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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What a Difference a Few Years Makes

I'm preparing for surgery again, this time to correct a ruptured disc in my back that has been pushing on the nerves that go to my right leg, causing me significant pain for several months now. The pain is also beginning in the left leg, but since the MRI I had seven months ago didn't show it, it doesn't exist - a fact I find rather frustrating - until they open me up and see it. Who knows what will happen then? All I know is that it doesn't matter what happens, I have a wedding to do June 7th and I will be there.

What is different this time is that the Nazis at the Drug Enforcement Administration, finding themselves completely impotent in their assigned task of stopping the trafficking of illegal drugs in our country, have chosen to ramp up the pressure on physicians who prescribe pain medication to people who legitimately need them. It's just like the man who is too much of a weakling to fight with other men and elects to beat his wife and child
instead, or the bully on the schoolyard who always picks on the smallest kid present because he's too scared to fight someone his own size. The result is that not only have I been in more pain much longer than I should have been but I also have to have surgery four days before a wedding. The best part of all, however, is that because my pain isn't adequately controlled and  all anti-inflammatory medication must be stopped ten days before surgery, I am in excruciating pain waiting for a procedure that will likely solve one pain problem only to reveal another one just fractionally less severe lurking underneath it. There won't be adequate pain control for that issue, either, a fact that leaves me filled with anticipation.

Can we say the system is broken? Somewhere between 2010 and 2013 we started caring more about idiots like Philip Seymour Hoffman than we care about people with serious pain problems. My problem is that Philip Seymour Hoffman didn't go to his pain doc and ask for a prescription for heroin, cocaine, and all the other drugs he put into his doughy self that caused his death, but the DEA's answer to their inability to stop the drug trafficking that leads to the death of people like him is to keep my doughy self from getting the prescription medications I need to have some kind of quality of life. Makes perfect sense to me...not.

Now some people would be quick to point out that Michael Jackson's physician over prescribed him
medications and those medicines contributed to his death. Perhaps that's true, and perhaps even if Michael Jackson wasn't the profoundly tortured (and flammable) individual he was and wasn't already killing himself slowly with one cosmetic [sic] surgery after another, the real question is whether the misconduct of a small percentage of physicians justifies restricting the prescribing ability of all physicians, thereby denying people with a legitimate need for pain meds access to them. The answer is of course it doesn't, any more than  shutting down all auto repair shops because there are bad mechanics out there would make any sense. Say, is that an image of Jesus on the tip of Michael's nose?

We are a nation of knee jerk reactors and cowardly leaders that cares more about preventing the misbehavior of the minority of dysfunctional heroes of our culture - celebrities - than we do caring for the average person. We seem to be obsessed with enforcing morality when it comes to what people do with their genitals and what they do to alter their state of consciousness - but don't touch our booze - and couldn't give a rat's behind about ensuring access to adequate medical treatment for all Americans. It's hard to come to any conclusion but that, as a nation, we are morally bankrupt.

We leap to conclusions about solutions to problems and, once we have identified an untested solution as our favorite, no matter how many reasonable people present evidence showing us it isn't going to work we steadfastly refuse to reconsider our position. Consider for example the crusaders who wish to change gun laws to close loopholes that allow people to do things like buy guns at gun shows without background checks and honestly believe recent tragedies would have been averted had such laws been in place. These people don't want to be bothered with the truth that the ability of shooters in recent tragedies to get their weapons would not have been changed by such laws. Never mind the facts, we have a solution that would work in an imaginary world and we aren't going to let go of it!

We claim to be a Christian nation and then conduct domestic and foreign policy without regard to the teachings of Jesus because, quite honestly, we really have no use for them. They tell us to do things like love one another, and we haven't got time for that because we are far too busy getting ahead at the expense of others and warehousing our elderly. I suppose the only way we can possibly feel good about ourselves is crusading against things like prescription medications and other things that we don't need at the moment. The really sad thing is that, sooner or later, many of us will need those medications. If you are one of those currently crusading against them and the day comes when you need them but can't get them, you will excuse me if I can't manage to feel sorry for you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Denial is a Powerful Drug

Denial is a powerful drug...the words crossed my lips, well, actually my fingers, as I typed an email thinking
only about a tragic situation on which I was commenting. So many people in denial, I thought as I moved toward the bathroom in our home for the first time that morning. Looking in the mirror and wondering why I had such a hard time falling asleep last night, I noticed I was leaning a bit to one side. As I wondered why I might be doing that, I became aware of the intense pain I had been blocking - surely not denying - all night long. It had kept me awake until nearly two in the morning, but had you asked me (and Erin did ask) I would have denied - oh no, there's that word - being in any pain at all. Dammit!

