Leaning In

The holiday season is upon us and with it my perpetual tendency to avoid and dread all things having to do with Christmas.

For the last 27 years, I’ve been living half a planet away from my family of origin in Germany. Over the course of these years, each Holiday celebration has been different. Different places, different people, different food, different customs and traditions, different spiritual practices, different moods and music. This year it’s going to be different again. Once again I’m blessed to share the Christmas celebration within the circle of some of my dearest friends. I’m feeling grateful. I’m acutely aware how vastly different and not at all cheerful this time of the year can feel to many people all over the world. I count my many blessings daily.

And yet, here it is again. That sense of dread, the wishfulness to get it over with, the varying levels of anxiety over the need (real or imagined) to fulfill people’s expectations, to give meaningful gifts, to participate in holiday activities, to be cheerful and merry, and whatever else my imaginary Holiday Spirit may conjure up to make me feel uneasy.

I work with horses and people, so for the most part working through the Holidays is a given for me. The animals need care and movement, and the people need support of varying sorts during this festive, busy and often stressful time of the year. Working through the Holidays gives me that comfortable sense of purpose that comes with getting up before the break of dawn and keeping myself so busy throughout the day that going to sleep feels like being hi-jacked by the sudden, irrepressible need for deep rest once my face touches the pillow.

It seems that lots of people have a love-hate relationship with the Holidays. It feels good to think I’m not alone. I sneak a few more treats into each day and hope a few more in the evening won’t make me feel as bad as the night before. And then, I can feel the anxiety set in. Mildly at first, then a bit more insistent, another cookie, some cheese and crackers, maybe some almonds, oh, and just a few pieces of chocolate, frozen yogurt, just a little… And yet, the funny feeling in my stomach won’t be humored. It’s been rumbling, moaning, fussing and mumbling discontentedly for quite a while now.

So, last night, just before reaching for that next ‘last cookie,’ I stopped myself. Rather than doing or eating one more thing I stopped and sat down in front of my fireplace. I closed my eyes and asked my self ‘What makes me uneasy?’ 

I sat with that question in my mind for a while and focused on my breathing. I remembered the words ‘If a question arises within you, the answer is right there with it. It may just not reveal itself right away.’

The words ‘leaning into discomfort’ bubbled up. I started to notice aches and feelings of tension in my shoulders, my back and my legs, steady companions that come with living with fibromyalgia for many years. I’m used to discomfort, just haven’t been leaning into it with great enthusiasm.

‘Keep going…’ I thought. ‘Leaning into discomfort… What makes me uneasy?’

‘Feelings.’ It said. ‘What does your discomfort feel like?’

‘Aches in my shoulders, back and legs.’ I thought. ‘And in my stomach.’

‘Ok.’ It said. ‘And what else? What do you notice underneath that?’

‘I don’t want to think about my aches and pains.’ I thought.

‘Why not?’ It asked.

‘I’m afraid my thoughts will make me feel worse.’ I thought.

‘Thoughts.’ It said. ‘Thoughts are only thoughts. Some of them are useful. Others not so much. You get to choose.’ 

‘Hmm. I’m still worried.’ I thought. ‘Once they’re loose it’s hard to keep them under control.’  

‘Ah. Control. And discipline. Such heavy shackles.’ It said. ‘Controlling your thoughts and feelings… about what?’

‘It’s the first Christmas my mom isn’t alive anymore.’ I thought and swallowed. ‘And my dog is gone, too. And I’m worried about my dad.’ 

‘Ok.’ It said. ‘And how do you feel when you think these thoughts?’

‘I don’t like those thoughts.’ I thought. ‘They make me feel really sad. And anxious. And there’s so much good stuff going on in my life. I shouldn’t feel sad.’ 

‘One doesn’t exclude the other. You can feel different things, and think different thoughts.’ It said. ‘You can allow as much or as little into the present moment as you like.’ 

‘Hmm.’ I thought about that for a moment.

‘Where do you feel the sad feelings?’ It asked.

‘In my heart. And in my stomach.’ I thought as the water gathered in my eyes and my stomach made a move that felt tight and as if it was reaching up all the way into my throat.

‘Ok.’ It said. ‘That’s ok.’

‘It is?’ I thought. ‘I don’t like these feelings. I’d like to keep them down.’

‘Down?’ It asked.

‘Yes, down.’ I thought. ‘Way down… and far away from me.’

‘So you put food on top of your feelings?’ It asked.

‘Yes.’ I thought.

‘Does it help?’ It asked.

‘No. But it’s something I can do…’ I thought.

It was quiet for a moment. I noticed my breathing had gotten a bit more shallow. I took a deeper breath in and exhaled slowly.

‘They are your feelings, you know?’ It said after a while. ‘They’re part of you. They are telling you something.’

‘Yes, I know.’ I thought. ‘I’m feeling sad, and achy, and grumpy.’

‘Ok.’ It said. ‘That’s better. Know and acknowledge your suffering. Lean into it for just a moment. Feel compassion for yourself. Then you can heal.’

‘Hmm. Interesting.’ I thought. ‘Leaning into discomfort is part of healing.’

‘Yes.’ It said. ‘You must know your own discomfort.’ 

‘Hmm.’ I thought. ‘And then what do I do with it? Can I just sit with it?’

‘You can sit with it. You can look at it. Breathe into it. Feel it. You can lean into it.’ It said. ‘And when you’re ready you can lean out of it.’

‘Hmm.’ I thought. ‘I like that. I can lean into it. And then I can lean out of it. It’s like using advance and retreat, or pressure and release, with the horses. ’

‘Yes.’ It said. ‘It’s like any practice. Little steps will help you master your quest.’

