Ponding: Pooling of Unwanted Thoughts

Sometimes, rather than practicing mindfulness, we engage in an exercise in focus. We are casting about the past and future rather than “living richly in the present” (Sylvia Plath).

I call such an exercise ponding. In nature, ponding is the pooling of unwanted waters. In being, ponding is the absence of mindfulness, the pooling of thought outside the present.

As Plath reminds us, to live richly in the present is the “hardest thing” to do.

It is a lifetime practice.

Spending days kmhuber imageI grew up in a high plains desert where rivers rush, streams gush. Ponds are few. In the Rocky Mountain West, water is on the go, impermanence on the fly.

Now, my home is the meandering rivers and ponds of the Florida panhandle, subtropical lushness. That both the West and South offer life opportunity opposites—mile high to sea level—once occupied much of my thought and time.

Then, it was location, location, location rather than living richly in my present. I spent years pooling unwanted waters for the future, trying to re-create past ponds.

It never works, even as an exercise.

This past week I found myself at Chapman, a pond I once visited daily as my life in the South began. I missed the rush of water, having little consideration for the life that teems within a pond.

All that changed within the comfort of Chapman, contained under canopied, moss-draped oaks and towering Ponderosa pine. Daily, I focused on the peace I attributed to Chapman pond, unaware the peace was within me, always available.

Of course, I was ponding, unaware of my life as I was living it, pooling up thoughts, the unwanted waters of my past and future.

I was fishing, a practice I began in childhood.

Always, I searched any and all waters to see if they supported fish. I had to know if there was life. Fishing would occupy me for decades. I practiced consistently.

KMHuberImage; Wood Stork Fishing

As I aged, casting a line with no hook replaced catching a fish. With each cast, I did my best to imitate a fly afloat and tease a fish.

Whenever I went fishing, I was living richly, completely confined to the cast of the moment. Perhaps it was the beginning of a mindfulness practice; perhaps, it was just fishing.

I gained a sense of the tide of time, the fisher and the fished, impermanence at its best. There was no ponding, no thoughts of bigger or lesser fish or even the one that got away—only, the energy of the experience, the sensation that never stays.

I have not owned a rod and reel in years but still I fish.

On Birthdays, an Advantage of Aging

Laziness 010514I do not mind growing older. I do not believe I ever have nor do I remember wanting to return to a previous age in the belief it was the best time to be alive. As a friend said not too long ago, “it has been pretty good so far.”

And it has. This third act of my life presents new challenges—as did the other two—it seems to be a natural progression.

Do the challenges fit each act? In retrospect, the answer is yes, unequivocally.

What has been true with each act is that aging has its advantages. That assurance keeps me curious. And the handmaiden of curiosity is often celebration.

This past week I marked my 63rd birthday. It was a week of gifts–each thoughtful, unique. It is humbling, this great exchange of good feeling. The joy lasts more than a single day or week. It is what fills the years of a lifetime.

Every birthday reaffirms how fortunate I am in the life I have. The older I am, the more advantages I have. Aging is a list of gifts. Each year, some are unique to that birthday while others are forever.

Unique to the age of 63, I am now past the pregnancy test protocol for women who still have a uterus and have not had a tubal ligation. This surgery protocol may be unique to where I live. Nonetheless, it is on and off my list.

While the number of my chronic illnesses seems to have increased, I have finally accepted the great advantage they provide: I can sleep whenever I am tired, eat when I am hungry no matter the time of day or night, and write when I have sufficient energy, when my mind is clearest.At Rest 0215

What chronic illness has given me for the rest of my life is the routine of no routine. It is a lifetime gift that I finally recognized in my 63rd year.

Many people fear retirement for the lack of routine. I am here to tell you do not fear it. It is up there with the greatest gifts you ever receive. You will never be more present in your life. Mindfulness gives you all the time you need. You need not wait for retirement. ;)

As one day slides into another, the trappings of time that we have contrived—calendars, alarms, agendas– appear for what they are, our attempts to box up and label each moment.

Life is impermanent and neither boxes nor labels will hold.

Perfect Shell 0514I no longer am concerned about being awake during the dark hours that begin each day. It is a great time to listen to a recorded book. I do not disturb the dark with unnatural light. I do not disturb the day turning into itself.

