Victor

I arrived at this hospital yesterday. When checking in, I told them I had been feeling suicidal. Someone put me in a wheelchair and brought me up to the 4th floor: the psychiatric ward. Someone else went through my belongings and found a pair of draw-string pants and pulled out the thin, cotton strip that would cinch around my waist. Did they really think I would kill myself with that?

Then, I was shown to my room with a single bed, the only window looking out at a drab grey building. I was told someone would check in on me every fifteen minutes. Instead of this unnerving me, I felt a great sense of relief. I felt safe for the first time in what seemed a long time.

The next day, I meet the other patients. There’s Andrea, who has obviously either been here for some time, or has come here before. She shows me “the ropes”: where to do laundry, where to shower, what time meals are. She rooms with Jasmine, who appears to be about Andrea’s age and it’s clear they have formed a friendship. One time, I hear a commotion, so I poke my head out of my room. Jasmine is in a wheelchair and Andrea is pushing her hard and fast down the corridor. They are both laughing and whooping it up and I find myself smiling a much-needed smile.

Then there’s Oscar with his droopy mustache and shuffling walk, who hangs out often with the waif-looking Toby; the two of them often having private conversations.

And then there’s Henry, who is wall-eyed and Asian, whose black, untended hair stands straight up. He can’t bear to look anyone in the eye and his whole body language is apologetic. He exudes both sweetness and confusion.

Victor is the only patient I am afraid of. He exhibits that kind of behavior that you see on the street that you want to avoid. He stands in a corner and argues with someone – someone the rest of us can’t see. Sometimes his voice becomes louder, turning to rage. Because I am so very anxious, and because there often seems to be no orderlies around, my fear escalates. I wring my hands; will he become violent? Will he unleash his violence on someone here? Me, even?

The other patients and I keep our distance from him. We all, excluding Victor, gravitate to one another, forming a kind of short-term family, while he remains a loner. I don’t know about the others, but I want it to remain that way.

But on my third day here, something changes that.

We are all gathered in the community room, including Victor. We take our places – Victor in the corner arguing, the rest of us sitting around the table, loosely interacting.

The TV is on, as usual. Today, someone has put in the DVD “Ghost”, which we look up at occasionally. Then the famous scene comes on with Demi Moore at the potter’s wheel, while Patrick Swayze comes up from behind, puts his arms around her, his hand joining hers. Then the familiar song, “Unchained Melody”, by The Righteous Brothers starts up, enhancing the scene.

Suddenly, Victor stops arguing. He turns from his corner and walks towards us and looks at the screen. He listens for a second, then opens his mouth and starts singing. His voice is full. His voice is tender. His voice is full of feeling. He knows every word, and every word is pitch-perfect. His gaze, usually hard and glazed over, becomes bright and clear, his blue black face is beatific and glows with an inner light. He is angelic.

The rest of us watch him, our jaws dropping. We are transfixed. We can’t believe what is happening. We know we are experiencing some sort of miracle.

And then the song stops – and when it does, Victor’s demeanor changes, and he turns away and goes back to his corner, resuming his argument.

For a full moment, no one says anything. We are stunned into silence. For a full moment we drop our roles (and our guard) and fall into that silence.

And then the moment passes. Patrick Swayze removes his arms from Demi Moore. Andrea and Jasmine look at each other and giggle. Oscar and Toby exchange glances. I bite my nails, my nerves returning. Henry hangs his head, as if embarrassed to be alive.

∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗

Now, looking back at that incident, I realize many things. The first, most obvious realization is that music has the power to heal, if only for a few minutes. Everybody knows this, to a degree. If I’m feeling funky, I can, for example, listen to Al Green’s “Belle” and my whole mood shifts. When his beautiful, soulful voice enters the room and for some time afterwards, I feel uplifted, changed.

The second realization is that for as long as “Unchained Melody” lasted, Victor was no longer “other” – someone to be feared and avoided. For those few minutes, he became a part of our weird, dysfunctional family. He became a part of us, and we were a part of him.

For years afterwards, I thought about that incident and wondered about Victor: How did he get that way? Why was he so angry? Was it purely a “chemical imbalance”? What was his life like before he came to the hospital? Did he live on the streets? Does he now? Did he ever fall in love, have a family?

Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I only know he is my brother of sorts. I know his metamorphosis made me believe in miracles. I know I want beauty to be always a part of his life.

And, wherever he is today, I hope he is singing.

Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers/Produced by Philles Records (1965)

Belle by Al Green (producer, 1977)

∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗                  ∗

No Separation

 

If you think you are

not the drunk at the post

office reeking of alcohol

and loneliness, you got

another thing coming.

Pain is pain.

Nobody wakes up one day

and decides to be homeless

and carry around a bottle.

What happens in that space

between the precious baby

and the stumbling man?

