The Great Allowing

night dance

I’m becoming suspicious that my second-born son is a little mini-me.  I’ve taken to calling him Preacher, because he is fascinated with anything related to God, as I was at the same age.  He is definitely latching on to the evangelical Christian story, and feels the need to defend God at every turn.  At Christmas he was offended when the local drive-through Christmas light event only paid homage to Jesus through one small display.

Part of  me is thrilled that he has a spiritual side to him, a side that sees and is enthralled with more than can just be seen with the naked eye.  But part of me is afraid for him.  I fear the unlearning that he may have to endure as I did in my twenties and early thirties.  I want to control the growth and evolving of his understanding of God and the divine: to protect him, to keep him from latching onto unhelpful dogma, to keep him from being the me of my own youth.

Inevitable in discussions with my son are conversations about the beginning of life.  Just this week were visiting the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, one of our favorite places.  In one exhibit, overhead were posted these words by Carl Sagan: “If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the sun and the stars?”

Preacher was quite upset by this, and told me that we shouldn’t be worshipping the sun or stars, but only God.  This led into a discussion about the Big Bang, and I told him that when we are awestruck by what exists and has been created, we are worshipping God.  Besides, I told him, we are all stardust. We should honor that from whence we came. This further vexed him, as he is still more well read in Genesis than he is astronomy.

My conversations with Preacher brought me back to questions I have been grappling with in my own spiritual introspection.  The primary one I have dealt with of late is the struggle to accept reality as it is and then try to reconcile that with the understanding of a good Creator.  I’m more of an atheist these days…I believe in a force that is holding all things together and is the essence of life, but I can’t swallow a truly theistic notion of God anymore.  But despite this, something in me insists that this Ground of Being has to ultimately be good.  I really have no clear, succinct arguments or empirical evidence for this…I just believe it in my bones.

Which brings the age old dilemma that millions before me have faced….how can bad things and evil be part of or come from something that is good? I don’t know.  But I think maybe the Big Bang idea speaks of the goodness of this Ground of Being.  I’m calling it the Great Allowing.  My very limited understanding is that before the Big Bang, all the stuff that would soon explode outward was compressed into an immensely dense state….a state of extreme potential energy. And then boom…the universe burst forth and began its outward expansion and fusion created new elements and somehow over billions of years the right elements joined up at the right place in the right environment and life began.  Freaking amazing when you think about it.

And then, it seems to me, God, the Ground of Being,  let the universe take its course. Seemingly limitless possibilities were allowed. Maybe this galaxy would form over here.  Maybe this would form over there.  Maybe in this tiny corner of the galaxy the right circumstances would line up for a place called Earth to grow people.  And those people will be subject to countless factors that will influence their lives and interactions with each other.  And they will do horrible things to each other and the places they live, but they will also love dangerously and beautifully and sacrifice themselves for the good of others and those same places that they live.

What I’m trying to say is that it seemed like God sure took a huge chance when he decided to open Pandora’s Box of Big Bangs. The outcomes could be wonderful, or they could be disastrous. But he was willing that it happened.  The Great Allowing commenced.

We all tend to think that we are dancers dancing life.  But I like the way I recently heard Byron Katie put it, that we are the dance and Life is dancing us. Life is the dancer.  Or what if, life is the Ground of Being, God, and he (sorry, English is lacking in good neutral pronouns) is dancing us.

I tend to be afraid to allow alot of things in my life. Control has been a great hallmark of all that is Julie, I just never recognized it until a couple of years ago. But….2017 was the most courageous year of my life.  Some days I look back and am like, “Damn, girl! You ALLOWED a whole lot of stuff over the last year!” I allowed myself to face some of my biggest fears. I allowed myself to try hard things and dream big dreams. I allowed myself to love quickly, wildly, with abandon, when in the past I would have shrunk back into the shadows, afraid of being hurt. I allowed myself to say no, and I allowed myself to say yes. I allowed myself to dig deep inside myself to uncover more of who I really am…the things that I love about myself and the things I despise. I allowed myself to sit long with hard emotions, and I allowed myself to “Fuck it all!” on some of my really dark days. I opened my hands and allowed many things to land, and many to freely fly away.

