Groundlessness and the Cultivation of Courage

I return here, unsure of how to proceed. Writing this blog has always been an exercise in being present, but distant. I’ve written from wherever I’m at, but writing itself, putting life in words, is an exercise in putting emotions at arm’s length. My family is having its worst best year and it will carry on into next year and perhaps, beyond. This is unfamiliar territory, this landscape of worst fears. My anxieties have always nibbled at the edges, but now they are front and center.

canstockphoto8606963.jpgAs I’ve written in previous posts, my teenage daughter has been seriously ill. After two major surgeries this year, we are now moving into the chemotherapy stage. I don’t want this blog to become a recitation of medical victories and setbacks, but now I understand why people write them. It becomes your life. How is it possible to write about anything else? In fact, how is it possible to do anything in the midst of this? I’ve been unable to focus enough to read, to really write much, to do anything but read dense medical articles and try my best not to be steamrolled by what if, what if. It’s funny that the what ifs never include positive outcomes. How very me.

Perhaps life would be easier if I believed in higher mechanics at work. But the pain of seeing my bright, beautiful girl struggle makes it better that I don’t. The rage and bitterness would consume me. I’d rail at the sky gods and pulpit liars. I’d be unforgiving. Thoughts and prayers indeed.

I’ve always been drawn to the tenets of Buddhism and Stoicism, lightly adhering to the idea that what is here is it. What is now is now. Never have your life philosophy tested. You will discover a derelict home and how little you’ve done to maintain it. You’ll find there are foundations of styrofoam and duct tape, leaky pipes, and an overabundance of distractions/fixes that no longer do the job. You’ll slap up a foreclosure sign and walk away. Time to start over.

Yesterday I read a chapter in Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for canstockphoto3326225Difficult Times and it hit me – nothing I was accustomed to doing for comfort/distraction/numbing in my life was working anymore. I was suddenly and sharply aware of a nightmare I have of falling off a cliff, before I jerk awake in a sweat. The sense that all that was before and all that would come after no longer mattered. But there is no waking up, no relief to discover I’d just fallen asleep on my arm, drooled on my pillow. I’m awake and groundless at this very moment.

I grew up in poverty, plagued by its cohorts alcoholism and domestic violence. I struggled to put myself through college by serving in the Army for four years. I quit smoking. I overcame years of dysfunctional relationships to meet and marry a wonderfully kind and smart man. I went through a dangerous labor and delivery to introduce my daughter to the world. I trained in martial arts in my 40s – bruised and injured sparring with behemoth 18-year-olds. But nothing, nothing in my life is as hard as this moment right now.

How does a person live in this space? I’ve asked friends who have had similar life experiences. How did you do it? The blank look on their faces said it all. They just did what they needed to do. I wrote in my last post about the exercise of stating exactly what one is doing to bring the current moment into focus. That little trick stopped working a few days ago when I found myself mentally shrieking Woman folding clothes while trying to fend off another round of laundry room sobbing. It started to seem more like a defense against thinking unpleasant thoughts.

canstockphoto8192278There is, at the heart of all this contemplation, a concrete reason to keep learning how to work with my own mind – I will be a better person, a better parent, a better partner if I can live well with uncertainty. My thinking brain is a construction site – all activity and planning and loud machinery. It does not provide solace. It does not expand compassion. It does not cultivate courage.

So I’m learning all over again – how to meditate, how to silence the raucous noise, how to sit still. This insistence is also an insistence to be courageous – to recognize I have no control, no soothsaying powers, no magic remedies. To face that no amount of chocolate or bingewatching or reading or writing or housecleaning will distract from the sharp edges of my life.

I re-read this post and thought well, this certainly sounds like you’re making things canstockphoto11582099about you, you narcissistic twat. To write about my daughter at this point would invade her privacy and likely shred me. She is who I want to be if I ever grow up – self-possessed, funny, and honest. I take so many of my cues now from her. Still, it’s not on her to make me a better person. I have to do the work. I have to practice. I have to be mid-air, still able to breathe, still able to comfort, still able to laugh. I’ve been in flight, trying not to notice the lack of a parachute or wings. The trick is to not look down.

