Salt Heart

I was tired,
half sleeping in the sun.
A single bee
delved the lavender nearby,
and beyond the fence,
a trowel’s shoulder knocked a white stone.
Soon, the ringing stopped.
And from somewhere,
a quiet voice said the one word.
Surely a command,
though it seemed more a question,
a wondering perhaps—”What about joy?”
So long it had been forgotten,
even the thought raised surprise.
But however briefly, there,
in the untuned devotions of bee
and the lavender fragrance,
the murmur of better and worse was unimportant.
From next door, the sound of raking,
and neither courage nor cowardice mattered.
Failure – uncountable failure – did not matter.
Soon enough that gate swung closed,
the world turned back to heart-salt
of wanting, heart-salts of will and grief.
My friend would continue dying, at last
only exhausted, even his wrists thinned with pain.
The river Suffering would take what it
wished of him, then go. And I would stay
and drink on, as the living do, until the rest
would enter into that water—the lavender swept in,
the bee, the swallowed labors of my neighbor.
The ordinary moment swept in, whatever it drowsily holds.
I begin to believe the only sin is distance, refusal.
All others stemming from this. Then come.
Rivers, come. Irrevocable futures, come. Come even joy.
Even now, even here, and though it vanish like him.

Jane Hirshfield

Home from School

I stay home from school today because I know I’m going to have a seizure. It lurks in my body, taunts me with its octopus’ arms, wants me in its clutches.

            I lie on my parents’ bed on my stomach and watch Dialing for Dollars on tv, waiting.

            The waiting is the worst. Like waiting for death only I think worse.  Like waiting for an abusive husband to come home and notice you broke a dish. You know he’s going to hit you. It’s like that. I know the seizure’s going to come like I know my own name, where I was born, the sound of rain against a window. It has its own texture and taste and you hate it, but you’ve got to bear it, right? You don’t have a choice.

            At some point, my mother comes into the bedroom with my lunch: grilled cheese and tomato soup. After I eat, I set aside my plate and I lie back. I know it’s coming now, and just as I yell out “Help me!” I fall into terror and space. I am gone.

            When I come to, I am still gripped with terror. I have no idea who I am, or who this woman is standing over me. I ask the same questions over and over again, “What happened? Where am I?” My mother answers my questions with patience and kindness and an undertone of sadness.

            The force that has ripped through my body has left me completely and utterly spent. I feel like I’ve run a marathon. Every muscle aches. You never know how many muscles you’ve got until you’ve had a seizure. And my head screams with pain, a heavy pain, an all-encompassing pain, a dead weight on my forehead, entering my skull. Even with the blinds drawn, the light is too bright, too loud, an explosion. I feel like a hurt animal. And even though my mother’s here with her pained expression, I am dismally alone. I don’t know anyone like me, anyone that goes through this. I feel guilty. I feel like I’ve done something wrong.

            “I’m sorry”, I say to my mother. She looks more pained. “Oh darlin! You don’t have anything to be sorry for”. But I do somehow. The guilt doesn’t go away with her saying this. I’m a problem, I think. I’ve created a problem. I’m making her life harder; I know it. And I can’t seem to change it.

            All these thoughts though, they’re like gray moths fluttering beneath my mind. I’m too exhausted, too spent to really know they’re there.

            Bit by bit the terror recedes, and I pull the covers up and fall into a dark sleep.

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

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

What is Happiness?

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – Dalai Lama

The other day I wrote in my blog that I was happy. I had slept well enough for me, was able to spend quality time with 3 friends and I felt like a “normie”. But that kind of happiness, although welcome, is conditional: if I’m not anxious, overly sleep-deprived or seizury, I feel happy.

Recently, I had an exchange with an old friend via email. I had noticed before that he seemed quite cynical and I suggested a book he might want to read that I found uplifting. In the exchange, I told him I wanted him to be happy. He responded that “happiness is a strange thing” and went on to say that in many ways his life was blessed. But a few years ago, his son died in a tragic accident and there were times he felt devastated and had a hard time functioning. He said that next time we talked he would try to be more upbeat.

I had to think about what I wrote. How can we be happy when a loved one has died, especially tragically? How can we be happy when our lives are diminished, when our activities are limited, when we are in pain? Is happiness even a realistic goal? And is happiness only based on outside circumstances?

            I instantly wrote back to my friend that I didn’t want him to be inauthentic. I didn’t want him to pretend to be “upbeat”. What I wanted, I realized, was for him to not get stuck in bitterness, which I feared was what was happening. I’m afraid of that in myself sometimes, or that I’ll fall into a pit of despair and not be able to come out of it.

            I think a deeper, more intrinsic kind of happiness is based on kindness and compassion. Suffering and hardship will come to all of us some way or another. If we hold ourselves and each other with kindness and compassion, we tap into what could be called our true nature, and that is based on not only no conditions, but is comforting and always available.

            And yet, I know how hard it is to deal with an on-going illness, and how it can lead to bitterness, depression, despair, and other difficult mind states that can overwhelm us. Therefore, to get in touch with our innermost self, we need to cultivate kindness, compassion. This takes practice, continual practice.

            This, in my opinion, is what leads to true happiness. If we strive towards a happiness that is only based on outside circumstances, we are eventually going to be disappointed; for these circumstances are bound to change. But when we strive for happiness that is based on our own natural resources, we will be tap into something that can never be taken away from us.            

What do you think?

Edited to include an additional paragraph