These night-morning hours of opalescence are also prime “hunting” hours for feline EmmaRose. The prey is a catnip-filled “mouse” that is as easily airborne as it is grounded. The chase is a vocal one, high-pitched meows and a growl that seems much too large for a 5.5 pound cat.

The “hunt” was my birthday eve present from EmmaRose and later in the day, dear friends called and sang the birthday song. Both of these birthday eve gifts are unique to my 63rd birthday.

My birthday dawned as I sat on my favorite bench in Waverly Park, my first visit in many months. I shared the moment with three geese.

Animals, it seems, would mark my birthday in ways I could not have imagined.

Unique to this birthday was the gift of becoming a foster for an older elephant named Kora. Regular readers of this blog may remember a post on elephants reading hearts. The post featured the Sheldrick Trust in a video. Kora and I will age together.Kora older 2015

The same thoughtful friend made sure that another animal was part of my birthday, my favorite pit bull. I was treated to a video of Frisbee catching and happy birthday dancing. Ever available for viewing, it is a lifetime gift.

Also unique to this year, just before my birthday week dawned, I was given a surprise, living-room concert by my favorite local singing duo, Hot Tamale. All I had to do was sit back in my recliner and listen. For an hour, I immersed myself in their story songs, sometimes reminiscent of the ’60s, sometimes just great blues but always Hot Tamale.

Every gift I received— food, spirits, cash, and so many words of joy–was its own card, offering its unique celebration of a day. Ageless, the day resides in memory, celebrated as an advantage of aging.

Bits and Pieces: The Reality We Have

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If we live in the moment, we work with the reality we have. Sounds good, if a bit obvious or perhaps platitudinous. Yet, it seems the way to experience the best of what is being offered.

And if we are not thrilled with the reality we have, we need only remember that like the weather, life is impermanent. It will change; reality will offer other options.

Working with the reality we have is a bit of a slippery slope as joy never seems to stay long enough while pain never seems to leave soon enough.

Reality—the moment–is all we ever have. For however long it lasts, it is for us to do the best we can. Impermanence will do the rest.

Currently, my reality seems as if it is in a holding pattern. Doing the best I can to experience the moment I have, I admit I am often on the lookout for change.

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Recently, I came through cervical myelopathy surgery with remarkable success–truly, there were some unforgettable and stellar moments–but success has shown its shadow.

Success and shadow—as one—make up memory. Always there are moments of both but perhaps only in memory are the two as one.

Memory does not re-create reality. It allows us reflection, a way to wait upon reality, to work with the moment we have.

In shadow, my reality seems a growing force of chronic illness comprised of autoimmune disease, degenerative disc disease, and myelopathy.  There is no complete defeat possible, not physically. That is not my reality in any moment.

Accepting that reduces my suffering and strengthens my resolve to explore the experience I have. By not attaching to the pain as the only reality I will ever know, pain passes like a shadow. Acceptance incites change.

Of course, I am not always as aware or as accepting. Sometimes, I have such an aversion to my reality that I am determined to change it, as if I could. After all, I am not accepting the actual experience. I am only trying to avoid it.

Sometimes, my aversion is quite elaborate, methodical even. Other times, I rush reality for all I am worth with everything within my grasp. I suffer for my indifference to reality. It is as if I am fighting my own biology.

After all, each of my body’s cells works with the state of its reality. Each cell works for balance–aging as well as disease affect this process– yet each cell works with its own unique makeup. It accepts its options.

In working with the reality we have, we accept that moments do not restore each other. They offer us other options, new perspectives on reality that just a moment ago seemed so difficult, even impossible.

Reality is messy that way. It overlaps who we are with who we were just a moment ago, leaving a trail of consequences.

Neither good nor bad, they are reality lived, bits and pieces of experience. Some are stored as success; others slip in as shadow.

The wise adapt themselves to circumstances,

as water molds itself to the pitcher.

Chinese Proverb

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Our Outrage Keeps Separating Us From One Another

Ours is to extend good manners to all life on this planet. Having good manners is synonymous with having a reverence for life. It means understanding that the energy of existence connects us all.

Edward Abbey said, “It is not enough to understand the natural world; the point is to defend and preserve it.”

And I would argue that it is ours to explore death in the natural world for it occurs there as a natural part of being alive. In the human species, killing occurs for myriad reasons, many of which have nothing to do with survival.

