Grounding Lines

I needed to release a lot of negative emotional energy today. All the terrible violent and racist activity that’s been going on in America since last Friday has put me on edge. In the past, I might have gone for a long run but running is not an option for me because of my illness and unceasing chronic pain. Instead I opened my sketchbook and started drawing lines. I drew lines until my mind started to clear. I kept drawing them until I felt grounded again.

If I’m being honest, I’ve been on edge for quite some time. It’s hard hearing someone, like the President of America, who holds such significant power, saying things that are divisive and so far from disavowing groups rooted in hate and racism. As all of this persists, I have to believe the people who don’t hold his opinions outnumber him. I also have to believe, people whose values are built on the basic premise that all human beings are equal will prevail.

 

Migraine Memories

As we transition into spring, I’m hit with an almost joyful thought: I haven’t had a migraine caused by barometric pressure in so long I can’t remember the last one. For a long time, my body had difficulty adjusting to the change between seasons. I dreaded the rainy, darkly cloudy, wet days that were characteristic of spring and autumn weather. I would wake in the mornings without having to open my eyes to know it was overcast outside because I would have piercing pain on one side of my head, usually accompanied by what felt like someone using a very pointy sharp tool to dig through either of my eyes. On days like that, I couldn’t go to work, before that university, before that high school, or participate in any other planned activity. My body required that I stay in bed as motionless as possible with a hand pressed to the side of my head and my face buried in a pillow to prevent any light from getting into my throbbing eye(s).

I would pray for sleep because taking any pain medication at that stage would be pointless. I couldn’t eat until the migraine passed because the smell or even the thought of food made my stomach heave with nausea. I couldn’t have anyone touch me either. The slightest touch from another person would make the already hypersensitive nerve endings all over my body make me want to peel my skin from my body. Looking at light was probably the cruelest thing I could do to myself. Allowing the dimmest level of light to make contact with my pupils felt like a blade of steel was slicing through, not just my eyes, my entire head. All these symptoms made communicating with anyone to describe what I was feeling extremely difficult. Whether it was a blessing or a curse, I’m still not sure, but all the women in the paternal line of my family suffered from migraines, so there was an unspoken acknowledgement when each of us was hit with an episode of this debilitating illness, which made the need for complete silence easier to meet.

I was also fortunate, during the early part of my work career, to have a manager who suffered from migraines too. There were days when he looked at me as we passed each other in the office hallways that he could immediately recognize that I was in pain. He would tell me to finish whatever I was doing, if I could, then go home to get rest. If I didn’t make it to work for the next day, or two, he was empathetic enough not to have calls made to my home because he knew what a ringing telephone could do to a person with a migraine. Without that support, I don’t believe I could have thrived and achieved the successes I did so early in my career in a corporate setting. Unfortunately, in later years I experienced less accommodating workplaces; and from conversations over the years with other migraineurs and from reading so many people’s stories about coping with migraines while working, I know how stressful being in an environment where people think a migraine is just a strong headache can be.

I’d like to believe that taking multiple ‘mindfulness-based meditation for stress and pain reduction’ courses is what got rid of my migraines. However, I still had some for years after taking those classes, although not with the same level of intensity, and I was able to cope with the symptoms better too, which felt like a miracle. Nowadays, I keep my fingers crossed that migraines won’t become a regular part of my life again. Living with the chronic pain condition I have would be impossible if I also had to cope with the crippling effects of migraines, especially when I can remember having some that lasted for days on end. Luckily, on this gloomy overcast day, I can look at the bright glare from the screen of my laptop and write about my experiences, instead of hiding in bed under the covers.

 

Blinded by the Light ~ Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

 

Creative Pain Distractions

It’s hard being alone with intense pain late at night, as I was last night and the night before. Then again, pain that never stops is hard to cope with at any time of the day. Last night, and other days and nights, when my pain is particularly bad and sleep eludes me, I try to think of things to do – aside from amputating the offending body part(s) – to distract myself. Unfortunately, depending on the pain’s level of intensity, I’m not always successful at turning my thoughts away. However, I do usually end up creating something interesting to look at.

As the pain level rose in my legs and pelvis the night before last, I didn’t have a plan for what I wanted to create. I started to place random dots on a clean page in my sketchbook with a black Sharpie pen. Then I connected the dots together with short straight lines and they became triangles, but the sight of a page full of small triangles didn’t feel satisfying. That led me to connecting the triangles at their various points creating a sort of web, which still felt incomplete. I looked at the page for a short while then started drawing lines within each triangle transforming them into prisms. With each line I added, I saw multi-pointed stars appearing on the page that made me wish for an opportunity to experience weightlessness among them on the off-chance I might not feel any pain without the pull of gravity…

Drawing lines didn’t help make my pain go away on recent nights, but it distracted me from thinking of it for a short time as I imagined creating a new galaxy of endless stars.

