This Is My Greatest Fear… And It Has A NAME!

mirrors
Photo credit: Elsamuko

“Fear can be known as the most virulent and damaging virus known to humankind.” 
― Gerald G. Jampolsky, Love Is Letting Go of Fear

I”m not afraid of dying.  It’s the “being dead” part that I haven’t always been so keen on. Which is kind of paradoxical because in the past I wasn’t always so keen on life either.

I’m not talking about angst over my corpse lying in the ground somewhere, or perhaps my cremated ashes scattered. I’m not really worried about whether or not people will come to my funeral or remember me for any amount of time after I’ve passed.

Like every other human, I don’t know what happens definitively after we die.  Do we join up in a great gathering of souls?  Do we reincarnate? Do we meld back into Ultimate Consciousness? I have fewer and fewer convictions about life after death as I grow older.

In general, what we do after we die isn’t quite as important to me as the “how long” that doing takes.  Does it have an endpoint, or do we just recycle indefinitely?

When I was very young, as I alluded to in my essay, The Surreptitious Subtleties of Space, I began to develop a panic disorder surrounding the idea of eternity.  It all began one evening when I was standing outside in the dark, on the ranch I grew up on in South Texas, looking up into the ebony night sky with its billions of stars. What I first saw as beautiful soon morphed into a terrifying expanse that drove crushing terror into me.

For the first time in my life, I had a real sense of my small-ness; I didn’t possess an understanding of the size of the universe at that point in my life, but it was pretty obvious when looking into space that I’m less than a dot…a nothing when compared to all the Something out there.  At that time in my life, I believed that when we die, we either go to heaven or hell for an eternity.  I had accepted Jesus at a age six, so I wasn’t so concerned about which place I’d end up at, but I was less than thrilled by the idea of “everlasting”.  How could something good last forever? And who really wants to live forever in some static celestial city where somehow God builds us mansions according to our particular preferences and specifications?  The ideas of the afterlife that had been passed on to me seemed dreadful.

My sudden fear of space didn’t help.  If I’m this small compared to all that exists, and there are millions of other people out there, I’m sure to be marginalized by God and pushed to the fringes of heaven.  My poor 7-year-old mind.

These horrible panic attacks stayed with me as I grew up, coming and going in waves.  I only told a few people about them because NO ONE understood what I was talking about.  Most people I was brave enough to tell about my paralyzing fear were dumbfounded, wondering how anyone would NOT want to live forever?  “Is nihilism a better option?” they would ask me. Others would blow me off with trite statements, like “You just need to trust God.”  Anyone who struggles with panic knows that you can not reason or logic your way out of it.

But, as is the case with all secret fears, they become less powerful once you keep speaking about them. As I expanded my understanding of spirituality over the years, the frequency and duration of these attacks gradually decreased.  And to my utter delight, I discovered a few people here and there who panicked over these very same reasons I did.

In the Old Testament book, The Song of Solomon, the writer proclaims that there is nothing new under the sun.  Everything, in general, that happens now has happened before.  This is why I’m now a firm believer that we who have walked through the fire of our fears and come out the other side need to talk about them, so that those who are still afraid know that they are not alone, and so they can loosen the grip of that fear that holds them by learning to speak out as well.

Dealing with big fears seems even easier when there’s a name for them, when enough people struggle with the same thing that they have to describe it with a fancy Greek derivative.  This makes you feel less crazy and less alone.  In my case, I accidentally stumbled across the name of my specific panic attack fear in an article in The Atlantic last year.  Apeirophobia.  I was thrilled…just one more area of my life where I realized “It’s not JUST ME!”

A while back I decided to do a search on Apeirophobia on YouTube, because what can you not find on this platform?  Amazed, I discovered a video where a man described this phobia, and people….it was like he was describing my life and putting into words all that I haven’t been able to say about apeirophobia.  Take a listen – it is SO good:

I still have occasional panic attacks in the middle of the night during periods of stress in my life.  They’ve changed over the years as my belief systems have molded into new ways of thinking and perceiving what is around me.  In some ways though, wrapping my head around the idea of eternity and neverending-ness is harder because of Einstein’s space-time contributions.  If time really is an illusion, are we just experiencing eternity right now, and will time not concern us once we die?  I also think of the Buddhist understanding of the temporal nature of everything.  Ultimately, we are just waves that rise up out of the ocean for a short time and then merge back in, coming up later in another form?  I still have apeirophobic tendencies with these trains of thought, but they sure seem to be much more appealing options than chilling out in my mansion over the hilltop for an everlasting period of linear time.

So, after all that, what is the point of this post?

  1. If you’re terrified of something, it’s pretty darn likely that at least someone, but more probably, many people, are worried about the same thing.
  2. Fears lose their power when you bring them to the light.
  3. Speaking your fears also brings freedom for you, and freedom for others to speak their own.

I’m Pretty Sure I’m Harder On Myself Than You Could Ever Be…

 

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Photo credit: Frankieleon

 

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. 