I learned denial as a survival mechanism when I was a child. In my universal child's world view, if things were normal, then I must be safe; if things were not normal, I was in danger. Therefore, all in my world was normal even in its abnormality. It is a strategy that works...for a time, and then it wraps around and traps us in the greater pain of disconnection from our very selves. Yesterday I sat at the kitchen table and worked all afternoon writing and producing low quality video blogs <grin>. It's my practice to do so because I have discovered that working at the table in my office chair (yes, my office chair sits at the kitchen table because it allows me to eat meals in relative comfort) caused me to feel better than working in bed. Mind you, I hadn't been working in bed because I am lazy but rather because it is the only place I thought I could work when my pain is severe. As I sat in my chair all afternoon and dinner approached I became aware that I was in fairly significant pain. How could this be? Well, some of it was because I was really into the work I was doing. A lot of it - who knows how much - was due to my ability to block my pain, both physical and emotional, until it reaches a certain threshold and the levee breaks.

As a good interspiritual practitioner, I have heard all of the talks about how bad this denial of pain is for me - and I don't disagree - and have listened to seemingly endless guided meditations (those of Shinzen Young are the best, in my opinion) to help me get back in touch with my body. Turn toward the pain, embrace the pain, watch it change, where is it now - and all of it works while you are actually doing it and for a short time afterwards. My problem is two fold. The first is that even as I write about this I become more aware of my pain and it is difficult to continue. I could go lay down and do a guided meditation, but (here's number two) sooner or later I really want to get stuff done. I could choose to return to bed at the first sign of pain and listen to a guided meditation, but I do want to be more productive than a turnip, even a turnip with a toothy grin and nice eyes.

Sure, I would love to retire to the monastery. In fact, you can read about my plans to do so here. It's not time for that quite yet, however. I have much to do before retiring, including getting my throwing arm in shape. You'll understand if you read about my retirement plan.

One of the problems is that, from a strictly behavioral perspective, we want to do what lessens our pain. Decreased pain provides reinforcement for the behavior that cause the decrease in pain. When we put
Shinzen Young
our arm over the steam vent on the rice cooker, as I did a few weeks ago, we withdraw it post haste. When we get arrested peering into our neighbor's bedroom window a few times, we stop - or so I'm told, I really don't know. After a few significant injuries participating in some amateur athletic activities, we retire and learn shuffleboard. If we are active and pain sets in we can go lay down to decrease the pain, perhaps even listen to a guided meditation, but can you see how this reinforces inactivity? That leads us to become physically debilitated, and soon we couldn't get out of bed if our lives depended on it. What's more, while his guided meditations are among the best out there for pain, spending my life in bed with the dulcet yet nasally tones of Shinzen Young in my ear is not exactly my idea of bliss. Call me a shameless hedonist if you must. This balance between pain relief and debility is the catch-22 of any chronic pain patient, and I refuse to become caught up in it. It seems to me, though, and it certainly has been my experience, that the ability to block pain
allows me to be a contributing human being for a longer time, right?

Wrong. As I intimated earlier in this article, blocking pain only works until a threshold is crossed. Once that happens, when the levee breaks, the only effective alternative is to turn toward the pain. Can I say how much that irritates me? It means I have to drop the denial, admit I am compromised, and go let Shinzen Young whisper in my ear. I hate that reality! Everything in me rebels against it because I have not yet successfully completely deprogrammed myself from the cultural message that worthwhile males are productive males, and males who are no longer productive need to be thrown on the scrap heap. The only moment I don't feel that way is when I find myself immersed in spiritual practice - especially spiritual practice that has as its focus the real issues confronting human beings. Such practice can be found in every tradition, but many popular expressions of spirituality choose something else as their primary focus - usually the groin and the things that happen there, and at my age I am grateful to have been based with a decreased obsession around and about the groin - both mine and those in the possession of others.

Pain, both physical and emotional, may be the universal human experience. Even those rare people afflicted with congenital insensitivity to physical pain still feel emotional pain. In fact, I believe that it is pain that opens us to spirituality both initially and in ever deepening ways. I have long read people who claim that pain and suffering are somehow separable, that we can have pain without suffering. They say that suffering occurs when we resist the pain, resist the change in our lives that pain represents. Often these people come from the Buddhist tradition, and I understand where they are coming from...but I am not sure that belief is nuanced well enough. There is pain, both physical and emotional, that is so severe suffering is inherent in it. I believe that there is a threshold within us that, when it is crossed, suffering occurs. That kind of pain reaches out and grabs us, and in my experience it has not been possible to accept that pain, turn toward it, or do anything else with it. My post-operative pain after my back surgery was certainly like that. I believe that there is some pain so severe were are biologically hard wired to seek some degree of relief before anything else is possible and to deny that is to do a disservice to us all. What's more, to say "I'm not suffering" at moments like that is to be in denial about the reality of our experience in that moment - and that leaves us not only hurting but confused.

