I don’t know when it happened but somewhere along the ragged path of managing the symptoms of Fibromyalgia, I realized something subtle. FMS, as a disease, is a collection of sensations that signals my body’s physical reactivity; my dis-ease was a collection of mental reactivities to the signals sent as sensations from my body. As much as I could, I understood the physiology and psychology of the former but I struggled with the implications of the latter. Combined with the reality that there is no cure, I had to re-configure my practice. It was no longer beneficial to use the panoply of wellness strategy to take away the symptoms. Instead, I had to consider the possibility of transforming my dis-ease to something that allowed me to be in my life as it was (is?). I had to let go of the disease/recovery model and take up one that spoke to living well, one that allowed me to embody dignity and gratitude.
All this may sound terribly rational and logical but it wasn’t. The actual progress was in fits and starts with many side trips and time spent staring at dead ends. Being a Bear of Limited Imagination I decided to use the Five Mindfulness Trainings as my map. Respect for Life, Generosity, Respect for Sexual Boundaries, Mindful Speech and Mindful Consumption are Thich Nhat Hanh’s re-framing of the five precepts (do not kill, do not steal, do not engage in sexual misconduct, do not lie, and do not use intoxicants). Practising with each Mindfulness Training (I like calling them MT’s for obvious reasons: all are contained in each), I began to develop a road map to negotiate through the difficult days.
When the dark thoughts visited, I confronted the reality of my mortality. This life is limited in its time span and unpredictable in its endpoint. It is only an illusion that we know how long we have. This effectively rendered as nonsensical any thoughts of being cheated out of something.
When I was caught in my acquisitive and entitled mind, the practice of generosity was a powerful antidote. When I wanted something different from what I had, I offered it to myself in a creative way. It wasn’t always satisfying but it allowed me to develop a more realistic appraisal of what was possible. Catching myself wanting more good days, I would try to notice the range in the quality of my days. Finding myself in the thrall of my past, I tried to see what part of that past I still had in my reach. Truthfully, the concrete shifts didn’t always work but something subtle began to happen. Ironically, by allowing the wish for more, being generous with the humanness of wanting shifted my perspective in ways I didn’t expect. It is OK to want something different from what I have; what is neither useful nor beneficial is going blindly after it.
Generosity played an equally powerful role when I was caught in the painful physical symptoms. Giving myself permission to just be in pain without making demands to do something settled the reactive mind. It clarified the decision-making about rest and the possible use of medications. (Thankfully, I’ve not needed the heavy-duty meds to manage this .) Allowing myself to take days off, re-arrange my schedule, even to sleep all day if necessary was a challenge. It took a double dose of both generosity and mindful speech (No, you’re not a lazy, wimp) to peel off layers of self-criticism.
Speaking compassionately to myself when I couldn’t meet goals, cancelled gatherings with friends and family, or had to adapt to doing less at work was as much a challenge as being generous to myself. It all seemed self-indulgent and unfair to Frank who bore the burden of the see-sawing finances. But the harsh self-recriminations were not working. I had to re-think my fierce independence and what it meant that I could no longer fly solo. Along with compassionate speech, the practice of generosity meant allowing others to give to me.
The impact on our finances of my ability to work made Mindful Consumption a crucial practice. I tend to take the deprivation route which only leads to impulsive spending. Being skillfully generous became a central practice. But it wasn’t just about money. I had to be attentive to the way I consumed media images of what Life is Can Be Like, what can be had just for a small down payment, and all the slights of hand we encounter in our commercialized world.
It’s better these days. I practice and play smarter. The fact that I play is in itself remarkable. The fact that I practice is non-negotiable. When I talk to people about managing FMS “using mindfulness,” I go to great lengths to point out that mindfulness is neither magic nor a Theory of Everything. It will not take away what is inherently part of being human. It cannot explain why anything has happened; nor will it predict what will happen (even if you sit, stand, walk mindfully until the cows come home).
Practice, on the other hand, is different. It is the essence of generosity. It is allowing myself to be just who I am. In this day, this moment, this breath, this being.
Thank you for practising,
Photo: The doll is a Compassion Katsina by Brent Brokeshoulder of the Tobacco Clan from Hotevilla Village. Its crossed eyes, twisted legs and arms represent what is wounded or misshapen in us that needs compassion.