Category Archives: mindfulness

Mindful, Thankful, *Wonder-full* Eating

It all began so mundanely. It was the beginning of October, and my husband picked up an intestinal bug…
(Warning: there will be talk about diarrhea in this post. There’s no way around it. But there won’t be details.)
… and then passed it on to me. After 10 days of being sick with this intestinal bug, I woke up one morning suddenly feeling better.

Except the diarrhea continued, though the frequency and other… characteristics changed. Days passed and the frequency increased. I tried the BRAT diet. I tried all starches. I tried extra fiber, acidophilous pills, yogurt. I figured maybe the IBS I’d had for years was just all out of whack from the bug and I’d get better. Except I didn’t get better—I got worse. And I began to feel very, very unwell and weak. After a week of increasing diarrhea, I returned to my Primary Care Doctor, who was quite concerned and mentioned sending me to the hospital if he couldn’t get me an appointment with a GI doctor that day. The GI doctor I saw was helpful, but couldn’t know what was wrong without a plethora of tests, which I proceeded to get done. In the meantime, while I was waiting for the test results, the diarrhea continued.

It didn’t matter what I ate. The more I ate, the more frequently I had to use the bathroom. I was drinking as much as I could stomach to stave off dehydration, but it wasn’t the loss of fluids that worried me. It was the loss of energy. I felt like my life was being drained out of me each time I used the toilet. I began having trouble functioning. It became hard to walk. I lost 8 pounds in 3 weeks, even though I was eating as much as I could and drinking bottles of Gatorade every day. One night, at 3:30AM, stuck on the toilet, a thought came to me: “What if I just never eat again? Then the diarrhea would stop.” Reason kicked in and I realized that wasn’t a viable option, but it did occur to me that I could stop eating solid foods for a time, by switching to Boost or Ensure.

I sent my husband out that day to purchase Boost or Ensure and switched to an all-liquid diet for several days. And the frequency of the diarrhea finally began to lessen. More importantly, I started feeling stronger, like I was actually absorbing nutrition from what I was consuming instead of just losing it to the toilet. When the test results began coming in and confirmed it wasn’t any sort of infection causing the diarrhea, my GI gave me a drug called Lomotil, which further reduced the frequency of my diarrhea and allowed me the confidence to start leaving the house again… though I always was aware of where the nearest bathroom was. I was still unable to eat solid foods, however, as the pain and diarrhea would ratchet up in intensity whenever I tried.

3 weeks later—the day before Thanksgiving, with only occasional tastes of bland solids like saltines and small bits of pasta in chicken or beef broth, I was finally diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s disease is an Inflammatory Bowel Disease, like Ulcerative Colitis. Like my Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, it’s an autoimmune disease, meaning my immune system had now decided to attack my intestines in addition to my joints. I was started on a drug called Pentasa, which worked very quickly.

427732_10152007668786996_618973844_nThanksgiving Dinner arrived. I was determined not to be drinking Ensure at Thanksgiving dinner. How can I possibly describe the sensation of eating that piece of turkey, that piece of kielbasa, that cranberry sauce…? It was bliss. Pure, unadulterated bliss. Eyes out-of-focus, nothing-else-in-the-world, bliss. I spent a good 10 minutes nibbling on that piece of kielbasa, savoring the zest of the spices, the juiciness of the meat, the tang of the bitterness from the sauerkraut it was cooked in… And that turkey, that turkey that my husband had cooked and basted for hours, with that gravy and homemade cranberry sauce mixed in with it. I nearly cried out of sheer joy.

Thanksgiving Dinner was the start of my reintroduction to solid foods. With Crohn’s disease, anything can be a trigger, causing an increase in pain or diarrhea. This meant that I had to introduce one new ingredient (including spices) back into my diet at a time. The next several weeks led me on an exploration of solid foods. I still relied on Ensure for more than half of my daily nutrition, and whenever I found a new trigger, I would switch back to an all-liquid diet for two days to give my intestines time to calm down. By Christmas, I was beginning to have a clear understanding of what my intestines could and couldn’t tolerate.

The tale should have ended here, with my Crohn’s understood and my triggers mostly discovered. But my body—my teacher, my guru—has a wicked sense of humor and wasn’t done challenging my relationship with food.

It was the 1st week of January. I had just finished recovering from the flu and was finishing a preventative course of antibiotics when I began having diarrhea again. This time, the diarrhea was different and came with a very high level of urgency. I couldn’t leave the house. Lomotil was completely ineffective. I immediately switched back to an all-liquid diet, but it had no effect. The GI doctor on call over the weekend put me on Flagyl (in case the antibiotics had given me the infamous C-difficile bacterial infection) and told me to increase my Prednisone dose to 20mg a day. These measures helped moderately, but not enough. I switched to all-liquids, but it seemed like even the Ensure was causing the pain to increase. By the end of the 2nd week of January, I was beginning to have a lot of pain right below my right rib cage. By Sunday, January 13th, the pain was severe enough that I was regularly screaming out in pain.

