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Archive for the ‘Death and Dying’ Category

wake-up

I saw the phrase recently on a t-shirt:  Wake Up.  The t-shirt is part of a fundraising initiative to help bring the message of mindfulness to youth worldwide. Wake up. It’s a powerful phrase, isn’t it?  It can come in gentle, like a loving caregiver whispering their slumbering loved one awake. It can also come in like the bratty sibling who flings open the curtains, jumps on your bed and slams pot lids together until you open your eyes. Either way the phrase perks you up.  You become conscious, alert and engaged with your circumstance. And yet, so often, we live as if we are asleep. We engage in behaviours that numb us out. Not enjoying the sensations that course through us as we experience certain thoughts and feelings, we aim to banish them from our personal domain, only to discover that, over time, we feel less and less until, nothing at all.

I started to really work with the idea of waking up about a month ago when I decided to stop consuming alcohol. There was nothing particularly distressing about my enjoyment of the substance. I would come home at the end of the week, pour myself a drink, and sit down with my loved one to talk about the day.  The ritual was comforting and the taste of the drink was pleasant. But always, in the background, there was a certain disturbance. There was the fear of becoming an alcoholic like my father. There was the knowledge that alcohol contains no nutrients and, therefore, is useless to the body.  What’s more, it is poison to the body. Even more threatening to me was the fact that alcohol converts directly into sugar, a frightening prospect for someone who has diabetes running on both sides of the family.  How much of a risk was I willing to take? Apparently quite a risk.  Week after week I would continue with the behaviour, strengthening the habit.

It wasn’t until I started working with petitions before and after my practice – May I be happy…May I be healthy…May I awaken – that I started to feel deeply unsettled. May I awaken? How awake was I feeling? Practice after practice I would utter the words.  Week after week I would drink, and suddenly I noticed that I wasn’t feeling awake at all!  Alcohol, upon consumption, was dulling my mind.  Now I was getting concerned. Upon reflection, as I drank, I would feel more and more as I did when I was overtaken by depression.  My mental faculties were clouded.  I felt as if I existed in a bubble; I could see the world around me but I couldn’t directly connect.  I couldn’t connect with my environment and I couldn’t connect with my loved ones.  I wasn’t really there.  My capacity to corral the energies of thoughts and feelings diminished, so I found myself riding the tumultuous waves of mood swings, and uttering words I would never otherwise speak.  The monkeys had taken over the circus and I was nowhere to be found.

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This week, before class, two of my students were talking about a difficult situation.  One student said, “It’s enough to make you want to drink.  Just make it aaaaaaaall go away.”  I’m not sure what my face did, but it elicited a response, “What?  What are we supposed to do?  Just skip tra la la down the road all happy all the time?!”

No. Not in the least. But the invitation is to wake up. To wake up to the searing sharpness of life. To the pain and the ugliness. To the things that scare the shit out of us. To the things that confuse and distress us. To the things we’d much rather go blind to.  Why? Because, as Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma:

While numbing (or compensatory sensation seeking) may make life tolerable, the price you pay is that you lose awareness of what is going on inside your body and, with that, the sense of being full, sensually alive.

We cannot pick and choose our numbness.  We cannot say, “Oh, hey, I can’t stand the sensation of anger so, you know, block that out but keep the rest.”  No.  If we make the decision to go to sleep, we go…to…sleep!  

A year ago, at this precise time, I was standing in the Critical Care Unit as my step mother-in-law lay dying. That time is burned in my mind as one of the most agonizing, profound and beautiful times of my life. Nothing will call you to awaken like death. We need that contrast, the complete extinguishment of vitality, movement, connection, uniqueness to show us what it means to be alive and to live. 

I don’t know about you but I want to live! And if living means I have to endure the sharp pains and the distressing bits, well, I will buy the whole package, because it’s all precious and beautiful in some way or other, even if we can’t see it right now.

