Them Bones

How long was she supposed to wait? How long was long enough to know that she’d been cured of her phobia of death?

He could wait all day. He could wait forever, in fact. Well, forever meaning until his bones finally crumbled apart, became just calcium and not bones, in the way that boulders became pebbles over time. It all decays, after all – all that is physical – and that was exactly why she was here for this treatment.

Mary Frances’ fear of death was pervasive. She wasn’t simply afraid of her own death or of the deaths of her parents or spouse. She was afraid of all death, of all change. Any evidence of time passing rendered her inert, full-stop. She no longer could go to doctor’s appointments downtown because of all the change happening there. Too many new apartments! Too many new parking garages! All of her landmarks were gone, well, all save for the Krispy Kreme and Sitar, the Indian buffet. They thankfully never changed and still had actual parking lots right next to their buildings. She wondered how long it would be before some developer snatched them away.

Even the season’s change through her for a loop. She dressed for the weather she wanted and not what was forecast. Her friends were always listening to her complaints about how hot or cold it was, and their efforts to get her to dress more appropriately fell on deaf ears.

Her friend Theresa heard about a new treatment for people who were afraid of change. It was based on something that young Buddhist monks had to undergo as part of their novitiate. They had to spend several days with a corpse to learn non-attachment. She talked Mary Frances into the program by saying it was a fashion show. She was told she’d take all off her clothes and be measured as precisely as possible, and then bespoke clothes would be produced for her. Everything would finally fit perfectly for a change. This sound like a grand idea even though it involved an alteration of her rigid routine. Even though going to this appointment was a change, in the end it would mean no more change – no more having to go to the shop to buy clothes, then to the tailor to have them altered…it was a great trade-off.

But things hadn’t ended up as she had planned. She was welcomed into the office, with its stiff high-back old-fashioned sofa. Mary Frances finally identified it as a camelback and not a Chesterfield as she had first suspected. It was a bit drab but serviceable. She noted that the window was high over her head, like at the gynecologist’s office.

After she removed her clothes in the attached bathroom, she was instructed to return to the room with the sofa. She was disconcerted to notice that there was then someone else in the room – or at least the remains of someone else. By the time she recovered herself the door had been locked. She was stuck with the skeleton. She beat upon the door with her fists but to no avail. All the therapist would say was “It is for your own good”. Over and over she repeated this, regardless of the question from Mary Frances.

After an hour of pacing the room, Mary Frances needed to sit. However, the only option was that couch. There was no way she was sitting with a skeleton! And propriety also demanded she not sit on fabric while naked. That just wasn’t hygienic, and certainly not ladylike. It was two hours later when she finally sat, after a small tray of food was pushed through a low slot in the door. She’d not noticed that before. Why would she? She hadn’t suspected she’d be trapped here.

The therapist made sure she wanted for nothing. The temperature was a pleasant 74° and there was a half-bath attached to the room. Mary Frances considered hiding out in there initially but thought twice about that idea. The room was cold with its porcelain tile and really just too small for staying in very long.

She finally decided to sit on the sofa anyway. If they didn’t care enough about her to provide her with an alternative, they deserved what they got. But there was still the matter of the skeleton.

Something shifted in her after she finally got settled. The skeleton started to look less intimidating. Her years of making art became the way out of her fear. She started to observe the skeleton, not as a reminder of death but as a sculpture, a collection of lines and shadows. She started to look at it – really look at it – and see how beautiful it was. She became an observer, no longer possessed by her fears, but now able to be objective and present.

When the therapist finally opened the door she found her client contentedly gazing at the skeleton, instead of recoiled, huddling in the corner. The treatment was a success.

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Hidden pictures

You know those picture books where you’re supposed to find a hidden picture? There may be an elephant or a rabbit or even a cartoon character hidden within the picture. You know that you’re supposed to spend some time really looking deeply into this picture to see what is hidden there for you. Otherwise you’d pass right over it after just a glance.

What if life is like that? What if everything is a hidden picture and we’re supposed to slow down and look very carefully?

I like to think of that with God. I like to think that God is hidden within everything and that if we just look really hard will see God hiding in plain sight right front of us. Just like with those pictures. The elephant or the rabbit or the cartoon character was always there. We didn’t have to uncover anything. We just had to slow down and take the time to look, and the only reason we knew to do that was because of the title of the picture. It was there all along.

Try this with everything. Try looking for the hidden – this hidden beauty in everything. I promise that you will see amazing things.

