Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Heart Health

Heart disease is caused by -- oh -- wait. No one knows.

It's not anyone's fault that this remains mysterious. Most diseases are mysterious. What I mean is, in the lab, diseases are, on some levels, well understood. The way disease manifests in human beings is a whole other question. We continue to try to find a common denominator, but considering how unique each of us is, well, I wish good luck to the researchers. Depending on the mood of the people who hold important positions in the world of medicine, there is always a theory about causes, but no one knows for sure. Every kind of health practitioner tries to understand, but none of us really gets it, even if we act like we do. Human beings are complicated! I'm glad we keep trying.

Not so long ago, when someone was thought to have a bad heart, they were put to bed, sometimes forever. In recent decades, the treatment of heart disease has evolved and expanded. Perhaps I should say exploded. There are surgical techniques, drugs, "lifestyle changes" that are thought to be helpful. Some of them work for some people, others work for other people. There are some whose hearts can't be made right, no matter what is done for them. I think of Dick Cheney. Nothing has worked for everyone, and indeed, along with the explosion in ways to treat it, heart disease has become much more prevalent in the U.S. It's a huge problem about which I have many ideas, of course.

I remember when heart health was thought to be improved by avoiding anything with fat in it. My society's response to that idea was to begin producing low fat and no fat products. People who honestly yearned to remain healthy started buying heavily processed no fat "food" that was full, instead, of chemicals and fake fats which - as it turns out - are twice as bad for your heart as real food. Margarine is probably the best example of fake fat that is horrible for us. Just horrible. Just as dreadful are no fat products. What is no fat half and half, for instance? What does that mean? I read somewhere recently that no fat and low fat peanut butter is nothing but empty calories. Everything nutritious about peanut butter is in the fat!

With the idea that fat=bad came the trend towards stripping cholesterol out of the body. I get where they were coming from but what a bad idea! Your brain needs cholesterol. So do your muscles. Not too much, but not too little either. Did you know there's no such thing as "good" or "bad" cholesterol?

Modern medicine is emergency medicine, hence the early statins were really fierce - and so very bad for people. They prescribe lower dosages now, but it's still bad for you. Bad enough that there is a class action lawsuit against Lipitor floating around out there.

Recently, I'm happy to say, the idea that fat=bad is turning around, and with it, the idea that stripping cholesterol from the body will prevent heart disease. They're now able to recognize that for many people, muscle pain and weakness, fatigue and mental fogginess are "side effects" of statin use. Many cutting edge researchers are beginning to doubt that cholesterol levels in the blood have anything to do with heart disease. Oops.

The trend these days includes a more joyful set of foods. Here's an article from the Cleveland Clinic that speaks to the benefits of eating dark chocolate. A few years ago, they decided that drinking wine is good for the heart. Now they think champagne is good for the heart as well.

I am enjoying the shift from thinking heart health involves a stern and tasteless diet towards a culture of happiness, i.e. dark chocolate and champagne. I think they're moving in the right direction. I hope they will conclude that flogging yourself at the gym for an hour after sitting at a desk for eight hours can not be good for your heart and will suggest more moving around at the office, followed by maybe a nice walk after work.

Another thing I wish modern medicine would do a lot more of is study healthy people. As long as they do their research around those who are suffering (understandable and certainly worthy) they will only be able to see human health through a pathological lens. That goes for every kind of malady, not just heart disease. They look for what is wrong. I think they would be equally well served to scan for what is right, especially in healthy people who break the rules of good health, whatever that means. They might find something very interesting in that way.

I have a lot more to say about this. But for now, let me offer one of my daily heart health practices. It's the metta or lovingkindness prayer, borrowed from the Buddhists. This practice is supposed to be easy. If, at any layer, it becomes a struggle, drop back to a layer in which it's easy to wish for these things. If you never get beyond yourself and your nearests and dearests, that's fine. This is not a demand and is certainly not magic. Just ask, sincerely. Just ask.

There are many forms of this practice. I offer the one taught to me, the one I use daily. Buddhists all over the world use some form of this practice. I love knowing there are people out there wishing for my happiness every day.



