Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The race of life

I have one complaint agast Aesop:
he concentrates on the hare
and the tortoise,
on their differing personalities
but gives no indication
of how long the journey will take.
We do not know how often
the tortoise draws level,
only to find the hare has woken up
and sprinted off once again.

So think of me, lumbering
under that great weight of shell,
towards an elusive finishing line.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Crying Wolf

This M.S dying is a long process. It’s not meant to be a terminal illness, but, as a consummate thief, it steals to good purpose. Four and a half years ago, my doctor warned me that my intercostals (ribcage) muscles were collapsing which would mean I couldn’t cough and any chest infection would cause pneumonia. He is somewhat amazed as the pneumonia has proved elusive.

However, collapsed muscles bring about another result. They are curving me dramatically and the compression is having a disastrous effect on my digestive processes. So much so, that my doctor informed me last week that the end result could be a blocked bowel.

A couple of years ago, spurred on by a friend, I had reluctantly asked my doctor about a colostomy. Quick as a wink, he had said I wouldn’t survive the operation. So that remedy is out of the question.

Choking is one of the dying options for M.S patients. I have tried it and don’t enjoy it very much. I have also, at the time of the compression fracture, tried a blocked bowel and didn’t enjoy that much either. The last time I had pneumonia was about 70 years ago and I still pulled through despite limited medication in those days. It’s beginning to look as though all options are unlikely or unpleasant.

If any of you have been kind enough to put in a good word to the Almighty to help keep the pneumonia at bay, I would ask you to slacken off a little. My doctor had said that he hoped the chest infection would come before the blocked bowel, so maybe you could have a hand in helping me to it.

All of this looks as if it going to take a long time. Almost 40 years of vegetarianism and yoga and a very good genetic background make it likely that I will live to a ripe old age. In fact, I will probably see most of you out.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

More thoughts

I have been thinking back in order to discover the ways in which the yoga/meditation/mindfulness have benefited my life.

It all starts back in 1985, the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth and so a year full of music, but otherwise, a devastating year. It started with the M.S coming out of remission and entering the secondary progressive stage where it just dwindles little by little. In April, I was rushed into hospital one evening (I would like to say at midnight, or the wee small hours but actually it was about 9.30pm) with an undiagnosed stomach ulcer. Then, in September Paul started the malignant course of liver failure which led to his death at the end of October.

But it’s the stomach ulcer time I am talking about now. Before they worked out what was really the matter with me, they gave me pethedine which made me float above the pain and revealed to me that pain killers don’t take the pain away; they shift your awareness in relation to the pain, so you perceive it differently and, no doubt, perceive other things in the world differently. I decided that if all it was going to do was make me float above the pain I would use my yoga, meditation, yoga breathing skills to do that myself. At that stage, I didn’t have the massive M.S discomfort/pain that I have to deal with now. M.S is variable and I have been granted the condition of allodynia, which means an indivisible pain that can obviously not be measured. The word is not in my dictionary but I suspect it is the opposite of anodyne: rasping versus smooth and emollient.

What I have to do is a reverse of Brueghel paintings where in the foreground there is, for example, the flailing of St. Anthony and in the background it is tranquil with there is someone skating and someone climbing a tree. I have to do it the opposite way with the turmoil in the background and the tranquility – birds at the feeder, light on the walnut tree, interaction with friends, what ever I am thinking about or reading and the music I am listening to – in the foreground.

This is how I manage not to take M.S pain killers during the day. As I cannot change position at night I do have to give in and take something to help me sleep but during the day my mind is clear and watching, the Buddhist mindfulness put to another use.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Further meditation thoughts

It’s not meditation that I am mocking, but rather all the ballyhoo that surrounds it. I have been meditating for years and really value its effectiveness.

In 1968, I was in London; there was all the hype about The Beatles and Maharishi. I wanted to start meditating and so I followed the Transcendental Meditation technique and decided to give it a one year shot before taking stock, by which time of course, I was hooked.

I was given a three syllable mantra which, it was suggested, was suitable for the person I was. Despite Paul’s coaxing, I have never shared it with anyone or said it out loud so I cannot vouch for its suitability.

Meditation, it is claimed, is about emptying the mind.

