Friday, October 24, 2014

Pain and the light of compassion

Pain as spiritual teacher is a concept I have been exploring for a number of years. I was introduced to the idea of pain holding a sacred message by Quaker healer John Calvi and was riveted by its truth.

More recently, I have been co-creating and leading a series of workshops on the topic with a trusted friend and healer. We both have lived with chronic pain and I had thought of her over the years. When I finally approached her about a year-and-a-half ago, she said "I was wondering when you'd ask." We have spent those 18 months plotting, planning, researching and devising such a strong mix of our skills, experience and gifts. We know this is right, but we have yet to reach the right audience. We've been seeking those in chronic pain ready to take a deeper approach. Typically that doesn't happen until you've exhausted traditional avenues.

So now, we're questioning everything. Should we omit the world spiritual? Is the idea of linking pain and anger just too much for people? Where can we go directly to those in pain? Should we find a compatible sponsor to pay for those attending and in pain.

In this mode, Renee suggested we explain what we're doing as if to a second grader. "Oh you mean an elevator speech of sorts?" I asked. "No, not to adults, but at a kids' level."

And I have been toying with that, getting at the root of what we do. It's been an interesting journey that's heading somewhere like this:

Pain as Spiritual Teacher is a series of workshops where people talk, play, create, share and think about the meaning of the pain in their life. The point is that pain always has a reason for showing up, but we’re too busy trying to cover it up to listen or recognize this.

Two people who live with pain want to help others in pain discover what they have: there is a spiritual side to living with constant pain that helps us manage our lives better. By doing exactly the opposite of what our culture tells us to do, which is run from or numb the pain, we can listen to the pain, learn its language and decipher its message. This gives us power and control and opens us from the tightness and isolation of ignoring or fighting pain.

We want to dive into the psychological side to find the silver lining. If we can find meaning, or a new direction or perspective, we can be more accepting of our condition and closer to peacefulness. When we deny our pain, we add to our suffering. When we understand it, we lessen our suffering. When we employ compassion, we make great leaps away from suffering.

That still sounded too adult, so I went deeper and simpler:

Our world teaches us to run away from pain.

If you have a headache, you take an aspirin.
If you’re bleeding, you get a band-aid.
If you have the flu, you get medicine.

We learn to take or do things to hide the pain. Some people live with constant pain that does not go away with an aspirin, band-aid or medicine. Sometimes they try riskier things to make it go away. Sometimes doctors will tell them there is nothing else to do or that the pain is imaginary. It is not. Pain is supposed to tell us something, a signal from the brain that something is wrong or not working in our body. If we cover it up and don’t listen, how are we supposed to know what it is telling us?

Two women became friends because of their pain and helped each other learn to listen. They still have pain, but they understand better.

Here's what my pain says to me:
• You’ve overdone it
• You’re not doing things for the right reason
• You are fighting yourself
• You need to be who you are, not who you think you should be
• You are beautiful as you are
• You are not your pain
• You are loved regardless
• You have life and a purpose

That may sound as if it has nothing to do with physical pain, but as webmd.com pointed out "when chronic pain sets in, your life shrinks to fit your pain." Self compassion often gets cut out.

So easily, we can fall into letting our pain define us. I find that less true if I meet it head on and really look at what it is signaling. Some of the fighting yourself stems from the comparison to who I was before the pain, what I could do then and how I am limited now. So much of that is unconscious.

What we're really striving to do is help people become aware of unconscious messages in a playful, safe manner and, most importantly, in community. Pain does isolate. An understanding community is crucial to managing chronic pain. So many of us quit talking about it to our families and friends because we feel like a broken record that no one listens because they do not share this experience. We bury it deep and try to suck it up and move on, which really causes suffering.

This work excites both of us and we are open to ideas for what to do with what we feel we have been given. Prayers, of course, are always welcome.

• What is my experience of pain?
• How do I handle it?
• Have I ever listened to it?
• What response have I received from others?
• What could it be like to find a community that listens, understand and helps me move forward?

we are bodily creatures
and want to experience
pleasure, not pain

so when it persists,
we really have
no roadmap

except numbness
and denial

pushing any
meaning as
deep as possible

in the darkness
it festers

but if we
shine the light
of compassion

we open
to Truth and
much less suffering

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Magic under the spreading ash

My young and wise friend Caleb can hear the trees. When he was younger, he'd hug them to be close enough to listen. On rare occasions, they have spoken to me – I seem more open to their messages in fall, when their color show enraptures me.

