“YOUR LAUGHTER” by Pablo Neruda

“Take bread away from me, if you wish,

take air away, but

do not take from me your laughter

 

Do not take away the rose,

the lanceflower that you pluck,

the water that suddenly

bursts forth in your joy,

the sudden wave

of silver born in you.

 

My struggle is harsh and I come back

with eyes tired

at times from having seen

the unchanging earth,

but when your laughter enters

it rises to the sky seeking me

and it opens for me all

the doors of life.

 

My love, in the darkest

hour your laughter

opens, and if suddenly

you see my blood staining

the stones of the street,

laugh, because your laughter

will be for my hands

like a fresh sword.

 

Next to the sea in the autumn,

your laughter must raise

its foamy cascade,

and in the spring, love,

I want your laughter like

the flower I was waiting for,

the blue flower, the rose

of my echoing country.

 

Laugh at the night,

at the day, at the moon,

laugh at the twisted

streets of the island,

laugh at this clumsy

boy who loves you,

but when I open

my eyes and close them,

when my steps go,

when my steps return,

deny me bread, air,

light, spring,

but never your laughter

for I would die.”

 

TRANSLATED BY DONALD WALSH

Humor

“All of my teachers have had a great sense of humor and have valued humor as an important part of the spiritual path. It is a key part of being friendly to ourselves. Many of us go through our days haunted by imperfection. We think there is something fundamentally wrong with us… when we laugh at ourselves… all our terrible flaws become less solid and serious.” ~ Pema Chodron

The other day, I went to a book sale at my local library and picked up the newest David Sedaris’ Calypso. I bought it, figuring I would like it since I enjoyed his others. Plus, I had been depressed lately and thought this could be just the thing to lift my spirits, as I have found his books to be funny. And by funny I mean hilarious.

And by hilarious I mean hysterical!

This book was no exception. I laughed out loud often, then afterwards realized I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed like that. That got me thinking about humor and its role in our lives. Living with chronic illness can make us feel sad, lonely, and depressed, and oftentimes, humor gets kicked to the side of the road without our realizing it. It seems to me that humor is an important human trait, perhaps as necessary to our health as the remedies we may take to make us feel better.

Image Dalai Lama Smiles from STypes

Have you ever seen pictures or videos of the Dalai Lama or met a Tibetan lama? You’ll notice that often they are smiling, and their eyes are twinkling. They seem to have an inside joke that the rest of us don’t know about, which leads me to think that humor is a natural, intrinsic part of our very being. When we lose our sense of humor, we are losing  something essential; something we actually need in order to experience the wholeness of our being.  Image Nuns Laughing So, how do we bring back our sense of humor? How do we cultivate it? How do we encourage it? Can we even include humor and lightness into our spiritual practice? Fun, even?

Everyone has their own sense of humor and every culture has their own sense of humor. What I find funny may leave you dry and vice versa.

I once had a friend over who is from Scotland. She brought with her a Monty Python movie, which we popped into the DVD player. While watching it, she laughed uproariously, in a way I’d never seen before. And although I found the movie somewhat amusing, it was not my thing. I got more amusement out of watching her.

Another time, I went to an international deaf conference. At one point, I decided to go to a large gathering where people would get on stage and share jokes. Although I am not fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), I knew enough that I understood the jokes, but didn’t find them particularly funny, but all, and I mean all of the deaf folks there could barely keep it together.

One thing that always works for me is to watch comedies. As I said, I know we all have different senses of humor, but just in case our tastes are similar and you could use a laugh, here’s a list of movies and actors that might work for you:

– I love Robin Williams. Two of my favorites are The Birdcage and Nine Months.

– All Marx Brothers movies

Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers

– Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit

– Steve Martin

– Chris Rock – especially his stand-up

– Larry David (if you’re looking for politically incorrect humor)

– Lily Tomlin

– Hugh Grant (if you’re looking for dry humor)

– Margaret Cho, stand-up routines (if you’re looking for irreverent humor)

And I don’t particularly like her movies, but I love Ellen DeGeneres. She’s a goofball.

 

Of course, there’s always YouTube: Giggling babies

“Babies Laughing at Dogs” https://youtu.be/PuNLqr0oZeo

 

“Someone Should Start Laughing”

by Hafiz

I have a thousand brilliant lies

For the question:

How are you?

I have a thousand brilliant lies

For the question:

What is God?

