The ripples of spontaneous mantra

I don’t formally practice mantra, but I have found that it sometimes arises spontaneously and has a powerful, crystalline “truthiness” to it. A word or a few can infuse my perspective with insight, humor or tenderness that helps shift my awareness and, ultimately, my actions.

My first spontaneous mantra came in the form of an inquiry in 1977. I was eight years old, lying on my bed an early summer day. I had pink curtains in my room and white bedroom furniture – a full matching set – and all my stuffed animals and favorite dolls around me on my bed. (We’d had a couple years of material plenty when my mom dated her then boyfriend, Oscar, and these things surrounding me were the remainders of that relationships.) I held a new toy and felt such longing for it, such love and enjoyment. And then my mind wandered to the future, and I suddenly realized that some day I would not have that toy anymore, and in fact I would probably forget that toy altogether (as I actually have). I felt sadness in that moment, and I wondered, “What lasts?”

“What lasts?” has continued to reverberate through my life. I discovered M. Scott Peck’s writing in The Road Less Traveled, and through that reading felt like “love” was a worthy line of my ongoing inquiry. If I were going to invest my life energy in something, it seemed that “love” might just be that thing that lasts. Thirty years later, I have no regrets regarding what has become a deepening and healing inquiry.

In recent years, as I’ve pursued healing for compulsive, addictive behaviors and for patterns  in my life that are generally destructive to myself and others, I’ve found that another mantra has bubbled up, and I continue to find applications for it. “Just don’t make it worse,” arises over and over again.

It comes up around emotions and food a lot. I have uncomfortable emotions arise, emotions I never got skillful at holding or expressing in childhood, like fear, anger, longing, disappointment, resentment, even joy and hope. Generally speaking, all emotions! And I’ve worked for a long time (decades) to uncover what the feelings are and to know what to do with them. A beginning, after identifying that they exist, is to say to myself, “Just don’t make it worse, Lora.”

Am I angry? Don’t make it worse by burying it, denying it, being aggressive toward self or others. Just let it be what it is.

Is my body uncomfortable? Don’t make it worse by adding judgment (Is it cancer??? Am I hopelessly flawed?), or by tightening around it. Mind-body exercise is a great place to explore this phenomenon and the mantra. I find this arising in pigeon pose in yoga quite a bit: I and my students tighten our jaws and shoulders in response to the deep stretch in the hip. I’ve gotten laughs from my students when I mention this mantra because we all get such a deep and body-felt awareness of how ridiculous that added tension in the jaw, face and shoulders is to the discomfort we’re communally exploring in the hip.

Is there tension in a relationship or work? Don’t make it worse by avoiding the problem, adding projection or shame to it.

Am I happy about something? Don’t make it worse by rejecting the happiness; yes, the happiness will fade or shift, but it’s okay to feel it an enjoy it while it’s here.

The most recent mantra that arose from me is one that I hear in Tara Brach’s voice. Tara Brach is a meditation teacher who wrote Radical Acceptance, and she has audio recordings of meditations based on that material.

I was at the final retreat for my Engaged Mindfulness teacher training. I’d had a few days’ worth of meditation at one point, and I realized I had a lot of aggression arising. The story doesn’t matter, but the waves of aggression arose, and I decided to contemplate those waves and to meet them with Tara’s voice in my head that simply said, “Darling,”  in response.

The inquiry went something like this:

I feel a desire to cause harm to another. Oh, Darling. Softening around that very human impulse.

I have felt that desire all my life, but directed it inward into self-harm. Darling. A loving mother’s stroking of my brow for all the suffering I experienced at my own hand and from the hand of those who did not have the skills to refrain from violence.

Shame, arising from these impulses. Darling. Shame is very painful, feeling it but not hardening against it.

Feeling the tender heart beneath the desire to lash out or suppress my longings for love and connection, longings that were met with rejection or even violence by others and myself. Darling. Your tender heart lies beneath it all. 

Feeling deeply the trust that beneath the aggressive impulse in others lies the tender heart that has been wounded. Yes, Darling. Feeling the interconnection with others and our shared humanity.

I wept, and I found that in that simple word lay the balm for my wounds, the framework for how to hold my own experience, and even a healing for the relationship with my mother and my understanding of the generations of the deeply wounded women who went before me. None of us had mothers who could hold us in the way we needed to be held, either literally (violence being the norm in the family) or on a spiritual/emotional level.

When I find these words or questions or brief statements that speak so deeply to the nature of what ails me, inspires me, comforts me (sometimes I don’t even know what it is, but only that the statement has a resonance to it), I work with it: put it on paper to see in the course of the day; take it to the meditation cushion for the contemplation portion of my practice time; take it to the matt in yoga or stomp it out in hikes in the woods; share it with friends or students and enjoy the laugh of recognition. Like pebbles dropped in the water, the impact of these words fans out.

 

 

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Wrestling with Hope

I’ll be 50 years old this year. By even the best calculations, I’m closer to death than I am to life. As a cancer survivor, I’ve had my brush with the possibility of a relatively young death. (Although, as a friend once said to me in my 30s, when I expressed the fear of dying young, “Isn’t it a little late for that?”) As the survivor of intense and long-standing abuse and neglect as a child, my odds of surviving long are significantly lower than the average person’s. So recently, as I’ve considered the possibility of returning to graduate school, I’ve had to actively work with the stuff of my life and how I will hold this information in juxtaposition to the opportunities before me. How do I hope? Here are a few ways I’ve worked with this topic, and why I chose to say yes to graduate school at this point in my life.

