On Being Ill

Many years ago, I went out for a Chinese food lunch with my then meditation teacher and mentor, Russel Delman. I was carrying a journal with me that I wrote in religiously. Russel kindly asked me, “Why do you do that?” “What?” I said. “Write in a journal.” “Just to work out my thoughts,” I said. “Plus, I just like the act of writing.” “Ok,” Russel said, “But just be mindful that thoughts are like cobwebs, the more we engage with them, the more we get stuck.”

This sentiment has stayed with me, and I am now cautious with regards to indulging my thoughts. But I am a writer and the writer is always trying to make sense of their experiences through the act of writing. If it helps another person, great. If not, that is ok as well. Ultimately, the writer writes because they need to make sense of things.

With this in mind, I would like to try and make some sense of the experience that I have been going through over the past month. I presume that the fact that I have the energy to do this is a sign that my health is improving. But last Monday, I could not move from bed.

For the past month, I have been very ill. It is strange for me to write that sentence since I have always been very mindful of my health. I guess you could say that I am currently experiencing my first real “adult” illness. Didn’t think it would occur at the age of 46, but I have known people who have come down with even more serious illnesses at younger ages. This illness really did sneak up on me, from nowhere.

I was around people who had come down with the flu and then I caught it as well. It was an ominous flu, it lingered and seemed like it was settling in deep inside. It did not move through its stages in the way a flu normally does, and it seemed that I experienced more serious and painful symptoms than any other flu I had had in the past. I knew deep down that this was not going to be good, but I rested, took lots of supplements and did what I could to improve.

Just when I thought the flu had finally moved on I came down with an illness I had never considered. “Shingles? What the hell is that?” I said as my father told me over the phone that that was what it sounded like I had and that I need to get to a doctor right away.

Shingles. It is one of the most painful illnesses a person can get. Basically, what shingles is is a re-activation of the chickenpox virus that never leaves a person’s body after it goes away. Later in life, when a person gets too run down, the chickenpox virus gets reactivated in person’s body and manifests as shingles- a burning, blistering, inflammation of a person’s nerve endings. Of course, leave it to me to come down with a serious case of shingles. My entire chest and back where on fire for weeks. I never take Advil or anything like that. But over the past few weeks I have consumed large amounts of Advil- that is how bad the pain was.

I believe that it is the things that we worry about that never really happen to us. I had never even thought about shingles and now here I am, my world practically brought to a screeching halt by it. It’s kind of funny in a dark humor kind of way. I now feel like my health is returning, the pain is greatly lessening, and the massive rash is disappearing. But it is a slow moving illness that leaves a body in a weakened state sometimes for months.

I have been spending a lot of time in bed. Just resting and giving my body what it needs to heal from this illness. I never realized that a person could spend so much time in bed but I have been too weak to do much else. Pain tends to deplete the body of all its energy, like nothing else. But I have been reading, meditating, watering my garden when I can, sleeping and working when I can. Last week I was continually thinking about how the outside world is a world for the healthy and how that world was a world I was no longer a member of anymore. I felt sad a lot. Health really is a possession just like your car. It is the most important possession you have. When it is gone, there is nothing you will ever want back so badly that the wanting hurts.

There is a quote by Eckhart Tolle that has brought me a lot of relief throughout this process. I came upon the quote as I was re-reading one of his books one afternoon while confined to bed and feeling sorry for myself. I was frightened about what could happen. I was worried that I may have to go into the hospital. I was worried that I may not live through this. I did not know if I could survive the pain. Sometimes I presume the body just cannot tolerate a continual high level of never ending pain. I was very nervous about where this all would lead and looked to various philosophers, meditation and spiritual teachers for consolation.

I think this is the worst part of being ill. The uncertainty. Not knowing what is going to happen. Feeling very vulnerable, like you are no longer in charge, no longer able to function without help. Knowing there is very little you can do as new and upsetting symptoms keep arising. You can fight against it, but this just creates a continual feeling of impending doom and worry. Or you can just accept what is happening to you. I was at this crossroads when I read this quote from Eckhart Tolle:

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it….this will miraculously transform your whole life.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have repeated this to myself over the past few weeks. It has been so helpful. In each moment, accepting what I have been going through as if I had chosen it, has allowed me to make peace with the situation I am in. Rather than getting lost in self-pity, worrying about what could happen or being angry at myself for being in this situation (which happens when we get ill) I accepted what I was going through as If I had chosen it. And then there was nothing else for me to do but rest, go easy and just be with what I was experiencing. Such is life. I think it is at this point that I started to get better. If not physically, certainly psychologically. And mental health is so important when the body is battling illness, I have found.