This is what I learned from my own year of Great Allowing: I felt more alive than I’ve ever felt in my entire 37 years. I felt real, authentic, genuine…even if I didn’t always like certain aspects of myself. Everything seemed more meaningful, even though I had fewer answers about everything than ever.  There were days I felt like a really great human, and days I felt like I probably sucked worse than any human that has ever lived, but at the same time, I felt like I could accept it because this is what being human is like, and this is what the dance looks like when life is dancing in a temporarily crummy person.

I do revere the stars, and the sun, because they remind me that whatever is behind life, Ground of Being or God or some clockmaker in the sky…it is not scared of letting go of all control, is not afraid of allowing whatever will happen to happen. If that same dancer, who wound up the tune of the universe and danced as the music box opened with delight, then somehow I believe I can trust life to dance me well, this tiny, insignificant little waltz in the corner of a spiral galaxy.

 

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!

mycatkins
Photo credit: Mycatkins

I have ADD. More specifically, I have the subtypes of inattentive ADD, anxious ADD, and overfocused ADD. And, I have the brain scans to prove it, courtesy of the Amen Clinic, my former upper-middle class status with fantastic insurance, and my white privilege enabling me to cross the country just to spend the weekend inside a SPECT machine.  Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have been able to see what all is going on in the mess between my ears.

brain 2.jpg
This is my brain without any stress or concentration. The white and red indicate activity.  So, here my brain is functioning pretty well.
brain 1
This scan shows the activity in my brain when under stress or having to really concentrate.  Much of the activity decreased in most areas of my brain.

Basically what these two particular scans are showing is that when I have to think really hard or am put into stressful situations, my head short circuits.  At other times, I get hyper-focused and obsessive about certain thought patterns.  Most of the time I’m able to compensate for this fairly well, and now that I understand what is going on, I can plan ahead for some of my brain farts. But sometimes, especially if I’m put on the spot with a question or task when I’m already nervous, I am left paralyzed and clueless.

Here’s an example.  Last semester during one clinical, the nurse I was working with asked me what the classic signs of a heart attack are.  We were taking care of a patient who was experiencing chest pains, and we were deciding whether or not she was really exhibiting heart issues or if she was just having anxiety.

When the nurse asked this question, I just went completely blank. I could not think and could not produce any kind of intelligent answer.  It was so frustrating because the question was not a difficult one. This kind of scenario leaves me in a panic, frantically searching the databases of my mind and coming up empty.  The result is that I feel completely incompetent, and it only increases my anxiety level, which makes everything worse. A second side effect of having these types of ADD is that I can be completely blind to things at time.  If I’m nervous or stressed and am looking for something, I can literally not see it even if it is right in front of me.  This phenomenon drives me crazy, to say the list, especially when it makes me look entirely stupid.

Over the last several years, I’ve been trying to incorporate practices into my life that will help calm my brain.  ADD drugs have never been helpful for me…they make me hyper for a week and then stop doing anything.  So, I needed alternative methods to help soothe my nerves, literally.  I’ve found that doing yoga and sitting meditation have helped tremendously in this area, because they force me to be where I am at that moment, and only focus on what is right in front of me.  I have also learned that if I get less than eight hours of sleep at night, the next day will include multiple episodes of brain freeze.

There is a word play off an old adage that goes “Don’t just do something!  Sit there!” This mindset totally goes against most of our natures.  We believe that to solve problems or change things, we must do, do do.  I totally fall prey to the mindset that I will find my answers externally, and if I just work harder or find the right book or talk to the right person, or, or, or…I will discover the solution to my problem.  The same happens when I’m having one of my ADD attacks. Instead of leaning into the discomfort of my brain momentarily shutting down and letting it calm itself, I internally panic and start grasping for anything to help me feel right again. This never fixes anything, and only exacerbates my anxiety, which then lengthens the time my brain is out of service.

What I’m gradually learning over time, but still regularly forget, is that when things blow up in our faces, the best thing to do initially is to not react. We need to just sit there and look that situation or person head on without judgment.  Because when we jump into action straightaway without letting it be, we are acting out of our beliefs and thoughts about that situation or person, and our thoughts may or may not be true.  Or, as in my case with ADD and I literally have NO thoughts that will come, I’m just reacting out of habit and knee-jerk reflexes, which have never been helpful in these circumstances.