Back in the day, I was playing third base on a softball team when someone hit a low line drive directly at me. I tried to drop to the ground to block it with my body, but it was coming so fast I couldn't get my glove or my body down fast enough. The ball glanced off my cup and hit me on the inside of my left thigh so hard that the image of the seams of the ball was clearly visible for weeks in the bruise that developed. Adrenaline allowed me to chase the ball down and throw it back in to the infield, but I then collapsed in pain. That was suffering. It was so ridiculously intense that I couldn't remain standing. At that moment, there was no "breathing into the pain." There was just blinding pain - I couldn't see anything but bright, primary colors. The same thing happened when I partially tore my Achilles tendon on softball diamond. I learned there is a pain so severe we lose the ability to remain standing. It's a kind of sensory overload that seems to shut off our legs. To say that this kind of suffering occurs simply because we are resistant to change or to reality is just silly. It would also be silly to say that when we are writhing in pain we think, "Gee, some spiritual practice would be good about now." It is in our recovery period, which may well still include pain that induces suffering, that the door opens to spirituality.

I believe the first thing we need to do, if we are followers of the Buddha, is stop mistranslating The First Noble Truth as "Life is Suffering" and use instead the (in the mind of many) more accurate "Life is Unsatisfactory." Let's stop stigmatizing those of us who from time to time - or most of the time, in some cases - experience suffering in our lives as if we are doing something wrong. Let's acknowledge that there are times when our experiences are indeed overwhelming and give ourselves permission for that to be okay. I have noticed that when I can say, "I am suffering right now," and give myself permission for that to be okay, my suffering actually decreases. I believe there is a real possibility that in making suffering something to be fixed we set ourselves up to deny we are suffering and so create a bigger problem for ourselves. If our pain
is to severe to block or deny, at least we can deny our suffering. Can we see that there is a spiral staircase of worthlessness that begins with pain, continues to descend toward productivity as a measure of worth, descends further into suffering, until finally we are in a black hole from which it can be extremely difficult to extract ourselves?

Why?

We will struggle to extract ourselves from the black hole of worthlessness because ultimately it is love that heals us, but if we feel we are worthless it will be almost impossible to believe we are lovable. When we believe we aren't lovable it doesn't matter how many people are showering us with love, we will be beyond the ability to feel it. It's as if we have been vaccinated against love, and now will require increased doses to have any impact at all. I'm fortunate to have a loving wife who loves me through my weaknesses and faults - of which there are no shortage! I understand that we all aren't that fortunate, and even for those of us who are there remains the question of our value in the universe. We ask ourselves, "why am I here?" and the answer can be hard to find. I am convinced the answer lies in spirituality, because it is spirituality that gives us the ability to see beyond the human constructed systems that can only provide artificial, arbitrary, temporal, and temporary value. We simply can't see the big picture, for example, within the confines of consumer capitalism. It is consumer capitalism that says we are only worthwhile as long as we can be a cog in the machine, but consumer capitalism is a relatively recent invention! It surely cannot explain why people had value prior to its inception.

In the late 1960s Ram Dass and others traveled to India and found their guru. In the case of Ram Dass and those who followed him there, that guru was Neem Karoli Baba. What they experienced was unconditional love, something I have both heard and written about but in truth can neither explain nor understand. How do you know you are experiencing unconditional love from someone just by the way they look at you? What is it like to have a spiritual teacher whose teaching is their presence? I can't imagine - but I can imagine what a healing presence he must have been. Christians talk about love, but then seem to spend most of their time coming up with reasons to exclude people from their circle of love. Here was a guru who loved people American culture of the 1960s saw as pretty much disposable - hippies, drop outs, those who used drugs regularly including LSD and other hallucinogenics, and so on. How does that happen, and how healing could that be to those of us with disabilities? Is it love that allows us to finally drop our denial? Answering this question is a big part of my current journey. I will keep you informed!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Grace of "Okay"

A few years ago, during the annual meeting of The Universal Anglican Church, I suggested to our clergy that one of the greatest tools we might have when confronted with contentious individuals is simply to smile and say, "okay." Okay doesn't mean that we agree, although we might. What it does mean is that we simply don't see the value in pursuing the dialogue. It may be that the other person is just itching for a fight, and there is seldom any benefit in the kind of fight they are looking to have. It
may be that the other person is simply incapable to seeing other perspectives - which is a different thing that agreeing with other perspectives, mind you - and so pursuing the discussion is rather pointless. It may be that we are in a discussion with someone who embraces a fundamentalist mindset. A fundamentalist mindset is similar to, but also distinct from, a fundamentalist religious perspective. A fundamentalist mindset says that there is only one right answer to a particular question. Those of us who have lived longer and kept our mind open have learned that, outside of questions of factual accuracy (though perhaps not even in those situations) very few questions have only one right answer. Except for the most rigid among us, even simple questions such as "what would you like for breakfast?" change from day to day.

