Kindness in Daily Life

I open my eyes and look at my watch: 6:15. Not bad. And I didn’t toss & turn too much, didn’t wake up too often, anxiety didn’t take over that many times. I decide to call off my caregiver for the day. I get out of bed and when my feet touch the carpet I whisper, “thank you”, then head into the kitchen. I’ll call Helen today, she says she’ll be available and we can write together (I enjoy these get-togethers; we write down topics on scraps of paper, crumple them up and toss them into a bowl, then choose one and, without thinking, write for 5-10 minutes on that topic. Afterwards, we read what we’ve written to each other). As I grab my smoothie from the fridge, I decide to take a walk, early, before it gets too hot. The thought makes me smile.

            After my smoothie, I sit in my armchair and begin to meditate. I focus on my breath, feeling my belly go up and down, grounding my energy through my body. After a few minutes into it, I start to feel strange. My thoughts become scattered and my eyelids flutter – I can’t keep them still. I can’t seem to focus and my stomach clenches in fear. Agitation churns throughout my body. The feelings are too familiar – what I call “seizury”. Stay with the feeling, I tell myself. I bring my attention back to the breath. Agitation turns to anxiety and my thoughts speed up. Again, my stomach clenches. Back to meditation. Maybe I should have a caregiver. I feel the anxiety burn in my belly and turn to resentment and anger. Resistance. I breathe into it.

            But, I’m unable to stay with it – I’m too uncomfortable, my body and mind too restless. I sigh. Damn! I better have a caregiver after all – who knows where this is all going to go? My heart sinks. No writing with Helen. No walk, either. I get up and pace the room and remember; kindness. I say it out loud, for emphasis: “kindness”. And then I surrender, feel a softening, a tender acceptance.

            And then I call my caregiver.

Loving Kindness, Part II

Here is Part II of Loving Kindness. Scroll back to where I first address it.

Loving kindness meditation – a Buddhist practice, helps soften the critical voices that can arise in us, and can deplete our energy further. It helps meet our inner and outer wounds with gentleness instead of self-hate. Loving kindness accepts us for who we are right now, with all our real or perceived imperfections. Right now, right here, whoever we are, whatever we have done, we deserve love.

Loving Kindness Meditation

            Get in a comfortable, but alert position. Become aware of your breath moving in and out of your body. Now, become aware of sensations in your body: the tickle in your throat or the pressure of the chair on your buttocks, etc. Notice how this moment-to-moment awareness brings you fully to the present.

            When you feel ready, begin.

            On the in-breath, say out loud or silently:

            “May I be free of suffering”.

            On the out-breath:

            “May I be well”.

            On the next inhale:

            “May I be peaceful and at ease”.

            On the next exhale:

            “May I be happy”.

            Keep this up for as long as feels comfortable. When your mind strays, gently, with loving kindness, bring it back to these simple and caring words. If the phrases don’t resonate with you, feel free to make up your own.

            Here are the phrases I’ve been using lately:

            May I treat myself kindly.

            May I love myself just the way I am.

            Sometimes coordinating the breath with the phrases is difficult, so just drop that part of the practice if that is the case, coming back to it another time, if you want. The purpose of the breath here, is that it can help ground the practice in your body, but if it proves too much, don’t do it. Sometimes, when I am very tired and depleted, following through the phrases is too much for me. You may find this is true for you too. What I do instead, is to conjure up the feeling of loving kindness and shower myself with that feeling, resting one hand on my belly and one on my heart. Sending loving kindness to certain areas of the body that need attention can be powerful as well.

            Traditionally, we begin these phrases with ourselves, then move on to others, building up loving kindness in our hearts. But, although the idea of showering ourselves with loving kindness may seem simple enough at first glance, we may have difficulty with it. We may not be used to such gentleness with ourselves. If this is true for you, or if the words become mechanical, take time to recall an incident where someone was kind to you. It can be as simple as someone letting you into the flow of traffic, or a gentle tone someone used with you when you felt out of sorts. Connect with that feeling and then begin the phrases that work for you.

            After practicing for yourself, you may want to stop right there. But, if you want, the next step is to practice the phrases for someone else, someone you care about. This may prove easier to do and, if true, you may want to begin your practice here instead of with yourself. You want to visualize this person as best as you can and then say the same phrases, replacing “may I” with “may you” or “may s/he”. I find that saying “you” brings the person that much closer to my heart, so that is what I use, but try both ways and see what’s right for you. You may try this practice for several people you are close with (one at a time). If you have trouble visualizing, don’t be too concerned. What’s most important is that you connect on a feeling level with whomever you are doing the meditation for.