  1. Expanding my horizon. I’m not sure who said it, but someone has suggested that when we become overwhelmed, it helps to expand our horizons. My background and fears (i.e., chronic childhood abuse and neglect, fear of dying from cancer) are aspects of my experience. When I step back from them, however, and take in more of the picture, they become far less portentous and individual aspects of many, many aspects of my life. Many of those other aspects of my life are good, lovely, hopeful and worthy. I gain perspective on the fears and notice, too, that they’re part of shared human experience. All of this gives me peace, despite the occasional dips into distress or anxiety.
  2. Bringing my full self into the room. I lived a very divided life before breast cancer. I hid a lot of my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from myself and those who loved me. Significant childhood abuse frequently leaves children subjected to it  with a sense of shame and deep pain. They internalize the rejection of their parents and carry that breach in family connection with them throughout their lives. This can result in addiction and self-sabotaging behavior. I was no exception. I’d had an eating disorder, smoked, shopped and generally numbed-out for big chunks of my life. When I got my cancer diagnosis, that wound – and the fact that it was unhealed – was the demon with which I wrestled. I had not truly lived, fully, as myself. Right up there next to the fear of my son losing his mother was the fear that I had not truly lived yet. As a result of that awareness, I became instantly and permanently less concerned about what other people thought and about welcoming with love and compassion all the hidden, fearful, shameful parts of myself into my own awareness and into the room. My graduate school hopes came directly out of that drive to bring all the parts of myself into the room.
  3. The necessity of an honest goal. Robert Fritz is someone whose writing (The Path of Least Resistance and Your Life As Art, in particular) has inspired and shifted my awareness of what it means to have a goal, something I will call for my purposes in this writing “an honest goal.” I pondered whether or not to pursue my master’s degree at this time, and I realized that I really, truly wanted it. While I do care whether I finish and whether I get to use it, the energy the goal gives me is important to the quality of my life and not entirely about the quantity of life I have in front of me. We all take risks in taking up goals – no one has a guarantee that they’ll finish any goal they start. The important thing is the energy that the goal – one based on our true heart desires – brings to our actions, our lives, our sense of purpose. I imagined a future without this goal, and I felt a sense of collapse and resignation about it. Yuck. I need this goal as much as I hope others need me to shine with my gifts to the world.
  4. Present moment inhabitation of my own life. While graduate school and the idea of “hope” are future-driven realities, they are possible for me by cultivating my present moment awareness. I practice mindfulness meditation, and this school year, I have attended a 300-hour mindfulness teacher training. As a result, I’ve been steeped in the practice. And that practice reminds me of the fact that when I am present here and now, I’m okay. The more I can connect with here and now (which is all any of us have), the more I find that, “there’s more right with you than wrong” (Jon Kabat-Zinn).

The program I’ll be attending is a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling with an emphasis in the expressive arts at Lesley University. It’s a program that gives me the ability to work with the creative process in myself and others for healing. I’m excited to continue doing what I love (yoga, mindfulness, writing, art) and to work with these frames for holding, working with and transforming our dark, hidden parts into the art of our lives.

I write this blog for my own expression, but I also have the hope of supporting others in sharing their truth and living in a way that brings their whole selves into the room. Are you middle-aged (like me) and looking at a change in career or continuing education? Have you had a scary diagnosis that makes you afraid to hope or make big commitments? What tools have you found to navigate these paths yourself? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments!

Namaste.

 

 

Reifying embodiment

(A short essay about one experience of movement from trauma space to embodiment.)
I’m in lockdown mode.

That’s what I call the external rigidity of flesh and bone, facial expression, in crisis.

On the inside, the inmates are screaming, flinging shit at the walls and rattling the bars, but through the glass of my eyes, you would see nothing but your own reflection.

I move, if at all, slowly. There’s so much more to do, and it’s harder, so I should be moving twice as fast. But sometimes I just sit and try to think, while the monkeys create chaos. I just want to sleep, really, and maybe when I awaken, things will be quieter.

I have to do yoga for a class I’m in, and instead of doing it, I think about how I can’t possibly do it three times by Friday (the requirement), and I’m weepy, feeling impossibly burdened.

And I watch that unfold because why is it I can’t do yoga three times by Friday? I have four days, after all.

Oh because I’m in lockdown, and as both jailer and prisoner, I believe it would be imprudent to move my body or to really feel my way into my feet (so far from my head, where all the important stuff is happening!).

I get out my mat, resenting that this is required of me (by whom? Oh, right, I signed up for this).

Moving hurts. My mind wonders if I could make lists while watching a yoga video? After all, if I’m really being mindful, I notice that moving my body feels painful, and it’s not nice to do that to myself, is it?

I notice the justifications, the desire to escape the present moment, and I continue to move, gently but still resentfully, woodenly. Feces from monkeys in my mind leaving tracks down the walls of my inner world. A trickle of sweat rolls down my back, and it feels remarkably like the chaos within me. I am uncomfortable.

But I keep moving. A glimmer of light peeks through, and I feel the strength of my arms holding my body up. Mmmmm, strength. My joints, inflamed, stiff joints – begin to loosen and lubricate. The lunch that was too much but that I hoped would calm my revving mind-body is right there as I fold forward, and I notice that I don’t want more food. A good noticing.

Malignant metaphor melts into hands on mat, toes tucked under to move into down dog, chest stretching open. I notice the sounds of my son singing with music in the next room, and sunlight is literally pouring through the window onto terracotta floor around me. I am back in my body, and I know that I have had a power outage for two days, that power is back, that I am no longer 40 years younger and trapped in childhood trauma. Here I am. I am okay.

I come into awareness of relationship with myself; body, breath, emotion and mind begin to flow as one. I do not banish monkeys or the jailor or even praise my reunited self. I continue to move for a few minutes more, then take the floor as my resting place for five minutes of noticing all of it with kindness.

Recovering trust after cancer

Wherever we go, there we are. Jon Kabat-Zinn said it and wrote a book about it, and it feels apt as I write about trust.

I was diagnosed with stage 2, grade 2 breast cancer a little over two years ago. I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction, and though I was given a 91% chance of no recurrence, I found myself anxious about that nine percent, nonetheless. The younger you are at diagnosis, the (theoretically, at least) longer you have in which cancer can recur. After all the medical interventions, I was left with a scarred body and a deep distrust for whether it could fight cancer off in the future. I didn’t feel I really knew without any doubt what had caused it, and I didn’t know whether all the supplements, lifestyle adjustments and medical interventions would stop me from dying a premature death from cancer. I carried a deep sense of dread that all the early life trauma I’d experienced had so damaged my nervous system and my body that there was nothing I could do to undo that and its ripples in my life.

