The other day I sat outside with my binoculars for a long time. I peered out at the other side of the pond and noticed a few mallards gliding along the water. For some reason they are not coming as often to “my” side – perhaps word is out that a person is regularly checking them out. I don’t know. But as I was watching these ducks, I noticed movement from my peripheral vision, so I turned slightly to see what it was. A great blue heron was inching its way to the pond on its spindly legs. I was so excited! I’ve seen one before, a few times here, when I first moved to this place, but that was years ago.
As I watched, it stealthily tip-toed this way and that, peering into the water, hoping for something to eat. Very patient, waiting. Then it walked behind some cattails and I couldn’t see it anymore but sensed its presence. Just like it did, I watched and waited.
And it paid off! Within five minutes, to my amazement, it emerged from the water with a large fish in its mouth and after a few awkward tries, gobbled it up. I was awestruck. This I had never seen before. I couldn’t believe my luck that I was able to be a witness to the private, scared world that this heron lived in.
With all the stress around COVID-19 we all need something to calm us down, give us focus and feed our spirits. A friend of mine, who loves to sew, is happily making masks and handing them out. Another is going through boxes of old family photos and letters and archiving them.
For me, right now, it’s nature that gets my attention and supports my well-being. When anxiety rears its ugly head and wants to take over, I step outside and listen to a neighboring quail, watch turkey vultures overhead or I lie directly on the earth and look up at the oak tree next to me and watch a tiny wren land, its tail twitching. I take in the smell of freshly mown grass. I watch pollen float through the air, a lizard doing “push-ups” in the shade.
It’s all simple stuff, but it helps. It really does.
What are you doing to nourish your spirit during these uncertain times?
Five minutes after writing the above, a young buck appeared in the yard, no more than ten feet away from me. We were both a little startled, but stayed still, watching each other. He then turned and walked slowly through the tall grass, then leapt into the woods below, leaving me to rest in the stillness of his wake.
Remember: There are beautiful surprises everywhere. Slow down. Pay attention. Listen. Watch.
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
I am up and out at 8am on my deck again, listening and watching. I hear what must be a mourning dove cooing. A sound so gentle emitting from the trees, underneath the squawking of jays, the caw of crows, the joyous singing of the red-winged blackbirds. Two ducks come out of the cattails, dark in the shadows of the morning light, and head for the edge of the pond where I can longer see them. Are they nesting there? Is this their time to nest? So much is going on outside. So much to observe and contemplate. What are the wrens singing about? Are they telling each other something important, are they broadcasting sheer happiness? What happened to the wood duck that was there the other day? Do mallards and wood ducks get along?
Is there a way I can watch and listen to nature that will guide me during these uncertain times? Even though I live in the country, I can get caught in distraction and restlessness.
This coronavirus hovering about can lead me to feel anxious and fenced in, sometimes overwhelmed. Again and again, nature encourages me to live in the moment. It also awakens me to a childlike curiosity that feeds my spirit.
My meditation group, now no longer able to gather physically, is still sitting at the same time, once a week. This week, we are invited to envision a better future. What is coronavirus teaching us? How well are we listening? What needs to change, within and without? There’s no doubt that, by sequestering ourselves, we bring more peace to the planet. The air over large cities all over the world is clearing up. Animals are coming out of hiding, understanding we humans are pulling back, taking a break.
Coronavirus is forcing us to look within and ask questions. Are we living a life we can be proud of? Are we listening to Mother Nature and what she is telling us? Can we help others who are suffering more than us? Can we befriend our neighbors at this time, even the ones who differ greatly from us? Can we create a warmer, cooperative, more functional society? A society that is all-inclusive, or are our differences too fundamental? Is it too late to change?
After I ponder these questions, I come back to the sound of the mourning dove’s soft cooing, as other birds carry on, fluttering about and hopping from tree to tree. Her voice is consistent and calm beneath the chaos and activity, her feathers, I imagine, soft and unruffled.
This morning, early, I step out on the back deck with a cup of tea and binoculars. Simon greets me with a soft “meow”. I sit down on the planks cross legged and he pads over to me and curls up in my lap and begins to purr. We both look out at the view and listen to the birds, his ears greatly attuned to nuances of sound, move this way and that.
Ironically, since “shelter in place”, I’ve been spending more time outdoors than usual. It’s been in the upper 60s and lower 70s lately and spring here is gorgeous. There is so much news about COVID-19 that can lead to anxiety for me, but when I go outside onto the deck and listen and watch, I calm down, I heal. I open myself up to the present moment and my worries begin to slough off.
Red-winged blackbirds flash among the cattails, singing out. A duck calls from across the pond. Another glides across the water silently. The hills, further out, show patches of green meadow. Clouds move momentarily across the sun.
We don’t know how COVID-19 will affect us ultimately in our communities, our state, our country, the world. We don’t know how long it will linger. But, we do know this present moment, which is all we have, and lately, it’s nature that reminds me of this, and for that I am so grateful.
Mornings at Blackwater by Mary Oliver
“For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.
And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.
What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
Copyright: Oliver, Mary. (2017). Devotions: The selected poems of Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Press.
I am all over the place lately, leaping from fear to peace. I am reflecting what is happening all over the globe: Chaos and fear, yet a slowing down of activities. Sometimes I obsess about all kinds of things: Will I get this illness? Will I die a horrible death? Do I have enough tp? What if one of my caregivers gets sick and spreads the virus to others? What if I am left with no caregivers? How do I clean properly? Did I wipe down the doorknobs after someone left? What if I forgot? Anxiety loves this kind of stuff. It thrives on it.