It is better to sit and watch and understand before we try to do anything. Then, with time, out of a calm and relaxed mind, we can make balanced decisions about how to proceed, without being motivated by fear, or for me, blind panic.

“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you. “

-Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I Know Why People Stay

Stay
I just started my third semester of an accelerated nursing program. (Woo hoo!  Only 32 LONG weeks to go…) During our orientation for Community Nursing, a local social worker came and did a short presentation on domestic violence, and the cycles that cause people to stay in or return to bad relationships.

It is an insidious cycle, that gains more momentum with each turn. Some type of abuse occurs, followed by a honeymoon stage, where the perpetrator tries to draw the victim back into a false sense of safety and acceptance with loving gestures, flowers, gifts…  Then, tension begins to build as the abuser’s dark side again begins to manifest itself, finally resulting in another abusive event.  This cycle continues and continues until the victim feels completely incapable of leaving the situation because of fear, manipulation, and sometimes the belief that they are at fault or must “save” their abuser.

During the orientation, the social worker offered us a short role role play, where an “abused” mother was handed heavy books representing all the difficult things she would face if she tried to leave the abusive relationship she was in.  Delayed court dates, struggle to find childcare, manipulation and intimidation by the abuser, lack of good community resources, lack of family support, potential for getting fired at work….the list went on and on until the role play volunteer was holding a hefty stack of heavy books in her arms, looking defeated herself.

I compared this role play to my own life. I didn’t leave my marriage because of blatant abuse, but so many of the outcomes of the role play still rang very true with me. It got me to thinking about how people in our culture view those who get divorced, why so many of us stay in bad marriages, and maybe how we should start reframing the whole divorce narrative.

First of all, I want to point out some things I’ve noticed about marriage and divorce, especially related to the “Christian” culture that still pervades much of our society and influences dynamics that occur within churches. I must preface by saying I’m throwing out some big generalizations, but I think there is truth in all of them, especially after the countless conversations I’ve shared about them with other people.

  • In many circles, marriage offers a step up in citizenship.  I noticed this shift personally both within my family and within churches that I attended.  Singles are given lip service, but the “sacrament” of marriage still carries so much weight that people are treated as though they are even just a bit more worthy, more capable of offering something to the outside world, if they are in a legally bound partnership. I can recall all the dumb books I read growing up that circulated among so many people I knew.  I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Lady in Waiting, and countless other dating and courtship treatises weighing down Christian bookstore shelves that taught us how to prepare ourselves for the ultimate initiation rite of marriage.  Looking back at them, it’s all quite nauseating to me.  We believed if we could just get to marriage, we would arrive…and in some cases, like mine, we did arrive. My status definitely improved in many ways.
  •  In the same way that marriage offers us a leg up, even in our modern culture, divorce causes us to take a step backwards.  Actually, I would venture to say even several steps backwards….even below where we were as virgin singles. Those who have been through a divorce get it, but so many who haven’t exude skepticism about our marriage commitment in the first place, or one’s connection to God, or one’s effort to make the marriage partner happy, or etc, etc.  I suspect this is partly why so many people rush back into marriage…partly out of loneliness, and partly because we want to be treated like whole, complete people again.
  • I’ve gone to so many conferences, retreats, and Christian counseling sessions where a another hefty pile, this time guilt, is handed to people struggling in their marriages.  You made a vow before God, you need to honor it. You decided to marry this person, now it’s for life.  Women, you need to respect your husbands. Women, it really only takes a few minutes…will it really kill you to give your husband what he wants? You’re just being selfish. Men, you were placed as the head of your household by Christ, you need to lead it properly.  And on, and on.  (And don’t even get me started on how the definition of rape needs to be broadly expanded within the institution of marriage….and the definition of nagging and hen-pecking for that matter.)  The bulk of these platitudes thrust on me, even by well-intended people, never helped me at all

All of this is to say: I think the main reason that good people stay in bad marriages is not because they are more committed people, or more God-fearing, or more sacrificial.  I think it’s because they are freaking scared of the alternative: a fall from status and alot of really hard things to sort out for an indefinite period of time.

I was chatting with a friend recently and told her, “This is the kind of day that makes people stay in a bad marriages.”

