombs killed three and injured 140; and with the people in Kabul, where bombs killed 25 and injured hundreds.

It is so hard to find beauty in a world where such violence is endemic.

Today's reflection in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful is titled, "Beauty."

She quotes from Hildegard of Bingen:

The earth is at the same time
she is mother of all that is natural,
mother of all that is human.
She is the mother of all,
for contained in her
are the seeds of all.

I feel grateful for the wisdom of our foremothers, whose gentle yet incisive spirituality reminds me of the essential goodness and beauty of Creation. I need, today, to be reminded that we are all contained in one vessel; we are the very seeds of Creation.

How very different this world would be if we lived this truth.

We who live with chronic pain must find beauty and life in ways unnecessary to those whose health is better. Today my pain is more spiritual than physical, but still I turn to the practices that are so ingrained in me -- quiet, reflection, meditation, music, prayer.

I have learned no better response to the pain of my migraines. And I know of no better response I can make, today, to the pain of this world.

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

13 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Listen Without Judgment

"Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck." Natalie Goldberg

As I read this quote by Natalie Goldberg that begins today's reflection (in Open Mind: Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful), I realize that sometimes I don't even listen very well with my ears, let alone with my hands, face and neck.

I listen and I think about what I will say in response; or how bad this migraine pain is going to get; or whether I remembered to turn off the iron; or any of a vast number of things that I let distract me. The reflection draws me to see that real listening, deep listening, both puts me in the moment (in the Now, as Eckhart Tolle would say) and in a place close to meditation.

Diane Mariechild describes a pianist at a concert of the Women's Philharmonic:

"She played with her whole body. When she wasn't playing, she listened to the orchestra with her whole body. She lifted her head and drank in the music through every pore of her skin."

Imagine paying attention, being present, listening like that. It makes me want to go out and stand under the dogwood tree that my husband tells me is beginning to bloom; to drink in its presence with my whole body; to be so utterly present to the moment and that tree that I take it in through the pores of my skin.

What will you do to practice such listening, such presence?

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

11 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Wanting Things To Be Other Than They Are

Want to know how to make pain (either emotional or physical) worse? Wish it away. Fight with it. Tell yourself you don't deserve it, it's not fair, and let the frustration grow. Get mad because you have other, more important things to do and this was not on your list and life is just so damned unfair. Worry about what that other person did or said, try to figure them out, try to argue with them in your mind.

Feel your muscles tense, your heart pound. Let the adrenaline rush around your bloodstream, leaving you feeling weak and somewhat shaky.

There are alternatives.

From Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's Disease: "My happiness grows in direct proportion [to] my acceptance and in inverse proportion to my expectations. That's the key for me. If I can accept the truth of 'This is what I'm facing -- not what I expect but what I am experiencing now' -- then I have all this freedom to do other things." (from the April/May 2013 issue of AARP Magazine.)

From Diane Mariechild, Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful: "Can we accept [what is] without wanting it to be better, or be different from what it is?"

From Sylvia Boorstein: "So, in the first five minutes [of paying attention] you get a big lesson about suffering; wanting things to be other than they are."

From me: What Remains is Love.

If you have never worked with the present moment and its reality in this way, all this sounds counter-intuitive, I know. You think, "What, are you crazy? Accept this terrible headache?" or "No, there is no way I can accept this break-up. Accept failure? Mistakes? All the hurt?"


Accept that this is the reality of the moment -- the headache is worse; my heart is broken. But this kind of acceptance is very simple, uncomplicated -- now I am in pain as a statement of fact -- not now my heart is broken as a doorway to guilt, fear, shame and blame.

A simple statement of fact. An acceptance of the present moment with no judgment or shading into nuance and emotion.

I am really hurting today.

Once I have accepted that fact, I am freed to practice the many tools I have learned for pain management -- all of which work for emotional pain as well, in my experience.

Deep relaxation.

Chanting or repeating mantras on the breath.

Healing imagery and meditation.

Listening to calm, beautiful music. I especially like Deuter for this.

One last tip: The more I practice -- meaning daily -- these tools, the more handy they are when I am in pain and the less thinking I have to do to bring their process to mind.

