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.

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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.

 

 

On Expedition….

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It is time for me to explore the latest results of impermanence–physically and emotionally–so there will be a pause in posts. It really is an expedition, of sorts, this exploration of my mind and body as one.

The two are a single continent now, although once I saw them as separate countries, accessible only at certain times and tides.

What you are is what you have been.

What you’ll be is what you do now.

Buddha

So, my expedition begins.

(Regular posts will resume May 31)

(Delays and obstacles abound so June is now my anticipated return)

(And in July came the greatest challenge of all. I met it with all I had, and it proved to be enough)

(Blog post is on the July horizon)

Stay Open to Life: It is Rigged

Sometimes, life feels pre-determined, pre-destined even. I do not believe that it is but this past week had me wondering—at least for a while. Nothing in my world was as it appeared. I was stuck in some kind of state.

There was the appointment I missed by arriving too early.  I arrived at the time I was told, but that was not the time scheduled for the appointment.

My pot of vegetables—a staple of mine—soured as if it had been in the refrigerator for a week rather than two days.

A quick glance at the calendar revealed the number of days remaining in the month had no working relationship with the amount in my bank account, even if I remained in a meditative state until May 1.

Physically, there were issues beyond my usual lupus symptoms. These my body had kept all to itself. Until now.

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Ultimately, of course, each was a moment for me to broaden my perspective, to view life through a different lens. Always, I am reminded of the Buddha’s belief that pain is part of life but suffering is optional.

That was my state of mind when I came across this quote from Rumi–“Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor”—well, why not? It would change the view, if nothing else.

And how else does the tide turn other than with a view change?

A missed appointment freed up some cash as well as time to explore some options I had not considered.

There was no saving the pot of vegetables, of course. I suspect a couple of days really had turned into a week. Some part of my mind knew this for in the crisper I found fresh vegetables.

And then there was a visit with a good friend. Nothing rigs life in your favor quite like that. In the space of a couple of hours, our conversation ranged from Harper Lee to “branding” in social media. We have yet to meet a topic we would not attempt.

Most of our obstacles would melt away if,

instead of cowering before them,

we should make up our minds to walk boldly through them.

Orison Swett Marsden

And while we are walking through them, we may realize life really is rigged in our favor for the view always changes.

Have a good week. Stay open to life’s rigging.

In Stillness, the World Awakens

It is still dark on this new day but what was night—despair–gives way to the light that is the hope of the new.

In some parts of the world, this particular day has already spent its light but where I live, the light only now gently overtakes the dark. It is my first moment of a day, fresh and unique.

I press the button to adjust the bed to a sitting position to begin meditating.  On more days than not, feline EmmaRose, all 5.5 pounds of her, makes herself comfortable on my soft belly.

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We begin together. She purrs, kneads my stomach, and then lies down to sleep or to stare out the bedroom window. I focus on my breath–in and out, in and out–I stare into the darkness as it becomes light.

I breathe my way into stillness as the world around me awakens. My body recognizes the opening of our daily dialogue.

A mind scan of my body reveals the concrete block stiffness from the previous day but as yet no pain stirs only tingling and numbness in my thumbs and index fingers. I begin there.

Tingling turns into the familiar electrical “bzzt” in the tip of my right thumb, then the left as well. Another “bzzt” charges through my right thumb and then through both index fingers.

I take a deep breath in an attempt to release my thumbs and fingers from the buzzing but the breath seems off, stale. My focus is on thought and not on breathing. Quickly, I attempt to exhale what I have not yet breathed in.

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For a while now I have been aware of this futile attempt to suppress a breath, as if I could. I breathe in fully this time so I may release completely  the fear that it is: my doubt of regaining the full strength of my thumbs and fingers.

As the fear breath goes through my upper body, its weakness seems to increase as does the stiffness in my legs. Only when it has traveled my body am I able to exhale fully what has no substance ever, fear.

Once again, I am one with my breath—in and out–as I sense each finger and then my thumbs until warmth flows through both hands releasing the  electrical “bzzt.” Stillness softens the stiffness of my upper body as it warms to the day.

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The pain in my right leg announces itself. It is a frequent caller so there is no fear as I focus on the pain, searching it out with my breath—in and out—until I reach its core.

We “sit” together for as long as it takes for the stillness to make its way through every cell of my body. I never know the precise moment that it stills, only that it does.

Now, it is the mind’s turn, a movie all its own.

A fragment of a Louise Erdrich quote is first to float through, something about  sitting under an apple tree to “listen to the apples falling all around…in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”

In the stillness, an entire world awakens around me in this day that is now bursting with light, inviting me to partake in all I can as I am able. It is a gift to taste the sweetness of a new breath and in gratitude, let it go as it must.

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Feline EmmaRose decides to stir, sometimes to bathe but other times, just to get on with her day. And as happens more often than not, her movement coincides with the ding of the timer silencing the stillness.

I try to hold it, of course, but like the breath, it, too, must leave. And in response, my body sends signals from everywhere, announcing this issue or that. I am ready to taste the apples of this day, to savor as much sweetness as I am able.

As long as you are breathing, there is more right with

you than wrong with you no matter what is wrong.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Highest Good: No Fight, No Blame

Without a fight, there is no blame. This basic truth can be found in the Tao te Ching—no fight: no blame—as well as in the major texts of many spiritual traditions. Blame seems that integral to the human experience.

In last week’s post I chose the phrase aflame with blame as a reference to its incendiary nature. It is quick to flame, this blame, although it is not a trait with any substance.

Whatever person or event we blame is not what causes us to suffer (Byron Katie). Blame is a distraction, and it is easy to get caught up in its mindset.

We suffer when we hold onto a mindset; in a blind stance, we dig in for a last stand. Mindset is a misguided attempt to avoid the inevitable.

Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us

what we need to know

Pema Chödrön

 Turtle Row in fall 1013

It would be hard, maybe impossible, to provide an example of a life experience that does not teach us for in every moment there is something to be learned. At a certain point in life, each of us becomes aware that what breaks us open is what we need to make us whole again.

It is how we learn. It is hard to accept, at least for me.

But time and again, I have realized this one lesson: when I open myself to learning rather than blaming and struggling against, I find the highest good in any situation. The flames of blame and the smoke of striving fade away.

Often, I turn to the teachings of the Tao (in translation) for I treasure its basic truths. Such reflections soothe and instruct every time I return. I am refreshed.

Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive

(Tao, Verse 8)

And like water, the highest good is life-giving, “flowing in places men reject and so is like the Tao”  (Verse 8). All we need to remember is that water will flow—even through rock–rather than reject the route.

The highest good never rejects us, either, even when we do our best to shape what will not be shaped. There is no blame, no fight, no mindset.

Chronic illness is my greatest teacher, as I have mentioned many times. Even in my more difficult moments, I am more aligned with learning than striving, which is not to say I do not have some fiery moments of blame throwing. They are not as frequent.

I find it easier to recognize and to dismantle a mindset, and to do it with self-care and love. After all, a mindset deflates quickly for it is only made of air. And once I breathe it in, I can breathe it out.

Mindset is only a thought no matter how often it may appear. In my experience, mindsets return for they have unimaginable power IF they are allowed to attach and become unassailable belief.

We can learn from observing a mindset if we let it go for what it is. That is the way to keep learning rather than to continue struggling. I find hope in impermanence no matter how many times I meet similar situations. It makes the highest good in any situation seem not only possible but realistic.

We are more like water, wanting life for all and strife for no one. It is ours to flow, like water through rock if we must, open to the ten thousand things and like the Tao rejecting none.

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