Sunday, April 1, 2012

Parable of The Cherry Tree

To better understand Transcendental Generosity, consider the wisdom of the cherry tree. The cherry tree is one of the most beautiful and generous trees. In the winter, when her limbs are bare, she does not envy the pine trees their luscious green jackets. She does not rush to adorn herself. She waits; patiently, as the suns rays warm her; patiently, as the rain water nourishes; patiently, as her roots stretch into the earth. She takes her season of cold hibernation in stride and waits. She draws on the elements filling her self with sweetness and strength. She holds her potential within. And then, when the first touch of spring blows through the air, she is ready. She is eager and rested. Her buds are the first to appear and soon she is bursting with delicate white blossoms. She is radiant. But she does not guard her adornments jealously. She does not grasp at them and tell the world that they are for her and her alone. She does not hide them away in fear that others will think they are not beautiful, or that they will think them so beautiful they will steal them away. The gifts are simply a part her. She makes herself ready to give her gifts, should anyone be there to receive them. She is full of joy and vibrant delicacy. She is resplendent in her springtime glory, each sweetly scented blossom bright, delicate and full of life. When the wind blows gently passed her, she allows her petals to go with him. They dance, fluttering, to the ground and the whole world is struck with the beauty. Petals in the grass. Petals in the wind. Petals in the sunlight. Petals in the garden. Petals fall as though every moment is a celebration of some sacred magic. It is a gift to behold, if you are witness. And the gift is the generosity of the cherry tree. She is the source of this joy, which not so long ago was pulsing through her sap, waiting to be manifest.

As if this moment of spring-time bliss is not enough of a blessing, she ripens into summer with yet another gift; the sweet dark cherries that begin to appear on her branches. She fills them with life and makes them abundant. As they ripen, they sweeten, they plump, and then they fall to the ground and become the food to feed the birds and the insects and the squirrels and the people. And never does the cherry tree ask “What will you give to me, if I give you my gift?” Her gift is not an exchange, it is simply a manifestation of her nature. A question we all might consider is “What is my nature and what does it manifest in the world?” When we have answered this, we can begin to better understand why our lives produce the results they produce. If our nature is harsh and demanding we may constantly see people shying away from us. If our nature is gentle and soft, we may find that some will delight in this and love us for it, or that others will see it as a weakness and exploit it. If we are generous with who we are, like the cherry tree, sharing freely, expressing our gifts and making ready for those who would like to share in them, we can find ourselves drawing in just the right people to appreciate who we are. Suddenly life is much easier. We are understood in new ways. We are appreciated in new ways. We are loved in new ways. When we understand that everyone has some basic goodness in them, life becomes a matter of learning to patiently nourish that basic goodness - like the cherry tree in winter - until the conditions are right for them to spring forth. A question we might all consider is “What gifts do I have to give freely and how can I nourish those gifts?”

When we begin to see life as an opportunity to give our gifts to others, we   find that suddenly life is full of joy. For there are many ways to give. There are many ways to share. And we find that giving and sharing are incredibly meaningful experiences which add exponentially to feelings of general well-being.

And then what used to be a chore, like washing the dishes, is suddenly an opportunity to give to someone you love. It is an opportunity to make your space more harmonious. It is an opportunity to give someone else a rest from cleaning. And suddenly it is a joy. There is no other way to put it.

Or perhaps it could be put as in a saying I once heard “Service is love made visible.” When I began to use service as a way to make my love visible, it became incredibly rewarding.

To me, the cherry tree makes her love for the world visible in displaying her own nature. In bringing forth her own gifts she manifests love. And this is something we all could do. Anytime. All the time. The opportunities are endless. You just have to be ready to share.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Day in The Life of GAD. Part 1. Waking up.

I wake up in the morning feeling anxious of the day. I am exhausted. My rest was long but unsatisfying. I am too hot or too cold. My throat hurts. I recall a few uncomfortable and depressing dreams. I want to slip back into sleep but not into dreaming. So, I try to clear my mind. It doesn’t work. I lay in bed for another ten minutes hoping I will simply fall back asleep. My mind races. I won’t be falling back into rest. I begin to peer up from the pillow. If I cannot fall back to sleep, I will have to start getting up. I experience dread. But, to be fair, it is never really clear what I am dreading. My laptop sits next to me on my bedside table. The inbox where stressful emails reside calls to me. What new missive will send me spiraling into a sick day? My cellphone gleams at me maniacally. “I have new missed calls!” It proudly announces. “Eight of them. Come check me!”