And then, suddenly I am peaceful and feel wide open and content. Calm. And more connected to nature. The trees around my house seem more vibrant than ever. I watch the ducks in the pond happily waddling about, and I breathe more deeply. The red-winged blackbirds sing their delight at being alive and dive in and out of the cattails. Sometimes I go outside and sit on the earth and cry. I don’t know what I’m crying about, but tears run down my face. I sob. It feels good to do so. And I feel supported by the earth when I do.
Yesterday, while I was out there, Simon, our cat, came and sat with me and then curled up in my lap. We both surveyed the pond, the meadow, the hills. And I thought: If all humankind died, the earth would heal and that thought gave me peace. I love my friends, family and community, and sometimes am able to love all humankind, but, as my mother used to say, “We are the most destructive species on the planet.” She was right and it’s a hard fact to sit with.
Sometimes, I open my heart to not knowing. Not knowing if certain people I know and love will survive. Not knowing if local businesses will survive. Not knowing how long the virus will survive. And these thoughts take me to the big “I Don’t Know” – the mysteries of The Universe. And this thought leads to Freedom.
This morning I go to my friend Rainbow’s house to pick up a CD she has made with her “old man” Donovan. Rainbow is an old hippie who has basically tie-dyed her hair purple and green recently. We get to talking about all sorts of things and then she says, “We’re both the sensitive type. And sometimes that’s hard when life gets really dark.”
I nod my head agreeing, and give her arm a squeeze, wondering what she’s been going through lately.
“But I think that sensitivity is also a gift,” she adds. Yeah, I think. I forget this, but it’s true. “We feel things so deeply, don’t you think? And others! Real empaths.” I nod again. “Sometimes I feel I don’t have any skin.” “Yes, yes!,” she says enthusiastically. She can become easily excited. “That’s it exactly! But that sensitivity gives you the ability to write poetry. And the free hugs you used to give at Mariposa.”
I consider this. “I guess you’re right. That sensitivity we share has a positive side, although when things become really difficult, I forget that.” “I know! I know!” She’s almost jumping up and down. “Me too! But we can’t forget the flip side! Energy is energy! Sometimes we name it “anxiety,” other times we can name it – oh I don’t know – “The buzz of creativity.” We can’t forget that buzz! It’s magic!” Rainbow has a unique way of putting things. “Like you and your music and your big heart,” I say.
She ducks her head momentarily embarrassed, then says, “When we feel other folks’ pain, that can be draining sometimes. But it also means we can offer folks a lot of love.
“You’re right,” I say. I’m glad to hear these words from her right now. Lately, I have only seen the downside of sensitivity: The inability to use computers for too long because how it affects my nervous system, how I get almost every flu and cold in the winter because of a compromised immune system from too little sleep over too many years, and anxiety that shows up too frequently as far as I’m concerned. Not to mention epilepsy.
“Plus,” she goes on, “It seems like other folks don’t experience deeply the sweetness of the world. Like dew: It’s fantastic how it sparkles! Or how the sun can pierce through the dark clouds and right into your heart. They see it, they feel something, but it’s not a Big Event, you know? They’re on to the next thing.”
“I get what you mean. I often wonder what it’s like to be other people. To feel not what they feel, but how. Often, they seem to me – oh, I don’t know – not hardened exactly – but… more protected somehow. Some people hardly ever cry.”
“I know,” Rainbow says, “Can you imagine?” Her eyes widen in wonder.
I think about my mother whom I could count on one hand the number of times I saw her cry. And I never saw her sob. I remember her saying once, “Why do people have to talk about their feelings all the time?” She wasn’t a cold person. Warmth emanated from her. She just had thick skin – she was born that way.
We go on to other things: her upcoming gig, what movies we’ve seen lately, our very different upbringings: hers Catholic and strict, mine, unorthodox with few boundaries.
I then tell her I need to get back home and we hug and say goodbye.
When I reach my car, she yells, “I love you!”
I blow her a kiss.
“Keep writing poetry,” she adds as I’m about to open the car door, “The universe needs us!”
I toss the CD into the car and turn towards her, fashioning my hands into the shape of a heart.
As people dealing with the ongoing struggle with our bodies, hope is a quality that is sure to enter our life at one point or another. When we wake up to the too-familiar pain in our joints or the weakness in our heart, or whatever is still waiting for us, it is easy to touch or give into fear, despair or bitterness. Hope is a wish that arises from the heart and offers us a chance at something better and keeps us going. Hope reminds us we often do not know the outcome of our illness, that science and technology are always expanding, that there are so many alternatives out there still to try. Hope whispers to us of all sorts of possibilities, and that whisper propels us forward and encourages us to not give up.
That being said, my own relationship with hope is not always an easy one. There have been times when I’ve lost hope, when I’ve given up hope, when I’ve clung to it. There’ve been times when it seems to me that to have any kind of hope that my health would ever change for the better was a dangerous tactic to take, as it could become a set-up for disappointment and then a plunge into dark emotions.
It is a good idea to look at our own relationship with hope and ask ourselves a few questions: What are we hoping for, exactly? A cure? A healing? An improved condition? A full recovery? Should our hope be “realistic” – whatever that is? Should we let go of hope altogether, because it creates a striving in the heart that just perpetuates more suffering? Perhaps if we’re to hope for anything, we should hope for an open heart to our on-going experience… but if that’s all we hope for, does it shut us down to any physical change?
