How Did It Get Like This? I Was Not Raised to Be Peaceful.

© a rainbow at night

I had an unexpected moment of crying earlier, after realizing I had gone back to some old, unhelpful habits, but what actually brought me to tears wasn’t the slip-up. It was the sudden, immense gratitude I felt over having become this person I am today, who now not only has the tools to change and live better, but even the awareness to notice when they’ve regressed. We’re talking about me, this woman who was raised with a psychological and spiritual toolbox that could only ever bring about mental and emotional distress, whose relationship with almost everything and everyone was accompanied by intense suffering… Simply put: I was not raised to be peaceful.

I was raised to judge, be cynical, feel vengeful, hold grudges, be elitist, a perfectionist, and to never relax. No one wants to suffer like this, but we can only do what we know at that time. I am a completely different human being, now, although like anyone, I can slide back into old thoughts, habits, and behaviors when something or someone triggers my protective defenses, when I react instead of respond. But now I have enough awareness to pause, realize when I’m not happy, and decide what I can do about it. I now sit with the knowledge that I am worth my own happiness; that I’m worth investing in myself and my healing in all ways; that it’s okay not to be like everyone else around you; and it’s okay to be the first to change.

Unfortunately, what often happens when you’re the first to make positive change within your circle–whether it’s your friends, family, or family of origin–is the very people you thought would be happiest for you actually ostracize you the most. Their egos feel threatened by you trying to become more or become better, because it makes them feel worse about the damaging behaviors in which they engage in their lives. They lash out and try to stop you from being true to yourself so they don’t have to deal with their own feelings of inadequacy. It’s heartbreaking.


I remember when this path first started, for me. Don’t laugh, but my internet broke for two full weeks, at a time when I had a craving for knowledge, for “something.” So I watched two weeks worth of spiritual programming on my television–perusing channels I didn’t even know I was paying for–and found all sorts of things. I had the realization that there were many other paths to peace than the one I inherited from birth, Southern Baptist Christianity, which teaches we’re inherently sinful from the moment of conception and that only Jesus can “save” us from their god’s eternal wrath. Meanwhile, Buddhists believe in original goodness, not original sin.

The next big step was ordering the Toni Bernhard’s book, How To Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. Like Mara trying to mislead the Buddha, I could practically hear the voices of my family in my head as I tried to deprogram my former brainwashing:

Who are you to think you can do this? Who are you to think you have what it takes to find your own peace? Who are you to investigate what YOU want to know instead of trusting what you were taught? Who are you to take enlightenment into your own hands? Who are you to think you are even worth it?

The book gave me an introduction to meditation in the form of mindfulness, which was the perfect outlet for me, personally. I don’t enjoy visualization, and I don’t enjoy posing in awkward, painful positions just because they’re supposed to “take me higher.” But I did enjoy learning how to pause and pay attention to my life and what is happening RIGHT NOW, without a need to judge it. I desperately needed to learn how to do this. My life up until then was passing me by because I was never taught to find gratitude in the present moment; I was only taught to get to the next one, and almost all of my actions AND thoughts revolved around using time efficiently.

Underneath it all was the assumption that using time efficiently would equate to a life well lived, but all it actually did was equate to a life that I couldn’t remember living.

Why? Because if you’re always living for the instant gratification and self-congratulation of “efficiently” using the moments that follow, what happens to ones you’re already in? They’re ignored. Instead of living in your actual life, you’re living in your head about what you think could be happening next. How is the brain supposed to make memories out of your life if you only ever give awareness to what’s going on in your own mind? There was so much happening around me, but I was going through life asleep.

The-Time-Is-Now

There’s a saying, if you take care of the Now, the future will take care of itself, because the future is made up of nothing but present moments. Here’s an example, for those who don’t quite get how living in the next moment leads to a life forgotten. You could be reading this half-heartedly, picking up the remote or cellphone every few minutes, distracted, wondering what you have to do tomorrow, what you need to plan in order to make that happen… But is the time to plan for later, when you’re already doing something? You can pause, and realize what you’re doing right now. You may be lying down, or sitting. Your attention is on these words and how they might apply to your life. You may be sipping a drink, cool or warm. You may be comfortable, or uncomfortable. You might enjoy the colors on this page. You might take notice of your breath and realize it’s too quick and shallow with anxiety, and relax your body. Now what are you doing? You’re on the internet–connected to a system that is literally going to outer space and back to provide you with this very moment in time–reading an article. Who knew there was so much peace to be found right here? How has your experience changed since you began this paragraph?

