Saturday, November 30, 2013

Being Human Heals

Being human heals.

What does it even mean to be human? To me, it means to relax about who we are. It means to be willing to feel what we feel. To look each other in the eyes. To be present. To be authentic. To engage with each other with love and honesty. To be confident in our existence. In our experience.

The thing that helps and soothes me most during this time of recovery and healing space is the people surrounding me. There is this incredible community of people who genuinely care about me. They are always over visiting me, making me food, bringing me groceries, washing dishes, calling me, sending me letters, driving me to appointments, and reading to me.

These people look me in the eyes and hold my gaze. They want to know how I feel. They hold the space for me to feel whatever it is that I do feel. They don't try to change my experience, diagnose my problems, or talk about themselves constantly. They touch me. They hug me. The massage my arm when it goes numb. They rub my feet. They kiss my cheek. They sit with me and are comfortable being themselves. They inhabit their bodies. They speak with conviction and honesty. They cry if they feel like it. They laugh. They are curious. They are silent. And it is okay.

They bring me chocolates. Or flowers. Or their soft voices. Or the question, "what do you need?" And they don't bat an eye about extending themselves and helping. They jump in. Even when they are tired. Even when they are grumpy. Even if they don't really have time in their busy schedules. They gladly and cheerfully come. And help. And hug me. And smile. And look me in the eyes, and care about what they meet there.

This kind of love and support is profoundly precious. And it is so inspiring.

We can all be this for each other. It's so simple. It's a matter of being human. Of relaxing with ourselves. Having confidence in our own worthiness. Our own workability. Our own goodness. Looking each other in the eyes. Being. Feeling. Reaching out.

"Imagine what could happen if we all began to feel that we are good, and that society is good -- and to have confidence in ourselves that way." Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Friday, November 29, 2013

Healing and the Three Jewels

I am healing. (Aren't we all?) I am in this space of experiencing my body in an entirely different way, of relating to my world with new perspective. Though I have spent the past 7 or so years of my life as a student of yoga, holistic health, and meditation, learning about what it means to heal, the questions that arise for me after my recent stroke are closer to home. Dancing so closely with the sharp blade of impermanence- of my own mortality- has deepened my query into what it means to heal.

The first thing I contemplate is the space in which one heals- the specific tools or belief systems that one works with in order to facilitate healing. And at this point I'm feeling like "healing" is actually just "living" because we are all suffering and all working with that suffering. So perhaps I should say that the space I'm thinking about is the space in which one "lives" most usefully.

My own space is shaped by my relationship to the practice of Buddhism. In Buddhism, we talk about the Three Jewels. These are the things we look to for guidance. They are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Three Jewels are my foundation for how I relate to my life and my own healing process. Without these, I feel I would not be doing so well in the current circumstances.

The Buddha is the awakened one. By awake we mean fully realized- fully understanding of the nature of mind, of the truth of that nature. The Buddha of course refers to the historical Buddha of 2500 years ago, the teacher who presented to us the path to awakenment. The Buddha is also our own awakened nature. Each person possesses this nature already. Awakenment or enlightenment is not some place we must arrive at in the future. It is not a destination out of our reach. Rather, it is the already present state of our being. All we have to do is touch it. The path, in that light, teaches us how. But just knowing that we possess inherent wisdom, inherent wakefulness, basic goodness, fundamental worthiness, and primordial potential changes things. It allows us to cultivate confidence and compassion.

I am fundamentally okay. 
There is nothing wrong. There is nothing bad or lacking in my experience. Illness is not an intruder that one should fight away. Illness is a natural part of having a human body. Just like old age and death. Bodies get sick; they get old; they die. And that's okay. We can relax about that because fighting it won't make it go away. We can experience these things as part of our whole human life. And beneath all of that, we possess a primordial worthiness and potency as humans. This ability to connect and create and relate and love is ours, and it is beyond any imposed idea of being bad or somehow sinful by our very nature. We are so very okay.