At the onset of our illness, before we understand that it is a chronic condition, most of us hope for a full recovery or cure. Let’s be honest. We want our bodies to function as well as they did before we got sick. We miss how active our lives were and we yearn to “get back into the game”. But, as time goes by and we try various treatments and practitioners, we start to see that maybe a cure isn’t in the cards for us. We begin to see that yearning for such a thing takes us out of our life and away from the possibility of experiencing any happiness with things as they are right here and now. As we listen to our body’s needs and stories with compassionate awareness, we realize what we’ve been longing for all along is a healing and that healing is a wholeness that includes everything we experience as a human being: our bodies, our stories about our bodies, our fears, desires, our ups and downs, etc. This kind of healing doesn’t mean our bodies will suddenly be cured. “Healing” and “curing” in this case, mean two different things.
It can take us a while before we come to this conclusion. We begin by exploring beneath the surface of hope where there is often fear, loss and sometimes, desperation lurking. Having the courage to meet these powerful emotions from the soft places in our heart, encourages us to cultivate a kind of hope that buoys us, rather than feeds our fears of never getting well. Through the lens of this sort of exploration, we move into the spaciousness that allows the ultimate hope, the ultimate healing: We come into alignment with our innermost essence, from which all possible outcomes are born. This kind of open hope moves us away from a fear-based one that clutches at one particular outcome. Sharon Salzberg, Buddhist teacher and author, calls this “fixated hope”. She writes: “Fixated hope”…. like hope itself, resembles faith in that both sparkle with a sense of possibility. But, fixated hope is conditional, circumscribing happiness to getting what we want… when our hope for relief from suffering is based only on getting what we want, in the precise way we want it, we bind hope to fear, rather than to faith.”
“Buddhism regards fixated hope and fear as two sides to the same coin. When we hope for a particular outcome to arise or a desire to be met, we invariably fear it won’t happen. Thus, we move from hope to fear to hope from fear in an endless loop.”
I understand that loop intimately. And I understand another kind of hope; one that takes us out of that loop and inspires us to move forward. Some years ago, I had to detox from an antidepressant I had been taking for sleep, because it no longer worked for me. The process had left me anxious and fragile and my sleep worse than ever. On top of that, I had lost hope and became despairing that anything could help me as I had tried so many different remedies and medications – some of which worked for a while and then at some point, my body would habituate to it and no longer be of any help. This kind of process was a long and difficult one – one I’ve repeated again and again – first lifting my hopes, just to have them dashed again. The fragile physical state I was in at this point, deeply affected my emotional and mental states, and not only that, the specialist I had been seeing inferred that he had run out of things to try with me. What was I to do? Seek out yet another doctor? Find a new practitioner? I felt completely overwhelmed and was in a state of great anguish. As I often do when in dire straits and can’t see my way out, I called on people from my support system. One night a good friend came over to help out and when I told her all of my fears (what if there was nothing out there for me and I’d have to live this way for the rest of my life), she gently reminded me none of us knew what was around the corner, that the future held all kinds of possibilities beyond our knowing at this time. I listened to her intently and later stood out on my deck and looked up at the dark and clouded sky. Just then, like a schmaltzy movie, the clouds parted and revealed this glowing golden moon that I hadn’t noticed before, because I had been too caught up in my own despair. In that moment, my energy shifted, and that despair left my body. And in its place, hope moved in. Soon after that, I went back to my original doctor who determined that the combination of medications I had been on might have caused a reaction in me that made my sleeping more difficult than usual.
I want to be clear here. I am not suggesting that just because I was able to shift my energy, I was able to find better solutions — there are too many variables to know why any outcome comes to pass (see my January 3, 2020 blog post Creating Your Own Reality). I am suggesting that by moving into an open hope that has no set outcome in mind, aligns us with that which will work best for us in whatever condition we find ourselves. It allows us the ability to receive a new answer, whether it be acceptance or a step in a direction we may not have considered (or noticed) before. By letting go of fear (not always an easy feat for us) we bring about a greater potential for change.
Another element we would do well to cultivate here is equanimity. Living with the ups and downs of difficult symptoms, it is easy to emotionally feel on a roller coaster as well. We’re ecstatic when our blood work comes back negative after a long struggle with cancer, only to be devastated when, six months later, those same test results come back positive. Cultivating a kind of hope that is centered in equanimity, gives us an emotional balance with which to deal with the volatility of our lives. A good example of this, is the story of the old farmer. One day his horse ran off. When his neighbors heard, they dropped by. “How awful!”, they said, hoping to comfort him. “Maybe”, was all the farmer answered. The next day, the horse came back with three wild horses in tow. This time, when the neighbors came by, they said, “What great luck!”. “Maybe”, said the farmer. The next afternoon, his son attempted to break in one of the new horses but was thrown off and broke his leg. The neighbors showed up. “I’m so sorry, what a terrible loss!”. “Maybe”, replied the old man. The following morning, two military men came by looking to draft young, able-bodied men into the Army. When they saw his son, they moved on to the next farm. The neighbors congratulated him on his good fortune. “Maybe”, said the farmer.
Maintaining a hope with this kind of equilibrium while we deal with all our physical discomforts may feel like an impossibility, but I find it a good model to look toward. After years of struggle with getting good sleep, I’ve noticed that when I stumble upon a new remedy, etc., that helps me get a decent night’s sleep, there is always something inside that asks “Will this last?”. It so far never has. I have learned to develop a “maybe” attitude. Maybe it’ll be this way for the rest of my life, but maybe it’ll be better at times, and maybe worse. Meanwhile, whatever happens, my mental and spiritual goal is to maintain an even-keeled attitude, understanding like the farmer, that all mind states pass, eventually.