Breathing in and out of your heart, letting your jaw relax, gently closing your eyes, ask silently for yourself:

May I be happy
May I be peaceful
May I be healthy
May I be filled with love

Opening your heart now to those nearest and dearest to you, perhaps bringing their faces into your heart, trying to feel your heart opening, ask for your beloveds:

May they be happy
May they be peaceful
May they be healthy
May they be filled with love

Open your heart to someone about whom you have no particular feelings, like the guy behind the counter at the corner store, the UPS delivery guy. Should be someone you don't really know. Ask for him or her:

May they be happy
May they be peaceful
May they be healthy
May they be filled with love

Now if it feels easy, open your heart to someone you're currently having trouble with. It shouldn't be the person you're having the MOST trouble with. Ask for him or her:

May they be happy
May they be peaceful
May they be healthy
May they be filled with love

Take a deep breath. Open your heart to all sentient beings everywhere around this beautiful planet. It's easier than it seems like it would be. Ask for them:

May all beings be happy
May all beings be peaceful
May all beings be healthy
May all beings be filled with love

Now taking a couple of deep breaths, letting go of all sentient beings, everyone for whom you wished, bringing your attention back to your own heart and only your heart, ask for yourself:

May I be happy
May I be peaceful
May I be healthy
May I be filled with love.

Breathe. Open your eyes and go on about your day.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The throne of the soul

In Chinese, the characters that represent various organs in the body include not only a picture of the idea of the liver (for instance), but an additional mark that means "embodied." The liver, in Chinese, is the function of the liver, embodied.

The character for the heart does not include the mark of embodiment. According to my acupuncturist, the heart is infinite and can not be embodied. He describes the organ as the "bottom floor" of something vast and unimaginable. The beating of the heart is the rhythm of the soul, and the organ itself is the throne of the soul, but it in no way embodies the soul. The idea resonates.

Chinese medicine is only one of many systems of philosophy that place the heart at the center of what it means to be human. In modern western civilization, the preoccupation with the brain is at odds with common wisdom over many centuries and in many cultures around the world.

I could go into a whole thing about how bad I think it is to be so head-centric, but I'd rather write again about the soul, the mystery that contains the microbiome, the human cells, the hopes, dreams and wishes of each person in a way that makes us appear to be cohesive and individual. The soul is what keeps us from being zombies, no matter in how many different directions we're being tugged by our various component bits.

In the Reyaverse, the soul has mass. Not much, but it is a palpable thing that exists in time/space, within the visible realm, while we're alive. If you have ever seen a dead person or animal, you know that once the soul passes away, the body appears flattened, smaller or two-dimensional. Dead bodies are like discarded outfits. They look flat because they are no longer ensouled. Even though some of us deny it, we do see the soul. It adds depth, it plumps up our appearance. The flatness we notice as we gaze at a dead body is the lack of ensoulment. We see what is no longer there. It's an unnerving sight, it surely is.

Please don't ask me to explain what the soul is, where it originates or why. No one knows. No one has ever known. This truth has not kept me, or many others, from wondering about it anyway. It's a mystery that can not be solved in this form. I like the wondering and am content to never fully understand. Wondering about the soul enriches and deepens my humanity. It increases my capacity for kindness and turns me in the direction of wisdom.

The soul encompasses the bacterium, the human cells, the thoughts and dreams, even our magnificent skins. We are wrapped in soul, and soul permeates every cell, every bacterium, and every thought we have. It is around us, and within us. It extends backwards and forwards through time. The soul is the matrix in which we live, breathe and have our life's experiences. At the very center of each human soul, there is a beating heart. This is my working theory.

May your heart beat smoothly and rhythmically, creating a beautiful, harmonic throne for your soul. May your soul be content, comfortable and at home in its temporary abode. May you be peaceful.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Except, we are not zombies

Did I say we're zombies? That various microbes, hormones and instincts control our behavior? That we are not singular, we are aggregates who serve many masters?

OK. It's true, but also completely not true. There are many ways in which we are all of a piece.

What makes us whole? Skin is a great example of one of the ways we pull all the microbes, instincts, human cells and thought forms together to become far more than a sum of our parts.

Skin is incredible. It gives us shape, provides identity, is crucial to immunity, vitamin production, temperature regulation and - uh - sensation! Skin is the physical boundary that makes possible an almost eery internal homeostasis. It's eery because the external world is in constant flux. Thank god for skin! It protects and holds us. I honor my skin and take good care of it, which includes not wearing sunscreen unless I have to. Sunscreen is a chemical reaction that can not be good for us. I worry for those who slather on sunscreen every day. How do they make Vitamin D, I wonder?