I teach meditation, something that I restarted after cancer. Given a clean bill of health by my doctors but still deeply anxious, I realized my greatest enemy wasn’t cancer but my own mind. I couldn’t tell you how many days, months or years I had left to live, but I could tell you I wasn’t present for my life now because I was too caught up in anxiety. So I returned to seated practice, to various somatic (body-based) practices to help calm my anxiety, and I recently attended a week-long meditation retreat, including four days of silence, in order to support my practice and my work as a teacher.

I shifted two aspects of my practice, based on the instruction at this retreat, which was based on mindfulness meditation.

  1. Rather than observing sensation in the body as if one were standing on a river bank watching the river (which I had done previously), work to be in the flow of the river itself, experiencing the sensation moment to moment.
  2. Practice compassion and welcome toward whatever arises. I’d previously practiced non-judgment, but this shift involved cultivating a sense of warmth and kindness toward the experiences that I had.

On a retreat, we have a rather intense opportunity to observe ourselves without distraction to an extent that is generally not possible. Without electronic devices and social interactions, I had the opportunity to be social with myself.

As we sat in meditation, and I began to doubt that all the work I was doing really had a purpose, our instructor (Fleet Maull) encouraged us to trust. He asked us to consider who might need us to “deepen,” a shift of perspective that helped me immensely. Who in my life could benefit from me deepening my consciousness, my compassion, a shift out of reactivity? I could think of many, and it buoyed me.

I returned to my practice, and I found so many arguments arise, though. Trust? Why should I trust? Life feels inherently unsafe. Spiritual, medical and intellectual leaders betray us all the time. I don’t even trust that there’s a religion that has answers; each religion seems to get in its own way at some point, taking a good message and using that message to control people and further an agenda that seems far from God. I could say more, but I think this was representative of my arguments against trust, representative of my fear.

So I sat with my fear. I felt it as it coursed through my body, twisting my intestines, creating a sharp pain in my upper left chest (right in the spot where my cancer started). And every time I became aware of it, I met it with compassion. I welcomed it. I “invited it to tea,” as Tara Brach suggests.

Silent sobs wracked my body. I went back to childhood and infancy in my mind. I felt my mother’s profound disconnection from me; as a paranoid schizophrenic, she was utterly incapable of seeing my needs as what they were – normal, human, baby/child needs for attunement, care, nurture. As I felt those childhood wounds, the pain in my chest resonated in response: yes, here is where that pain wounded me. I held it with all the intensity of a mother holding her wailing, inconsolable child. Every mother who ever inspired me with her example of tenderness (and I have been blessed to learn from many good mothers in my life), was with me now as I held that younger self and soothed her. I witnessed her suffering with compassion and tenderness. I acknowledged the depth of her suffering.

I don’t know how long this took, how many days of sitting passed with the waves of this process coming up, receding, returning, receding. Eventually, they calmed. I could still see that child in my mind’s eye, and I continued to honor her experience, but she receded, as well. She became smaller and less central to my awareness. Fleet told us at the beginning of the retreat that we would have “front row seats” to our own minds, and I envisioned it as a circus. The wounded child was in her own ring of that circus, but others began to arise in my awareness.

At some point, I found myself asking who I was before the abuse and suffering of my early life, and immediately an image of my earliest self appeared in my mind’s eye: a radiant being with wise eyes and an easy smile. Oh, that’s who I amI thought. I was also flooded with warmth and love for my mother, something that had been twisted and flattened by the tortured years of our relationship. I loved her so much! Of course, I internalized all that pain – what else could I do? I loved her and protected her, and we both did the best we could. I was also inundated with gratitude for all the people and resources who had given to me over the years: examples of loving kindness, of generosity, of teaching, of mentorship. What had seemed like not enough for decades shifted to feeling abundantly filling and satisfying. As this process unfolded, the pain in my chest ceased, and I felt a shift in my body’s energy and my alignment; I envisioned a stream of river that had been diverted to the left side of my body by trauma. Now it was back to the center and flowing upward from there.

I saw one other thing: I saw that I had never been separated from the fabric of the Universe. I lost my bearings and felt I was separate from God, from others, from myself. The analogy we hear in meditation instruction is that of the ocean and the waves: our thoughts and emotions are the waves, and we can feel that they are real. However, if we drop below the surface a bit, we find the stillness and calm of the ocean. In my practice, I’ve begun to contact that ocean and to realize it’s much bigger than my own experience. It is the nature of God Himself/Herself, and I am never disconnected. I may become distracted by a lot of shiny objects, but I can awaken again and again and again to this connection.

I began this blog talking about trust and restoration of trust after cancer, and this process has been key for me personally. The biggest fear I had after diagnosis was that I would die soon, and that I would leave Isaac without a mother. The terror of him going through that pain was unbearable to me. What I didn’t see two years ago and for awhile beyond was that cancer was giving me a chance to re-explore the wounds from my childhood – the terror of separation from Mother and all she represented – and to heal. To find my place in the fabric of things, and by extension, Isaac’s and everyone else’s place in that fabric. The deep anxiety in my gut that is very tied with real fears in my childhood is no longer necessary; it has permission to soften, to relax, to allow others to have their own experience. I no longer need to control that, or control my own experience. I am inherently safe and inviolable.

Though I do not agree with everything the Apostle Paul said, his letter to the Romans (Chapter 8, verses 38-39) came to mind during my meditation, and I felt the truth of the words in a way I struggled to for decades after I first read them:  

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (New American Standard Version)

I don’t know what anyone else’s healing looks like, and I can’t recommend that everyone do what I have done. But I share my own story to give others hope that deep healing is possible; that cancer and its terrors and pain are not forever or all-encompassing; that healing is more than recovery from the cancer, surgeries and medical interventions. We are more than our suffering. May we all find our way home.

 

 

Heavenly Father v. the Earth Goddess: cosmic battle or splitting hairs?