Ironically, while writing this, I heard my mindfulness bell chime. It’s an app you can download for your mobile device (for Android or iOS) that you can set to periodically chime throughout the day, helping you remember to pause, breathe, and focus on what you’re doing in that moment. Toni Bernhard’s describes a method in here book of taking ten comfortable breaths while you focus on one sense at a time: What do you see? What do you currently smell? What do you currently feel in your body? What do you hear?

Is there a Mara in your life, or in your head, telling you that you don’t have what it takes to live a better, more present, enjoyable, peaceful life? Asking you, Who are you to think you can do this?

I leave you with the ever-beautiful words of Ralph Marston yet again, which gave me the courage to even write this blog entry:

“Start where you are, and do what you can. Make use of what you have, in the time available to you, and there’s much you can get done.

Don’t waste your time waiting for conditions to be perfect, for they will never be. Go ahead, with things as they are, and begin making real progress.

The place to aim is as high as you can imagine. Yet the place to start is right where you are.

Let go of any concerns about not having enough time, or money, resources or anything else. Focus instead on the great value and potential of what you do have and of what you can do right now.

See the real treasure that exists in your opportunity and ability to make good, effective use of this moment. Claim that treasure by going ahead and putting forth your very best effort.

Today is your day to achieve and to make your world a better place. Start where you are, and get yourself solidly on the way to wherever you wish to be.”

a rainbow at night

Advertisements

The Choice of Someone With Progressive Disease to Stop Treatment, Part 1 of 2: Wrestling With the Universe

the-choice-of-someone-with-progressive-disease-to-stop-treatment
[ estimated reading time: 4 mins 20 secs ]
I did not arrive at my decision lightly. I experienced… Ah, I experienced a lot. The Caring Connections organization put together a great example list of the emotions involved in living with serious illness:

Emotional changes that you may experience include:

  • Fear – about what will happen as your illness progresses, or about the future for your loved ones
  • Anger – about past treatment choices, about the change in diagnosis
  • Grief – about the losses that you have had and those to come
  • Anxiety – about making new decisions and facing new realities
  • Disbelief – about the changes that will be taking place
  • Relief – about ending difficult treatments and setting new goals for care”

They also have a list of various myths, truths, and things to remember, such as:

Myth: Accepting that this illness cannot be cured means that “nothing more can be done.”
Truth: When the focus shifts from cure to care, a great deal can be done to relieve physical pain and emotional suffering, and to ensure a good quality of life.
Remember: Have conversations with your loved ones about what you do and do not want. Designate a healthcare agent to speak for you in the event that you can no longer speak for yourself.”

I can talk about this more clearly and rationally now, after several weeks of living with my decision, but like I wrote earlier: It was anything but easy. (This entire post is quite embarrassing to write, actually.) I experienced extreme guilt for not wanting to get treatment.

Since I don’t believe in coincidence, it was difficult to figure out whether I’d learnt of the MTHFR gene mutation to get it treated so I could get back on Lyme treatment (but I thought of this more out of habit than any true desire or intuition), or to just be more aware of how I could help my body… I was living too much in the trying to find the Lesson and not enough in the living the Experience (which ultimately gives you the lesson). I heard something like that during Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday several weeks ago.

I knew I’d lose my mind if I tried to do “the Lyme fight” again.

I’m 99% sure I’d lose my mind if I fought my own body at all, at this point, to be honest.

So I didn’t know what I was “supposed” to do. I knew what I wanted, but I felt guilty for wanting it. Probably as a remnant from my more religious upbringing, I actually felt like God would be angry with me for my decision. I automatically felt like choosing to live without fighting disease, would be choosing to die, so how could The Universe possibly support me in that? I felt like I couldn’t trust myself anymore.

But that same day, the guest on Super Soul Sunday started talking about God’s Love, and it really brought me back to my core beliefs… The Universe bringing me back to Itself, surely.

It reminded me that I am not being judged. That God–whether a He, She, It, The Universe, whatever that Source may be–does NOT hold anger or negativity toward me for my decisions, that those feelings come from my interpretation and not reality. It reminded me that I could NEVER be a disappointment, and the most important of all: That there is nothing but Love and Acceptance for me; Love and Acceptance for What Is; Love and Acceptance for what I decide…

As a recovering codependent, I had to realize The God Force I believe in is not like so many humans I have known, who bestow their version of love based upon how much what I do agrees with their opinion.

