Gratitude

“Remind yourself that it’s up to you whether you actually experience gratitude and the preciousness of your life. The fleetingness and the rareness of it, or whether you become more resentful, and harsh and embittered and feel more and more cheated. It’s up to you how the law of karma all works out.” ~ Pema Chodron

It is not easy to feel thankful when we are chronically ill; in fact, sometimes we feel cheated out of life when we have yet another bout of pain, or have to go through the red tape required to get the financial assistance we may need, or start on yet another medication with possible side effects. We may find ourselves comparing our capabilities to others’ and coming up short. We are affected by a society which tells us acquiring more possessions will make us happy, along with a flurry of activities, a driving ambition, and worldly achievements. The inner spiritual life is not spoken of; seemingly left to hermits, gurus, and other spiritual masters we have heard about. Keeping this in mind, it’s not surprising that we find ourselves complaining and wanting our lives to be different than what they are.

Therefore, in order to manifest gratitude, we must cultivate it by practicing it regularly. Like any other discipline, be it exercise or meditation, in order to get the best results, just by doing it once in a while, isn’t going to get it. With regular gratitude practice, we develop a greater appreciation for our lives, despite the struggle in them.

There are several ways I know to practice gratitude. The following is a short, yet powerful practice:

Before settling in for the night, think of three things you are grateful for. I found that no matter how hard it has been for me that day, I could always come up with three things. They can be as basic but as needed as the breath that moves through your body, or the roof over your head. This practice can wake you up to what you do have and what is working in your life.

Another practice I recommend to activate gratitude, is to make a list of things you are grateful for. Perhaps you could put this list on your fridge or your mirror – some place where you are most apt to see it, in order to remind yourself. Some items on my list are my partner of 25 years, my caregivers, and that I live in the country. When you really begin to think about it, a lot comes to mind. It can shake us up doing this practice, because it puts us in touch with all the little things we take for granted.

Another practice is to start a gratitude journal. Recently, for a week, I did just that. Before, I made lists, but I thought I’d take it a step further and see what would happen with journaling. I wasn’t sure it would bring me anything different. But it did. It allowed me to go deeper into the feeling of gratitude by going into the fine details instead of skimming the surface.

Instead of just saying “I am grateful for the rain”, I wrote: “This morning I am grateful for the rain, the way it soothes the ground, saturating it, smells of the earth rising up, greeting it, embracing it. The sound of it surging out of gutters.

I am grateful for the nor’easters I experienced when young, the way the clouds would gather and grow dark, grow purple and move across the Vineyard Sound, changing the color of the water rapidly, as white caps raced to the shore.Image lightning cropped seashore-scenery-2418664

Then the clouds would move towards our house, lightning zig-zagging, thunder roaring, electricity in the air popping and fizzling, the surrounding leaves from tree branches turning inside out.

Then the rain would pound our roof, which seemed barely to protect us, our home uninsulated, magnifying the sound. Nature stopping us in our tracks, taking over, silencing us with its power”.

I am grateful for the rain.

We can come to gratitude in other ways, as well. Ironically, living with chronic illness can lead us to appreciate the ways our bodies are working well. For example, one day after picking some berries, I noticed a small thorn had embedded itself in my finger. It began to become sore and inflamed. I started to wonder if it was infected and considered making an appointment to see a doctor. But then, after a few days, it began to heal, and the redness and soreness subsided. I felt grateful to my body that in this small way, it was working well and taking care of itself; something I would’ve easily taken for granted if I was able-bodied.

Small occurrences like the above take place in our bodies daily, without our recognition of them and stopping in wonder. By practicing gratitude, we begin to see all kinds of things in our life that we can give thanks to: The caring attitude of a pharmacist, the trees growing in our backyard, the shoes on our feet.

Feeling grateful allows us to feel complete and satisfied. We are no longer searching for something or someone to fulfill our ongoing needs, but feel the grace that comes from the acknowledgement of our appreciation. We feel restored and even empowered by the inward calm that is a by-product of this practice. Giving thanks is a way of blessing our own lives.

Gratitude and generosity go hand-in-hand. As we begin to experience abundance we attain from gratitude, it feels natural to give back. On our gratitude list is surely our support system. Can we do something special for them? Perhaps we can’t afford a gift, but can we craft them a poem, create a collage? Sharing our sincere words of thanks can allow them to feel acknowledged and appreciated, and may be the biggest gift of all. Another unusual way we have to give to people that help us out that we may not notice at first, is to allow others to give. Many is the time I’ve had to ask for help when feeling seizury or recovering from a seizure. It has always been difficult to do when expressing that to my caregivers. I’ve often been told that it made them feel good to give in this way and they ended up enjoying the quiet and reflective time that came from it.

Also, with all that we know in coping with our illness, can we share our insights and knowledge gained by experience to others who are in a similar place? A kind word here, a thoughtful suggestion there? We can share our stories with others who are new to chronic illness, which can lead them to feel understood and lessen their loneliness?

We can also, of course, listen to their stories. Simply bearing witness with an open heart can allow others to feel heard, which can lighten their load. I once spoke with a woman surviving breast cancer, who had been through tremendous hardship. I asked her how she was doing, and she told me in great detail what her experience had been with surgery, chemotherapy and other medications and the side effects she had to endure. Her story was difficult to listen to and yet, having practiced sitting with my own difficult and weighty emotions made it easier not to run from hers.

Another way to help is to call others we know who are struggling with difficult symptoms and check in with them when we are feeling a bit better. We know from experience how uplifting that can be for us during more acute times of our illness, so if we have a little energy one day, this is certainly something we can do to contribute to others’ well-being.