You can also practice the quality of equanimity to help you along. Just as with loving kindness meditation, you can construct phrases to meditate on (see my April and May 2019 blog posts Introduction to Loving Kindness and Loving Kindness, Part II). Jack Kornfield, Buddhist teacher and author, offers these phrases:
“May I be balanced and at peace”. “May I learn to see the arising and passing of all nature with equanimity and balance”.
Of course, you can create your own phrases that better reflect your circumstances.
“May I meet the arising and passing of phenomena in my body with ease and balance”.
Just like with loving kindness meditation, the more you practice, the more the phrases become a part of you instead of just wishful thinking.
In the end, I have found hope to be an essential ingredient on the spiritual path of chronic illness. Hope has come to mean for me a way of holding space for all possible positive outcomes. I make sure I leave space for miracles.
On the one end of my personal spectrum of hope, I Ieave space for the possibility of deep sleep and no seizure activity, to enough sleep to keep me functioning well enough and little seizure activity. Failing that, I hope to have an attitude and a relationship towards my health that is kind, compassionate and equanimous. Hope then, is an antidote to despair, bitterness, and a closed and fearful heart.
“When my house burned down, I gained an unobstructed view of the moonlit sky.” ~ Zen Poet Mizuta Masahide
I am a man and I am with a few other men. We are all wearing coarse, long, brown tunics. We are in a desert-like place and there is very little vegetation. We are running away from somebody or something and are all very frightened. We want to find a place to hide, but there is nowhere to do so. I feel a strong sense of doom. Other men come upon us; they seem to come out of nowhere. There are many more of them than us. I know we are done-for. The next thing I remember is sharp, stabbing sensations through my wrists, like someone has driven something through them. The fear takes over and becomes pure, raw terror, then I feel myself spinning, spinning, spinning. I realize at some point that I am dead, which frightens me even more, if possible. I keep spinning in fear for what seems like forever. I then slowly think of how I can stop feeling so frightened. I remember love. I try to conjure up the feeling of love, which is hard to do in my state of mind, so what I do manage to summon is off the mark; a kind of caricature of love.
Then some time elapsed, because the next thing I remember is that I am in a new body; once again, a man. I am young, probably in my twenties. I am what could be called “The Village Idiot”: I have little intelligence, but am overly affectionate in inappropriate ways, like going up to strangers and hugging them.
I wake up. I have been in a deep sleep, which is highly unusual for me. I don’t think I’ve moved all night. I understand that what I just went through is not really a dream but two past life experiences. I have no doubt about that. In fact, I can’t even call it a memory, because what happened is I somehow entered those two time periods when I was in other bodies. I am also very clear that I have a seizure disorder, in part, because of the fear and terror I experienced from when I was killed and I understand that in this life, I have the opportunity to work through that fear. I also understand that the “Village Idiot” lifetime was a result of having conjured up a cartoonish feeling of love. All these realizations enter my mind at a rapid rate, and I am completely overwhelmed.
There was always a part of the first life that bothered me: How exactly did I die? What was that sensation in my wrists? What was going on? I have since learned that during the time of Jesus and other times throughout history, crucifixion was a common form of punishment and that stakes were put through the wrists, as well as the palms and feet. When I heard of this, I felt this is what happened to me. I was also quite sure that what had actually killed me wasn’t anything physical, but that I had died from sheer terror.
It is through this direct experience I had years ago, that I learned how it is that we can create our own reality. What is a “seizure disorder” and my tendency towards worry and anxiety during stressful situations in this lifetime can on one level be seen as the embodiment of terror that spun me out of my body so long ago. I also understand that instead of thinking that I am being punished for “bad karma” from a past life, I see it as an opportunity to work through that fear and come into the full power of my being. That experience was so powerful for me. I can never dismiss it as just a dream, but a way for me to directly experience different concepts: creating one’s own reality, karma and past lives. I am very grateful for these understandings.
However, the concept of creating our own reality is a very sensitive and complex subject; one that’s certainly worth exploring, but with care and compassion.
Recently, I’ve become aware of a resurgence of this belief; the premise of which is wherever we are in life, we’ve attracted our set of circumstances with our thoughts, whether conscious or unconscious. From this point of view, it therefore follows that we create any illness we have. If we want perfect health, they say “All we have to do” is to uncover our negative beliefs and replace them with positive ones, focusing on good health.
While I can see the truth to this, based on my own experience, I also believe the verdict is out on just how much we can create our own reality to our liking. While it’s true that there are people who have had miraculous recoveries from their illness, due to focusing on positive awareness, there are many who have not, and I don’t think it’s due to their not trying hard enough, as sometimes is implied. It’s also true that we only use a small portion of our brain, and who knows what would be possible if we used more or all of it? Investigating our belief systems and affirming a positive outcome for our health is always worthwhile, yet I think it’s important to be unattached to the outcome of our efforts and just when they might be manifested. I have seen psychological harm occur in myself and others when, after much effort, we still remain ill. We then start to question our abilities to heal ourselves, and fear, judgement and doubt sneak in: Just what dark secrets are still lurking in our psyche? Have I tried hard enough? Am I good enough? Am I being punished for a past life? IT is difficult enough to deal with our health challenges without producing new emotional ones on top of it.
When the idea that we create our own reality first started spreading in the alternative community, it was quick to catch on and in many ways, was very beneficial. It took the focus off of the idea that all illness resulted from external forces and a new examination began. How did beliefs and emotional mind states create disharmony in the body? The mind-body connection was explored and there was a lot to uncover. One of my problems with this concept is that it became over-simplified and took over all the other ideas instead of being one of many of the influences of the body’s breakdown.
