Meditation and Morning Coffee

I’ve had this long-standing analogy for my relationship to meditation: that it’s kind of like brushing my teeth. I would notice if I didn’t and I understand there’s a benefit, so I do it. 

I’m in this 40-day program right now with the 3 Oms Yoga studio in Bellingham. Among other things, it involves the following: yoga classes six days a week, meditation twice a day, and a commitment not to have anything addictive, including caffeine and sugar. imagesWhile I’d done different aspects of this separately in the past, I’d never put these particular pieces together before. I knew that this would be an excellent step in my healing process and in my efforts to live my yoga practice more deeply. Lyme disease is rough on my body, both the condition and the treatment. It’s beyond hard to undergo hours of excruciating treatment every day for years. I need to strengthen any avenues that will sustain my fortitude, resilience, and tenacity.

I’m on day 11 of 40. It started a bit like this: 

Day 1: Okay. Meditation: check. I’ve already tapered off coffee and moved from black tea to green tea. The next step won’t be that hard, right? 

Day 2: Wrong! There is, in fact, caffeine in green tea and now I’m unexpectedly fuzzy headed and caffeine withdrawal is setting off spectacular migraines. I almost forgot to meditate. Meditation: check.

Day 3: Right. Got to meditate again. Why am I doing this? I want sugar. I’m starving without sugar. I will eat everything in this city and will never be full because I need sugar. How is it morning without caffeine? Is it even morning? How is this possible?

Day 4: Wait a minute, does sugar keep me from knowing when I’m hungry? Do I eat less food that nourishes me when I’ve had sweetened comfort food? Wait a minute, where does my energy come from if I’m un-caffeinated? I kind of want to meditate and let all of this settle.

Something really powerful began to stir at this point. I started to want to meditate. Without a caffeinated boost, I began to crave sitting and drawing my energy up from the earth. Making time to cultivate healing, clearing energy has begun to leave me focused and ready to start my day–energized, if you will. 

For the past six days, I have felt gently sustained and able to be increasingly present. This is no small feat. Lyme is notorious for inducing brain fog and fatigue. I have been struggling with energy crashes for years. Having an increased ability to maintain an even keel for a week is a spectacular reprieve from the roller coaster of chronic illness energy shifts. I’m not saying I’m cured. I’m not saying that the nightly treatment regimes have lost their treacherous qualities.  What it is doing is exactly what I’d hoped for: it is helping me to turn more deeply toward an inner resilience, supported by loving, healing strength. 

So here I am, 11 days into a program titled “40 Days to Freedom” and meditation has been elevated from tooth-brushing status to morning coffee status. I have definitely craved coffee and sought it out for the energy it provides. My meditation practice is becoming this sustenance for me. I can only imagine what this will make possible from here. 

 

 

Self-care or selfish? 4 Key Questions to Ask Ourselves

Self-care is seriously powerful. Knowing and making space for our own needs is a matter of life and death for some, and a matter of quality of life for others. The virtues of self-care are extolled for allowing us to better take responsibility for ourselves and our lives. And much of this is fantastic. But what about when it isn’t?

Self-care, much like the word trigger, can become a cultural catch-all for letting ourselves off the hook and not doing the hard work to show up for each other through difficult times. Is it hard to do the prep work to make a space safe for a friend with severe allergies? Stay home and take a bath instead… it’s self-care! You don’t want to stand up to a co-worker who is making oppressive jokes about others? Go to a coffee shop during lunch and avoid them… it’s self-care. It doesn’t have to be this way! Chronic illness and my yoga practice have put me in the position to do much pondering as to self-care as healthy engagement versus what results in just leaving each other out in the cold. 

When we think of how we want to build communities or create social change, when you think of how you want to live your own life–do you grapple with where the lines are between self-care and selfishness? There are a some key questions I like to hold to when finding where these edges need to be for myself.

1. Does it just mean comfort?

It can feel like being compassionate to let ourselves not make an effort to break a pattern. On the odd day that comfort show on Netflix and a bowl of ice-cream might be excellent self-care, but its usefulness has a short shelf-life. Sometimes breaking a pattern is uncomfortable but an important part of caring for your life and for those in your community. Are there things that are hard for you to do but may serve a strong long-range vision? What are they? These may be important ingredients in your self-care. 

2. Does it help you show up in a way that is healthy?

I had a friend who was dealing with some serious stuff that that had just been disclosed about their childhood. Though I was having intense fatigue and was in pain, I went to their house and I stayed later than I usually would which is not easy for me. It’s not what I could do everyday, but what this friend was going through was important and I wanted to show up for it. But I didn’t just give care, I also received care. I got home and ate a nutrient-rich meal thanks to my wife who helped to take care of me so that I could take care of my friend. I meditated in a dark, quiet room after, which can help my pain levels. It was hard, but it was healthy.