 

iRest: Groundless Ground

During the iRest program I participated in last November, I spoke with the doctor who facilitates the program about a memory from my childhood that surfaced. I quite vividly remembered a day when I was walking home from school – I’m guessing I was in eighth grade – when I suddenly felt a sensation that might be characterized as an out-of-body experience. I felt as if I wasn’t physically connected to the ground beneath me. I didn’t feel completely connected to my body either, but I could sense and see everything around me it was as if I was simply witnessing what was happening through my eyes. I felt that at any moment, I might float away but, because gravity was doing its job, I wouldn’t go flying off the planet.

I know it sounds strange and I can’t remember having that experience at any other time in my life: the awareness of not actually walking down the street in my body. The iRest program was probably the first time I thought I wouldn’t be considered odd if I shared it, mainly because we talked about the abstract concept of a person’s essence and being, rather than the soul. When I described this memory to the doctor, she told me there is a name for what I experienced. It relates in psychological terms to our consciousness and metaphysically to our essence or being. The experience is known as the ‘groundless ground’, which may even be likened to the ‘witness state’ in meditation. It was a great relief to have a frame of reference for the memory of an experience that felt so strange.

As we discussed it further, the doctor explained more about the metaphysical concepts of ‘essence’ and ‘being’ and asked me to spend some time thinking of what about me, my being, has been consistent throughout my life. Of course, the one thing that surfaced was writing, more specifically writing poetry. Writing poetry may be the one thing in my life that is never forced or analytical and has been part of me for more than half my life. It may be the only thing about myself I never question nor do I wonder why or where it comes from; and of course acquiring this new insight inspired me to write poetry.

Groundless Ground

iRest: Learning to Do Nothing

In the fall of 2014, my therapist introduced me to a, new to me, meditative practice called Yoga Nidra, which translated from Sanskrit to English means ‘yogic sleep’ or ‘sleep with awareness’. This yoga practice is said to be “an immensely powerful meditation technique, and one of the easiest yoga practices to develop and maintain.” To teach me the Yoga Nidra practice he used materials developed for the iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation program. iRest “is currently being utilized in VA hospitals, military bases, hospitals and clinics, hospice, homeless shelters, community programs, and schools. Research has shown that iRest effectively reduces PTSD, depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain, and chemical dependency while increasing health, resiliency, and well-being.”

The few times we worked on the practice during therapy sessions, I felt sensations in my body that I couldn’t articulate. To be honest, the unfamiliar sensations I felt in my body freaked me out, which might be why when I used the recorded guided meditations at home on my own; I had great difficulty working through the exercises. Ironically, it was also hard for me to relax and even harder to find a comfortable position so I could focus. I told myself, and my therapist, it was too hard for me to practice alone, and I made myself believe that. After a short time trying the practice, I gave it up.

A few months ago, my therapist told me about a six-week iRest group program held at a local hospital that still had space available and he asked if I might be interested in taking it. I was a bit hesitant because it obviously meant weekly travel that would undoubtedly increase my pain, even though it was just a short cab ride from my home, but I agreed to have him send a referral on my behalf all the same. The program started at the beginning of November, and I wasn’t at all surprised that my health issues met the requirements for me to take part. I was skeptical at first because of how I had felt when first introduced to the practice but I was open to learning more about it in a structured group setting.

The first class of the program introduced us to a meditation similar in some ways to a body scan in mindfulness meditation with the striking difference that your awareness isn’t focussed on your breath and body. With iRest, you focus your awareness on sensations in your body, your body’s energy, and all energy around you. As the program progressed, the class materials, discussions, and meditations became more intense. Through the iRest meditations, the reading materials, and group discussions I was better able to understand my struggles with certain issues. Interestingly, a discussion about fear made the most significant impact on me. We discussed how paralyzing it could be, especially when we don’t understand the origin of our fears.

Over the course the program, we learned to identify what is called sankalpa or personal intentions for each meditation in the practice. I focussed on the issues that seem to consume so much of my time and energy. Thankfully, there was content in the classes I connected with that I felt related directly to my issues: trying to accept my illness and that because of it, I now do nothing. I came to understand that acceptance is not about resigning myself to or giving up on an issue, nor should it be a struggle because acceptance should come without effort. What I’ve been doing is fighting against what exists, which creates mental and emotional pain and intensifies the physical pain in my body. This added pain, mental and emotional, is triggered each time I compare what exists now with my former, pre-illness life. It’s triggered whenever I project my anxiety and fears and attach unproven meaning(s) to the actions of anyone with whom I interact.