And there are many others: The environment, an accident, genetics, diet, to name a few. One could argue that there have been recoveries of the body’s health whatever the initial cause, by using techniques of the mind, but there are many people who have used the same techniques without success. We all know people who have done all the “right” things: eating healthy, exercising, meditating and examining oneself psychologically and spiritually, and still struggle with their health; just as we know people who do all the “wrong” things: smoke cigarettes, drink excessively, or have a poor diet, that have no health problems and live into their nineties. The truth of the matter is we don’t always know why some people get better and some people don’t. We are complex and multifaceted beings and what works for one person may not work for another. To declare that “disease cannot live in a body that’s in a healthy emotional state” or “you can think your way to the perfect state of health” is just not always true, and certainly not because someone is more advanced spiritually than another, as seems to be implied.
Often, the way the concept of creating your own reality is presented is that we have total and absolute control of it; in fact of anything in the universe. To me, that conjures up the image of an all-powerful God, ready to intervene in any situation and create whatever (S)He wants. From what I observe, I don’t see that we or God have that kind of power. I think a better way to explain this is that we are cocreators of reality. That is, we cocreate with that which is larger than ourselves (God or Spirit), along with being affected by our DNA, other people, societal beliefs, our environment, etc. Therefore, we can influence our reality, we can direct our energy, we can become channels, but there’s a mysterious element involved in the alchemic process of manifestation that’s beyond our complete understanding
I’d also like to state the obvious here, and that is that being in a body is a limited experience. Even if we have exemplary health all our lives, at some point, we die and shed these bodies. I believe we are spiritual beings adapting to physical form and part of what we are learning here is how to live within the confines of that form. Therefore, it also follows that what is possible to create in this physical realm is also limited.
Now, let’s investigate for a moment, those implied beliefs that our health challenges could be due to bad karma from a past life and if we just focus enough positive energy on ourselves, we could heal our bodies. Buddhist teachings state that some illnesses are due to our past lives, and how we handle these conditions will not show up until the next life. Now, this viewpoint might not always be true either, but it gives us a different perspective for a moment, doesn’t it? We don’t all heal in the body in one lifetime. In fact, my own spiritual teacher has suggested to me that the reason we have many lifetimes is that it takes us that long to integrate the many lessons we need to learn.
Another Buddhist perspective is that instead of seeing illness as bad karma from a past life, think of it as karma ripening, and therefore, something one can be grateful for, so that now we can be ready to explore the teachings that come with it and grow spiritually. This viewpoint allows us to see illness as an opportunity and a sign of evolvement, not a punishment. In this sense, we are spiritual warriors, not victims or spiritually deficient in some way. We can now shed any shame that we’ve taken on due to statements like : “Love and gratitude can dissolve any disease”, after we have diligently practiced those very attitudes and still remain ill.
I have heard it said that to maintain perfect health, one must “think perfect thoughts” —- but what does that mean, anyway, and how does one go about doing that? From my many years of meditating, I have come to see that our minds are full of all kinds of thoughts from “I wonder what I’ll eat for lunch today” to “I hope Uncle Irving doesn’t get drunk again this Thanksgiving”. Would either of those qualify as an “imperfect” thought? And, to be mindful of our thoughts and how they affect us is one thing, but to try to control them as this way of thinking suggests to me, is another thing altogether. Have you ever tried not to think certain thoughts? They just persist with a vengeance. I prefer a gentler technique, which is to watch one’s thoughts and simply allow them to be, understanding that who we are is beyond thought. We all have all kinds of voices in our minds; ones that praise, ones that criticize, ones that doubt, ones that warn, etc. My experience tells me that we are better off understanding that that’s how the mind works, instead of trying to manipulate, which only backfires on us anyway. When we allow all our voices simply to be, we develop an expansive mind; one with humor and delight: “Oh, here comes that thought about my father again!” and cultivate a sort of benevolent tolerance to whatever arises, creating a healthier approach to not only our minds, but to life itself.
The one-pointed view that we each create our own reality, besides being over-simplified, often feels cold-hearted to me – an attitude that we’re here on our own; you create your reality, I create mine, and if one of us ends up in difficult circumstances, we’ve brought it upon ourselves, and it’s up to us and only us, to bring ourselves back to some imagined state of perfection. I feel this misses the mark: It doesn’t speak to our interconnectedness, the fact that we need each other, or rely on one another. It bypasses our humanness. It doesn’t speak to the deeper questions we could be asking ourselves. Yes, it’s good to question if we have had a part in creating our illness (or any difficult situation), but let’s add other questions to the mix, like: How can I use my illness to become a better human being? How can this experience deepen my capacity to love? How can I learn to love unconditionally? How are we all interconnected? How can I tap into my innermost self?
I’ll end with a quote from Marianne Williamson’s book A Return to Love.
“Our bodies are merely blank canvases onto which we project our thoughts. Disease is loveless thinking materialized. This doesn’t mean that people who have contacted a disease thought lovelessly, while the rest of us didn’t. Great saints have contacted terminal illnesses. The lovelessness that manufactures disease is systemic; it is laced throughout racial consciousness. Which soul manifests illness is based on many factors. Let’s say an innocent child dies of environmentally-based cancer. How was lovelessness the problem here? The loveless thinking was not necessarily in the child, but in many of us who, over the years, lived without reverence for the environment, allowing it to be polluted by toxic chemicals. The child’s physical sickness resulted, indirectly, from the sickness in someone else’s mind. Our loving thoughts affect people and situations we never dream of, and so do our mistakes. Since our minds do not stop at our brain casings – since there is no place where one mind stops and another starts – then our love touches everyone, and so does our fear.”