I sit up and pull my laptop closer. I open the email program and let my eyes skim rapidly over the “from” column. The dread begins to lift. Nothing looks too stressful. I delete the junk mail, skim the rest and sigh. There is nothing to add to my plate today. Good. But there is the phone. And I haven’t checked it.

Missed calls from creditors. I delete them before listening. I know that I can’t pay the bill. I have no income right now.

What else? I wonder. I don’t want to get up out of bed to start the day. It always feels like a timer starts when toes hit the ground. I only have so much time before I start feeling really sick. Usually I have a few hours after I wake up. On a really good day I can feel normal for five or six hours before it hits. On a normal day, I have two or three hours. I don’t want to start the timer. I want to make it to my 7pm meditation session, and that is many many hours away. I procrastinate. I fiddle with my computer. I reply to emails. I peruse my face-book feed. I write. And then I get hungry and finally, regretfully, I pull myself out of bed and start the daily task of foraging for food.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sick Again and Always

I’ve been sick for the last four or five days. My body is slowly readjusting to life; standing up, walking, eating and holding coherent conversations. I’m starting to feel the glimmering hope that I will be able to get work done soon. That’s when the nausea hits me again. Waves of pain radiate from my stomach, doubling me over in pain. I can’t tell if this is a relapse of the flu I just thought I kicked or if I’m just anxious. Let’s face it. Stomach pains like this are a part of my daily life and they have been for my entire life. 
When I was a toddler my mother started carrying homeopathic sugar pellets in her purse to sooth my little fits. In elementary school, I would get sick on every ride to and from school. In undergrad the stomach pains got so intense and constant that I underwent a battery of tests to see what was wrong. Ulcer? Parasite? The doctors said nothing was wrong with me. Something was. 
Everywhere I went, I would get intense stomach aches. It seemed like a normal part of life, and I just assumed that everyone else was better at sucking it up. 
One of the most difficult aspects of having an anxiety disorder is that you don’t look sick. 
You don’t even seem sick to most people. But you are. 
You can be perfectly fine one moment, and the next you are overcome with headaches, nausea and a strange sensation that I call “static brain” in which every perception seems to have been garbled and distorted before making it to your mind. You can’t think. You can’t act. And usually, you want to start crying. But let’s face it, you are in the middle of class, or trying to check out at the grocery store, or talking to someone you’d like to impress. 
Suddenly, its decision time, and you need to make a choice about how to proceed. But alas, your decision making abilities left with the rest of your mind when the stream of adrenaline, cortisol and god knows what other chemicals started pouring into your brain.  If only those same chemicals weren’t also urging you to action; something - now! 
For me, its usually a quick excuse that I don’t feel well and the nearest exit, but its not always easy. Well, it’s usually not easy. People want to know what’s up. It’s not easy to explain. I am suddenly very sick. I am weak and compromised. My mind is cloudy and full of static. All I want to do is curl up into a ball. But there are social obligations to meet. I want to be sure that everyone else is comfortable with my situation. I want to 
be happy for room. And I really don’t want to drag anyone else down because of my discomfort. I know it happens, and it weighs on me. 
I feel like the man in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” who woke up one morning as a giant bug. His family continued to feed and house him, but he could not communicate and he knew they were disgusted and afraid. The tale is meant to capture the horrifying feeling of being, without intent or action, a drain on those you love; someone who cannot pull their own weight; someone who is simply broken. When I am in the depths of an anxiety attack, I feel as though I have transformed as well. It is not my fault that I am suddenly a strange worthless creature - but I am. My abilities leave me and my tongue is tied. I must rely on the kindness of those around me.  
The salient possibilities of getting sick weigh on me. Every time a friend invites me out, or I need to spend the entire weekend at a conference where I will have no hope of escape, or when I need to teach and I worry that it will hit in the middle of lecture. Sometimes it does. And I have a room full of students staring at me, wondering why I suddenly started an awkward jolting speech pattern and dismissed class early. Sometimes, I just don’t go out to start with. There are so many looming possibilities. There is so much room for failure and embarrassment and a really painful bike ride home. 
The beautiful part is that when I do need to rely on the kindness of others - that kindness is there. Vulnerability is a hard lesson to learn, but it brings so many gifts. Sometimes I hide in my room and imagine I am transformed into a strange, useless creature. But sometimes I tell someone I’m sick and they help me and I find that it is not an unpleasant thing at all. I find that they are delighted to offer help and it is a chance for our connection to deepen. Sometimes I make plans and I have to cancel because of a sudden wave exhaustion. But it's OK. There is always a way out. And things go on. Realizing that has made life a lot less stressful and a lot more beautiful. It's just not always easy to remember. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ancient Solutions for Anxiety