If there’s one thing I know,

even though at times it

may seem otherwise,

is that there is no such

thing as “us” and “them”,

and until we realize that

there will be no peace.

So lend a hand, a smile,

some money, sign a petition,

say a prayer, tip higher

if you can.

Each act helps us yield

to the simple truth that

there is no separation

between me and you.

No one is going

to come along

and save us from our

own undoing but ourselves,

interconnected reflections

of each other, each of us

a part of the holy web.

                        ~ Maluma

 

 

Sleep Deprivation; Anxiety; “The Guest House”

Sleep deprivation creates a kind of hunger – the body can’t help but want what it needs. I think of those who are starving for food and I think there must be a similarity there; a craving that persists, no matter how much you long for it to be different. You can’t help it – you won’t feel satisfied until you get what the body needs, whether it be sleep or food or to be pain-free.

Anxiety is like that unwanted relative that shows up on holidays. She is your Aunt Sadie or Tio Julio or your cousin Tamala or your great uncle, Malif. They tell crass jokes in front of your children or talk too loud or too long or get a little more drunk than you’d like, or they don’t help out with the dishes, or they stay too long. Or, they have breath like aged cheese and spill wine on your favorite tablecloth, or eat too much and belch loudly, or complain constantly. But somehow, you know they should be there – they are a part of your family. You know they must have special gifts, but you can’t see them. You know they have something to teach you, but you can’t figure out what. On rare occasions you notice something in them that strikes you positively, which surprises you: they can sing sweetly, or they saved an animal’s life, or they once volunteered at a hospital. And so, when the next holiday comes around and they make an appearance once again, you welcome them, because after all, they are family, whether you like them or not, and there’s no changing that. Just as there is no changing that they will always rub you the wrong way.                                                                                                                                 Anxiety is like that.

The Guest House

This human being is a guest house

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

                     as a guide from beyond.  ~ Rumi

 

 

Another Excerpt from the “Book” I Never Finished: Chronic Illness and PTSD

All people I know who have chronic illness challenges struggle at some point or another emotionally. There are times when our emotional suffering can overtake our physical suffering. Fear can grab a hold of us and spiral out of control, turning into anxiety or panic attacks. Thoughts turn dark and the spiral becomes depression or despair.

We’ve already explored the difficulties one faces at the onset of our illness; loss and the fears that often go hand-in-hand with it (refer to my previous post of April 8, 2019 Excerpt from My “Book” “Introduction and Initiation to Loss”). But, there are other scenarios that can cause difficult emotional responses, making it hard to maintain our equilibrium. One might be that we’ll go through a period of time when our symptoms are minimal and we have more choices available to us, our life opens up again. We might start to make plans, we may think we can get our career back on track. We may even believe that we are restored to perfect health, never to deal with the illness again. Then gradually, or perhaps suddenly, something shifts again, and we take a turn for the worse. It’s easy to see that these sets of circumstances could trigger our old fears of isolation and dysfunction or launch us into depression.

But sometimes, even if we’re doing okay physically, intense, dark emotions seem to rise out of nowhere and we are carried away by despair, hopelessness or dread. What’s going on here and what can be done to ease our minds and hearts in all types of scenarios?

First of all, it’s important to understand that because of the intricate relationship among them, when the body is in a weakened state, so is the mind and therefore, the emotions, creating an atmosphere that most of us find very challenging. I notice this with able-bodied people as well and more clearly, when they get something like the flu. At first, they’re unperturbed, and take remedies or pills and rest, knowing it will pass. But then, as the days go by and they realize this particular strain of flu might go on for a few days, they become grumpy. But then, if the flu goes on for weeks and the symptoms are difficult; high fever or stomach cramps, accompanied by sore muscles, for example, their usual cheery and determined disposition changes. They become a little nervous: When’s this going to end? They exhibit insecurity and question their significant other: Do you still love me? As people dealing with chronic illness, our challenge is on-going, which includes our emotional and mental reactions to our ill health, as well.

Secondly, it’s important to understand that some of the emotional and mental challenges that arise for people with chronic illness can be symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This understanding took me years to realize. It wasn’t until I saw a tv program about a Vietnam vet with PTSD, that I recognized myself – a lot of his symptoms were similar to mine: insomnia (although I believe mine is partially due to my neurological makeup), hypervigilance (for me, during the night: what if I have a seizure?) and occasional panic attacks (heart pounding, stomach in knots, persistent anxious thoughts). To come to the understanding that I have PTSD, was an enormous revelation for me and extremely validating.

In the past, when I exhibited these symptoms, I felt a certain shame with it: Why am I so weak-minded? Why can’t I sleep like everyone else? Why am I so fearful? Now I had a name and a reason for these particular reactions, which made me feel better about myself and therefore, more compassionate. I understood that for me, having grand mal seizures are traumatic, and that even though it’s been 20 years since I last had one, the fear of grand mal seizures is still great.