I am not the kind of person to scream at pain. I have a very high pain tolerance. But this pain was unlike any I’d ever experienced. It throbbed on the pain scale at a 9 and then the spasms would make that 9 seem insignificant. Concerned, my husband contacted my GI, who told me that it was likely my Crohn’s responding to a new trigger food and to take some of my left-over hip replacement surgery pain medications.

That Monday, January 14th, I woke up to the same level of pain. I struggled to care for our 5 cats, but gave up in the middle of their breakfast. I just couldn’t continue on like this any longer. I contacted my husband and told him he had to come home. Now. Thankfully, he did. Once he arrived home, we planned on taking me to the emergency room. As I was getting ready to go, I began feeling very nauseated. I ran to the bathroom, swallowed the vomit… and had to shout for my husband to help me down to the floor.

“I can’t do this any more. Call an ambulance.”

One ambulance ride, 12 hours waiting for a room on a stretcher in the hallway of the emergency room triage area (luckily right next to a bathroom), several tests later, I was finally given a diagnosis:

Pancreatitis.

Usually caused by severe alcoholism or gallstones. Neither of which were applicable to me.

I spent 3 days NPO—nothing by mouth but ice chips—and was started on IV fluids, pain killers, and 15mg of IV steroids every 6 hours. By Tuesday afternoon, I was feeling much better. The pain was still very much present, but it wasn’t at all comparable to the pain I’d been in.

And being in the hospital began to have an unintended effect on me: because I wasn’t feeling up to doing anything and was constantly being interrupted, I spent most of my time sitting and waiting. Just sitting, just waiting. Mindfully. I’ve always wanted to attend a Buddhist retreat and been unable to because of my health challenges, and now it felt like my health had finally allowed me to go on the retreat I’d always wanted to attend.

Thursday morning, I was allowed clear fluids: apple juice, chicken broth, jello. I’m normally not a fan of apple juice, and I’d have enough chicken broth in November to last me a life-time, but after 3 days of ice chips? They. were. fantastic.

Two days later, I was released from the hospital, with a tentative diagnosis of Autoimmune Pancreatitis (because my immune system is one hell of an over-achiever!). This diagnosis came with significant dietary restrictions, especially for the days immediately following my hospital release:

  • Low sugar.
  • No protein.
  • No fat, especially saturated.
  • VERY small amounts of food.

Those first few days, I starved. Literally. I had gained 22 pounds of water weight from all the IV fluids from the hospital, which dropped off in 2 days, but after that water weight was lost, I kept losing. I would lose about 2 pounds a day, because I was unable to eat. The smallest amount of food would cause an increase in pancreatic pain.

But the 40mg of Prednisone was working, and I slowly began to increase my daily intake of calories. I slowly began to tolerate small amounts of protein, sugars, and unsaturated fats.

With Autoimmmune Pancreatitis being a chronic condition, I will continue to be limited in how much I can eat at once, especially how much saturated fat my pancreas can tolerate. My new diet is 4 300-400 calorie meals a day (plus 1 or 2 100 or so calorie snacks), with no more than 3g of saturated fat in any one meal. And I will likely have to avoid all red meat, at least in any significant quantity, for the rest of my life.

A recent dinner: Linguini with chicken sausage, tomato sauce with basil and oregano, and green peppers

A recent dinner: Linguini with chicken sausage, tomato sauce with basil and oregano, and green peppers

But eating… Eating has become sacred to me. Each bite of solid food is a joy. And I am eating all solids now. The Prednisone has soothed my intestines so that I no longer have to rely on Ensures for half of my daily calories. (Ironically, Ensures are actually very hard on a pancreas, because they’re high in protein, sugar, and have a gram of saturated fat, so I will need to use these with caution in the future.) Even eating such bland foods as Cheerios has become a delight. I am so thankful to be able to eat. And dinners have become such a journey! What will I try tonight? What new levels of protein or saturated fat can my pancreas now tolerate?

For years, I tried to lose weight and find a way to eat more mindfully. I wouldn’t have chosen to lose the weight this way or to learn how to eat mindfully by losing the ability to eat for several days, but I’m grateful to my body for this gift.

Eating—having the ability to eat, having access to food—is a gift. It’s a precious gift, one too many people in this world don’t have.

When I eat now, it’s with a sense of wonder. May I never forget.