A particular ash tree has recently shared its magic with me, an adult cohort, a merry band of children, an angry mother who has softened and an interesting community centered around the park, home to this magnificent ash. She has witnessed, and perhaps tended, an unfolding transformation.

I first met her last spring as I joyfully romped through seven Sundays of assisting another artist with an arts program in the very urban Washington Park, smack in the middle of Cincinnati's Over The Rhine and the front porch of Music Hall.

She was planted there, silently observing our triangle of green defined by concrete walkways long before we ever showed up. Just as she accepted the grand park make-over and OTR's transition from slum to chic locale, she gracefully allowed us to play and create beneath her spreading branches, fully embracing us.

At first, we saw her only for her shading glory on some sweltering afternoons. She was an almost unnoticed comfort. Then we enlisted her as gallery space, decorating her with rope and clothespins as kids' special works waved under her, drying. I was first aware of her magic the week we employed glue and glitter and much of it spilled off the vertical papers and down the tree trunk, to her chunky roots. She glistened, consenting to our improvisational use of her. I think I almost detected a smile.

That week the entire tenor of our project changed. We had become part of her landscape. Seven weeks sailed by and I never said good-bye or even thank-you to her.

I am certain she continued to quietly nurture whatever transpired under her space over the summer. She carries the quality of acceptance.

We returned in the fall, clueless to the turmoil brewing. We neglected to dress her the first week, preoccupied with beginning again. She soldiered on forgotten, but not forgetting. Tensions erupted the second week, even though we remembered her, the rope and clothespins. The protective magic, I noticed, had returned. So had the large brood of siblings and cousins of all ages under the care of two teens, who clamored for their own space and time. Bedlam ensued as toddlers found their way into all of the supplies while their guards went off duty to find their own space to create. Paint was flying and spread all over hands and clothes. Our art making had spun out of control, unaided by the mother of some of the young artists taking issue with park rules requiring an adult present.

The intimidating African-American woman with the quick tongue glared in our direction. I knew whatever she was saying wasn't good. Racism, she cried to the park staff. I wasn't angry, just sad that it could appear that way: two white suburban women working with her children, nieces and nephews. She yanked one of the youngest and most fully engaged away in her fury. "Please don't, he's doing great," I called, but knew it was pointless. Somehow "Thank you for letting us have them today," reeled off my lips. That wasn't me speaking. 

My partner was near heartbroken. She's used to pre-schoolers, not teens with 'tudes. My work with Artsy Fartsy Saturdays and rearing  my own teenagers had taught me not to take any of it seriously. It was those smart and curious toddlers with no limits that crawled under my skin. Sarah handles them so very well. I think God knew what she was doing when she paired us.

So did the tree.

We re-grouped and discerned that the older girls needed their own space under the spreading ash. Sarah brought poster board and a sheet the next week and we began to acquire a groove, some rules and respect.

I thought I would slip on the acorns and onto my tushie under that tree when I heard Mike say please and thank-you repeatedly last week. He WAS learning and also gained the confidence to declare himself an artist. "Don't look," he'll warn. "I'm an artist and not done." He tricked me once, asking me to look, then frowning and yelling "BUT not yet." It became a wonderful game.

Khaliss was whipping though the paper bags, shredding everything in sight with scissors. In order to distract him and save the bags, I offered to make him a pirate patch like the one the skull was wearing on his T-shirt. He cackled, let me position it and ran off to scare cousins and siblings with his pirate talk.

His older sister, not yet a teen and banned by her cousins from the cardboard, was struggling all afternoon. Sarah gently pulled her aside and had a talk. I don't know what words were spoken, but could hear true compassion and kindness. The tree was happy and so was the Kaleia.

I am now on conversational terms with the once-angry mother. The past few weeks, I ask Kim how her week was and thank her for the gift of her children. "You're welcome," she says. And the tree beams.

Sunday, Sarah was unusually late with a good reason and our creative gang had begun assembling. I can't tell you how many helpers we were blessed with this week. Kids that had once fought for paint, were now stringing the tree with rope and pins, making art examples, taking a break from "work," singing, returning to help pack up and wheel the loaded cart to the car.

And we all couldn't quite part, knowing we have only one more week together. The rounds of hugs were endless. "Can I come see you this week?" V'Era sweetly asked. Oh, how I wished I lived closer to the tree and her neighbors.

