Uncertainty

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Uncertainty keeps coming up. Recently I was at a closing weekend for a meditation program I’ve been doing over the last year and they asked. ‘how do you view your future self?’My reaction was appropriate for the state of things: ‘I can’t see it.’ Even with the lead up discussion about how the changes we’ve noticed, how our current self informs who we turn out to be in the future, I could not see it. I felt blinded by the cloud of uncertainty. The only future I feel most readily is bleak, even though much can happen before these tumors wreck further havoc on my life.

Any new physical or emotional sensation sets up alarms.The unanswered questions, poor communication, muddled answers, and changing minds, often leaves me in a state of paralyzing unknowing. I’m what in the medical community call a zebra, one with a rare problem with no standard treatment and few options available to me. Even the scans don’t reassure as much as cast doubt on my own telling of a problem or the interpretation of this story or the image itself. It’s all murky.

I scoffed at those who pride themselves in solutions and ‘returns in investment.’ In fact, these offers are really just more painful. To quote a cancer surviving friend after I retold a frustrating encounter, in my case ‘there are no solutions.’ He gets it. Is this despair? Eh, folks keep bring up that they’ve been noticing it. I call it reality. There are skills here and there to make everyday life bearable from hanging out with friends, eating well, good sleep habits, the routine of work, and exercise. The moments in between are tough. Sometimes the moments in the thick of ‘taking care of myself’ are tough.

I poked around for some wise words on this thing known as uncertainty. I came across this talk by Gil Fronsdal that made me wonder if this uncertainty is actually confusion and doubt in disguise. He writes:

The practice of not-knowing needs to be distinguished from confusion and debilitating doubt. Confusion is not a virtue: the confused person is somewhat lost and removed from life. With doubt, the mind is agitated or contracted with hesitation and indecision. These mind states tend to obscure rather than clarify. Furthermore, confusion and doubt are generally involuntary. Not-knowing, as a practice, is a choice meant to bring greater peace.

But lest we take the not-knowing practice too far, Suzuki Roshi said, “Not-knowing does not mean you don’t know.” It doesn’t require us to forget everything we have known or to suspend all interpretations of a situation. Not-knowing means not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not.

As a Buddhist practice, not-knowing leads to more than an intimacy and open mind. It can be used as a sword to cut through all the ways that the mind clings. If we can wield this sword until the mind lets go of itself and finally knows ultimate freedom, then-not knowing has served its ultimate purpose.

-Gil  Fronsdal

What I’ve been having a hard time grasping is “not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not.” I’ve done so much giving providers the benefit of the doubt..only for my knee-jerk concerns and assumptions be confirmed.  The worst is when it’s neither confirmed or denied with continued murky and unresolved questions. I can see how confusion and doubt fill the void of not knowing. There is a solid nature to confusion and doubt, a tight grip on the ego. When it comes to not knowing, it seems to be a release from the ego an all that I identify as the Self.

I can see how it’s a practice, but how can it be practiced everyday? The periodic escape from reality is nothing much but exactly what it is, an escape. It doesn’t solve the day to day realities of living. It’s a constant push and pull.  I guess that will mean more sitting and definitely more homework on making the connections between the mind, body, and the spiritual because I can’t seem to crack this nut.

Beginning again…

“The moment that we realize our attention has wandered is the magic moment of the practice, because that’s the moment we have the chance to be really different. Instead of judging ourselves, and berating ourselves, and condemning ourselves, we can be gentle with ourselves.”

-Sharon Salzberg From “Real Happiness”

It’s been a long while since my last post. The first year of being with the 3 (maybe 4) stooges in my neck was a whirlwind of getting the process of being on watchful waiting/ active surveillance set up. These gremlins are indolent and rare so too will be the approach I guess.

I’d like to say I’ve been graceful, but it’s been tough having an “invisible” problem that after a while, other folks forget even exist. 

What I have found however,  is a whole new level of vulnerability in myself. It’s been risky (and new) being more open and honest about my situation. There is always a possibility of mistake, loss, and of disconnection, but even with the mis-cues, I’ve found that it wasn’t the end of the world. In retrospect, I noticed at times in this more mindful year, a kind of courage in myself and sense of refuge that before I had never noticed.   

In the midst of the chaos and discomfort, I’ve felt glimmers of calm and steadfastness by examining the space around the contraction and identification with all that I notice as between me and feeling free. 

Even when I thought I had forgotten that spaciousness…that infinite compassion and grace, when I least expected it, something eventually and unexpectedly inside me remembered.

I had a moment the other day that gave me pause. I was invited to go to the Chinese New Years festival with my close friends and their kids. Their 4 year old has become super comfortable with me (I’m ‘auntie’ at this point) and he was running around a seating area where we were resting. He started saying to me “catch me, catch me” as he ran around. I’d catch him and he’d give me a super tight hug each time I’d catch him. 