PS: Another unintended effect of my hospital stay is that I’ve resumed my daily sitting meditation practice. I got into the habit of sitting and waiting, and I’ve enjoyed continuing that now that I’m home and getting well.

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Filed under daily life, health, mindfulness, pain, physical pain, practice, sacraments

My Center

We Quakers talk a lot about “finding our center”, “centering down”, etc. Ask a dozen Quakers what we mean by the term “center”, and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers, though many of the answers would likely mention God, the Holy Spirit, the Light Within, “that of God”…

But when I talk about the “center”, I’m talking about a real place. A place I go to at least twice a week and more if I can manage it. A place where I find joy, and love, and peace. A place where I know I’m needed and know without a doubt that this is where I’m called to be.

And that “center” isn’t my Quaker Meeting or my meditation group. That “center” is an adoption center at a local no-kill and cage-free feline (and canine) rescue called Chesapeake Cats and Dogs. I began volunteering at CCAD 4 years ago. My role was to help socialize the cats, and it’s a role I take seriously. If a cat is shy or skittish, I try to work with the cat, to help the cat understand that people aren’t a threat and that human affection is a good thing. But I also try to make sure that I find the time every time I’m there to pet every cat that needs it most.

And here comes the first challenge: in an adoption center that at times has housed over 60 cats at one time, how do I prioritize? How do I make sure that when I’m petting one cat, I’m not distracted by the dozens of other cats I want to find time for?

In short, how do I truly be present with each cat?

It’s just mindfulness meditation, in a different form. When I’m petting one cat, I’m just petting that one cat. I’m aware of the subtle body movements that indicate if I need to change my petting technique. I’m aware of the cat’s condition: has he or she lost weight? does he or she have any fleas or ticks? is he or she congested? What does the cat’s purr sound like? Are they any behavior changes, for better or worse, that I can notice? Are there other cats approaching that may make this cat feel defensive? And the only way I can answer these questions is by being with the cat, in the moment. And when I fail to stay in the moment, the cat always notices and reminds me to return to it.

There are always cats I don’t get to. When I leave, I make a mental note to make those cats a priority my next visit.

But there are also always cats I particularly look forward to. In a real way, some of these cats have become friends to me. Figuro, Snicker, Ethel, and Emily are the cats I’m most attached to. All of them have been at the center for more than a year; all of them except Ethel have been at the center for as long as I’ve been volunteering there. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I absolutely adore and love these cats.

Which brings me to the next challenge: how do I love and adore these cats without holding back any affection, but also without becoming attached? After all, I can’t adopt them all.

When I first began volunteering at the center, I would cry whenever a cat I’d grown to love would get adopted. It’s hard developing a relationship with an animal and then having to say goodbye, knowing that I would likely never see the cat again. I knew that this was our goal, that we wanted the cats to be adopted and never returned to the center, but it struck me as a loss each time. I asked the office manager, Debbie, how she dealt with this, knowing that she loves those cats even more than I do. She said something like, “It gets easier with time. There are some you’ll always miss and the goodbyes are always hard, but it gets easier.”

And it has. Slowly I’ve become able to feel joy when a cat is adopted instead of sorrow. Slowly I’ve learned how to love without attachment, but without holding back either. It’s not about me and what I’d like. It’s about what’s best for the cat.

And this brings me to the third challenge: how to cope with the death of a cat or kitten.

This doesn’t happen often (and certainly not for lack of care or veterinary treatment), but it does happen. It’s par for the course for any rescue, whether the rescue is a no-kill or not. Some cats and kittens we try to rescue will have health problems. And some of those health problems won’t be curable or even treatable. And sometimes, a kitten just wastes away and no one knows why.

There is no answer to this challenge. Only the opportunity to practice and to remember that nothing is solid and every one dies. All I can do is be sure that when I’m with each cat or kitten, I’m giving them my all: all my love, all my attention. Because there’s no guarantee with any of them that they’ll be there the next time I come in. Maybe they’ll be adopted before then, or maybe I’ve already noticed that this cat or kitten is going downhill and may no longer be alive when I next come in.

The answer to this challenge is in the answers to the other two. All I can do is all that I can do. There is nothing else.

My center may not be overtly religious or spiritual, but it’s a good teacher. When I forget to be mindful or become too attached or my ego starts parading about how important it is, these cats bring me back to center. They remind me of what’s important and what isn’t. They show me what real love looks like. They fill me with joy, happiness, love, and sometimes sorrow, despair, and sadness.

But through it all, I always return to my center. Because it’s where I’m meant to be.

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Filed under cats, compassion, daily life, death, ego, emptiness, gratitude, impermanence, inspirations, love, mindfulness, practice

Abandon All Hope, Question Motivation

Today’s slogan is:

“Abandon any hope of fruition.”