-Brené Brown

You know how Jesus famously told his followers in Matthew 7:1 not to judge? And then how we have only taken that half seriously?  Because we often give others tremendous grace and then lash our own backs with a cat-o-nine tails whip of shame, self-deprecation, self-loathing, and repeated mantras of how unworthy, stupid, and ridiculous we are.

OK, maybe YOU personally don’t do this, but trust me, I’m not the only one out there who judges themselves more harshly than the rest of the world could ever possibly. I meet people on a very regular basis who fight a constant battle against demons within their own minds about their self-worth. I once thought that Satan was a real being. But now I know what the Accuser really is: it is all the lies that we’ve been told about ourselves, and all the traumas we’ve experienced and were never counseled through; it is all of our internalized fears and failures that have never had an avenue for expression and the chance for the light of truth to be shed on them…all of these tangle together into a dark web of, dare I say, evil?, in our minds that taunt us and judge us and hinder us from grasping on to the divine within us.

Some days, like yesterday, I sink into a state of despair where all I can see when I look back on my life is failure upon failure upon failure. It’s the kind of despair that paralyzes your breathing and your mind plays a non-stop reel of memory after memory where you could have done better, acted more kindly, been more patient.  And after the reel slows, you teeter on the edge of panic, knowing that you won’t get a do-over.  Your kids won’t get younger; you can’t undo the decisions you made that have lingering consequences; you can’t ask the questions of your dead loved ones that you should have asked years ago. As far as we can tell on this side of death, we only get this one shot at this life. (Who knows, maybe there are parallel universes where we’re living the same lives but making different choices…I find that doubtful.)

I called my best friend for help; she is brilliant, is a therapist, and knows these places of despair intimately. She reminded me using the rational mindset she always takes when dealing with my life drama, that my despair and self-judging of myself to be a failure is a learned behavior.  The reason my mind can only remember my mistakes and failures in the past is because that is what it was trained to do. The neural grooves of my brain have been firmly set over the years, and so the paths of self-hatred and judgment are much easier trails for electrical signals to travel down then trying to forge new paths of self-acceptance, and reframing, and learning to focus on the things I’ve done right and well.

I am getting better over the years at being easier on myself, and not sitting in self-judgment for as long as I used to. But I still face the same triggers again and again and know that only by being aware of the pain and discomfort that comes with them will I be able to rise against the shadow monster in my mind.

Here’s an example, maybe you can relate:

This last week I had a nursing clinical to attend based on a varying schedule. On the day of the clinical I looked at the schedule twice, but somehow managed to misread it twice, and thus retained incorrect information about where I was supposed to be and when.  I’ve prided myself on the fact that so far in this program, barring ice storms with resulting standstill traffic, I haven’t been late or missed any school or clinical events.

On this particular clinical day I made my way to my afternoon session only to find that I was 45 minutes late – and all the while I had thought I was 15 minutes early.  I made a quick explanation to my preceptor, who I don’t think was particularly thrilled with me….and the self-judgment commenced.

For the next hour and a half I struggled against the lies and self-deprecating thoughts that came flooding down my brain’s pipeline:  “Julie, how could you be so stupid; Julie only horrible people are late for clinicals (this is a stupid thought from the start because I don’t generally judge other people for being late to clinicals); Julie, you’ve just defined your character to your preceptor – you’re irresponsible, have substandard morals, and possess poor character.”

It’s totally like the “devil on one shoulder and angel on the other” image.  My brain projects an untruth out in front of me, and the little bit of me that is learning to discern my true-self musters up the courage to refute those accusing comments.  And it really seems like a battle…I have to force those signals in my brain to go off-road from their traditionally laid paths and forge new connections that are based in new beliefs.  I can almost feel my brain heating up in exertion when I do this.  Anyone feeling me here?  Know that I”m talking about?

The good news is, this struggle is getting easier over time.  If the above scenario had happened to me a couple of years ago, I would have shamed myself for the next three days before finally feeling some relief.  But that particular day I was able to let go of my self-judgment after only two hours, accepting that I had made a mistake but that it offered no real reflection of my true character and intentions. I simply needed to apologize and make corrections for the future to try to make sure similar things don’t happen again.  And my preceptor – she may or may not have formed a poor opinion of me for the rest of my life, but that’s really out of my control.

For the population of we people who are cruel and harsh with ourselves…it’s because we’ve never learned to question our thoughts. We think we ARE OUR THOUGHTS.  But there is a real YOU, and a real ME, that reside beneath our thoughts, separate from them.  Our thoughts are simply streams of consciousness that pass through our minds, random lava flows of miscellany from all the stored up memories, knowledge, and experiences bound up in synapses.  And all of those stored bits and pieces are there in particular forms because of how we perceive the outside world and what happens to us – they aren’t definitive truth and reality.