God keeps me sober

I’ve known people who have mocked me for my religious practice.  Some have been coworkers. Some have even been friends.

What they don’t understand is that if it weren’t for God, I’d be still stuck in the hell that is addiction.  My religious practice helps me to remember that, to give thanks for that, and to keep connected with God to keep the healing happening. Recovery isn’t a one-time thing, but a daily (sometimes hourly) struggle.  You have to keep doing what you did to get sober, or you will quickly regress. If you aren’t going forward, you’re going to go backwards.  There is no staying still in sobriety.

I have a tattoo of Raphael the archangel on my calf as a testimony to how God has helped me.  When people ask about it, I tell them how Raphael’s name means “God has healed” and I tell them about what I’ve been through, and how God has pulled me out of it.  They don’t get it – they say that I did the work.  I tell them that it is God who gave me the strength to make it happen.

Part of my religious practice is to say blessings. There are hundreds of things to give thanks over according to Jewish practice.  Food is just one category.  There are blessings to be said upon seeing a rainbow, for hearing thunder, and even for buying new clothes.  There is a blessing for almost any kind of human experience you can think of. Some rabbis state that you should say 100 blessings a day, and while that may seem excessive, just being on the lookout for that many things to give thanks about is the best game of hide-and-seek you will ever play.

 

When I say a blessing,

I’m not blessing the food

(or the event).

I’m reminding myself

that I am blessed

to have the food

(or experience the event).

I’m reminding myself

of the One

who made it possible.

 

It is modern to talk about mindfulness.  Most people who practice mindfulness run as far away from religious practice as possible.  However, I say that you can’t beat saying 100 blessings a day for a mindfulness practice. Looking for things to be grateful about and to give thanks over to the One that gave these gifts to you helps keep depression at bay.

I leave you with a traditional Chassidic Jewish saying – “When a man suffers he ought not to say, ‘That’s bad!’ Nothing that God imposes on man is bad. But it is all right to say ‘That’s bitter!’ For among medicines there are some made with bitter herbs.” Attitude makes the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.  It is your choice.  And my choice is to have a religious practice to keep me on the right path.

Pay attention

I recently came across a book called “Spiritual Journaling: writing your way to independence”. It is by Julie Tallard Johnson, a licensed psychotherapist and the author of “Teen Psychic” and “I Ching for Teens”.

I came across a quote in it that amazed me.

“Walk in the light of your own fire, and in the flame which ye have kindled.”  (Isaiah 50:11)

I was amazed for two reasons – generally a “spiritual” book doesn’t have any Bible quotes in it.  Often they feel that it is more “spiritual” to quote Buddha, or Lao Tzu, or Rumi – anybody but Jesus or a Hebrew prophet.

But then I re-read the quote.  It didn’t feel right, especially from Isaiah.  This quote talks about relying upon yourself and your own powers.  I can see how a “spiritual” author would want to encourage that.

But if you want to know anything, you have to know it in context.  This one sentence is not a complete thought. This verse isn’t even all of verse 11.  It has been carefully edited to say what the author wants it to say, instead of the truth.

Here is Isaiah 50:10-11

10 Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the word of his servant?
Let the one who walks in the dark,
who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on their God.
11 But now, all you who light fires
and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
go, walk in the light of your fires
and of the torches you have set ablaze.
This is what you shall receive from my hand:
You will lie down in torment.

So really, the message is to NOT walk in the light of your own fires, because you will get lost.  Being in darkness and trusting in the Lord is better.

This reminds me of the poem by Alexander Pope in “An Essay on Criticism”, which states-

“A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”

We would do well to think critically at all times, and to examine everything. Don’t be misled by someone else.

Likewise, some wisdom from Proverbs 3:5-8
5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD and shun evil.
8 This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.

I’m a little concerned that the author of the misleading book is a psychotherapist, and that she writes what appear to be witchcraft books for teenagers. What else is she telling them that will lead them away from the path of life?

We all must be sure to check everything we read, to make sure that it is true and healthy for us – in body, mind, and spirit.

 

 

Stomach distress?

I’m noticing that many people right now are experiencing stomach distress.  They believe they have the flu or some virus.  I believe that their distress is unprocessed emotions related to the current political climate in the United States, which isn’t very “united” right now.

Many people were very surprised by the results of the election, and held out hopes that something unusual would happen to change it.  They waited until after the Electoral College voted to admit that their fears had been realized.  Now they are protesting everything that they are learning about.  People who were politically inactive before are now glued to whatever news they can get.