I’ve been a religious convert in my life. At 13, I invited Jesus into my heart, and I had a genuine religious conversion: I felt my connection with God and knew, finally, that I was not alone. After a childhood of increasing alienation, pain and abuse, I needed that sense of connection in a profound way, and I still see that conversion in a positive light.

But evangelicalism adds a layer to the spiritual experience that I only later discerned wasn’t actually a necessary part of my religious life. When my church friends and ministers said (all of them) that it was necessary to study the bible, pray, do missions, give 10% of my income to God (that would be gross income), remain a virgin until I was married (and keep my thoughts “pure,” as well), evangelize, not swear, respect my parents, be a submissive woman (and not speak with authority to men), dress modestly (whatever that means), and so on, I did my best to comply. I also became aware over time that there was no chance of actually living a life that was pleasing to God.

Now, I know what an evangelical would say: that’s the point! We can’t possibly live a life that is pleasing to God, which is why we need Jesus and his substitutionary death on the cross. However, it seemed that most Christians were pretty intent on having both: living a perfect life – or at least projecting one – and Jesus’ grace. It was like super-sizing your grace experience: God’s grace + your own awesomeness = even more grace! Woohoo! Keep striving for perfection, and keep your eyes on a Heavenly Father who will make up for your faults in heaven.

Eventually, it became obvious to me that what I’d heaped onto my own experience of God’s grace at the beginning was actually soul-killing. It added to my sense of shame and worthlessness and kept me from thinking of anyone but my own image. I left that faith in 1992, at the age of 23.

I’m 48 now. I’m not actually a convert to the earth religions, but it becomes clearer and clearer that we are intrinsically connected to the earth. Everything we put into her, we get back. We quite literally reap what we sow. Pour chemicals into the earth? We get chemicals back. Pump chemicals into the sky? We breathe them in. It’s karma: we get back what we give. The Earth Mother cannot give us nutrients from anything other than her own body, and we have callously poured filth into her. Some of us wonder why we get sick, why people suffer. It’s as if we have a very strange sense of amnesia about actions we continue to take in which we are actually poisoning ourselves, here and now.

What if “sin,” or “missing the mark” is not about some abstract concept – some stamp on the soul that is unseen but makes every action we take incapable of pleasing God; and sin is, rather, that we do the very thing that harms us and others, with impunity? If we fling our filth all around us and wonder why we and those we love suffer?

I understand why a miraculously interventionist, above-it-all Heavenly Father is attractive at this point. “God is in charge,” my evangelical friends say. We really, really want to be rescued from our own destructive actions. I get that. I really wish that we would not have to reap what we’ve sown and what we continue to sow. I wish we could get a heavenly squeegee to suck up oil spills out of our water – or lead, for that matter. I wish that years of spreading glyphosphate on our plants and earth had not caused our food supply to be contaminated. I look at my child and the children of my friends and wish for them to have safe food, air, water. And these are the privileged children! What about all the precious children who do not have the resources of filtered water, good healthcare, expensive organic foods?

What if God would, with a sweep of his hand, create a new heaven and a new earth and wipe away our sins – our flagrant disregard for the equation: reap = sow?

Religious leaders play off this division of an abstract Heavenly Father and the very concrete Earth Mother. It’s like the children whose father is off to work, taking advantage of their harried mother. These leaders will parse the scriptures to undermine the Mother’s significance, will tell us that they alone understand the precise way in which we must approach the throne of God in order to be right with him. “Reaping what you sow” becomes a mysterious accounting system, behind the veil of our earlthy ignorance, and they speak as if they had had a peek behind that veil.

I’m a cancer survivor. I also have family members and friends who have had cancer, some of whom have died. I frequently work with cancer survivors. I hear and read cancer-related information all the time, ranging from the personal devastation of the diagnosis to the medical perspective on its causes and treatments, to the complementary medicine perspectives on the same. I see over and over how it impacts individuals and their families, their extended communities. Its tendrils extend far and wide.

Some people try to deny that our explosion of cancers has anything to do with the poisons in our environment – our food, our air, our water. We throw up our hands: it’s just some random genetic anomaly. What can we do? But when you add carcinogen after carcinogen into everything we consume and interact with, eventually, it’s hard to deny that it may have a role in our cancer rates.

It would be nice to have a Heavenly Father – someone above and outside this earthly existence who can and will sweep away all our sins and leave us pure as snow, the earth returned to her previous glory. Silly us, for ever doubting that it could be so! Silly us for thinking we sinful beings could do anything to change the inexorable will of God regarding the number of days of our lives. Silly us for thinking we are powerful and could do anything to shift the course of our own futures.

But what if that is a convenient construct that allows us to sin with impunity against the earth on whom we depend for every breath, every bite of food, every sip of water? What if she is not a “thing” God gave us, a commodity we will throw out in order to get a new one in the future? What if she is, rather, a precious gift, given to us to be tended, to be loved and cared for, her dust the very thing that makes our flesh, her resources a metaphor for the tender care of the Divine for Her children?

I understand the desire for an intervening Heavenly Father, but I fear we have desecrated the Mother and will continue to suffer until we have learned our lessons and changed our ways. And what Good Father would be pleased with children who violate the Mother? It’s an important question with which to wrestle. What if it’s not “Earth Goddess vs. Heavenly Father,” but rather two parents united, and we not only need to face the music in the future (in a wait-until-your-father-gets-home sort of way) but are facing it more and more loudly every day?

Holding diagnoses with a loose fist

Words. Diagnoses are words, and they can either serve us, or they can bring us to our knees. When I try words on for size, any labels at all, any lists I make, I ask myself who is serving whom. Do the words serve me, help me to do better, help me to find my wholeness? Or do I become enslaved to the words, afraid of their weight?

Cancer was a diagnosis that gripped my heart, guts and mind for many months. It grabbed them and gave them a twist, often at 3:00 a.m. I used meditation and journal writing (and still do) to pry each talon out from the tender flesh of mind and spirit and to tame the words of that diagnosis into something I could use as information for my own good, rather than as a curse.

