Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Reverie on Insights and Identity

At the end of my recent home-based retreat, I opened my journal and wrote a prose poem of insights that had arisen in the silence—but not for the first time. I have recognized these truths about myself before. The difference this time was that taken together they led to wisdom and the unexpected recognition of the connection between my insights and my identity. Here's the poem.

Insights on Being Old

At eighty-one, I can no longer hurry,
The pressure shatters my well-being.
At eighty-one, I cannot crowd time with activity,
Tight schedules make time disappear.

At eighty-one, fewer social events are better,
The quality of the interaction deepens.
At eighty-one, thinking about travel in the abstract is fun,
The reality of travel does not appeal.
At eighty-one, I am content with my identity and think it is not important,
Yet when I lost it in a sling and borrowed clothing I was distressed.

In her book Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something Sylvia Boorstein* writes about the insights that sometimes occur during a retreat. These moments of understanding, like everything else, rise and pass away. “Repeated insights lead to wisdom,” she concludes. To her observation, I add that wisdom is of little value if it remains abstract. If our insight can be internalized so that it informs our thinking and our actions, then I believe we have found our own wisdom.

After my accident in January, the visible physical asymmetry of my body was mirrored by an invisible asymmetry deep in my psyche. When I stopped everything for silence and solitude, I began the restoration of my center. It has been a considerable journey since my fall. I simultaneously dealt with the limitations of a temporary disability, the crisis of confidence in my capacity to maintain an independent lifestyle, and the gradual recognition that while I had given the matter of personal identity short shrift for many years, the loss of it was at the heart of my spiritual disequilibrium.

Because my arm was immobilized in a sling I could not wear my own clothing (mostly jumpers and blouses), and found that sweat pants and long-sleeved t-shirts worked better. Modesty fell away as I realized I needed help with bathing and dressing. Independence was no longer an option since I could not drive at all for several months. Cooking was not safe with one hand, and it was impossible to chop an onion or cut a sandwich in half. Writing on the computer was slow and painful. I knew all of these things were temporary—I could be patient and accepting—nevertheless it was disturbing to lose both my independence and my self-image. It was equally disconcerting to go from many hours a day of solitude to the constant presence of others who were caring for me, even though they were all people I love. Since I was on Tybee Island and not at home, my caregivers had traveled a distance to be with me. It was both a blessing and a discomfort for me to accept with grace the gift of friends and family taking care of me.

So here is my challenge. For the past two weeks since I wrote down my insights, I had to hurry many times; my life has been crowded with activities (phone repairman, garden help, exterminator, family events, physical therapy, medical appointments); social times were at least daily and often several a day; Robin and I planned a trip that is still abstract but coming up soon. As for identity, I am happy to be wearing my own clothes and taking care of myself entirely. I am also mindful of the re-emergence of my familiar habits, personality traits, and thought patterns. However, I don’t want to jump right back into the old status quo. I want my sense of identity to evolve to match the reality of my being at this moment.

Shortly after the retreat my friend Ruth sent me an email that said “We are no longer growing old; we ARE old,.” After I laughed  I thought of my prose poem and realized it described how I experience being old. It represents a desire to live the cliché, “Less is more.” It is also the logical path for my commitment to lead a mindful life.

Last week Miles and Polly (my grandson and his wife) gathered a number of members of both their families together to share a brunch and participate in a naming ceremony for their baby daughter. It was an opportunity for a dozen of us to further experience the richness of “extended family.” It was also one of the many moments that will contribute to baby Ginger’s sense of identity and belonging as her parents tell her the story of that gathering. Miles and Polly are now stretching their identities to include father and mother, and each of us who were part of that moment have enlarged our own identities to include a relationship with Ginger.

As I have let the love and unity of that family moment fill my heart with joy, I have thought that identity is not static and can be both strong and elastic. I also believe that it is essential that we allow our sense of self to change in response to insights that rise unbidden when we are mindful.

*Sylvia Boorstein, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1996

Next post: 06/04/2013

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Silence, Solitude and Termites

The whole time I was doing a three-day home-based retreat to regain equanimity, a little army of worker termites was chewing away at the cedar chipboard panels in my walk-in closet. While I was clearing my mind, other termites—whose function is to fly, mate and die—were getting ready to swarm. They crawled out from under my baseboards several days after I had given myself the gift of silence. It was good timing.

