by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, re-printed from Kripalu Online
Twenty-six years ago I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue (CF), also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis. Except for a two-year period of acute disability at the onset of the illness, it has been for the most part manageable.
But three and a half years ago, just as I started a sabbatical from workshop facilitation and writing deadlines, the hormonal shift of menopause triggered an acute phase of the illness, one that took me over two years to recognize and accept.
What became a very dark night of the soul has led me to reflect on what useful wisdom I can glean about living fully and sustainably during any challenging time—economic hardship, physical illness, family crisis.
Sometimes it takes us a while to realize and respond to what is happening, and this delay can lead to unnecessary suffering. So, is there a way to open our awareness to “what is” more quickly? This question can be particularly tricky for those of us committed to developing our inner spiritual lives. Understanding how the stories we tell ourselves influence the quality of our experience, we may reframe things in positive terms to engender the optimism we believe is part of creating desirable change. But when does optimism become a form of denial that stops us from seeing accurately and responding effectively in ways that will alleviate suffering? When does hope for an imagined future obscure the reality of a difficult present? How do we develop discernment in both seeing and responding to present conditions?
Hope and denial are perhaps most intertwined when the deterioration of conditions is gradual. The erosion of my health happened slowly over time and, cautious about creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, I was reluctant to even think that I was headed for or having a full-blown CF relapse. Similarly, knowing that consumer confidence and stock-market fluctuations are strongly affected by emotions, I find myself scowling as media pundits forecast more dire times, stirring up the fear that could ensure the accuracy of their predictions. Knowing that life is unpredictable and hoping that difficulties will be brief, we can slip into denial about present challenges or overall patterns of decline.
When things are grim, hope can be critical for getting out of bed in the morning. Surely the people who have lost their jobs, homes, and/or businesses must have hope that things will improve if they are to continue getting out of bed. These past three years of incapacitating illness have made me less willing to judge the things people use to simply get through times of pain and fear. I know some ways of getting through are more skillful than others. During the last three years, I knew that doing the yoga that puts me in my body with renewed awareness was a more skillful way to be with discomfort than spacing out while watching old DVDs. Some days I did my yoga. Some days I did my yoga and then I vegged out in front of the TV. And some days I didn’t have what it took to get myself to the yoga mat at all. Some days we’re not looking for a way to consciously be with what is, we’re just looking to get through another day in the hope that we’ll have more to work with tomorrow.
I hear many people reframing the current economic crisis in positive terms: it’s an opportunity to challenge the consumerism that drives so much of our culture and lives; it’s a chance to examine our values, to get back to what really matters and make time for those things that cultivate joy and don’t depend on economic expenditures, like time with family and friends; it’s an opportunity to create a new system, one that is environmentally and economically sustainable. These are hopeful and potentially truthful assertions. The trouble is that although they offer us something we may need, they can also serve as ways to deny other aspects of reality. Lying ill in bed may be an opportunity to learn how to stop doing and just be, but it is also painful and difficult. Economic upheaval may bring us back to important values we have neglected, but it also creates enormous and immediate suffering for many. If I’d just lost the job that had been providing for my family, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t find comfort in the idea that I now had an opportunity to reexamine my values.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to take skillful action in response to challenging situations if we don’t or can’t see the full reality of the difficulties. We’re simply not making choices with all the information we need. In my case, several experiences offered me a fuller awareness of my reality and more information on what needed to be done. All involved listening deeply, finding community, and taking action based on the insights gained.
The first was a skillfully facilitated weeklong vipassana meditation retreat. Sitting in supported silence with others, focusing my awareness on the breath for seven days, I could no longer deny the physical exhaustion, pain, and consistent decline that had been happening in my body for over two years. The realization that acute CF had returned was devastating, but it also got me moving. Determined to find help, I put myself on the waiting list for a new CF clinic in Toronto.
Shared silence supports deep listening. Maybe if we listened to the news with two or three other people once a week and then simply sat in silence together afterward, it would be easier to set aside hope and fear—both of which are future—oriented and speculative—in order to see the depth and breadth of what is. When I was in pain, hope buoyed me up but also helped me go into denial about my overall health. Worry wore me down and caused the illness’s adverse effects to be multiplied by mental stress. I say this without any blame. At any given moment we can’t be more conscious than we are. It was community, being with others, that enabled me to make myself more available to the present reality.
Despite treatment at the CF clinic, the illness persisted. My desperation deepened, until I went through a truly dark night when I asked—pleaded—for spiritual guidance. Oh, I’d been doing my practice and asking for help, but I hadn’t allowed the fullness of my heartache to come into my prayers. When we surrender completely to the experience of a difficult present, we open to asking for, listening to, and acting on the guidance that comes. And the guidance was there when I awoke, an idea that rang like a bell in the center of my body: I needed to leave my beautiful but isolated home in the country to return to Toronto for a month. I have a supportive network of friends and family, but what I needed was connection with a larger, more diverse group of people, some of whom approach health care very differently than I do.
I headed off to share my story with others in Toronto. I told the story of what was happening to me in all sorts of ways: in words and blood-test results to medical doctors, in the pulses of my meridians to the acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist, in answering the many questions of the homeopath, and in the stiffness of my musculature with the chiropractor and massage therapist. And they each, in their own ways, mirrored back to me what they heard and made their recommendations. And as I listened, I heard common threads, different ways of pointing to what was happening and to those things that might support and restore balance in all aspects of my being.
Sometimes our communities may be too narrowly defined. If we only listen to and share stories with like-minded people, we may miss important information about what is happening and perspectives on possible responses. Today, as I make choices and take action based on all the perspectives and information I received, the exhaustion is lifting, the pain is subsiding, and balance is being restored. I’m not completely out of the woods yet, but shafts of light are shining through the foliage and I can see a clearing ahead.
When silence is shared and our stories are told, we each have to ask ourselves: What needs to be done right now? What can I offer? What do I need to be able to offer what I have?
Asking these questions about the present in the present frees up the energy to act, if action is needed. And the answers may not be grand. Maybe I need to take a walk so I can be fully present later when I meet with a friend who has lost her job. Maybe I need to slow down and give the man at the corner store my full attention as he tells me his worries about losing his business. Long-term strategies are needed, but in times of great stress, if we are to avoid the denial of daydreaming or the paralysis of fear, we need to take a long slow breath together and focus on what needs to be and can be done, here and now. Asking for and listening to guidance, sharing silence and telling our stories, we cultivate faith in the bedrock of being, a sacred wholeness that is always unfolding. And we see more fully who we are and where we are. And we do what we can.