If you think that the Truth can be known

From words,

If you think that the Sun and the Ocean

Can pass through that tiny opening

Called the mouth,

O someone should start laughing!

Someone should start wildly Laughing –

Now!

 

Spiritual Practice

I don’t know about you, but there have been times when I have become too solemn in my spiritual practices. When meditating, for example, I have sometimes gotten too rigid in my approach, chastising myself when my mind wanders a lot during a session. Or, once, I took up a practice that required chanting a mantra for 103 times, and I found myself obsessing about whether I did it 108 times, or 107, or maybe even less. Maybe it’s just my Virgo personality, but I think there can be a tendency to get too strict and heavy about these things. Spiritual practices after all, are supposed to bring us to an open and warm-hearted place, not a demanding and austere one.

The following is a story my teacher told me that speaks to this:

There was once a very dedicated spiritual practitioner. However, try as she may, the enlightenment she sought seemed to escape her. She meditated diligently, and yet felt little or no reward. She decided she needed a new spiritual teacher and through word-of-mouth, set an appointment with one that came highly recommended.

“Oh venerated teacher”, she said, bowing before the master, “I follow the teachings religiously, and yet, I can’t seem to make any progress. Can you help me?”

The teacher looked at her for a while, pondering, then smiled. “I know just the practice”, he said.

“Yes?”, said the student, eagerly awaiting his wise counsel. “What is it?”

“For the next week, I want you to chant all day, using the mantra “Sensa”, then come back to me.”

After repeating the word several times to make sure she had it right, she said, “Thank you, thank you”, and made sure she bowed again. She rushed back to the meditation room and immediately began chanting.

The following week she returned, looking dejected. “Well”?, said the teacher, “What happened?”

The student hung her head. “I did as you instructed, venerated teacher, but nothing happened.”

“Hmmm…” thought the teacher. Then he smiled. “This week, I want you to say the mantra “huma”, then report back to me.”

The student was happy to receive new guidance, and felt sure that this time she would succeed.

But, one week later she returned feeling yet again dejected.

“Teacher”, she said, “I did what you instructed and yet I still didn’t make any progress. Isn’t there anything you can do to help me?”

The teacher’s eyes sparkled. “This week I want you to put the two together, saying the first mantra and then the second mantra right after it.”

The student nodded, happy there was still something she could do. She bowed deeply and left the room eager to start the next practice. She sat on her cushion, positioned herself correctly and began anew.

“Sen- sa hu-ma. Sen- sa hu-ma. Sense a huma. Sense a Humah.” Then, suddenly she got it. “Sense of humor!” The old teacher had been playing with her all along! Didn’t he know she was serious about her practice? All this time wasted! A fury rose up inside her. She picked up her few belongings and stormed out of the monastery.

For several weeks afterward she was still angry. Then, little by little, she went over the scenario in her mind and her perspective began to change. After a while she began to chuckle, thinking of what the teacher had done and then came to understand that he was a great teacher, after all, and had passed down some great wisdom, allowing a lightness in her practice she’d never been able to have before.

For those of you who want to add some fun to your spiritual practice, Dr.  Madan Kataria, from India, developed a type of yoga called “Laughter yoga.” By including breath exercises, chanting “ho, ho, ha, ha”, playing silly exercises, participants begin to laugh, releasing built-up tensions.

Besides feeling lighter afterwards, Kataria says that laughter boosts the immune system and fights depression. It can also reduce high blood pressure and is a good workout for the muscles, improves circulation, and increases the production of endorphins.

Finding out about this type of yoga reminded me of a children’s game I used to play. Although I haven’t played it since I was a kid, I’m sure I would get just as much pleasure from it now as I did then. Perhaps you’ve played it too. Gather some friends and lie in a circle, each person placing their head on the belly of the person next to them. One person starts out by saying “ha”. The next person says, “ha, ha”, and so on, each person adding an extra “ha” to the last one. Pretty soon, of course, everyone is laughing hysterically until your belly hurts and you think you might pee your pants.

 

“Being able to laugh at ourselves connects us with our humanness. This in turn helps us connect to and have empathy with other people. We realize how all of us are fundamentally equal.” ~ Pema Chodron

 

I must admit that because I have epilepsy, my favorite jokes are epileptic ones. Some might consider this type of joke politically incorrect and therefore off limits, but for me, it gives me a chance to make light of my condition that I can take all too seriously.