3.  Do you use it to shut people down or shut people out? 

You might need to retreat in order to care for yourself. You may have recently developed a chronic illness and have to radically revision your capacity to be out in the world. This is not the same as avoiding accountability. I’ve seen folks say, “it’s for my self-care” to duck out of resolving an everyday conflict with a spouse. Self-care does not give us a free pass to vacate difficult conversations and leave our loved ones hanging longer than is necessary. I have seen communities pull away from a person who is grieving the loss of a loved one and rationalize to each other that they need to focus on self-care as a way to not grapple with the overwhelm that another’s grief can evoke. Self-care does not require that we discourage each other from facing our fears. I’d love to see this change and instead, to support one another in finding ways to show up for each other. 

4. Does it take disability and illness into account?

The idea that we can all take care of ourselves is not only a myth, it excludes people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. There have been many times that I could not take care of myself. I don’t just mean this in the “we all need each other” way. I mean that I needed help to get to the bathroom, help lifting a glass of water, help to get out of bed. If my wife and some friends had only thought of their optimal self-care, I would not be here. Let’s not build expectations of self-care that assume everyone has the same capacities and while we’re at it, let’s find ways to increase the capacities to support people within our communities. No one should be left out in the cold! 

Feet!
We’ve got to walk these messy roads together!

 I do not want to care for others in a way that harms me, I do not want to care for myself in a way that diminishes my capacity to be in relationship with others. 

 

On Triggers: Uncomfortable Vs. Unsafe

After I had been sick for a few months, something started happening. I started losing friends. I’m not talking about friends who I saw less– I’m talking about friends who stopped talking to me because I continued to be sick. One person said it was because my health issues triggered her anxiety. Not how I handled my health issues, just their existence. Another said that health angst was a trigger for her (yes, the word angst).

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It’s easy to lose connections when you’re sick!

Trigger can be a useful word. It is meant to describe an otherwise harmless situation that brings up traumatic events. It does not mean uncomfortable, I don’t like it, or I have to think about hard things. We’re talking trauma. The stuff where we fear for our very selves. It is important for trauma survivours to be able to articulate why a seemingly harmless smell or taste or word may trigger a dissociative state. This is about flashbacks to having had a threat to basic safety. This is oh-so-different from discomfort.

We all need to be safe, but enduring relationships of any kind can never be comfortable all the time. A friend’s illness may remind us of our own fragility, but they are not causing a threat to our safety by being sick and still wanting human connection. Another friend’s injury may remind us of when a loved one in our past was injured and this can evoke anxious feelings. However uncomfortable, we do ourselves and others a disservice if we use the language of triggers to justify pulling away from those we care about. We are safe, circumstances are unpleasant, but we are safe.

I’m not immune. There are times that I want to run from all the upsetting things in the world. There are times when I’m overwhelmed and would like to cocoon in a place where I will not be reminded of my own mortality or have my responsibilities to others’ suffering tug at my sleeves. Having had a sizeable amount of trauma to deal with in my life, I have a history of having to weigh out the differences between feeling discomfort and being unsafe and a history of trying to find ways that expand rather than diminish the potential for connection. One thing has really helped. 

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Uncomfortable but safe

I do a lot of yin yoga. Unlike many forms of yoga that build muscle, yin yoga focuses on the connective tissues. You hold poses for 5-10 minutes and let gravity slowly facilitate your deeper release into the pose, rather than your muscles holding you there. I love this form of yoga for the ways it helps me enter a relaxed and still place, especially when I am not strong or steady enough for a more active practice. I also love how clearly it illuminates the difference between uncomfortable and unsafe experiences in my body.

5-10 minutes in a pose can be uncomfortable. Anxieties rise as I breathe through the reflex that I should immediately alleviate discomfort. And the anxieties pass. And I am safe. Safe and better for having found my way through the tensions I habitually carry. I also have a condition where my back can pop out of place really easily. I have to take extra care to not hold many poses as long as those around me can safely hold them. I need to recognize when certain twinges signal that my ribs would pop out of place in the night were I not to stop, find neutral again, and do a few gentle counter stretches before approaching the pose again. Holding a pose as long as my fellow yogis would often not be okay for me. It could result in harm. But I do not leave the class. I take care of myself and find a way back “in.”

As usual, there is a yoga metaphor in this. What if, when uncomfortable feelings arise in the face of someone else’s suffering, we check those feelings against whether or not the situation will bring harm to us if we wait them out to their inevitable passage? What if, when someone else’s circumstances bring up pain for us, we could take care of our needs in such a way that would allow us to stay engaged and come back “in?”