This slogan always seems almost unnecessarily morbid to me, very reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” And I always have difficulty with this slogan.

The explanations I’ve read about this slogan speak about being in the present, instead of always looking for some future outcome. I’ve read about how this slogan encourages one to meditate for the sake of meditating instead of, say, meditating to achieve enlightenment.

Rationally, I can accept that; but I’ve had difficulty accepting it on that deeper level where Truth rests.

Last night, I came across this passage from “Making Life a Prayer: Selected Writings of John Cassian”:

“There is a great difference between those who put out the fire of sin within themselves by fear of hell or hope of future reward and those who from the feeling of divine love have a horror of sin itself and of uncleanness and keep hold of the virtue of purity simply from the love and longing for purity. They look for no reward from a promise for the future, but delighted with the knowledge of good things present, do everything not from regard to punishment but from delight in virtue. “

This I understand. When I was young and certain “pious” adults tried to instill in me a fear of hell and longing for heaven, I rejected it. What is the point of doing the right thing if I’m only doing it for a reward or for fear of being punished? Shouldn’t I do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing? I decided then that I would do the right thing, as I best understood it, even if doing the right thing would lead to eternal punishment instead of eternal reward.

This offers me a new understanding of today’s slogan: that it’s not about abandoning hope, but challenging motivations.

Am I meditating because I want to become enlightened or because meditating is worth doing for its own sake?
Am I attempting to practice Right Speech because of some reward or because it’s the right thing to do?
Am I attending Meeting for Worship because I want to give ministry or because I want to open myself to Spirit, whether or not ministry through me will occur?
Am I praying because I want God to do something for me or because praying is a worthwhile activity, even if there’s no discernible end result?

Am I living because life is worth living or because I want to accomplish something?
Do I love because the object of my love is worthy or because love in and of itself is worthy?

Am I listening because I want to know what best to say to change you or because you deserve to be listened to, just as you are?

Will I have the courage to accept things just as they are or will I continue to see the present as just a step towards the future?

(The discomfort these questions are giving me is a good sign.)

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Filed under buddhism, catholicism, daily life, jamie, love, meditation, meeting for worship, mindfulness, prayer, slogans

Walking Gratitude Meditation

Since getting my right hip replaced on August 8, formal sitting meditation has been… well, not very possible. My last attempt two weeks ago resulted in my almost falling asleep, at which point I made the decision to stop attempting formal sitting meditation until I’m able to get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. I’ve been sleeping better the last two weeks and will likely be returning to formal sitting meditation soon, but in the meantime, I’ve been practicing walking meditation.

I’ve often heard Thich Nhat Hanh extol the value of walking meditation and I’ve been wanting to try it for a long time, but my past inability to walk for any real amount of time discouraged me from seriously trying it. Prior to my surgery, I decided that I would give walking meditation a try during the recovery period, when I was supposed to walk as much as possible. Mindful walking would encourage me to pay attention to my new hip and make sure I wasn’t walking in such a way that I’d be hurting other joints.

For the first 10 days after returning home after surgery, my mom and stepdad stayed with me to help me around the house. This was necessary–the first week or so I wasn’t even able to get in or out of bed on my own–and I appreciated the help. But I am by nature an introvert and am used to being alone for several hours every day; so after about 5 days of having my parents around all the time and not having any solitude for more than a week, I was beginning to feel trapped and suffocated. It was around this time that I added an element to my mindful walking: thinking “Thank you” as I walked, step by step, “Thank” step “You” step.

This action helped me generate gratitude to my parents, who were, after all, doing me a big favor (had they not been able to help, I likely would have needed to spend some time in a rehab facility).

Eventually, as walking became easier and required less effort, I forgot about my gratitude walking meditation. Earlier this week, I remembered and have made it a daily 10 minute practice.

As I walk, I’m aware of the magnitude of this action and I’m reminded of how wonderful it is that I’m now able to walk. And then I begin to be aware of how many beings played a part in granting me this ability: the surgeon, the nurses, the teachers who taught all the medical staff that treated me both during and after surgery, the farmers who grew the cotton used in the many gauze pads, the miners who mined the metals used in my hip replacement and the IV needle, the people who worked at the oil company who provided the oil that would become the plastic in my new hip, the researchers who developed this new technique, the people who funded that research, the people who educated those researchers, the plants and animals that fed all of these people, the insects and bacteria that fed the plants and animals, the people who cared for those plants and animals…

The list could go on.

I have pieces of the entire universe in my new right hip.

Tibetan Buddhists have a practice of treating every being as if he or she were your mother, because chances are high that in one incarnation or another, the being was or will be your mother. This practice makes sense to me, but is one I’ve always followed with a grain of doubt marring it, since my belief in reincarnation is not absolute.

