Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rest with Great Diligence

This past two weeks I have been starting with re-mineralization. Which means, hey your body is so completely out of balance, you have to take targeted supplements for several months to several years to restore it. If you want to learn more about this, please take a look at what Maria has made clear on her Restco blog.

My own test results were below the lowest of the normal range for all but one vital mineral -- and the ratios between vital minerals confirmed adrenal burnout (not really a big surprise).

One of the things the ARL lab is clear about in their materials is that you will feel better, and have more energy, as you embark on the program. And this has been my experience. Just like Maria, I have found I am at least 40% better already. Which, when you have been absolutely flattened, is a huge improvement.  But what ARL says immediately after "you will have more energy" is "don't spend it."

You body heals mostly at night, and it needs energy to heal. Your cells have only so much energy, and if you're starting from behind the eight-ball you need to guard and preserve what you can scrape together.

This whole process is making me reconsider the wisdom of Daoism, which I had studied in graduate school but mostly disregarded in favor of Buddhism. Well, now that I see an acupuncturist/Chinese herbalist twice a week, I'm coming to understand all the Daoist emphasis on spiritual vitality as an operating metaphor for everyday energy management.
Heaven does nothing: its non-doing is its serenity.
Earth does nothing: its non-doing is its rest.
From the union of these two non-doings
All actions proceed.
All things are made.
How vast, how invisible
This coming-to-be!
All things come from nowhere!
How vast, how invisible
No way to explain it!
All beings in their perfection
Are born of non-doing.
Hence it is said:
“Heaven and earth do nothing
Yet there is nothing they do not do.”
Where is the man who can attain
To this non-doing?

-- Chuang Tzu

What does this look like for adrenal recovery in the modern era? For the first time since grade-school I have been going to sleep at 9 or 9:30pm and I have to say the difference in sleep and the feeling upon waking is remarkable. Also, a self imposed curfew of no electronic screens after 8pm.  I find that helps my bodymind come down from the frenetic energy level we carry throughout the day.  Eating more meals more frequently. Keeping a food journal and being clear about the effects of when and what I eat. Eating only whole, unprocessed foods.  Reviving my sitting practice. Beginning to do artwork again. Letting go of the feeling that I must achieve this or that in any given 24 hour period.

I feel sheepish that a science writer at ARL had to be the one to raise this particular aspect of burnout to my attention.  So much focus on the medical side, anxiety about will I recover from this and not enough on:
What could possibly be positive about burnout? Burnout is often a wake up call. For those who can hear, it can be a signal that one's life is out of balance. It can provide a stimulus to re-examine where and how one lives. Maybe one's attitudes need adjustment, or one has set unrealistic goals. Often one has not loved the body enough and has in fact ignored or mistreated it.
    Burnout can be a opportunity for a person to reevaluate priorities in order to bring one's life into greater harmony and happiness.
The sound you hear is the sound of one Zen hand clapping myself on the forehead.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Waking up Grateful

This morning I had cause to wake up thinking about the commute-time of your average bumble bee.

What time would he have to fly out of the hive in order to arrive at the flowering bush outside our bedroom window by 6AM sharp? No weekend hours for the hard working bee, no sir. Nor did he care that I wanted to sleep at least a smidge longer on my Sunday morning...

It has been unseasonably hot the last two days, and since we have no air conditioning, we sleep with the window open. I've been reading Dogen's exhortations about continuous practice in the evenings.  So the stage was set when I awoke this morning to incessant buzzing for me to notice that my instinctual hindbrain would not believe that a screen between my head and the bee a half-foot or so away should allow me to safely continue sleeping.  Nope, instinctual hindbrain said: Bee = danger. Wake up! 

Meanwhile discursive brain immediately kicked into gear as I cracked my eyelid open just wide enough to check my watch. Great scott that bee is punctual, what time did he have to leave in order to get here and get busy this exactly 6AM?

If this had happened on almost any other day, what would have come next is resentment, spinning about the lost sleep, the endocrine system cranking into gear so I could leap into action. As if there was anything I could do to keep that bee, and his brothers, from their appointed rounds.

But this morning, having been hearing about colony collapse and all the related theories about mites and/or pesticides, I was just glad to hear them doing their thing.

And it was only a small step from there to ask myself, in the spirit of continuous practice, could I transform my instinctual hindbrain alarm at hearing that buzzzzz so close to my head, the analytical brain, the take-action conditioning -- and just be grateful that these extraordinary motes, so essential to our ecosystem, were making those pollen connections in our little corner of Indra's net?