You know, the kind of day when you can’t find a last minute babysitter, and you have a $2,000 leaky roof bill, and you can’t figure out how you’ll save for college on your own, and your kid is throwing up at school but you can’t leave what you’re doing to get him, and you have to board your dog for the day because otherwise you’ll come home to an accident on your already gross carpet, and you can’t go to the doctor for anything less than an antibiotic-resistant flesh-eating bacteria because you have a ridiculous deductible, and you can’t remember the last time you were hugged by an adult much less kissed or held by one, and you’re afraid you’re going to freaking go out of your mind trying to coparent with someone you don’t even recognize anymore, and you’re praying that your kids aren’t ingesting too many endocrine disruptors because of the crap you’re feeding them lately, and  you want to go out with your friends but based on your current schedule you can see that maybe happening next month…and..and..and…

This, friends, is why people stay in bad marriages. Because we aren’t taught that we can make it on our own, or that we have inside us what we need to survive.

Now, I should clarify, there are some marriages that really should be fought for.  But let’s just call a spade a spade and recognize that some broken marriages are necessary endings.  Necessary not always because of abuse or infidelity, but because the people in the marriages are suffocating and living out of motivations based in fear.  Which is not how ANYONE should be living.

This is how I lived for years.  Oh, I’d tell myself I was doing it for Jesus, but that was only superficially true.  I stayed because I was scared of regressing to my pre-marriage status, of pissing off God, of being judged by my family and the people around me, and of screwing my kids lives up forever.  And I know I’m not alone in this…I know alot of people who have lovely looking marriages on the outside, who appear to be thriving in this “staying together under God’s umbrella of blessing” idea, but in reality, at least one of them is dying inside.

So, to reframe…

Christian culture shames the heck out of divorced people, and places so much emphasis on the traditional nuclear family.  But I say that in a good number of cases, the people who chose divorce were actually the bravest people of all.  I know what some of you are thinking…Julie, don’t you think commitment is important?  Julie, what about the kids in these situations?  Julie, don’t you believe in keeping promises and the importance of family? I get it……but…

Sometimes staying in an unhappy marriage is the safe thing to do.  And for a time, this may serve us well, just like it did me.  In fact, I think it was a growing field for me – a place for me to grow brave in other areas of my life first.  But to finally break free into a world of uncertainties and unknowns takes a whole freaking lot of courage – it doesn’t matter if you’re the primary breadwinner and make a crap ton of money or if you’re having to build a new career over from the ground up.  Leaving the familiarity and safeness and status that comes with marriage is so hard.

So going back to the people who have been abused in relationships.  I TOTALLY get now why many return to the situation again and again – if it took me so many years to leave something that wasn’t abusive -and the rest of us have absolutely no business shaming them. So many of us stay in bad marriages for far fewer reasons than people caught in the cycle of domestic abuse with everything, including survival, on the line.

Staying in any situation in life just because of fear is a horrible way to live.  I fervently believe that while we may not always agree with a person’s reasons to leave a relationship, we should absolutely ALWAYS applaud them when they are breaking free from the tyranny of fear, “you should”s, and shame-based beliefs that have held them there.

A Short Note on Dancing with Life

 

 

dancing
Moody Fotografi
“The sacred sense of beyond, of timelessness, of a world which had an eternal value and the substance of which was divine had been given back to me today by this friend of mine who taught me dancing.”
― Hermann Hesse

 

I woke up in the middle of the night last night with a serious panic attack. I was thinking I can’t make it and everything I’ve worked so hard for over the last year and a half is going to crumble. It’s tough co-parenting with an ex, and scheduling school and work is an exercise in trying every permutation possible with a limited number of hours and days available to me.  Will my money hold out? Am I making good decisions? And I sure hope I still like nursing at the end of all of this.

Of course, my panic attack might have been precipitated by having a little too much Fireball when I was already tired and stressed.  Anyway…

After my hyperventilation and near-crying episode, I fell back into a dream where I was ballroom dancing on a stage with a man I’d never met.  We were performing before an audience that I couldn’t see because of the bright stage lights, and while dancing I was thinking to myself…what the hell am I doing here?  I don’t know how to dance!  But somehow I trusted his lead, and we danced and twirled and dipped. The dancing in my dream wasn’t imagined. I vividly recall a full five minutes of being part of an actual dance. I was charmed and laughing and allowed myself to be spun around the floor with little concern for what the audience thought. My partner was laughing as well, and whispering throughout the dance about how great we were doing. I don’t remember getting tired or feeling uncertain. It was kind of magical, as dreams can often be. The guy in my dream also resembled Rob Thomas wearing trendy glasses, so that imagery didn’t hurt either.

