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Book recommendation time!
Yes, there is actually a book entitled Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?. It’s by Ajahn Brahm, who is a Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest Tradition. (Ajahn Brahm was born in the United Kingdom, and now leads a monastery in Australia.) You don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate the book.
The book is composed of 108 stories, proverbs, experiences, and what have you. The title piece involves a story about someone who has a truckload of dung dumped on their front yard, and the choices it presents. Do they get angry, moan, wail, and do nothing about the pile of dung? Do they go through some of that and then move on? Do they go, “Well, dung makes great fertilizer for the garden…” (I won’t spoil it any further, as you really should check it out yourself.)
There’s also quite a good section on sickness, grief, and death. One story that I particularly liked was entitled, “Visiting the Sick.” Ajahn Brahm shares some useful advice:
“[The nun] explained that when all her other friends and relations came to visit her, they became so sad and miserable seeing her dying that it made her feel much worse. ‘It’s bad enough dying from cancer,’ she said, ‘that it’s too much to deal with my visitors’ emotional problems as well.’
She went on to say that I was the only friend who treated her as a person, not as someone dying; who didn’t get upset at seeing her gaunt and wasted, but instead told her jokes and made her laugh. So I told her jokes for the next hour, while she taught me how to help a friend with their death. I learned from her that when you visit someone in hospital, talk to the person and leave the doctors and nurses to talk to the sickness.”
I remember when I was dealing with some pretty serious depression. People would ask me how I was feeling, and I’d just want to scream. I was fighting nightly with thoughts of suicide, and someone wanted to know how my day went? I know that these feelings come from a good place. I just couldn’t hear that at the time.
I would add to Ajahn Brahm’s story slightly. My folks have been incredibly supportive, both emotionally and in terms of dealing with the myriad of phone calls to doctors, insurance companies, pharmacies, and all the other rigamorole that comes from being ill. If someone asks you – and they’ll probably be close enough to you that you know who you are – being an advocate/ally for a sick person is an incredibly valuable thing. Someone to research treatment options, ask your doctor about them, that sort of thing. (Caveat: Do this only if asked. Unsolicited advice probably falls in the “not helpful” category.)
I wrote the following piece after a visit to Guatemala in 2004, and it’s more “creative writing”-y than some of the other things I’ve written.
I think it’s very relevant to healing issues that we are able to let go of control when there’s nothing we can do to change a situation. Buddhists call this principle equanimity. Greeting card writers call this principle “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Alcoholics Anonymous refer to the Serenity Prayer. It’s all the same principle.
I should also mention that this piece can be read as romanticizing of daily life in Guatemala without suitable historic, cultural, or social context. Bear in mind that I was years younger when I wrote this, and that there is much more to Guatemala than dangerous public transit. So, if you can, bear with my younger self as I explore life lessons found in daily experiences.
I had heard stories about the “chicken buses” typically found in Central American countries. My mother—who lived in Guatemala for two years—talked about them with a knowing laugh. Chicken buses: even the name sounded uncomfortable, the harsh consonants jammed together like people on the bus. Traveling with livestock was not my idea of a comfortable journey. But then, how else are people who don’t have cars supposed to carry their chickens across long distances? Read the rest of this entry »
We had the mother of all snowstorms this weekend, with 29″ dumped on every surface. It’s beautiful, and it also presents many practical challenges. (These include power outages, being housebound, snow-weighted trees, and making a space for the terrier to go outside and use the bathroom.)
Saturday night I was keeping my friend company while she started clearing off one of our cars. The power was out all around the neighborhood. The storm clouds had passed. The sky was a deep purple, reflecting the light of the snow and city lights in the distance. All of our street lights were out, giving a much better view of constellations punctuated by the occasional whispy cirrus clouds. Partway through shoveling, the power came back on. Some of the constellations disappeared, but my disappointment was tempered by the promise of having heat for the night.
That was the wonder of the snowstorm.
We also probably lost at least two trees, which succumbed to the weight of the snow and ended up almost touching the ground. I spent a good bit of the day of the storm wading through the ever-accumulating snow (it ended up reaching almost to my hips) and shaking trees off to prevent further tree death. My friends did a lot of the work, but just “walking” through the snow proved difficult.
Then came my body’s reaction to the experience.
I won’t bore you with an entire catalog of the pain. Suffice it to say that every joint in my legs was sore and burning. Other parts of my body would periodically pipe up, as though saying, “Me too! Pay attention to me too! I hurt too!”
I knew what would help: very light exercise (stretching or walking), meditation, medication, a hot shower, taking it easy by staying out of the snow…
Knowing is easier than doing. It was as though the pain had taken over my brain, and all I could focus on was how much I hurt. Add to it the increasing dismay at being housebound AND in pain, and I was not a happy camper.
I recruited my friends to help me out. Sometimes I just need encouragement to take steps in the right direction. I unhesitatingly took my pain medication, and got to verbally express some of the pain I was feeling. My friend helped me pick out some nice shampoo, and I took full advantage of my shower chair and hot water. I just let it wash over me.
Then I took my big step. I decided I would get situated for a meditation. I got out my mp3 player (which has several guided meditations on it). I decided I would see how meditation went – I wouldn’t force myself to do it for a certain period of time. I just let my meditation be what it was – a way to get in touch with what was going on in my body.
It was painful, at first. But because I have some experience with doing mindfulness meditation while I’m in pain, it was not unexpected.
There was this remarkable feeling of openness that happened during my meditation. I realized how much of my body actually feels pretty good.
This next part may sound crazy, but bear with me. (Having a familiarity with the Buddhist idea of equanimity might help.) I realized that when I found a part of my body that was not in pain, I thought, “Oh good, it feels great!” When I found a part of my body that was in pain, I thought, “Drat, that hurts. Maybe if I focus on it, it’ll stop hurting.”
Then I tried something different – letting go of the idea that pain is good or bad. However terrible the experience of pain is, it is a million times worse if I dedicate my conscious mind to thinking about how terrible it is. I also have a tendency to dedicating my conscious mind to how I want to feel good all the time when I’m enjoying myself. If I do that, I’m not actually enjoying myself anymore – I’m just dwelling in the desire to feel good more often.
So I just let go. I allowed myself to be in pain without judgement. The pain was still there. It still hurt. But it wasn’t in control of my consciousness anymore.
Now I can just be.
I read an article, “Is it All in My Head?”, from Psychology Today recently, and I really feel like it has a lot of good content about the role of the mind-body connection in chronic pain syndromes.
“Capping her frustration, Howard cannot be sure to this day why she became ill. But her best guess is that the self-imposed stress of her ambitious lifestyle played a role….Howard’s suspicions are confirmed by many researchers, who are coming to believe that psychological factors play a crucial role in perpetuating many physical illnesses, particularly a subset of chronic ailments that defy logic, diagnosis or a cure. It seems that the way you think about your illness can actually affect how sick you get.
These “multi-symptom illnesses”—which include chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and potentially others such as Gulf War syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and the condition known as multiple chemical sensitivity—have provoked intense controversy. Because they have no obvious biological cause, some doctors and researchers dismissed them in the past as hysteria or the “yuppie flu.”
Many patients, in response, became equally determined to prove that their disease was just as real and as biologically legitimate as heart disease or breast cancer….
However, the war between doubters and advocates has waned. The consensus is that these illnesses are truly mind-body diseases, in which biological and psychological causes and dysfunctions are inseparably intertwined. The mind seems to play a key role in kick-starting and perpetuating illness—but it’s not that sufferers are simply malingerers. Their bodies are sick, and their reaction to the illness often makes it worse.” [emphasis mine]
I definitely would have had a hard time hearing this when I was first diagnosed. I was in the “camp” trying so hard to justify my pain to people who didn’t seem to understand. Heck, I even had a “Fibromyalgia is Real” awareness bracelet.
That mindset didn’t help me get better. I just stayed trapped in what Buddhists would call dukkha, or suffering.
Allowing myself to feel pain – but not dwell in pain – is probably the single most important lesson I have learned from my experiences with fibromyalgia, if not my life. Read the rest of this entry »