Kalu Rinpoche the elder wrote:
The Vajrayana path leaves nothing out, no matter what. Nothing can be rejected. We simply transmute our mind and its experiences by recognizing their actual nature... to practice and attain genuine realization even in our usual context. To that end, Vajrayana practitioners use "sacred vision" with which they recognize that this world is already fundamentally pure; it is already a pure land, a realm where all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are visible and the Dharma is understood. Likewise, they consider all beings fundamentally Buddhas and that there is no real distinction between samsara and nirvana, which are merely appearances. In the practice of this sacred vision the world is meditated on as a pure land and beings as aspects of Buddha; all forms are enlightened aspects, all sounds are mantra, and mind is pure mind.
I don't know if I'm committing a hopeless oversimplification, but Dogen's continuous practice and this description of the Vajrayana path seem quite resonant. It works for me.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Langston Hughes

Gather out of star-dust
And splinters of hail,
One handful of dream-dust
Not for sale.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Anger and Karma

As this was raised over on Aerial Pork, and what I wanted to say in response was really more than is polite to leave in someone's comment section, I want to write today about the precept on not being angry, and if I have time dip a little bit into karma.

When I was growing up, anger was one of those things I denied so strongly that for the first two decades of my life I claimed to friends that I didn't get angry. At all. Ever.

Mr. Placid, cool and unruffled. Even-keeled.

Anger was scary, I'd seen it enough to know "that's not me, no way" which of course meant I had driven it so deep underground that it came out in a leaky pressure cooker fashion, teeth grinding away... When you say someone is out of touch with their emotions, well in this case my Anger and I hadn't ever even talked.

By my mid-twenties, I did finally realize that my lack of awareness around anger was -- far from being an admirable quality -- actually gumming up my emotional works pretty badly.

As I started paying attention to anger, I measured my progress in the following fashion: I would say to my then new bride: "You remember that thing you said two weeks ago?"

"Yeah," she'd say. "What about it?"

"Well, that really made me angry."

"It took you two weeks to figure out that made you angry?"

"Yes." I'd say, studiously not getting angry at her reaction.

So I would actually keep track of how many days less than two weeks it took me to realize I was angry. And that meant progress. It became a running joke. After a while I was down to two days. Then it was only a few minutes. Now, thank goodness, I pretty much feel the anger as it arises. And I can work to transform it.

During that time when I was just beginning a daily practice, but still had no handle on anger, I had systematically renounced the majority of my usual coping strategies. Without those filters, barrierrs and crutches I began realizing that not only did I get angry, I was angry almost all the time. I was a constantly simmering cauldron of judgements, in true perfectionist fashion always dissatisfied with how little my own actions and those of the people around me -- and reality in general -- met my admittedly rediculous expectations.

What I found really helpful to do, because this recognition scared me, was to work with Pema Chodron's "meditate on whatever provokes resentment."

Tracing each resentment back to its source meant discovering everything from simple fatigue, to those myriad judgements, but also to fear, simple emotional needs, expectations, assumptions and my self-imposed silence about all of those. Recognizing how self-generated most of it is.

Raising our first infant child, we were cranky, bone-tired, cross-eyed and stupid with lack of sleep -- resentments and anger flared at the smallest things. This practice was essential during that time. And it might seem ludicrous, but as I would sit down at night on my cushion for just a few moments of peace, the cat would come around and I'd think "Oh great, how long is this going to take before he settles down? I'm trying to meditate here!!" I'd aim all the resentment of the entire day at this cat, who, being a cat, let it roll off completely. It was disarming. After a while I just let being present with the cat be the practice, until he settled down.

That's all nice and pat, but there's another level which I call Meeting your Inner Murderer. Buddhism isn't just about recognizing that everyone including you was once somebody's good little baby, it's also recognizing that everyone including you has also wanted to maim, murder and otherwise ruin the credit rating of your boss, your best friend, and that jerk who just cut you off in traffic.

Recognizing that every single person you walk by on the street is a great deal of the time also almost drowning in their own sea of anger and resentment, it sets you back. Helps build compassion for them. But even this didn't help me feel anything but resentment at my own anger and resentment. Anger was still Other and Unwanted. So whenever I recognized anger the plan was still transform it by god as quickly as possible into snowflakes or baby ducks or whatever it took so long as I wasn't angry any more. I was still missing the mark here.