In that moment the things that seemed overwhelming and contracted seemed to give way to some spaciousness around it. There is something really interesting when I take the time to pause and check in on those moments of genuine care and affection. The ‘loving friendliness’ 

I show him and the genuine reception that I feel from the kind projects a certain reflective response…where I feel myself giving that metta, the child receiving it, and giving it back. 
I think the real value of the ‘body centered inquiry’ / focusing and sitting (no matter how restless it may be) is how the body does remember to check in and take in those moments usually passed off. 

It’s the ‘popcorn effect’ of sorts, where one notices the reflex of checking in and of taking in the good without the ‘effort’ of forcing or manufacturing that emotional and bodily memory. One cannot let go by grasping at letting go.

Those good moments, those moments of feeling connected and part of something more expansive is so important during these days where contraction and uncertainty makes it hard to breath and keep perspective. 

The core of the practice, I think, is really just remembering and starting again. 

Vulnerability and Gratitude

During one of my meditation groups last week, we discussed gratitude and being thankful. While the teacher mused on the snicker of her kids, but the profound statements that would come out of their mouths, I thought about why we tend to minimize gratitude and being thankful.

Expressing gratitude, I think, is a vulnerable act. Aside from my musings on fear of sugarcoating, there is how it reminds us of impermanence. A quick search revealed, that I wasn’t the only one who made this connection. Brene Brown actually alludes to this very idea:

“As someone who studies shame and scarcity and fear, if you asked me, ‘What is the most terrifying, difficult emotion we experience as humans?,’ I would say joy,” says Brown. “When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. So what we do in moments of joyfulness is we try to beat vulnerability to the punch … We try to dress-rehearse tragedy.” –Brene Brown

But while she discusses the fear of when the other shoe will drop, I suggest that there is something more going on that feeds into this fear of losing something held so dear.

To really feel and experience gratitude, is to be truly present in the moment. It isn’t complaining about what was lost or incomplete nor fearing what may come down the road, it’s recognizing and really taking in what is available during that moment. It is the vulnerability of being open to receiving and expressing the gift of gratitude.

That, I think, is where the real fear of impermanence and of scarcity begins. To the untrained, the one who doesn’t often consider gratitude much until those unexpected moments where that light turns on and wakes up to the moment, it can be frightening to think that said awakenings are few and far between instead of something that can be cultivated and experienced all the time.

Gratitude: The mind/body edition

So being that yesterday was Thanksgiving, it seems that a reflection on the effects of gratitude on the mind and body is in order.

I have always found the gratitude process as as saccharin sweet, simple, trite, and mechanical.  I always thought it didn’t and couldn’t respond to the trials and tribulations of adult life. It’s too simple and unrealistic to all the suffering and pain out there.

I scoffed at it. I’m an academic, fact checking realist (and close to a cynic on some topics) not some rosey faced optimist. How can I focus on the trivial good things when so much suffering is going on in the world?

However, when I was asked last week what I felt I needed to focus on to throw a wrench in the litany of complaints and laments I seem to always have in ample supply, I resignedly said “It’s so cheesy but I think I need to focus more on the good things I do have in my life.”

So I was challenged to do a gratitude journal for 2 weeks and to pay attention to what arises when I list my daily thoughts. I felt so silly but I agreed.

To pacify my feeling that it’s too childish to take seriously, I poked around and found that there’s actually a good amount of science to the gratitude practice. Just as mindfulness and meditation have been all the rage, apparently so has gratitude. In true academic fashion scientists have not only identified the positive socio-psychological benefits of gratitude such as lowering depression, better moods etc, but physical health benefits too. From reducing pain and inflammation, boosting the immune system,  and improving heart health, really engaging with the gratitude practice changes the body.

Now, this got me interested. Another nerdy body hack just by noting what I am thankful for each day? Ok, I’m in! So, like my sitting practice, I allow whatever comes to mind no matter how seemingly simple. It was (and can still be had).

Write, resistance, write. I never thought how interesting it would be to watch me at play just thinking of and jotting down (hopefully unique) things I’m grateful for that day. My reactions were (and still are) more pithy than what I actually write, but as they say, these all serve as “grist for the mill” of further inquiry. “I’m training the brain” I say, “I’m training my brain ad everyone’s got to start somewhere.”

A few days later, I ended up stumbling on an opinion piece in the New York Times  Choose to be Grateful.It will make you Happier. In that article, the author Lindsey Holmes notes:

“Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neurosciences identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.”

She references a study that “took a genetic approach to test the hypothesis that social interactions involving expressed gratitude would be associated with variation in a gene, CD38, which has been shown to affect oxytocin secretion.

I suppose my CD38 gene is just too ‘normal’ then (maybe too much), as I have always found those relentlessly positive people unrealistic, hokey, hippie dippy, and often downright annoying.  My mind seem(s/ed) to always lean to the negative at best, realistic. Even being open to this 2 week task has been a challenge as it has been forcing me to suspend disbelief and just play along.

But hey, I realized that I can always deny any association with this project of gratitude if I so choose, so in the spirit of body hacking and curiosity, I have been sticking with it.

What seems interesting, is that while some people seem to have a genetic (?) inclination to lean towards the positive and more easily flood their system with oxytocin, it can still be learned.Well, I suppose I already knew that, but I did not know that oxytocin plays a role in gratitude. I wonder then, to what degree does this practice changes gene expression and how they operate over time.