Probably the craziest part of it, was that in my darkest, anxiety-ridden moment, I felt like if I made the “wrong” decision then all my suffering would be my fault and I would deserve to be punished and abandoned, for not being in alignment with “God’s will.”

Oh, thank you, gene abnormality, for helping me bring all of this to the surface and release it. Those old brainwashed ways of thinking are NOT who I am!

I was so focused on What if I make the wrong decision? that I wasn’t able to stop panicking long enough to figure out from where my suffering was arising. And I was so absorbed in assuming my thoughts were a form of escapism–I must be running from my fear of going to a new doctor, I must be terrified of the new treatments not working, I must be running from the reality of another health problem…right?–that I completely neglected the idea that turned out to be the real problem:

I was actually running from the fear of not treating, and what would happen when I did that.

Treating felt too wrong to possibly be right. But choosing to forego it is something I’ve never done. I can see now, in hindsight, this discovery WAS the lesson in itself. It wasn’t a lesson in what to do. It was a lesson in how to Not do, something I’ve never known how to.. well, do.

I had no idea how much courage it takes to let go. To be continued…

a rainbow at night

 

The Darker Side of Relating Christianity to Chronic Illness

church edit
Photo © a rainbow at night

My experience is not uncommon and yet no one is talking about it. Christianity never helped me deal with being sick. It told me–or maybe it was just the people involved–to “hold on to God’s promise” and if I “just believed hard enough,” God would restore my health. Yet what I actually found was just how threatening the reality that is chronic illness can be to people with deeply held religious beliefs.

While reading a few days ago, I realized I’m still so angry at the people who hurt me that I instantly recoil at the mere mention of Christianity. However, much of what the religion has become today is a mockery of what Jesus actually stood for, and I owe it to myself and others to focus more on the type of person Jesus was and less on what people have done with him. I need to stop judging Christianity by the actions of people calling themselves Christians. This anger arising in me is a healthy response to having been wronged, but it is also a message and warning that something needs to change. I of course cannot change what has already happened, but I can work toward forgiveness before it turns into a lifelong bitterness that I blindly accept instead of rightfully question.

Forgiveness for the brainwashing, when I was at my most vulnerable;
Forgiveness for the innumerable times I was told in a manner of words,”If you’re sick, it’s your own fault for not believing in God strongly enough“;
Forgiveness for the years wasted on false promises, year that could have been used to help me find real meaning.

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

In our context, “forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been any different,” and “in order for forgiveness to happen, something must die.” So I understand I need to stop clinging to what I wish would’ve happened and move forward…after I properly grieve.

Most Christians I was exposed to back then felt they had to protect their image of god through bizarre logic, such as:

  • If you believe in Him, you will be protected from anything “bad” ever happening to you;
  • If something bad does happen, it’s because you weren’t doing something you were told to do; and
  • Bad things will continue to happen until you get rid of all the “evil” in your life allowing the bad things to happen.
  • In other words: Everything is your fault.

The Christians I encountered literally blamed me for this disease. They told me I must have been doing something wrong in my life for this to be happening, and said God was “allowing satan to punish [me]” for it.

During my first few years of illness, some of their suggestions about this “evil” were:

“Stop drawing dragons; they’re symbols of the devil!”
“Someone in your household has been watching pornography!”
“Get rid of that gargoyle; it has a ~bad energy~!”
“This is a generational curse because of your parents’ sins!”

It was all about other people telling me what I needed to do in order to earn their god’s love, nevermind that being “perfect” is completely unattainable; was that the catch? Trying to appease “The Church” in order to be loved by their god will only leave you struggling in self-hatred. But apparently, then and only then would their god take away this “curse” of illness, a plight bestowed upon my physical form because I literally wasn’t good enough to receive his mercy.

Does this mean Tammy Faye Bakker died from cancer because she didn’t pray the right way, was tainted by original sin, didn’t repent enough, or had a generational curse?*

From what I’ve seen, things like this are the main reasons people stop believing in any religion, especially Christianity. They are led to believe that God hates them for being a lowly human, that God is punishing them for “original sin,” and they can’t wrap their minds around anything “allowing” so much suffering in this world. (Side note? Buddhists believe in original goodness.) But a belief in Something Greater is not your opt-out of experiencing anything painful.

