I find myself continuing to learn about what it means to live with chronic pain. As I recover from my third spinal surgery (a cervical fusion) in three years, I’m just now opening to the impact of the chronic pain I’ve felt for over four years and, probably, will have for the rest of my life. Rather than ‘combating’ the pain, I’m trying to learn to befriend it, to see it as ‘my teacher’.
This isn’t easy to do! The pain and all the medications I’m on affect so many areas of my life that sometimes it’s hard to know whether I’m coming or going.
I’m grateful for a great ‘team’ of people who are providing my care and helping me learn to be okay with all that is going on. I’ve come to think of the pain as an uninvited guest that resides within me. The shift to appreciating the pain as a teacher of wisdom is not easy to make. Yet I trust, as in all things, there is an invitation to a deeper truth, a life-giving presence, even in the midst of chronic pain. And I think, I might finally be ready to embrace the invitation of pain even as it embraces me.
I’ve come to realize it’s not easy ‘retreat’ in a King Suite on the corner of 17th and Stout in downtown Denver. It is hard to listen to the earth, the sun, the birds, the wind. There is so much noise – a horn honking at 4:42 this morning. Mr. Happy greeted me at the coffee shop this morning, “Do you have any wonderful plans for today?” “Not yet,” came out of my mouth when I wanted to tell him to …. (well, you can imagine).
While it’s nice to be out of my ‘normal rhythm,’ I have yet to discover the spaciousness I desire on this particular retreat, the kind of spaciousness that restores my soul and resets my outlook. I realize this morning that ‘place’ matters, not just ‘getting away.’ My particular soul needs quiet, spaciousness, nature – a place to be outside where there aren’t any sirens, or transit trains, or beeping elevators. I came to Denver because the airfare was affordable, but I’m now wondering if I’ve paid too high a price in other areas to be here on the corner of 17th and Stout.
This blog was birthed out of a January retreat I took a year ago at the Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur, CA. When I returned to St. Louis I wanted to share/explore contemplative spaciousness. Early on a friend warned me, ‘blogging is tough because at some point you feel the pressure to write even though there isn’t anything to say.’ Well, the the prior season of this blog I’ve said nothing. I’ve continued to sit, in quiet, each morning, allowing the Spirit to dance within. I continue to relish the quiet and stillness and darkness of 3:30AM, especially on a clear morning when the stars twinkle.
I find myself on retreat again, in January, one year after the Big Sur experience. This time I’m sitting in a hotel room in downtown Denver. I had planned on going to a retreat center in the desert of Tucson but a dear friend died and I needed to do his memorial service, so when I went to change my tickets on Southwest it was a bit expensive to go to the desert, so I decided to try an Urban Retreat in Denver, a place I’ve never been.
My instinct at these major reflection times is to catalogue the failures: I didn’t blog enough, I weigh too much, my back and neck are killing me, I should have paid more attention to the mission committee at the church I serve, etc. I think about the things I’ve said to people, the tasks I’ve ignored, and worry about the future. But as I settle in a bit, the Committee (those voices in your head that harangue you constantly) is starting to quite. And I realize how goodness and grace have delicately intermingled with pain and frustration and exhaustion – like oils and waters sloshing around within and around me. I can’t know what tomorrow will bring, but what I’ve learned from the stillness is that for today, there is enough – enough stillness, enough pain, enough hope, enough love, enough breath – there is always ENOUGH.
The final practice for cultivating humility, according to the UC Berkeley Greater Good article is to cultivate gratitude. When we can stop in the midst of life and realize the blessing of being alive, or having faith, or seeing the beauty of the leaves turning orange and red and be filled with gratitude then we will stay grounded in a deeper place. Humility is about staying rooted to the earth, the ‘humus’ or dirt of life. The obvious phrase for cultivating gratitude that helps us be humble is, “thank you.”
So now my little ‘humility triptych’ is complete: “I’m sorry,” “I’m okay,” and “thank you.”