And I'd like to say this all happened in sequence but the fact is after so long it is kind of mushy what the order was, but in the middle of grappling with the precepts and trying to get a handle on my anger I ran into this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness, for it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it -- simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things they are transformed. When you are aware that you are angry, your anger is transformed. If you destroy your anger, you destroy the Buddha, for Buddha and Mara are of the same essence. Mindfully dealing with anger is like taking the hand of a little brother.
Oh snap. I really, really didn't want to make friends with my anger. Fine to process it like outgoing toxic waste, but to treat it like taking the hand of a little brother...but that's the practice. And I'm so glad to be reminded of it.

Getting back to meeting your Inner Murderer, TNH in his Old Path, White Clouds tells the story of Angulimala the serial killer who converts after meeting the Buddha. One of the things that has always given me great comfort when thinking about all my ancient twisted karma is that if this guy could just STOP, drop his old ways, and become an Arhant, then there has to be hope for any of us. Which is...probably the point of that parable. But nobody taught it to me like that, I just ran into it reading Old Path one day and it hit me like a thunderbolt.
Bodhidharma said: "Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous. In the Dharma of the No-Self, not postulating a self is called the precept of refraining from anger."
No self, no problem.

Open to all beings and myself
with unrealized anger
eyebrows contract, vision blurs
we strike out blindly.
With realized anger
our foreheads touch
and even with closed eyes we see.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

For Pigasus

This has been sitting in a corner of my in-law's house for years. Was over there this weekend, and as I walked past it, I had a sudden moment of delight.  Like a surprise visit by a new friend.

Peace in Action

I recently signed up for Tricycle magazine's daily email.  It has only been a few weeks, but already several times I've found their wisdom snippets striking close to home.

This one was from a 1992 interview with Thailand's Sulak Sivaraksa. Just an excerpt:
In America and Europe, everyone is very active. But if you become too active, you lose the essence of Buddhism. You only have the Buddhist labels. One must cultivate peace to be compassionate. Without this, what you do, even as an 'engaged Buddhist' is just a lot of activity with no good purpose.

 For those of us who take right livelihood all the way over to the do-gooder extreme, it's hard not to take -- if not pride, at least solace -- in the feeling that no matter how badly one may be screwing up in any other realms of life, at least I got this part right.

And then this very difficult pill to swallow, that anything done to extremes is still life out of balance, and thus not really right livelihood. If it harms you, your family by extension, and those you seek to serve.

I read How Can I Help? by Ram Dass probably three times in my early career, trying to push the very separate circles in the Venn Diagram Of My Life into closer congruence.  A life of service called and who was I not to answer?

When I ran into Bernie Glassman's Instructions to the Cook, I had to sit down in the middle of the bookstore aisle, the sense of recognition and resonance was so strong. The Supreme Meal. Hungry Ghosts feeding each other. Social action, social enterprise, Bearing Witness, engaged Buddhism. Sign me up!

But that sneaky Protestant work ethic, "just do your best, honey" messages, and thorough training in perfectionism ... well what exactly is "our best" and what is the point past which it is actually unhealthy to throw energy even in an unassailably good direction?

What Sivaraksa points out is that if we don't embody peace then we may actually be doing damage as we seek to do good.

Upon reflection I see that after a few relatively solid years I reached the point where I approached my work as work. Fulfilling certainly, but I had dropped my practice more than a decade ago, and my efforts to lead a life of service eventually had no foundation.

Something to sit with.

And the cosmic ha ha here, having scanned the top bookshelf and opened the Ram Dass book again tonight, flipping through the sections I had dog-eared... the second to last chapter is titled: Burnout.  Guess I'll just be re-reading that one later tonight.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Robinson Jeffers: Natural Music

Robinson Jeffers:

Natural Music

The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks)
From different throats intone one language.
So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child's; or like some girl's breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Keeping a Sense of Humor

The first thing to go out the door when things get tough is our sense of humor.

I'm not talking about sarcasm, which even if it is termed a refuge of the weak was and continues to be a high art in my family. The thing about sarcasm is that you can rarely fit it into that precept called right speech. Because of its biting quality, I'm hard pressed to see how it builds anything up. At best it can be used as a signal of commiseration, affirming that yes indeed it is cold and dark here in the cruel world, and us without coats.

Our family is also great with the gallows humor; we are really something at funerals. Full spectrum from the macabre to the double entendre.  It passes the time, and insulates from tears and earnestness, but it is not in any sense healing.

The sense of humor I mean is something that buoys us up, which is why its so curious that we don't pay more attention to it as an important coping tool. What could be a practice to help us recognize in the moment that while our situation may not be funny haha humorous, our sense of humor can help us keep some honest perspective?

So in that sense, the quality of of humor I am trying to zero in on feels related to equanimity.