Back to Jesus and judging…the end of his statement is “lest you be judged.” I really don’t think here that he means God will judge you. And I don’t necessarily think he means that you will be judged based on a one to one ratio for every time you judge.  I really think it’s all about attitude and perspective on life. Even though it may sound a bit woo-wooey, I believe on some level we manifest stuff in our lives.  Or maybe, as a different way to frame it, we unconsciously seek out those things that align with the way we understand the world.

For example, if we believe the universe to be stingy and stacked against us, we will project that onto everything we come across and thus truly experience it as stingy and mean.  But, if we perceive life to be one of abundance and the universe as good, then we will see those qualities in everything we encounter.  The same is true in our interactions with people: if we view ourselves or others through a lens of judgment, we will see whatever comes to us through that same judgment lens.  So ultimately, Jesus isn’t just giving us another injunction to govern our external behavior. He is trying to teach us that how we see the world and approach the world is how we will perceive the world is treating us.

So, if you’re anything like me…if you berate yourself regularly, if you are harder on yourself than any other person has ever been with you, if all you can see are your mistakes and not your wins…you need to commence with some hard questioning of all that comes down the thought pipeline that you grab onto without thinking. A huge help to me with this has been The Work of Byron Katie. This systematic inquiry practice has shown me that if you relentlessly question everything that happens to you, it is easier to see what is really true and what is just the story we believe about ourselves and the world around us.

 

 

 

 

It’s Actually An Interesting Process to Donate Your Body to Medical Science

cadaver
Photo Credit: Shannon Carabajal 

Disclosure: For those who avoid morbid light-heartedness and sarcasm, perhaps you won’t enjoy this post.

Over the last year and a half, since getting divorced, I’ve been getting my  “affairs” in order.  I don’t plan on kicking the bucket any time soon, but in case I do, I want things to be in place for my boys.  So, I’ve designated a power of attorney, set up an estate trust, gotten ample life insurance, and set up a living will and advanced directives…you know, adulting kind of stuff.

Having gone to about a billion funerals in my life, and helping plan a few, I realize how expensive and stressful funerals can be. Even the cheapest, absolute bare bones funeral home services and coffin package costs several thousand dollars.  Even cremation comes with a noticeable price tag.

In many areas of my life, I’m pretty frivolous and excessive.  But when it comes to me dying, I have always aimed to be as practical as possible.  Salvage what you can for those needing transplants, and let medical students hack away on the rest of me. Morbid as it may sound, I’ve just never been keen on being stuck in a box in the ground or set in an urn on a fireplace mantel somewhere.

I made my wishes clear to my power of attorney in the unforeseen event of my demise and may have daydreamed a tiny bit of how my earthly self might help further the causes of medical research.  That is until I talked with a local hospital marketing employee who told me that in Indiana, it’s actually sometimes more difficult than you would think to bequeath your freshly dead self to science.  I was really disappointed, both regarding my fantasies of my altruistic sacrifice, but also because my plans to make things super easy on my kids and family when I die shriveled up before my eyes.   Just to be on the safe side, I decided to look into the process, and here are a few random but interesting facts I stumbled across on The Google.

  1. You have to apply to donate your body, and…you might be rejected.  In general, having things like cancer, arthritis, or dementia won’t exclude your bodily donation from being accepted.  However, if you have a communicable disease, hepatitis, HIV, are taller than six feet, or weigh more than about 200 pounds, your chances of being selected to grace the cadaver table of a med school gross anatomy lab are slim to none.  Apparently, the embalming process adds another 100 to 150 pounds of weight to a corpse, making them wieldy to handle.
  2. Who would have thought that airline mergers would have any bearing on gifting yourself to a research institution? But it does. According to US Funerals Online, the changes in major airline companies have made getting donations to where they need to go more costly and cumbersome. If you’re concerned about the transportation industry ruining your post-mortem travel plans, consider pre-registering with a for-profit cadaver company to donate your body so you’ll know ahead of time what your options are.
  3. Donating your body to medical science isn’t free. In some places, like Indiana, where I live, there is a 24-hour phone line to call with inquiries about donating a recently deceased person. A quick phone screening by the Anatomical Education Program of Indiana University School of Medicine will determine eligibility for donation. If the family of the deceased requests it, the program will come pick up the body, use what it can, and cremate the remains.  If the family doesn’t want the ashes back 18-24 months later, there is a cemetery specifically designated as an eternal resting place for them..the ashes, not the family.  This is all done with no expense to the family.  However, it costs the School of Medicine significant funds to carry out this program.  But an added perk?  You can donate funds along with yourself when you die to ensure that the program will be able to afford to dissect you, for educational and medicinal purposes, of course.
  4. Supply of cadavers for research and medical school is low, even as many medical schools are moving away from using cadavers. In the past, it was legal to use unclaimed bodies as research cadavers. Perhaps you’ve even heard stories of grave robbers and body snatchers. Here’s an interesting bit of history and social injustice surrounding that. Now, in states like New York, years old traditions have been upended by new laws requiring explicit consent by family to use a body for research.
  5. Body farms – enough said.  A few years ago I started reading Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by science writer Mary Roach. In one chapter she described exploring an outdoor scene where corpses lay in various degrees of decay.  I had forgotten all about the detailed imagery in her book until reading articles for this blog about body farms.  This is the less glorious side of donating one’s body to science.  Rather than be sliced and incised by a fresh-faced doctor wanna-be, bodies are laid out on plots of land so forensics specialists can learn about how bodies decompose over time and when exposed to the elements.  However, the noble side of body farms is they can help provide justice for victims of abuse. Also, on a lighter note, if you get rejected as a body donation by a medical school, you might be welcomed at a body farm.
  6. You might not be accepted as both an organ donor AND a whole body donor. Organ donors are more common than whole-body donors, and it seems more culturally accepted here in the United States.  But many places, like the Mayo Clinic, won’t accept a body for donation after organs have already been removed for other purposes.  So, another reason to plan ahead of time which rite of passage is most important to you?- transplants or research.
  7.  There are alternatives to traditional funerals and cremation through funeral homes. Apparently, there is a trend called “green burials“, which is legal in all 50 states, where one can be allowed to decompose naturally without the use of embalming chemicals like the carcinogenic formaldehyde.  There are 30 or so specific “green burial” cemeteries across the United States.  And unbeknownst to me, you can still be buried in your backyard on private land as long as proper protocols and rules are followed.  This sort of necessitates pre-registration as well to ensure all the necessary paperwork is filed before you die.  Finally, only seven states require that a funeral director presides over the comings and goings of a person who has died. In all the other states, body preparation and services can all be performed at home.   Kind of like a home birth…but the other direction.