I'm not suggesting sunburn is good. When your skin starts to burn, get out of the sun. Your skin is showing you how much sun is right for you. If you pay attention, you will not need much sunscreen. Too much exposure to Brother Sun, even with sunscreen, is exhausting. The same goes for too little exposure. Remember the Tao of Goldilocks, please. It's part of honoring your skin.

The spiritual skin is the soul. For those who are particularly uninterested in the life of the spirit, thinking of the soul as electromagnetism will suffice (though that is a stingy, unimaginative, one-dimensional way to think about it, if you ask me).

Gravity is the weak force. If it were stronger than the electromagnetism that holds the molecules of us together, we would be sucked down into the earth in a nanosecond. Electromagnetism and skin are the physical realities that bring us identity and cohesion. They keep us from being zombies, they do.

If you're willing to go a bit further into mystery, it's worth contemplating the soul in its fullness of possibility. We don't know exactly what it is or how it works, how it becomes entangled with the aggregates of cells, microbes, hormones and such that, when held together by skin and electromagnetism, are called individuals. Everybody who wonders about the soul has a theory. Me too, of course. But no one knows for sure. No one has ever known for sure.

At a soul level, we are definitely not zombies. Physically, yes, but spiritually we can be whole and aligned within and without. It's interesting to think about.

May your soul shine brightly today, illuminating, cleansing and aligning the bits of you currently in turmoil, whether the turmoil is emotional or physical, whether it involves interactions between the microbes and the human cells or if it's because of something going on external to your skin and electromagnetic field. May your light shine. Shalom.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


We serve many masters, we surely do. Do you think you're in charge of your behavior? It's a comforting thought, I'll grant you that.

I was thinking about zombies after listening to this excellent Radiolab program about parasites, some of which radically change their host's behavior. It's creepy and fabulous, as Radiolab often is. I've written here before about tick borne diseases and how I've seen people become servants to that spirochete. It is rather horrifying.

A friend who is a brilliant healer and intellectual (and who, by the way, thinks Lyme is real, but not transmitted by the spirochete. He believes it's a social disease - interesting to think about) mentioned the human microbiome, in particular he is interested in the idea that we are mostly not human.

Here's a link to the excellent New York Times article about the microbiome, published last spring.

It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes — including commensals (generally harmless freeloaders) and mutualists (favor traders) and, in only a tiny number of cases, pathogens. To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. 

We are zombies.

My friend reminded me that yeasted food, like bread, causes a craving for sugar. Sugar feeds yeast. Once we get into that cycle, it's hard to resist the urge. I don't blame the yeast. It's just living out its life, wanting to continue its existence. I can't blame it for making me want something sweet.

I could write a long post about hormones and how they alter human behavior. At least they are part of what we think of as human, but they do shape behavior in ways that has nothing to do with all the lofty ideas in our heads.

Addictions of all kinds change human behavior so as to serve whatever it is we're addicted to. Compulsions, too, might originate from something other than the part of us we identify with. It's spooky, isn't it? Spooky because so many of us like to think we're in control, that we guide our own behavior. We love the idea of control so much, we're willing to take the blame for self punishing, self destructive behaviors. It's possible those things aren't our fault. I can't imagine the cockroach, infected by parasitic wasps, wonders why it is obediently marching into a tunnel where the larvae will feed on it until they're ready to fly. We would blame ourselves, I think.

Not that we should stop trying to be kind to ourselves and each other, and to behave in ways that enhance good health. Not that we shouldn't attempt self determination. We have to try, but a lot of it is out of our hands.

As long as we feel well and are happy, it's probably ok that we're zombies. But there are organisms that are evil - like Lyme - that turn us into self punishing zombies. That is NOT ok.

We humans are complicated! We are are complicated zombies, but we are zombies, we surely are.

May all the beings that are of part of you get along well today. May they be united in the desire for all of you to flourish. May it be so. Shalom.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mighty Worriers

Anxiety runs rampant in my society. We are hyped up, frantic. The way we live makes it worse of course, but we aren't the first humans, nor will we be the last, to suffer from this condition.

I wonder about the romantic idea that once upon a time, humans were not so anxious. Really? I don't imagine a past when people were at ease, because life in a human body is not easy. Worrying about predators, a sick child, surviving the winter or worrying about the hunt, the harvest, the weather, the neighboring clan ... good lord. Life is fraught, and we humans are mighty worriers.