Showing up can be uncomfortable, but let’s face it: someone else’s pain is not a trauma that is being inflicted on us; likewise, the existence of our pain is not inflicting trauma. Isolation can be one of the worst parts of chronic illness. Let’s build cultures and counter-cultures that lessen the inevitability of this. We will be safe. Safe and better for releasing the disconnection we inevitably carry. 

 

 

 

4 Urgent Things to Know about Chronic Lyme

 

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One of the really hard things about having chronic Lyme is that it is a condition that few understand and many don’t believe is real. Meanwhile people are dying. Public understanding is a really important part of having any potential to change. Please educate yourselves, your families, your co-workers, and your health providers. People living with it need your support, too. Make Skype dates with folks who are isolated from illness, bring soup when people can’t cook, offer to grab meds. There is so much hard, let’s lighten these loads a little. 

Urgent fact #1: Chronic Lyme is degenerative.

Without treatment, the infection will continue to grow and the damage will become irreversible. Without treatment, the infection can get into a person’s heart and cause heart failure. It can get into a person’s brain and cause fits of swelling that will drive people into a suicidal frenzy (whether or not they actually want to die). People with chronic Lyme are fighting for their lives. 

Urgent fact #2: Chronic Lyme is not recognized by the Centre for Disease Control.

This doesn’t just mean that a person has to pay for treatment, it means that treatment is illegal. Medical clinics are being shut down. People are turned away from hospitals. If you have an emergency and say you have chronic Lyme, you are likely to have your very real symptoms dismissed: for example, I went to the hospital for acute, classic heart attack symptoms and made the mistake of mentioning my condition (Lyme can cause heart issues) and was subsequently dismissed and told to take an Ativan to “calm down.” They had previously been taking my symptoms seriously.

Urgent Fact #3: Mis-diagnosis is frequent.

Chronic Lyme is a like a big cooking pot where hundreds of symptoms from dozens of diseases get poured in. If you have chronic Lyme, it’s as if you got a big ladle full of the disease soup–whatever is in that scoop is your particular dish of symptoms. Folks needing a diagnosis of chronic Lyme are often likely to be given many different diagnoses, the treatment for which could end up making Lyme worse (e.g., I was given an asthma diagnosis and put on steroid inhalers–steroids actually feed Lyme!). While some symptoms might be somewhat reduced from treating other conditions, the actual cause remains unaddressed. Lyme is degenerative, misdiagnosis is a huge issue!

Urgent fact #4: This is all very unethical!

Why does a person have to find an expensive doctor who is flying under the radar (impossible in Canada) and pay out of pocket? Why are folks who cannot do this being left to die? One reason is that there is an abundance of unethical crap going on. People on the board that approves treatment are share-holders with insurance companies that don’t want to pay for long-term treatment. 

This documentary is the best source I can recommend for learning more: 

http://www.underourskin.com imgres

I highly recommend this film for so many reasons: it allows you to see how hard the struggle is for people with Lyme, it gives a better understanding of the political climate, it shows how much brutal, but effective treatment helps! (You can stream it for free from a number of different places, depending on where you live.)

 

This is a difficult post. I can’t put a nice spin from here. People are dying. They don’t need to be. We’ve got to speak up. (Also, if you think you might have it, please start the process. Don’t try to wait it out to see if it gets better or just hope that maybe it’s something else. Sooner is better!)

 

 

 

 

Feeling at home in your body is your freaking birthright

When I first went to a yoga workshop in the mid-1990s, I was struck with the life-changing sense of being in my body. Connecting to my breath without a benchmark to achieve or a solution to seek, I had my first inkling that perhaps my body was not a problem to be solved, but just my home. I was struck by how very new this feeling was.

Almost two decades later, Lyme really threw this sense for a loop. First, in the current political climate, no one will give you a chronic Lyme diagnosis. You have to fight the system and assert that you are not imagining your symptoms (and that they would not, in fact, happen just from stress). You have to find a specialist and pay a lot of money out of pocket for consultations and a tests. If you manage all of this, you still need to become an expert, researching the s**t out of the disease. This takes differentiating propaganda from research while contenting with an appalling dearth of actual studies. Going through horrifying experiences that no one can see? Dominant institutions not believing you? For so many of us who grew up in unsafe homes, these feelings can be all too familiar. 

Is this sounding like a good time yet? It gets better. Most of the literature out there is profoundly alienating. It goes as far as to refer to people with chronic Lyme as “the host:” e.g., Lyme will adjust the temperature of the host to make it an ideal environment to reproduce. How is it to read this about what’s happening in your own body? I know I just wanted to crawl out of my own skin. Long shed notions that my body was against me crept back in through these awful times. The narratives of blame were all too familiar. Familiar, and a bloody lie. 