 

I try to live my life mindfully. As a mindfulness teacher, I want to practice what I preach. But I am human. Prior to getting this illness, I got busy. I opened a new mindfulness meditation center, I was maintaining a full-time private practice as a psychotherapist, I was trying to write a novel and a graphic novel. I was also working hard at maintaining a marriage, other relationships, a home and taking care of four dogs. Like everyone else, I got caught up. I knew I was overwhelmed but I thought I was handling it. However, stress is a strange thing, we think we have it under control but we really don’t. Sometimes we realize this the hard way.

One thing I have continually been thinking about during this illness is that I do not want to go back to the person I was before this illness. “If I make it out of this, I will not go back to being that guy. I have had enough of him. Who I will be instead I do not know, but I don’t want to be that guy anymore.” This is what I have been telling myself. So, I have been reading a lot about Zen. I have been meditating regularly. I have been moving a lot slower and I have basically renounced the future and chosen to live my life as fully as possible in this moment. It feels as if I have been gradually training the past twenty years for this moment. As of now, this is the main activity or practice that means the most to me- just being present, calm and aware in this moment of life. Not writing novels. Not making money. Not what other people need or think. Not what I do not like about my life. Not all the things I have to get done. Not the person I want to be. Just being present and free in this moment is what is most important to me now.

In Zen Buddhism, there is this idea of transience. Basically, the belief is that everything is transient because everything is always changing. Nothing remains the same from moment to moment. As a result, when a person experiences pleasure, there is also pain inherent in the pleasure since soon it will change into that. When we experience illness, there is health in the illness since soon it will change into that. “When the sun sets it is also rising. When the sun rises, it is also setting.” Within every experience there is also the opposite experience since everything is transient (always changing). From a Zen perspective, the idea is to just be concentrated on what is in this moment. Don’t attach to any of it because it will be the opposite experience soon enough.

This is basically how I have been living my life right now. I was not living my life like this before. As mindful as I thought I was being, I was caught up in a lot of my emotions and thoughts. I was getting upset. I was very attached to my negative emotions, not really realizing the transient nature of all things. I am not going to punish myself for this since I realize that the things we teach and help others with are often the very thing that we ourselves need the most. If this wasn’t true, we would not be able to really help others because we would not be able to relate.

I still feel very weak and have unpleasant shooting and burning pains every now and then but it is nothing like before. I don’t know how much this illness has weakened my body and I don’t know what will happen to me as a result of this illness in the future. This uncertainty creates some feelings of apprehension but it creates more of a commitment to being concentrated on the activity of being fully present in this moment. I am grateful to this illness for this.

I often heard people talk about how illness was a great teacher. I have even known people who have said that they would never want to go back to their lives before cancer. I confess to not really understanding when people would say this. But now I get it. Like I said, I don’t want to go back to that guy I was before the illness. He was a good guy but he was not really doing what he needed to do to exist in a state of calm and well-being. What was I thinking? I thought I was a meditator and mindfulness teacher? How did this happen? Some bad habits die hard and we often require a serious illness to make us more aware of what really matters.

Before I got ill, I read this passage in a book of essays by Henry Miller. It said something like if we refuse to become aware on our own, life will open the flood gates on us and shock us into awareness. Makes me shiver as I write this because it was a kind of ominous prognostication of things to come. When I read that passage I remember thinking that I really needed to get my shit together. I needed to get things under control because I was taking on too much responsibility and stressing out about so many different things. But I always put it off for another day and then the flood gates opened on me.

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Snake Oil

I do feel that most healing modalities are snake oil, more or less. They just don’t really work in the long term. At least this has been my experience. I am a psychotherapist and even psychotherapy feels more like short-term gain but I am not sure of its long-term benefits. At times, I even wonder about mindfulness. I have been practicing mindfulness, seeking to help myself through mindfulness, for two decades now, and sometimes I wonder about how much it has helped my life. But the truth is that as a teacher and practitioner of mindfulness I have never wanted it to be about this. I don’t want to be that person who makes money off of other people’s problems when I am not certain I can cure them. Nor do I want to seek out the eradication of my own problems through any belief system, which I am not so sure even works. I just want to live my life feeling as good as I can. I would like my inner state to be a pleasant place to inhabit. And this is all mindfulness has been about for me- how to be present in my life. I am not offering anyone or myself a quick fix and I am not offering a solution to all or any problems. I am offering others guidance on how to be more present in their lives because when I really think about it, this is the one, real, long-lasting benefit I have gotten from mindfulness practice.

Pleasing Other People

We all do it to a certain extent. Some more than others. People pleasing is more often than not, not a fun way to live. Another term for people pleasing is caring way too much.

It is actually impossible to please everyone, even though we try so hard. It’s just not going to happen no matter how hard you try. At some point, someone will get upset with you. Humans are very difficult to please and they are not known for being clear and open when upset with you. We keep it in and try and avoid conflict.