I woke up this morning thinking about that dream, and wondering if it was a metaphor about life. Maybe my subconscious was reaching out to me with encouragement?  Maybe it was the Fireball? Either way, I thought about the possible meaning of this sleep experience all day. If I had fought against the partner in my dream, insisting that I didn’t know what I was doing and was going to make a fool of myself, the dance would have been ruined. But instead, I moved into his arms and let him guide me where we needed to go, and the result was effortless and  pure joy.

Life is hard as shit sometimes, there’s no doubt about it and it doesn’t always feel like elegant, graceful choreography.  There are so many things I wish I didn’t have to go through, and so many times when I fight and scream and absolutely make a fool of myself trying to avoid pain and hard things.  But if I’m honest with myself, life has been good to me. I have changed so dramatically over the last ten years in ways that I once thought were impossible. I’m braver, more authentic, and have a greater capacity for love, even if I’m still learning what that really means. So, I will keep trusting and trying to lean into this partner of mine that is life, who is patiently teaching me the steps to an enchanted dance.

The Uncertainty of All Things

When I went off to college, I felt pretty certain that I understood the way life works.  You ask Jesus into your heart, live as morally pure a life as possible and ask forgiveness for all the rest of the crap you do, memorize copious amounts of Scripture, pray as much as possible, and trust God for everything else.  This is a pretty simplified version, but you get the gist.

Now, almost twenty years later, there is basically nothing that I am certain about, for absolute certain. All the rules to the game I once played no longer make any sense.  In fact, I think I’m playing a different game with rules that feel impossible to completely grasp.

I’ve been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  again today, and one idea really stood out to me.

What is the truth, and how do you know it when you have it? p. 126

Because I’m finding, as Pirsig suggests in the book, that questions beget questions.  As you find answers you are really no further along in your journey because an infinite number of other questions arise at the same time. He describes it this way through his fictionalized character’s exploration into the scientific method :

“He [Phaedrus] had noticed again and again in his lab work that what might seem to be the hardest part of scientific work, thinking up the hypotheses, was invariably the easiest. The act of formally writing everything down precisely and clearly seemed to suggest them. As he was testing hypothesis number one by experimental method a flood of other hypotheses would come to mind, and as he was testing these, some more came to mind, and as he was testing these, still more came to mind until it became painfully evident that as he continued testing hypotheses and eliminating them or confirming them their number did not decrease. It actually increased as he went along.” p. 112

And…

“In the high country of the mind one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty, and to the enormous magnitude of questions asked, and to the answers proposed to these questions. The sweep goes on and on and on so obviously much further than the mind can grasp one hesitates even to go near for fear of getting lost in them and never finding one’s way out.” p. 125

I don’t claim to be operating out of the high country of the mind like brilliant people such as Pirisg, but I have definitely felt the getting lost-ness in the ever expanding stream of questions in my mind. My spiritual explorations definitely have a Phaedrean quality.  It also seems like my striving to answer all of these questions is a race that is getting faster and faster.  I feel manic at times and completely clueless about where this trip is taking me.

“Phaedrus wandered through this high country, aimlessly at first, following every path, every trail where someone had been before, seeing occasionally with small hindsights that he was apparently making some progress, but seeing nothing ahead of him that told him which way to go.” p. 127  (If you haven’t read the book, Google Phaedrus…or just insert my name in his place, because I see myself in this passage.)

My racing down every path trying to discover truth first really began when I finally concluded that I categorically do not believe in hell or Satan.  Since I no longer had a tidy solution for all of life’s problems, I frantically began a search for meaning in life. I started slow…OK, so if there is no hell, does everyone go to heaven or are evil people annihilated and cease to exist?  Then I moved on to whether or not atonement theory and our modern understanding of Jesus and the resurrection story made any sense. Next, I questioned whether or not stories in the Gospels were actually literally true. Then, a critical look at the Old Testament. Then on to readings in Buddhism, Taoism, Native American spirituality, Christian mysticism,, Sufism, Cabbalism, and a tad bit of pagan thought. Throughout all of this exploration down various spiritual avenues, I have tried and am still trying to see how science, psychology, and the natural world fit in.  The questions keep coming from every direction and I chase answers down one path, and then down another, and then down yet another.