The Dharma is the body of teachings offered by the Buddha. It is the path to enlightenment. It is the framework for how we come to the place of being able to understand our own nature. How do we work with suffering? How do we find equanimity? How do we cultivate compassion? These teachings are rich and relevant, and allow us to relax in our world in order to experience the nature of things as they are. The potency of the path is that it can clarify confusion so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.

It's okay not to know.
Uncertainty can be uncomfortable. We want so badly to pin things down- to have reasons and explanations and to-do lists and sets of rules with predetermined outcomes. But let's be real- nothing is certain. We can do everything in our power to make something specific happen, but there's still no guarantee. There could be a tornado, or we could die, or the BART could stop running, or our car could not start. So when we relax about trying to control our outcomes, we can find peace in things as they are. We just experience what is happening now without trying to push that experience into a box. During my hospital stay, it was so amusing to see how different people reacted to what was happening with me. There were basically two approaches. Some of my friends would come in or call and say things like "How are you doing?" "How do you feel?" and then just hang out there with me in whatever was happening- noticing the quality of it and appreciating it. The other group would come in or call and immediately diagnose me "Oh, it's got to be because you are vegan. I read this article about vegans getting more strokes, so you're going to have to change your diet." Or "It's because you meditate and blood clots get formed in your legs" or it was because I do yoga, or don't do the right exercise, or am not on this or that diet, or I live in California- or, well, you get the idea. Then they would immediately fill the space with going down every single possible avenue for future action. This is exhausting! And it would stir up so much fear (in both of us). And while it's certainly necessary to think about the future, it's ridiculous to have this fear-based relationship to it. Guess what? There is no way I'll ever know just precisely what were the causes and conditions of my stroke. There are far too many subtleties in my body- in my life- to ever be able to pin it down like that. The doctors are only making educated guesses themselves. And as far as the future is concerned- I can't predict it. I'm okay with that. It's okay to not know. It's liberating, actually.

Lean into discomfort.
 This is about resistance, too. Our suffering is brought about more by our resistance to an experience than by the experience itself.  Whether it's fear or physical pain, pushing it away only makes it worse. I've been working with lots of both. The pain and discomfort and weird sensations in my body are very uncomfortable these days. But the less I fight, the more my experience changes. When I am in pain, I breathe into the place where it hurts. I meet the pain. I notice its qualities, how it moves, what it invites in my mind. And the more I am present with it, the more I notice that it is not a solid thing at all. It is a series of sensations and concepts- a twinge here, a tingling there, something dull that ebbs and flows, or something sharp that eventually releases. This kind of curiosity about our experiences can allow a lot of space for being okay. Same thing with fear. We can't obsess over the stories that the fear is telling us: "Ah, I'm going to have to have open heart surgery!" (They are all just stories, anyway.) Instead, we can examine the nature of fear. What does it feel like? Where is it in my body? Is there something underneath it? Sadness? Anger? What am I actually afraid of? The more curious I am with fear, the more it becomes less solid as well. It's not this sturdy thing called fear. It's a fluid set of sensations, thoughts, and concepts that changes all the time. Releasing ourselves from the sticky constructs of ideas allows so much freedom to feel what we feel. That's the other thing- it's okay to feel whatever we feel. We don't have to not feel it just because we are supposed to be peaceful or brave or some other way. In fact, willingness to feel how we feel is the most brave thing we can do. And it cultivates the most peace.

Every moment is an opportunity to practice.
We can approach the peaks and valleys of life as precious opportunities. Whether we are experiencing the bliss of falling in love or the pain of loss of a loved one, we can learn from our experience. We can be curious. We can pay attention to the experience. We can let go of the multitudes of stories we tell ourselves so that we can actually be present. "This will last forever," "This person is causing me to suffer," "It will take so long for me to get better," or any other number of sticky concepts can rob us of the present moment. The best times and the worst times are incredible teachers. Our bliss and our suffering can help us to open up to our world, to learn about ourselves and our own minds, to cultivate compassion for others, and to find equanimity in ourselves.  Seeming disaster is often a blessing, after all. We actually are proverbially stronger after the things that don't kill us (but I'd argue we're also stronger after those things too).  Every moment is precious, and we don't have to fall into the mania or despair of life's unfolding.