In reading up for this post I found quite a number of humorous articles related to body donations, as well as sites of companies that ironically make money off of body donations by taking them and piecemealing body parts out to needy institutions.  But the overall lesson? Body donation is not always a firm guarantee, so deciding on a backup plan for your body’s final destination is a good idea.

As a last side note, consider setting up an advanced directive for how medical care should be organized in the event you can’t make decisions for yourself.  It’s not difficult, it sure helps healthcare professionals and your loved ones when hard, emotional choices are required, and it’s a good way to maintain your self-agency in death instead of letting the courts have authority over who makes decisions concerning you and your care.

 

 

Subluxations and Where the Light Gets In

 

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Photo credit: Bipin Gupta

 

I used to think that chiropractors were quacks – until I visited a chiropractor who specialized in prenatal care, when I was 10 months pregnant with my third son and miserable with back pain. Not only did she relieve much of my discomfort by ever so carefully realigning my spine and hips, but I went into labor within 24 hours. By that point of my pregnancy, I was DONE, and very grateful.

Fast forward several years. I was doing alot of running, and at some point developed a sharp burning pain along the IT band of my left leg.  It would start hurting after only walking a few blocks, and so I let my running regimen fall to the wayside. No amount of noodle rolling, stretching, massage, or rest would keep the pain away.  I decided at one point to go visit a local specialized chiropractor who emphasized more than just adjustment – she was into holistic care – nutrition, lifestyle, all of it.  During my first visit she took X-rays of my back to find out where kinks were. Meanwhile, she explained that we usually come to the chiropractor for help when we are experiencing physical pain.  However, this is a later stage in our injuries.  Nerves that supply our muscles also supply our organs, and the same pinched nerves that cause noticeable pain also cause impairment in organ function. Furthermore, pain in the body that seems unrelated to our backs might actually be directly related.

This, as it turned out, was true in my case.  As I visited her regularly over several months, she would make gradual adjustments and apply traction to reverse the multiple kinks in my back. Lo and behold, my relentless leg pain went away and has never returned, even after I started running again.  Moral of the story?  I’m now a fan of quality chiropractic care.

This week Rob Bell interviewed a holistic chiropractor that he had met on tour, and they discussed the philosophy and history behind chiropractic.  It was a really good podcast…you can listen to it here. Early on, Dr. Beuerlein talked about the root meaning of the word subluxation, the term used to describe structural displacements within the spine. “Sub” means less than, below, or beneath.  “Lux” means light or illumination.  So, put together, subluxation means “not enough illumination” or “not enough light”.  Or, you could say it this way – there’s not enough energy getting through. Restoration of proper electrical conductance (or energy flow) through the nerves requires gentle manipulation of the injured places on the spine. Kinks must be straightened and the skeletal components must be positioned into correct symmetry for ideal nerve signal transmission once again.  Taking a pill won’t help.  The specific injury needs to be addressed in order to regain full original function.

Of course, when I heard this, my mind insta-beamed to Rumi. Love me some Rumi.  One quote attributed to him is as follows: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” I started chewing on both of these ideas in my mind, considering how this physical idea of subluxations is also analogous to places we get “stuck” emotionally and spiritually.