We act as if we are in control of this planet. We are not. It is not the natural world that needs us. We need it.

More and more, our outrage separates us from the reverence for life. That separation may very well be killing us and the planet.

We are not united in our outrage. Rather, we compare and contrast the act of killing animals with other senseless deaths of humans being killed on the streets where we live.

There is not time to mourn one life before another is taken. There is no outlet for our outrage.

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At the core of this divisive anger is a lack of compassion, although compassion is at the core of every major religious tradition, as is the fragility and importance of each life on this planet.

We are not open to that reality. Rather, we are angry.

All of this outrage over which life is more relevant/important is like comparing apples and oranges. How can one death matter more than another, if we profess a reverence for life?

There is confusion of equality with equanimity because we do not examine why we keep ourselves separate from rather than connecting with reverence for life.

We prefer apples to be oranges and vice versa–on demand. They have a relationship as fruit yet they are not the same from the outside in or the inside out.

Each apple or orange has its own unique characteristics and to have the same expectations for both is to deny the life force as well as our connection to it. We are denying our own existence.

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No matter how many times we say it, there is no comparison of one life with another for one life does not matter more than another. Such a comparison separates us.

In Buddhism, being separate from life is to believe we have a kind of “supremacy” over all life, as if we owned it. We do not. Our belief in this ownership is why we suffer: attachment, aversion, and indifference.

Our attachment to a certain way of life and our aversion to another way of life lead to a general indifference to death, until it touches us. We have no outlet for our outrage.

Anger fragments easily for fear drives it, and fear floats through us, powered by our own biases. We separate ourselves from what connects us, the life that animates us all.

We demand the natural world respect our human boundaries. Often, species extinction is the price. What does it say about us that we are willing to destroy the very world that sustains us?

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It is our unfortunate history and legacy that we have never understood this from our earliest days on this planet.

Matthew Wright explores this point in his excellent essay, “Cecil the lion’s death highlights the fact that humanity is the scourge of a fragile Earth”:

“…we unerringly manage to destroy every environment we go into. All, I suspect, downstream of a survival technique that worked quite well when there were only a few thousand of us and all we had were stone tools and sticks. “

In another fine essay on controlling our lives, “Breaking Free,” Liz Beres offers a unique perception on living in the here and now: she offers that it requires “an incessant acceptance of permeable principles. “

With “permeable principles,” life is approached with equanimity for there is a respect for each and every life on this planet. There is an openness to reverence for life. We extend good manners.

These days, it is difficult not to be angry. Some days, I just cannot stop myself. However, I have learned that in hanging onto my anger, I will only give it life in other places, inadvertently or no.

I have done that too much in my past. I no longer want to separate myself from life. Not for one more moment. The price of anger is too high.

In maintaining a connection with all life, I have an outlet for my outrage.  That may sound too simplistic. Maybe it is but I know it is difficult to do. Human history reveals that.

The natural world provides for our existence. We need it. It does not need us. Never has.

Not all the anger in the world will change that.

We are Lacking in our Attention to Signals

We are in constant relationship with signals, as senders or receivers. There is not a moment–or nanosecond for that matter–that a signal is not sent or received. Response is an individual matter.

Each signal is a demand on our attention, and often, we feel bombarded. In order to be part of 21st century life, it feels as if we must be sender and receiver simultaneously.

At what cost to existence?

Bloom of Peace 0613For me, signals are the energy of existence, a constant competition for our attention whether as a hand gesture or the tugging of “our gut” begging us to respond.

Beyond our physical senses are magnetic fields and electric currents, and the technology that allows us to send and receive 24/7.

And what of the signals we do not know about? I suspect there are signals sent that remain unheard for there is much yet to explore in this dimension of existence that we inhabit.

Yet, we do not lack for signals. We are, however, lacking in our attention to signals.

In response to the signal overload of our lives, we pride ourselves on our ability to send and receive multiple signals. We believe we are good at it.

We split our attention among signals, responding as if each were not a unique signal. Yet, as weary as we are at the number of signals demanding our attention, we anxiously await the next signal coming through.

Our mind-body is all about maintaining balance, right down to each and every cell. It is a constant challenge for our mind-body to keep shifting in this scramble for signals.

Our mind is not hardwired for such splintering. There is no multiple signal software for the heart.