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

08 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Seeking Stillness

"So much of our thinking isn't fresh or original insights, it is habit. We spin around and around with our thoughts, digging ourselves deeper into self-created ruts."

This thinking process that Diane Mariechild (in Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) describes as "spinning" is what I call "circular thinking" and another friend used to call "pacing." It seems we all do it, and giving it a name helps us begin to address it.

Circular thinking ensures that, even when we are alone and in a quiet place, we do not have silence. The chaos of noisy thoughts and the anxiety they produce make silence and stillness impossible.

Diane has a nice little practice to help us end circular thinking:

When you find your mind spinning in a rut:
     Stop and take a deep breath
     On the next inhale, think -- I breathe in clarity.
     On the exhale, think -- I breathe out confusion.
     Continue breathing this way: I breathe in clarity -- I breathe out clarity --

Chronic pain has its own circular thinking taking us down into spirals of regret and fear that mainly serve to make the pain worse as we tense up around our confused and agonized thoughts. I can't stand this again...No one understands...What about that task/meeting/event?...I hate spending so much time on the bed in pain...I have no life whatsoever... (I have posted before about how the stress of our response to pain makes it worse both physically and psychologically.)

When we have some measure of control over our wayward thoughts, and are sitting in silence (that means no music, even) and focusing on our breathing, we relegate the pain to a more realistic place. It never just goes away -- at least, it never has for me -- but it somehow seems less important. It takes up less real estate in my perception. That, although it doesn't sound like much, is a huge relief.

This is not to say that I don't take migraine medication when I can. But I end up managing about half of my migraines because insurance only allows 12 pills per month; that leaves me with another ten to fifteen days per month of pain.

Finally, I want to say that when we go into silence for meditation or pain management, we likely will come face to face with inner workings that we have been able to avoid in our busy, distracted lives. This is where a good counselor or spiritual guide come in. The effect of silence and stillness is profound, which for most of us means that we need accompaniment from a professional.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on "Comment" below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

06 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: The Hunger

I know and truly love someone who is so sunk in her misery and self-pity that I have had to make the terrible choice to stay completely away, at least for the time being. Perhaps if I were stronger spiritually, or more mature in some way, I might be able to be in relationship and maintain the integrity of my own spirit. But not now. And the being apart has helped me understand myself better.

Today's reflection (in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) puts a new perspective on why a person might allow life to become so negative, so burdensome.

"My mother felt sorrow for those who had no spiritual practice or religious beliefs...Such people are often bitter and angry at what they term the unfairness of life."

But more important for me -- because I cannot get into the head of another person, and so cannot say for certain that this applies to my friend -- is turning the thought to myself and my relationships.

I think it's not enough to say I have a spiritual practice. There must be active searching for meditation time, disciplined dedication to setting aside everything else for complete focus on my spirit. In setting aside this toxic relationship, I have given space for the things of the spirit -- love, compassion, understanding, self-awareness -- to relax and make softer the unyielding and hurting place I was in.

With that space and softness, I begin to see how I was buying into the negativity in order to stay in the relationship; that there was something in the hurtful mix that served a purpose for me. I simply would not have become aware of this had I remained close to this person because remaining close to her meant remaining far from my Self.

My sister, Joan Sparks, sent me this text today: "We all have freedom. We cannot control our circumstances but we can choose how to deal with them."

Sometimes those choices for freedom are so hard. They can be inexplicable. The choice I have made to stay apart seems cruel, I know. Yet I now see that I had to remove myself from a destructive cycle for my own sake, and that is reason enough as long as I do so in the context of a deeply felt spiritual life and journey.

For now, I am glad that the circle of the old relationship is over. I pray that a new circle might begin, even as I know that I have no control over whether or not it does.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on 'Comment' below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

05 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: The Gift of Tears

"For the blessing of tears, I thank God I was born a woman."