Here's a wonderful essay written by a guy who has battled industrial strength anxiety most of his life, published in the New York Times last week.

... anxiety is not the kind of affliction that can be eradicated. This is because anxiety is not merely or essentially psychiatric. Even when it swells to the level of a disorder, it remains first and foremost an emotion, universally felt and necessary for survival, not to mention for a full experience of human life. Toss aside the bath water of anxiety and you will also be tossing aside excitement, motivation, vigilance, ambition, exuberance and inspiration, to name just several of the inevitable sacrifices. Get rid of anxiety? Even if you could — and you can’t — why would you want to?

He is not a romantic who believes in a simpler time when people weren't anxious. He doesn't believe it helps anything to try to reject or ignore anxiety. He suggests embracing it. Perhaps to an even greater degree than Tara Brach, this dude is into radical acceptance.

I, too, believe anxiety is part of the survival instinct. When we get jacked up on caffeine, sleep deprivation, traffic jams and deadlines at work, it can become a huge problem, especially for people who have no skills with which to manage it. Something as dumb as a parking spot can become the focus for arguments, shouting, finger waving, cursing. Oh the red face and bulging eyes and bulging veins on the forehead of a guy I saw yesterday, yelling at another guy for stealing his parking space. (He owns a public parking space? No, of course not.) That episode was a perfect example of anxiety spinning into something very toxic. I stayed and watched carefully until he got back in his car and roared away, to make sure it didn't escalate into physical violence. Scenes like this take place every day.

This is why you have to meditate. Yes, you. You must meditate, so do not argue, I tell myself every morning in the mirror. Then I sit down and meditate. I have never had a moment's regret afterwards. If you have never meditated, sign up for a class on the internet or in your community. Learning to sit in a group really helps. You will need instruction. Meditation is not about emptying the mind, believe me, and it doesn't come naturally to us. Take a class.

Meditation temporarily dismantles the constant storytelling we humans engage in. When anxious, we try to explain it which is not always possible, hence we invent scary stories. Hypochondria is a perfect example of storytelling around anxiety. In the case of the parking spot, this man told himself that it was the other driver and the loss of a parking spot that made him so angry. Nothing could be further from the truth. Separating the emotion from the story is a crucial piece of managing anxiety. If that man had suddenly awakened to his intense anxiety, instead of yelling at the other driver, maybe he could have experienced self compassion. Maybe he could have said to himself, My gosh I am anxious. What can I do now to soothe myself?

It helps to remember that we actually do not have control over much of anything in life. Yes, some things, but not most things, including parking spots. Letting go of the illusion of control can be a relief, it surely can. One of the physiological aspects of anxiety is clenching - the jaw, your fists, shoulders, hands, feet. Sometimes anxiety can tie the entire body in knots. The body is literal. If you remember you don't control the world, your body will relax after which your storytelling apparatus will back away from tales of doom and destruction. It's difficult to remain anxious when the body is relaxed.

But how to unclench, you may ask. A good question. One way many people relinquish the idea that they can control most, if not everything in the world, is through spiritual practice. As long as the practice doesn't involve magic (a control behavior), any practice will do. Spiritual practice builds a relationship with mystery, with the vastness of the world and universe. That relationship provides context and perspective, reminds us of our place in the order of things. Many came before us, many will come after. No one has ever been able to control the world. No one. The urge to think you have control is a God complex. It's not true and can be a burden, also it can turn into a pathology.

Spiritual practice is different than faith or belief. There are days I come to my meditation and prayer without a molecule of belief that it will make a difference. My faith comes and goes; it is very fickle. It's the practice that helps me manage anxiety.

There are numerous physical practices that relax the body. The martial arts, yoga, dancing, walking, running, gardening, cooking, swimming, sex - you name it. If you enjoy doing it, any physical activity will help you relax.

Another technique for managing anxiety is improvisation. Cultivate the skill of turning on a dime, changing direction, blowing off Plan A in order to do something else. I'm not suggesting that you become a flake. There are commitments that must be kept, but there's always some personal wiggle room in the daily schedule. If you learn to play with that space, switch it up, take a different route to or from a commitment that must be kept, it will help you manage anxiety. The practice of improvisation reminds us that there are always many choices available in every situation, that instead of the urge to hold ever tighter to our stories of control, we could let go, consider the options and try something else instead. Learn to play jazz, practice musical improvisation. Take a contact improv class.