Because of this understanding, I could become kinder to myself and admit, with less shame (I’m still a work in progress), that I needed help. So, I hired caregivers. This way, at night, for example, when my anxiety becomes too much for me, when depression enters the room once again, I don’t feel like I have to “power through” – I can get up, wake up my caregiver and we can talk, have a cup of tea, and I can calm down more, and maybe even laugh!

Here are some of the classic symptoms of PTSD:

Emotional expressions

irritability, angry outbursts, guilt, shame, despair, disgust, anxiety, panic, nervousness, sadness, loss, depression, and overwhelm

Overall symptoms

sleep disturbances, hypervigilance, difficulty at work, impulsive destructive behavior, problems with concentration, strained relationships, changes in personality, loss of identity and sense of purpose

Physical symptoms of PTSD

headaches, colitis, and respiratory issues, ulcers

Of course, some of these things could be attributed to other causes, as well. It’s probably best to talk with a practitioner who is familiar with PTSD in people who are chronically ill, but if you have some of these symptoms and something resonates in you that their cause is PTSD, then I’d say chances are you are right.

As people living with chronic illness, we can feel we no longer trust our bodies, that they aren’t safe or reliable. This feeling affects the very core of our being. We feel unprotected. We live with the fear of a recurrence of our worst symptoms. We sometimes feel unsupported and misunderstood by our friends, family and doctors who think it’s all in our head, or that we aren’t trying enough to get well. This can further compound our doubts, fears and shame about our innermost selves and cause further isolation from community and society at large. Our financial position may change drastically, which affects us on a core survival level: How will we pay for any medical help? All this can be very traumatic and shouldn’t be minimized.

A direct quote from Counseling and Psychotherapy reads:

“A recent study showed that people whose worst event was a life event such as chronic illness, had more PTSD symptoms on average, than people whose worst life event was typically traumatic, such as an accident or disaster”. I feel the truth of this statement in my bones and I believe the reason for this truth is that our trauma is on-going, not a one-time occurrence.

According to studies, treatment for PTSD is multi-faceted, using a combination of education, medication, and therapies to address the effects. This is certainly true for me. In order for me to have any hope of even a fair night’s sleep, with my psychological and neurological makeup, I need a combination of hypnosis techniques, emotional support, medication and remedies. If you think you suffer from PTSD, it’s probably best to tell your practitioners (ones that understand this phenomenon) to get the help you need. It may take experimentation to figure out what works best for you, and what might make the best combination of therapies, support, medication and/or remedies. Understand that you may not ever “get over” the feeling of being traumatized but can look towards improving the quality of your life.

Conversation with Dieuwke

Note – one item of profanity

Dieuwke comes into my bedroom and gives me a hug when she enters. It’s always like this, every night she’s here. It’s been about 10 years since she’s been working for me as a caregiver and we have our set routines, just like any long-term relationship. After hugs, she goes on the other side of my bed, where I’m lying, and sits in the rocker by the sliding door. We catch up on our week, but our conversations are never light or superficial. When we ask each other how we are, we tell the truth. We get down and dirty. This soothes me, even when the truth is hard to take. Speaking my truth and listening to hers, releases something inside me and calms me down.

Tonight, she tells me she realizes she’s depressed. “About what?”, I ask, sitting up. I really want to hear this.

“It’s taken me awhile to figure out what I’m feeling. It’s this searching thing…”: She looks off into space as if whatever she is searching for is out there somewhere. “Nothing is fulfilling”. I furrow my brow, trying to understand. “We look for the next thing to make us feel satisfied, you know(?) We want to fall in love, or, in our restlessness, we want to move somewhere… or…” – she drifts off for a second – “but any real satisfaction we get doesn’t last long”.

This interests me. I understand what she is talking about. She’s talking about the human condition, I realize, and this I can wrap my mind around. Buddhists are often talking about this sort of thing.

“To me”, I say gingerly, testing out my thoughts and words, “this realization is actually good news, even when it doesn’t feel like it”. We both laugh, understanding.

“Yeah”, she says, her blue eyes brightening. “We’re supposed to be happy about this. When we get it that we can’t be truly fulfilled by outer experiences, we stop searching so much and go inward”.

“Yup”, I say, watching her.

“But I’m fed up with these spiritual teachings and reading books on spirituality”. She sticks out her tongue, then laughs.

“Yeah – fuck them!”, I say gleefully and laugh along with her.

The truth in not always easy. It’s kind of depressing when we remember we “can’t get no satisfaction”, at least long-lasting, in worldly pleasures. I mean I love my Rice Dream bars, and going to my book group & hanging out with my friends when I can, but when the ice cream’s done, or I come home from a gathering, there can be a subtle sort of emptiness or let-down that can come with it. That’s the kind of depression Dieuwke is talking about. Everybody feels it; just maybe not aware of it.