The second activity for cultivating humility from the UC Berkeley article is to practice mindfulness and self-compassion. Having the ability to stay grounded and present in the current situation without having your mind run toward ‘fear’ is an important disciple. Also, the ability to be gentle with oneself – the quieting of the critical voices within – is what self-compassion is all about. The little mantra I came up with for this second step is, “I’m okay.” No matter what is going on, simply repeating “I’m okay” may help lower the inner anxiety.
So far we have “I’m sorry” and “I’m okay.” Tomorrow will finish the contemplative triptych.
During Sunday’s sermon I referenced an article from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center on humility. The first practice it says we should do it to ’embrace our humanness.’ As I thought about what it means to accept the fact that we all make mistakes, we all fall short sometimes, etc. I thought of a simply phrase that helps me accept my humanness, “I’m sorry.”
When I say, “I’m sorry,” I acknowledge a short-coming. Something I did just wasn’t good enough in the moment. When I say, “I’m sorry,” I am embracing my humanity in a simple and straight-forward way. So rather than get defensive and start justifying my behavior when, I’m going to try to let “I’m sorry” come out a bit sooner.
One of the side-effects of the mantra, “I am Love and to Love I shall return,” is that life becomes fun again. Rather than everything being seen as a challenge to overcome, tasks and appointments can be seen as fun, as an opportunity to see how Love is going to manifest itself in this.
One of the biggest issues in my life is my health. With a minor spinal cord injury that produces constant pain and a genetic disposition to weigh 600 lbs, weight has always been a struggle for me. I work out in spurts, losing 8 pounds in two weeks, and then crap out and gain 9 lbs back. I’ve always viewed exercise as a horrendous challenge, like a dragon I need to slay barehanded – no fun, just hard work.
But what I’ve noticed this week is that with the mantra, “I am Love and to Love I shall return,” the whole idea of exercise has changed. Rather than “working out,” I’m now “allowing Love to flow.” I don’t know how this will play out in the long run, but for the short term, when I go to the gym I’m actually having fun. And believe me, at my current weight, I need to have a lot more fun at the gym so that I can reach my goal weight.
I am Love and to Love I shall return.
As the mantra “I am Love and to Love I shall return” continues it’s work within me each morning, I’m particularly mindful of what it means to return to Love. The mantra seems to invite a rhythm of daily living: start in the awareness of the Power of Love aflame at the very essence of who you are; then live into the day carrying that awareness and allowing it to shape your being and doing; and finally, come back to the Power of Love and allow yourself to be Loved. Center yourself in Love. Carry Love into all you do. Return to Love. Like breathing deep and exhaling, let Love be the life-giving rhythm of your days.
As I continue to play with the mantra, “I am Love and to Love I shall return”, I realize how powerful it is to start my days sitting in stillness and allowing the mantra to keep swirling, gently, around my soul. It’s like a good Cabernet swirling around your glass just before you take the first drink, you can watch the wine move back down the inside of your glass. “I am Love…” reorients my life, my outlook, my countenance, and how I interact with everyone I meet. For me, the most important aspect of “I am Love…” is that it allows me to relax into a deeper awareness of who and who’s I am. The Power of Love that animates all of creation resides at the very heart/soul of who I am. I am Love and to Love I shall return.
What does it mean to submit to the Power of Love at the very core of who we are? Why do we spend so much of our energy fighting or denying the Power of Love? What might happen if we just stop (the fighting, denying, judging, etc.) and allow ourselves to settle down into the deep and abiding Power of Love that is the very core of who we are? I am Love.
Instead of “I am dust and to dust I shall return” (which is what we affirm on Ash Wednesday and every time we pour out the ashes of someone we loved just before their memorial service) we said instead, “I am love and to love I shall return.” Both are true, but we tend to focus more on the dustiness of life rather than on the Love. I’m going to make a concerted effort in the weeks ahead to have as my mantra: I am Love and to Love I shall return.