Our backs acquire subluxations from physical traumas – sometimes from big massives ones, and sometimes through small, reoccurring ones. The same is true for our psychological selves. Emotional traumas can cause kinks within our minds and hearts. They cause tangles of fear and beliefs that block love and life energy from being able to pass. As a result, we become disabled – handicapped in our ability to move through life with ease and freedom.  If we don’t address these kinks, we are more likely to grow bitter, resentful, and hateful towards life and those around us.

When we have injuries, physically or emotionally, we usually want people to leave our pain well enough alone.  Don’t touch it. You’ll make it worse.  And so we nurse our pain, and pull in tighter to ourselves, guarding our wounds.  The problem is, this guarding and pulling inwards only restricts energy flow more. We become more contracted and our pain increases.

Pain is actually a gift to us, even though we prefer to avoid it at all costs.  It shows us where we are hurt and the places of our lives that desperately need to be addressed. It reveals the kinks that keep our life energy blocked and hinder us from being who we are meant to be.

The trick to dealing with pain in life is to go straight to the subluxations, the source of pain. Attempting to fix my hurting leg where it actually hurt didn’t yield any progress.  My pain only dissolved when its root cause was addressed. It is the same with emotional pain. We can treat symptoms out on the periphery all that we want, but this won’t bring long-term results.  Light and life energy can only get in at the site of injury.  And this requires that we stop contracting ourselves, admit and accept that we are injured, and work with that injury so that it can be healed.

One more quote from Rumi:

“Don’t get lost in your pain; know that one day your pain will be your cure.”

 

Black Holes and Rip Currents

 

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Photo credit: Hubble ESA

 

The day before yesterday I was driving along listening to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.  As usually happens, an idea for a blog post randomly came together in my mind, and I decided I would call it Black Holes and Rip Currents.  But at the time, I only had a faint idea of what I would write about.

Yesterday morning I woke up to the FB headline that Stephen Hawking had just died. My blog post idea timing was very curious because Hawking is well known for his physics work on black holes.

Black holes can currently only be observed indirectly. While they do emit teeny amounts of radiation, known as Hawking radiation, it is still too small of an amount to be measured.  Instead, scientists conclude black holes exist because they can see the chaotic behavior that occurs in certain places in space; the black holes influence the movement of stars and slow energies moving by them just a little too closely. If a star is pulled in by the black hole, it passes the event horizon, or point of no return, where it can no longer escape because of its inadequate escape velocity.

Black holes are essentially any body that has an escape velocity greater than the speed of light. Basically, for a particle to move away from the black hole, it has to be traveling faster than the speed at which light travels.  Just as a fun side note, for something to escape the Earth’s atmosphere, it needs to be traveling roughly 25,000 mph. But, if the Earth could be squished down into a ball with a radius of 8 millimeters (about the size of a marble), it would become a black hole- meaning that to escape the Earth’s atmosphere, an object would need to be traveling faster than the speed of light (about 6,700,00,000 mph). For an interesting break down of the math, click here.

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Have you ever met people that just completely suck you in with all of their drama?  Everything in their lives is a problem, and when you enter their orbit, they somehow make their problems your problems, too?

Or, maybe you are that person – you can’t stand being in misery by yourself so you consciously or unconsciously do whatever necessary to entice others to step in and experience your pain with you?

Or, there are people who might not have any real drama or problems of their own, but they feel the need to suck in all the negativity around them and take on everyone else’s problems?

In his writings, Eckart Tolle talks extensively about the idea of the pain body. He defines it as “the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field. I see it as a semi-autonomous psychic entity. It consists of negative emotions that were not faced, accepted, and then let go in the moment they arose. These negative emotions leave a residue of emotional pain, which is stored in the cells of the body.”

Tolle says that the pain body in each of us, or sometimes collectively as humans, has a dormant state and also one where it ‘awakens’ to feed. It thrives on negativity, suffering, and drama.  The pain body is evident in people that seem to be addicted to unhappiness or are always finding problems in things.  I’m pretty sure we’ve all met at least someone who seems able to create problems out of nothing, and who can’t seem to be content without drama in their life. Maybe we’ve even seen this tendency within ourselves.

When I first read about the pain body years ago, I thought Tolle was being a little over the top.  But the more I thought about it, the more I could see that each of us has a pain body that is kind of a living being within each of us.  Haven’t we all felt at times like we had no control over our anger?  Or maybe horrible words flew out of our mouths and we wondered where they came from? Or times when you’re so upset, or sad, or mad that you feel like a puppet being propelled along by some other force?

Sometimes the pain body can be seen clearly in relationships you have with other people. Marriage or romantic partnerships can be prime examples of this. Have you ever noticed cyclical patterns in your relationships?  Things may be trucking along just fine, but then something happens and either you or your partner starts getting grumpy, or petty, or negative in some way. The next thing you know the two of you are sucked into a huge drama-filled conflict for a few hours or days, and then, perhaps suddenly, it can vanish as quickly as it appeared.  As Tolle describes, your pain bodies have gotten their fill for a while and are going to sleep off their fat stomachs until they need more negative nourishment and come back to pick another fight.