Improvising builds self confidence. It teaches us that no matter what comes at us, we will figure a way to move through. It reminds us we are resourceful, inventive, and endlessly creative.

Humor is an excellent tool for dealing with anxiety. It can't be forced, unfortunately - or fortunately, perhaps. It's much more difficult to get stuck in anxiety with a light heart. When I say humor, I mean more than the capacity to laugh and think things are funny. I mean lightness of heart. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Though I can not honestly say I'm able to embrace anxiety, I do accept it as part of my humanity. Trying to push it away or deny it has never been at all helpful. Do you experience anxiety? How do you cope? The above certainly is not all encompassing, it's just what I do. What do you do?

May your day be calm and uplifting. May it be so. Shalom.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Two steps forward, one step back

When the doctor says I should recover from ... whatever ... within a specific amount of time, I always imagine the trajectory of recovery to be smooth and forthright, without a zig or a zag and definitely without any switchbacks. But healing is rarely ever straightahead, at least in my experience.

There are plateaus, relapses and what seems to be backwards motion in virtually every kind of healing. It can be hard to remember it's perfectly normal to improve, suffer a setback, then begin to improve again.

I twist my ankle after which I'm mindful and careful for awhile. When it starts to feel better, I'm not so careful. I push it a little bit. Then - of course - my ankle hurts again. Did I re-injure it or is this a part of healing? I think beginning to use a recently twisted ankle is one way I tell my body I wish to have full use of my foot again; I think it's part of the healing. I'm showing my body how I will be using the ankle, so the body can organize the healing around that physiology. The timing is what's crucial. Is it too soon to bear weight on the ankle? A good question for the physical therapist, yes? I say yes.

I have not twisted my ankle, by the way. It's just an example.

I'm thinking of the meandering path of healing today because the same principle applies to social justice movements. When feminism and civil rights became active movements in the sixties, we were reminded of those whose shoulders we stood upon - the suffragists, for instance. Getting the vote was a big deal, but by the fifties women were back in the kitchen, expected to wish only for marriage and children. Black people were emancipated from slavery towards the end of the Civil War, but in the fifties were still legally segregated, not even allowed to use the same restrooms as white people, not allowed to sit at the front of the bus.

Right now both of those movements are re-invigorated, due to awful laws in Texas and Florida. Those who are inclined towards cynicism tend to go on and on about how nothing ever changes. That's not true of course. We have a second term black president, and Hilary Clinton is likely to run for office in 2016. Our society has undergone a tremendous amount of healing in the wake of the upheavals that took place during the 1960s.

It's time now to kick up these movements a notch. In order to see what still needs healing, apparently a nasty shock was necessary. In Texas, that looked like the law placing restrictions on pregnancy termination. In Florida, it was the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.

Those of us who yearn for social justice tend towards impatience. We wish our society to be completely healed in the blink of an eye. Indeed. After an illness or injury, we wish to be 100% healthy overnight. But healing is labyrinthian. It requires patience and curiosity and a willingness to weave back and forth between comfort and discomfort.

May we take the next steps towards healing in American society with compassion and even humor. We are now capable of weight bearing in civil rights, including feminism. It might hurt but it's part of the healing. May we put one foot in front of the other on the winding path, remembering that healing is rarely ever perfectly linear. Life unfolds, in a roundabout, forwards/backwards motion, to the better way. Believe me.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Trust the body, it never lies

When people say they never get sick, I wonder what that means. I think it might mean that when they're sick, they ignore or suppress the symptoms and go on about their business. Is that what it means? Because everyone gets sick, everyone - some more than others, of course.

I've written before about the "common cold" and "the flu." Though a virus is sometimes involved, these conditions are the body's way of responding to a whole host of conditions. You wouldn't believe how many diseases and conditions begin with flu-like symptoms. Google "flu-like symptoms but not flu" if you don't believe me.

No matter the cause, when the symptoms arise, if we pay attention, we're forced to rest and be quiet for awhile, to back a new notches down the food chain, ("starve a cold"), and clean out a whole slew of accumulated toxins by blowing them into kleenex after kleenex. Sometimes we also throw up or have diarrhea.

These symptoms are not caused by the virus at hand, but by the immune system responding to a perceived threat. The virus or whatever it is doesn't cause the fever, the immune system does that, to cook and destroy the invading enemy.