 

Jokes:

Did you hear about the guy that got trampled to death at Disneyland? He had an epileptic fit, and everyone jumped on him because they thought it was a new ride.

What do you call an epileptic on a bed of lettuce? A seizure salad.

What’s blue and doesn’t fit? A dead epileptic.

That last riddle is my favorite. Maybe my humor is a bit twisted at times, but I also think what this does for me is to exorcise my fear and release the power that fear can have over me at times.

Here’s another example of someone laughing at themselves, in particular, their disability. This guy cracks me up.

Ryan Niemiller, Comedian Niemiller Cripple Threat Logo https://www.cripplethreat.com/

 

Humor can be as simple and spontaneous as this:

The other day, I was hanging out with Cari (my partner who also lives with chronic illness). I don’t know what got into us, but we started singing “The Star Spangled Banner”, as loudly as we could and completely off-key. We sounded like donkeys who had a little too much to drink. And then we laughed so hard, tears ran down our cheeks. Her face, usually drawn from pain, brightened and she grinned from ear-to-ear. I realized I hadn’t seen her smile in ages.

Every once in a while, when our lives feel too difficult, I’ll grab this juggler hat I have and walk into her room.                                                                                                                                                          It never fails to get a chuckle from her.

                                   Image Maluma and Jester Hat

So, what makes you laugh? How can you lighten your day?

              Image Maluma and Happy Wool Cap

 

Sources

BBC. (1969-1974) Monty Python [television show]. Westminster, London, England: The British Broadcasting Corporation.

Barnathan, M. (Producer), & Columbus, C. (Director). (1995). Nine months [Motion Picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox.

Chodron, P. “All of my teachers have had a great sense of humor…” Quote.                  “Being able to laugh at ourselves connects us with our humanness…” Quote.

Hafiz (14th cent.). Landinsky, D. (2006). I heard God laughing: Poems of hope and joy: Renderings of Hafiz (Landinsky, D., Trans.). Walnut Creek, CA: Penguin.

Harris, B. “Two Nuns Laughing”. Photograph.

De Niro, R. (Producer), & Roach, J. (Director). (2004). Meet the Fockers [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

De Niro, R. (Producer), & Roach, J. (Director). (2000). Meet the parents [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal Pictures

Gilmore, A. (Producer), & Ardolino, E. (Director). (1992). Sister act [Motion Picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures.

Kataria, M., Dr. (2010, June 11). Dr. Kataria explains laughing yoga & steps [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oskT-EAkwl4

Nichols, M. (Producer, Director). (1996). The Birdcage [Motion Picture]. United States: United Artists.

Niemiller, R. (2019, December 1). The triple threat of comedy: Ryan Niemiller comedy reel. Retrieved from https://www.cripplethreat.com/

Reynolds, GailsAvon. (2012, October 10). Babies laughing at dogs [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuNLqr0oZeo

Rudin, S. (Producer), & Duke, B. (Director). (1993). Sister act 2: Back in the habit [Motion  Picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures.

Sedaris, D. (2018). Calypso. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Smith, J. S. & Key, F. S. (1918) Star Spangled Banner. Oliver Ditson. [Notated Music] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010134/

Susan Types. Dalai Lama image from http://www.susantypes.com/well-hello-dalai/ “Well, Hello Dalai”.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

Faith

Here is another quote from the book I was writing on chronic illness, that never came to fruition.

“Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” ~ Anne Lamott, 2016

In writing this book, I realized it would not be complete without a chapter on faith. Growing up in a family where there was disdain towards anyone with any religious or spiritual beliefs, faith was a sticky topic for me. Of course, upon examination, faith has more than one meaning. Putting aside religion for the moment, one of Webster’s definitions is “allegiance to any duty or a person”, or another; “complete trust” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The New Oxford American Dictionary has this one also: “a strongly held belief or theory”. I realized, too, there are many kinds of faith: blind faith, unshakeable faith, to name a few. Along with that, we can have faith in all kinds of things besides God or a Higher Power: one’s own goodness, one’s marriage, one’s friends. We can have faith we’ll make through the night.

In the realm of chronic illness however, what do we put our faith in? Do we, for example, put our faith in our health practitioner, our new medication, our new diet? Perhaps, but living in the western world, where there are so many choices out there, it can be overwhelming – which modality should we trust? Because we so badly want to be well, and therefore want to believe in the experts and what they have to offer, we may end up putting our faith into someone or something, that if it doesn’t work out for us, can leave us disillusioned, and/or helpless.