In the Buddhist tradition, the first step on the path to enlightenment is recognizing that suffering is an unavoidable part of life. This is a lesson that I have had a hard time learning. We want to believe that we are one right step away from a life free from pain and insecurity. I do, at least. I remember reading about Buddhism as a student in undergrad. It sounded depressing. And maybe it is a depressing idea that life will always  have suffering. But maybe its also true. 

Learning about Buddhism for a second time, it hit me how very true it is that life is always drawing me back into the suffering, into what the Buddhists call the samsara.  

Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham describes samsara as the wheel that is endlessly spinning. It is a circle of illusion in which we are always being brought back to the same struggles and pains. We believe that life progresses in a line towards improvement but samsara is always bringing us back to the beginning again.

Mipham asks you to imagine that your mind is a bowl of water. Our thoughts are the steam rising off the top. To take the metaphor a step further, as the water heats, and the molecules speed up, more steam begins rise.

This is just how anxiety feels. A boiling mind that won’t slow down. You don’t want to be thinking about anything, but slowing the tide of worries and dissatisfactions seems like an impossibility. It always feels as if you are one change away from things being right, but you never seem to reach the imagined place of satisfaction and security. 

To free ourselves from anxiety, we must learn to slow down and stop the churning mind. You cannot will boiling water to stop producing steam. You must take it away from the heat. You must let it cool, settle, and release energy.

Similarly we cannot simply stop a mind in its tracks. We must take it off the heat. We must allow it to settle, to cool, to release energy. To do this, we must take our minds away from the activity and bustle of our everyday lives. While we will always get sucked back into the day to day suffering of samsara, we can allow ourselves a gap. A space where we needn’t pay attention to our thoughts because there is no urgent necessity pulling for action. This is the purpose of meditation. To create a gap. To take the pot off the stove and let heat vent. To remember that we can be still - even if its just for a moment.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Getting Older, Getting Happier

People like to complain about getting old. I’m 25 and all my friends have been doing it for ages. It started to really stick out at 20, when all my friends complained that they were leaving teenage-hood behind but where still woefully unable to buy alcohol. At 22 crises began to emerge that there were “no good birthdays left” and suddenly people stopped talking so much about age. It wasn’t really in good taste to keep counting.
People like to blame all kinds of things on age; bad memory; achey limbs; wandering into a room only to find you have no no idea why you went in there. If there is one thing that stands out as a universal truth of pop culture, it’s that nobody wants to get older.

Still -- psychologists report that people actually get happier with age. For me, this has been incredibly true.

The older I get, the better my life seems to get. I find myself with new skills and talents, I never thought I would possess. Practice suddenly makes sense as I can finally see the rewards of so many repeated iterations of the same task. I have gained information. I have gained wisdom. I have gained friends and networks.

The older I get, the more knowledgeable I become. This is true in my areas of research, but also in other areas of life, where I have finally lived long enough to meaningfully comment. I am better at making friends. I am better at taking care of myself. I am better at negotiating relationships.

In undergrad, I spent some time playing Dungeons and Dragons. In D&D, and similar role-playing games, characters level. As they act, fight, cast spells, and complete tasks they gain new abilities and increase in power. Games like this have been designed to reflect our ability to grow and improve - simply by striving for our goals. I use the leveling metaphor everywhere in life. When things get challenging and you have to push hard to keep going, remember that you are leveling. When the encounter has ended, and you are catching your breath, remember to check your experience points. They have probably gone up. While aging can be challenging, we shouldn’t ignore the perks, and getting happier, more skilled and more powerful is definitely a perk.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pursuing Happiness - Part 2 - I discover the dark secret hiding in my brain