Disease is a not some freakish anomaly that shouldn’t exist. Anything with a body can and likely will get diseased at some point, and it’s not a punishment from either the underworld or spited gods. There will also come the morning where you will see your last sunrise, and you will die. Yet instead of being one of our greatest, most revered teachers, Christianity describes death as our “last enemy.”

I have a different view on how spirituality and illness intertwine. Is it not true that disease is one of the main conditions drawing people to religion in the first place?

Within the many boxes and ellipses of spirituality and religion, I mostly fit within Buddhist Unitarian Universalism. I believe there are infinite ways to connect to the divine, and anything claiming to have a monopoly on that force should be approached with caution and skepticism.

In Buddhist practices, there’s a common misconception that “life is suffering.” But as Thich Nhat Hanh elaborates in his book, “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching“:

If we are not careful in the way we practice, we may have the tendency to make the words of our teacher into a doctrine or an ideology. Since the Buddha said that the First Noble Truth is suffering, many good students of the Buddha have used their skills to prove that everything on Earth is suffering. … But in other parts of the same sutras, the Buddha says that he only wants us to recognize suffering when it is present and to recognize joy when suffering is absent. . . . We need to say, ‘The basis for this suffering is such and such an affliction,’ and then call it by its true name.”

I believe, before we incarnated, we all agreed to the conditions of this earth and the existence of suffering, illness included. I don’t believe God/the Universe/whatever-your-preferred-title controls our actions. This Source Energy might want to pull us toward Love, toward our connection to this Source, but cannot stop us from hurting ourselves or others. We are all beings in our own right, not puppets, and free will exists. “Bad” things do happen to “good” people. Natural disasters happen. Terrible diseases happen. People abuse each other in unthinkable ways. And from those situations emerge some of the strongest people on this earth.

To admire strength but then deny that this is how strength is actually born, is to ignore that steel results from setting fire to iron. As Viktor Frankl famously said, “What is to give light must endure burning.”

Wonderful things can come from having experienced illness, and its’ timing in our lives–truly the timing of everything in our lives–is absolutely essential. Most are stopped in their tracks and have a chance to ponder how they arrived there. Near-death experiences invariably bring people closer to, if not the divine, then what they consider divine in their own lives. What’s really important to them? And what’s really important to the people closest to them, who often obtain a second-hand awakening by osmosis?

If someone can look at me and say that God, however you define It/Him/Her, has not healed me and transmuted my life, they’re not looking closely enough. I was a horribly angry person, swarmed by negative emotions, spiritually and psychologically fractured. Like so many others, I thought chasing The American Dream would give me happiness. Nothing could have ever given me pause like the experience of disease. I can say in all honesty that I wouldn’t change a thing, because no other turn of events in my own life could have possibly created the person I am today.

In a perhaps ironic twist, I actually do believe my soul helped decide this life. Not all the specifics, but I do believe we help choose our time of birth, our place of birth, our body, even the parents to whom we incarnate, and have decided beforehand which main lesson we wish to tackle this round of life. Reincarnation is a given, although I don’t yet see any evidence to support we were once ants, trees, or tigers; the energy of other types of life operates on a different vibration than we do, I think.

But am I enacting the same blame upon the sick as the Christians I rejected, by saying our soul chose to experience disease?

I don’t think so. Saying our souls choose a specific outlet for the powerful alchemy of suffering in order to grow, is not the same as saying you are inherently bad, that some omnipotent being is punishing you and you must appease it to make the pain stop, or it will continue to berate you with suffering until you “love” it enough. As a survivor of many types of abuse, I can say with some authority that sounds no different than being under the control of an abuser.

The people trying to tackle my experience of disease through Christianity didn’t know they were hurting me. They didn’t realize they were blaming me for my disease because of their own desire to protect their personal understanding of god; their inability to reconcile the version of Him in their head with the thought of Him “allowing” illness to happen; and because they saw illness as a curse to be delivered from, not a fact of life with which all must cope.

They didn’t know it all ultimately came from their fear of not being in control. 

Those people should not have turned this devastating illness into my responsibility to “pray away,” but inside I’d like to think that if they knew any better way, they would have done so. Even if I am still working on my forgiveness, I am glad I have not become that which has hurt me, so I will not hurt others in the same way. And may it be so.

a rainbow at night

Updated October 2015
* Of course not–don’t send me hate-mail.

See also: