Grand Mal

1.

For one second before I seize

I can feel it approach

like a hawk encircling its prey

with one exacting purpose.

At the same time

I am overtaken by an animal terror

for my body knows of what’s to come.

The hawk, with skillful acuity

dives in for the kill

and as I leave my body,

forced out by fright,

it grabs me with its talons,

attacks me with its beak

and strips me of muscle, thought,

bone, fur, awareness.

2.

A few minutes later I return

to my shaking animal body

discarded by the hawk

rejected by death

and knowing only terror.

Restless and raw,

groundless and homeless,

pieces of fur and bone

lie scattered amongst fragmented thoughts.

3.

Slowly,

bit by bit,

piece by piece,

every muscle spent

every neuron used up,

I put myself back together:

tendon to bone to flesh

to thought to awareness,

memory by memory,

I begin to recognize

who this self is.

I tremble and cry

at once overcome

with the horror and wonder

that is life.

Essay: Who Am I?

When I was quite young, I sometimes wondered who I really was. At the time, I didn’t have words to make sense of what I even meant by this. I was called “Katie” by those who knew me. But was this who I was, really? I was the daughter of 2 people called “Lydia and “Bill”, but did that make up who I was? I had a body I walked around in, that got me from one place to another. But my body certainly wasn’t all of who I was. I had developed likes and dislikes: I hated eggs but loved root beer Popsicles. I hated school but loved reading. But those things didn’t completely define me, either.

            These questions, organized around thoughts & feelings & sensations, scared me. If I wasn’t these things, then who was I? Was I nothing at all? That thought really scared me. I knew intuitively, that the adults around me wouldn’t know the answers to all these questions. This concerned me, because usually, adults had all the answers. And if they couldn’t answer this Big Question, then I’d have to walk around with an uneasiness without getting any resolution. I didn’t like that.

            It was not until I reached my 40’s that I realized the questions I had about having a fixed self was called “self-inquiry”. I learned this from reading books on eastern philosophy and some of my experiences meditating. When meditating, I sometimes lost my usual sense of self. Gone was my hold on my identity with my body and mind and all its expressions and projections. I understood that who I was couldn’t ever really be pinned down, but that it didn’t vanish altogether, either. This was a great revelation. It gave me a feeling of great peace and comfort.

            It still does; when anxiety becomes overwhelming, being reminded of a vaster consciousness softens my experience and makes it less frightening. Bringing space to the anxiety begins to relax the knot of tension in my solar plexus, giving the sensations there – room to move. From there, tenderness moves in. Staying with spacious awareness allows the contracted body (in this case, what I’ve labeled “anxiety”) to relax and feel held.

            In writing all this (which took some time), I really had to reflect on all that this brought up for me. So, I asked myself this question: How do I apply this to my daily life? How do I remind myself of vast awareness?

            Letting that idea float in my mind, I put my pen down for a moment and decided to do some yoga. My back has been bothering me for a while, so when I started doing the poses, I paid close attention to those places that felt tense. Ah – I thought – contraction. Yoga places an emphasis on breath, so I breathed into those areas as I went from pose to pose. Breath… Yes – that’s a way to open the body/mind and create space to let those knotted areas have room to loosen up. After a while, some tension was released, and those constricted areas let go a little. When I ended the session in a relaxation pose, my attention was more able to take in the whole of my body, rather than just the painful part. Contraction leading to expansion.            

How about you? Did this post open you up? How did it affect you? What can you do today to bring a bigger perspective into your life – for example, the pain you experience (whether physical or emotional), that’s happening right now? Experiment. And, if comfortable, let me know what happens.

Thich Nhat Hanh and The Kardashians

What does it mean to be spiritual? I meditate, do yoga, read books on Buddhism and spirituality. I also watch TV, dance to loud rock and roll and occasionally read People Magazine. When I engage in these latter activities, does this mean I am not being spiritual?