This quote from the Women's Haggadah fits so nicely with some of the reflections of yesterday. It's about choice, again, at the level of how we think about ourselves and our "mistakes" or obstacles. Today we have another example in Mariechild's Open Mind --  Women's Daily Reflections for Becoming Mindful.
"Women's wisdom is the wisdom of connection, but the tears that can easily flow from our eyes have been used against us as proof that we are overly emotional, irrational, and unrealistic."
Our emotions -- and the tears that flow for the sake of the connections those emotions help us make --  have been regarded as obstacles to the supposedly more mature wisdom of the mind, of pure cognition. To the extent we have been co-opted by that view, both for ourselves and for other women, we have some reflecting to do.
In my own spirituality of pain, I understand tears as being the way that compassion and emotion are given physical form; a body prayer, if you will. The chemical composition of tears changes when they are produced out of pain or grief. 
However, I have had to learn other ways of making tears when I have a migraine, because crying, with its straining of the forehead muscles and added sinus pressure, makes migraine pain worse. I sigh a lot. Sometimes I keen a soft, low sound. I wrap my arms around myself and gently rock. I have taught myself to see these not as indications of weakness (I was born into a "stiff upper lip" family), but as ways I hold my hurting self in a compassionate space.
One can feel terribly alone when in pain. Perhaps these methods also help to ease that loneliness by allowing compassion to freely flow. In that flow is God.
When practiced in this way, the tears or sighing or keening are certainly not a sign of weakness. They are a sign of forbearance, of an admission of pain that does not deny or pretend and thus holds the sufferer in an expansive space. They allow me to suffer with some dignity.
Tears show us the gift of expressing our emotions with immediacy and honesty. How can that be weak? Only when we feel ashamed of them, or deny the feelings behind them, are we weakened. The power and strength of tears allowed means we are facing "life on life's terms," as the 12-Step program says. That is strength.
I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

04 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: How We Choose

When I slow down -- thoughts, actions, reactions -- I am much more aware of how I am choosing. That's one of the spiritual gifts of chronic pain: it slows me so much that I can feel how a negative thought ("I just can't take another migraine this week.") affects the pain; how a positive thought ("I can decide to go through this with dignity.") shifts it.

So in today's reflection by Diane Mariechild in Open Heart -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful, it is pain that I think of when I have been made to slow down. Migraine pain, of course, but also the pain of a fractured relationship, a mis-spoken or cruel word. I think that what Mariechild and St Teresa of Avila are saying is that when the pain of the obstacles and mistakes in our lives slows us down, we have an opportunity to reflect, decide to change and grow.

That process is complicated and made slower by shame, about which I have posted before, here.

But if we can derail the shame and get to the healing, we have Mariechild's reflection to guide us. I happen to enjoy outlines and lists, so have broken down her lovely meditation into a far more pedantic form:

1. Realize we can use the obstacles (mistake, sin) in our lives as opportunities to embody love.

2. Become aware of our thoughts; create a practice of looking deeply and honestly (I would add here, without shame and judgment) into our actions.

3. Make a choice to become more loving.

It takes practice, life-long practice toward an unreachable goal. But we can progress along the path to a purely loving heart and each step we take is immensely important to ourselves and to this world.

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

03 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Just Today

A friend who follows my blog contacted me early this week to find out why I hadn't posted recently. I felt grateful for her thoughtfulness (I had a virus that didn't seem to want to go away) and kind of excited, really, because, from her home in El Salvador, she is maintaining connection with me. I just like the thought of that: my dear friend, Janet, reading my blog so faithfully that she notices when I don't post.

All this has nothing to do with today's entry in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspiration for Becoming Mindful. Aside from really liking the poem by Lynn Park  --

The fruits of consecration
are sweetness and patience
sureness in the middle of panic and confusion
when baboons put on business suits.

 -- and the way the unexpectedness of the final line makes me smile,  I cannot relate because the rest of the reflection is about greed. It's just that today, sitting up, without fever, aches gone but still pretty weak, I just feel grateful and content and happy. Maybe tomorrow I will deal with my greed -- which I know is there.

But for today, pleasure in the small things: a cup of tea, a clearer mind, sun pouring in my window, a far-away friend who cares.

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

22 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Open Hearted

There is no one I know who embodies more fully the essence of today's reflection than David Hilfiker. I have known David since 1991; since then he has been mentor, colleague and dear friend. Now he has Alzheimer's disease.

I think of David when I read the verse by Izumi Shikibu:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

David has been able to love the moonlight leaking through the planks instead of focusing on the wind that blows through.