Sources that Have Been Helpful to Me:

Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy by Bruce Tift

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard

The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness by Jonas Salzberger

38 Comments on “Groundlessness and the Cultivation of Courage

  1. One day at a time. There is no such thing as narcissism now…you are doing what you need to give yourself strength to get through another day. There is no book on how each person individually should act given your situation…only some guidelines here and there. Just do what you need to to get to tomorrow

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michelle! This hurts my heart! Please know that if you need to talk I’m only a phonecall away. I’ll Skype you my number. Of course you have people who are much closer to you … But sometimes it’s easier to scream out to someone who isn’t personally involved. If that will help you, I’m available. I haven’t been through what you’re facing … but my beautiful, bright Girl Child made a bunch of choices when she was a teenager that we really thought she might not survive. So I do know about the dread of intolerable loss, and I’m ready to stand with you if that will help.

    I will also pray – not “thoughts and prayers” but real, committed prayer. I am a believer, a Christian, although I don’t believe in a Santa Clause God or a puppeteer God … And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

    Lastly, my opinion? This is your blog. It’s your place for talking about you, your pain, your joy. That’s not narcissism, it’s reality. When the Hubbit has gone through his various misfortunes I’ve found it a great comfort to write about them from my perspective, as something that’s happening to me. So please don’t beat yourself up. Yes, your daughter is central to this story and to every breath you take right now. We get it. But this is also happening to you, and it’s okay, I think it’s good and healthy, to acknowledge that and let it spill over. This is a safe place. People here care about you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you. I realized that I either write about it or go silent. There seems to be no in-between right now. I remember some of your posts in regards to your daughter. I’ve realized that I have to maintain and cultivate my connections, friendships, and outside activities (writing being key). It would be an intolerable life for both she and I if I constantly focused on her. Pursuits and people won’t be in the same amounts of time or intensity, but enough to keep me connected. She does not want to be defined by her medical status and I guess, neither do I.
      But that being said, today is a good day. And I’m going to appreciate it.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Sometimes, mindfulness is used to push away difficult emotions, and they bubble up even stronger. When you can, perhaps let yourself grieve, and wrap yourself in compassion from yourself and others. There is no shame in hysterically crying.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Friend Michelle, I felt your words so deeply that I must say friend.
    My childhood is an echo of yours. I also came close to losing my daughter not long ago, in a sudden illness. Though I will not compare the suffering, I will say it is familiar.
    Buddhism has been my source of guidance and joy in my life for over 20 years. What I have learned, what I hold closest from the teachings, is a sense of allowing in this very moment. This includes the depth of sorrow that arises right now, but I must hold it with the same deep compassion for myself that I easily give my child.
    I take the small backward step and embrace this ‘me’, this small suffering creature as well.
    I also feel that our biology requires weeping at times. I recamend taking a shower and weeping until you are ready to move forward again. Warm water is consoling and tidies me up.🙂
    I hold you in my heart and wish you ease.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your comment reminds me of the differentiation between suffering and pain. The pain is the here and now and today we’re having a good day, relatively little pain. The suffering comes with my monkey mind as it time travels back and forth to what was (a life unhindered by medical crisis) and what will be (my scariest fears). It is this that I’ve been meditating on lately. How much we make ourselves suffer. I am at the point of giving myself compassion for being that person – one who cannot stop inflicting painful thoughts on herself. I don’t know if I’ll evolve beyond that. Exhaustion is a factor.