If you have a chronic illness, your body is contending with an incredible amount of difficult things to process. Maybe you are contending with a virus, bacteria, or parasite. Maybe you have an auto-immune condition and your body is working really freaking hard, perhaps misguidedly, to protect you. You do not need to believe that you or your wounds are to blame. Maybe this condition is just happening because the world is a complex place that is full of intricate eco-systems: some support us, some are harmless, some get in our way. When I look into everything that takes place just for one breath to happen, it is no wonder that our systems sometimes go awry. You do not need to take on military metaphors of invasion or alienating notions that you are an incubator for a condition. Instead of buying into the alienating metaphors, I will keep returning to my yoga practice to cultivate a sense of love and reverence for how hard my body works for me. 

Goddess

No matter what you are going through, you are entitled to a loving way of understanding your own body. You are still entitled to cultivate a sense of home inside your own skin. It is your freaking birthright!  

Something You Can Choose When You Have a Chronic Illness

You can choose how you feel about it. 

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I don’t mean this in the “you always have a choice to be happy” way. I mean it’s you who gets to choose. Not your friends, not your doctor, not a meme on Facebook.

We’ve all seen them, memes proclaiming the wonders of feeling gratitude for everything and proclaiming the spiritual power of seeing everything as a blessing. I saw one the other day that asked “what if we were just grateful for everything?” I know my answer: then I would be repressing a lot of how I actually feel and I would not be able to access the love and support I need to grapple with those feelings!

What if your yoga practice, your meditation practice, or whatever spiritual practice you have made room for you to feel however you actually feel? I appreciate that when doing yoga I have space to feel the fear that my illness evokes. When I meditate I have space to grieve the many losses it means in my life– I miss travelling, oh God how I miss travelling, and I just can’t with my current breathing issues. This isn’t a gift for me, I’m actually just pretty sad about it. These complicated feeling that would not fit on a meme can be a dull hum in the background of my day. My spiritual practice affords room for me to have those feelings from an uncluttered space.

Are you in pain much of the time? Do you take regular trips to the hospital? It’s okay if you’re not grateful for that. You can still be grateful for other things. Do you have trouble having energy for basic things, like eating breakfast or taking a shower? It’s okay to not see it as a gift. You have enough you cannot control when you have a chronic illness, this is one choice that is yours. When I claim that you get to choose how you feel, I mean that in a way that is free of moral judgement. One choice is not more enlightened than another, sadness is not less valid than happiness. If you have a spiritual practice, it’s okay to give yourself permission to bring how you actually are on any given day.

I wish for love, healing, and compassion to surround you in whatever feelings need to arise–whether they involve anger at God, a sense of the earth “having your back,” or just a moment of stillness. 

 

 

 

Cultivating peace in the struggle

At least I try! It is extremely difficult some days. Today was one of those days. I came across this meme in a Lyme group that gives a pretty good sense as to why:12208642_491139397727626_4563528493100458482_n

This was my night. This was my morning. Plus, Lyme causes severe chemical sensitivities and other breathing issues for me, so add intense air hunger and risk of anaphylaxis from everyday products to this list. I knew spending the day in bed watching Netflix would be a perfectly reasonably response, I also knew it would leave me feeling more detached and disconnected than I already did.

Bad days leave me feeling cut off. Cut off from  feeling like myself. Cut off from feeling love. It’s a spiritually lonely feeling. When I had my first fallout from Lyme treatment, I had what I suppose you would call a spiritual crisis. The constant borage of horrifying symptoms made me feel so deeply alone and estranged from God/dess, the universe, Shakhinah (feel free to use whatever name is useful to you).

Today I had to push myself to get ready to leave the house and was out of breath after putting on socks (on a good day I can cycle 10 miles and go to a yoga class, it’s an odd range right now). I pushed forward and we went to this breathtakingly gorgeous woodsie spot by the ocean only 20 miles from our house. Down at the beach, this little spot in the sandstone rock was calling to me. I tucked myself in to a crevice in the rocks and felt so deeply comforted. 

Meditation is usually hard for me. I have an active-PhD brain and am always plotting 80 books and writing at least one. In this spot, I melted into meditation. My gaze on the horizon, my breathing following the rhythm of the waves, my anxiety over this Bad Day unfurled as I felt–dare I say it–at peace! Feeling connected to love and to my own self gave me some ease in managing the horrible symptoms. Don’t get me wrong, if I had a magic wand, I would get rid of them. Instantly. But this truly was a moment of cultivating peace in the struggle. 

I am ending today still in pain, more pain than usual; I am also ending the day with more peace than usual and this is a rare and wonderful thing. Also, how great is my town that we live close to the city center and also so close to this magnificent spot? Whatever you have going on in your life right now, I am wishing you some peace in your struggle–however you might find it.