During the past number of months I have been recovering from a back injury with many blog posts bubbling up in my thoughts. The overriding subject is that of pain. Pain as informative, instructive, as an experience, as a teacher. I know that today is Thanksgiving, and this is NOT a post of complaint, far from it.
This injury gave me an unexpected opportunity, even a mandate, to stop, slow down, take stock, be still. Taking a page from The Wae Center, a community of adults with developmental disabilities, I decided that if I couldn’t move very much , I may as well meditate every day, just as they do. When you have been going a mile a minute, stopping short can be a bit of a shock . I was seeking an anchor and steady ground.
About this time, a dear friend gave me a book called “The Energy of Prayer,” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a wonderful book that I highly recommend for anyone of any belief system who is interested in deepening his or her mindfulness, reducing stress, and softening the heart. In the appendices of the book , the author has outlined a number of meditation practices that are easy to try. My favorite is described as the five year old meditation, which invites you to visualize first yourself, then your father, then your mother, at the age of five, and to meditate on the vulnerabilities, fears and challenges of that time. Wait, I am making it more complicated than it sounds. Here is the simple directive, as excerpted from a page in the book:
“Breathing in, I see myself as a five year old child. Breathing out, I smile to the five year old child.
Breathing in, I see the five year old child, who is myself, as very fragile and vulnerable.
Breathing out, I smile to my five year old child in myself, with understanding and compassion. ”
This is repeated for your father, then your mother, and then acknowledging the challenges faced by each of them, manifesting within yourself, you being the ultimate conduit of healing. Even if you were to attempt the first segment of this meditation, I think you may experience some opening, softening of your heart, a palpable experience of lovingkindness towards yourself that, unbidden, will naturally spill out to others.
Getting back to the pain.
Parallel to this deeply comforting experience of lovingkindness, and reassuring sense of peace that seemed to well up from my moments of quiet meditation, was this thrumming drumbeat of relentless pain. Sharp, searing, burning, aching, presenting itself in all manners of nuance. I wanted to run, to sprint away from it. Yet, as limitless as my mind might feel during meditation, this ratfink pain had me corseted, teasing and taunting me with all the things I could not do. Again, I need to send a shout out to my friends at the Wae Center, whose daily embodied experience has been one of limitation for as long as they can remember, yet who are truly my mentors in terms of patience, gratitude and finding joy and fun, a lion’s share of the time. A shout out and a bow down.
Pain takes a lot of energy and there were many times when my default position was to find ways to distract myself from the experience. Which is one reason that I now can list all of Ally McBeal’s failed relationships in chronological order and have became an expert at typing while standing up and in a variety of other positions. My deep need for distraction and realizing the quantities of energy it takes to manage pain is causing me to reevaluate ways that others might “act out”, avoid, or make less than loving choices while doing their darndest to manage not only physical, but emotional, mental or psychic pain.
Healing happens in its own timeline. The body will not be rushed, and neither will the heart. As a wise woman recently told me, the universe has its own clock. No matter how much you want or plan for something to happen in a certain way, at a certain time, often, you just can’t force it.
The surprise bonus is that pain can also be a connector and it certainly brings out those friends who (thank god!) you just can’t get rid of, no matter how often you whine or complain or when the zen like wisdom of your enlightened five year old self disintegrates into the crabby, pessimistic tantrums of your fussy five year old self. Let’s face it, I’m not that good at meditating yet.
This Thanksgiving, I wish to say thank you to those friends who keep sticking around through the ups and downs, the pain and pleasure, both the fun and the not so fun stuff. Those who were and continue to be generous with their kindness and friendship. You know who you are! I love you lots. And I know there are some veterans with pain, illness and the like here in the blogosphere who humble me with their experiences. If you have any tips and insights on managing, surviving and thriving with chronic pain, I am all ears.
Thanks for reading this long and painful (pun intended) post. Happy Thanksgiving.
Images: Family photos of me at around age 6, Photo of pages 138-139 of Thich Nhat Hanh’ book The Energy of Prayer, How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice, charcoal drawing by Miho Watabe
Found Dad’s old passport from when he first entered the United States. The cover is a deep blue cloth with lots of hand written information in Chinese characters, written with a fountain pen or pen and ink. Probably a fountain pen. The entry stamp is dated October 31st, 1947 and the port of entry is San Francisco. Dad came by boat and if memory serves me, he told me it took three weeks.
As I look at the passport and wonder about what the passage was like, even more questions pop up to add to the list of questions I wish I had asked him, questions like: How exactly did you propose to mom? (I know it happened on Christmas Eve, but I want details), How did you feel the day I was born? How did you make the filling you put in the won tons that you made by hand for my entire life? Why did I never ask these things?
Oh well, je ne regrette rien. The truth is, you can go on forever and a day and still not know everything you wish to know about the ones you love. I think that is the way it should be. Something about infinity. Love has infinite depth. Infinite mystery. You can just keep on going forever and still not know it all.
Here’s another detail from the inside of the passport which has many interesting stamps and marks and writings. The central red character is old style, I have my grandmother’s name stamp and the characters are similar, rendered in a curvilinear manner.
I’m sharing this on Thanksgiving because this is a holiday that leads to the American Dream that my dad was often talking about throughout my childhood. For him, this was a real thing, not just a concept. He loved America, democracy, particularly the concept of freedom and civil rights. Hand in hand with that, he always talked about the importance of education. For democracy to work, you need an educated, informed population.
When I was in sixth grade, I asked Dad to teach me Chinese. He wouldn’t. You are American, you need to know English. Never mind the other children spit in my face and called me chink in the schoolyard. Don’t be angry, he told me, feel sorry for them instead. They just don’t understand what they are doing. This from an atheist who took me to church every Sunday so I could learn from people who were striving to be good.
I don’t want to get too deeply into politics because I am alarmed at how polarized our country seems to be right now, but I will say that I remember dad watching the news, particularly during the second term of the Bush administration, groaning and calling out things to the television set like, What have you done? You are ruining this great country! and You have set America’s reputation back decades!
Enough said about that. I’m grateful that my mom and dad lived with us for the last six years of their lives. They were like living museums of history, their cells were permeated with the places they had lived, the political and social events they had witnessed and experienced, the music they danced to. If you have any octogenarians, nonagenarians or centenarians in your lives, don’t forget to ask a few questions.
Images: Dad at 28, passport snapshots, Dad at 92 in the garden a few weeks before he died.