This doesn’t mean we need to become nuns and monks and close ourselves off from the world; like going to gatherings or doing things that give us pleasure – those of us who have chronic illness often feel cut off from the world as it is. Understanding that these things come to an end at some point, we can, for example, more-fully appreciate and enjoy the soft sweetness of ice cream or a lively conversation with a friend. In this regard, life becomes more poignant. While we are engaged in such activities, we begin to understand that there is something else that is continuous, that holds these passing experiences, that lies within them, and is not separate from them that we can depend on.

This type of awareness comes slowly and is something all of us (able-bodied or not) must go through repeatedly. We need reminding to wake up out of our reverie. And this requires patience. And it requires conscious practice. And it requires kindness.

What do you think?

Introduction to Tonglen

The following is an excerpt from my “book” that I wrote years ago.

Introduction to Tonglen

         There are times when, in the midst of recovering from a seizure or getting out of bed after another sleepless night when not only do I feel I can’t face one more minute of my life, but I ask the question many of us ask at some point in time: Why this senseless suffering? What good can come from this? At times like these, it can feel that all I am is an embodiment of suffering taking up space in the world. You may feel this way at times as well, or perhaps you come to these kinds of questions when hearing a news story about war or some other facet of brutality. For me, the Buddhist practice called “tonglen” provides an answer. Tonglen takes that feeling of senseless suffering and gives it a purpose: transforming it into compassion.

Tonglen (a Tibetan Buddhist practice) means giving and receiving in Tibetan or exchanging oneself for another. I find the latter a more accurate description, as one of its benefits is developing empathy. When I am having the most difficulty with my health, tonglen is a meditation practice that has helped me greatly, over the years.

When we practice loving kindness meditation, we tap into that part of ourselves that truly cares about our well-being and that of others. When we practice tonglen, we use that same desire for well-being and deepen our capacity to care. Tonglen, above all else, develops compassion.

But just what is compassion? As Sogyal Rinpoche says in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1992), “True compassion is the wish-fulfilling jewel, because it has the inherent power to give precisely to each being whatever that being most needs, and so alleviate his or her suffering, and bring about his or hers fulfillment”. It may not always be easy for us to experience this valuable and precious quality, for we may have guarded our heart well, thinking that by doing so, we can protect our self from pain and suffering. And, just as we discovered in loving kindness meditation, we may also feel we are undeserving of any kind of tenderness; in part perhaps, because we may feel that on some level, we brought this illness upon ourselves. This way of thinking couldn’t be further from the truth. Because of feeling unworthy, we are more in need of compassion than ever. As people with chronic illness, we have also been on the receiving end of toxic responses, such as fear, pity, shame and judgment (some of which may come from ourselves). These experiences can spark a disconnect with others, bringing with it a feeling of isolation and loneliness. Compassion, on the other hand, is a shared connective experience that brings with it a deep understanding. When we are touched by compassion, we feel seen and accepted. Compassion, and in turn, tonglen practice asks of us to instead of turning away from our pain and suffering, to come towards it, feel it, and in fact, embrace it with the utmost love and attention and with the express desire and intent to transform it. Just as we found in loving kindness meditation, at times it takes great courage and effort to practice tonglen, because it asks of us to not only acknowledge our pain and suffering but know it intimately.

         The Practice

         Preliminary information to practicing tonglen may be found in the “Loving Kindness Meditation” section of my Loving Kindness, Part II blog posted on May 5, 2019.

There are many ways to practice tonglen: The methods I present here are what I consider the most suitable for those of us with health challenges. In some places, I’ve made modifications. If you want to further explore this valuable practice, I recommend you read Sogyal Rinpoche’s descriptions of it in his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying or Pema Chodron’s in The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (2002).

To begin, get in a comfortable position and start with the basic meditation techniques of becoming aware of body sensations and listening to sounds. Then pay attention to breath, becoming aware of its movement throughout the body. Then, for a brief time, note your thoughts and feelings. Become the observer, allowing your body/mind to become expansive as these thoughts and emotions move through you. Align yourself more and more with that expansiveness.

Maintaining this vastness, bring your awareness to your mood. Are you anxious or depressed? Are you feeling irritable because of pain? On the inhale, breathe in any difficult mental or emotional states to your heart, allowing them to dissolve. On the exhale, breathe out calmness and compassion for yourself, cleansing the quality of your mind. It may be that you are only able to touch your hurt or sorrow or pain for a moment here, a moment there, and that’s okay. You may not be used to being so tenderly attentive with yourself, but luckily, you can practice this technique again and again, and by doing so, become more familiar with it. If you have a hard time opening to this self-compassion, you can also start with loving kindness meditation and/or the “jump-start” (see below for quote from Loving Kindness, Part II post) techniques that precede it; remembering you are worthy of love, a time when someone was kind and helpful to you, and then proceed with this practice.