But read for yourself. Here is a link to his blog: Watching the Lights Go Out.

I would love to hear from you. Click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

19 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: No One Has The Right

Today's teaching and reflection is about men abusing women and women's response. To me, the most important sentence -- or at least the thought that needs to be first and foremost -- is this one:

"No one has the right to cross our boundaries in this way."
Our ability to believe and hold to this clear sense of our boundaries is essential for us and for our daughters. We must know this in our depths and teach it to our daughters' depths. And if we don't have daughters, we must teach it and uphold it where and when we can.

Even more, we must uphold the right of all children, boys and girls, to trust adults not to cross their boundaries into sexual abuse. There is no more important consideration than that of our vulnerable little ones and minors.

Sandy Boucher writes about pointing out injustice without rancor; she desires to remain  --

"...grounded in the compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity that are the heart of this spiritual path."

I admit to having a terribly hard time staying thus grounded when reading or hearing about the abuse of children by priests, ministers, coaches and teachers. And I have an equally hard time remaining calm when I hear them defended or their actions explained away by adults who have other matters at stake such as loyalty to a church or a team.

We have no more important job as a society than protecting our children. No church is more important; no doctrine. No sports team takes precedent. No person with authority over children, however famous, or successful, or beloved by others, has a reputation or life work that should be of stronger consideration than the well-being and emotional health of our little ones.

To me that means that justice demands the utmost of condemnation of abuse perpetrators and of anyone -- boss, superior, principal -- who has protected them. Until children are safe, priests and bishops must be de-frocked; coaches and administrators must lose their jobs; teachers and principals must be fired.

As long as sexual abuse remains rampant, I don't know that I can let go of my outrage about it and get to the place Boucher describes. I think that I just don't want to; as long as I hear of abuse and listen to or read the abusers and others who could have stopped the abuse being defended, outrage is all I feel. Until we have ensured that abuse of children is so wrong, so punishable to the ultimate extent of law and moral understanding, so much more important than a man's reputation or an institution's viability; until then, all I have is my outrage.

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

17 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Give From A Sacred Space

A tantra is a saying that embodies profound and sacred matters and so brings liberation; another meaning is as a body of teachings, a spiritual science. It can also mean all of the practices and wisdom found in the tantric scripture. The word itself is a Western construct that explains Eastern spirituality to Westerners; as such, it is associated with the Hindu religion.

The verse for today in Mariechild's Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful, is called a tantra. It's a wisdom saying from the East, from Hinduism.

It reminds me somewhat of the Old Testament sayings about women in Proverbs 31. Strength and Splendor are her clothing and smilingly she awaits her last day. She opens her mouth with Wisdom and the teaching of Kindness is on her tongue.

When we women read such passages, do we believe them?

My fear is that, for most of us, we do not -- not inside our hearts, not at the core of our being.

We have heard too much for too long about how we are less worthy than men; how our essentially feminine characteristics and inclinations and intuitions are sources of weakness and dependency at best, savage excuses for our oppression and abuse at worst.

If, without overweening pride or self-absorbed egoism, we truly believed and lived into and made tantras of these sayings, what would we be like? What would the world be like?

There is no jewel rarer than woman.

She girds her loins with might and strengthens her arms.

In woman is the form of all things.
How can we touch each other, my sisters?
We keep our tenderness alive and the nourishment of the earth green.
Look at me
I am not a separate
I am a continuance
of blue sky...
A night wind woman...

What would we be like?

What would the world be like?

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

16 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Pain Management is Loving Myself

Two days ago I sneezed.

I can imagine what you are thinking. How does that make for the subject of a blog post?

Here's how: if you have a couple of degenerating discs in your lower back and you sneeze when you are in the process of lifting one foot to go upstairs while one hand reaches for the banister, you are off balance when you sneeze and the violence of the muscle contraction knocks you further off balance and wrenches your spine and...you throw your back out.

At the time, part of me knew it was comical. My little dog staring at me in confusion, me hanging for dear life onto the banister, trying not to collapse onto the stair because I knew I'd not be able to get back up, saying (well, yelling), "Oh my God, oh, my God, oooooooh my God."