The Sangha is the community of practitioners who are on the path to awakenment. The body of monks, nuns, laypeople, and human beings who study the teachings of the Buddha and are committed to working with themselves, supporting each other, and continuing along the path.

How can I help?
Whatever happens, how can I help? How can I use my experience to benefit others? How can what I am going through be transformed into something that will uplift and nurture my fellow human beings? If we step outside of ourselves, we find that there is this big beautiful world filled with people who are also suffering. Just like us, others are experiencing pain and fear and doubt and love and passion and loss and anger and delight and confusion and confidence and sadness. We are neither alone nor disconnected. Our existence is fundamentally dependent on the existence of others. And when we look into someone else's eyes, we can see ourselves reflected back. My pain is your pain. Your joy is also mine. So when we think of our lives as opportunities to help, we become bigger. It's easier to rest in spaciousness rather than constrict around our own suffering. It's okay. If my suffering can help other people, then I suffer willingly! If what I can learn from my own experience is of benefit to other people, then may I have all the experience I need to be of the most benefit. Instead of getting mired in the throes of whatever is happening, can we transform it into something useful? We can. We can in so many ways.  Can we care enough to help each other?

Rest in the cradle of loving-kindness.
Can we allow others to take care of us? Can we ask for and receive help? I am so used to being the person who takes care of others. Both my nature and my work invite me to spend lots of my time taking care of other people, and gladly so. I love taking care of people. I love understanding what they need, sharing their experience, offering myself to them. So when it comes time for me to be taken care of... well, when is the last time that happened? I can't think of a time in my adult life before having this stroke that I fully allowed others to care for me. And then when this happened, I had to fall back into the arms of my community. I couldn't care for myself on my own. I needed help (still need help). And I ask for it. And the way that the cradle of support has nurtured me is phenomenal and powerful. We have to surrender sometimes- allow ourselves to be a little vulnerable. Trust others. Let go of our sense of control. That I am fortunate enough to have a community of loving kindness waiting there to catch me is purely the magic of being part of a sangha. A community of practitioners who walk with each other on the path of wakefulness. Never have I known community like this. Love and support in this space are boundless. The human potential for coming together to care for one another is magical beyond belief.

Turning to the Three Jewels, we can work with all aspects of suffering and illness.  These gems are of great benefit to me in my life, and they structure this journey for me.

There is such a wealth of wisdom and knowledge that we have as human beings. We can all find something that speaks to us, helps us connect with our own sense of love and worthiness, and helps us have a better understanding of ourselves and our brothers and sisters. What are the foundations of the space in which you live and heal? What are the tools that help you in times of need?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Soft Dark Corners of Days and Weeks

The gray of Wednesday morning
is almost a benediction
on my skin

A place to curl into
and feel

the spots where all
the needles were

the fear that nested
in my shoulders

and still
the morning
on this egg of me

cool, wet, inviting
me to hatch

to sit up straight
in my aching body
to remember
my head and shoulders

to be radiant
even while I rest
to know
there is no difference

to peel away the broken shell
of the stories that happened to me
and arise here
in the gray dawn
of healing

to see how I can be tired
and still full of vigor
dizzy but that much closer
to bardo
to cracking all that

I'm learning how to curl
up in the soft dark corners
of days and weeks

to curl up without collapsing
to curl up and shine

golden sun in my heart

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Feeding the Ghosts

There is a teaching in Tibetan Buddhism about "feeding the ghosts." One can think of this as the forces which cause harm- illness, misfortune, etc. In Tibetan, these are called döns. The idea is that these things come along in order to wake us up. 