“Traditionally, we begin these phrases with ourselves, then move on to others, building up loving kindness in our hearts. But, although the idea of showering ourselves with loving kindness may seem simple enough at first glance, we may have difficulty with it. We may not be used to such gentleness with ourselves. If this is true for you, or if the words become mechanical, take time to recall an incident where someone was kind to you. It can be as simple as someone letting you into the flow of traffic, or a gentle tone someone used with you when you felt out of sorts. Connect with that feeling and then begin the phrases that work for you”.

I find that by offering compassion to these vulnerable parts of oneself is what’s been needed all along, and if you’re at all like me, you never knew that, or need reminding. There’s a sadness that can come with this awareness – a sadness that we’ve separated ourselves from our own love for a long, long time. What we’ve always yearned for – true understanding – we can best receive from ourselves; for who knows pain better than us? By practicing self-tonglen, we are coming back to our own heart. We are coming home.

For the next stage, you can use your physical symptoms to bring about a transformation: On the inhale, breathe in some physical difficulty and visualize it dissolving in your heart. On the exhale, send that ailing part your love, compassion and healing. Keep this up for as long as you want, or can, and move your awareness throughout your body, the same way. Again, you may be able to do only so much, but that’s okay. Your physical symptoms may remain much the same as when you started, but has your attitude softened? You can add another component to this stage if you wish: any pain you experience, imagine all the people who are experiencing the same pain, and when you inhale, take in their pain as well, and then let it dissolve in your heart. On the exhale, breathe out tenderness and understanding and any other calm that comes to mind and send it to all those people. You can also become creative here and send an image instead, if that makes the practice more intimate. A blanket to snuggle in or a warm hug by a loved one might be good images to send, for example. Sometimes when I include others who are in the same emotional and/or physical boat as me, I feel less isolated, less like I’m the only one on the planet that feels this way, and any loneliness I have begins to diminish or fade away. This may happen to you, too. It’s also possible that the opposite is true – that including others’ pain feels overwhelming. If that’s the case, just come back to doing the practice for yourself or breathe in that feeling, letting it dissolve and breathing out calm.

Because there’s such an intricate relationship between the emotional and the physical, you may want to include both of these steps in one. Also, if you have symptoms like I have sometimes, where much of the body is affected, you can do tonglen for the entire body as a whole. I encourage you to be creative here and throughout the practice. There are probably ways to practice that have never occurred to me that will occur to you. Trust your instincts. This practice may bring up deep sadness and you may want to cry. Please give yourself permission to do so; there is no need to be completely formal about this and tears can be so cleansing.

You may want to stop the practice right here and that’s fine. But, if you’re up for it, you can go to the next stage, which is similar to the one for loving kindness meditation, where we practice for others. Envision a loved one, someone dear to your heart, who is going through some difficulty. On the inhale, breathe in their suffering, whether it be cancer or the heartbreak of divorce, depression or a bum knee, and allow their pain, their struggle, to dissolve in your heart. Besides their suffering dissolving, allow any judgments or fears to dissolve as well. One time, when I was practicing tonglen on someone who was sick, I saw that I had judgment towards her, because at the time, she was still smoking cigarettes. I saw how this judgment blocked my compassion for her and I breathed that in, too. You may fear that by breathing in someone else’s illness, despair, suffering, that you will become depleted in the same way they are. Breathe in this fear, too, and allow it to melt within and dislodge from your heart, remembering to breathe out compassion, peace, etc.

At any point in practicing tonglen for others, you can include, just as you did for yourself, all others who are experiencing the same sort of suffering. For example, if you are doing tonglen for your mother who has Alzheimer’s, you can include all others with the same disease. By adding this piece in, we begin to expand our focus of awareness, causing our hearts to expand as well.

If you still have energy, you can move on to the next stage. Visualize someone neutral in your life; this time someone who you noticed is experiencing some difficulty. Perhaps it is the receptionist at your doctor’s office whose hand is in cast or the bus driver who seemed grumpy one morning and go through the same routine: inhaling their discomfort, letting it melt, exhaling and sending them love. If you can’t think of someone neutral who you know is suffering in some particular way, consider any neutral person – there is probably some difficulty in that person’s life, even if minor. Remember, just as in loving kindness meditation, part of the reason we do this practice in its entirety, is to awaken our heart to all people; not just those that are like us or believe the same things we do.

Then, we turn to a difficult person to practice tonglen for. Again, this can certainly be someone you know, but can also be someone in public office you disagree with or a group of people you don’t know. I have actually used my partner’s health insurance company, who has consistently denied payment on expensive medication that they have repeatedly said they would cover. When I did this practice for them, I saw how angry I was and how that anger hardened my heart, cutting me off from love. What good was hanging on to it doing for me? Although difficult for me to do, I was able to soften my heart and send them some of that soft-heartedness (soon after, they sent a letter saying they finally approved the coverage. Coincidence? Hard to say). Again, perfection is not the goal here – but being aware that we all have our areas of prejudice, fear, and judgment that are difficult to open to and to do the best we can to awaken compassion to those parts.