More than we ever admit, we mix up signals. Sometimes, we completely miss a signal while other times, we send a signal best left not sent.

It is a rerouting of the energy of existence, a change in the coming and going. The nature of our response creates a new series of signals. The change has been sent.

It is like an O. Henry story, in which signal and after signal is sent, often in desperation or good intention. Yet, in the final sentence of the story, we discover the signals scrambled. Attention misplaced or never given at all.

For things to reveal themselves to us,

we need to be ready to abandon our views about them

(Thich Nhat Hanh)

Moments are a series of signals, options readily available to us. We need to receive each signal singularly so that its Clarity in the wild 0413unique story may unfold as it originated.

These stories are the moments of our lives. We owe each one our undivided attention so that we may respond mindfully.

It is for the earth to spin on its axis. Ours is not to spin but to stand and receive the signals–the experiences of our lives. How else will things reveal themselves to us?

Always, the choice is ours. We can focus on receiving a clear signal and respond or live a life of static, simultaneously sending and receiving, unaware of how we are changing existence.

The Good Fortune of Illness

We do not think of illness or disease as an opportunity. Maybe we should.

We label our disease, know all of its characteristics, and sometimes we identify so closely we define ourselves as disease. The result is we suffer.

I know. For decades, I identified as autoimmune disease. Five years ago, I decided I was not my disease no matter what changes that might mean for me.

Immediately, my perspective on chronic disease broadened; ultimately, I came to understand that only I can change my relationship with pain. Pain is a part of life but suffering is entirely up to me.

That Buddhist teaching served me well in my recent diagnosis of cervical myelopathy, particularly in the two weeks that I had to wait for the surgery. Every minute of every day, I lived with the risk of becoming a quadriplegic.

I was not to drive or even ride in a car–in a vehicle, my chances increased to one in 100. I stayed home in bed.

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People lying in bed ill are lucky because they have the opportunity

to do nothing but contemplate stress and pain.

Their minds don’t take up anything else, don’t go anywhere else.

They can contemplate pain at all times — and let go of pain at all times, too.

“A Good Dose of Dhamma: For Meditators When They are Ill”

Upasika Kee Nanayon

During my two weeks of mostly lying in bed, I read Nanayon’s essay more than a few times. I focused on the word “lucky” for this new illness did feel like an opportunity. Yes, I mean that, and no, there were no strong drugs involved.

It was as if I was given another chance to experience a major illness without becoming it. This time, it would be different.  I would not focus on the pain and stress—the suffering–but the experience of it as part of being alive, breathing in and breathing out.

Here was an opportunity to meditate 24 hours a day. There really was not any medication for a pinched spinal cord that was decreasing the mobility and use of my limbs while my joints continued to ache.

I had to stop any over-the-counter medication in preparation for the surgery.

I had plenty of time to contemplate the sensations of my body, including my fear of becoming quadriplegic. In order to let all of it go, I had to empty my mind.

KMHuberImage

When the mind is empty, in line with its nature,

there’s no sense of ownership in it;

there are no labels for itself.

No matter what thoughts occur to it, it sees them as insubstantial,

as empty of self.

There’s simply a sensation that then passes away.

A sensation that passes away, and that’s all.

Upasika Kee Nanayon

This is the opportunity of illness, stripping away the fear and anxiety that make pain so deceptively powerful. Without an identity, without a label, pain is just another sensation that comes and goes. No label, no way for suffering to take root.

I had to get away from labeling both the “what ifs” and the actual pain sensations. Mine was to experience but not to hold onto what was happening. That would label the sensation–a way to stick—suffering would have a way to grow.

Focusing on the breath allows label after label to drop into the mind without sticking. The mind stays “in line with its nature” as labels float in and out, each experience occurring and then leaving. Not attaching to the sensation is to experience it with the wonder of being alive.

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With the exception of death, there is not one sensation we experience that carries one and only one guarantee.  Rather, if we can let go of the label—guarantee–each experience of our life will guarantee us unimaginable wonder.

As humans, we communicate with labels—they are a necessity–but we do not have to become them or hold onto them. Labels inform and pave the way for what comes next. That is their only purpose.

For me, autoimmune disease and now recovery from surgery are labels that sometimes stick. Then, I suffer. Eventually, they float away on my breath.