For those of you who don’t know him, he was a beloved American spiritual teacher who was one of the first Westerners to come back from India after studying and practicing Eastern philosophy and religion and put it in Western terms, so that the rest of us could understand it. His ground-breaking book was Be Here Now (Dass, 1971), which I read when I was quite a bit younger and it blew my mind.
Coincidentally, my own spiritual teacher sent me his latest book, co-written by Mirabai Bush, called Walking Each Other Home:Conversations on Loving and Dying (Dass and Bush, 2018), which I am in the middle of reading, and find it very inspiring and soothing. So, because I felt so inspired and because getting his latest book a few days before he died was so serendipitous, I set up an altar for him. I found a photography book I had, with a picture of him lying against a big boulder and looking out at the ocean. I set up 2 candles and objects from the seashore and underneath it all, the words “I am loving awareness”, which is, I recently learned, a mantra that he would focus on.
And so, the last couple of days, I’ve been focusing on that same mantra, and find that it warms my heart, and so I’ve been basking in the truth of that sentiment, and how it’s true for everybody, that that is really who we are.
So, I’m not one to order you around, but I urge you to try it out for yourself and see how it feels. It’s a simple thing to do, really, it doesn’t take much effort and it brings you Home to your True Self. It’s a kind of remembering, a waking up.
I am loving awareness.
So… thank you, Ram Dass… for your kindness, for your love, for you wisdom.
Dass, R. (2010). Be Here Now. United States: HarperOne.
Dass, R., & Bush, M., (2018). Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying. Boulder, Colorado. Sounds True.
Sometimes things come together: I sleep well enough to enjoy my day, and, after checking my daily to-do list, see that there is nothing that really needs to get done. It suddenly occurs to me that I could visit my friends Jesse and Shay, who live a little more than an hour north from me, and have my caregiver Jenna drive me.
When she arrives, I tell her my idea and find out she’s up for it. Let’s get out of town!
The day is perfect for an outing. It’s nearly the end of August and there’s a bit of coolness in the air, the heaviness of summer lifting for a bit.
We leave town and immediately get on the highway. We pass steep hills full of leaning redwoods and pines and I feel my senses awaken. Traveling – even a short trip out of town, always opens up my world, reminding me there’s more to life than the inside of my mind and the confines of my home.
Jenna and I converse on the way there. She’s only been working for me for a short time and this gives me a chance to get to know her better. She tells me a little about her unhappy childhood – growing up as an only child in a small town outside of Madison, Wisconsin and how she tended to her lonely spirit by climbing trees and watching all kinds of critters. I learn that she has moved around a lot since an adult, until she arrived in Mendocino County ten years ago and realized she had finally found her home.
I tell Jenna I need a break from conversing, knowing that when we arrive at Jesse and Shay’s, there’ll be plenty of it. I don’t want my brain to go on over-load before we get there and spoil the visit.
I turn and look out the window. We are passing through the tiny town of Laytonville, which holds not a whole lot more than a gas station, a general store and a few small restaurants. Old hippies live here side-by-side with rednecks pretty much amiably, it seems to me.
The road flattens out as does the scenery – there are less trees here, revealing gentle hills that are golden brown from parched grasses.
Finally, we reach Bells Springs Road and I direct Jenna to turn right onto it. The car immediately climbs, pavement turning to dirt and gravel. The washboard road jostles our bodies as we drive up and up, rounding one curve after another, a cloud of dust following. Occasionally, there is a break between madrone and manzanita on the right, revealing spectacular views of ridges spreading out for miles, with no houses in sight.
Eventually, just as I am becoming impatient, the road straightens out and we arrive at their driveway, which is steep but short, guarded by a large gargoyle leering at us at the base. We park at the top at level ground and get out.
I am always struck by the quiet here. I pause and take a moment, breathing in the stillness, which is settling after such a long and bumpy ride.
We stretch our legs and look around before nearing the house. Two large goddess statues line the pathway, almost as tall as full-grown women. Flat rocks nearby them have been carefully stacked creating a natural tower.
The house is unusual – what I would call a Northern California home, probably built back in the 70’s. It is weathered and rambling with two stories and sits amongst trees. Two decks are connected by a narrow walkway, which leads to the front door. As we walk in that direction, we pass potted plants and a large stack of wood, forcing us to walk single-file.
I hear voices call out and see Jesse and Shay out on the front deck. When Jenna and I reach them, I introduce everybody, then hug my friends hard – it’s been too long since we’ve gotten together.
A big oak tree bends over the deck, one of its huge branches almost touching it. Beside us is a carefully and lovingly constructed ornamental terraced garden. There are small, meandering pathways and a tiny pond with a run-off that’s gently burbling. It’s truly a thing of beauty.
Gardening has always been one of Jesse’s passions and has kept her busy over the years, but now that she’s in a wheelchair, she can no longer tend to this incredible creation of hers and has taken to making what she calls “faerie gardens”, that line the deck. These miniature gardens that she has worked on meticulously are made up of tiny plants made to look like trees, with elfin bridges, houses, and even people, and not one of them is the same.
They reveal the patience Jesse has, which is one of her most admirable traits, along with her great intelligence.
We take our seats and immediately launch into deep conversation. I have known these women for a very long time, so there is no need for small talk and pleasantries. Although I haven’t seen them for months, in many ways it feels like yesterday.