The difficult thing about people pleasing is the overthinking that comes along with it. “Did I do something to upset that person?” “Why is that person acting odd towards me?” “Is that person angry with me?” How many of us have stayed awake at night with thoughts similar to this?

Generally speaking, overthinking is the futile act of trying to figure out if or if not everyone is pleased with you. Overthinking takes up a lot of time and mental space.

People pleasers tend to want to fix things if they feel like they have done wrong. But the problem is that people pleasers ALWAYS feel like they have done wrong even when everything is just fine. So they continually end up stressing themselves out over nothing. But sometimes they are right, however there is nothing they can do about it anyways. You can never know for certain if someone is pleased with you. No matter how hard you try, it is impossible to know for certain- so why bother?

A fundamental aspect of mindfulness practice is being able to be comfortable with uncertainty. Uncertainty is the one thing that most of us tend to really not like. Uncertainty has been known to drive more people crazy than anything else.

We want certainty and a lot of us kill ourselves emotionally to get it. But in many ways uncertainty is much more logical than certainty is since in reality there are few things we can no for sure. When it comes to trying to please everyone, keep in mind that this is an impossible goal. It is not going to happen. Instead, see if you can practice becoming comfortable with not knowing and accepting that this is just how it is. In the end, this is a much more pleasant way to live.

Spending Time More Mindfully

I often hear people say, “I just need to do more.” Doing more seems to have become one of the more popular themes in our day and age. People need to meditate more, exercise more, eat healthy more, have fun more, work more, have sex more, socialize more, make more money, behave more, love more, post on social media more, spend more time with loved ones and on and on and on. How much more can we really do before we spontaneously combust? I think we are already doing enough.

When I have this conversation with people I normally say that I do not think it is about doing more as much as it is about learning how to spend time more mindfully. This is often referred to as time management but I am not a big fan of this term since it sounds so rigid and strict. Instead, I prefer to think of it as learning to spend the time that we do have in more mindful ways.

Most people already do way too much and to compensate for the burn out and stress that doing too much creates, we spend much of our time in various states of withdrawal and distraction. Whether we are on our phones, on social media, drinking at the bar, surfing the internet, watching television or YouTube, playing video games, creating unnecessary drama for ourselves and others, over sleeping or just spending too much time doing nothing- these (and many others) are ways that we tend to deal with the stress in our lives. The problem with these distractions is not the distractions themselves but the amount of time we spend immersed in them. These distractions often take up a good chunk of our time and we end up spending the rest of our time just trying to catch up. This is why habitual distractions are often referred to as negative coping strategies.

What I ask other people (and myself) to do is to ask themselves, “What is really important to you? How do you want to spend your time while you are still healthy and alive?” Then I recommend to write it down and post it where you can see it and then try and do more of whatever the answers are. This is the beginning of spending our time more mindfully.

Another important part of spending time more mindfully is to be aware of when we are not doing the things that are important to us because we are caught back up in the habit of distraction and then to stop doing whatever it is that we are distracting ourselves with. To get back on track as soon as we become aware that we are just killing time.

We only have a certain amount of time a day when we have the energy and attention to be able to do the things that are important to us. This is why it is so important to spend our time wisely. Habitual distractions take up larger chucks of time than a person is normally aware of. Just the simple act of checking your phone or the internet for ten minutes here and there can take up hours a day if a person is not mindful. Then what often happens is that we spend the rest of our time just trying to catch up and the cycle of stress and distraction from stress continues.

In spending your time more mindfully you are making a daily effort to really do the things that are important to you and not spend as much time doing the things that are not of much importance to you. Being mindful can help us be aware of when we are getting caught up in things that are just a habitual distraction and then return to doing what really matters most to us. We all only have so much healthy time allotted to us, this is why it is so important to learn to live our lives more mindfully.

Seize The Moment (A Friendly Message In A Bottle)

A fresh perspective often helps. It is like placing a new operating system into a computer that is not working right. Our older, more habitual ways of thinking and being take ahold of us really quick and before we know it we are sucked in and being held hostage by them. All logic goes out the window and once again we are lost in habitual negative thought (rumination). This is why I thought I would send you this friendly message in a bottle.

Seize the moment! The moment is all you ever really have. If you really examine all those worries spinning around in your mind, how many are actually happening right now? How many of your worries are actually grounded in the reality of this moment? How many of your previous worries have actually turned out that way you thought they would? (Probably none or at least very few.) It is important to ask yourself these questions if you want to seize the moment.