“And so he (or Julie) wanders blindly along one trail after another gathering one [puzzle] piece after another and wondering what to do with them…” p. 127

Are there any ultimate answers?  Do these puzzle pieces we get in life actually fit together somehow? Is there a destination to reach at some point?

In physics, there is a concept referred to as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  I’m not a physics expert, but basically the idea is that you can’t precisely know the exact position and momentum of an object at the same time because things in the universe have qualities of waves and also of particles.  If you want have a good understanding of an object’s exact location, you’ll have to be OK with being less certain about it’s speed and momentum.  On the flip side, if you want to get more detailed information about an object’s momentum, you’ll have to content yourself with being less certain about where exactly in space the object lies.

I feel like maybe this is the way truth is, and consequently, all the answers for our questions.  We want to pin truth down and say, “Aha! Here it is, I’ve found it! And it’s just like this in all situations for everyone at all times.”  We may find a preliminary answer, a puzzle piece, but the truth squirms away from our pointed fingers and we discover that other variables aren’t so clear anymore.   A hypothesis: the uncertainty principle of truth:-we cannot simultaneously know something to be true for everyone in all situations at all times.

I don’t completely believe this either, because I think that LOVE is absolute truth.  But this just brings up more questions….is LOVE real?  Or just a by-product projection from neurotransmitters in our brains and a function of the survival of the fittest and evolutionary adaptation?  I’m leaning towards the former, that LOVE is real and transcends everything, but I’m not entirely certain.  Besides, the idea of LOVE is a squishy notion that can be about as hard to pin down as an atomic particle. For example, something may look like love on the outside and may benefit someone or something, but be created out of selfish motivations or means. Vice versa, something may not look loving by outward appearance but come from very good motives and means. Uncertainty, indeed.

Sometimes people wonder why I even bother to go to church anymore. I mean, I’m clearly not in the Christian mainstream.  For that matter, why do I go to a Zen Buddhist meditation group when I’m not hardcore Buddhist either?  I’m a little bit atheist, too, when it comes down to it.

I think I believe that all of the puzzle pieces I’m picking up day by day have a little bit of ultimate truth in them; I just have to be careful not to insist I understand everything about them at one particular point in time.  I can’t get all the pieces to fit together yet, and I can’t see the big picture on the puzzle box, which would be helpful.  But I need people to do life with, people who are also searching and feeling uncertainty and who know that they don’t understand it all.  Every group that I’ve ever encountered that is asking hard questions about life had a mix of great insights and big blindspots.  So, you do your best to find the people that help you stumble down the path you are on until you reach the next path, and there will be a new group of people to lead you down that one-people that help carry you through your uncertainties.

And now, I propose the Uncertainty Principle of Julie: I will inevitably squirm out of labels that are put on me and show up where you least expected it. I’m Christian, but I”m not. I’m Buddhist, but I’m not.  I’m a humanist, but I’m not. I’m just a strange bundle of uncertainties that is me.

 

How to Breathe Through Pain

I got bitch-slapped by 2017 on her way out.

It was a rough year, but I had made it. Things were on a positive trajectory and I was feeling hopeful.  But then, right when I thought I was on the homestretch…..

(Yes, I know I’m splicing together random metaphors).

It was like that scene from Million Dollar Baby.  You know, where Hillary Swank’s character dominates in the boxing match, and as she goes to the side of the ring to soak up her glory, her opponent throws an ugly illegal punch that pretty much ruins everything.  Oh what the heck, watch it here and you’ll get the idea.

I’m obviously not the only one that has been thrown what feels like a totally unfair and uncalled-for blow, but no matter how intellectually we approach these things, they can still hurt like freaking hell. And sometimes the hardest thing to do is to force yourself to get back up again and to keep breathing in and out, and to believe that life is benevolent and good.

I’m halfway through nursing school, and in that time I have gained an even greater appreciation for the way our bodies work.  The intricate balancing system of chemicals, blood gases, and pH to maintain optimal functioning is fascinating.  Even when we are diseased or injured or offer them crappy energy supplies, our bodies fight valiantly to keep us moving.   It’s quite an elegant set-up, really.