But as I walk, “Thank” step “You” step, I become aware that–in some form or another–it is the whole world I have to thank for my new hip. Retrace the steps involved in my new hip and the circle becomes larger and larger until it encompasses the whole world.

Thank you.

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Filed under buddhism, daily life, gratitude, health, meditation, mindfulness

Suffering… End of Suffering

I’ve read a lot of Dharma books and have felt time and time again that I Get It, I know what to say and what to think, I Am A Good Buddhist ™.

But I haven’t been “getting it”. When JB was dying and I was angry and sad, I felt like a bad Buddhist. “The Buddha wouldn’t have gotten so attached,” I thought. “The Buddha would have realized that JB is impermanent and wouldn’t be so upset at the news of JB’s impending death.” “The Buddha wouldn’t be sad like this.” “I’m not a good Buddhist because I’m sad, angry, irritable.”

And then a couple of weeks later, I accepted that my emotions were what they were and let go of the idea that they should be something else. Yet still, deep inside, I felt disappointed that I “wasn’t as far along the path to enlightenment as I thought I was”. Yet this disappointment was easily overshadowed by the grief that followed, especially the day of JB’s death.

Tonight I attended a dharma talk at my local sangha, which was given by a lay teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition who leads the local sangha. (The sangha itself is unaffiliated with any particular tradition, but the leader happens to be trained in Insight Meditation.) Tonight’s dharma talk was about the Noble Eightfold Path. During the talk, the teacher spoke about the benefit of having an intention, such as the intention to end suffering.

I made the intention to end suffering in myself and all others when I took my Refuge and Bodhisattva vows almost a year ago. But it suddenly struck me tonight that ending suffering doesn’t mean what I’ve always thought it meant.

I’ve always thought that ending suffering meant ending those emotional states that we find unpleasant and painful: anger, agitation, irritability, jealousy, rage, sorrow, despair, sadness, boredom, loneliness, etc. That when I feel any of those unpleasant emotions, it’s because I’m not enlightened yet.

But what is suffering, really? The day that JB died and I cried for almost an hour, was I suffering? No. I was full of sorrow, but I was not suffering.

Why not? Because I had given up the judgment. I wasn’t adding something to my emotion that wasn’t there. I was just experiencing that emotion–grief–completely.

I read a book a few months ago titled “How to Be Sick”, written by a Buddhist who is disabled. In this book, she makes a powerful argument that physical pain doesn’t always lead to suffering, that the suffering comes in when we judge our pain as good or bad, i.e., when we add something extra to the pain. This made a lot of sense to me at the time, since I’ve certainly experienced being in pain and being happy at the same time.

Tonight I realized that emotions are like physical pain and discomfort. They come and go. They’re not good or bad. Suffering doesn’t come from having emotions; it comes from feeling that the emotion you’re having isn’t right, from judging that emotion and labeling it. Just as one can be in physical pain and not be suffering, so one can be in the throng of despair and also not be suffering.

As Pema Chodron wrote, “Nothing is what we thought.”

And that is perfect.

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Filed under buddhism, daily life, death, discernment, emptiness, emptying, grief, impermanence, love, mindfulness, pain, physical pain, simplicity

Practice: A Slogan Post

I pulled this slogan a few days ago and am only now getting around to writing this post, which is appropriate given what I’m planning on writing:

“If you can practice even when distracted, you are well-trained.”

I could delve into the teacher/guru-student structure that’s so central to Tibetan Buddhism, which is the tradition from which I get these slogans, but I think that’s not the real message to be had here.

I’ve received this slogan many, many times over the past few years, and I’ve always discounted it as one of the “boring, inapplicable” ones, like the ones that seem to be pontificating on what I usually discount as Buddhist dogma and philosophy that really doesn’t matter.

(Okay, let me explain that last part a bit: I graduated from a college that spends an awful lot of time and energy on philosophizing everything. By the end of it, I started wondering what, exactly, the point was of being able to define everything. Just because maybe the exact definition of, say, a table can’t be known–what’s the eidos of a table, for those of you schooled in Greek-geek-speak–doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize a table when we see it. So, a lot of Buddhist philosophizing about perception or the 51 mental states, etc., I have difficulty finding ways to apply to my life, probably because I’m coming at it from this particular lens. … This may be something I need to work on.)

Back to the slogan at hand. I always thought this slogan was about the ability to meditate through distractions, that, say, if I can meditate even though two kitties are wrestling on the bed behind me, then I’m “well-trained”.

Right, because the whole purpose of Buddhism is to learn how to meditate well.

Let me say that more clearly: the purpose of Buddhism is not to teach people how to meditate well. While meditation can be both a means and an end, it is not THE end of Buddhism. It’s only a means.