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explains, "Whenever any difficult situation comes along, you begin to feel grateful. At this point, you regard anything that can wake you up as best. You regard anything that provides you with the opportunity for mindfulness or awareness, anything that shocks you, as best, rather than always trying to ward off any problems."

This is the same idea as regarding obstacles as path. We use all of these seeming upheavals as opportunities for practice- to hone our awareness, to look more closely at our mind, to work with ourselves. This a very rich and fertile ground for transformation. 

We can let go of the idea so ingrained in Western culture, that things ought to be smooth and lifeless. We as a society somehow aspire to float seamlessly through life, and then die in our sleep. But the utter truth of the matter is that very few of us have such an easy time of it. And it is in trying so hard to arrive at some smooth existence, struggling so hard against calamity, that we amplify our own suffering. We think something is wrong- that we should fix it! That if we were better people or had better jobs or were more attractive or meditated more, that then we could enjoy some easy sailing. And we are running around like mad trying to get there. Attain that. 

Even enlightenment isn't about attaining something. There really is no place to go. We refer to enlightened beings as realized beings. This manner of speaking invokes the relaxation that is required- to realize something implies that it has been there all along, and one has finally noticed it. It is not acquired. The word realize is itself derived from the root real or actual. It is what actually is. Beneath it all. One need only to relax around all that resistance.

We can relax around our idea of obstacles too. Around the döns that arise. In fact, we can embrace these fluxes of life as the richest opportunities for us to learn about relaxing.  It's like the cliché: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I'd even go so far as to say that death is the ultimate learning opportunity, but that's an entirely different discussion.

Once we get used to the idea of obstacles actually helping us along the path to clarity and awareness and our relationship with our own mind, we can even begin to invite obstacles into our life. We know that we want to do all the work we can in this life of strengthening the mind, understanding ourselves, and ultimately using this to benefit all beings. So we ask for it. We invite it. We say, "I am here, and I want to do as much work as I can with my own mind and my own being so that I can benefit as many beings as possible in the best ways that I can." We stop thinking about ourselves- about our comfort or discomfort, or about what is inconvenient to our cozy little lives. Instead we think, if this is what it takes for me to wake up, then I accept it wholeheartedly and with great joy. We cultivate incredible gratitude for those things that knock us upside the head. We see how liberating they are. We see how we can use them.

In the same light- we surrender to the idea that whatever is most beneficial be what occurs. We can rest in that. Perhaps the most beneficial thing is smooth sailing. We don't write that off. We just don't assume that one is always necessarily better than the other.

The three lines of encouragement sum it up best:

Grant your blessing if it is
better for me to be sick
Grant your blessing if it is
better for me to survive
Grant your blessing if it is
better for me to be dead 

And then, we trust. 
May whatever is of the most benefit to all beings, be what happens. I joyfully accept that.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Unconditional Health

"He was saying that if I could leap beyond my convoluted thinking process, I would find that worthy feeling. At a psychophysical level, it is the notion of complete healthiness."- Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche describing a conversation with his father Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the book The Shambhala Principle

Isn't all of life a dance with death? If there is anything we can be certain of, it is that our existence in this human body will one day come to an end. This knowledge infuses every moment of being alive- whether through the suffering we can see all around us, or the turning and falling of leaves in autumn. Things die. Change. End. And being alive is dancing with this natural movement.

When we leap into the profound ravines of impermanence, we can cultivate great joy. Each moment can be fully felt and experienced in the certainty that it will end. Thus, our delight expands.

I feel like I've lived most of my life in true connection with this dance. Easily able to feel the profound appreciation for my world- never denying its transience.

But those ravines can deepen and deepen more. When the dance becomes a little more edgy, the music intensified, the movement spread out like fan blades, sharp against space, fire in the heels of your moving feet.