I won’t be the sibling who tears back the curtains and scares you awake.  Life will deliver enough of those messengers to you and to all of us.  Instead, I will be the soft whisper:  Wake up, friend. Come.  See? Look at all that’s out there.  Isn’t it grand? As my dear friend reminded me once, “We’re a long time dead.”  Come.  Live with me.

*raising my jar of tea* May I awaken.  May you awaken.  May all living beings awaken.

May we be free!  🙂

All my love,

Tabitha

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One can never command the mind.  There is only one way to reach the mind.  It is through the breath. – Dr. Chandrasekaran

The holidays are upon us and I can see it in my students’ bodies – rapid, shallow breathing; tense bellies, upper backs, jaws and shoulders; digestive issues galore.  Recently I received a message from someone asking if I could share some pointers on how to “manage my moods and anxiety”.  *exhale*  Phew!  That’s a tall order.  Anxiety is an amorphous entity; that is, anxiety is an ever-changing constellation of symptoms that arise and impact each individual sufferer in a unique way.  As a result, it is best dealt with one-on-one with a Yoga therapist or skilled Yoga teacher who can create for you a practice that addresses you and your symptoms alone.  The Western “one size fits all” mentality is not the Yogic way.

That being said, there is one thing that is safe, accessible, and has helped many.  I bring to you my favourite breathing technique.


 * Settle yourself in to a comfortable lying position.  Allow the body to feel completely supported in a way where tension can drop away and you can focus on your breath.

 

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Begin to observe the easy rise and fall of the belly as you breathe in and out.  Let the breath be natural and simply observe.  Tune in to your breath.

* Now begin to extend the length of the inhale.  Perhaps begin with a 4 second count.  Slowly start to breathe in and count 1…2…3…4.  Let it be a slow count.  Then pause for 1 or 2 seconds and exhale a long, slow, smooth exhale.  Pause briefly again.

* Return to the inhale and this time see if you can inhale to a count of 5.  Pause.  Exhale.  Pause again.

Continue increasing the inhale by 1 second with each round until you discover your maximum inhale.  This maximum should be easy to manage and feel comfortable in the body.  You will know there is strain if tension begins to develop in the body and mind, and/or if you strain for the next breath.  If this happens, reduce the inhale by 1 second and stay at that level.  Remember:  There is no failing.  A higher number does not mean you’re “better” at this.  The number is there for concentration purposes.  It is not a gauge of your success.  If you’re breathing, you’re successful.  Be kind and leave it at that.  🙂

Once you’ve found your maximum inhale, stay there for a number of breaths; that is, continue breathing to that level for 6 or 8 breaths, whichever feels most accessible to you.

* Imagine that each time you come to that brief pause after inhale and exhale, you enter an oasis of complete stillness and quiet.  The body, mind and breath can remain safely suspended in space for a brief moment, and then can continue on.  Do your best to relax in the pause.  Be empty.  Be quiet.

* When you’ve completed your  6 or 8 breaths, drop the technique.  Release the mind from counting and simply return to the natural breath.  Enjoy breathing in and out for a few moments and then move on with your day (or, hopefully, drift into sleep if you’re visiting this in the middle of the night).


I have given this technique to every student who has seen me for help with their anxiety.  They have turned to it again and again whenever their symptoms of anxiety arise.  While it might not be the elimination cure we all hope for, it has the capacity to settle the system to an extent where symptoms begin to dissipate, sleep improves, and stress levels decrease.  Even when the situation is dire (as in the case of grief and loss), this breath technique has allowed students to cope in ways they never thought possible.  Heck, I use it and it works!

I invite you to challenge yourself to suspend disbelief for a moment and give this a whirl.  I’d love to hear your feedback.

Regardless, have a wonderful holiday season.  May you be surrounded by joy and love.  As I said to my students, “DREAM BIG!”  Love hard.  KEEP BREATHING!  And see you soon.

All my love,

Tabitha

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Warning:  This is going to get personal.