I wrote a blog post a few days ago about my back pain, for which I was finally able to get into the chiropractor/acupuncturist’s office. I’ve gotten a lot of relief from that appointment and am very hopeful about the care I’m receiving. But I also find myself back in the seat of “patient,” and making decisions about how I hold the various labels, the bits of information I glean from that time.

With every new practitioner I meet, I repeat my history. I’m reminded that I have genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors that could set me up for failure in the health arena. When I first started to name those things in decades past, to put labels on them, it distressed me greatly. Each one felt like a fatal flaw. I could never be perfect like so many other people seemed to be. I decided to overcome, to fix, to heal.

Cancer came along and was a blow to that effort.  At first, I thought, “Wow, all I’ve done my whole life to try to fix myself has culminated in this. That didn’t work out quite the way I’d hoped and planned.”

But it also set me free.I got a flash of insight during those early days of diagnosis and surgeries that I’d been wasting my time with self-hatred and efforts to fix myself. What I needed was to love myself. Absolutely every part of myself, without reservation. Whether I had weeks to live or decades, I knew that I didn’t want to waste my life on earth in self-hatred.

Back pain was a temptation to return to the urge to try to crawl out of my own skin. It can be frightening to be in pain and not know when it will end, in much the same way  it can be frightening to inhabit a life with what feels like a death sentence hanging over it.

I have learned to hold all the words, all the labels, with a loose fist. They don’t define me; they can help me to make choices, but they aren’t me. I am more than the categories of my ailments, and if my care providers don’t understand that, I need to do my best to either educate them that that is so, or I need to move along.* If a label doesn’t help me, I let it go. If it helps me to care tenderly for myself, to love life and life-affirming action, then I use it for that purpose.

 

*Dr. Janine Pulley, North Andover, Massachusetts is the chiropractor/acupuncturist I went to, and she is awesomeI don’t have any criticism of her care or her attitude about me as a patient.

Layers of Healing (and tools for the archeological dig)

I’ve been back to meditation and yoga since shortly after my cancer experience in 2015. I got back to meditation first, and when I’d healed from my surgery, I returned to yoga. I’ve had generally good progress in feeling well and strong. I teach yoga now, and each time I teach, I leave feeling invigorated and satisfied.

So when my back started hurting a few weeks ago, at a time of increased stress, I wasn’t too worried. It felt like muscle tension in response to stress. (John Sarno’s Divided Mind and Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No have been wonderfully helpful in my understanding of psychosomatic influences on the body, and I highly recommend both books). I practiced mindfulness in response to the discomfort and tried to understand the nature of the tension, how I was “holding” the situation in my body, and tried to give my body what it required. It led to a deep exploration of body dialoguing, “contracts” and familial ties, and ultimately led to a shamanic journey. I still have some back pain, and yes, I’m going to the acupuncturist later this week. As a cancer survivor, I am always aware that aches and pains, fatigue and the like could be a cancer recurrence, and I want to attend to both the metaphysical and the biological needs of my being. In the meantime, this is what I can do. I think the cancers and other illnesses with psychosomatic origins come in layers of energy and behavior and environmental stressors. I’m picking away at the layers I can influence directly myself. I share here the story of this part of the healing journey. May it assist you with yours, particularly if the path is not straight, obvious or short!

 

***

I sit in therapy with my therapist, Jasmin.* I describe the sensation in my shoulder and my pelvis.

“It sounds like you’re being pulled in two different directions,” she said.

Her comment felt right. My pelvis seemed to be settling down. I want to sink into my own gravity. I thought. As I heal from complex childhood trauma and the retraumatizing nature of medical interventions, I sink deeper into my own body and inner truth. I used to be able to deny my feelings or perceptions, tamping them down with excess food or shopping or “zoning out.” The deeper my practices get, the less ability I have to separate myself from my truth. For that, I’m grateful and feel more deeply myself with each passing day. It’s a homecoming, and it’s generally joyful. But right now there’s an opposing energy.

It’s in my left shoulder. While my pelvis says, Let’s sink in deeper, my shoulder says, Oh no, oh no, oh no!

“Let’s go there,” Jasmin prompts.

I close my eyes, and I connect with the voice and the energy that are pulling me in the opposite direction. I feel very young, an infant or toddler. My eyes are closed. I can feel my mother’s presence. I can hear her saying, “I hate you. I wish you would die.” And in response, I made a vow, I’ll die for you, Mother.

I start to cry at the memory. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, if the memory is a literal, one-time event. The energy of it smacks of truth. The evidence of my life is quite clear: not only did I strive throughout my life to try not to make my weight felt by anyone, not to lean too heavily, even on those who offered, but I also subtly and not so subtly engaged in self-negating behaviors. In answer to the on-going mystery of why I would undermine myself, self-sabotage my successes, lay a vow.

The wave of grief and awareness that came with that realization grows, crests. Finally it passes.

I sit in silence, observing inward sensation and awareness. This is not the end. This is the beginning of a shift. What antidote do I need? What antidote do I possess?

Through the years I have been a parent (almost 11 as I write this), I have learned how to be a good parent. If my own son ever felt such a deep grief, I would wrap him in my arms and hold him close. I would affirm his drive to live, his right to exist. I would defend him against anyone who threatened him. The Good Mother in me is available for this part of the journey. I share this information with Jasmin.

I let the reality sink in. I am here for myself in a way my mother never could be, and I am here for myself in a way I could never before be. The pain diminishes, though it does not go away entirely. For the moment, this is complete.

***

Later, I think about that vow. Am I truly released? Or is a vow I made binding? It has surely felt binding.

Two lines of answer come from this inquiry.

First, I am aware that vows are binding in some way. Who will free me from this vow? Whose power do I call upon? I think about my early religious experience. Do I need a God who will step in and free me? Then something in me rebels. Vows made by infants are not legally binding; while that vow may have colored my existence for years of operating out of a childlike space, the Mother in me stands fiercely in my defense now. She advocates for me now and declares me free. 