            Then, to expand our capacity for loving kindness, we move on to a neutral person in our life – a bank teller or the receptionist at our doctor’s office, for example. Can we let these people into our heart as well? Doing this part of the practice awakens an inclusion of others in my heart that I never used to consider very much. We have a tendency to just be affected by those we have strong feelings for; whether those feelings are of anger or love. But, this part of the practice allows us to develop loving kindness towards people we can usually dismiss altogether. Now, after years of practice, I find myself wondering about these people in my life – the clerk at the pharmacy, the cashier at Safeway. When I interact with them, it’s subtle, but I feel a veil has been lifted from my heart. When I say “thank you” as they bag my groceries, or hand me my prescriptions, it is more often not out of automatic politeness, but with sincerity.

            The next step, if you want to continue, is to consider someone, or several others, that you have difficulty with. Obvious people may leap into mind – you may be struggling with someone you work with, or be in conflict with a relative, or someone in your community. But, if this is not true for you, perhaps there is someone who rubs you the wrong way. You can’t figure out why, and maybe feel ashamed of this reaction, but the truth is, when you see them, or think of them, you become annoyed, frustrated, or just plain angry. I admit that there is a handful of people in my community that can get on my nerves. I come in contact with them on rare occasions at gatherings and events, and therefore, rub shoulders with them to some degree. They represent the kind of person I’m talking about and would include in this particular practice.

            Once you have someone or a group in mind, visualize them as clearly as you can, and, to the best of your ability, go through the phrases again, using “may you” or “may they”.

            It’s easy to see that we may have difficulty with this. What has arisen for me, in this part of the practice, is noticing my own judgements, not the people themselves. I see my anger, my frustration, my impatience, and I see how these emotions block my heart from free-flowing love. Therefore, it could be said that sending loving kindness to those we are at odds with in some way, has the added effect of awakening our heart to what we push aside within ourselves, including perhaps, our illness.

            This brings up a good question: when we practice loving kindness for others, are we doing it for us or them? I believe the answer is both. In meditation, we see how our thoughts and emotions affect us and when we meditate on the phrases of loving kindness, they too have an effect. We can only know, really, how they affect us, not others. Yet, I’m sure we all have had the experience of walking into a room where people have been fighting, but now are silent. We may not know what they’ve been fighting about, but we can feel the charged energy immediately. The same holds true if we walk into a room where people have been meditating. We can feel a pervasive quiet that can have a profound effect on us. So, I believe that the phrases we use in loving kindness meditation can have a positive effect on those we practice for, as well as ourselves, and acting as a kind of prayer or blessing.

            When you are finished with the phrases with those who are difficult in your life, imagine all those people that you’ve just practiced for: yourself, loved one(s), neutral people and difficult people, and then say the phrases again. Start with “may we…”. It’s always an interesting group that shows up – people that probably would never congregate in real life! I visualize them in a circle but do whatever works for you.

            The next step, if you have energy, is to proceed with the phrases for your home town as a whole, then your state, your country, and then the whole world!             When we have finished with the entire practice, our hearts are now as big as the entire universe. By being all-inclusive, we not only have broken down our armoring, but have touched upon our true nature by uncovering our deepest heart’s desire: to love unconditionally. This practice too, has the ability to increase our self-esteem, because as people with chronic illness, we can sometimes struggle with our sense of purpose in life. What greater purpose can we have than offering our blessings of well-being to others? Practicing for others can have the added benefit of taking the focus off of ourselves, which can feel like a relief and allow us to feel less isolated. We become a part of a greater whole, experiencing more connection with others.

Life as a Crip

I wrote the following as a writing exercise, and ended up liking it. I realized, too, that it is based very loosely on my partner, who deals with chronic pain.

Life would be much easier if I were a cartoon character. Let me explain: I’ve been disabled ever since a car accident in 1972. A drunk driver slammed into me, and I haven’t been the same since. My right leg got crushed and I have to walk with a cane. I’m always in pain. Plus, I ended up with some brain damage, (my girlfriend Ellie teases me – friendly like, that I’m not right in the head) so I can’t carry on long conversations or I get overwhelmed, and my memory is for shit. So, I’ve more or less become a hermit. People tire me.

            I spend most of my time watching cartoons and sometimes I get so involved, I think I’m part of the show. I like Sponge Bob a lot – but mostly, I like the old ones, like the Flintstones or The Jetsons. So, if I were a cartoon character, I wouldn’t feel like I had to fit in the way people expect you to. I could go beneath the sea like Sponge Bob, or soar through space in my space mobile, like George Jetson.

            Of course, I like all those super heroes too, because they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, and people look up to them. They can save the day instead of waiting around to be saved. Ellie asked me once if I could have one super power, what would it be. I didn’t have to think about it – I’d have the power to be invisible. That way, nobody would bother me, and I wouldn’t have to answer to no one. Ellie told me she thought I’d say being able to fly, and I could see her point. If I could fly, I wouldn’t have to drag this shriveled old leg around anymore.