I had a stroke. I am 29, and in very good health. I do all the "right" things for my body. I exercise and move so much in so many ways. I eat a plant based diet free from processed foots, animal fats, all of those things they say not to eat. I practice meditation. I have a healthy relationship with my mind and body. I don't do drugs or smoke. I am (was) not on any medications. It took the doctors 4 days of testing to figure out what happened.

It all comes down to the small fact that I was born with a hole in my heart, and it took 29 years for it to be noticed. And why did I have a blood clot? Our bodies have clots all the time, but they break them apart quickly and easily. Except my body didn't have time because of the hole- the clot just bypassed all the mechanisms for breakdown.

It was so fascinating to watch this all happen. My mind was clear on the one hand, but I could not translate that clarity into action. I knew exactly what was happening, where I was, what I should do, but when I'd try to move or talk it wouldn't come out quite right. What an amazing thing to see that connection we take so for granted fail! I couldn't communicate via any of the conventional means we have for communicating. I couldn't rely on the body that I'd relied on without fail for 29 years. You can imagine how shaky this feels.

And though I now have almost entirely regained function and feeling in my right arm and I only have minor difficulties with language, I still feel the shakiness of not being able to rely on my own sense of my self. The right word won't come out of my mouth, sometimes. Or I won't be able to say what I'm reading out loud. I forget what things are called. And my body feels weak- my feet wobbly, my strength not something I can count on. This may or may not be temporary. Regardless I am re-establishing how I think of my own self.

We take so much for granted, assuming that because we are healthy, we always will be, or because we do x, y, or z that a or b will never happen to us. So one day I am a young girl on no medications with seemingly no concerns and the next day I am on pills every day for the rest of my life, and have to consider things like not going on long car rides, and not knowing when I can drive again, and what to do if something should happen again.

This all seems scary- and believe me I've spent a lot of time feeling scared. But on the other hand, it's incredibly liberating. It frees up all the confines of cause and effect. It invites so much more spaciousness into my experience. I am not x, y, or z. An experience of a does not presume an experience of b. I am not just the sum of my parts. Suddenly the entire world cracks open even more. I am moving about in the space of not knowing. Of having no control on whether or not my fingers will be able to grasp around the object I intend to pick up. Of not being able to guarantee that the word I'm thinking of will be the one I say. This morning I sprinkled raw quinoa on my oats instead of flax seed. I have liberated myself from even the mundane routine of breakfast. ;)

This experience is teaching me so much about curiosity. About meeting each moment with the open-ness of not knowing on so many more levels than before. How much can I stop assuming about the way of things? How beautiful is that? Then everything is fresh and new!

I have had so many thoughts of the implications of all this. Now I'm the girl who had a stroke, who messes up her words, who can't drive, etc. etc. But what I know far deeper than the chittering hopes and fears of my mind, is that none of things things are me. Nor do they mean much at all about my experience of the world or myself.

If anything, being with this is allowing me to have an even greater confidence in my own being. To feel the fullness of heartmind amidst the injections, IVs, machines, pills, diagnoses, etc- to feel the innate brilliance of life, to never once doubt the fundamental goodness of myself or of humanity- and so what if I have to stop in the middle of a step to regain composure- that itself is beautiful. That I go slower is nothing but a gift in my experience. That I have this incredible opportunity to relate to the wonders of my brain, to work with the nuances of language, to experience my body free from assumptions.

I experience my body healing. So magically. Without seeming effort. I felt my body protecting me from invasion and intrusion. I can hear and feel what my body is asking for.

All of this, and I still experience that I am not separate from my body. Or from you. That we are all pulsing here in this or that or not-this or not-that. That nothing is fixed. There is so much room. For absolutely everything. So much tenderness. So much beauty.

And knowing that a diagnosis- a hole in my heart- a condition, whatever it may be does not imply unhealthiness. We are all whole. We are all unconditionally healthy. We need only relax enough to touch it.

"Even when things seem incurably bad, we can remain incurably good."- Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche