10 March 2014

Attachment To Desire

At the end of my previous post, I said I'd write about opening the doorway to joy. The idea that we can find joy in lives that are restricted by illness, pain, grief, unemployment, a broken heart, poor mental health, or addiction can seem ridiculous. Essentially, though, finding joy in life is at the heart of religion and most of the self-help books you can find these days. We're all on that search and have been since we became conscious beings. I find different titles and ways to say it, but finding joy is really the underlying topic of all the posts on this blog.

For now I'm focusing in Buddhism's Eightfold Path, and how walking that path can help set our spirits free to experience joy even as we live life's pain.

The second step on the Eightfold Path is called Right Intention, and is composed of three intentions:
1. The intention of renunciation, which means that we intend to resist the pull of desire;
2. The intention of good will, which means that we intend to resist our feelings of anger and aversion;
3. The intention of harmlessness, which means that we intend not to think or act cruelly, violently or aggressively, and to develop compassion.

I like the way the first intention -- renunciation -- follows logically from the first step on the Eightfold Path, The Four Noble Truths. The Truths are all about understanding how our attachment to desire causes us suffering. Notice the Buddhists are careful to say, the attachment to desire. It's not desire itself that is the problem. Desire for food and water makes us survive. Desire for sex ensures the human species goes on generation after generation. Desires to become a better person or more learned or more comfortable have ensured all of the change and growth since we lived in caves. I write this blog because I desire to find joyful freedom within a life greatly restricted by chronic migraine pain. These desires are essential to who we are.

This second step not only reinforces what we've learned from the Truths, it drives home the lesson by using the verb intend. For renunciation, it's not I will resist the pull of desire, but I intend to resist the pull of desire. Built right into the phrase is an acknowledgement of how even our noble desires are subject to attachment. We can become attached to desiring to resist the pull of desire, causing our own suffering by castigating ourselves or getting depressed when we don't resist. 

Saying we intend to resist desire's attraction signals to and reminds us of  the danger of attaching to the desire to detach from desire. We humans make life pretty complicated.
When you're in chronic pain, you want it to stop. When you're unemployed, you want a job. If a loved one has died, you want them back or want to have not said, or said, or not done, or done something. If you're growing older, you wish you had the strength and energy and looks of the younger you. If you're disabled, you wish for your full capabilities.

You're human. It's natural. Accept that you have desires. Let them be what they are, sit with them. (Meditation and prayer are, I think, essential to this kind of acceptance. You can click on an item in the Labels column to the right of this post if you'd like to read more on the subject.) 

I intend to stop complaining so much about having to stay on the bed in a dark room so often. When I realize I've been complaining, I simply remind myself of my intention, which is a lot more positive and much better for my self-esteem than wondering why I'm such a narcissistic whiner.

Basically, I wrote this post to remind myself of my intention.

You can contact me by leaving a comment below via GooglePlus, or at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

19 February 2014

Right Thinking and Acceptance

Letting go, or acceptance, is a concept found in many religions. It's the foundation of the 12-Step program. For many of us, especially those raised in Western cultures that more often talk about pulling by bootstraps or making things happen, letting go sounds like giving up. I wrote about this specifically in an earlier post.

As I make a fresh start with this blog,I'm beginning with Buddhism's Eightfold Path. I mentioned the Four Noble Truths in my previous post because the Truths are the first step on the Path. I also explained that I separate pain (what comes to us inevitably as part of life) from suffering (what we do to exacerbate pain, like worrying, complaining, wishing things were different, etc). So here is how I understand the Four Noble Truths.

FIRST: Pain is an inevitable part of life.
SECOND: Suffering happens when we attach ourselves to our desires rather than accepting life's pain.
THIRD: Suffering ends when we detach from our desires and accept pain as inevitable.
FOURTH: The Eightfold Path offers a way to practice and learn detachment.

These Truths form the first step on the Eightfold Path, and that step is called Right Thinking.

There's a quality of self-examination that is essential for ending suffering, a self-awareness that permits examination of our thoughts. When I had to leave work I loved because the migraines were interfering too much, it took me many months to realize that certain thoughts -- what if I never work again? -- and emotions -- feeling victimized -- were unnecessary, yet of my choosing.

Here's what I discovered when I began to choose to rise above my self-imposed suffering: just sitting with life's pain is really hard. Not that suffering is easy, but there's something about cycling through suffering that holds a kind of odd payoff for our need to figure things out or our addictions.

Yet there is a purity in acceptance, a scraping away of baggage and addiction and desire that brings one face to face with God, or Allah, or our Buddha Nature, or the Great Mother, whatever language one uses for the Ultimate Divinity for which we're all searching.

Christians sing a hymn, Just As I Am. After the title phrase that begins each verse, various realities of life are acknowledged without one plea,
* waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot
* tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt
* fightings within, fears without
* poor, wretched, blind
 and with the expectation that Christ will cleanse, will purify, having shed blood for us.

Isn't it what we're all wanting, really wanting, deep under daily problems and triumphs and sufferings? We think it will come to us if this ache or hurt would just go away, or if someone would give me a job, or if she/he would just come to realize we were meant to be together, or if I would just stop making mistakes and be right all the time, or if I could have just one more drink, one last puff at that pipe.

Above I wrote, sitting with life's pain is really hard. But that's not the final word. Learning to accept pain by letting go of self-created suffering, by detaching from desires, is the opening of the doorway to joy. That's what I'll write about in my next post.

You can email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com, or make a comment below.

09 February 2014

There's Always A Choice

As I have, over the past nine years, sought relief from chronic pain (migraine), I've learned that it's easy to unconsciously exacerbate one's pain. And since I'm making a fresh start with this blog, I want to re-examine that in the larger context of life's pain.

I know. It sounds depressing, doesn't it? Yippeeeee, let's talk about how full of pain life is! Not what you want to do during an afternoon's perusal of the internet. But there are a couple of distinctions I'd like to make.

First, I don't want to dwell on life's pain. Let's just acknowledge it's there, be realistic about it. If we can simply nod and say, yep, life's full of pain, then move on to the next point, we're setting the stage for deeper healing. We're making room for healing around what's hurting us, like the relationship that's ending, or the job recently lost, the new job not yet found, or a doctor's diagnosis, a friend's disease, or our physical pain.

Second, I've come to understand pain as being different from suffering. Pain is a migraine. Suffering is being upset because I have to cancel yet another visit with a friend. Pain is leaving a long term relationship. Suffering is  guilt and blame and anger. I think of suffering as being what we layer over pain.

Life's pain is inevitable. Suffering is our choice.

Once I learned that, Buddhism's Four Noble Truths made a lot more sense to me. This migraine is inevitable, and I can choose not to make it worse by getting mad about it, or feeling sorry for myself.

In my next post, I'll spend more time with the Four Noble Truths.

You can comment below through GooglePlus, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

05 February 2014

Starting Fresh

I have changed the title and description of my blog.

Used to be: Chronic Pain and Spirituality / How the life of the spirit and chronic pain interact

I changed them in order to expand the purpose of this blog. I began posting in 2010 and kept at it fairly steadily until last October, when I stopped altogether. Not only was school taking a lot of time (understatement), but I was again displeased with the repetitive nature of my posts. My main topic was how spiritual practices can enhance pain management skills, and how pain management informs spiritual practices. After three years, I was coming up with little that was fresh, mostly linking back to previous posts.

This new iteration will be about learning to live a circumscribed life without binding one's spirit. My life is bound by chronic pain, but there are realities that limit other lives -- illness, disability, past trauma, unemployment, and addictions, for example. I want to explore more widely how and why we can try to live joyfully despite such restrictions.

How do we free our spirits within a life that seems to thwart our will at every turn? What have ages-old spiritualities and religions to teach us about that freedom? What is happening in recent research in neurology and behavioral sciences? I'd like to share stories of people searching for freedom in their otherwise circumscribed lives, what they have learned, how they have struggled. 

I'll begin in a few days with a series of posts exploring Buddhism's Eightfold Path.

I'd love to hear from you. Please contact me at carold.marsh@gmail.com or through GooglePlus.

23 September 2013

Accepting Limitations With Tonglen Practice

As has happened before during these past thirteen months, I have been unable to make regular posts on my blog due to school work and the migraines.Time to accept my limitations (an exercise I go through semi-regularly) and content myself with doing what I can, not what I think I should be doing.

I turn too far inward, I lose perspective, when the pain gets as bad as it was and for as many days as it lasted last week. I whine. I become depressed. I lose sight of what is good in my life. I am generally a pain in the butt. God bless my poor husband.

This morning I was reminded, as I sat full of despair about the hostage situation in a Nairobi mall, of a Buddhist practice called tonglen. Here is how Toni Bernhard, in her wonderful book, How To Be Sick, describes it:

"Tonglen practice is a compassion practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. ... In tonglen practice...we breathe in the suffering of the world and breathe out whatever kindness, serenity, and compassion we have to give. It's a counter-intuitive practice...tonglen reverses the ego's logic."

She describes how she used tonglen when trying to work part-time while quite ill. She lay down and breathed in the suffering of all those who must work when they are sick because they have no sick day benefits and who, 'if they didn't go to work...wouldn't be able to pay the rent or buy food for their families.' It lifted her out of despair and self-pity into the 'wonder' of '[f]inding our own storehouse of compassion' in the midst of the practice.

Taking my cue from Toni, I practiced tonglen for all those held hostage by other people or by illness and pain. It's not an easy thing to do. I feel overwhelmed enough by the pain of the world without deciding to breathe it in. But two things happened as I falteringly followed Toni's example.

My own pain and the limitations it causes were placed into perspective by helping me feel part of a larger, human reality. I felt less alone. I felt less singular in my suffering.

And whatever teensy amount of compassion and serenity I mustered was enough. Just what happened in tonglen this morning was sufficient.

These are not cognitive events. They are simply there as I practice. Beyond decision-making or ego machinations or the rationalizations of an orderly mind, they are there. And I am at peace.