And then breathing deeply; imagining the breath going to those spasming muscles and calming them, softening them; saying (I learned this little mantra from my mother), "I can do this. I can do this," one step at a time with a deep, slow breath for each lift of a foot to the next stair, up two flights of stairs and then baby steps, slow baby steps, into my condo. Getting the ice pack (you have at least two of those if you have migraines and a bad back) and finally, gratefully, gingerly, lowering my aching self onto the bed.

In Mariechild's reflection (Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) for March 15, she writes, ironically enough, of stiffness and pain in her back. But before that she has made this amazing statement:

"Spirituality is learning to make friends again and again with our shameful parts, our confusing parts, our wild parts, our silly parts, the whole of ourselves. Right now."

She writes this in response to the Pema Chodron quote at the top of the page:

"Our true nature is not some ideal that we have to live up to. It's who we are right now, and that's what we can make friends with and celebrate."

In my previous post, I wrote about shame and blame, about how we have learned them from childhood and how, if we free ourselves from shaming and blaming, we free up energy "to be used in the service of self-knowledge and wisdom." And now Mariechild says that we should make friends with our shameful parts, our confusing parts. Even our aching backs, our bodies that won't do what we want them to, our silly mistakes like sneezing at the wrong moment.

Mariechild says that the reality of her painful back "has to be okay. Cursing the pain or cursing myself for not unlocking the key to this pain won't help." As odd as it may sound, she has made friends with the pain: she has accepted it, stopped fighting or cursing it. And more, she tells us that what helps is "softening and loving myself."

What a neat way to think of pain management! At the moment that I was using my breathing and calming skills to manage the muscle spasms in my back, I was not thinking of loving myself. Yet isn't that exactly what I was doing?

Freaking out about being struck to near-immobility by pain would not have been very self-loving, now that I think about it that way. But having immediately handy those tools for managing the sudden, shocking pain and knowing how to use them for self-preservation, means that I had loved myself enough to learn and practice them so well that they have become readily available to me at a moment's notice. Pain management is loving myself.

Acceptance of who we are in this moment -- be it a moment of back spasm, embarrassment, ignorance, silliness, confusion -- is loving ourselves. It is spirituality.

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

12 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Self-Responsibility

Learning to own responsibility for everything that happens to us is fraught with difficulty if we have internalized shame and blame. Many of us were shamed and blamed as punishment when we were children; we also used them to avoid punishment, or at least to get the punishment aimed at someone else. There is also a good deal of shame and blame in Biblical stories: Eve is blamed for offering the apple to Adam, and therein lie the seeds of ages-old doctrines that make women both culprit and embodiment of sin. Similarly, the Christian concept of "original sin" is and has been used to make us feel shamed -- the other phrase used is "hereditary stain" -- from before our birth.

These concepts are terribly destructive to our self-esteem. They stand in the way of  our learning how to take responsibility for our lives and our actions because we were taught that if we were responsible for a problem or an accident, we were bad and we deserved to be punished. And so we found ways to avoid responsibility.

But what Diane Mariechild says (in "Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful") is this:

"The development of self-responsibility without blame, either for self or others, leads to the lessening of attachment to the goodness or badness of a situation. We look to each situation in a less personal way. When the attachment is lessened energy is released."

The energy released when we de-personalize our life circumstances and events allows us to step away from the tangled mess of the shame we feel for ourselves or assign to others. It obviates the need to point out blame.

Perhaps it is the same energy, but employed instead for positive, self-affirming practices. Once we have turned away from the darkness of our emotional response and personal attachment, we no longer say, "It's her fault!" or "I am a terrible person for doing that." We say "What can I learn from this?" and "How can I grow?"

The energy is freed to be used in the service of self-knowledge and wisdom.

"We begin to see what we can change and what we cannot change and we develop the wisdom to tell the difference." Surely, Mariechild is purposefully echoing the prayer we know from the 12-Step programs, but which was first prayed by Rheinhold Niebuhr.

It seems to me there are three things Mariechild is recommending:
    that we release ourselves from learned habits of feeling shame and assigning blame;
    that we pray for the wisdom to understand what is in our power to change and what is not;
    that we bolster these new practices with a daily habit of meditation.