I’ve been having a really hard time with my body lately.  I’ve woken up in the middle of the night pouring sweat with my heart pounding like I’ve never felt it pound before.  Anxiety.  Terrible stuff.  I’ve taken the information to my teacher who looks at me relieved and says, “Your body is working through the material your mind won’t touch.  I’m glad you’re having these moments because the energy is moving through.  The body is wise.” Surprisingly her words were reassuring.  I could set my mind on the course of “ride it out” and I knew it would all be okay, it would pass.

My mind has been chewing on a lot of material lately.  My grandmother and her last few months in her body have been the strongest focus for me. There’s so much for me to work on, to try and find some peace, the task seems insurmountable.  I find myself feeling too traumatized to even find the words to describe what happened.  Enter again – the body.  

The night before last was the first time in weeks I slept through the night without any pounding heart or roaring sweats.  It was paradise until…..(and here’s where we get very personal)….6:30 in the morning my eyes whip open in panic.  What IS that agonizing sensation in my belly?  It felt like my intestines were doing a wild Can-Can in spiked heels all through my lower abdomen.  Lower abdomen…..second energy centre in the body….place where we store energy around family….*sigh*  Always the yoga teacher.  Whatever the definition, all was not well in lower abdomen land, and as I whipped through the apartment like a wild woman on fire, I understood why we call the experience “the runs”.

I would eat and within minutes the cramps would begin.  It got to the point where I was afraid to eat.  I still am!  All day long it was me doubled over on the porcelain god.  My last round of fire-in-the-belly found me speaking out loud and saying, “I feel like I’m channelling my grandmother.”  And that’s where everything changed.  Things slowed down, the veils parted, and I was experiencing things as if I was my grandmother.

The last time I saw my grandmother alive was during Thanksgiving weekend.  She was in a pod in the emergency room, days after being admitted, waiting for a bed to become available.  We were all there – Mum, K and me.  When K and I approached her to kiss her hello, she resisted.  “No, don’t come.  I stink.”  My grandmother was sitting in a diaper full of her own shit as she had been for hours, hours after she had hit that help button in a panic, feeling the familiar grip in her belly, knowing she was too weak to move herself to the commode.  Terrified that she would fall again if she tried.  When the nurse eventually arrived, my grandmother was told that she was wearing a diaper so she could just shit herself, it would be okay, the nurses were used to it.  And off she went. What choice did my grandmother have?  Her body took over and did its thing.  And there she sat in her own shit, acids from her excretions eating holes into her flesh.  Happy Thanksgiving!

And this wasn’t the first time.  I held her crumpled body in my arms after she desperately tried to get herself to the commode but collapsed before she could get there.  The phone calls, “I tried to make it to the bathroom but I made a mess.  Such a mess,” humiliation coating every word she spoke, and us trying to take away the pain by telling her it was okay, things happen.

Sitting on the throne, afraid to eat like my grandmother had been afraid to eat, afraid of the next round of cramps, afraid I might not make it to the bathroom on time, I realized how nothing we said or did could have brought comfort to the woman.  In fact, we sounded like assholes.  She, the Queen of her family, was forced to sit in her own shit!  Instead of being in that experience with her, we tried to make it all go away for OUR comfort, not hers. I wondered if all of these experiences brought her back to the times in the camps where I’m sure sickness forced bodies to purge, and humiliation was a daily thing.

That’s when I “woke up”.  Something in my mind snapped open and I saw what I had.  I saw that I had the pure physical strength to hoist myself out of bed, through an apartment, to a bathroom before I soiled myself.  My grandmother did not have that.  I saw that I had that same physical strength to clean myself after my experience. My grandmother did not have that; she had to have her own daughter or some stranger wipe her bum.  I had the privacy I needed and deserved in order to have this painful experience.  My grandmother did not have that.  I could flush my toilet and walk away.  My grandmother did not have that.  She had to sit beside full commodes.  (“Here’s your lunch, Mrs. Jacus.  Oh….did you poop?”  Can you imagine?!)  I could change my clothes if something happened.  My grandmother spent her last days sitting in her own waste.