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Black holes can increase in size by absorbing mass surrounding them.  And pain bodies increase in size by absorbing negativity from around them.  These pain bodies are what cause our suffering. It has been said that to experience pain is human, but to experience suffering is optional.  The older I get, the more I think this is really true. We suffer when we allow our pain bodies to suck in and hold tightly to the negativity and bad things that happen to us, forcing us to carry the pain indefinitely within us.  If we didn’t allow our pain bodies to accumulate negativity, the pain in life we experienced would just touch us for a brief time and then move on, and we would be able to recover much more quickly.

So, how do we deal with our pain bodies, these things that we can’t observe directly but know are there because of the chaos that can surround us when they are awake and feeding?

I’m going to toss out two ideas, or analogies, that feel helpful to me based on what I’ve read in Tolle’s work.

1. Other people’s pain bodies have an escape velocity.  Dr. David Hawkins came up with a Map of Consciousness to help people track their movement towards spiritual enlightenment.  Now, you may look at this and think it is entirely hokey, but hang with me.  His levels are considered energy or vibrations, which he says in his book, Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender, are directly measurable by muscle conductance.  Each of these levels is associated with motivation for how we live out our lives.  The lowest energy levels, at 20 and 30, are shame and guilt.  Moving up a bit you hit apathy, then grief, and then fear.  As one continues to grow in consciousness, their motivations cross from being negative energy fields and instead become positive energy fields.  Acceptance at 350, love at 500, unconditional love at 540.

Negative particles fall into black holes, but positive particles are freed as Hawking radiation.  ‘I’m not claiming that consciousness energy levels/pain bodies and black holes are identical, but analogies are fun so I’m going with it.)  Similarly, pain bodies have a greater ability to suck in people who are motivated by negative energy levels like fear and shame, while people operating out of positive energy levels like acceptance, fear, and love are more immune to a pain body’s toxic effects.

Our country is polarized right now on so many topics, whether it be reproductive rights, gun rights, Republicans versus Democrats, etc.  Primary motivators that both sides of these arguments use to pull people in their direction are fear and anger. These two emotions have escape velocities that are really difficult to reach, which is why I think so many of us fall prey to them on social media and other realms of our lives.  We try to move outward and escape all the hurtful rhetoric, but then get sucked back in when our anger or fear receptors are triggered.

I think it’s helpful, when we become aware that we are getting sucked into an individual or collective pain body, or when we feel our own pain bodies being awakened by circumstances, that we consciously stop and determine what is motivating us at that particular time.  Are we responding out of fear?  Out of anger?  Out of pride, or grief, or some other negative energy?

Also, we need to learn to watch others’ pain bodies, and stay away from the people who have bigger pain bodies than we can handle.  I’ve had countless times in my life where I get sucked into other people’s pain with the intention that I was going to try and “help” them or “fix” them.  Inevitably, these situations just turned out to be codependence; our pain bodies became intertwined, our drama became each other’s drama, and nobody was fixed. I’m pretty convinced now that to really know how to help someone with a big, hungry pain body, you have to be at a high enough level of consciousness (or escape velocity) yourself, so that you don’t get pulled into past the event horizon of their pain where there is little chance of return.  Or, to put it in familiar terms:  you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you try and put an oxygen mask on someone else.  Sometimes, you just have to stay away from people whose pain is too big, or those who are unwilling to address their pain. Boundaries to protect yourself from the black holes of other people’s pain bodies are a good thing.

2. To deal with your own pain body, treat it like a rip current.  I realize that rip currents have nothing to do with black holes, but they both are powerful forces that pull things in with amazing speed, so humor me here. Rip currents are a particular kind of current that occurs on beaches near breaking waves that can be really dangerous for swimmers.  When people get caught in these currents, they tend to panic that they will be carried out to sea, and fight to swim straight back to shore against the current.  Doing so is an exhausting endeavor and can lead to swimmers drowning because of sheer fatigue of fighting against the fast-moving water. The way to get out of a rip current is  not to swim back against the current, but to turn and swim parallel to the shoreline.

The first step to dealing with your pain body is to become aware of it and learn to watch it rise and fall within you.  Fighting against pain is futile; it exhausts us, causes increased suffering, and the pain body won’t go away just by us struggling against it because our struggle only serves to feed the pain body and help it grow.  By coming alongside our pain bodies once we see them, we can watch them and accept the fact that we have them.  This, according to what I perceive from Tolle, is the first step in decreasing their hunger and control over our lives.

Just like you would initially relax into a rip current and float, as you gather your wits about you to begin swimming perpendicular to the rip current, so you need to relax into the knowledge that you’ve got a pain monster inside of you before you start dealing with it.