One idea that is really pushed on us in school and clinicals is the importance of open airways and proper breathing. When in doubt, the best action is always to check a person’s airway to make sure nothing is obstructing their breathing. And second, when someone has had surgery, even if it’s just a C-section, or a lung illness, the patient needs to perform incentive spirometry.

Incentive spirometry is slow, forced breathing to help fully open the air sacs deep within the lungs and help a person regain as much lung capacity as possible.  The problem is, when you’re in pain, you don’t want to breathe deeply.  You want to take short, shallow breaths and use as few muscles in the process as possible.  When you’re in intense pain, you also likely feel completely bone-tired.

Can’t everyone just leave me alone, God dammit? Breathing hurts and my body hurts and I’m exhausted – I just want to lie here in my misery and not move!

Forcing yourself to breathe in these medical situations is exactly what needs to be done for the body to restore itself. It may hurt like hell to use that stupid incentive spirometer (and I know from experience, having had three C-sections and my gall-bladder removed), but pushing through that pain to help your lungs open up and allow for optimal gas exchange is paramount. Without going into too much detail,  gas exchange (oxygen and carbon dioxide) is crucial…for proper cell metabolism, for maintaining a narrow-bounded blood pH, for minimizing anxiety and confusion…the list goes on.

Emotional pain can cause the same kinds of breathing problems as physical pain. I doubt I’m unique in this-when my heart is broken or I’m panicking or I’m descending into the depths of despair (thank you for that sentiment, Anne of Green Gables), my chest physically hurts and I find myself taking those short, shallow breaths. When I realize it and attempt to breathe deeply out of my diaphragm, the emotional pain seems to intensify rather than abate, and it takes all the courage I have to let my lungs expand.

Failure to breathe deeply from emotional pain can lead to some of the same negative side effects caused by physical pain. But what is worse than just failing to breathe deeply is when we stop breathing and hold our breath. This, however, is our tendency.

Because breathing deeply or breathing at all during these times feels like you’re endorsing or condoning what is being done to you or the situation you find yourself in. Breathing is necessary to bring in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide, and those gases are necessary for life, and life doesn’t feel like a good thing right now because it is what brought you this pain in the first place. Our natural reflex is to want to close ourselves off from breathing, pain, and all that life brings because we want to protect ourselves. How could a rational human being sanely accept and embrace the hard things that come our way, uninvited?

We unconsciously think that if we hold perfectly still, the pain will go away. But this isn’t the way it works. When we hold still, the pain remains trapped within us. It can’t lessen because it has nowhere to go.  And then, the lack of life movement within us accompanied by this body of pain, creates bitterness and resentment and scar tissue on our hearts.  We become small, immovable, hard, unchangeable.

Breath creates space inside of us for new things to happen. It provides a vehicle for the pain to start moving, within us and then eventually, out of us.  To ruin the moment here, I’m thinking of patients who have tracheostomies.  Their trachs and lungs get all bound up with phlegm and mucus, but if they can get a good, long, deep breath in and cough hard, all the gunk in their lungs is loosened up (or potentially flies across the room at you and you’d better duck fast) and they feel better.

This is where spirituality beat science and modern healthcare to the table. Mystics and contemplatives have known for ages that to heal and to get through pain, we have to keep moving and we have to keep breathing deeply. There is no other way to convalesce if we want to live.

So many spiritual practices focus on the breath. Watch your in-breath, watch your out-breath. Count to five on your inhalation, count to eight on your exhalation. Place your hand on your abdomen and feel your diaphragm expand. On your exhale, push back into downward dog. On your inhale, press up into cobra pose.

Practices like yoga teach us how to sync our breathing with our movements.  It’s not just about exercise; it is about learning to live and be with the pain that is within us, how to hold it long enough to transform it, and then how to let it pass through us without destroying us.

So…I know and believe all that I’ve just written at a head level, and to some extent at my heart level.  When I breathe my chest still hurts and I just want to go crawl under the covers and not move. But I choose to believe that life is good and what comes to me is what I need. I choose to feel the pain and not run away from it. I choose to transform it and let it transform me. I’ve run away from hard things too many times in the past because I was afraid of the pain. But I’m not afraid of pain anymore, and I will breathe deeply into life, and I will get up again and again and again. So bring it, 2018.

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