It is freedom we are talking about: freedom from the incessantly negative and blaming voices in our heads; freedom from searching outside ourselves for that which makes us victims; freedom from the binding chains of low self-esteem and suspicious thoughts. Mariechild says this freedom is about respect for all living beings.

Which, we have heard many times but cannot hear too often, can only be part of our world-view when we have first learned to be respectful of ourselves.

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

09 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Without Thought is Freedom

We put a high premium on thinking. Aside from the fact that it is the mind's default state, our culture makes thinking the object of highest praise and highest priority. Thinking is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Where we go off balance in ourselves and in creation is that place in which we idolize the intellect by, among other things, discounting intuition and sensibilities. We also rob ourselves of our sense of the abundance of time, of the now.

Eastern spirituality has recognized this for thousands of years, hence the Buddhist concept, "no mind," or "Buddha mind," which is the center of Zen spirituality. Christianity, although of Western culture and therefore -- in my opinion -- too focused on thinking and analysis, also has its "centering prayer." 

So now we are reading Sue Silvermarie, who says that she, when living a day without time, moves "through her in grace / no more ahead of myself, or behind / than a tiger, than a seagull." Thinking eats up time; it's one of those things that make us believe we do not have enough if it. Silvermarie calls a day without time, without thinking, "a slow present." (There is a neat pun here: present in the sense of "now" and in the sense of "gift.")

Diane Mariechild, in today's reflection (Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) tells us that mindfulness -- or not thinking -- helps us "cultivate the awareness of a day unfolding." She makes several suggestions:

When you are sitting, know that you are sitting; feel that you are sitting
Wait calmly for the next thing to happen
When walking, be mindful of your feet on the pavement
Enjoy sensations
Focus on your breathing.

Don't think about it! Simply turn your attention to your body and the created world around you as it is in the present moment rather than to your mind and its incessant thinking. And when thinking intrudes -- as it inevitably will -- simply acknowledge that you are thinking (or planning, or worrying, or...) without judging it or becoming upset at yourself, and turn your attention back to the present moment.

It takes practice. But each time you practice, each time you have to label your thoughts and turn back to the present moment, you are becoming stronger in being attentive.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment below or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

07 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Breathe! Harmonize!

Inspiriation: a divine influence or action. Also, the act of drawing in air to the lungs. (From Merriam Webster).

Mariechild suggests that, in order to begin finding the harmony in our lives -- which is what Dhyani Ywahoo writes about in the reflection at the top of the page -- we breathe. Meaning, we both draw air into our lungs and we allow divine influence or action to come in. She calls it soul searching, and she writes that few of us do it until we are in crisis:

"Many people don't start soul searching until there is a painful situation in life, something that pulls the rug out from under them. Old coping mechanisms no longer work...It isn't necessary to wait for upheavals. We have the opportunity now in the breath." (from Open Mind -- Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful)

I just love it that the breath is the basis of so much wisdom and wise practice in our lives, and have written about that before, here and here.

We all breathe. How handy is that for a reminder for the inspiration of divine influence? It really is simply a matter of being aware of our breath. Mariechild suggest we try being aware of our breath for ten minutes. Frankly, I would have found ten minutes hard to manage when I was first practicing this sort of awareness. Perhaps two minutes is a more realistic beginning if you have never done this before. Then gradually increase the time to ten minutes...and more.

Another way to practice is to become accustomed to breath-awareness not only when you are sitting in a formal practice, but at less formal moments during the day and in the midst of life's random situations:

while sitting in the car at a red light
on the bus or in a taxi
while walking
when in a difficult conversation or situation
when you suddenly realize that you are tense or upset.

I have found that if I combine the two modes of practice -- both formal and informal -- it becomes more deeply embedded in my life, a part of me that I call upon almost unconsciously, automatically. That makes it not only a wonderful spiritual practice, but a great stress reliever.

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

06 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Peculiar Magic

The migraines have been really bad lately, and although I determined years ago to refuse to indulge in victim-status, I admit to having felt very isolated both during the days of intense pain and afterwards. "I am in this all alone," I thought. I viewed it as a fact to accept rather than a problem to chew over. I let the regret and loneliness be, without judgement.

Today's reflection in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful gives me a new way to be with the aloneness. What she is saying is that we are all in this life alone. We are all on an alone journey.