      As I mentioned to a commenter above, there has been a decent amount of crying – and you’re absolutely right about the shower. I walk the fine line between expressing emotion and being a strong guide for my daughter. Discretion sometimes is the better part of valor.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Good teacher Joseph kornfield reminds us that pain is unavoidable but suffering is optional. It still takes skillful practice to navigate that path.
        Sending even more love in the electrons.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m going to hang on to the concept: “Flying without Wings.” It sounds like an excellent title for a million-dollar self-help book. I hope it is okay if I keep mining your works for more nuggets of wisdom to liberate and misuse for profit. You are probably not in a place to appreciate my sense of humor, admittedly, but maybe someday, we can look back on this time and, if not laugh, be grateful it is behind us and we are both in better places.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Keeping a sense of humor is tantamount to embracing life, I think. I was tempted to do lots of pictures of dodo birds, since there is so much metaphor to be found in them. I got pulled down a rabbit hole reading about flightless birds and decided that the only dodo there was me, procrastinating.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh Michelle. My heart aches for you. Be kind to yourself. It’s okay to cry and scream and share your feelings and fears. You can’t keep them bottled up inside. it’s good that you have this outlet. You and your family are always in my thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. How does it feel to you to know that everything just continues aware to what some people have called consciousness, but not understood about completely. People continue at the place of their aware contemplation (writing is a way of seeing this chemistry). People continue in areas related to what they can understand and agree to about what is always happening. When you are aware with always circumstances you continue to be related to all that has been good and appreciated, seeing and experiencing with people and with other areas of life, when it is interesting. There is something chemotherapy can always do at a whole conduction of chemistry…provide liquid ambition and not hatred. There is something always happening relating people together according to interest span. Take your time with everything. There is something being taken care of to provide you together with what is always known at the experience that is always home.

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  8. Not remotely narcissistic, just clear, honest, raw, human.
    I think one day we’ll all learn to fly without wings. This post reminds me that at any moment my safe comfortable world could fall apart, and that’s when the spiritual rubber hits the road. May you walk it with all the courage you can muster. I wish you and your family well Michelle.
    Alison

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    • Thanks, Alison. Dragging myself back here to write, since I know that’s one path of meditation for me. It feels like there is no such thing as “safe”. Every scan and test over the last year has shown me that. It is an extreme paradigm shift for me – the planner, the control freak, to finally realize that no amount of organizing or planning will protect me or my family. That being said, it still makes the here and now a little easier to bear. And I think we can surprise ourselves when we have to work without a net – resiliency is an amazing gift, but one rarely recognizes it until a crisis has passed.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Holding you and your family, Michelle. No idea what I could possibly say or do that would be helpful, except that if I were you, just having my words acknowledged and receiving wishes of peace and love would soothe me a little. So I wish you whatever is most helpful.

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    • Thanks, Cathy. We’ve been very fortunate in many ways and I try to remember that. You’ve often written about doctors and compassion and I have to tell you, our care team has been fantastic. Because of the rarity of my daughter’s condition, we have to work closely to figure out what will work. It really feels like a group effort – which is exactly the kind of people you want when your child is sick.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh I’m so glad. It really should be a team effort in all cases these days… Your team makes me proud of my profession. Still holding you and yours in light. ❤️

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  10. Your list of helpful sources indicates you’ve chosen wisely as you walk through this difficulty. It was Pema Chodron who introduced me to this verse from Rilke:
    Let everything happen to you
    beauty and terror
    just keep going
    no feeling is final

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  11. My dearest Michelle, My heart is with you. I have begun a beautiful study with a rabbi in my area that has helped me incorporate my ideas of prayer and seeking help and just becoming the student again in my walk in this life. WE should never stop learning. I am glad you are sharing of your journey and your family. Much luv, Alesia

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    • Thank you, Alesia. I know you’ve had your own parenting challenges for many years and that you’ve been a fierce advocate for your son. I’m learning how to be that for my daughter now, as we wend our way through this medical crisis. As it is referred to in the Buddhist world, I’m learning once again to have a “beginner’s mind” – open, curious, intent on learning.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Hoping you are doing well today.
    I have just began to practice from Ani Trime’s little book of affirmations. It appealed to me on several levels: she was a tough motorcycle gal who ended up taking ordination and teaching in Princeton NJ until her death at 88, she teaches simple positive re-wiring of the brain, and she gives you a year of tough yet clear and gentle weekly lines to practice (52!)
    I thought of you.
    Sending love, Kiora

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  13. Just stumbled across your blog and think it’s wonderful that you’re so open about your situation. We’re in different places in life, but a lot of your language and self-talk resonated with me. I look forward to following your future posts. Stay strong, there are many who support you.

    Like

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