After all, I am no longer “lucky” to be lying in bed only having to contemplate stress and pain. Now, there is more to experience than the opportunity of illness. And that is my good fortune.

The Expedition of No Return

“You are one injury away from becoming a quadriplegic.”

“Now, you are not pregnant, right?”

Both of these sentences are great openers for blog posts. Certainly, each could be its own blog post. Yet, these two statements reveal the range of emotion as well as the kinds of obstacles that marked my recent health expedition.

In my last post, I referred to my mind-body expedition as the exploration of the two as one, a single continent. I knew I did not have a map, not that I am one for maps. They are so…directional.

This was not that kind of expedition. That, I also knew. And it turned out I was correct. The number of detours/new routes still stun me. I am not returned from the expedition–not really–for I am no longer the person who left.

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With detours, direction constantly changes. Consider the issue of my being pregnant, at the age of almost 63. “Almost” is the operative word. Neither the fact that I have a uterus and have not had a tubal ligation would have been questioned if I had been 63, as I will be a month from today.

The pregnancy test was a pre-op procedure requirement. The morning of my spinal cord surgery I was informed the test showed lightly pregnant, whatever that may mean. Another test was required, which showed negative.

I could not have waited any longer for the surgery. The statement regarding quadriplegia was no exaggeration. My spinal cord was pinched at the C3-4, C4-5 vertebrae in my neck. Each day, the deterioration in all of my limbs increased.

This was no detour but an entirely new route, and a life-changing one at that. There are no maps for life-changing events for the route chosen is, ultimately, the new life to be lived.

Yet, there is order in chaos, always has been. I think it is Buddha nature, the permanence in impermanence. Life plays out against this backdrop of constancy where all is ever in balance. It allows us to meet the chaos of our present and then, to let it go.

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Returning to the land of traditional medicine was full of detours/potholes/obstacles too numerous to mention but too many ever to forget. But this is not a post about traditional medicine. That is for another day.

This is a post about meeting life anew. I am not what I was, which was its own kind of strength. Now, I am the mind-body I create. That is the test of strength I face.

Strength, as Brenda Shaughnessy writes, is to “acknowledge each…feeling, question, and idea in faith and terror, a meeting that comes with the full force of your heart.”

I do my best to keep my heart over my head as I make decisions. I suspect that may be why I woke up from my surgery “happy.” Truly. A friend said I was beaming. It felt then and now like new life.

It is early days yet as the cervical myelopathy surgery was July 6. Essentially, I had surgery to decompress my spinal cord. The surgery involved removing two discs, replacing the discs with bone and then fusing the two with a plate and screws. The cause was not lupus but degenerative disc disease, first diagnosed in 2000.

The surgery is to keep more damage from happening. It is not a surgery to recover sensation. That said, 70% report some improvement. I am glad to be among those who see consistent improvement.

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Before the surgery, my gait was like a Frankenstein, drunken stagger. I had to have a surface to touch to be able to walk at all. Now, my gait is almost normal, if I use a walker.

A cane will steady me, and in my apartment, I practice putting one foot in front of the other, literally. There is progress every day.  My gait is the best it has been in months.

I have returned to using voice recognition software for typing is still too frustrating. The numbness/tingling/grittiness in my hands and thumbs remains but is decreasing. I am able to grasp and hold onto objects with more than reasonable assurance.Every Day 0215

This is a new life, an unknown, part of the chaos of being alive. And in the background is the permanence of impermanence.

The generosity and support of online and off-line friends has been like winning the lottery. I do not purchase lottery tickets and now, there is no need. I already won.

My refrigerator was always full, rides were available wherever I needed to go, and friends waited with me for hours and hours as we made our way through the medical maze. Online messages of support appeared daily.

I have read and reread the comments of the two preceding posts. Just know each word is its own bit of light, day or night, and I carried your words with me then and now.

I am not who I was when I began this expedition. It could be as long as a year before I know how full my recovery will be. There is no returning to what was nor should there be. I have a better idea of my mind-body continent. I will begin there.

Early on in the expedition, I was given these words for my journey. I have kept them with me in all moments, and before every morning’s meditation, I look at the Chinese characters:

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“Be patient and endure while

The wind will calm, the waves subside

Draw back a step and realize

The boundless ocean, the vastness of heaven”

And so I do.