I wonder if it is experienced over time with a meditation practice, neuroplasticity seems to have a role to play in the positive mental and physical changes of gratitude practice. Indeed as Rick Hanson notes, gratitude and taking the time to sit down to identify what to be grateful for alters the brain much like meditation:

“Gratitude is a powerful tool in this “garden” since what you rest your attention upon is what will shape your brain the most. That’s because “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Gratitude shifts your attention away from resentment, regret, and guilt – and therefore stops you from building up the neural substrates of these known factors of mental and physical health problems. Gratitude also focuses your awareness on positive things, simple good facts such as having enough water to drink, the laughter of children, the kindness of others, or the smell of an orange.”

Gratitude practice trains the mind to more easily tune into the frequency of positive things rather than the more negative and unwholesome frame of mind that is integral to our self preserving limbic system, but also stressful and taxing to the mind and body over time. But if this is the case, then indeed, this simple act can change the baseline operations of a gene that regulates oxytocin flow.

Moreover, the very simplicity I scoff is at the core of the gratitude practice.  This practice at its core “focuses your awareness on positive things, simple good facts..” It appears to draw the attention away from the complex stories of fear, threat, and worry that minimize the simple and essential good things available at inexhaustible supply of the moment.

I tend to relish the gray area of life, the nuances of language, and the qualifiers and by simply stating “I am grateful for…” without a long story or “but I wish it would be like…” I am training to brain to take a break from what I don’t have or what I wish I had and focus solely on what I have at that moment.

It is interesting to feel my instinctual tug to say “but, wait!” and the enticing addiction to minimize the joy experienced and the slow coaxing back to the simple “I am grateful for this breath I took, the sunset I saw, the delicious cup of tea I drank..etc” No commentary or concessions or caveats, it just was what it was.

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By doing so, it helps foster an environment fertile for for a more softened relationship with the self.

“Gratitude is a protective factor against psychopathology not only due to its association with improved relationships with others, but also because it is connected to a less critical, less punishing, and more compassionate relationship with the self (Petrocchi & Alessandro Couyoumdjian).

Not only does it foster more connection with others, but the self-protective and kind nature of gratitude elicits a positive and protective attention to the self in the moment. It is a conscious effort to check in and ask oneself, “what made me smile today? how was I taken care of today? how was I loved today?” It seems to counteract the magnitude of self judgement, anxiety, hopelessness, etc. by asking the simple question of “what was I grateful for today?” and nothing more.

So as corny as this whole gratitude journal thing is, maybe there is something to this simple reflecting on and listing the simple good things that fed my body, heart, brain, and my soul earlier on in the day…and I am grateful for it. 🙂

Being with the run

“Furthermore, when walking, the monk discerns, ‘I am walking.’ When standing, he discerns, ‘I am standing.’ When sitting, he discerns, ‘I am sitting.’ When lying down, he discerns, ‘I am lying down.’ Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it… ” Satipatthana Sutta

Last weekend I ran my first 50K (31 mile) race on trails.  I finished only a bit banged up after countless stumbling, trips, toe stubbings and maybe 1/2 a dozen flat out falls (thankfully kinda gracefully).

CaptureWhat I find particularly interesting is what went though my mind over the just over 7 hours I was running.  There comes a point in any  race where thoughts of life outside the run,  future conversations, and assessments of how the run went (or will go) start passing through my mind.

At best on a road race, I can notice my thoughts of the past and thoughts of the future and feel the ever so familiar tug bringing myself back to present.

When on trail however, and for hours longer, such distractions are tougher.

To run on a trail is to run with presence. A momentary distraction of thought or sight can result in a stumble, a trip, or a fall. It is important to know where and be with each foot fall, the balance of all the muscles in the body, and the alert sense of navigating and being aware of the surroundings (if only to avoid getting lost, strategizing hills and uneven trails, and beings around you).  Too much concentration on one of these causes imbalance and contraction. Sometimes the amount of attention over time and hours sometimes alone makes one freeze. The solution? Take a deep breath, slow the pace, and keep moving forward.

A friend of mine seeing a post about my achievement asked “How did you do that?”

My reply: “Gingerly and shoring up as much presence in the moment I could muster. If I stumbled, I just gently brought myself back and began again.”

I suppose that is what makes the practice “a practice” eh?

Reflections

I never explained where I got the title for this blog. It seems about time.

It was from a line in Wallace Steven’s poem “Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
So what is this ‘palm at the end of the mind’?  For me, it conjures the felt sense of what is often the remnant at that visceral moment when things get really quiet while sitting…that imperfection or holding back. That felt sense of something remaining solid when given a small taste of feeling truly present and connected with all beings…something not wanting to completely let go.  Is it the ego? Is it the observer? Is it what is standing in the way of truly feeling free?

Or, is it something else?

Without it, the bird cannot rest on its branches and sing nor can the ever-changing wind move though its branches.  It is just beyond the last thought of the mind as opposed in the thick of it and thus identified by it; rather it is serving as a support to nature’s practice.