Here are some of my experiences: when I first closed my eyes and started on the mantra, I mostly felt as if I had dived deeply inwards. I have no idea how long this feeling lasted because in that state you have no idea of time. When I returned to the surface, it was as if I was in the middle of a small pool and crowded around the edges were banal housekeeping-type thoughts, like “Did I write balsamic vinegar on the shopping list?” or “Is my library book due back yet?”; soap opera-thoughts: fabrications about what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow and whether he meant that when he said it or whether he meant something else and what I should have said back (played over and over again) and why she hadn’t been in touch.

My uninvited guest
chatters endlessly,
constructing fantasies
of rejection and denial
on no more evidence
than an empty mail box
and a silent phone.

Later my extreme M.S sensory discomfort was added to all these thoughts and together they absorbed more and more of the pool until I was standing on dry land once more and the process had to begin again.

Another way meditation worked was that the three syllables would extend so that all I was thinking was, particularly, the final syllable. Despite this rigmarole there were good results. I had always been trying to change my husband for the better, but the meditation changed me, which changed the mix and things between us did improve.

About 18 months after I started meditating, I got involved with Iyengar yoga. Iyengar devotees thought Maharishi looked like a used car salesman and Maharishi followers thought Iyengar yoga was too vigorous so I kept my own counsel. Maharishi had been surprised that, in the West, meditation had produced slower results so he had recommended simple yoga which I had dutifully practised. But, once I started Iyengar yoga I found there was a great difference between putting my head on my knee by bending forward from the shoulder blades and lying along my knee so that I was bending from the hips. (Once, at one Iyengar weekend seminar I could even kiss my ankle bone.) This ability to bend from the hips still stands me in good stead when I need to be brought forward in the wheelchair.

Yoga requires a great deal of watching. Question: how am I standing, with the weight on the ball or on the heel? Have I locked my knees or my elbows enough? Have I dug in between my shoulder blades and relaxed the back of my neck and amoungst “all these multitudinous instructions, don’t forget to breathe”. All these questions had to be answered simultaneously; this led to the practice of what the Buddha mindfulness. Eventually, I was applying the same mindfulness to my meditation and watching the strange performance that went on in my head. Somehow I was outside all the activity, not judging, merely observing. That meant I could never say: “I don’t know what got into me”, because I always did and had to take responsibility for it. Apart from a short spell when I was doing more intensive yoga and not meditating, I have meditated for more than 40 years.

But in September 2008 I suffered a spinal compression fracture and my meditation ground to a halt. I no longer had the initial diving downwards sensation, but I am discovering that I am still practising the mindfulness. As an example, here is what happened one morning: counterpointed on the M.S pain/discomfort there was a monarch caterpillar transforming itself into a J. The room was numinous. At this point a neighbour who suffers from severe brain damage after a bicycle accient turned up. She needed to unload a whole succession of stories about some street kids she had recently encountered. Each of her stories brought associations into my mind from other stories I had heard or from literature particularly Dickens or Dostoevsky. Throughout all this my mind was still registering the light on the walnut tree and the bird feeder. My mind was abuzz. In visual terms, my mind contained innumerable circles with tangents attaching them to still more circles.

In no way could I claim I was emptying my mind. Rather, it would be true to say my mind consisted of layer after layer of activity. So you can see I am not knocking meditation but would you actually say I was achieving meditation?

I know that many schools of thought recommend that we “let go” our emotions as they are the cause of mental pain. I always feel such techniques border too closely on denial or suppression. I prefer to go deeply into an emotion so I can transform it. My way of meditating helps me to achieve this.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


If a succession of full stops
constitutes a straight line,
then I am meditating.
But the function of the mind is to think.
Concept formation is important
for the human race. I have watched
a toddler who had learnt that an animal
with four legs and a tail was a dog,
greet my cat with a triumphant
woof woof. I have known of an old woman
whose concepts were unraveling
present milk tokens at the shop
and placed them in her teapot.
Despite this, we believe that an empty mind
furthers our spiritual development.
We focus on our breathing, a mantra
or a candle flame. I have tried
listening to a familiar
and well loved piece of music:
the Kyrie from the B Minor Mass
but do not succeed.
The empty part of my mind is squeezed
by thoughts such as: ‘ I am not thinking’,
or taxonomic statements like
‘ this is a wax eye’, ‘a green finch’,
‘I have cold feet’, ‘I need a drink’.
My illness requires me to concentrate
on the smallest action or I cannot do it.
I concentrate only in snippets;
I meditate staccato.