What would empower us more in this regard, is to put our faith in what we know to be true. In other words, if I am going to a doctor’s office for the first time, I know I’m going to feel vulnerable, so I will bring my partner, or a good friend, or caregiver along – someone who’s got my back. Because it’s easy to get off track once in the office, I bring a list of questions, any forms I may need. I may even record the session so that I don’t miss any valuable information and so I can stick to my agenda and get the most out of that appointment. Then I listen to what they have to say and how they respond to me. Besides listening to this information, they are giving me; possible medication to take, tests, etc., I listen to who they are and how they came across. In other words, do I trust them? Are they compassionate (Although compassion is not always necessary for me to get what I want in the modality of treatment, it is an added plus, and is part of the care I ultimately seek.)? I also ask myself if their response to my situation reflects an understanding that PTSD is a part of what I need to be treated for, as well as the neurological part. Do they hear I am sensitive to medications and that I want to start on a small dose, first? Essentially, what I’m putting my faith in is myself. I am using my experience and my intuition to determine if this is the right person for me to work with and if I believe what they are offering me is something I think could help me.

I learned to do this based on past mistakes and experiences. I could tell you many stories of what not to do, but I will recall only one, here. One time, many years ago, I made an appointment with a neurologist that lived nearby and had been recommended to me. It had been years since I had contacted a neurologist, because I had wanted to explore more alternative and natural choices, but I had been having partial seizures and they weren’t going away, and, as a last resort, I thought I might want to go back on medication, at least temporarily. Unfortunately, I went to the appointment alone. During the time I spent with him, he not only did not smile at me when we introduced ourselves to each other, but he never once looked me in the eye or made any real human contact with me. When he learned that I hadn’t been on medication for years, his tone was condescending and judgmental. I should’ve left right then and there, but I felt trapped and needy: to find and go to another neurologist would take time and effort; two things I felt I couldn’t afford. During his interview of me, he of course asked me about my symptoms. Because of my weakened state, as I described them in detail, I began to cry a little as it brought to mind all the difficulty I had been in for some time. I felt extremely uncomfortable doing so in front of this seemingly unfeeling man but found it impossible to hold back the tears. As I cried, he looked unconcerned, and continued taking notes, without a change in tone, an offer of a tissue, nothing. When I left the office, prescription in hand, I felt raw, exposed, unseen, and judged. Later, I was to find out that all doctors, at least during the time of his education, are taught to be detached from their patients, as to not become too involved. I believe a little compassion goes a long way, and that becoming skilled at being dispassionate can be detrimental to both doctor and patient.

Much later, I learned that he wrote in my chart that I was “emotionally disturbed”, which triggered a lot of anger in me: How is shedding some tears about one’s difficulty “emotionally disturbed”? Besides that, that kind of labeling had an effect on subsequent doctors; something I had to correct.

I learned a lot from that one office visit. I will never again go alone to a new doctor for the first time, especially a specialist and especially if I’m having a difficult time. That way, if I am too beat down by my symptoms to speak up for myself in ways I would normally, I have someone who will. I have also learned to look at my medical chart if I want, that it is my right to do so, and that I can clear things up if needed. I have learned, in essence, how to be my own advocate. I have learned to trust myself. In comparison to that doctor and the naturopathic doctor I am now seeing, I am treated with respect and compassion. I am asked about my emotional well-being, as well as my physical symptoms. If I am a little emotional, I am not ashamed because of it. I feel seen as a human being and not just another body showing up at her office. When I leave, I feel listened to and taken care of.

Blind Faith

Especially in the onset of our illness, we can be extremely vulnerable and uninformed, leading us to possibly act with blind faith. When we feel desperate or scared, we may make choices that end up creating more difficulty for ourselves. We can certainly have blind faith in doctors or practitioners, for example. We may take as absolute truth their diagnosis or recommendation without getting a second opinion or doing research on our own. We may, in our despair and brokenness, look for deeper meaning in our illness and turn to spiritual “experts” who abuse their power and wound us. We may get a psychic reading, for example, from someone who tells us that we are sick because we’ve embraced negativity and that all we need to do is to think positively, and in our fragile state we start to believe this is true.