When things get ugly, right away we get entangled in the upset, the storyline, and if we're really on top of our game, problem solving. Some of us actually skip directly to the problem solving in order to avoid being present with the source of suffering. I'll be the first to raise my hand on that one.  Here it is -- suffering hits: BAM! -- and I have no idea where to find my sense of humor at that moment. I know, let's work it like a business problem!

Lama Anagarika Govinda is said to have passed away laughing, so I pay attention when he says something about the Buddha and humor, from his Way of the White Clouds:
The Buddha's sense of humor -- which is so evident in many of his discourses -- is closely bound up with his sense of compassion: both are born from an understanding of greater connections, from an insight into the interrelatedness of all things and all living beings and the chain reactions of cause and effect. His smile is the expression of one who can see the 'wondrous play of ignorance and knowledge' against its universal background and its deeper meaning.
Only thus is it possible not to be overpowered by the misery of the world or by our own sense of righteousness that judges and condemns what is not in accordance with our own understanding and divides the world into good and bad. A man with a sense of humor cannot but be compassionate in his heart, because his sense of proportion allows him to see things in their proper perspective.
Breaking this down, we have elements of compassion, understanding of interdependence, non-judging, emptiness and then he winds us up right back at compassion and perspective.

Bernie Glassman for several years was working with his Order of Disorder, walking around with a red nose. Their precepts certainly seem like they're on to something, including an admonition to drop your fears and be one with Disorder. Their vision statement is literally illegible, which is, you know, really funny. I get the rationale, but I'm not quite ready to go over to the absurdist camp.

How about you, any strategies help you keep your sense of humor when things get rough?

Raymond Carver's Epitaph

Raymond Carver
"Late Fragment"

And did you get what
You wanted from this life even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Regret and Self-Blame in Healing

Feeling terrible at the moment, having eaten something with a higher glycemic index than I apparently should have.

A string of a few good days after so many tough weeks, and amnesia already was setting in about the tightrope those of us in adrenal recovery must walk. Managing energy output, being careful to eat more often, and eating high protein, low carb, no sugar, etc. I've been refining my weekday regime and Thursday / Friday were two of my best in a few months.

Weekend broke the routine.

I ate too late in the morning, and not enough. Then I waited too long to eat lunch. Grabbed the most portable thing I could think of ... Avocado sushi roll. Harmless, right? Ate it in the car. Home by 1pm and ate a giant salad with egg, chick peas, peas, celery, beets... But that only lasted me until 4. By 4:30 I knew I needed to eat again, so I made a bowl of leftover lentils and rice. Too many carbs in a row. Adrenals not happy, and though I tried to follow up with some grilled chicken, the horse was already out of the barn. I'm left with that jangly, hyperglycemia feeling that I know will shortly be followed by the hypo version.

All of this is just context. On to the regrets.

As I've mentioned it has taken twelve years, possibly even the choices of the last thirty years to get here. The difference to me between this situation and something viral or genetic is that I can draw a clear line from many choices right to the front door of adrenal burnout. So I've found it unavoidable not to catalog, enumerate in detail those choices, reexamine them, second guess them, and generally stew.

I've been present with regret during sitting practice. I've breathed into it, and breathed out metta (loving kindness, self forgiveness). Late at night I have labelled thoughts of regret and watched them arise, dissipate, only to arise once more. Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them. But nobody said it would be easy. Doing my level best not to allow regret to mature into self-blame, and finding that difficult as well. 

The fact is I've only become aware of this as a condition, with potential remedies, in the last two months. Since then I've made some pretty drastic behavioral and diet changes, seen some great progress, and have a long term plan for recovery. I recognize that every erg of energy wasted on regret is something I can't put towards recovery.

But as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, we live in a culture where anything but the manic exuberance of youth, or the caffeinated accomplishment-driven adult equivalent has the odor of failure about it. So you feel even more badly about feeling terrible.

All of that is also just context. On to the healing.

Taking another page from Maria at Restco's playbook, I just want to encourage anyone who is struggling in the same unmapped territory to take a deep breath, or several, and know you are not going through it alone. This issue is endemic and largely masked by coping strategies from the obviously bad (caffeine, alcohol) to those as seemingly healthful as overwork, working out too much at the gym, and shoring up flagging energy with fruit and juices. All of which just dig our adrenals further into a hole.

There is a prescription, and it is long term, amounting to changing our way of being in the world, while also rebuilding the nutritional foundation of our bodies. And it starts with rest.  Pema Chodron says "The only thing that exists is the continual opportunity to either open up to what's happening, or shut down." Time to open up and be present.

Paraphrasing here, and aware of the gentle irony:

Recovery is difficult. Rest with great diligence.