The central challenge of mindfulness is to attend clearly and singly on the present moment, but finding the right tool to facilitate that level of focus can be illusive. Like many people, I’ve tried using the breath, objects of visual focus, and mantras with varying degrees of success. In the past few weeks, I’ve discovered a new one - pain.
Anyone who’s been to the hospital in the past ten years is familiar with the pain scale. It’s usually labeled with numbers one through ten and has associated happy, neutral, and sad faces corresponding with the various levels of pain. The number one represents the least amount of pain and ten represents excruciating pain. Working in health care I’ve been on the administering side of the pain scale many times and watched people struggle with their answers. What’s a five? What’s a ten? It’s all very abstract - until you have a pinched nerve in your neck.
My neck and shoulders have always been tweaky, but usually are easily soothed with some self-care and ibuprofen. The day before Christmas, the apparent usual pain started at the junction of my right shoulder blade and the base of my neck. Christmas day, I reached and stretched into contorted positions to get at the gifts under my brother’s Christmas tree. It’s my job to pass them out at the family gathering. The pain got worse. The next day, with ibuprofen on board and later some Aleve, things continued to head downhill. By late evening…
I’ve never experienced anything like it. It felt like what I imagine getting shot would feel like. I couldn’t sit up. Simply walking to the bathroom and back rendered me senseless in tears. It took two ER visits and three days in the hospital to bring the pain down to a relieving, gracious number two.
It was awful, but it was focused. There was no room in my mind for anything but the present and the sensation that filled it. All other narratives fled. All potential distractions dimmed. The present moment was all there was and the present moment was pain. Sometimes I think the only way I made it through it was knowing that the pain was only now. I didn’t allow myself to think about pain in the future. I only needed to be and exist just now. The pain was only now.
Truthfully I’d rather take another round of samsara in the next lifetime than experience ongoing now-ness in the form of pain. Nonetheless it has given me a new perspective on mindfulness. In the current pop-psychology version of Buddhism that currently pervades us, we can be lulled into thinking that mindfulness is always warm and fuzzy. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes clarity is delivered in a violent jolt. We need to be able to accept and work with all manifestations of now in our practice. At the very least, I’ve learned what ten means.
"Examine the nature of unborn awareness."
It took me an extra week to realize why I was having trouble with this slogan. It turns out I had a preconceived notion that the nature of unborn awareness would be a warm and comfortable feeling - something I could really snuggle into. That is not my current situation.
My assumption is rooted in that analogy about the clouds not being the sky itself, spoken in regard to the delusions of our minds and Buddha nature. In reading the slogan, I assumed that unborn awareness was synonymous with Buddha nature and that this examination would occur during a clearing of the mental clouds, however brief.
I've had none of that over the past couple of weeks. So I assumed I was not connecting with the teaching. In fact I was too buried in my unborn awareness to examine it.
Can anyone say irony?
I may be faced with a very big decision in the next few weeks. In this waiting period, my mind has been flying around in circles. It's filled with words and scenarios and what-might-happens. There is a roiling in my stomach that gets worse when I'm trying to sleep (I’m writing this at 1:00 am). It only occurred to me ten minutes ago that this is the exact unborn awareness the slogan is referring to. In this case I'm not experiencing a soothing place of meditative bliss, but rather the piercing discomfort of uncertainty.
There is nothing about my current circumstance that can be dealt with. Nothing can be done to make it dissipate before the natural conclusion of these events. The Third Lojong phrase is telling me my job is to simply notice the discomfort and stay with them.
As Pema Chödrön would say, I have to become "curious" about this feeling and avoid running away from it. Talking won't make things go faster. Thinking only results in revolving thoughts. Therefore, I am left with only sit and stay, Fido. Stay! Yes. Thank you for this lesson.
Can I go to sleep now?
Well, the past year plus has really kicked my butt. So, many things took a back seat to the chaos – including blogging (which is a shame because I love it). Most of this chaos was work-related.
In short, I’ve been self-employed for many years as a private practice speech-language pathologist (with a specialty in voice and larynx disorders) and singing teacher. Balancing the desire to care for my clients with the vagaries of the health insurance climate was always dicey. Late last year, a staff member left and the search for a replacement revealed that maintaining an independent practice is simply not sustainable. Thus the chaos that ensued.
The short version of the story has me now working once again at the medical center where I took my specialty training, only this time in a combined clinical and leadership role. I still teach singing as well a couple of days a week. Its been a radical reworking of my entire routine, but sometimes that is radically necessary.