Next, I am aware of the ways in which I have, sneakily, not quite fulfilled my vow. I remember all the times I let my mother know how I suffered, whether from depression or an eating disorder or financial distress, letting her know that I was suffering, I was dying, I was playing small. See, Mom, I’m still loyal to you and not leaving you behind, my words and actions seemed to say.

But I was, actually, trying at every turn to find a way out, trying to find a loophole. How can I be fully myself, hear my calling, step fully into the Light and out of the shadows of this curse? I wondered.

Myth is a topic that arose in my inquiry. I thought of the classic Trickster. I was the kid who, when cornered by bullies, burst into genuine tears of fear and seeming submission. But as soon as the bullies abandoned their tormenting of me, and I’d gotten a block away, I turned and stuck out my tongue and cursed them, then took off running. Ha! Got away, and I got the last word in, I thought. I was submissive on the outside and scheming on the inside.

My evangelical roots would have called that deception and maybe even sin. I don’t call it that anymore. I find it to be one of the energies of life that makes me laugh now and ties me to life in a way that all my submission did not. I am alive today partly because I embody The Trickster. I am grateful for that force of life in me that strove for more, that was creative.

The earnest nature of my childish vow making – a vow which gave me a strategy for survival but which ceased to be workable beyond my childhood environment – touches my heart, and also falls into perspective now.

My back pain remains, dull now. Not too troubling, but an annoyance. I really hope it’s not cancer, I think, and wish I didn’t even have the thoughts.

***

I’m doing a mindfulness program (www.palousemindfulness.com) these days. In the middle of this back pain incident, I am practicing serious mindfulness, trying to stay present to what I feel and not check out.

In week three, I am doing “mindful yoga” as part of that program. In the middle of the first mindful yoga session, I am alone in my home office, doing yoga, feeling my still dully aching shoulder, and I want it to go away. I want to be done with this pain, done with the psychological, spiritual archeological dig that is my life. I want to move on, get busier with work, make more money, be hardier. Suddenly in my practice, I know what this feels like.

It’s like when I was a single mother to baby Isaac. A few weeks into parenting, it hit me: this whole “parenting thing” wasn’t going away any time soon. Sleepless nights and long days of full responsibility for another human being weren’t going to end soon. The full weight of my new role hit me. I am not going anywhere for a long time, I thought.

I lay on my yoga mat and felt the pain in my body, which got worse as I practiced, my chafing against my limitations and struggles and wept. I can’t abandon the baby, I thought. I am the baby. I am the child who wakes me in the middle of the night and who needs my kind attention by day, and I don’t get to leave her. I may want to “check out,” but there is nowhere else to go.

I feel a small sense of relief as I surrender to this reality. The resistance to reality adds to the suffering that only increases the pain.

***

The next day, I sit in meditation again. My pain has actually gotten worse. I have intense muscle spasm. I try to simply observe my discomfort, but it seems to require more of me. I expand my awareness and call on my “Team,” my spiritual guides, ancestors and teachers. I climb a tree in my mind’s eye. I sit on a branch and wait.

A large female gorilla comes to me. She sits and takes me in her arms. I see the type of gorilla I have seen in movies, but now I feel her energy in a very personal way. She is the type of mother I didn’t have and frankly am not: she is content. She chews on a leaf, eyes soft. She is heavily, bodily present; she doesn’t strive to be anywhere else, and she is not the least bit burdened by my presence. She holds me like a tiny monkey in her arms. She tells me with silent words that she will hold me; she does not mind. She is quite happy to be where she is.

I let that sink in.

***

Later, as my husband hugs me and gently strokes my tender back muscles, I let him. And let him. Tears well up. I let them flow, and I sink into his arms. The gorilla Mama comes to mind. She invites me to let the nurturing in. It’s not a burden to those who love me.

My back still hurts. I am not done. One reason I need to publish this piece is to help other trauma survivors know that it’s okay for there to be layers and iterations. If and when we begin to look at the psychological and spiritual influences on our body’s symptoms, it’s easy to feel some level of self-blame for our pain and suffering. I share this story because it has taken decades of therapy and my own professional studies and reading to learn the tools I employ, and even that doesn’t “fix” everything all the time. Sometimes, things resolve very quickly. Sometimes, like now, they do not.

Some of our answers come from within; some come from other people and other people’s gifts; some come from spiritual guides. And we don’t get a guarantee that “healing” will mean we have no pain. My suffering has diminished. I feel so much more able to be with myself, as I am, and with my life. Between these meditations, prayers, therapy sessions, and yoga practice times is life. I cook meals, eat with my family, go to work (or find a sub because I can’t teach right now). Life goes on, but I’m not making my pain worse by my resistance to it. I am not entirely well, but I feel so much more healed than when I began to deal with this a couple weeks ago.

Wishing you peace on your own healing journey, whether it is simple and clear or something else today.

*Jasmin Cori is a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado with a deep understanding of trauma. She has written multiple books, including, The Emotionally Absent Mother and Healing from Trauma: A Survivor’s Guide. Her contact information and books may be found at www.jasmincori.com.

 

The Wisdom of the Mother (alternately entitled: Don’t Shit Where You Eat)

I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a cancer survivor. I have been a body worker, a meditator, a yogini. I have participated in Gender Reconciliation work, M. Scott Peck’s Community Building work. I have walked a path of inner healing and physical healing, and I have shared that path with others in my work. I have a particular perspective on current political events and broader world events.

I am very aware that our culture not only undervalues women; it doesn’t actually perceive the Divine Feminine in men, women, children, or the Planet. The Feminine is quite literally invisible. Machismo, brute force, power over, individualism are a comic book version of Masculinity, and they are exalted and revered, separated in some sort of sick, psychic surgery from any balancing power. The Mother, whether she washes dishes, soothes a sick child, or resides beneath our feet as the Planet who feeds and holds us, is invisible. We step on her without awareness for her consciousness. We don’t say thank you. Her work is not valued. God help us if we have emotions or intuition! Because no outside authority stamps them as “Truth,” they are fluff; they are a mere distraction from productivity and consuming. Story is seen as child’s play, rather than as our creative force expressed in the world. Our art is entertainment, rather than the means by which we digest life and use its nutrients to heal and grow. The power of attention and deep listening is something we feel but have so few words to express. The ability to hold experience – our own or someone else’s – takes our breath away when we experience it, yet it is so hard to find language to describe.