Here is an example of blind faith: I once knew a woman I will call “Rose”. She began to have discomfort in her back, and, like most of us would do, she went to a chiropractor. After a series of adjustments, her discomfort only worsened. She then tried other practitioners; at first, only alternative. She was a true believer in the power of positive thinking and used affirmations as a daily practice. She had no doubt that she would return to perfect health. Yet, her condition worsened. Friends and family started to worry and encouraged her to seek out standard Western medicine and get some basic blood work done. She gave in, eventually, and it was discovered that she had bone cancer at an advanced stage. Undaunted, she continued with her affirmations and “knew” she would cure herself. After about a year, she died from the cancer, still, I was told, believing she would live.

It is one thing to have a positive attitude, and, since miracles are known to occur, it’s good to have an open mind to all possibilities. But it’s another thing altogether to live in a fantasy world with rose-colored glasses on, believing that only the outcome we want is one that will occur. After all, we will all die someday. If Rose had been willing to take off her own rose-colored glasses, she may have been diagnosed early on, and therefore, been able to get treatment and live a longer life. Or, barring that, she may have died facing reality: that her time on earth was coming to an end and to prepare herself emotionally and spiritually for that outcome.

“Yesterday’s faith does not wait for you like a dog with your slippers and the morning paper in its mouth”. ~ Anne Lamott, 2014

Losing Faith

What happens during those times when we lose our footing and we stumble or fall? What happens if we lose faith altogether? We may lose faith in our practitioners, our health regimen, or simply, if we’ll have another “good” day. We may lose faith in our body’s ability to heal after we get our test results back that reveal that cancer had returned.

This may lead to times when even greater doubt sweeps in and our spiritual beliefs are challenged. Suddenly, all the practices we used to cherish seem forced or uninspired. Meditation seems too difficult to pull off, because we just feel too lousy to concentrate. Perhaps we heard that the spiritual teacher we put our faith in has done something we think is a little, or a lot, shady. Or, even though we may have had experiences that reveal to us that there is something greater than ourselves that we can depend on, when unrelenting pain begins to take over our body or meditation doesn’t work anymore, those experiences become dim memories. “God” or “Spirit” or “Higher Power” now seem like mental constructs that hold no real meaning or comfort for us. Perhaps we feel that God had abandoned us. We can’t pray, because we don’t know who we’re praying to, and we’re not sure anyone’s out there. Doubt and fear move in and cloud our thinking. Now what?

For most of us, this is a difficult and uncomfortable place to arrive at. We need answers, we need something to rely on! In our vulnerable state, there’s a tendency to want to grasp onto something and yet there’s nothing there. This can feel confusing and frightening and leave us in a fragile state of mind.

But, re-examined with an attitude of great care, curiosity, and, if we can manage it, a dash of humor, this place can begin to feel spacious and even freeing. If we don’t know, or aren’t sure, we find ourselves floating in this space of unknowing, with nothing to cling to – not God, a teacher, a diagnosis, or a plan. We are free of any constraints, or even beliefs. There’s an openness there, a freshness we can bring to our life. Sharon Salzberg, Buddhist teacher and author, speaks eloquently about the differences between beliefs and faith: “With their assumptions of correctness, beliefs try to make a known out of the unknown. They make presumptions about what is yet to come, how it will affect us. Faith, on the other hand, doesn’t carve out reality according to our preconceptions and desires. It doesn’t decide how we are going to perceive something, but rather is the ability to move forward, even without knowing. Faith, in contrast to belief, is not a definition of reality, not a received answer, but an active, open space that makes us willing to explore. While beliefs come to us from outside – from another person or a tradition or heritage – faith comes from within, from our active participation in the process of discovery”.

When looked at more deeply, this free-floating openness may feel familiar – we may have come here before. We may have come to it for other reasons than our health or crisis of faith. Maybe it happened the first time we developed strong feelings for someone. We didn’t know what to expect – we never felt this way before! Maybe we weren’t sure how the other person felt and that made us feel vulnerable. Now, we realize, we are experiencing that same sort of vulnerability – we’re not sure of anything! We may have developed new symptoms and have no diagnosis, or feel conflicted about our spiritual beliefs, but in exploring that vulnerability, we also experience a certain kind of innocence. It’s as if we are looking at life with new eyes. If we look back on those other times, we can see that, eventually, we got answers. Eventually, we understood what was happening. We got a diagnosis. We found out that the other person we had feelings for felt the same way and we ended up developing a relationship with them. The unknown became known. This in-between place, where we float freely, is called faith. In other words,

“When you have come to the edge

of all the light you know

and are about to drop off

into the darkness of the unknown,

faith is knowing

one of the two things will happen:

there will be something solid

to stand on,

or you will be taught how to fly”.