What is the end?

I realize I’m still relatively new to Buddhism, but the purpose of Buddhism seems pretty clear to me: to alleviate suffering. The path that Buddhism recommends to do so is meditation, which allows one to develop right understanding so that one’s actions can truly alleviate suffering. (How many times have we tried to do the right thing and found out later that we had a critical flaw in our understanding of what the problem was?)

There is what I’ll call a Quaker fable that relates to this slogan:

A first-time attender is sitting in Meeting for Worship, waiting for the service to begin. As the silence stretches into many minutes, the attender whispers to his neighbor, “When does the service begin?” The Quaker replies, “When the worship ends.”

The point of this slogan is that it’s not easy to practice Buddhism, to be alert and aware enough all of the time to skillfully act in ways that alleviate suffering. I often find myself feeling very compassionate and loving during meditation sessions. I’ll resolve that the next time my sister calls, even if she calls for no reason and more than once a day, I’m going to be truly present for her and give her whatever it is she’s needing from me. But how long does that resolve last?

I think you all can relate to my answer. It lasts until I hear her ring-tone on my cellphone, when annoyance and irritation replaces my intention of love and compassion.

Or when I sit in Meeting for Worship, steeping in that Divine Love that centers us as Quakers and enlivens us, thinking about all the ways I’m going to be better at following Him. I’m going to be more alert to leadings and less fearful. I’m going to be more trusting. I’m going to be more loving and compassionate (that is the main common thread for me between Quakerism and Buddhism: the desire to be loving and compassionate).

So, this slogan is not about becoming an expert in meditation after all. It’s about, as Quakers would say, “letting my life speak”. It’s about maintaining that feeling of love, compassion, and mindfulness after the meditation session is over. It’s about maintaining that connection to God outside of Meeting for Worship.

It’s about practicing.

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Filed under buddhism, compassion, daily life, jamie, meditation, meeting for worship, mindfulness, obedience, quakerism, slogans, submission

Impermanence

On July 21st, I will be participating in a ceremony with a local sangha to renew my Refuge and Bodhisattva vows and take my precept vows (if you’re interested, you can view the format I’ve developed for the ceremony here.). On Wednesday evening, as I was meeting with the leader of the sangha/meditation group to discuss the ceremony, I mentioned that my body was very good at teaching me the nature of impermanence. It had, however, been a while since my body had reminded me of that lesson. In fact, for the last several months, I’ve been able to do activities I hadn’t dared to dream of for years: I was able to walk for exercise, even managing to walk 1.8 miles in this year’s Arthritis Walk; I was able to visit a local cat shelter twice a week to give the cats the love and attention they deserve, if only for a few hours a week; I was even able to do two hour-long drives this month (total, not each way) to attend what I called the “local” sangha earlier on.

As part of my Buddhist practice, I encouraged myself to be aware of these wonderful moments and to enjoy them while they lasted, because I knew, without a doubt, that the bodily strength and resilience I was experiencing was bound to end at some point. Moments always end, but sometimes the actions that filled those moments can be repeated. I knew, without a doubt, that my ability to do these wonderful things was transitory.

And yet, when the inevitable loss came yesterday, I was broken. Somehow, while sleeping, it looks like I sprained part of my right foot. The sprain itself, if it had happened as the result of a fall or injury and was not accompanied by my myriad foot problems, would not be a big deal. But since it happened apparently while I was sleeping, this could indicate serious joint instability in my right foot. This could very well mean surgery. This could very well mean that my right foot is literally falling apart. This could very well mean that the way of life I’ve been enjoying these last few months is over.

Now, this sprain may just be the harbinger of the crisis and not the crisis itself. Yet even so, it is the beginning of the end for my right foot. One way or another, this does not bode well.

I find myself thinking, first, of the cats at the rescue center, who blossom and shine each and every time I’m there. With the attention and love I’ve been able to give these cats, they’ve become happier. For a few hours a week, they know love. (And this is not to say that they don’t receive love and attention from other people, but there are close to 30 cats there. They need all the love and attention they can get.) They’ve grown attached to me. What will happen to these cats if I have to stop these bi-weekly visits, even for a short period of time?

And then I begin to think of possible adaptations, ways I could drive with minimal use of the part of my right foot that may be collapsing.

I am surprised by the sorrow I feel for an event that I rationally knew would happen at some point. I sobbed in bed this morning, talking out loud to myself, to God, to my cats, to whoever might have been listening. “I’m too young for this!” “I’m afraid!” I suppose I just assumed that “some point” would always be in the future and was not immanent. Somewhere deep inside, I was skeptical about the impermanence of my condition.

