Reflections on a Seesaw

“Maybe, maybe not” is a phrase I’ve carried with me since first reading Robert Fulghum’s Maybe Maybe Not: (Second Thoughts from a Secret Life). If memory serves, Fulghum focuses on the certainty that anything can happen. In maybe (and maybe not as well), lies the wonder of certainty.

Some 20 years later, I still do not disagree. After all, existence is ever-evolving, never given to any absolute except change. For me, certainty lies in change.

Maybe this is hair-splitting, maybe not.

It is only recently I realized that “maybe, maybe not” is my catchphrase for equanimity. I do not know when that happened but it did. There is an evenness of mind in the seesaw quality of “maybe, maybe not”—at least for me–an ongoing balancing act in meeting life’s experiences.Winds of Change 0214

As Pema Chodron says, “cultivating equanimity is a work in progress.” Indeed, it is. Yet, I find a kind of certainty in creating an environment of equanimity. If anything is certain, it is change; perhaps that is the permanence in impermanence.

Maybe impermanence is the heart of Fulghum’s belief in wonder for no thing ever stays and anything can happen. Maybe, maybe not.

Cultivating equanimity means we respond rather than react to the emotional and physical storms that make up the drama of our lives. If we meet the storms with an evenness of mind, we learn the nature of our pain.Storm Clouds 081913

To open one’s self to the fury of any storm—to sit in its eye–is to accept the promise of impermanence, the certainty of change. In acceptance comes the realization that one’s life changes forever. No storm is without its pain yet every storm has its eye.

I am reminded of the Buddha’s words, “I teach nothing but suffering and the end of suffering.” For me, equanimity provides the evenness of mind to accept that pain will always be part of the life experience. But I do not have to suffer. The choice is mine.

We suffer when we are becalmed, wrapped up in our pain, wearing it as our identity. In aversion, we also suffer, trying to outrun or outmaneuver the storm— we may actually do more than once — regardless, we will meet it again, may be different circumstances and perhaps when least expected.

In equanimity, we brave the storm, accepting it will forever change us. We sit in its eye, safe in knowing the storm state always passes, and in its aftermath, we rise once again, buoyed by the energy of existence.

With every storm, there are lands lost to us, yes, but if we sail with the current—an evenness of mind— there are so many new shores to explore, so many experiences yet to come. There is always another sea to sail.

And all the while there is the wonder of maybe, maybe not, a seesaw balancing act, certain to change.

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As My Laundry Lay Drying and Other Tools of the Trade

ER Toy Shirt

Note ER Catnip Toy

I did not immediately recognize the connection between the way I dry laundry and the way I write. There is a bit of  forever about the time it takes damp laundry to dry in a subtropical climate. As well, for some time I have been content to let my sentences grow at will. For both, time seemed not of the essence.

Repeatedly, I assured myself that sentences would be trimmed, ordered. Some words would not survive the page, as always. Laundry would find a fold or a hanger in a drawer or closet. Well, of course.

Impermanence does wend its way through laundry as easily as it does through words. Yet, I suspected I was trying to catch it on a shirt or in a sentence, trying to hold a moment longer than it lasts.

I was.

Laundry does dry, and if it is a high plains desert climate— a mile high and more— it dries quickly, reflecting the scratchy, arid climate. The soft, pliable cloth of a subtropical climate leaves just a hint of moisture.

Note the Wyoming Flag filling out the State of Florida

Note the Wyoming Flag filling out the State of Florida

Regardless, a moment lasts only a moment– a routine of no routine–endless and timeless. It is for me to work with the reality I experience as it presents itself. It is the stuff of choices.

I decide the laundry will finish drying on my love seat, recliner, and every available piece of furniture/doorknob. I save $1.25 in quarters but it seems I always receive more than I give.

Feline EmmaRose revels in “laundry days.” At less than 5 pounds, she can sneak in, under, over and around almost any piece of laundry. It gives her such joy to explore her landscape in a new way.

Her joy is not lost on me. I am aware of words left here and there in moments already passed.

As ill as I have been this past year, most of my writing has been recording details and research. Deliberately, I was not attaching any feelings to those events. That would come later.

Yet, the laundry did dry as later passed. Both laundry and words were taking up space that EmmaRose and I do not have. We share two rooms and a bath. We’re full up.

As I folded laundry, I reached for a pair of socks, a Christmas gift. One sock is a list of banned books; the other is the world with those words, peaceful and rebellious.

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A moment lasts only a moment, long enough for the world to change, and there is nothing comfortable in that. The comfort comes in recognizing we, too, are capable of change.

The laundry can only lie around so long. And so it is with writing.

Physically, the way I am able to write is both new and old. I’m no longer sure what tool will be required on any given day. It is its own routine of no routine, as it always has been.

If the “obstacle is the path,” and I suspect it is, a broader perspective can only mean another way to view the obstacle. A new angle, requiring new tools as well as new ways to use old tools.

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I no longer type to write–mostly–I use voice recognition software. I decided it is more important to use my hands for chopping vegetables, picking up a capsule/tablet, and measuring a half milliliter of liquid prednisone in a syringe for EmmaRose.