Instead of practicing tonglen for a difficult person, we could practice for a more difficult scenario, in order to build on our compassion. This might mean someone who is dying, or someone in constant pain. By practicing tonglen for a severe situation, we strengthen our compassion muscle, which is the gift of this practice. By imagining the most difficult suffering and bringing it into our heart on an inhalation, we are able to dissolve our deepest fears about suffering in general and can offer as we exhale, our most tender and heartfelt wish for the well-being of this person or persons in this mental or physical condition.

The next stage of the practice is to imagine all the people you have included up to this point and breathe in their suffering and breathe out compassion, imagining all of them well and whole – similar to the same stage in loving kindness meditation.

After you have finished with this aspect of the practice, you can move on to the other phases – for those in your hometown, country, and the world. The length of time you spend here depends, as usual, on your energy level and the time you have set aside for practice. When you are finished with this last part, bring your mind back to the vast awareness you experienced at the beginning of your practice.

If you have explored the entire practice, you have included all beings into your practice. In doing this, one can see that we all suffer in some way, that as human beings, this is something we all share. Tonglen puts us in touch with universal suffering in other ways, as well, as we begin to see that “my” suffering and suffering in general, all have the same component, whether it comes in small disappointments like losing our car keys to ongoing, grueling pain. Understanding this can have the effect of making us feel less alone and walled-off in our misconception that we are the only one that feels the way we do.

There are days when my suffering seems so great that the practice of tonglen seems insurmountable. You may find this is true for you sometimes. On those days, I don’t formally practice, but try to distract myself with other activities, if possible. However, I like to keep in mind the concept of tonglen to help inspire me and remind me that all suffering can serve to open my heart and awaken me to compassion. One way I do this is, I write the word “tonglen” on a piece of paper and put in on my fridge. That way, when I walk into my kitchen and see my sign, my body and mind immersed in the chaos of great difficulty, I can, for a minute, shift my awareness. And it is my profound belief that this makes a difference, not only for myself in the moment, but for great suffering everywhere. When we keep in mind the concept that all we are is energy; something scientists proclaim and something we see glimpses of in meditation, when we can shift even a little bit of suffering, we are adding a little more peace and clarity to the world.

Many practical and spontaneous ways of doing tonglen present themselves regularly to us, if we pay attention. As a result of our practice, we begin to see how we can be more connective in the world than perhaps we’ve been in the past and how that benefits us. We notice too, how often we shield ourselves from others’ pain and how we can change that.

There are times we can do tonglen spontaneously, using our own suffering, along with others’. I remember one such time when I was detoxing from a strong medication that had ceased its effectiveness for anxiety and insomnia. It took over a month to complete this process and most of that month it seemed every minute of my waking day was extraordinarily difficult, but the nights were even worse. I got very little sleep and my anxiety was off the charts.

All this was happening at the same time Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I watched a lot of TV during that time, because I was capable of little else, and the images I saw of all the poor, abandoned people left me feeling even more disturbed. I felt surrounded by suffering with no sense of relief. Seeing their struggle and pain only seemed to increase my own. On one day a certain story in particular haunted me: A makeshift hospital was created at the airport for some of the victims of Katrina. Because of the large number of patients and the under staffing of volunteers, a place was set aside for the most stricken and the least likely to live, while the ones who had a better chance at survival were attended to. This horrified me when I heard it and when I couldn’t sleep again that night, I remembered this story and it filled my heart with dread. How could it be that these people were left alone to die without the comfort of friends and loved ones? I tossed and turned, wondering about their own despair – what was going on with them now? What was going on in their minds at this exact hour? At the time, I was hooked up to an oxygen machine, set up as a result of a sleep study that showed I have mild sleep apnea. I laid there with my disturbing thoughts, listening to the machine whose rhythmic push-pull of air was somehow soothing – like a giant person next to me, breathing. Then I remembered tonglen and its basic teaching of breath, and that any suffering could be used to transform into compassion. Bit by bit, I chipped away at the claustrophobic, emotional state I was in. At times, waves of panic or despair would wash over me. Most of the time I was unable to concentrate on both the breathing and the transformation of pain to compassion, and many times the intensity of feeling was so great, it overtook any of my efforts. But now and then, I felt some relief from my emotional agony and also felt this remarkable connection with the people at the airport who were also lying there, perhaps facing even more despair. “My” suffering and “their” suffering began to blur and merge until they were indistinguishable from each other. I felt we were in the same room, doing the best we could and somehow, that felt comforting; I wasn’t all alone with my desperate thoughts and feelings. I also had the sense when I felt this connection strongly, and felt the depth of my compassion, that I was somehow enabling them to cope and open to this tenderness, as well. Although I still managed only a little sleep that night, something in me had changed and softened, and this had to do with my ability to meet such difficulty with the depth of tenderness it needed in order to transform.