‘I’m still feeling sad.’ I thought. ‘Will I be alright?’

‘You’re always alright, sweet child.’ It said.

‘Hmm.’ I thought. ‘Ok. I think that’s enough for now. I’m leaning out now…’

And then it was quiet. I mean really still. I could feel the warmth of the fire blending with the warmth inside of me as the calmness spread through my whole body. Then some more words bubbled up. 

‘May you be well. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be free from all suffering.’

And so it was that I didn’t need another cookie last night. And tonight not quite as many. Little steps. Leaning in. And leaning out.

 

[First published 12-17-2016]

Hibernation

My eyelids feel heavy and I want to sleep all the time. It’s as if all my sensory intake devices want to be left alone, close the doors and keep the outside world outside.

My nose feels stuffy. I can never get enough air. There is a slight tingling right underneath the surface of each breath that enters and leaves the inflamed entrance of my nostrils. If the outskirts of a random thought touch a memory of my mother or my dog, the tingling quickens and flash-floods the space above my cheekbones and the inside of my nasal passages with a stinging heat. Water rises in my eyes. 

Every shallow breath touches the heavy hollows in my heart space.

My arms and legs seem to be filled with lead. I’m lying on my bed. It’s Sunday afternoon. Nothing needs to be done until it’s time to feed the horses in a couple of hours.

I watch TV and flip through the channels at random intervals. The sound is muted and the pictures don’t matter. I can’t bear any words or many sounds right now. The silent moving pictures provide a perfectly meaningless backdrop to the thoughts I won’t let in. Pictures. Flip. Pictures. Pictures. Flip. Pictures. Flip. My cat is snoring next to me on the bed. He sounds like a mosquito that stops flying every few seconds.

I can either be in work-work-work mode, or I want to sleep all the time. It feels like hibernation time. Bears and turtles have the right idea. Take some time and go into a state of inactivity. Slow down your breathing and your heart rate. Let your body temperature drop. Take some time for internal processing. Rest. Recover. Renew. Surrender to dormancy. 

My friend Marty said that my Mom wanted a dog, and that sounds right to me. That’s where I can hold both of them right now. Everything else is making me want to shrink back into my internal sensory deprivation tank.

I called my father in Germany earlier. It was morning here, dinner time where he is.

‘How are you doing?’ he asks.

‘Fine.’ I lie. ‘And you?’

‘Pretty good.’ he lies right back.

‘I’m sorry about your dog.’ he says. ‘Are you going to get another one?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘She was one of a kind. So sweet and smart and funny and lovely. She understood everything.’ 

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I know what you mean.’ I wonder if we’re still talking about my dog.

‘What’s going on with you, Papi?’ I ask.

‘Oh, I’m going to the hospital tomorrow. I’m getting my eyes fixed.’ 

‘That’s great, Papi! You’ll be so happy to be able to see and read like you used to. Are you nervous?’

‘Yes.’ he says, and I’m glad he doesn’t lie this time. ‘They are my only eyes after all…’

‘Yes, I know. I’ll be thinking about you, and I’ll keep you in my prayers. I’m sure you’ll be so glad when you’re done.’

‘And how are you, Katzi?’ he asks. ‘Healthwise, I mean…’

‘I’m alright.’ I say. ‘Back to work, keeping busy, riding, coaching, taking care of horses, you know…’

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I know.’

‘I have to go now.’ he says. ‘It’s time for dinner.’

‘Ok, Papi. Take good care. I hold you dear.’

‘I hold you dear, too, mein Katzi. Take good care.’

‘Ok. We’ll talk again soon. Tschüß, mein Papi.’

‘Tschüß, mein Katzi.’

I need to sleep some more.

And so it comes and goes, like ebb and flow, this thing called ‘grief.’ 

I listened to a lecture by Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Zen master, about connecting with our suffering. He was talking about the bodhisattva Avalokite.

Avalokite is well known for his capacity to listen, to listen deeply to the suffering inside and the suffering outside. 

He often goes back to himself and the practice of listening deeply to his own suffering. 

As he gets in touch with his own suffering, understanding and compassion arise. 

Transformation and healing follow. That is why Avalokite is able to look at other people around him and understand their suffering and help them to transform and heal.

This beautiful lecture brought me comfort. It reminded me that it is ok to have a look at my own suffering. As many of us, I was raised not to speak of or to dwell on pain or discomfort.

Getting in touch with my grief over the loss of my mother and my dog helps me understand my physical and mental state of being. Writing about it makes me listen to it more deeply. 

As I listen and understand my feelings and my body’s reaction better during this time of loss, I can surrender more easily to the waves of heaviness that continue to sweep over my being. I am starting to notice the waves of lightness that follow and allow me to open my eyes, move my limbs and breathe with more ease again. The natural rhythm of waves envelopes me in what feels like a prolonged rocking motion. 

As I’m writing about the rocking motion, water rises in my eyes. I blink and take a deeper breath. Of course, the rocking motion makes me think of Mili, my angel mother. And of course, it makes me think of Kelly, my beloved border collie. Pictures and sensations flood my senses. I breathe into the moment, stop writing and let the wave take me all the way.

Ok, there, there. A gentle calm comes over me. I’m still listening to myself. And what I feel is… gratitude. Gratitude to have had both of these precious beings in my life. Gratitude for the many blissful and stormy times we shared. Gratitude for the many teachings I received from both of them. Gratitude for the love we share, the love that goes beyond time and space. Thank you, Mili. Thank you, Kelly.

And thank you — people, horses and other animals — who are holding space for me. I feel you, and I thank you, too.

So much for now. It’s time to feed the horses.

 

 

[First published 10-18-2016]