Giving back in these simple yet profound ways gives us the opportunity to see we have something to offer our community, which increases our self-esteem, gladdens our heart and adds to our sense of purpose in the world.

What are you grateful for?

 

Image jumping in celebration pxhere.com

 

 

 

I Am Loving Awareness

Image Ram Dass Young

         On December 22,2019, Ram Dass died.

         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.

Try it.

I am loving awareness.

So… thank you, Ram Dass… for your kindness, for your love, for you wisdom.

Blessed Be

Image Ram Dass Older

 

 

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.

Saunders, C. (n.d.). Ram Dass. Cat Saunders, Ph. D., Counselor – Author. Retrieved from https://www.drcat.org/links/ram-dass/

Shift. (2019, December 25). Shift: Personal Evolution. Being here now – Remembering Ram Dass (1931-2019). Retrieved December 27, 2019, from https://www.shift.is/2019/12/being-here-now-remembering-ram-dass-1931-2019/

Where you can find Ram Dass’s articles, media, podcasts, events, online courses: https://www.ramdass.org/

 

 

 

 

 

R.I.P. – A Poem

“R. I. P.”

I’d like to give

this body a break,

lay it across a gentle

creek and let the

sweet water carry it

to rest.

I’d like to give

this mind a break,

lead it to the wind,

and let it be carried

by the sweep of air

to rest.

I’d like to give

these emotions a break,

to let them sigh deeply

against the limbs of

redwoods, to carry

them to the ground

to rest.

I’d like to give

this self a break,

to surrender to that

Great Eternal Space

that holds all things

so that I can finally,

finally lay down

and rest.

by Maluma (My Wild Embrace, 2010)

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 Loving Kindness

Too often a side effect to chronic illness is the harsh way we treat ourselves. When we feel poorly, we often think and act poorly. On top of the difficulties we experience, we may feel we are somehow responsible for our illness or feel inept at coping with it. We think perhaps if we were someone else, we would be handling it better. We hear of spiritual masters who can transcend pain, why can’t we? Why do we still need medication? Why can’t we get a job done on time? Why can’t we do the simple task of washing dishes without it overwhelming us? On top of all that, we unconsciously send hateful thoughts to our afflicted body parts: “why won’t you just work?”

We may feel justified with these insidious self-accusations, or secretly believe we deserve the suffering we are enduring. We may wonder if maybe we did something in a past life that we are making up for now in the form of illness. Maybe we did something (or think we did) in this life that we feel is resulting in our present condition. We may even be doing something we know is contributing to our overall lack of health, like eating junk food, or smoking cigarettes.

The simple fact is even if some of these things have any credence, it never makes us feel any better to harangue ourselves. No one’s condition ever improved and no one has ever cured themselves from an illness by critical self-talk. Ask yourself this: would you ever treat a loved one as harshly as you treat yourself?

 

Self-kindness

The following is an excerpt from my book about how we are unkind to ourselves when we have chronic illness. At some point, I hope to expand on this, including suggestions that have helped me, and continue to do so.

 

 

A Quote ~ Lama Surya Pas

“Deep in the part of us that is most ultimately interrelated with everything else in the universe, we realize that our own true happiness and fulfillment are inseparable from the true happiness and fulfillment of all other living creatures.
We resonate with the notion that we won’t really be free unless the whole world around us is also free, and we genuinely believe we must incorporate that purpose into our life, whatever it may entail”.

Lama Surya Pas

 

To Be Honest

 

When I started my “book” many years ago, I offered things I know like meditation techniques which were and are helpful for me, and I hoped, kind of for others.  And I guess I’ll include those kinds of things in my blog in the future.  But I feel there’s a tone sometimes in the “book” which makes it sound like I have all the answers.  I don’t.  I have been living with chronic illness for about 50 years, so I certainly have experience of which I’m willing to share.  But ultimately, we all have to find our own way. 

I don’t like spiritual or self-help books by people who think they have all the answers. It puts me off and makes me feel insecure somehow.  I especially don’t like books by doctors or professionals that act like they know what you should do.  There’s often good advice there to be sure, but they don’t know what it’s like to be chronically ill.  Only we do.

So, I want to be really honest with this blog.  I want to share my experiences and what has been helpful for me, in hopes it could be helpful to you.  But there are no guarantees.

And now I’m going to jump into another topic: Death.  How’s that for a topic?  I think death feels more intimate when you suffer from chronic illness.  It hangs out with you while you watch TV or garden or pet your cat, or when you eat Cheerios in the morning (or at midnight).  Sometimes this feels scary and sometimes it feels like a gift.  Sometimes we think of suicide, or at least I do.  But I suspect I’m not the only one out there that does.  But I also feel more connected with my body because I’m constantly needing to tune into it and attend to it.  There’s an understanding too, by seeing how my body responds when, for example, I’m anxious, that it’s easy to see how the body deteriorates.  I have developed an ulcer because of the many years of this intense anxiety.  It doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to see how the body will eventually break down altogether.  Maybe some of this understanding comes with age – I’m 64.  But I think I’m more aware of death than other 64-year olds who have had little or no health problems.  I look up from writing and see my cat Zoe washing herself methodically and my heart feels a soreness that is painful yet beautiful.  I think if I took life for granted, I wouldn’t experience this so poignantly.  I really do.  So, in a way, awareness of death is a gift.  So is chronic illness.  And yet, if I’m honest, it doesn’t always feel that way.