Over time, there will be small pieces of my misadventures that I’m sure will be interesting to write about. For now, just starting to write at all is enough. I’ll continue – or should I say be better at – applying every day Buddhism by taking the pressure off of myself to be profound or lengthy (decreased attachment) and hopefully in that spirit will find the courage and energy to post more.
I won’t call it a New Year’s resolution. That’s too much pressure. Instead I’ll call it New Year Hope that there will be some break from the turbulence and the opportunity to experience a period of relative calm.
Happy New Year everyone!
A few days ago, I mentioned on the Facebook community that I went to a day-long class called Advanced Mindfulness Techniques for Clients: Eliminating Mental Distress. It was a great day and I promised I’d write about it. So, here I am.
In general, I look with some skepticism on the generic interest in “mindfulness” that appears to be sweeping the United States right now. It’s not that Buddhism per se is being promoted as a committed lifestyle, but rather that the inherent benefits of Buddhist practice are being harvested for general use. As a person who practices mindfulness in the context of actually being Buddhist (whatever “being” means on any given day means to my monkey mind), I have mixed feelings about the sudden popularity of this brand of mindfulness.
Nonetheless, the fact that there are very real psychological and neurological changes that have now been somewhat quantified in terms of their ability to reduce suffering gives me great hope for the potential of humanity, if a greater number took advantage of these techniques. For this reason, I must ultimately come down in general support of this growing fascination with pseudo-Buddhism. At best, it may result in an increase of interest in more spiritually connected Buddhist practice. At worst, a lot of people can be relieved of some of their suffering in this world. It’s win-win.
The instructor was Donald Sloane, LCSW. He is a long-time practitioner from St Louis, who considers himself both Buddhist and Jewish. According to his bio in the course book, he is a lay ordained Chan Buddhist teacher and has taken precepts and vows from the Linji tradition. He is also a licensed social worker with a treatment emphasis on cognitive-behavioral therapy.
In terms of the neurology of mindfulness, I found the discussion on the various aspects of the limbic system (a.k.a., the fight or flight mechanism) to be particularly interesting. In the past, some people have felt that merely taking one’s mind off of one’s problems improves well-being. One brain imaging study, however, compared a group of people who were engaging in a mindfulness task to a group of people who were performing a distraction task. The results showed that the reactivity of the amygdala (which is responsible for producing excitable, anger and fear) decreased in the mindfulness group, but not in the distraction task group. That is, mindfulness practice reduced the activity in the part of the brain that produces extreme negative emotions. The distraction task did not.
In an interesting discussion of the prefrontal cortex, I learned that greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain results in increased feelings of wellbeing. When the right prefrontal cortex is more active than the left, a person tends toward depression and sadness. What can help to shunt high levels of activity in the right prefrontal cortex to the left prefrontal cortex? Compassion practice, like Tonglen, for example. Pema would be pleased.
This class also reinforced some conclusions I have been coming to lately as the result of studying quantum physics. The more we understand about the underlying workings of the world, the more it appears to align with what Buddhists have asserted all along. One of Mr. Sloane’s slides is an example of this convergence: “Western Psychology has been looking for the self; What we mean by the self her is for there to be some single entity that coordinated what is going on in the mind-body; So far, the researchers all appear to agree: THERE IS NO SELF” (The capitalization is his).
I recommend this course for Average Buddhists who are involved in patient care of any kind. It is designed in particular for psychologists and social workers, but I found it to be very applicable to my work as a speech-language pathologist. If you haven’t got the enthusiasm for studying brain science, there is still a useful take home message. The impact of all of this meditation and practice that we do is real. They are capable of making actual physical changes in the material world of our bodies that helps to relieve the suffering of those engaging in them. That is enough for most of us to know.
My mom has a strange trait. She has a habit of getting all worked up about little things that are going on in her life. She’s very easily ruffled when it comes to planning a party or working out where to go given two invitations on the same day, for example. Get her into a situation where the proverbial feces is truly hitting the fan and she’s a rock. She’s great in a real crisis, like when my dad needed coronary bi-pass surgery. How funny is that?
I’ve noticed that in general the magnitude of suffering does not appear to have a direct relationship to the magnitude of the thing that is causing the suffering. Suffering appears to be perceptually relative. There also appears to be a disconnect between overt and internal/silent suffering that belies the truth of the degree of suffering that people are experiencing. It’s so darn convoluted and counter-intuitive.
One time, when I was visiting Minnesota, I needed to go into a convenience store. Being from the Boston area, where people are notoriously mean (sorry to my fellow Bostonians, it’s true…), I was wary of seeing a homeless guy heading in the same direction. I expected some kind of confrontation. We ended up getting to the door about the same time and given the configuration of the area we kind of bumped into each other. Instead of being all cantankerous, he and I both chuckled and did the old “whoops, dancing!” thing. Despite his overt level of general suffering in his life, he was able to have this moment of levity. Another person, with different baggage in their life I believe might have seen me as just another “wealthy” person who didn’t care enough to look where I was going. Then the interaction would have been much different.