                                                ~ Patrick Overton

Meanwhile, while we take that leap of faith, we are in that between place, whether waiting for test results, wondering if we should see one more practitioner, or struggling with our spiritual beliefs, what we can always rely on, what we can believe in, is this present moment. We can always trust what’s right in front of us and bring our presence to it. By doing this, we fully commit our entire being to be with what is, right here and now, and come into our spiritual power. In other words, I can, without a doubt, know the texture of this moment: my fingers moving across the keyboard, the sound of my cat eating her breakfast, the openness of the white page before me. Or, if confusion and doubt are what’s arising, I can explore these mind states with the compassionate awareness I’ve come to know in meditation. I need no proof from any other sources to guide me. By becoming present, I am not borrowing beliefs from someone whose spiritual knowledge I perceive is more advanced than mine… Here is this moment before me with everything it holds. Understanding that, I believe in the next moment and the next. In this way, I am putting my faith in all these moments strung together. I know I can make it through this moment, which gives me the confidence to make it through the next. Just as in meditation, we build a kind of faith by strengthening our ability to sit with whatever arises; fear, impatience, the ache in our knee, etc., we begin to trust in our innate ability to handle the unfolding of our life, whether gracefully or clumsily, and always courageously.

Twelve-Step programs offer the sage advice “one day at a time”, but for people living with chronic illness, sometimes it comes down to one moment at a time. In fact, this is one of the biggest lessons and gifts of chronic illness and one of the highest and honorable spiritual teachings we can receive as human beings. Even if we’re doing better lately and not facing any new crises with our health, we don’t know how we’ll fare tomorrow or perhaps even later today (Of course, this this is true for anybody, whether chronically ill or not; it’s just that truth is more in our face than those whose health is more predictable).

By living in the moment, life slows down and we come to appreciate the preciousness of life in all its simplicity: sunlight streaming through colored glass, our heart beating in our chest, the sound of a hawk overhead. I remember, for instance, one time when I was recuperating from a seizure at my parents’ house, I would often lay on their couch and look out the window. Directly in my view was an elegant redwood tree. I would focus on this tree until it became a part of my healing. At times I felt I “entered” the tree and became its beauty as I lay there with nothing else to do, nothing I could do. To this day, when I visit my parents and sit on the couch and take note of that tree, I feel a special connection with it, as if we are friends.

This kind of slowing down can be applied even when we are doing better, it can permeate our life. If we are stuck in traffic, for example, instead of getting worked up about the inconvenience, can we take the time to watch the breeze move through the grass alongside the highway?

Here is my own story on faith and relying on the present moment: One day, I had to go to the next town, 30-minutes away, for a doctor’s appointment. Although I felt tired that morning, I felt completely able to drive. But, before I left, two friends of mine came over for a visit. Although I was happy to see them, the visit was a little chaotic – we hadn’t seen each other for a long time and there was certain time constraint, because I had to leave soon after they arrived. That led to all of us talking at once and interrupting each other in excited and sometimes loud ways that only close friends can do. When I left, I felt happy, but a little overwhelmed and realized that the visit had taken its toll on me. I questioned my ability to drive, for a second, then dismissed it, because just twenty minutes ago, I felt quite capable. Once in the car a short time later, I pulled to the side of the road, realizing that I felt too tired and unsafe to drive. Luckily, I had my cell phone with me, so I called my partner and told her of my predicament. She told me to stay put, that she would come and get me. While waiting for her, I began to feel slightly seizury. Not figuring I would need any, I hadn’t brought any anti-convulsant medication with me. I knew it would be about a half hour before she would show up. Because of the seizury sensations, I felt very uneasy and exposed parked there beside the highway all alone. I knew I needed to put to use my spiritual practices, but at the moment, they all seemed too complicated to do and involved too many steps. What came to me to do was the very basic meditation techniques of becoming present. Just the thought of remembering this brought a certain peace of mind. I knew, based on many experiences before in meditation, that just being aware of whatever came up in the present moment would stabilize my mind, and it did so in this case, too. Although I was frightened, by bringing my mind to the present, I was able to let fear float, allowing space around it, making the wait much more tolerable. This kind of remembering is based on repeated experiences that allow us to have faith in not only our practices, but in having the confidence in our innate ability to face whatever arises in life.