The solution to end the extra pain is to do the other thing I fight against: nothing. In doing nothing we connect with the purest form of being. Doing nothing allows us to disentangle our existence from the identities we create because of the work we do and to fit into our various social environments. This uncovering, or unmasking, is necessary to understand ourselves. I recognize now, that my illness is an opportunity to strip away the many masks I wore because I needed to fit in to the world around me, including within my family. For the first time, in my life; I don’t have to justify my existence. I can just be myself, which in this moment means not working and definitely not beating myself up while I do nothing, which is so necessary for me to heal.

Because I couldn’t understand this before, my instincts led me to fight against losing what I’ve known my whole life: constant busyness and doing. Even though, always being busy and doing things is not the whole of who I am, nor is it the complete picture of any other human being. Continuous activity actually prevents us from connecting with our true selves and attending to our needs. Through the iRest program and the self-inquiry it required, I know that what I was really struggling with since the arrival of my illness was my fear. Definite fear about having an illness that still defies complete diagnosis and treatment, but also fear of not being able to point to an identity grounded in constantly doing to show the world or myself who I am.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the iRest program than the small snapshot I’m recounting, but after those six weeks I feel less conflicted than when we started out. More importantly, I feel gratitude about what I learned from iRest, and ultimately about myself, this time around. Unlike the first attempt, two years ago, when I let my fear get in the way of experiencing something new, I also see the value in developing a solo practice. My intention is to continue with the meditations from the program and my self-inquiry. I am practicing to gain as much benefit as I can so the fears I’ve been holding and struggling with – and the many fears I’m certain have yet to emerge from my subconscious – will no longer overwhelm my being and existence, even if my illness remains with me indefinitely.

Just Be

 

InkTober: Day 15 – Relax

Relaxing is hard work for me, even when I try to find ways to make it easy. I find it hard to relax, not because I live a busy fast-paced life, but because my body seems to have forgotten how. It’s often difficult to immediately position myself in a way that is comfortable. Sometimes, because my pain levels are high and my body is tense as a result, moving suddenly or too much agitates my already uncomfortable body and may increase my pain. Even with meditation or other mindfulness activities, I can’t easily relax my mind either. It bounces from thought to thought about when I will be better or simply productive again.

Relaxing is the last thing in the world that should be hard work, but for me it is.

InkTober - Day 15 - Relax

 

Gratitude and Creativity: Drawing Myself Out Of Heaviness

I’ve been writing about such heavy feelings and topics lately that I felt the need to lighten things up. It helps that the sun has lit up the otherwise overcast winter skies for a few minutes each afternoon this week and that I got some unexpected rest while meditating yesterday morning – I fell into a deep sleep for about an hour with my face planted in a pile of pillows. Not getting sleep tends to fry my brain and has a dampening effect on my moods. Even though I try to sound and act cheerful, the weight of fatigue drags me down like an iron anchor. I have to work hard not to succumb to the tug of depression, which only adds layers to my fatigue.

To counteract the heaviness I’ve been researching different art forms to figure out which one suits me best and what I might be able to achieve on a larger scale if I teach myself how to draw and paint. I’ve encountered some interesting artists. One artist whose gallery and website I really enjoyed exploring is Sandrine Pelissier. She’s a mixed media artist who creates beautiful paintings using acrylic paint, watercolor, dry pastels, graphite, oil sticks, and vibrant inks on paper, yupo paper, and canvas. She incorporates things like string, plaster, and paper to create interesting textures. She even incorporates life drawings and Zentangle patterns into her work. I’m considering taking one of her online classes to add some structure to my learning.

In the meantime, I started a small project. I’m making Zentangle tiles using a single tangle pattern (monotangle). It’s intended in part to make me practice drawing the patterns and steady my hands that tend to shake when I draw, while helping me to relax because I don’t meditate as much as I should. This is becoming a helpful practice because I realized that once I draw the patterns in my Zentangle notebook I may add the ones I like to something I draw in my art/gratitude journal, but the others never get drawn again. I also need to practice shading the patterns, which isn’t something I do in my notebook, and I’m not terribly good at right now. To make the project more challenging, instead of drawing random strings (guide lines) on each tile, I’m using the strings from the Tangle Patterns web site. There are currently 196 strings and tangles beyond that number in existence, so I should be busy for a while.

 

Don McLean – Vincent (Starry Starry Night)