 

I come from a patriarchal, Christian religious background. It never occurred to me when I was in it to question where the Mother was. It was a given that God was our Father, but the marked absence of the Mother was never spoken, seen, acknowledged. It strikes me as the height of hubris to assume God would declare himself Father without a Mother. I don’t think it was God. I think it was men who didn’t value the Mother who decided anything that smacked of feminine religious experience would be demonized. Divination? Satan. Intuition? Witchcraft. Emotion? Sin. (I am not saying that these things are the realm of women only; I am saying that if it was considered to be “of women” by those in power, it was historically branded as evil by those who could not control it.)

And now we face a United States in which our religiosity has led to Donald Trump. He is the expression of evangelical Christianity and its immoral angling for power at the expense of integrity and the common sense of the body. When we are aware of and in connection with our bodies, we don’t pollute our water and our air. We don’t poison our soil. Or, as my own mother would have said, “You don’t shit where you eat.”

But we seem to have a deeply held belief that drives our actions that says we can take without giving; we can have power over without responsibility for care.

Breast cancer was a deeply physical and spiritual disease process for me. My breasts being cut off felt like both a physical violence and a metaphor. The bar is closed, folks. Back off from the nurturing of others at your own expense, mother. You need to protect your own resources, or you will die. You will have nothing left to give, my cancer experience seemed to say.

I dove down deep, went inward. I found there the wounds of my earliest childhood, wounds passed down from an equally wounded mother. She could not validate my feelings, my experience, my existence, and so I walked through much of my life with a gaping hole where the validation of my being ought to have been. After cancer, I dove down into that wound, feeling instinctively that healing that energetic part was essential to my greater healing.*

Then Donald Trump became the president elect. As I write this, he will be inaugurated tomorrow. Every intuitive cell in my body says he is dangerous to our survival, not only the United States but also the whole interconnected world in which we live. He’s the proverbial drunk, molesting uncle you shouldn’t leave alone with your children, and his own words indict him as such. But his over-masculinized form of power and control – so valued by a vocal minority – have positioned him to rule.

I dive down deep into my own healing again. I am learning as I get older that all my grief and fear is something I need to own and love. But I cannot stop there, not if I take seriously my responsibility as a mother who simultaneously protects The Mother and depends upon Her. I must protect the sanctity of my inner wellbeing.

Light bearers right now are something like a single parent. The father figures at the helm have power, but they take no responsibility, and they aren’t living in the trenches. We need to dig deeply into our known experience; heal our wounds; love life; and love powerfully, love deeply, love wisely. We must say no to the violence, even the violence we perpetuate against ourselves. Maybe especially the violence we perpetuate against ourselves. We need to dig deep and find words to bring our divinity to awareness and to own its power, the legitimate power of fierce, gritty love; the transformative power of quiet presence; the healing power of embodiment. Let us all find within us the Good Mother, and in so doing protect The Great Mother.

 

*A great body of research and literature exists on the role of early life trauma and its impact on life expectancy and disease processes. Two great books on the topic include Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No and Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. This is not to blame anyone for their individual diseases, but rather to show that generational trauma impacts generational health. Personally, I empower myself to know that I am not helpless in the face of those traumas; I release blame, as it does not help me to love whatever lifespan I am given on this earth.

Spiritual practice: loving all our parts

Out of my cancer experience, I developed a personal practice in my meditation that has come back to help me over and over again. I’ve shared it with meditation students, and most recently, I shared it in the context of a sermon at North Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, where I attend with my family. One of the lessons of cancer was that hating parts of myself was not getting me anywhere, and life was too short to spend trying to fix myself any longer. What to do, then, if I was not trying to fix myself?

While those who are familiar with IFS (Internal Family Systems) therapy will find this meditation to have overtones of that system, I did not start with IFS in mind. I simply sat with the stark awareness that my anxiety, defeatism, self-pity, collapse (and so on) were there, and I wasn’t pleased with my relationship to them.

What follows is the text from my sermon. In order to experience the full impact of the text, however, I would suggest reading in a quiet place, with a 2-minute timer (or longer), and engage with the practice. An intellectual reading of the text will not have the same impact.

What is the sound of one Unitarian loving?

My husband, John, and son, Isaac and I moved to Andover in December 2014 from Boulder, Colorado. We knew we wanted a church community that gave us a place to explore our questions, form connections and provide an opportunity to serve. This was one of a number of places we visited in spring of 2015, in between snowstorms.

In late spring, we had a huge shock: I was diagnosed with breast cancer and told I would, at the least, require a mastectomy. I didn’t know right away about whether chemo or radiation would be suggested. I chose to have a double mastectomy because of questionable spots on the right side that turned out not to be cancer.

We were here then, and this congregation became one of our anchors through a very difficult time. We were used to being the ones who were at church all the time, serving others, and we were in the unusual position of needing to be served for a while. The Caring Team brought us food. Lee and Wendy spent time talking with me over coffee. Our whole family went to Ferry Beach about two months after my surgery and before my reconstruction was complete. It was a surreal and strange time in my life, and North Parish Church was a place to help anchor me, a place where I could be while I got my sense of orientation back.

I felt disoriented for a long time, and I was deeply anxious and depressed, despite a good prognosis. I didn’t need chemo or radiation, but like every cancer patient, I have a statistical chance of that same cancer coming back. I had to face that I might have encountered the thing that would ultimately bring me down. If you’ve ever had a cancer diagnosis, you know that from that point on you are a “cancer patient,” and your chances of recurrence are always something you ponder.

My ponderings were the kind that woke me up at 2:00 in the morning for months, and through the recommendation of a therapist, I returned to meditation practice, something I had not done consistently for a number of years. I found that my strategizing, logical mind had reached something of its outer limits: it could not give me certainty, and it most certainly could not give me peace. I realized that if cancer didn’t kill me, my anxiety was destroying my life.