• What do trees symbolize for me?
• How does Spirit work in and through nature?
• When have I witnessed nature transform humans?
• What message do the trees have for me?
• How have I learned to listen?

always there
in her full glory

we trampled by
and over her

not noticing
until we needed

she gracefully

invisibly guiding
our efforts

forging deep
helping friendships

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Partner forever and always

This is part two of the talk I recently gave about Artsy Fatsy Saturdays as ministry during Quaker Quest at Cincinnati Friends Meeting. I shared part one last post.
In a different world, one in which I used to live, I would have the next five years of Artsy Fartsy planned. I don’t live in that world anymore. Ministry, this ministry, doesn’t work like that. I often wish that it did. However, when I look back and see where I have come, I understand that if Spirit had showed me where I’d be now, I never would have undertaken the journey. It would have been terrifying and overwhelming. I can only handle one step a time; Spirit’s wisdom.
I have funding and space through the end of this year and a boatload of kids clamoring to keep making art. When I knew I’d likely be losing my school space, a wise Quaker friend asked which came first, the school or the program. The program, I responded without hesitation. That gave me a clearer picture of my mission.
This has been a continuing journey of doing it my way, then standing back and letting God lead. For example, I assumed we’d fill all 16 slots the first year when we held an art day and registration. Eight signed up and six showed up the first session, all girls. And it was wonderful. We expanded more organically, adding kids as our reputation grew, parents began to trust and kids engaged more deeply. It’ still evolving and I spend a lot of time talking to new parents about the program. Funny, I have had a lot of kids and parents not so in need ask me about joining, and it just doesn’t have the same appeal for me. I want to work with the kids who need it most and have the least. That’s where my heart is.
I find that the Thursday afternoon before each session has become sacred as I make reminder calls to parents. I reserve a few hours because this is a time I get to really connect with parents, mention how their children have excelled, been creative or well behaved. I find they are starved to hear these things about their kids. And, I only tell them the truth. I also write each child a personal note every month, affirming them in some way, my way of seeing that of God in them, borrowing the phrase from Quaker founder George Fox, and helping them see it in themselves.
I seem to be constantly tested about whether I can surrender this program, which keeps my ego in check. My care committee also challenges me, asking if the program should change in any way. I try to be open to where I am being led.

Of course, there are days that I want to chuck it all. Like the one a few months ago when I learned a major funder had upped their grant three months and I’d had not way of knowing. I had a good cry and God moved me to ask Cincinnati Friends for more help, which they gladly offered. Some days I wish all I had to worry about was gathering the kids and making art. Those are often the days I run up to visit for some reason and become surrounded by all ages asking things like “Miss Cathy, when will I be old enough? Will Artsy Fartsy still be here next year when I get into fourth grade? Can my sister come? “ And I know there is energy to continue.
I have a vision for deepening this ministry to include: all of the mothers who could learn to relax and care for themselves through yoga; plant a community garden and teach families how to grow their own food, eat healthy and economically; get funding to build a community room laced with wifi and computers, etc.
And, if, for some reason, everything came to a crashing halt I would know I had followed my heart and could strip down to just being a good neighbor, perhaps just showing up, up there to make group art. Simply. No matter where this leads, I have been transformed. Just when I thought I was full, God stretched my heart a little bit more.
The words of John Woolman, an American Quaker born in 1720 who followed leadings at great danger and risk to travel among and befriend Native Americans and abolish slavery, have echoed in my heart during this ministry:
Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to … understand their life and the spirit they live in.” [The Journal of John Woolman. Vol. I, Part 2]
• When I live by listening to Spirit, how does my world change?
• If God showed me everything at the beginning, convincing me to tag along, how would I react?
• When has God's way proven infinitely better than the one to which I affixed myself?          
• What's it like to live one day at a time, in the present?                                                              
• How do I know when I have followed my heart?

neither my work                                                                                                                           nor my life is orderly
life, especially in                                                                                                                                 the spirit, seems so                                                                                                                  messy, random and                                                                                                      challenging
I often don't                                                                                                                                    feel up to                                                                                                                                               it; too many                                                                                                                      roadblocks                                                                                                                                     and obstacles                                                                                                                                    in the path
I use so much                                                                                                                              energy                                                                                                                                              trying to clear                                                                                                                                  them all
when that's                                                                                                                                       NOT my job
I forget I                                                                                                                                             have a partner                                                                                                                            forever and                                                                                                                               always

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