There are no medications for my motor control, hyper-reflex, and nerve damage issues. My mind-body works with each signal or lack of signal. It is a lesson in letting go.

Some kind of sensation is evident in my fingers and thumbs, different and worth exploring. It is as if through the gnarled roots of tingling/grittiness/numbness, there is life.

palm legs 0116Once again, I receive more than is asked of me.

In using voice recognition software, my thoughts— air abstractions—become concrete representations through speech, a tool once reserved for conversation. It is a new role. This, too, feels like life.

The physical sensation of fingers on a keyboard is a different creative process than speaking those same thoughts. One is halting, dependent upon a stroke or even a missed key; the other is expansive, born free of grammar, ever ready to roam.

And then there are completely new tools. When I updated my voice recognition software, I received a Digital Voice Tracer. It transcribes my thoughts/research notes into a text document. It is remarkably accurate.

The Tracer will fit in any outstretched hand or most any pocket. It takes up just a little space on the nightstand, ready to capture ideas as they occur. Well, almost. There is always that moment in between.

It is more than I was able to do before, once again.

And I have returned to using a chalkboard, 35 x 23. I suspect I still cling to a physical way of writing; the chalkboard provides connection. Ultimately, what is written in chalk dust finds its way to my laptop through my digital voice tools.

Clean Slate at an Angle

Clean Slate at an Angle

Like EmmaRose, I, too, enjoy a change in the landscape of our apartment. I sit on the floor with chalk and my board, drawing connections between pieces of writing. I get another visual of words working together.

I had given up this practice of sitting on the floor with my chalkboard. But in viewing my obstacle from a new angle, solutions once unlikely, reappear. Like walking in the air, it just a matter of taking the first step.

Of course, the chalkboard is great for hanging laundry. As one set of thoughts turns to dust, another lies in wait. It is never-ending.

Getting Hooked and Giving It Up

Each of us is a unique point of light, a bright, shining moment within the eternal life force. Zen, our meditative state, is just as individualistic. Uniqueness is what we carry into our every day.

In the meditative state, we observe. Sometimes, thoughts come and go but other times, stillness suffices. In bringing Zen into our every day, we emulate the meditative state, experiencing every moment only to let it go.

We experience the physical dimension with and through a physical body, no less unique than our meditative state. Both provide sustenance for the mind-body. In meditation, there is being; in feeding and caring for the body, there is doing.  How we nourish our every day presence in life affects how we respond to the events of our lives.

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We are offered a multitude of ways to develop a daily meditative practice.  As for diet, there are billion-dollar industries offering nutrition through a series of steps, a number of days, eliminating certain foods altogether.

Just as there is no one way to meditate, neither is there one diet or food plan for everyone. Developing a diet unique to the mind-body’s nutritional requirements is as easy as walking through a minefield.

It seems safest to nibble one’s way in all the while clinging to what is sweetest. In clinging to food that comforts, it is difficult to discover our mind-body’s unique nutritional requirements.

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In the meditative state, one sits with the dark and light wolves of emotion, feeding or denying neither but rather, observing both so there is no separation of the two. Observation eliminates competition.

This is not as easy to do with food cravings—at times it is impossible–the principle is the same, however. Clinging to foods that momentarily comfort us rather than nurture our mind-body, is like keeping our light and dark wolves in constant competition.

Our thinking  becomes dualistic, either/or. We eat for comfort, unaware of our true hunger as we deny our body’s nutritional needs. Rather than feeding our mind-body, we are feeding a craving, which is only a thought, an ever empty one at that.

Feeding a craving is akin to feeding the ego. No comfort is possible for the ego always wants more. In Buddhism, such comfort food eating is a form of shenpa, often translated as “attachment.”

Shenpa is in all areas of life for old behaviors die hard, if they die at all. Pema Chodron refers to shenpa as “biting the hook.” As comfort food eating has been a lifelong issue for me, I prefer this translation.

Whether or not we bite the hook is not the issue— it is human nature that we will—it is in the awareness of our attachment that we spit out the hook and begin anew.  Each moment offers that opportunity.

This has certainly been true for me in my comfort food sessions, which are infrequent but still happen. There are no more binges. Honestly, I do not know that I would survive one.

EmmaRose does not have comfort food issues.

EmmaRose does not have comfort food issues.

Because these comfort food moments are much fewer and far between, my mind-body is not as forgiving. I can feel it struggle with food that does not support its nutritional needs.

There is a sense of frustration in processing empty calories that offer sluggish and stiff body movement, muddled thinking, zigzagging emotions ranging from euphoria to the blues.

Overall, there is fatigue, enough to scare me into thinking the mind-body might want to quit. But that is only my attaching to a thought that has not been fed as it soars on empty emotion.

To live, thrive, is the nature of the mind-body–all unique points of human light coming together as one–to experience life in the physical dimension, including biting the hook.

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.

Peeking 0215

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.

Closer Reflection 0215

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.

ocean pine 0215

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.

 

 

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.

Closer Reflection 0215

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.

Winter Solstice Skies 1214

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