I had my dignity.  

My grandmother did not.

In that moment I had everything.

My grandmother had lost it all.

Waking up comes in the strangest of places and you simply cannot predict when or how it will strike.  It took several episodes of the shits for me to begin to see everything that was around me.  It took merging with my grandmother and seeing all she had taken away from her, all she no longer had, for me to see and understand all that I DO have.  It took watching my grandmother die for me to understand the gift of what it means to live, intestinal cramps and all.

Whatever it takes, however it comes, may we all wake up.

So may it be.

~ Tabitha

 

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This is not my actual cork board.

This is not my actual cork board.

You:  You don’t write much anymore, Tabitha.

Me:  No, I don’t.

You:  I miss it.

Me:  So do I.


 

That this blog space has sat dormant since August 2014 breaks my heart.  I have sat here at my desk, arms limp at my sides, staring at the blinking cursor on the screen, with my mind totally paralyzed.  I need to write about this, this and this, I say to myself.  I mentally tag these things on invisible scraps of paper and peg them to my mind’s cork board for safe keeping.  This, I think, will keep my mind organized and clear, the idea out of my mental space and on the cork board.  Except I never actually transfer them tophysical cork board, so the thoughts keep rolling around inside my skull.

Thinking + not doing = paralysis

This morning I thought I would jot down all of the things that have happened since August 28, 2014, the last post on this blog.  The list looked like this:  my grandmother died; the indignities of dying in hospital; quitting the office job; dying friendships; divorcing my father; the impact of being the adult child of a parent with mental illness; supporting a partner whose mother is dying; “Let’s talk about what happens when she dies, honey.  Where will you need me to be?  How can I best support you through that time?”; the guilt-laden phone call “Your father is in hospital.  You need to go see him.”;  Fuck You – the chapter that comes after being told I need to go see my father; I’m a Horrible Person – the chapter that comes after Fuck You…

There are a lot of magical things thrown in there as well but these things listed above are the heavy, loaded things that are begging for my attention.  Who in their right mind would want to go near these things?  Really.  I imagine doing what writers do best – I take these topics, scribble them on paper, and tack them to a real cork board.  Then, every day, I touch one of them by writing about it, freeing up the energy in my heart and mind.  I check them off one by one.  I keep going.

When I consider the above topics scribbled on paper and tacked to a board, I see nothing but The Ugly Cork Board.  It is a chaotic, jumbled heap of shit staring me down.  It’s too easy for my wee mind to look at the ugly mess and say, “Why would you write about this heap?  Who in the hell wants to read about that ugly shit?”  Who indeed?

At the end of the day, at the very core of my being rests the Wise Self who knows it doesn’t matter if not one single person reads one single word that I put out there; it’s about me freeing myself from the cripplingly painful grip of so many things.  I would love to write about puppy dogs and bubble gum and I know that, to get there, I must wade through the muck.

*sigh*  How does one choose which hideous topic to touch first?  Perhaps I will conjure up a dart and chuck it at the board. Whatever topic the dart hits wins.  Come what may.

For now I think I shall sit here and stare blankly, unfeelingly, at The Ugly Cork Board.  What comes next?  We shall see.

 

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cherry-mirror

 

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. – Henry David Thoreau

I have had the beautiful privilege of having relationships with my grandparents well into adulthood.  My grandmother and I have known one another for 42 years, longer than so many relationships these days.  It is an awesome experience to move beyond the ignorance of youth and into a space where I can learn about my grandmother as a person, as a woman who has experienced many things.  It also means my mind has had more time to create troublemaking bullshit.