Rather than speak too much about the stories of things, though, I want to move into the reason I’m standing here this morning and my hopes for the rest of our time together.

Fast forward to this spring, and I was in a much different place within myself. I was sitting with Wendy having coffee and talking about my recent return to work, this time as a meditation instructor at the YMCA (Andover/North Andover). I told her about a meditation practice I worked with frequently within myself, and how I liked to share that with students when appropriate, and she asked if I would speak to you about that.

Speaking is great, and I could talk with you about the practice at some length, but practices are best experienced first, and perhaps spoken about later, if at all. A weekend seminar isn’t satisfying if you don’t walk away with a 500-page binder to digest later (and the binder seldom gets opened after the fact). A simple practice is different: it’s about selecting one of those lessons from the binder and working with it over and over, until you’ve thoroughly explored its depths. Let us move together into practice, and I will help you transition back into the room when we’re done.

Position: sit upright but relaxed, hands loosely in lap. Breath naturally. 

Your awareness is in your body. The breath is a good access point. Turn your senses inward.

I will speak a little as you sink into the awareness of your body and breath.

Please continue to keep your attention within yourself, with body sensation and the breath, and simply allow my words to guide you. (Sit for 2 minutes of silence, sinking into this awareness. Ring singing bowl to indicate the end.)

Regarding the nature of distractions: they are normal. Let your many thoughts and the sounds in the room be like scenes on a movie screen, passing by, and return to your breath.

Imagine if you will that who you are is a busload of children. Many of them are the parts of you that you like very much: the part that plays piano, is good at your work, is a good parent, the person who makes friends easily. These are the children who often sit toward the front of the bus.

But moving back on the bus, we find the parts of ourselves that are perhaps a little less well behaved. They’re the parts of ourselves that we can’t seem to control, even after decades of self-help, shame, self-discipline, therapy. In truth, we wish we could eject them from the bus, but we all know that’s not legal (and it’s impossible when they’re part of yourself).

In your mind’s eye, select one of these “children,” that is, a thing you do not like about yourself. Walk through the “bus” of your life and select one thing for the purpose of our meditation.

This is controversial – we are often encouraged to focus on what we like, or to quickly transition away from our negative interpretations of ourselves into something positive. If you end up not liking this practice, you can avoid ever doing it again. But for a moment, please choose a thing you do not like about yourself. One of mine from last summer was my anxiety. Another was how easily I felt defeated and hopeless. Another was how I missed the joyful things of my life because I was obsessing about possible future scenarios. Pick just one item from your list.

For those of you who cannot find one thing you do not like about yourself, first of all congratulations! Some people have worked on this a long time, and they no longer reject parts of themselves. You can help everyone else in this room out by focusing on a loving heart and radiating that out to the rest of us. And thank you.

For those who have a “thing,” I want you to think about it for a moment, but without judgment. Notice when you think about that thing, where you feel it in your body. Notice the sensations. Notice if in your mind’s eye if that sensation has a size, shape or color.

Let us take a moment or two to just sit next to it in our mind’s awareness. Notice it. Don’t judge it, move toward or away from it. Just stay with your awareness of it. Breathe. Stay with the sensation that arises from it. If the sensation changes, allow it to do so, but please do not try to do anything to change it at this time.

Meditate for two minutes. I will ring the singing bowl at the end of two minutes.

Let’s take the meditation a step further.

If you could have changed this thing in yourself through self-hatred, self-improvement, shame, self-discipline, you probably would have. Of course, you’re welcome to keep trying. But for the sake of our meditation, I would like you to imagine an ideal observer: a dear friend, a loving family member, a compassionate, skilled therapist – someone who is kind, loving, an excellent listener. Imagine then that person coming onto the bus and sitting next to the part you’ve chosen to focus on. You are intent on listening to this anxious, undisciplined, rude, critical, slow, not-so-wise part of you to understand it rather than change it.

With this type of awareness, sit with that part of yourself for two more minutes. I will ring the singing bowl at the end of two minutes.

Before we emerge completely from the meditation, I would like you to scan the area of your body where you first focused on sensation. Notice if that has changed size, shape or color. With all eyes closed, please raise your hand if you noticed some type of shift.

Thank you.

Just a few closing thoughts..

Another analogy gave me a mantra I use frequently. Are you familiar with the ad campaign “Don’t shake the baby?” Why would we have to create ads to tell us not to shake our babies? Because we know that when we are frustrated and super tired, even the most caring amongst us can lose our cool and become less than our highest selves. Lack of sleep and time to ourselves can make us violent in words and in deeds.

When it comes to our inner selves, we can be very tempted to become violent because our behavior within is invisible. We’re angry that we couldn’t control and change what we don’t like within ourselves.

I have learned to make it part of my inner practice never to “shake the baby.” Yes, there are things I wish I could change, but becoming angry with them never makes them better. If anything, war breaks out within me, and I become even more destructive.

The practices I’ve shared with you today are simple: sitting beside the parts of ourselves we dislike; reminding ourselves not to “shake the baby,” even if the baby is the part of ourselves we can abuse in the darkness and privacy of our own minds.

The title of this message was “What is the sound of one Unitarian loving?” Today, each of you took a moment to “love” yourself; loving is not always (and according to Scott Peck, rarely) about a feeling. It’s an act of will. Some of us assume we do not love ourselves because we don’t feel warm and fuzzy toward ourselves. The act of paying attention, of deep listening, of cultivating patience in our approach to these parts of ourselves we don’t easily make peace with is, itself, the act of love. As we spend time with ourselves in this type of experience, we become more skillful at loving the “other,” the actual rowdy child on the bus; the co-worker who behaves in annoying or even destructive ways; the politician who betrays our trust. Loving ourselves changes everything.

(Readings from M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled were read from the chapter entitled “Attention,” as well as excerpts from Richard Rohr’s The Illusion of the Autonomous Self.)