I have learned that there is a point beyond which continuing a discussion - or, perhaps more accurately, attempting to initiate or continue genuine dialogue - is fruitless. If all that is likely to arise from ongoing interaction is hostility, continuing is pointless because the only likely outcomes are hurt feelings and animosity on the part of the other person. Unless we have some need to always be right, and if we do we need to take a serious look at that need, it is much better to just walk away. "Okay" allows both of us to save face and perhaps preserves the relationship for another attempt at discussing the issue at hand at a later date.

Of course, there are some discussions and situations in which it would not be right to say, "okay." If someone tells you they are going to set their neighbor's house on fire, you are obligated to disagree and report the conversation both to your neighbor and the proper authorities. Outside of these kinds of situations, however, we will soon discover that the difficulty we have with saying okay - even when we recognize doing so does not constitute agreement - arises in situations that are closest to our sense of identity, especially that part of our identity that makes us special in our own eyes. At those times it is especially important to say okay, and later use the event to ask ourselves why that particular issue is so important to us. The truth is that there is almost always some fear underlying those perceived important issues that needs to be addressed and cleared out so we can move forward in a healthier way - and keep saying "okay!"

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Taking the Kids to a Buddhist Temple

I was recently asked a question by a Christian parent concerned about their Buddhist spouse taking their children to a Buddhist Temple. They were wondering if they were being disloyal to God by attending themselves or by their family attending. Here is my answer, with identifying information about the questioner removed:

Thank you for your email. In fairness, I have to say that there are some who would answer your question with a resounding "yes." I am not among them, however

In the Old Testament, and to a lesser extent in Paul's letters, we can find criticism of the so-called Pagan (Pagan back them meaning "anyone who wasn't Jewish) practice of household gods. These were most often statues believed to protect the household in which they were set up. When you moved, your household god went with you and protected you in your new house. It probably seems silly to most of us today that you would have a god who would protect only a few square meters, but that's what they believed.

Sometimes I wonder how far we have come from those days. It's as if we have given our understanding of God a bit more territory, but everything else remains the same. Our God protects Christians, and perhaps Jewish people and Muslims - but some would disagree, biblical evidence notwithstanding. It's as if God didn't exist prior to us becoming aware of God as Abraham encountered him. Clearly, though, God existed before that as God is held to be the Creator (however we understand the mechanics of that creation notwithstanding).

The question we need to address is "how did we come to be aware of God?" Now, if God is infinitely vast and the Source of all that is, and since God existed before anything else did - including the ability to write things down - I believe that different people in different parts of the world had an experience of God. They then set about trying to communicate that experience of God using the language and cultural images of their part of the world and their time in history. I believe this accounts for the different explanations and images in the different religions of the world. God gave the Asian countries Hinduism and Buddhism as a way of understanding their world. The people of the Middle East received the Abrahamic faiths. Indigenous peoples received a different way of understanding God that made sense to their life and location. The story of Moses leading the people wandering in the desert for forty years wouldn't have made any sense to the people of southeast Asia, to cite but one example, because they don't have deserts!

In the end, the question is whether we believe our religion is bigger than God or God is bigger than our religion. If our religion is bigger, then our religion becomes our God. We have seen the results of that throughout history, as people have killed each other over religious differences in numbers small and large. However, if we claim to be monotheists, then there aren't other competing gods over which to go to war! We are actually going to war in times and places such as the crusades because our religion has become our God, a huge example of idolatry, all the while claiming God created everything that is - including the very people we are killing in the name of God! We have promoted our household gods and given them a bit more territory, but we really don't understand the message, meaning, and example of Jesus at all!

There is only one God, and that God is behind all of the world's religions. They may call God by different names, or as in the case of Buddhism not really address God at all (the Buddha refused to answer questions about God because he recognized the Brahmin priests were trying to trap him), but God is still there and not demanding to be identified. God is a humble God, which is more than I can say for many of those claiming to follow God.

I don't think there is any harm in your spouse or children going to a Buddhist Temple - or in your going, either. It may be a wonderful place for you to love and honor one another.

Blessings,

Craig