Sunday, November 22, 2009

It is My Nature


There is a Buddhist chant which, translated into English, goes: "It is my nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging; It is my nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness; It is my nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying.”

Though I had been faced with life-threatening illness at age 27, I don't believe that even then, I could conceive of my own death. I remember vividly the moment that wisdom - the actual knowledge that I was going to die - occurred. Oddly enough it was not at a time of illness, stress, or of unhappiness. I was not grieving or facing loss. I simply woke up one morning with the knowledge of my eventual and certain death. It came with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, a surge of fear. The fear subsided, but the knowledge stayed.

I have since had numerous friends and relatives die. Many refuse to face the fact of their own mortality, and deny to their last conscious moment that death is even possible. There's no discussion of the terror they face, because they won't admit that anything is wrong, even in the most extreme moments. To the end everyone tiptoes around the subject.

From a Buddhist view, illness and the knowledge of your own mortality provides a profound opportunity for spiritual transformation. The very basic tenant of Buddhism is that we are born to die, and the entire point of Buddhism is that we can use this apparently hopeless situation to fuel our spiritual practice.

When we quit running and turn to face our fear of pain and death we can experience life in its richness, without the mental and emotional convolutions of avoidance. When we embrace illness and pain without fear it can allow us to develop wisdom, a calm spirit, and deep compassion for other beings.

When you are in physical pain, observe your thoughts. What I have found is that I worry what the pain means, what it might presage. When I experience pain, I often project anxiety on it, worry about it, worry that it will never go away (and how will I cope?), and imagine it signals imminent collapse or death. These are random thoughts that flit in and out of my head, but they serve to magnify the pain. And they are counter-productive.

I had been experiencing pain in my abdomen for quite a long time, but when I told my doctor, and she asked me to describe it, I was at a loss. Despite all my worrying I had never really stopped to observe the pain, when it occurred, what triggered it, what made it go away. You'd think these would be the first things you noted, but talking to many other people I find this is the norm. We jump from twinge to worrying about impending doom in a millisecond.

Now I try to look at pain as if it were an object, without any attempt or effort to change its nature or intensity. What shape is it, what size, colour, exact location? Is it steady or fluctuating? When does it appear and what makes it go away? Not only has this allowed me to learn to manage an ongoing problem, but it has relieved me of the burden of anxiety I had wrapped around it.

I find when I observe the pain as I would a stone or a tree stump, it begins to dissipate. It's harder and harder to find "the" pain, and the closer my observation the farther away the pain moves.

This takes concentration, and is not always possible. Sometimes you just want to sleep, and a pain pill seems the easiest way out. But I am learning to rely more on this mindfulness technique, and less on medication. It has had a secondary side effect. When I didn't hesitate to pop a couple of pills to gain relief from say, a migraine, I didn't pay as much attention to my body's signals that I was in a vulnerable state. I would eat chocolate, for example, when I know that a migraine always follows even the smallest taste.

Now, I think how it will taste (wonderful) and how I will feel (terrible) for three or four days afterwards, and decide that a minute or two of that flavour is not worth days of nausea, pain and inactivity.

One type of "meditation" practiced by Buddhists is to simply sit quietly and pay close attention to the rise and fall of bodily sensation. An itch there, a twinge here, a muscle tightens and relaxes, cold hands, a flush of warmth, a pleasant tingling in the cheeks, a pain behind the ear. This is called the flow of bodily sensation and it is a ceaseless process. Some of it is pleasant, some momentarily painful.

You may find you've never really listened to your body. Perhaps pain has to scream to get our attention. At the moment I am learning that if I listen to my body I can often head off pain. I can eat, move, or think differently. If you've ever had a migraine or chest pain immediately following a blazing row you'll understand by what effect thinking differently can have.

Accepting that my body (and my spirit) have needs that have been largely unrecognized because I was too busy mentally and physically to listen encourages me to stay in the moment, to allow my body to speak to me, through pain if need be. When I pay attention, I can allow my pain to not only improve my spiritual outlook, but my physical one.

1 comment:

newwaytowrite said...

Not totally related but today I came across someone who has a sketching journal specifically for their non-dominant hand. She has been rather astounded by the results.