It wasn’t until my junior year of undergrad that things got really scary. I had always been “high strung” and got sick easily but now I was stressed to the max and practically bed-ridden. I was getting sick all the time and in many different ways. I was always nauseous. No matter what I would eat, the stomach pains were always in the background. At the best there was mild discomfort and at the worst I was doubled over in pain, crying my eyes out. The doctors ran tests and nothing came up so they sent me back home with a box of prilosec. Then the chest pains started. My breathing was always labored. My chest heavy. One night I woke up with stabbing pains in my chest, radiating down my left arm. “Something is wrong with my heart” I thought “How can this be? I’m 20.” I checked the internet. It said that I was loosing precious seconds and should get to a hospital immediately to avoid permanent brain damage. My boyfriend at the time called 911. The line was busy. He hung up and called the campus EMT’s. They responded and we were rushed to the ER. Tests were inconclusive and I was sent back home.
Still, what really scared me were the mental symptoms. I remember walking through a grocery store one day and being suddenly overcome by the strangest sensation. My head began to throb and my vision blurred. Lights became overwhelming. Everything sounded like static. The whole world was suddenly crushing in. I was disoriented and confused. My teeth were numb. The task of picking out groceries was suddenly an impossibility. I made my way out of the store slowly and then sat in the car until my mental balance equalized. I spent the rest of the day nursing a migraine in bed. 

And that was my reality for a while. Every attempt I made to live my life was met with sudden unexplainable sickness. Every muscle in my body was painfully knotted and sore. Back-rubs were little help, giving momentary relief before my shoulders snapped back up to my ears. I was constantly missing class. I stopped spending time with friends. I was basically living in bed and occasionally making it out for food or class. I knew something had to change, but I didn’t know how to change it. The doctors hadn’t come up with anything, so  I started googling symptoms. Brain tumor? Heart problems? A strange parasite living in my stomach? I had no idea what might be causing my uncontrollable symptoms but the options alone filled me with dread. No matter the outcome, something was definitely wrong. I wanted to know what it was. I wanted to fix it, but the answers eluded me.

I don’t remember how many days I spent searching before I finally stumbled upon a description of GAD - Generalized Anxiety Disorder. As I scrolled down the list of symptoms, I felt realization creeping across my awareness. On a list of twenty or so unrelated symptoms, I had about seventeen. I knew this was it. This was what I had been going through. This was what I had been going through my whole life. I read as much as I could that night. It was like reading my fortune. And my fortune said “This is a chronic illness. You will feel like this forever.”

The medical webpages coldly informed me that the chemicals in brain were off-balance. I was broken. I had likely been born that way. In fact, it was deep in genetic history to be overly anxious. I later confirmed this when I discovered relatives on both sides of my family with anxiety disorders. I had gotten a double dose.

Most people discover their anxiety disorders in their early 20’s. It’s not clear whether it’s a biological timer or if it simply coincides with the first stresses of adulthood. Either way, I was right on time. I was studying for grad school and desperately trying to keep a high GPA. The stress factor was high.

Still, I felt unfairly judged by these descriptions. I wasn’t obsessing over everything that went wrong. I was quite satisfied with my life (minus the sickness) I was just busy. I just stressed. My brain was always going, always circling, but it wasn’t circling around any issues in particular, it was just running on overdrive.

I read further to understand what I was experiencing. The impersonal pages explained that most people have a flight or fight reaction in response to situations of high stress. If a lion jumps out of the bushes at you, a flood of chemicals will pour into your brain, giving you the magic ingredients you need to quickly begin your escape (although in the lion case you may be out of luck). If life throws enough at you that you are experiencing extreme stress for an extended period (say.. a loved one dies and you are mourning) then you will likely experience the symptoms of extreme anxiety - difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea, insomnia, muscle tension, exhaustion, edginess - to name a few.

For those of us with GAD that flight or fight reaction is switched on all the time. Anxiety producing chemicals - which might give us the edge in limited quantity - are pouring into our system constantly. It always feels like we are in a desperate situation. It doesn’t always seem like this mentally, but it does physically, and this is the extremely confusing part.

I didn’t know how to feel about my self-diagnosis (which was later reaffirmed by my doctor). I spent a lot of time staring at the screen and sobbing uncontrollably. On one hand, I was extremely relieved. GAD was not terminal, although it could create secondary problems that were. I no longer worried that my heart was on the verge of stopping, or that a secretive tumor had burrowed itself into my spinal cord. I had an answer. I had something to work on. There were treatments I could try. 