Crises of Faith

“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, we feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We deserve something better than resolution: we deserve our birthright, which is … an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity”.                                                                                                               ~ Pema Chodron

I have found in working on many chapters of this book that whatever the topic was, those topics happened to be up for me. This is one of those chapters. During the time that I started working on this chapter, I struggled with two crises of faith. Because of this, I sometimes felt anywhere from uneasy to plagued with doubt, lost, afraid, or like the rug was being pulled out from under me. The first aspect of faith that was being challenging for me was within Tibetan Buddhism. Although it is dear to me, there have been certain aspects of it that I don’t necessarily agree with. And yet, because I’m not an expert in the field, and consider myself a work in progress, I can doubt my own gut feelings and experiences, which can shake me to my core. When I began to look for answers by reading different books on Tibetan Buddhism, and talked with experts on the topic, I became further confused, as they didn’t all agree. Who was I to believe? At times, I felt as if I was up against dogma, yet I found it hard to trust my own instincts.

The second crisis of faith was my marriage. After thirteen years of partnership, we came up against issues that neither of us knew how to resolve. Were we going to end up another broken-up couple? Did we have whatever it took to make it through this particular hardship? As I finished touching up this chapter, we ended up healing and solving our problems, but in the process, I felt very lost, confused, angry, guarded and scared. Deep survival issues were at stake for me – if we broke up, I wondered how I would fare, as besides being my life partner, she can act as a part-time caregiver.

With both cases, remembering that with past experiences, some resolve would come eventually. I fell into that unknown space, at first with fear, but then I applied a certain curiosity to the state. When I didn’t project into the future about the state of my marriage, and when I let go of fear about my spiritual beliefs, I found myself free-floating in that space, and, when I really let go, it felt quite liberating, as if I were unattached to anything. Sure, I wanted my marriage to succeed and I wanted to resolve my conflicts with Tibetan Buddhism, but since I was up in the air about both, I sought to become as comfortable as I could in that in-between place; that place of unknowing. In fact, it reminded me a little of the one and only time I went skydiving. Determined to leave my fears behind (and attached to a well-seasoned professional), I jumped out of an airplane thousands of feet above the earth, into space.

When the parachute engaged, I felt this giddy sense of freedom, and intense aliveness as I floated towards the earth. When I landed safely on the ground, I was still high from the experience – a feeling that stayed with me for a long time.

Because the issue in my relationship did resolve, I felt stronger in my marriage than ever. With Tibetan Buddhism, I am not completely resolved, but am learning to trust my own spiritual experiences and validate them as real. When we face our fears full-on, when we don’t run screaming in the other direction, we discover new territories within that can expand our ways of meeting the unknown.

I’d like to end this chapter with a story about three blind people and an elephant. Each part of the elephant that they can feel is what they believe is the elephant in all its entirety. But only one feels its trunk, one feels its side, and one feels its leg. Each only knows a part of the elephant.

Learning from the mistaken conclusions of their perceptions and applying that to illness, we come away with the understanding that at least for now, we may not know the bigger picture, but sense there is one. That is to say, we may not know how we got ill or why, or if we’ll get better. We may not even have a diagnosis, we may not know if the regimen we take up will improve our condition, do nothing, or completely cure us, but we fumble in the dark with the piece of knowledge we do have anyway, trusting in the process as best we can. We may lose our way at times, forgetting that our part of the “elephant” is not the only reality and fall into the darkness around us. Because of that, we need reminding again and again, to have faith. When I need reminding, I rely not only on spiritual teachings and practices, but my partner, intimate friends, caregivers, and my therapist/spiritual teacher. Eventually, holding the hand of others, I become more confident facing the unknown, and the fears that often come along for the ride.

Prism

Refracted light is like the human soul –

it can never know its full capacity.

We come to this earth plane

again, and again

seeking wholeness,

not understanding that in these separated forms

we can only find limitations in our surroundings.

Like rainbows that splinter off of crystal

we are denser creations

born of that greater light

left yearning for what we remember.

Faith then, becomes the link

that reconnects us back to that wholeness,

that moves us forward through this life,

that flicker of memory

still lingering in our minds.

~ Maluma

 

Citations:

Chodron, P., When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Shambhala (2016).

Edison, M., Poems by Maluma (2013).