I have noticed after many years of practicing tonglen, how it sparks in me, not just spontaneous responses like the above, but active ones as well. As an example of this, one day I went to a local store to pick up some items and saw the husband of a woman who had worked there for years, had suddenly died of a heart attack. Because I live in a small town, I knew that they had been childhood sweethearts and had been together for probably forty years or more. I imagined his suffering was great. In the past, prior to doing tonglen, probably because I had no real connection with this man, except a passing nod of recognition in the store from time-to-time, I most likely would’ve tried to avoid him, feeling awkward in his presence, because of his pain. Instead, I felt a confidence arise in me and I approached him. I looked into his eyes and spoke from my heart about his loss and even reached out with my hand. He immediately took my hand in his and spoke from his heart. I felt a true connection in that moment, and when I left, I felt something important had taken place between us, even though (or maybe, because) we were practically strangers. I believe my practice gave me the confidence to reach out and take action, which only deepened my sitting practice all the more.

This story speaks to the idea of compassion in action. We may question whether doing tonglen meditation is enough – is it really bringing about any change, except within us? Shouldn’t we be doing something more to affect change? As with loving kindness meditation, we may never know the effect we have on another, although I certainly believe there can be one. When you think about it, the same holds true for actions. We may never know how a kind word we say may affect another. Just as we may never end up telling a teacher how they changed the course of our life, others may never tell us how our efforts have impacted them. I do believe however, if we are moved to do something for another, and it’s in our capacity to do so, we might as well act on those impulses. A word of caution here; make sure you’re not acting from a place of guilt or martyred sense of duty. That’s not true compassion. In other words, if you offer your cousin a place to stay indefinitely, and then resent him, neither of you is truly benefiting from this act. As people with chronic health challenges, we particularly need to make sure our energy isn’t drained, as it can take a toll on our bodies. Sometimes we may be moved to do something for ourselves on the physical plane, like reaching out for support, or seeing a new practitioner, but even if “all” we do is self-tonglen, we are doing something very powerful. By changing our inner world, we create meaning in our lives that may not have been there before.

However we practice tonglen, whether for ourselves or others, whether in a formal practice or in spontaneous fashion, not only do we find a purpose for our suffering by developing and strengthening our capacity for compassion and empathy, but we uncover our true nature, which includes this aching tenderness and with it an awareness of the preciousness of life itself. In this way, our lives are infused with meaning.

Synapses and a Few Words More

         Tonglen: breathe in suffering, allowing it to dissolve in the heart of compassion

Breathe out compassion, peace, and tenderness. Start with self, then a loved one, a neutral person, someone (s) you’re at odds with, all of the above, your town state, country, world

Consider this: true compassion leads to true happiness and the awareness of our true nature.

Consider this: we can only begin to relieve our suffering by knowing it intimately, not ignoring it.

“Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allowing ourselves to move gently towards what scares us. The trick to doing this is to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion; to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance.” ~ Pema Chodron

Accepting the Unacceptable

I recently saw a documentary called Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (Flooks, Lichtenstein & Tempest, 2018), about the life and death of Teddy Pendergrass.  For those of you who don’t know, Teddy Pendergrass was a soul singer who became popular in the ‘70s. But at 31, at the height of his fame, he had a bad car accident that made him a quadriplegic. Fortunately, he was able to breathe on his own, talk, and raise his arms half-way.

Understandably, he fell into a deep depression. Can you imagine? He went from being a famous, successful star to suddenly becoming some guy in a wheelchair; hardly able to move. He hadn’t invested his money well and didn’t have much to support himself and his family. Talk about changes in identity!

            He ended up going to a therapist who was also in a wheelchair. Session after session, Teddy showed up, but finally came to the conclusion to end his life. His therapist told him that he had a moral obligation to tell his family his decision, and Teddy agreed to have one last session with all of them there.

            When the time came, his family begged him not to take his life, but Teddy was adamant he was not going to change his mind. On the way out the door, he said to his therapist, “Well, I probably won’t see you again, so good-bye”.

            His therapist hung on to the word “probably” and then suggested the most surprising thing: that he set up a time for his family and close friends to get together and stage a funeral for him, during which time Teddy would be covered with a sheet. He was not to say a word while everyone spoke about him as if he were dead.

            After everyone finished, the sheet was lifted and he said, “I want to live”.

            He then concentrated on building up his strength and because he was able to lift his arms, he could exercise his lungs and was eventually able to sing.

            His therapist, who hadn’t been in a wheelchair that long himself, said, “saving his life was like saving my own”.

