Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hold harmless

I can imagine few behaviors worse for health and well being than holding a grudge.

I'm not talking about anger, a "piercing" experience as Pema Chodron describes it, that can reveal the truth (whatever that is). Anger is a quick moving, fiery experience. If allowed to run its course, it can be cleansing and beneficial - as long as you don't take it out on someone else. If you cling to the anger, though, says Pema, it will burn you. Truer words were never written! Wow.

A grudge is quite different from anger. It doesn't move. It is like a solid brick of sludge, heavy, obstructive, toxic. A grudge is an old hurt or betrayal that has become more than a sum of its parts. It is far more than resentment. A grudge is resentment solidified over time. It is resentment that has been preserved, cherished, even worshipped. It is so unhealthy!

Healers of every kind are quick to say that grudges are bad for us, but it's not as simple to let them go as some make it sound. For one thing, our culture reveres grudges, or maybe what I should say is we revere the idea of revenge. Many movies, books, and myths are based on some kind of heroic version of revenge.

"I shall have my vengeance."

I believe the message in this movie is that there is honor in holding a grudge if you are powerful and determined enough to exact revenge. I think he dies at the end of the movie - a good thing, probably, because once revenged, what would inspire him to get up in the morning?

Most of us are not Russell Crowe in a film that glorifies revenge. Thank god! Most of us do not get the chance to slash and bash and shoot the bad guy. So for most of us, hanging on to resentment of any kind - even if we think we are justified - cultivates the sludgy, sticky, heavy and unhealthy state of holding a grudge.

Grudges often afflict not only individuals, but family souls as well. Think of Romeo and Juliet, the Hatfields and the McCoys.

It's a big problem for which there is no dedicated, proven solution. For individual grudges, one can go to therapy, receive acupuncture, pray, open one's heart. It helps. Certain spiritual paths help cultivate the ability to release grudges, such as Buddhism and the sects of Christianity that lean heavily into the actual teachings of Jesus.

Sometimes we practice forgiveness for years on end, in all earnestness, but are still unable to release the grudge. Please don't ask me to explain why. It's no one's fault. The mechanics of full release are mysterious and probably out of our hands. But we have to try! Because grudges are heavy, unpleasant, and very bad for health and well being.

Coming up on summer solstice, I take time to think about my various resentments and grudges. The solstice itself is a sacrifice according to the old stories. It's a great time to let go of old stuff, including grudges, including fabulous fantasies of revenge. The old stories say that Brother Sun will take all the stuff we no longer need into the dark as the solar year wanes. In the dark, the stories say, the energy will be composted and can be used to enliven the world. It hasn't always worked for me, but I give it a try every solstice. Over time, the practice helps. All the practices help.

Are you a holder of grudges? If you're human, you surely are. Summer solstice is about to arrive in the northern hemisphere. Gather your grudges and put them on the solstice bonfire, yes? I say yes.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Respect the body's limits

You should see my client's faces when I give them the Respect your body's limits talk. Sometimes they look confused, quizzical. Sometimes they frown. They look annoyed. I've seen incredulity on their faces, impatience, frustration.

At this moment in history, at least where I live, the body is expected to function perfectly, 24/7. Neither sickness, injury nor fatigue, neither snow nor sleet nor dark of night, nothing - and I do mean nothing - is supposed to keep people from fulfilling every one of their noble plans. We are supposed to work hard, maintain relationships, eat whatever the hell we feel like, exercise hard, complete every to-do list every day, no matter what. It is so unreasonable.

Once upon a time it was OK to rest while recuperating from life's inevitable upsets, ailments and setbacks, but not now. We're supposed to do it all without a hitch, also without decent sleep or a life enhancing quota of fun. When our bodies finally say enough is enough, we come down with a cold or another minor illness, or twist an ankle, or just feel tired, the culturally appropriate response is to be angry with our bodies - as if we are somehow separate from the tender, complicated, remarkable animals that we are. It's mean.

How about a little compassion for your body? I say that to people. I say, If this was happening to your cat or dog, would you yell at the animal? Of course not. You would care for it, make a nice soft bed for it, make sure the animal had everything it needed to get well.

I tell you it is so easy to dish it out. It is much harder to listen to my own advice. The weather in DC is spectacular this weekend and yet I can not be out there because this is the worst of the allergy season, according to my body. If I insisted on being out there, I could go into anaphylaxis, as I did a few years ago. That would be cruel and stupid, too.

Yes I take medicine both modern and ancient (Chinese) for my allergies. It takes the edge off but does not solve the problem. Really all I have to do is wait, be patient and kind to myself. All I need to do is take care of myself. The pollen season is about to end after which I can spend all day outside if I choose to. In the meantime, I'm trying hard to be as kind to myself as I tell my clients to be to themselves. It's not as easy as it sounds when I'm waving my finger at my clients.

Oh well. Closing the windows now, settling on the sofa with my book. Be kind, Reya, please be kind! OK. OK. Shalom.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Good Grief

We are tender, soulful beings, we humans. In my culture we don't want to think of ourselves that way. We like to think of ourselves as ruthless, aggressive, ambitious and unstoppable. That's part of human nature, too, of course. The problem (I see it as a problem) is that it's taboo to attend to the soulful, tender part of ourselves in 21st century east coast culture. Being tender and soulful is seen as a weakness. By some people, not everyone. Listen: it's not healthy to ignore the needs of the tender heart in order to appear powerful and relentless.

Because we can love, we must grieve. We have to grieve small things and large losses, missed opportunities, failures of every kind. It's inevitable. Grieving is not some kind of weak indulgence and it isn't unique to homo sapiens. Elephants grieve, dogs grieve. I'm certain many animals grieve. 

Is there any way to manage grieving? Because it is not pleasant and can be embarrassing in our culture of bad-assedness. In India you can hire professional grievers to do the work for you. What a concept! I wonder if one of the purposes of all the rituals around funerals and grieving is to remind us to go through the process whether we want to or not. These rites are of course mostly about remembering and honoring the ancestors, something humans have always done. My guess is that funeral rites are the oldest rituals. Grief is a part of us, it is not optional.

There have been times when I've swallowed grief, either because I wasn't in the mood for it, or engaged in something else (like working) or so far into denial I couldn't sense it. Swallowing grief is a sickening sensation that makes the throat tight, the head and stomach ache. When I swallow grief, I swear my intestines ache. Grief that doesn't move coagulates in the body, I feel it all the time in the stiff necks and backs of clients. It can coagulate in the organs as well as the muscles, which is never a good thing. It can be toxic when it doesn't move.

I love the idea of wearing a black arm band for a period of time after a loss. I've seen pictures of FDR wearing one after his mother died. When people saw the black arm band they knew that the person sporting it was in an altered state: grief. Part of the difficulty of grieving in our society is that we have to tell the story over and over. With the armband, people could simply say, "I'm sorry for your loss," and skip asking about the details.

When my dog died, I decided to wear an armband. I was a wreck for several weeks after he died, crying uncontrollably. It was horrible; I thought the armband would help. But Michael Jackson died the same week as my dog. It came to me that people would think I was grieving Michael. I couldn't do it.

Make time for grieving, please, for your health and well being. Let it flow, even though it's messy and unpleasant. The elephants understand this and go with it. The elephants are very wise.