Friday, March 30, 2012

Reinvention: Illness, jealousy and mudita

When I first began walking with a cane, I would watch others with a real sense of witnessing a miracle. My ankle joint no longer worked (“drop foot”) and I used the cane to steady my uneven gait. Other people were able to lift their foot completely off the ground swing it easily in front of them, place it gently on the surface and shift their weight to it – all without thought. It was magical.
Now, as my hands began to fail me, I am not as spiritually evolved. I am just plain jealous. I watch people take notes at a meeting and find myself becoming resentful and angry.
I am envious of health and those who unthinkingly possess it.
I am learning not to sit in judgment of this process, but to imagine that I am a dear friend. Of course I’m jealous; it makes  sense! How natural to wish that I were healthy. How understandable to resent those who don’t appreciate what they have. Those emotions come from grief over what I’ve lost and fear over what I may yet lose. This is not the time to beat myself up.
What, then?
The Buddhists have a wonderful concept: mudita. There is no exact English translation. The idea is “sympathetic joy.” When I see someone else who is happy, I share in that happiness. When I see someone writing without effort, I celebrate their ability.
This is made easier if I truly believe that we are all one. The idea that we are cells in a larger creature is one of my core beliefs. I am a tiny part of a miraculous whole. So are you. Your strong and able hands and feet and my weak and faltering ones are movements in one dance. Considered this way, I can be grateful for both of us.
I have added mudita to my practice. It works like this:
I feel jealousy and resentment arise as I watch others move,
I take a breath
I say (silently), “May you move gracefully forever.”
I picture my heart as a waterlily opening to embrace the universal whole

electronic illustration: Lotus opening to the universe

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reinventing: Mental practices and responses

There is a part of my mind that reflexively comes up with unhelpful comments and attitudes about what's going on. I call it my "monster mind." It says things like, "it will never work," "I will always be miserable," and the ever-popular "I'm such a loser."

Lately I've been bothered by a lack of enthusiasm for my day job, a general feeling that my life doesn't have enough joy in it and a sense that I am not appreciating others in my life enough. (Asking the question, "what isn't working for me?" as part of my of my reinvention inventory allowed me to put words to these general feelings of unease.)

This sounds like the work of my monster mind, but what can I do about it?

Create a Mental Response

Sometimes I am doing a task and have a thought in response to it. For example, I'm at work thinking "this is such a waste of time" or "they are doing this stupidly." What useful thought could I have in answer? I am lucky enough to work for a nonprofit organization with a valuable mission. The work I do serves a larger purpose, even though specific tasks seem pointless or stupid to me.

Here's my experiment:
  1. recognize that my monster mind is at work
  2. take a breath
  3. find the kernel of value in what I'm doing
  4. recommit to my task
This process only takes a minute. I have been practicing it for about a week and I'm finding it to be helpful.

Create a Mental Practice

Sometimes my monster mind works in more subtle, attitudinal ways. There is not a moment when I'm aware of a specific thought, but I don't feel the way I want to be feeling. For example, I want to feel more loving toward people and less serious toward my life in general.

Here are my experiments:
  • I've added a "tap flutter" action to my stretch breaks. I tap my hand against my desk and wiggle my fingers while moving my hand up in the air. This is a silly thing to do and reminds me to lighten up.
  • When I see someone, I say to myself, "look! A divine being in human skin!" ( See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

 Taking Time to Practice

Adding new practices and habits to life is always a challenge. (12 Step Literature: "  I never will find time for anything. if I want time I must take it." ) I haven't been doing something and now I want to do it. How do I "make myself" include new things in my daily life?

There are two things that have been successful for me:
  1. I add them to an existing daily practice or habit. Those negative thoughts at work will arise so I respond to them with my new, more resourceful, "find the kernel" thought. When I see a human being, I remind myself they are really a divine being in human skin. My visual reminders are built-in.
  2. I create outside cues: My Big Stretch reminder program pops up to remind me to stretch while I'm working at the computer. I have added the words "tap flutter" to remind me to make the motion and lighten up. (It makes me smile every time I see it.)

Practice and Experimentation

I've chosen the words experimenting and practicing because forgiveness is built-in. If I could do something perfectly, I wouldn't be practicing. Practice involves attempts and failures and recommitment. If I could predict results, I would be experimenting. Experimenting involves taking action and observing what happens. Practice and experimentation do not involve failure, they invite recommitment and reinvention.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Reinvention and Hope

If I am going to reinvent a part of my life it means being willing to move into Serenity Prayer territory.

Quick Review: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the

The tricky bit here is that I don't know whether I can change something until I try to change it.

I've been working this week in all the areas I identified last week*, but the particularly challenging one has been in the area of diet. 30 years ago, when I was diagnosed with MS, I read about and adopted the Swank Diet, which purported to lessen the long term disabling effects of the disease. I was pretty faithful to the diet for 20 years, while my body become more and more disabled. About 10 years ago, I gave up on the diet.

My new interest in diet stems from my digestive system, which is not working smoothly due to medication side effects and lack of activity. (It's just hard to move my body when I am partially paralyzed, sitting in a wheelchair.)

I was expecting to start eating more fiber or something.