Inevitably, the conversation turns to health. Last year, Jesse was diagnosed with cancer. Surgery became necessary and she has recently finished rounds of chemo. Her hair has just started coming back and when I rub my hand across her head, I’m surprised with how soft it is. She talks about frequent doctor visits, anticipating test results, and the hardship of having to go to Ukiah for appointments, almost 2 hours away. As she talks, I check out her appearance more closely and realize she’s lost a lot of weight, which concerns me. Nevertheless, she seems cheerful and talkative, and my concern, at least for her emotional well-being, begins to wane.
It’s Shay, really, that worries me more. She has suffered from depression since she was a teenager. Her voice is often flat, and she sleeps a lot and has little vital energy. Jesse’s cancer has certainly added to her mental state, and so our talk turns to her struggles.
She has been on antidepressants for some time. At first, she had a hard time adjusting to one medication, but then they gave her some relief. But not long after, the effects abated then stopped working altogether. The doctors wanted to increase her dosage, which she did, and that helped briefly, but then again, stopped working. Discouraged, she cut back, but found it difficult on her body and even though she’d like to go off altogether, it became too hard to do, so she has given up and stayed on them, even though she no longer feels any relief.
She has also gone to therapy, read countless books on depression, quit sugar altogether and changed her diet. But all this has had no effect on her body/mind.
“The only thing that really helps”, she says, “That really gets me out of my head is being creative.” She closes her eyes for a moment. “I can get in this zone and it takes me away from everything and into this other world.”
Shay is an incredible artist, with many interests. Her main focuses have been jewelry, painting and drawing. Her studio is a work of art itself: Sketches are set up here and there. Cups and cases hold pens, colored pencils and brushes in various shapes and sizes. Tiny drawers hold all sorts of beads, necklaces, chains and clasps. Easels lean against walls. There are leather-bound journals with her creations in them, reams of paper for watercolors, as well as others’ artwork – from small sculptures to paintings to help inspire her.
After Shay speaks, Jesse adds, her voice becoming soft, “What’s hard for me is seeing how her depression affects her self-esteem. She’s so damn hard on herself!” Tears spring to her eyes.
I know this to be true. Shay constantly puts herself down, downplays her artistic abilities, compares herself to others in many areas of her life, and often, in her mind, coming up short. It’s painful for me to see this in her. I love my friend dearly and know her not only to be talented, but extremely kind, sensitive and thoughtful. I only wish she could turn those qualities towards herself.
Jenna chimes in, “Well, I’m not clinically depressed, but I have my days and my cycles with it. When the days turn into weeks, I start to microdose myself with magic mushrooms. It works for me. It interrupts the cycle.”
We’re all interested in what she has to say, and barrage her with questions. What kind of mushrooms? How much do you take? Do you get high? Can you take it with antidepressants and other medications?
Jenna answers carefully. “I can only speak from my own experience. I take a teeny weeny bit of psilocybin and I don’t get high. But, I feel…” She thinks a bit, “I feel better, is all I can say. Different. Something shifts inside, and my brain resets itself.” She shrugs, as if to say, “That’s the best I can do to explain myself”. “And I want to be clear here: I don’t know if it will work for you. I don’t know if you can take it with your meds. I don’t have all the answers.” She shakes her head with a sad expression on her face. “And unfortunately, I’ve run out of mushrooms myself and don’t know where to get any.”
We’re all quiet, taking in all this information.
“I do think,”, Jenna adds, “That if you ever try it – don’t do it alone. Have someone there with you. I’d be willing to do that with you, if you’d like.”
“But you don’t have any,”, Jesse says, making sure. “No. But I’m looking. I could let you know if I find anything.”
Shay sighs, sounding weary, but says “Well I like the idea of taking something natural…” She drifts off, “I’m not sure if I’m up for something new.”
I understand this reaction. I’ve tried so many other things over the years and got my hopes up: Maybe this will work. Often, I don’t get the results I want, or it makes me feel worse and/or gives me intolerable side effects. Even something as simple and benign like vitamin B-12 to help feed my nervous system, took me a long time to try out. I just did not want to be disappointed yet again.
There’s a lull in the conversation and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, their scraggly black, Noche (with a tiny spot of white on the tip of his tail), shows up demanding attention, putting smiles on our faces. More shadows have moved in on the porch, taking over most of the sun spots. As much as I don’t want to leave, it’s best that we get on the road before it becomes too dark.
We reluctantly say our goodbyes and as we pull out of their driveway, I look back and see Shay holding Noche and waving at us.
We’re quiet as we head home as I process the visit. Seeing these beloved friends always warms my heart, but breaks it, too, if that’s possible. I realize I want to “fix” Shay, as others seem to want to “fix” me, but I know it’s not possible and that hurts. Maybe, if Shay wants to try them, those mushrooms will help, I think, as we whiz by trees and hills. And maybe they won’t.
Microdosing – disclaimer: I am not endorsing the use of illegal or potentially dangerous drugs/medications.The subject of microdosing is only to inform my readers.
“It’s also important to know that not all psychological disorders lend themselves well to psychedelic treatment. While there is no scientific basis for the propaganda that psychedelics can “make you crazy,” it has been suggested that those with latent schizophrenia could have their condition triggered early by a strong psychedelic experience. Keep in mind this is still a new frontier of research, and people with certain medical conditions or on certain medications should absolutely not take certain psychedelics. Any properly run treatment clinic will have a full physical and mental health screening before treatment, and walk you through any contraindications that may be revealed. We do not endorse any illegal behavior, but from a harm reduction perspective, anyone who chooses underground treatment should exercise extreme levels of research, discernment, and safety precautions throughout the process.”