What you focus on expands.  What you think about, you are. If all you focus on is bad, that is all you will see.  Anger and fear leads to more of the same.

Life is all about choice.  You have a choice as to what you read or do or think, but first you must become aware.  You must become mindful of what is going on at the deepest level.

The stomach processes some of our most basic emotions – fear, anger, grief.  We feel things “at a gut level”.  We are “gutted” when something terrible happens.  Our stomach not just processes food, but feelings.  Our entire body is a sensory organ, and each unique organ receives and processes external stimuli in unique ways.  We accept that we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, but few people are yet able to understand that we have many other senses that are registered throughout the amazing gift of our corporeal forms.

When we are unable or unwilling to accept the reality of the messages that our bodies are sending us, we start to think that the messages ARE us.  We are able to understand that what we see through our eyes is simply a vision.  It is an observed phenomenon.  If we see a bird in flight, it does not mean that we are a bird.  Likewise, it is important to separate the sensations we experience through our other body parts from our selves, our being.  We do not have to be angry when we feel anger.  It is just a feeling, a sensation.

The purpose of being awakened isn’t to feel joyful all the time.  The purpose is to feel – everything – in a mindful and detached way.  You are not the feeling – you are feeling the feeling, just like you are seeing the birds fly above you.

It helps to be rooted in a faith that there is a guiding force that is over all things.  Having faith that the political leaders are not the true leaders is healthy and healing.

You must take care of your body in order to take care of your spirit.  There is nothing new here – diet and exercise count now more than ever.  Make healthy food choices.  Stress eating, eating “comfort food”, will bring your body and spirit down. Get regular exercise.  Just going for a short walk every day is excellent.  More is better.  Don’t overdo it, though, because that becomes a distraction.  It is important to be present.

Learn to be OK with sitting still in silence.  The need to constantly be busy is an addictive behavior the same as smoking cigarettes or drinking. Substance abuse isn’t just about drugs, but anything and everything. Doing anything mindlessly can be harmful to your body and spirit.

Having to check social media, read a book, or do chores can all be distractions.  Balance is what is necessary here. It is good to read a book – but if you feel anxiety if you are without one, then it is time to sit with that feeling and listen to it.  It is a sign that you feel a need to escape.  Use your feelings, regardless of what they are, to learn.  Do not run from “bad” feelings – they are trying to teach you that something is out of balance in your life.

Instead of protesting – of saying what you are against, spend your energy on building up.  What are you for?  What will bring healing to your community?  Who is hurting? Who is marginalized?  Go help them.  Go be a force for good.  Do what you can with what you have.  Your little efforts count.  Join with others to do more.  Don’t wait for the government to help – those times are over.  Be the change you wish to see.  Teach an immigrant child how to read and write.  Learn a foreign language.  Build a home for a homeless person. Teach a class on money management. Learn nonviolent conflict resolution.

Focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t.  Spend more time on figuring out how you can do something instead of coming up with excuses for why you can’t.  Don’t blame others for your own choices.

Together we live or die.

We’re all in this life together.

I can heal myself. I can be awake and mindful. I can plant trees or buy land that has them on it already to preserve them – but it won’t matter much if others chop theirs down and build malls (our new temples to the god of consumerism) complete with parking lots dedicated to cars (mobile air destroyers). Each parking space is a gravesite, a memorial to a tree. A garish monument, an epitaph, a mockery of what was there before. The air will get more polluted, and without trees, there won’t be anything to clean it. The Earth will get warmer and warmer, and my efforts won’t matter. While I’ve done what I can to help, others have done more to destroy.

I can protect that stream of water on my hypothetical piece of land, keep it safe from pollution, taking debris out when I arrive there, not putting poisons in, but what about upstream? Their actions affect me. Then, what about the people who buy this land after I die? Who says that they will keep it pristine?

How to live in such a way that it inspires others to live – that is my goal.

Poem – to wander

To wander is to go forth,
eyes and heart open
into the unknown.
It doesn’t have to be in the wilderness.
It can be in the library.
It can be anywhere you have not explored.
To wander is to find yourself
in the middle of nowhere,
not lost
but awake and aware and curious.
To wander is to take the time
to appreciate the journey
instead of just the destination.
To wander is to venture forth
in body or mind
or both
with no goal other than to truly see
what you find
while out there.
There is danger in this
for you might get lost.
There is salvation in this
for you might find yourself.