Here's what I said in the post I wrote last December:

Catching a cold or what we call "the flu," once or twice a year, and therefore developing a fever as a result, is a sign of a vigorous immune system. It's a natural, healthy process. When this happens, the smartest, most beneficial thing you can do for yourself is to call in sick, get in bed, eat chicken soup, drink tea, watch stupid movies or read magazines and sleep. Monitor your fever of course. For adults, it shouldn't go above 101 F. Wrap yourself up, let the fever do its job. If it climbs too high, take one aspirin to bring it down to 101 or below. If the fever lasts for more than 24 hours, call your doctor. After a few hours, the fever will "break" with a big sweat and a feeling of relief.

This is on my mind today because I'm recovering from a pretty nasty something or another. At first when the sore throat came on, I thought, "Oh. Maybe it's just allergies." Ah but it was far more than that. As usual, walking my talk was challenging. I can go on and on about allowing the symptoms to express themselves, respecting the integrity of the healing powers of the body, blah blah blah, but when it comes down to actually doing it, well, it isn't pleasant to allow the healing to take its course.

As my fever spiked yesterday I had chills, then I felt terribly hot. I was weak and shaky, my head ached and my joints ached and I felt queasy. The aspirin bottle was right there, beckoning. I resisted. I coughed and blew my nose and rolled around in bed until my blankets and sheets were tied in knots. I lay on the couch all day and watched movies. I drank water and tea and avoided all cold foods and liquids. Kleenex boxes were everywhere, also used tea cups. My hair was a scary looking tangle. I didn't leave the house or get dressed all day. I decided to be with the symptoms, as I always encourage others to do.

It was not fun.

Sometime during the night I achieved the fever breaking sweat and sense of relief. I knew then that my immune system had prevailed, also that in triumphing, my first line of defense became stronger and better organized than before the battle with the flu (or whatever it was). At that point I took one aspirin and slept like a log.

Today I'm blowing out the detritus, continuing to take warm liquids mostly. No, I am not working, and when this happens to you, you shouldn't either.

When you get sick, please be kind to yourself, be compassionate. OK? Every now and then the body needs to detox. It's not pleasant, but it's a part of good health. Now that I'm on the mend, I can say this whole heartedly.

May we be healthy, may our immune systems be powerful and organized. May we have the presence of mind to allow the symptoms to express themselves, knowing it's for the best. May it be so.

Gesundheit and shalom.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

When one door closes, another opens, but these hallways are really a bitch.

The last stage of life as Thomas Cole saw it.

The life force runs strong. It's both mighty and tenuous, a paradoxical truth. That instinct creates in many humans an inability to understand death, or even believe in death though we see it every day in some form or another and most of us know in our minds at least that some day each of us will pass away.

When people or animals we love die, the first reaction in many cases is shock, even if it was expected, also relief if the person or animal was suffering terribly before dying. To the living, death is incomprehensible, perhaps as it should be.

Death is as fundamentally mysterious and, in its own way, miraculous, as conception and birth, it surely is. Unless you are murdered, no one can guess the day of your passing, no, not even doctors who deliver the famous: "You've got (fill in amount of time) to live."

My mother-in-law was very ill with lymphoma. She was treated by the finest oncologists at Yale Medical Center. She just got sicker and sicker, dwindled down to almost nothing. When they told her she had just a few weeks to live, she stopped all chemotherapy and other treatment, decided to enjoy her final weeks.

She lived six more years!

I could tell many more stories like this, but I'm sure you've got stories of your own, about people who were supposed to die but didn't, also young, healthy people who died unexpectedly of ailments no one could have guessed they were suffering from.

A friend's father is old, frail and sick with Parkinson's. The disease has now destroyed his ability to swallow. He will never eat again. The man is well into his eighties and only sporadically lucid. The doctors are asking if my friend wants to have a feeding tube inserted in his father's belly, to keep him alive a little longer. My friend of course does not wish to make this decision, feels it isn't his to make - and in truth, it isn't, but we live in a time/space in which decisions we are not qualified to make come up time and again.

He tried to get his father to say what he wanted. For a few days his dad said he didn't want the tube, he was ready for Hospice, but then he asked a nurse one morning about his weight loss, said he was concerned because he can no longer eat and wondered about options. The nurses have opinions, the doctors have opinions - my friend has no idea what is best/right/humane. I wouldn't know what to do either.

There are ways to gracefully pass away, for those coherent enough and brave enough to choose them. My friend's father is completely unprepared for his passing, as are many. I don't blame him.