“Finding Integration Support – Beyond the psychedelic journey itself, integration of the experience after the fact plays a critical role in ensuring that the insights, progress, inspiration gained are translated into daily life in a sustainable way. Whether you are fresh out of an underground ayahuasca ceremony that helped you deal with childhood trauma, or a recent outpatient of an iboga center that helped you detox from an opiate addiction; a few weeks or months of integration support from someone who understands psychedelic treatment is immensely beneficial in securing your new goals, perspectives and commitments.” …
“Releasing the Stigma – One of the most insidious aspects of mental illnesses is the stigma that surrounds them. Despite the statistics that show how common these disorders are, our culture still often adopts a “toughen up and go it alone” approach, leading many to isolate themselves and be fearful of speaking up about their condition, much less seek help. Psychotherapy, prescription medications, and conventional rehab centers do help many people stabilize their lives, but sometimes these routes are not enough to fully eradicate the pain, trauma, and stress that lay at the core of the disorder, leading people to simply numb their symptoms without seeking true healing.” “Radical shifts in behavior, self-image, and wellbeing are something that psychedelics excel at when used appropriately, but not everyone is able to travel abroad for psychedelic treatment or willing to find underground options. The single most important thing that anyone suffering from an addiction or mental disorder can do is to speak up about it to their loved ones and seek help. Shame and stigma surrounding these issues should be forever discarded, as these conditions are an integral part of the human condition, and everyone faces stress, challenges, and addictive habits in their own way.”
… “Carina*, a 59-year-old therapist in Oregon, sees the ripple effects of the anxiety and stress of our current cultural climate every day in her work—and in her personal life. She has struggled with depression for much of her career, managing it with regular therapy sessions and movement practices like yoga and dance, but when she found herself struggling with a particularly challenging depressive episode in the wake of the #MeToo movement, she began exploring alternative treatment modalities.”
“That’s when she was introduced to microdosing for depression. “So much of depression is feeling stuck,” says Carina. “Microdosing has helped me get out of preservation mode; it helped me get out of the stuck places and see that there are options.”
“Shrooms (aka psychedelic mushrooms) and LSD have a rich résumé of providing a hallucinatory high, and we’re in the midst of a psychedelic resurgence. The recent interest in psychedelics isn’t a throwback to the ’60s so much as it is the potential future of mental health treatment—especially for depression and anxiety.”
“The goal of microdosing is not to get you high. As the name implies, the practice involves taking a small amount—a microdose—of psilocybin (in the form of mushrooms) or LSD every few days. Unlike higher doses of psychedelics, which typically produce the “trip” experience these substances are most known for, the effect of microdosing is much more subtle. Most people start with “around 10ug of LSD (around a tenth of a tab) or 0.1g of dried psilocybin mushrooms,” according to The Third Wave, a psychedelic education resource. (The “right” dose varies from person to person. You should never take any substance without consulting your doctor first.)”
“Psychedelics aren’t legal—they’re currently classified as Schedule I drugs by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning there’s “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” (For the record, cannabis is also classified as a Schedule I drug by the DEA.) That poses some considerable risks. Because psychedelics aren’t legal, they aren’t regulated. There’s no way of knowing what you’re getting, where it’s coming from, or how strong it is, which can put your safety in jeopardy.”
Medical News Today “Psychedelics: Risks and benefits of microdosing revealed: New research, published in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience, finds both potential benefits and risks of using psychedelic microdosing to treat mental health problems. The study reveals effects on cognitive skills and sociability, as well as metabolic and neuronal consequences.” By Ana Sandoiu on March 4, 2019 https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324609.php#1
“An emerging body of research is making a case for using psychedelic drugs to treat mental health issues.”
“For instance, two studies published last year showed that psilocybin, the active psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, alleviated symptoms of treatment-resistant depression.”
“Moreover, the psilocybin did so without causing any side effects of conventional antidepressants. Such side effects typically include emotional blunting or apathy.”
“People who use psychedelics to improve their mental health and boost their overall well-being tend to do so with a technique called microdosing. Taking microdoses of a psychedelic drug means taking only a fraction of a dose that is required to have a full-blown psychedelic experience, or “trip.”…
“The lead researcher is David Olson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine at the University of California, Davis.”
… “conflicting results may suggest that an acute dose of psychedelic substances affects the brain differently from intermittent microdoses.”
“Side effects notwithstanding, say the authors, the current results are promising because they suggest that researchers can separate the psychedelic effects from the therapeutic ones.”
“Our study demonstrates that psychedelics can produce beneficial behavioral effects without drastically altering perception, which is a critical step towards producing viable medicines inspired by these compounds,” says Olson.”
“This is the first time anyone has demonstrated in animals that psychedelic microdosing might actually have some beneficial effects, particularly for depression or anxiety. It’s exciting, but the potentially adverse changes in neuronal structure and metabolism that we observe emphasize the need for additional studies.” David Olson, Ph.D.”
“Microdosing, or taking tiny amounts of a drug daily, does more than just get people mildly high. Specifically, psychedelics such as LSD (which is very similar to psilocybin, pharmacologically speaking) act on the neurotransmitter system, serotonin, which is widely used in traditional antidepressant drugs, says Harriet De Wit, PhD, founder and primary investigator in the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory at the University of Chicago. “So, there is some neurochemical rationale for the possibility that it improves mood,” she says. Compared to traditional antidepressants, which can take weeks to take effect, microdoses of LSD have been shown to have marginal subjective effects after just one administration”, she adds.”
“All of this points to the greater need for research into promising drugs like psilocybin. Most experts agree that psychedelic drugs have a lot of potential — either taken in microdoses or in combination with psychotherapy with psychological guidance. “This is an exciting new chapter in psychiatric research,” Dr. De Wit says.”