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With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90  days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.

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 Perhaps the dragon is whatever makes us fearful or angry or withdrawn: whatever we allow to move us away from our birthright of peacefulness and compassion.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