One day I watch a DVD documentary about Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Vietnamese Zen monk. I am deeply moved and inspired by this wise and gentle soul. I feel this burning desire to be like him. I vow then and there to be more “spiritual”; perhaps meditate longer and more often, pray daily and more fervently.

But then the next few nights my sleep is more disturbed than usual, which triggers my seizure threshold, and my anxiety is heightened. From there, feelings of dread and despair threaten to take over. Instead of meditating, which I feel I should do, but requires focus and concentration I do not have, I binge watch “The Kardashians”. Where did my resolve go? I feel bad about myself. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a truly spiritual person.

And yet upon reflection, those times when I give in and watch TV, I realize that I’m doing what my mind and body need to do. As someone who is chronically ill, I spend a lot of my time, like it or not, inwardly focused, probably more than the average person. I suspect this is true for most people with chronic illness.

For me, this can lead to depressive and anxious states and sometimes, despair.

I do use meditation practice to investigate these difficult emotional states, but sometimes, I need a break! I need distraction and I can get that quite easily with TV.

            Many spiritual teachers warn of being distracted through all kinds of activity as a way of separating oneself from what’s going on internally, but for me there is a danger in getting too caught up in difficult emotional states. And this can lead towards hopelessness and despondency.

            By watching reality shows like “The Kardashians”, I get a lot of breathing room by entering someone else’s “reality”. It gives me space. It lightens my mood. There is so much drama and antics packed into one show that it takes up most of my awareness: Will Scott Disick stop drinking? Will Kourtney and Scott get back together? Why does Kim act so superior? Will Khloe be successful with her new fashion line? Will Kris stop meddling?

            By immersing myself in such trivial things, I lighten up. I take myself and my life less seriously. I get my needed break.

            So, can we meditate and watch TV and still be spiritual? Can Thich Nhat Hanh and the Kardashians be part of my spiritual path? My answer is yes.

To Be Honest

When I started my “book” many years ago, I offered things I know like meditation techniques which were and are helpful for me, and I hoped, kind of for others.  And I guess I’ll include those kinds of things in my blog in the future.  But I feel there’s a tone sometimes in the “book” which makes it sound like I have all the answers.  I don’t.  I have been living with chronic illness for about 50 years, so I certainly have experience of which I’m willing to share.  But ultimately, we all have to find our own way. 

     I don’t like spiritual or self-help books by people who think they have all the answers.  It puts me off and makes me feel insecure somehow.  I especially don’t like books by doctors or professionals that act like they know what you should do.  There’s often good advice there to be sure, but they don’t know what it’s like to be chronically ill.  Only we do.

     So, I want to be really honest with this blog.  I want to share my experiences and what has been helpful for me, in hopes it could be helpful to you.  But there are no guarantees.

     And now I’m going to jump into another topic: Death.  How’s that for a topic?  I think death feels more intimate when you suffer from chronic illness.  It hangs out with you while you watch TV or garden or pet your cat, or when you eat cheerios in the morning (or at midnight).  Sometimes this feels scary and sometimes it feels like a gift.  Sometimes we think of suicide, or at least I do.  But I suspect I’m not the only one out there that does.  But I also feel more connected with my body because I’m constantly needing to tune into it and attend to it.  There’s an understanding too, by seeing how my body responds when, for example, I’m anxious, that it’s easy to see how the body deteriorates.  I have developed an ulcer because of the many years of this intense anxiety.  It doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to see how the body will eventually break down altogether.  Maybe some of this understanding comes with age – I’m 64.  But I think I’m more aware of death than other 64-year olds who have had little or no health problems.  I look up from writing and see my cat Zoe washing herself methodically and my heart feels a soreness that is painful yet beautiful.  I think if I took life for granted, I wouldn’t experience this so poignantly.  I really do.  So, in a way, awareness of death is a gift.  So is chronic illness.  And yet, if I’m honest, it doesn’t always feel that way.