It has been my lifelong habit to cope well with the unexpected exigencies of life, giving them my full attention, seeking help, and staying calm. I am much slower and less adept at dealing with the effects of trauma on my soul. Stoicism runs in my DNA. So it was when I fell on Tybee Island last January during my morning walk, causing injuries and a loss of confidence. I had used my knowledge of deep breathing and other relaxation techniques to help me deal with pain, but the fears and feelings were, for the most part, left unexplored.

It wasn’t until mid-April that I noticed signs I was nearing the edge of an emotional precipice. I had returned from Tybee at the beginning of March and quickly started physical therapy—the slow process to regain my shoulder’s range of motion. Normally, I go to Burnsville once a week and to Asheville about once a month, but suddenly I was making many trips to various doctors and therapists and often coming home with a sheet of new instructions for additional exercises. In the same time frame I resumed my Celo social life, fixing tea for the many visitors who came to welcome me home, commiserate, and offer help. Then there were the taxes to prepare, meals to fix, household and garden chores tugging at my psyche, and of course the bliss of a new great-grandchild. Taken together it was a rich mixof feelings, but nevertheless overwhelming.

 None of it would have been daunting in my fifties, but everything takes longer as I age and my daily ration of energy is much less than it used to be. All my life I have been a latent hermit who thrives on many hours a day of silence and solitude. It has been the luxury of my old age that I can just stay home and be. Paradoxically, the more solitude I have the greater my pleasure is when I do spend time with friends. But I was on overload, getting grumpy, and feeling like I wanted to cry when any new chore or challenge came along. I knew I was out of kilter and needed to provide an opportunity for my soul to rest.

It was on a Thursday that I looked in the daybook (where I write all my obligations and social events) and discovered that the next three days days were blank. I decided on the spot to plan for myself some kind of retreat at home. Immediately I emailed my friend Janey and asked if she had any materials that might help me. She brought me some CDs and a perfect little book by the mindfulness teacher Sylvia Boorstein*, which laid out a schedule and rationale for a personal retreat. It contained many short essays of instruction and encouragement. Janey urged me not to do any reading or writing during the designated retreat time and, of course, no radio or TV.

So I spent Friday morning reading the little book and planning my schedule. I did not aspire to total silence because I hadn’t alerted friends and family of my intentions and knew I would have to speak to Nigel now and then. The book included a chapter on cosmology, saying that there’s nothing about mindfulness practice that compromises any religious beliefs. Well I crossed that bridge years ago, and my meditations are equally informed by John Kabat-Zinn’s stress-reduction program and Episcopalian Cynthia Bourgeault’s lectures on centering prayer.

The elements of a retreat as explained in my little guide are the  sits (periods of meditation), meals, long mindfulness walks outside, and slow walking meditations on a short path inside or out. I had to replace one of the sits each day with a nap and made one other change: instead of the walking meditations, I did my therapy stretches as my slow meditations.

In the early weeks after I fell, I had my left arm firmly in a sling and my right foot in an orthopedic boot. When I was walking I kept thinking I couldn’t find my center of gravity. I’m not sure I ever knew precisely where that was, but I was certain I had only a minimal sense of balance. When the emotional loss of centeredness began to clamor for my attention, I did not immediately connect it to the physical imbalance.

The therapists kept pointing out how uneven my shoulders were and how I “hunched up” the left one. Therefore, during my meditative slow motion therapy (done in front of a mirror) I kept my focus on the expanse of both shoulders. I tried to keep the two sides even while I did the various stretches. Both the immediate and the longer-term results have been amazing: I am finally making progress.

When I declared the retreat had ended at teatime on Sunday, I had no interest in listening to the news or otherwise breaking the silence. I felt that I’d come a long way toward restoring my precious sense of balance. As it turned out, the proof of the change came with the swarming termites. I moved into problem-solving mode calmly and with no desire to cry. An exterminator arrived within hours, confirmed they were indeed termites, and found two colonies under the house. He showed me the mud tube and the small insects at work in my closet, plus the damage to some exterior wood trim. I was so lucky that I was at home and saw the swarm. It struck me almost immediately that the invasion of the termites was the perfect metaphor for all the factors—large and small— that had caused my physical and spiritual asymmetry and left me both out of balance and out of sorts. I’m already planning my next home-based retreat to take place before new termites of stress and overload begin chewing on my emotional structure.

*Sylvia Boorstein, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, San Francisco, Harper Collins, 1996