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We can’t become completely conscious overnight, and we can’t just make our pain bodies disappear. But if we take the time to stop and observe ourselves and those around us, we will begin to discern the effects of both sets of pain bodies.  Learn to watch for the chaotic ripples that flow out from certain people. Pay attention to the ways that you tend to get sucked into their drama and conflicts. And most importantly, begin to look deeply inside and become familiar with your own pain body. As you do this, you’ll soon notice there is a separation between the pain body and the real you. You’ll discover that you no longer have to just “react” to what happens to you; instead, you can accept what happens, and thoughtfully, calmly, choose how you will respond out of your true self.

CO2 Scrubbers, Non-Violence, and the Transformation of Pain

nonviolence

I attend a Mennonite Church.

This might seem an unusual choice for me, because I certainly orbit on the outer fringes of mainstream Christianity.  I first stumbled across Mennonites when I lived in Upstate New York.  I drove past a little Mennonite USA fellowship for two years before I got the courage to try it out.  All I knew at the time was that Mennonites are cousins of the Amish, and that they are staunch pacifists.  I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I entered the church;  would I be out of place not wearing a head covering or plain clothes?  Would I be way too progressive for them?

As it turned out, I fit into that church quite nicely, and they helped continue me on my journey of exploration into pacifism, non-violence, and how we as humans should approach pain and suffering in life.

Fast forward a few years – I am now back in Indianapolis.  Once again I found myself hovering around the edges of Christianity, unsure if I wanted to be in or out. And once again, I stumbled across a Mennonite church, and again, it is the right fit for me.  It’s a community that asks the hard questions and wants to listen to all the answers given in response, even the ones that might sit uncomfortably or require change.

As of late, we have been discussing what it means to be Mennonite andof Anabaptist heritage in today’s world.  At one time, Anabaptists were a group that were being persecuted for their faith and ideals, and they felt the need to retreat and seclude themselves in safety away from mainstream culture.  But, from what I’ve learned, since WWII, many Mennonites have realized that they have a great deal to offer the world, especially in living out the non-violence teachings of Jesus.

In our Sunday classes, we have had vigorous conversations on the requirements for real, long-lasting peace, as well as the myth of redemptive violence.  At one point, someone suggested that instead of fighting back against violence only in overt, active, aggressive ways, we as followers of Jesus need to absorb violence from the worldto keep it from being perpetuated.

So, my mind making the weird connections it does, I immediately thought of : Apollo 13 – you know, that amazing movie with Tom Hanks,  Bill Paxton (RIP), and Lieutenant Dan.  There is one period in the movie where a crisis evolved over the high levels of carbon dioxide building up in the module the astronauts were in, the result of them exhaling gaseous wastes from their bodies without a working air filtration system.   The scientists on the ground in Houston saw that the required oxygen levels were fine, but CO2 was gradually increasing and would reach toxic levels if not dealt with quickly.  NASA engineers frantically went to work, using materials available to the flight crew, to create scrubbers that would draw the excess CO2 out of the air and safely contain it.

I picture in my mind non-violent followers of Jesus or Buddha or name-your-guru who act as violence scrubbers in the world.  People who can handle bad, hard things and pull away the violent spirit of those things from humanity.  But what does that look like?  And how to people who scrub the world free of violence not be hardened and broken from the horrors and injustice that occur everyday?

Richard Rohr, that great Franciscan contemplative who I love to quote, frequently remarks that if we don’t transform our pain, we will transmit it. And the problem is, most people have no clue how to transform their pain.  We do everything possible to distract ourselves from it, cover it up, blame it on everything outside of ourselves – but we continue to suffer and remain imprisoned and burdened by suffering.

“Mature religion is about transforming history and individuals so that we don’t keep handing the pain on to the next generation.” 

This is what Rohr says true spirituality is about: learning what to do with our pain and suffering.  And when we learn how to deal with our own personal suffering, we carve out space to be able to hold the suffering of others.  Not in a neurotic, codependent way, but in such a way that transforms it, changes it fundamentally.  My mind is now going to the idea of catalytic converters….I will refrain from jumping onto that metaphor here.

One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, teaches a practicethat reminds me of violence scrubbing and pain transformation.  It is called Tonglen meditation, and if I understand correctly, is part of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions.   According to Pema, we each have a soft spot inside of us, where we are vulnerable and have the capacity for compassion towards ourselves and others.  We often close this space up because of fear and involuntarily harden ourselves against our pain and the pain of others.  Tonglen is a breathing practice that is about learning to be willing to take in the pain and suffering of others, and then sending back happiness to everyone.  She writes that if we can learn to tolerate and sit with pain and hard things within ourselves, we learn not to fear them, and “we increase our capacity for fear and equanimity.”

“We breathe in what is painful and unwanted with the sincere wish that we and others could be free of suffering. As we do so, we drop the story line that goes along with the pain and feel the underlying energy. We completely open our hearts and minds to whatever arises. Exhaling, we sent out relief from the pain with the intention that we and others be happy.”  ((The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times).