I see my podiatrist bright and early Monday morning (my mother-in-law will be driving me). All I can do it the meantime is try to stay off of my feet as much as possible… and meditate.

Part of me is grateful for my body teaching me, once again, about impermanence. But right now, most of me is suffering, because though I understand the Four Noble Truths rationally, they are so damn hard to actually accept and believe.

1. Life means suffering.

2. The origin of suffering is attachment.

3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.

4. The path to the cessation of suffering.
[The Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Mindfulness, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Diligence, Right Concentration, and Right Livelihood.]

[UPDATE: It’s just tendinitis from too much driving. Not a Big Deal. Note to self: not every new physical symptom is a Big Deal.]

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The Simplicity of Now

If not now, tell me when
If not now, tell me when.
We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when.

Carrie Newcomer, “If Not Now”

I made it to Meeting for Worship last Sunday, after only intermittent–at best–attendance so far this year. I came to Meeting clothed in a new practice of mantra meditation that I had just started days before, but had already deepened my meditation practice. But instead of “Om mani padme hum”, the mantra I used was “Veni sancte spiritus” (Come, Holy Spirit). I rotated a piece of quartz that I was using as a make-shift prayer wheel. I let the mantra seep through me, letting my attention always come back to it when my mind inevitably wandered. But, I wondered, would meditating like this mean that I would be unable to notice a message from God?

The first message came from a well-seasoned Friend, who rose to give ministry on the topic of simplicity:

If we make simplicity the core of our lives, it will lead us back to the core.

This message sent a vibration through my soul. And as I returned to the mantra of “Veni sancte spiritus”, I felt a message rise up in me. I waited, returning always to the mantra, wondering if this was a real message or just the caffeine from my morning tea hitting my bloodstream. I felt the caffeine drumming in my veins, but I also felt that tell-tale pressure building up in my heart that notifies me that what I have received is a message meant to be shared. (Either that, or I have a serious heart condition and will one day die of a heart attack during Meeting for Worship… Me and every other Friend who has experienced this.) I waited longer, testing to be sure. And then when I finally felt that not standing up to speak would literally result in my heart bursting open then and there, I stood:

The most simple thing is now.

(Later, I would be mildly embarrassed that I’d apparently forgotten the word “simplest”, but the Spirit works with what one has, and at that moment–in spite of the caffeine–the brain I had was apparently only half awake.)

The simplest way to live, the simplest moment to live in, is now. There is nothing simpler than that, though, as one Friend rose to point out during Afterthoughts, this can often be surprisingly difficult. (As an aside, we often conflate simple with easy. This is a mistake we should try to be mindful of.)

Simplicity isn’t just about pruning our material possessions to check for seeds of war (John Woolman) or purchasing a Prius instead of a Hummer, though those kinds of actions are certainly worthwhile and not always easy to do. Simplicity is also about pruning life down to the essentials, to what really matters. And what matters the most in any given moment is that given moment. We can spend so much time and effort pruning our possessions, our activities, how we spend our money… But if we are living each moment without really living it, spending each moment thinking about when or then, we are missing the point.

The point is now. The moment is now. God is now. We are now.

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Buddhist and Quaker

I received an email from a reader, asking me questions about being both Buddhist and Quaker. Below is my reply:

Hi. Thanks you for your email. 🙂 I’m also not a fan of most “New-Agey” type of books… I consider myself both a Buddhist AND a Quaker, and I ultimately think this is okay and not inconsistent because both faiths–at their core, I feel–are faiths of practice more than faiths of theology. For example, meditation, mindfulness, developing compassion/loving-kindness, and the knowledge that attachments are a direct cause of suffering (in short, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path) I consider the core of Buddhism (and I’m in good company: Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a wonderful book called “The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings”, which you might be interested in). As for Quakerism, I believe our way of worship and our testimonies are our core. And there seems to be a lot of ways that Buddhism helps my Quakerism: for example, how could I follow the testimony of Integrity without having Right Understanding (one of the Eightfold Paths)? Equality lines up with Right Action, Right Speech, Right Vision, and Right Understanding… etc. There’s even been talk within some Quaker circles recently of “Right Relationship”, which has a lot in common with the Buddhist Eightfold Path (Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Understanding, in particular).

As for specific practices, I try to meditate every day (Om mani padme hum…), though I admit that this has been on and off for a while. Still, I keep trying. Also, the Tibetan Buddhist concept of tonglen (Pema Chodron is an EXCELLENT, life-changing Buddhist writer–I highly recommend any of her books to you… and when I say life-changing, I mean that literally) has been helpful for me. Tonglen is a form of breath meditation where you open yourself to another’s suffering: you breathe in their suffering, and breathe out peace/calm/etc. I find it helpful in developing compassion, especially towards those I’m angry with. The practice of mindfulness–being IN the moment–I find consistent with the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity. Meditation is also useful in centering for Meeting for Worship: I often start Meetings with a few minutes of meditation, to help quiet my own thoughts so I can better hear the Divine.