Here's a link to the Center for End of Life Transitions, an organization devoted to planning home funerals. I learned about it from Layne Redmond's site. She is a frame drummer extraordinaire who brought a very particular and magical wavelength into feminist spirituality beginning in the 1980s. She channeled something so pure! She has been suffering from cancer and is now preparing for her transition from this life to whatever happens afterwards. I really admire her, now more than ever.

Here's a post I wrote last year that I thought was about making end of life decisions, but readers thought was about Hospice. Thinking about dying is mind-boggling, but well worth contemplating. Humans everywhere from the north pole to the south pole for 100,000 years and probably longer have tried to understand. It's good for us to try, even though it's likely we'll never really get it until the moment of our own passing. We have to try.

Just try.


Well worth watching the first minute to see her play. Always with the smile.

Monday, July 1, 2013

May the force be with us

When a woman becomes pregnant, her life is forever changed. Whether she gives birth, miscarries or terminates the pregnancy, she will never be the same. She will remember and rejoice or grieve. Conception is a really big deal, even though it happens every day. It's a miracle.

I'm thinking about this because of the Texas senator who successfully filibustered a proposed law that would have limited access to termination. Stand with Wendy. It was a brave thing she did and also absurd that she had to do it. I heard this morning on NPR that Gov. Rick Perry will again try to push the bill through this week. Good lord.

The decision to terminate a pregnancy is a private matter that would, in a world of my making, be carefully considered by the pregnant woman and those nearest and dearest to her. How I wish women had access to counseling (no agenda counseling, real therapy) before making these decisions, or to another way of sitting with the question of what happens next. Even for women who have been trying to get pregnant, the news is always a shock. Women considering termination should sink into a deep state of prayer or meditation, ask for guidance from something far more soulful than the Texas state legislature. No offense to the lawmakers, but they are not qualified to make these decisions.

By the way, I don't know anyone who is pro-abortion. That term is clever in a marketing/branding way, but completely untrue. Nor does pro-life explain much of anything about those who seek to legally curtail access.

Pregnancy termination is a hotly and bitterly contested topic because conception-pregnancy-birth is one the great mysteries of living life in a body. We take it for granted, I think, because there are so many of us. We should not take it for granted. Maybe if we didn't, it would become clear that is is not a matter for the courts. It's so much bigger than that.

What I experience shamanically with the pregnant women who see me for bodywork is that the soul of the being forming inside the mother comes and goes throughout pregnancy. In utero, we are not completely ensouled. I sense that lengthy negotiations take place between the worlds before and even after birth. There is a life force in the developing fetus, but not always a sense of the personality and soul. Sometimes there is, as if the soul is trying on the baby's body - like in a dressing room at Ann Taylor. The connection is tenuous. For almost every baby I've known, the deal isn't sealed until after the fourth trimester, as they call it. There are exceptions, of course. Mostly, very young infants are like beings from another planet, coming and going from their tiny bodies, still trying to decide whether to stick around. Right around three months of age, it seems to me most babies become fully ensouled, committed to this incarnation. When a baby starts teething, to my shamanic eye, they are fully ensouled. I always breathe a sigh of relief when the baby starts drooling and chewing on things. They are finally fully here.

One of the reasons it's traditional to give babies rattles is because it was (and still is in some places, not in the U.S.) thought that the rattle will keep the baby's soul intact in the body. Will it? I don't know, but it doesn't hurt to do a little shamanic rattling around newborns, so, why not? I like the silver ones, but babies like rattles they can chew on, once they're ensouled.

Sometimes during the negotiations prior to birth, a deal can not be struck for the new incarnation. Sometimes that means miscarriage, sometimes, medical termination of the pregnancy. It is a sad decision with roots that go much deeper than anything that can be legislated, also deeper than the life circumstances of the pregnant woman. The roots of a decision to terminate are not about making a moral choice. Incarnating or not incarnating goes beyond our human sense of morality. Conception is spiritual matter with a physical circumstance. This mystery is incomprehensible, overwhelming. Of course it is.

I understand every point of view, I really do, though I support a woman's right to choose 100%. It's no wonder we become confused, or quickly angered, or frightened, when the issue of pregnancy termination comes up. We think we can understand it legally, or scientifically, but no miracle can ever be explained through the tunnel vision of law, or the tunnel vision of science. C'mon.

May a greater wisdom inspire the members of the Texas legislature. And - the rest of us, too, please?