My 8-year old daughter has a thing about mosquito bites. Every time she gets one, it’s a major event. Get two? She’s gonna die. Oh, the itching is such suffering to her and she can’t think of anything else. Okay, she’s still a kid. We were probably all that sensitive once. Right? Maybe not. This is the same girl who can speak with a straight face about the night that police officers came to remove her from the home of her biological family. Am I to assume that because there is not a flagrant display of distress that this does not cause her to suffer?
Considering myself, I have been pretty fortunate in life. My family is nearby. I have many close and real friends. I have never experienced a fire, flood, tornado, or devastating earthquake. I have never been homeless or out of work for a lengthy period of time. My business is currently surviving this economic crisis – it’s hard, but we’re still here! I have not truly had anything to complain about. Things happen. Sure, but notreally. Not like other people I’ve encountered. Yet, still my temperament causes me to struggle with anxiety and melancholy. Things that happen to other people always make me suffer because somehow I always feel, “If it could happen to them, it could happen to me.”
The flip side to that compassion response that makes me suffer is a hefty dose of cynicism. Despite the fact that I am very connected to the people I know and encounter in a personal (and even sometimes cyber) way, I suffer from the delusion that “people” in general cannot be trusted. This comes at me in a way that can make me feel very isolated in the world. More suffering.
As someone said in the Facebook community, “The irony of life is that we’re put here and nobody/nothing will tell us why.” I endlessly revolve similar thoughts in my head, perhaps revising like this: “The irony of life is that we all suffer and nobody/nothing will tell us why.”
I can speak only for myself, but I do find the buddhist practices to be helpful. They’re not a cure all. They’re not going to change my fundamental personality, which it would appear is somewhat wary of life. But they do provide me the opportunity to open up my perspective to new possibilities of how to approach challenges. Not to deny the suffering. Not to suppress the suffering. Just to admit the suffering and forge ahead despite it.
It is a lifelong journey. May it turn out to be meaningless in the end? Yes. But if working with the practices helps me cope, even just a little bit better, in the now, then it has been of immeasurable benefit.
I’m feeling really agitated tonight.
My furious instinct and my heart’s desire is to make it stop – right now! There are at this moment, however, none of my usual go-to tricks for escape available to me. I am currently sitting in a dorm room at a university in Virginia with only a week’s worth of belongings. (well, not quite a week. I forgot to grab the rest of my underwear from the drier before leaving. So, now I’m having to wash each night for a few nights – ugh!)
Apparently, there is cable here, but I wouldn’t know, because I would have had to bring my own TV.
I found out from my assistant today that a health insurance company is trying to mess with us again.
I called home this evening only to find my spouse had been having a bad day.
Grumble. Grumble. Grumble.
I really want to write some more tonight, but I’m feeling too enervated to be inspired.
Grumble. Grumble. Grumble. Blah!
No TV. No chocolate. Just blank white walls with left over pieces of sticky squares all over them and a dilapidated dresser drawer that barely opens and shuts.
What am I supposed to do now?
I tried pacing and scrubbing my hair with my knuckles.
Tried laying on the floor, willing myself to feel better.
Added legs up the wall.
Still didn’t help.
Went to the “funny-singing-videos-from-YouTube” night here at the course. Laughed, but…
I’m still a grumbly, whiney mess.
Raspberries to everyone! Meh!
As I’m settling deeply into my wallowing for a long, miserable stay, I suddenly recall Pema Chodron’s teachings on learning to stay.
I think what I didn’t understand the first 100 times I listened to the audiobook “Getting Unstuck” was that learning to stay with the discomfort doesn’t make you actually feel better. Rather, whatever “icky” that you stay for becomes something you learn to tolerate to the point that the label “bad” disappears. Then it just is what it is.
There is a similar concept in the “Poetry of Compassion” by David Whyte that I’ve mentioned before. There is a phrase in there that states (I paraphrase), “You have to love both the waxing and waning parts of yourself. You can’t just be out there loving yourself when you’re feeling full and then disappear entirely during the three days of your new moon.”
I recognize that I’m sitting here feeling all uptight about my “grumble grumble” when in fact I should be rejoicing that I have the opportunity to sit and stay with this feeling without interruption; that I am able to have some prajna while my mental state works its way through.
Darn you Pema, ruining a good self-righteous wallowing!
Now buy the Book!