Lamott, A., from @ANNELAMOTT tweet November 16, 2016.

Lamott, A., Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Riverhead Books (2014).

Maluma’s Leap of Faith personal video. Clips (edited). Original video NorCal Skydiving.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary from https://www.merriam-webster.com

New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., 2010. Oxford University Press.

Overton, P. – from QuotedHD  http://www.quotehd.com/quotes/patrick-overton-quote-when-you-have-come-to-the-edge-of-all-light-that-you-know

Salzberg, S. – Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. Riverhead Books (2003).

Links for meditation:

https://www.pocketmindfulness.com/6-mindfulness-exercises-you-can-try-today/

https://psychcentral.com/blog/1-minute-mindfulness-exercises/

https://www.headspace.com/meditation/body-scan

https://www.headspace.com/meditation/sleep

https://blog.mindvalley.com/best-guided-meditations/

 

My Offer to You

Would you like to have my poetry books?

Please comment if you are interested in receiving one or both of my books at no cost. For more details and to arrange shipment, I will use your contact information from your comment.

An excerpt from my poem “Savior

… “a small bird whose body

I could not see, saved me.

I sat in my recliner

with all my complaints,

when this tiny chirp

burst into the air.”…

 

Excerpts from my poem “Breakthrough

…”go through this messy and blessed life

thinking we can clean it up

and make it orderly”…

“and we don’t have a lot of say in the matter.

But there is one thing we can do

when grief sails by”…

Salt Heart

I was tired,
half sleeping in the sun.
A single bee
delved the lavender nearby,
and beyond the fence,
a trowel’s shoulder knocked a white stone.
Soon, the ringing stopped.
And from somewhere,
a quiet voice said the one word.
Surely a command,
though it seemed more a question,
a wondering perhaps—”What about joy?”
So long it had been forgotten,
even the thought raised surprise.
But however briefly, there,
in the untuned devotions of bee
and the lavender fragrance,
the murmur of better and worse was unimportant.
From next door, the sound of raking,
and neither courage nor cowardice mattered.
Failure – uncountable failure – did not matter.
Soon enough that gate swung closed,
the world turned back to heart-salt
of wanting, heart-salts of will and grief.
My friend would continue dying, at last
only exhausted, even his wrists thinned with pain.
The river Suffering would take what it
wished of him, then go. And I would stay
and drink on, as the living do, until the rest
would enter into that water—the lavender swept in,
the bee, the swallowed labors of my neighbor.
The ordinary moment swept in, whatever it drowsily holds.
I begin to believe the only sin is distance, refusal.
All others stemming from this. Then come.
Rivers, come. Irrevocable futures, come. Come even joy.
Even now, even here, and though it vanish like him.

Jane Hirshfield

What About Joy?

The other day, one of my caregivers arrived with Riley – a 2-year-old, small poodle, who has come here before. I forgot she was coming or else didn’t know, but I was having a particularly dismal morning and when my caregiver opened the door and let Riley in, I burst into tears; both from joy and pent-up sadness at having one more day of difficulty. Riley immediately jumped into my lap, and the tears poured out more.

            Listen. I know all dogs are “good dogs”, even the “bad” ones. I know your dog is “the best” dog ever to pad the universe. But I have to tell you Riley is at the top of the list. She is also the Absolute Cutest Dog in the world. She is a true lap dog, weighing about 10 pounds, has the sweetest brown eyes and the best disposition. She is the embodiment of joy.

            Many days, I contemplate what I can do to make myself feel better. I think of meditation, relaxation CD’s, Yoga, or calling my therapist. Serious stuff. Yet, on some levels, all these can take effort or determination. Dogs, on the other hand, take nothing at all to lift your spirits. They embody loving-kindness, unconditional love and acceptance. They jump in your lap, lick your face, are genuinely glad to see you. They don’t judge you; they have zero pretenses. This is refreshing. This is good news. They don’t care if you can’t walk, can’t sleep, are in pain, or have snot on your face. They simply just love you the way you are. And I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling at my worst, my negative judgments come sailing in. So, to have this little, exuberant bundle of joy come literally leaping into my lap, is a precious gift and a reminder that who I am, right here, right now, is perfect. I don’t need to do “it” better. I’m not a failure for having anxiety and not sleeping (again). Who I am is deserving of unconditional love – no matter what state of mind I’m in.

            Thanks for the reminder, Riley.

Riley
Me and Riley