            I love this story. Not so much because he went on to find fame and fortune again, but because he took his suicidal thoughts as far as he could without actually playing it out. This unorthodox ritual is finally what it took to turn him around and give him the inspiration he needed to find purpose in his life again.

            I wonder what his friends and family told him that changed his mind? What would I say to a loved one in a similar situation? Why hadn’t their desperate pleadings in the therapy session make a difference, but what was said in the funeral did. What would I want to hear if I were playing dead?

            What would you need to hear to help keep you going in the worst of times? Can you tell yourself these things now? How do we accept the unacceptable in our lives? What abilities do you still have, and what can you do to continue to develop them? Can you find purpose and meaning in your life just the way you are? What do you value about yourself? Can you ask your loved ones now what they value about you, what it is they would miss if you were dead?

            This movie, too, reminded me of the book Tuesdays with Morrie, a true account by Mitch Albom (1997). Morrie was Mitch’s mentor who ended up having a terminal illness. Morrie decided that he wanted a memorial service while he was alive, so that he could hear what it was that people loved about him. His thought was: why wait until I am dead when I can’t hear what they say?

            Would you want to do the same thing?

Would I?

Envy

I am seriously envious. My sister just came back from China. She went to a huge Chinese wedding. She climbed a mountain that looks just like the pictures you see; swirling fog at the base of the mountain, steep inclines, wild orchids growing on the side of the cliff. She hiked the Great Wall. She ate exotic foods and met all kinds of people. My sister is 52 but has the energy of a 20-year-old. She lives in Massachusetts and in five days will fly out here to California for 5 days!

I’m bright green with envy. Glowing. You can see me from miles away. I want to travel too. And often. And go just about anywhere. She sounded upbeat and as full of enthusiasm as a puppy. I told her “I wish I had about 1/3 of your energy!”.

I grew up in a family where travel was our middle name. We lived in California 9 months out of the year and 3 months on the east coast. Before I had problems with seizures and severe sleep deprivation, we went to Europe: Denmark, France, Italy, Greece. I went to Jamaica with my parents and Trinidad and Tobago. Guatemala and Honduras. Traveling is in my blood. And now? Now I don’t drive outside of my hometown. If I go anywhere else, I have to have a caregiver take me, and then usually for a doctor’s appointment a half-hour away. I did manage a trip back east last year with two caregivers, but it was brutal getting there: I felt like I had to slay a few dragons to get there.

In my fantasies, I’d like to live back east part of the year. I’d like to travel to Asia – Bhutan maybe? Thailand, Nepal? I’d like to go to Africa, too, but I’m not sure which country. Europe: pick a country, any country. I’d like to go to Alaska and see the Denali National Park. I’d like to go to Nova Scotia – just ‘cause. Costa Rica for sure. Australia and The Great Barrier Reef. Tahiti. The Caribbean. I want to see the Taj Mahal. Machu Pichu. Findhorn. Stonehenge. Victoria Falls. I’d like to hike, swim, zipline, snorkel, scuba, snowboard, hang glide, surf and kite surf.

So… I’m just a tad envious.

Which brings me to the topic of complaining. As someone with chronic illness, I feel like I’m not supposed to complain too much. There are always others worse off than me. So, I should be grateful for what I can do. As a society we love the “super crip”- the differently abled people who not only never complain but are able to do extraordinary things. Someone without legs managing to run a marathon with prosthetics. Someone who is blind who climbed a mountain. Someone who has Crohn’s disease becomes a medical doctor. These are all commendable achievements to be sure, but what about the rest of us who don’t accomplish such feats?

Personally, I think for most of us, it’s a feat just to make it through the day. For someone who suffers from depression to get out of bed. Another to walk from the bedroom to the living room. To get through one more day of pain without thoughts of suicide. To be able to balance a check book, make a meal, sweep the floor. Hold down a job.

 In the middle of writing this, I took a break and walked outside. It’s been raining lately, and everything is so green. There’s the dark green of the pine trees that line the driveway, the ends of which are lighter from new growth. Cattails below the house shimmer a soft green that sometimes darkens when clouds pass by. The tall grass in the meadow is a shiny lime green. Green is a beautiful color with so many shades.

So, are there various shades of human emotion: fear, irritation, rage, excitement, sadness, and yes, envy? It’s human to have and feel emotions. To get stuck in them and have them eat a hole in your stomach or heart is something we want to avoid.

When I came back from my short walk, I felt something inside shift. I sat down and listened to the rain that started falling – a beautiful sound. I glanced at my cats who were sleeping peacefully. And I sat with my envy, green and glowing. It’s a beautiful thing too! A human thing.

And so, when my sister comes to visit, I will hug her hard, and squeeze her hands, and ask her more details about her adventures and look at her pictures on her iPhone. And I will be happy for her. And I will be grateful I have a sister who I love and loves me back.

And I will probably bring with me a touch of green envy. Emerald? Perhaps ivy? I’ll decide then.