Furthermore, "I could hold the experience in my heart and let it work its magic there."

Now, I am not so sure that pain works magic in my heart, at least not in the way Mariechild means: she is talking about intense, wonderful experiences leading workshops and retreats for women. But I do know that pain works in my heart. So does sorrow, so do all the emotions I experience. If I allow them to be -- without judgment and without denying or grasping -- I give them space and time to work their peculiar magic in me.

I once attended a workshop in which the speaker was a young man living with AIDS. He said this astounding thing: "AIDS is the best thing that ever happened to me." He told us that the shock of being diagnosed had forced him to look at his lifestyle, assess his emotional and spiritual health, and begin to make great changes in his life. He would rather not have AIDS, he said, but he also knew that it had made him a better person.

I would rather not have migraines. We all would rather not have to deal with things like our own difficulties; the mental illness or addiction of a loved one; physical challenges; death and dying. Yet these are life, they are the realities with which we live. We can choose to let them work their magic in our hearts. That, to me, is the most hopeful thing about being alive.

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

03 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: The Witness

"The Witness is a natural aspect of our minds. It is what the mind does when it is at peace." So says Diane Mariechild in today's reading from Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful."

I love the concept of the Witness. When Eckhart Tolle writes about this, he usually calls it Presence: I have written about this before, here and here. It's an important part of both my spirituality and my pain management. And I really like what Mariechild says about it, that it is what the mind does when it is at peace.

I used to think that if I were truly meditating, truly centered in prayer, my mind would be perfectly blank. But it turns out that a mind at peace is not blank. It is calmly aware, grabbing at no thought or perception or image; it is witnessing, nothing more, nothing less.

I found a great meditation for developing the Witness. I reproduce it below, but you can link to it here.

From about.com -- Meditation to Develop the Witness

  1. Sit upright - either in a chair or on a meditation cushion - with your skull balancing happily right on top of your spine. Place your hands palms-down on your thighs, or else rest the fingers of one hand in the upturned palm of the other, with the tips of your thumbs lightly touching. Let your eyes close, and turn your eyeballs slightly downward.
  2. Take a couple of deep, slow and pleasantly-soft breaths. As you inhale, notice a rising in your abdomen. As you exhale, notice your abdomen relaxing back into its neutral position. Repeat this six or seven times, and with each exhale, release any unnecessary tension in your face, neck, throat or shoulders. Smile gently.
  3. Now, turn your attention inward, to begin noticing the contents of your mind: the internal chattering, or mental dialogue, as well as the images flashing across that internal screen.
  4. In this practice, we're simply going to name the thoughts arising as "thinking" and the images arising as "image." The spaces between thoughts and images - when neither is present - we're going to label as "rest."
  5. So every five or ten seconds, simply name (silently, to yourself) what's happening in your mind. If what is arising are thoughts or internal dialogue, simply say "thinking." If what is arising is an image (e.g. an internal picture of, say, the friend you had lunch with yesterday), simply say "image." If there are no thoughts or images arising, simply say "rest."
  6. As you label the thoughts and images, maintain the attitude of a detached but also kind observer, almost as though you were saying: "hello, thoughts" or "hello images" in a friendly and relaxed way. Make no attempt to change the thoughts or images in any way. Simply observe and label them. On their own, they will arise, have a certain duration, and then dissolve.
  7. Over the course of, say, one minute of this practice, your labeling might be something like this: "thinking" ... "rest" ... "thinking" ... "image" ... "thinking" ... "rest" ... "rest" ... "thinking" ... "image" (It will of course be different for each person, and will change from day to day, as you practice.)
  8. Notice this part of your self that is observing and labeling the thinking and images. This is called the Witness Consciousness, or the energy of Mindfulness - and is the part of our mind that remains forever untouched by its contents - by the thoughts and images arising within it. A traditional metaphor for this aspect of mind is that it is similar to the deepest part of an ocean - which remains calm, still & silent, even if at its surface, waves (of thinking, emotion, or sensation) are raging.
  9. When you're ready to end the practice, take another couple of deep, slow, breaths, with your abdomen rising with the inhalation and relaxing back with the exhalation. Notice how you feel, and then slowly open your eyes.

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