Monday, October 27, 2014

Zen & the Art of Chronic Illness

One way to learn how to "Live in the Now," is to get a chronic illness. I realized this after I called a friend of mine and invited him to come over. I had spent the night before in the ER for a kidney stone, and when he showed up I asked him, "So, what do you want to do?" He laughed. "Do? Woman, you're still wearing your ER bracelets and you're asking me what we should do? How about you REST?" The though never occured to me. I was okay NOW. Why did I need to rest? And that's when it hit me. It didn't matter what happened last night. That was last night. This was now. My chronic illness made me a better Buddhist than decades of awareness training. Who knew! LOL

And if I'm completely honest, my chronic illness has made me powerful in ways I never thought possible. All those ideals that i thought were so lofty when I was healthy, ("don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff," "don't worry about what hasn't happened, let go of what has," "first things first," "but for the grace of God, there go I...") are now regular habits and 2nd nature to me. I couldn't believe it, but here was my friend laughing at me, because I just had.

I thought that my life and my growth had been interrupted, and that I had become stagnant, trapped at an age below my peers. I thought that because my dreams of achievement had been put on hold, I had been put on hold. I thought that because my resume wasn't listing any new skills, I wasn't learning anything new or adding to my mastery of any subjects. I thought that life was passing me by, and that meant I was no longer a part of life. I thought that I had "nothing to show for" the time that had passed. I thought that because I wasn't climbing the social ladder, that I wasn't going anywhere.

Boy, was I wrong.

In fact, my disability allowed me to do what most people wish they could do, but can't! Normal folks have to turn to monastic living to achieve the separation from "the pressures of the world." I'd been given a golden ticket on a wild ride through horrors and wonders, tackling some of the scariest topics in life: what does it feel like to be dying? what's the worst pain I can endure and survive? do I know how to come back after a devastating blow? can I put my life back together if it all falls apart? can I tell when something is seriously wrong? do I know how to ask for help before it's catastrophic & beyond my control? can I swallow my pride/fear/righteous anger/shame, and do what needs to be done? can I man up in the worst of circumstances? can I take care of myself as I grow older and start to lose my faculties? do I have what it takes? can I keep myself safe?

I have answered those questions and multiple times. My ability to bounce back happens the moment I am physically able. I know I can trust how I feel and report it accurately and fairly. I don't respond to how I imagine things to be in my body, I react to how they are. I've had several examples of this, but one big ones stands out: I have no startle response when strangers touch me, or of I'm touched unexpectedly.

You know the kid's game: come up behind someone and tap them on the shoulder opposite of the side you're standing on, and watch them jump to see who did that? I've had strangers come up behind me and put their arm around my waist when I wasn't expecting it, and not only did I respond like I knew it was going to happen, but I let them move me to the side as though we were dance partners. What it actually was, was a bartender moving me out of the path he needed to take, but I couldn't know that from the back of my head. (There was also no alcohol involved!) It didn't feel like a stranger had grabbed my waist from behind. It felt like my husband had put his arm around me, it was that comfortable. I've had the same experience when struck by inanimate objects. I just don't startle easily anymore. It's amazing what it takes to make me jump. I've achieved a level of bravery I didn't know was possible.

Life didn't pass me by... I was learning lessons most people have to wait their entire lives to learn. I was being given such a deep understanding of the principles most spiritual practices hold dear they became part of my nature. My disease has been a spiritual guide through some of the most advanced topics in life. What I once feared and anguished over no longer troubles me. I intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle me. And even though I was removed from the normal path of life, I see how even my experiences can benefit others.

In my last year of college, I started freaking out. I didn't know what to do with myself or what my life's purpose was. I even went so far as to go to a counselor to try and figure these things out. For the longest time, I thought my purpose was to be a mother and help nurture a new life into this world, passing on the lessons I had learned. That dream will probably never come true for me. But in its place, a much larger life's purpose has grown: to serve the community of those suffering in illness and disease, and those who are dying or who long to die. Most people are terrified of saying something wrong when someone they know falls ill or starts talking about depression or suicidal thoughts. A lot more people freak out or run away completely. Not me. I'm just fine tackling those issues.

And as my friend's laugh reminded me, I thoroughly live "in The Now." Without even trying, I have found that present-moment focus that monks study for years to achieve. I am not attached to what just happened. I let go of the moment once it has passed and allow it fall from my sight, just like the autumn leaves fall to the ground and are carried away by the wind. What's past is what's past, what's now is now, and this present moment (and my current abilities in it) is all that matters.

Wow! Who knew?

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