As for good books, Jim Pym (another Buddhist and Quaker) wrote one called “Listening to the Light”, which is mainly about Quakerism, but also about his experiences as a Buddhist as well. Mary Rose O’Reilly, who identifies as a Quaker, wrote a memoir called “The Barn at the End of the World” about her experiences tending sheep and spending time in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Buddhist retreat in France. (This is the book that got me interested in Buddhism; I was a Quaker first.)

I suffer from a lack of participation in a formal Buddhist meditation group. I’m disabled and unable to drive the distance required for meditation sessions. I’m not in the Bible Belt, but I live in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is pretty much Southern Christian Conservative in culture. My monthly meeting, Third Haven, is a kind of liberal oasis in the area; even that is half an hour away from me (my husband drives me to Meetings, though he doesn’t attend). There is at least one other Buddhist and Quaker at my Meeting, and I’ve made no secret that I identify as both.

I took my refuge and bodhisattva vows last May and intend to keep them. Part of that is not hiding that action.

As far as I know, no one in my Meeting has been upset or offended by my identification with both faiths. It might be helpful that I also take Christianity very seriously–I just finished reading the Bible for the second time as a whole a month ago and read the New Testament every year. I think Jesus and Buddha would have agreed on a lot. I also think Jesus and Buddha said a lot of the same things, but said them in the context of the dominant religion of the community they were in (for Jesus, it was Judaism; for Buddha, it was Hinduism).

Part of it is that I fundamentally believe that theologies (God, heaven, reincarnation, etc.) are, at their root, unknowable. In my mind, it makes no difference to me if I’m reincarnated when I die, sent to heaven, or my consciousness/soul simply ends: I try to act with compassion because I feel it’s the right thing to do, and I made the vow back in high school that I would act this way even if I’d be punished at the end (sent to hell–I was a Catholic at the time) and not rewarded.

I believe in God because I’ve felt His presence, yet I’m aware that this belief is based on a feeling and a concept. The Buddhist practice of non-attachment has taught me that what I call God, another might call something else. And that there is no way for me to know who is right, nor is that what I should be concerned about.

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Gifts from Unexpected People

I’ve been a bit depressed this week about my JRA (Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis). I saw my rheumatologist on Wednesday, and he confirmed what I’ve been suspecting: that my jaw joints are swollen. This means that I have to wear anti-inflammatory patches over my jaw joints on my face. Very fashionable, as you can imagine. After the appointment, I went to have my hands x-rayed. As my hands were getting x-rayed, I was struck by their deformities and it hit me: these are not the hands I had even 5 years ago. And that sounds stupid in a way, seeing as how I’ve had two hand surgeries in the last 2 years, so obviously these hands are different than the ones I had even 2 years ago. But what was really striking me was my finger deformities: how much worse they’ve gotten. The fingers I’ve been ignoring and trying not to think about because there are no good surgical options for fingers. The fingers I’ve been pretending have been stable all this time and haven’t been getting worse–it’s just been my wrist or thumb problems that have been causing my pain.

This led me to be pretty depressed and to resurrect a long-hidden feeling I’ve had that my body is a time-bomb and that one day all that will be left of me is disability and pain.

I still have that fear. I will always have that fear. But last night, I received a gift from a phone call.

My stepsister called me to ask how I deal with being in constant pain. Considering my emotional state those last few days, I found the question deeply ironic and more than a bit darkly humorous. “She’s asking me how I deal with it now? This is such a cosmic joke!” But I made the decision about a year ago to try to be honest and open with everyone I talk to, and I kept it. I answered her honestly, that right now I wasn’t dealing well with it and that I’m still in the process of figuring out the answer. But as I was talking, I remembered something I figured out months ago and had forgotten. So I shared it with her.

“When I start hurting, I have this tendency to panic, to feel like the pain is never going to end. And, rationally, I know that’s not likely, but that’s my fear. But a while ago, I realized that even if the pain I’m currently in never goes away, I don’t have to deal with all of that pain right now. The only pain I have to deal with right now is the actual pain that I’m in right now.”

She wasn’t the only one that needed to hear that. I did, too. So today, though physically I’m worse than I was yesterday, I’m emotionally better, because I’ve remembered that there is another way to deal with my health issues than the cycle of avoidance and depression I’ve been stuck in.

All I have to deal with today is how I’m feeling today. And that’s so much less of a burden than trying to deal with how I fear I might be feeling forever.

So, thank you, Alex, for calling me last night.

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