Every so often a great person rises that embodies violence scrubbing.  Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, Desmund Tutu…just to name a few of the more well-known ones.  Somehow, they have taken on the corporate pain of thousands of people without having it break them, and we have all benefited as a result.

It seems like the last year has seen ever-rising levels of toxicity in our world, with countless varieties of violence threatening the achievement of a lasting peace. At the same time, so many people are turning their backs on religion, with good reason, especially when religious institutions align themselves with the propagation and endorsement of violence.   But we can’t rely on a few greats like those I mentioned above to save us. We must find in ourselves the courage to face our pain so that we don’t keep passing it on to our children.  Like the astronauts of Apollo 13, we don’t have the choice to sit back and hope we’ll arrive at our destination before we breach a toxicity threshold.  We need to grasp on to mature spirituality, use the tools we have at our disposal, and “be the change we want to see in the world.” (Ghandi)

 

 

 

 

Life and Death are Programmed Within: A Brief Reflection on Telomeres and Interdepedence

A few years ago, after just moving to the Boston area, I discovered that the Dalai Lama was going to speak downtown at TD Garden.  I wasn’t very familiar with the city yet or how to get around, but I hopped on a train anyway and made my way up to see him.  Until that time, I had read bits and pieces of his writings and listened to a few short YouTube videos that featured him being interviewed or teaching.

The stadium was packed when I arrived, drawing in crowds from all different backgrounds.  The funny thing is, I hardly remember a thing about what he actually said.  But what I do remember is that he basically made the throngs of people melt.  We sat still and quiet, hanging on to every word that he said, and giggling every time he laughed or made a joke. We didn’t just hear a talk by an amazing religious and political leader; we felt the presence of someone who was joyful, and compassionate and seemed to know something that most of the rest of us didn’t.

I fell in love with the Dalai Lama that day. He’s very high on my “People I desperately want to meet but there is very little chance of that happening in this life, gosh darn it!” bucket list.

I own several books written by the Dalai Lama, and was very excited to read The Book Of Joy, which records conversations between the Dalai Lama and his good friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, about what it means to live a joyful life.

the book of joy.jpeg

In one particular chapter, the Dalai Lama and Tutu discussed death and how we need to learn to face our own mortality, and the fact that things in life constantly change and cease to exist.  Here’s a short excerpt that caught my attention:

“In fact, as the Buddha reminds us, the very causes that have given rise to something, such as our life, have created the mechanism, or the seed, for that thing’s eventual end. Recognizing this truth is an important part of the contemplation on impermanence.” (p.165)

When I read this sentence, my mind immediately flew to cellular activity and little bits of DNA sequences called telomeres. When I think of telomeres, I envision health status or life remaining gauges that are common in video games.   Telomeres are short nucleotide sequences that “cap” the end of chromosomes in our cells to help keep them from effectively fraying or fusing with nearby chromosomes.  Another analogy here would be to think of those little plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that hold the threads together to prevent splaying.

 

telomere
Chromosome highlighting telomere sequence

 

Telomeres can be lengthened with a special enzyme called telomerase, which is present during development in fetal tissue or in adult germ cells (think sperm and egg cells), or cancer cells. It is an important component of the “life-giving” cells, the ones that will reproduce and differentiate into new tissues.  In other normal adult cells, telomerase activity is diminished, meaning that telomeres will inevitably erode every time cells divide.  Ultimately then, each time a cell divides, it ages just a bit more.

Eventually, as a telomere shortens after repeated rounds of cell division, it reaches a critical length. This critical length affects a cell’s ability to divide and reproduce.  Certain tissues in our bodies “age” more quickly because of lots of cell division, like our skin and hair.

While telomere length is negatively correlated to aging (as length decreases, aging factors show increased appearance), shortened telomeres are not necessarily the primary cause of aging.  However, studies have shown that individuals with shortened telomeres have increased risk of things like heart disease or infectious disease. If you’re interested in reading a review of the subject, click here.

What I find intriguing about telomeres is how an old Buddhist saying reflects some biological truth.  A telomere is a seed or mechanism that is crucially involved in both life, and death.  Something that is needed for our development and growth (life processes) also inherently seems to program our length of life to some degree. Sure, we may be able to alter the timeframe a bit with lifestyle choices and staying away from copious amounts of radiation and things like that, but as of right now, we get what we get in regard to telomere length.  In other words, our death isn’t something that just “happens” to us because of external causes.  Death is inextricably part of the same processes that bring us life.

This all brings us back to the Dalai Lama and his reminder that all things that come into existence will end, and this is because everything is interdependent.  Nothing exists independently.

We, as Westerners, are often terrified by our mortality, and we do whatever we can to avoid it. But I think we can learn much about what it means to be human by understanding that nothing stays the same forever, and that the dying process is just as natural as living.  The key then, I think, is to learn how to go through both processes with meaning and joy.