In the process of research, however, I came across Dr. Terry Wahls, a woman with secondary progressive MS (the kind I have) who has experienced a significant increase in her mobility and credits a diet very rich in green leafy vegetables.

As I watch her videos, I can feel hope rising in my chest and beaming out through the top of my head.

Imagine, if you will, the clamoring of monster voices:
"You tried that diet stuff. It didn't work."
"She was only disabled for a few years – and she could still walk a little; you haven't been able to walk for 15 years. It won't work for you."
"Why get your hopes up?" … And so on…

The more I get to know my monsters, the more I realize they are trying to keep me safe. They hate to see me get hurt. And that means they hold me back from new things.

I decided to try the diet for six months. If nothing else, it will address the digestive issues.

The monsters continue to sing. I speak with them gently, reassuring them that we are strong enough to bear the pain, if there is some.

*Progress report:

  1. Get OT consultation – have appointment 4/24
  2. Research diet solutions – began Dr. Wahl’s diet 3/11
  3. Design books and papers carrier – will be done by 3/18, when I meet with the seamstress I recruited
  4. Create mental response for work attitude – "find the kernel" (a subject for a future post on creating mental responses and practices)
  5. Create mental response for jealousy of "normal people" – "May your happiness (or health, or ability etc.) continue forever." (a subject for a future post on mudita)
  6. Get family input on evening activities – whoops! I haven't done this one, but I have been watching less TV
  7. Explore WordPress – one more thing to figure out and then I will invite you to follow my blog in its new location
  8. Prepare art materials – I got new paper; now I need to get the other materials out of the drawer
  9. Get family input on leisure time – whoops again…
  10. Create mental love/compassion practice –  "look! A divine being in human skin!"
  11. Return to Delight of the Day – I started the week well, but then forgot. Recommit!
  12. Create mental practice – Tap flutter (yes, that post on mental responses/practices will be a good one!)

Friday, March 9, 2012

First experiments in reinvention

Kind Promise: To Reinvent Whimsically

It's a sentence begging for noun. What is it I'm hoping to reinvent?

My first instinct is to say "my life" or "myself," but that wasn't what I had in mind. This promise springs from increase in disability. Some things I used to be able to do I can no longer do. Such losses make daily life a series of small frustrations. Some of the lost activities were those I did to feed my soul – to make me feel better. Not only is my frustration increasing, but my ways of coping are decreasing. It's a bad combination.

I added the word "whimsically" because I wanted to bring a sense of fun and foolishness to the process. I have a friend who says, "God created us to look foolish in front of each other." She believes that the limitations of our human bodies are designed to bring us into closer relationship with each other. We sometimes literally have to lean on each other.

So how do I enter this exploration?

After some experimentation, I developed a process. I have an overdeveloped ambition monster, so I needed to put some limits on my urge to begin with a list of 10,000 things. I chose two questions and generated three practical answers and three more philosophical ones, followed by a first action step. The third answer turned out to be a stretch: something I wasn't sure I could accomplish.

Question one: What isn't working for me?

  • Driving the wheelchair. [Action: get OT consultation]
  • My digestive system (to put it delicately). [Action: research diet solutions]
  • Handling/carrying objects (books and papers) [action: design carrier]
  • My attitude/toward my day job. [Action: create mental response]
  • My jealousy of "normal" people. [Action: create mental response]
  • My evening activities/attitudea. [Action: get family input]

Question two: Where do I want to grow?

  • My writing/blogging website. [Action: explore WordPress]
  • More art. [Action: prepare materials]
  • More fun leisure time. [Action: get family input]
  • More love/compassion [Action: create mental practice]
  • More delight [Action: return to Delight of the Day]
  • Lighter touch [Action: create mental practice]
Clearly, I have my assignments. I will check in with my progress next week. I have vacation this coming week – a great opportunity for all this physical and mental action!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Surrender and Illness

I have been entranced and informed by the image of water dropping as a metaphor for surrender, so I thought I should respond with a painting.

As usual, I fantasized about what and how I would like to paint before making the time and space for the actual painting session. I went to the store and bought some mastic so I could block areas of white on the paper. I remembered long-ago painting sessions where I could use a fine tipped brush to mark a curved edge and then gently tease the paint into a nearby wet area, watching as the water pulled the color across the paper. I remembered.

Then I sat down to paint. My right hand is now too weak to hold a brush. My left hand shakes. There could be no precise curved lines, no calm refined surfaces. I had expected the resulting image to teach me more about surrender. Instead, the process was my teacher.

It seemed each movement of hand and brush made expanding circles of anger, sadness, renewed determination and surrender.

"Enter as you wish to be in it," says Havi Brooks, one of my virtual teachers. I realize spending my year exploring Kind Promises is exactly that: I am attempting to learn the skills I will need for a life more affected by illness, disability and aging.

Expecting to be able to rely on a past skill and discovering it has gone are parts of the daily journey of significant illness or aging. I want to get good at surrender.

I want to get better at releasing my expectations as soon as I have them and entering into the beauty of the present moment. I want to discard the idea that beauty can only be found in smooth calm lines and celebrate the chaotic  rough loveliness in which I find myself.