It might sound harsh but believe it or not most people just want to remain stuck and live in despair. Emerson called this a quiet life of desperation. When it really comes down to it, most of us just want to keep doing what we have been doing, just stay stuck. Things seem easier this way. We don’t really want to try. We don’t really want to understand why we feel the way we do. We don’t want to see what is really going on because then we would be forced to change. “Waiter! Can I just have another drink please!”

Why are we like this? Continually just perpetuating our own unhappiness?

Fear.

Fear causes people to prefer consistency, security and practicality. What is that old saying? Fear disguises itself as practicality. Something like that. We prefer the practical. We want to play it safe so we can remain secure. But there is a big problem with this way of thinking. When we make choices from a place of fear and we let fear run our lives, we often end up living lives we are not happy about living. We end up in places we don’t want to be in.

But people seem to prefer security over living the life they really want to live. We want a scripted plan so that we do not have to deal with the uncertainty of the future. The irony is that uncertainty or the absence of security are always here. No one knows what is going to happen tomorrow no matter how scripted your life is. No one has control over the uncertainty of life no matter how good at worrying they are. There really is no security even though we work so hard to create it. Worry is often a main symptom of of the never ending striving to defeat uncertainty.

When we really are seizing the moment, living life fully- anything can happen at any moment. But being present in this moment, realizing that what we are worried about happening is not happening now, frees us up to live more fully in this moment. Whether you need a scripted life or you are able to accept the general uncertainty of life- the future rarely unfolds just how you think it will.

Mindfulness is a helpful practice because it helps us to be able to put fear aside so that we are not making choices from a place of fear. I know that many people think this sentiment is morbid but the truth is that you are going to die. Maybe tomorrow or maybe in sixty years. Whatever the case- it will always feel too soon, so why not do what you want to do? Why not live the life you want to live? Why not seize this moment and live this moment fully? Why keep putting this off because in this moment you insist on continuing to make choices from a place of fear?

Mindfulness practice allows us to sit down with ourselves, ground our attention in the present moment and see clearly what is actually going on now. We are then better able to make a logical and clear assessment of reality when we do this. We are better able to see through all of the worry, self-doubt, self-loathing, fear and push through these negative emotions. It is only by pushing through these more unpleasant emotions that we can then seize the moment and really begin to live the kind of life that authentically feels like a good fit for us right now.

Things All Over The Place

Things all over the place. Someday, some yet unknown civilization will study us and think that we had things all over the place. We are consumed by our things and few things ever remain in their right place.

I love some of my things, but does this mean I need to have things all over the place? Has humanity really evolved to have this many things all over the place? Can our brains really handle all these things all over the place? Just about all of our homes have things all over the place. There are things everywhere, too many to name.

Some of us are lucky enough to have the time, energy and/or money to have things continually kept in their right place. Few of us are disciplined enough to keep everything right where it needs to be, at all times. After all, this is the only way that most of us could maintain sanity and stability with things.

We have built our lives in order to have things all over the place. This is what we do. This is where human ingenuity has landed us. We labor away and then we collect things. It is fun buying things with our hard earned cash. If we did not do this what would be the point of our labor? We certainly don’t love the things we do for cash so we better enjoy the spending of it.

We end up with things all over the place.

What we did for fun becomes an excess of things all over the place. Memories materialized into things.

And now our lives become about keeping things in their right place. Learning how to not get so angry when things are all over the place. Figuring out how to keep things from getting all over the place. Straining our relationships because of the stress of having things all over the place. Not spending our time more meaningfully because we are too tired after dealing with things all over the place. Wishing we could just be comfortable with things all over the place but never being able to achieve this ideal.

Those who are perfectly at home and relaxed with things all over the place are the enlightened beings in our day and age of too many things all over the place.

Our world is surrounded by things all over the place. The inside of our homes is a reflection of the clutter all around. Everything is out of place. There is clutter everywhere, unless you are fortunate enough to live where no one else or only a few are around. But chances are you still live in a home with things all over the place. We live in a world of things all over the place and our homes become microcosmic portraitures of this macrocosmic condition.

It is inevitable. When we live with things all over the place our inner worlds become filled with things all over the place. Everything is out of place on the outside because everything is out of place on the inside. Or is everything out of place on the inside because everything is out of place on the outside?

Thoughts all over the place. An endless number of things to get done. Different feelings running into one another. Continually trying to get things organized on the inside but never feeling able to. Looking towards drugs and alcohol to help us straighten things out, if only for a minute. Meditating, doing yoga, going to therapists, reading self-help books, going on retreat- all in the hope of effectively dealing with these things all over the place.

No scientific research is needed to tell us we live in a world, inside and out, with too many things all over the place. We are buried beneath these things, always struggling to find a way to get things in order. We struggle to remain organized inside and out. We try as hard as we can to deal with things all over the place. But more often than not, our only shot at survival is to say fuck it and accept that this is now a world with things all over the place.