Still, the word “chronic” rattled around my brain imposingly. This was something I would have to deal with forever. It wasn’t going away. It was a part of my biology.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I stayed up and researched my options. There were a few things I could try on my own - exercise, giving up caffeine, taking up meditation - but the real hope was in medication. The problem wasn’t my lifestyle, it was the chemical imbalance in my brain. I printed out my list of symptoms and the next day I made an appointment to see the doctor. I was going to fix my brain.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pursuing Happiness - Part 1 - My Anxious Origins- Emily as a Toddler

I’m pretty sure I was born anxious, but I don’t remember back that far. 
My mother gushes with enthusiasm when she describes me as a small child. I was her baby. I was quiet and tiny and always clinging to her. I was polite and knew how to introduce myself and shake hands. I was great at setting the table. The stories about me are told from a distinctly adult point of view. The details are on how my action made the adults feel, but I am wondering what it was that I felt. 

Hmmm... am I flipping off the camera in this picture?
I have bits and pieces of memory from the time. I remember being on an airplane and trying to distract myself from the pain in my ears by playing with My-Little-Ponies. I remember pushing a little girl off my small trampoline into a play kitchen set and then looking up at my mother wide-eyed and innocent as I explained that the other girl didn’t understand trampoline safety procedures. I remember feeling older than everybody my age (and many above my age). It felt like I knew what I was doing. I was aware... and that made me nervous about all the things that could go wrong. Being nervous made me shy, which made me quiet, which made me sneaky. The sneakiness made me a lier and the lying turned me into a performer. I have bits and pieces but getting into the head of myself as a child is not as easy as it seems. The threads of time and continuity are stretched thin. I can piece together memories and pull out character traits, but it’s more difficult to say what I was thinking or how I was feeling. 

What was going on in the mind of the spritely four year old child I see on the family video? 
She looks up at the camera suspiciously, seeming uninclined to perform. My mothers voice comes in loudly “Emily... say hello to your grandparents”. The little girl squints at the camera and raises her eyebrows. She is not impressed. She attempts to ignore the situation, wandering over to the couch and fiddling with some paper. 
“Emily... sing a song for us.” Emily sighs heavily before giving in, making clear her distaste for the request, but as she sings a glint comes into her eye. If she is going to perform, she will do it well. She seems pleased with her performance and more likely to cooperate. 
My mothers voice begins questioning again. “What do you think of George Bush?” The tiny girl rolls her eyes. The words come out in a frustrated burst. “I don’t think anything about George Bush!” She seems aggravated by the question. She does not seem to know why the question bothers her but she is certain it is a trick. 
My mother tries a different tactic. “Do you look like your mommy?” she asks. The response is quick, practiced and indignant “I don’t look like my mommy, she just looks like me!” There is laughing off camera. The little girl scrunches up her face with irritation. She does not like being bothered. She does like being tricked. And she is certain that all of this a set up. Yet again, the adults in her life are trying to farm cuteness out of her. She seems torn between performing and being spiteful. In the end she picks both. 

My ferocious grimace 

When my mother questions the young me about her friends, the child slyly informs her that she has none. Everybody yells at her. While the little girl eventually concedes that her long time best friend Kate is a friend, she says that she is the only one. Everybody else yells at her. I am intrigued watching this. I remember being “yelled” at. I was a sensitive child and referred to any chiding in that way. People were telling me what to do and I didn’t like it. What is clear to me as I watch the video is that this young version of me is trying to mess up the video. She knows at the least that her mother is trying to extract something adorable from her, and she is set on delivering something else. 
When my mother asks if the girl’s father is her friend, she complains that he too yells at her. Then, a look of mischief appears on her tiny face. She tilts her head and looks up at the camera as she concocts a story in which her dad (not the family dog) was actually the one who recently peed on the carpet. When my mother laughs and says “Noooo... that was the dog.” She smiles and shrugs. The mischief does not leave her face. 
It is a noteworthy fact that the tape was never sent out. 

...not happy

When I think back, I remember being a child who was always in her head. I was shy. I was nervous. I was afraid to talk and even more afraid to talk about myself. Still, even at that point, I had developed a mask for performance. I had learned that sometimes you needed to pretend in order to get by. Sometimes the adults wouldn’t stop pestering you until you had given them a show. When I think back to my childhood, I remember worrying about a lot of things. But to be honest, I didn’t have much to worry about. I had parents who loved and cared for me. I had food, shelter, friends and family. But, even then, I was anxious. What I would learn so many years later is the truth about why.