            Ellie is the only person I want to have anything to do with. She seems to know when to leave me alone (which is most of the time), and when to hang out with me. She puts up with the TV and my cartoons, she laughs at my stupid jokes, and sometimes, I actually think she enjoys my company.

Mandala

When you can’t stand

your life one second

longer, this is what

you must do:

Get out of bed.

Put on clean underwear.

Put on that dress with

The green buttons and

stripes of blue.

Look out at the morning

With its expectant face

and withered leaves

Set your feet down

on the carpet. It

doesn’t matter if the

carpet is frayed yellow

Just find the patch

of sun on it where

you would lay if

you were a cat and

draw a circle around it.

This is your

mandala for the day

Study it.

More on Self-kindness

To give you a taste of where I hope to continue with this topic, here’s a wonderful poem by Naomi Shihab Nye and a quote by Pema Chodron, which, with a little tweaking, can fit your own life. And then I add something of my own along those lines.

Kindness
 
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
 
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
 
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
 
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye

May I treat myself

kindly

May I love myself

Just the way I am

Pema Chodron

May we all treat ourselves kindly

May we all love ourselves

Just the way we are

Introduction to Loving Kindness

Too often a side effect to chronic illness is the harsh way we treat ourselves. When we feel poorly, we often think and act poorly. On top of the difficulties we experience, we may feel we are somehow responsible for our illness or feel inept at coping with it. We think perhaps if we were someone else, we would be handling it better. We hear of spiritual masters who can transcend pain, why can’t we? Why do we still need medication? Why can’t we get a job done on time? Why can’t we do the simple task of washing dishes without it overwhelming us? On top of all that, we unconsciously send hateful thoughts to our afflicted body parts: “why won’t you just work?”

We may feel justified with these insidious self-accusations, or secretly believe we deserve the suffering we are enduring. We may wonder if maybe we did something in a past life that we are making up for now in the form of illness. Maybe we did something (or think we did) in this life that we feel is resulting in our present condition. We may even be doing something we know is contributing to our overall lack of health, like eating junk food, or smoking cigarettes.

The simple fact is even if some of these things have any credence, it never makes us feel any better to harangue ourselves. No one’s condition ever improved and no one has ever cured themselves from an illness by critical self-talk. Ask yourself this: would you ever treat a loved one as harshly as you treat yourself?

Book Reviews and Suggested Reading

I’d like to recommend a few books that have resonated deeply with me.

  1. Finding Freedom in Illness by Peter Fernando From the point of view of someone with chronic illness, Fernando uses meditation techniques and contemplation to explore the physical, emotional, and mental difficulties that often come hand-in-hand with chronic illness. Including personal stories, he emphasizes self-kindness as a way to relate to the negative self-talk that can arise with an on-going illness.  He encourages us to be present with all that surfaces in the mind and body, including an entire chapter dedicated strictly on pain. You can trust what he is saying, because you know by his words he’s been there, unlike many health practitioners who haven’t. This is a book to come back to again and again, to remind you what your true worth is. It feels like a real friend.
  2. The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff – Review on the back cover of this book: “Illness is a universal experience. There is no privilege that can make us immune to its touch. We are taught to assume health, illnesses being just temporary breakdowns in the well-oiled machinery of the body. But illness has its own geography, its own laws and commandments. At a time when the attention of the whole nation is focused on health care, Kat Duff inquires into the nature and function of illness itself. Duff, a counselor in private practice in Taos, New Mexico, wrote this book out of her experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, but what she has to say is applicable to every illness and every one of us. For those who are sick, this book offers solace and recognition. For those who care for them either physically or emotionally, it offers inspiration and compassion. Finally, this fresh perspective on healing reveals how every illness is a crucible that tries our mettle, tests our limits, and provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to integrate its lesson into our lives. “Published by Bell Tower, an imprint of Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc.”, 1993]
  3. Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of TREYA KILLAM WILBER by Ken Wilber – Review on the back cover of this book: “Grace and Grit is the compelling story of the five-year journey of psychologist Ken Wilber and his wife, Treya Killam Wilber, through Treya’s illness, treatment, and, finally, death. Ken’s wide-ranging commentary-which questions both conventional and New Age approaches to illness-is combined with Treya’s journals to create a vivid portrait of health and healing, wholeness and harmony, suffering and surrender.” Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1991

A Quote ~ Lama Surya Pas

“Deep in the part of us that is most ultimately interrelated with everything else in the universe, we realize that our own true happiness and fulfillment are inseparable from the true happiness and fulfillment of all other living creatures.
We resonate with the notion that we won’t really be free unless the whole world around us is also free, and we genuinely believe we must incorporate that purpose into our life, whatever it may entail”.

Lama Surya Pas