We are a rough, proud people with an independent streak that runs deep and wide, so the reality that age eventually brings with it fragility and a need for relocation and added support, comes as quite a surprise to a mind such as mine that prefers to live in denial around such things.  My mantra over the years has been that the only way I want to see my grandmother leave her house is in a box.  Not that I wished for my grandmother’s death, oh no.  On the contrary, I prayed over and over again that she be able to stay in that house until her last breath, and I convinced myself that it was what she wanted as well.

Imagine my shock when things began to play out in another way.  My grandmother, who has been on the waiting list for a retirement home for a number of years, finally got the call that a unit has become available.  And she accepted.  My grandmother will be leaving her house, but not in the way my mind had created, not in a box, but of her own free will!

Have you ever tried to take away a cherished toy from a young child?  It’s bedlam.  There are loud animalistic noises that sound like someone is being killed, and an obsessive, desperate grabbing, grabbing, grabbing for the one thing that is, “MINE!  MINE!  MINE!”  It’s very much like this in the mind as well when you try to take away the long-held story.

Quite simply, I freaked.  My mind was a roaring shitstorm running around from corner to corner screaming, “NO!  MINE MINE MINE!  MY NANNY!  MY HOUSE!  MY NANNY IN HOUSE!  MY NUMBER 27!  MY KITCHEN!  MIIIIIIIIINE!”  Oh my lord, it has been painful.  And ridiculous.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali speak of three types of mental afflictions that ultimately cause human suffering:  clinging, pulling away and denial. I have been suffering from all three as I hang on to a false story like a life preserver, pulling away from any possibility other than my false story, and shoving my head deep in the sand in order to avoid facing the situation altogether.

Running from reality is like trying to outrun your conjoined twin.  You can twist your head in the opposite direction all you want but that doesn’t change the fact that your twin, reality, is completely connected to you.  Best to stop, breathe, look and learn to live with this thing, right?  So, I stopped.  Stopping was hard, I won’t lie, but I did it.  I stopped and took this hysterical part of me to the yoga mat, to the garden, to the meditation cushion.  We spent a lot of time together.  There was a good deal of gut-wrenching crying that had me looking like this:

Bags_Under_Eyes_Secret_of_the_Puffy_Peepers-231x300It wasn’t pretty but, even though I could not see clearly from my physical eyes (due to unsightly swelling, of course  🙂 ), I could suddenly see from the eyes of my heart.  I could see that my grandmother was old, fragile, afraid and in need of help.  I could see she was ready and able to let go of the house in order to build a home somewhere else.  I could see her need for companionship and community, something she could no longer access at her current location.  I could see my grandmother having the strength to let go, to be free and to move on.  How incredibly selfish of me to ask her to stay, suffering deeply, for the sake of my mind’s story and my emotional comfort!  Suddenly the pathway of the mind shifted from “My grandmother is going to ‘the home’ to die,” to the new pathway of “My grandmother is going to this new place to LIVE!”  And with this shift has come a profound and solid peace.

My one teacher taught, “The mind is the cause of the problem.  The mind is the solution to the problem.”  No kidding!

If you have found yourself walking through your life disgruntled by some aspect or another, might I suggest you simply crack a bit of time in your world to sit with that feeling?  Just a few moments–in the car, in the bathtub, in the garden…Nothing laboured.  Not a project.  Not in an effort to change or fix things.  Just some soft, gentle time with the feelings, time to help you begin to familiarize yourself with the tapestry your mind has been weaving.  Often, all that’s really required to make a profound shift is this time.  It’s like walking into a dark room and turning on the lights; things automatically look different.

May you have the courage to stop, to stay, and to see.  May your afflictions, the things that cause you such great pain, simply drop away on the breath, with ease.  May your heart know space.  May your life be filled with love.

My Nan and me almost 7 years ago on her 80th birthday

My Nan and me almost 7 years ago on her 80th birthday

All my love,

Tabitha

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sacred touch

It was only  a couple of weeks ago when the phone rang during dinner prep time.  K. took the call in the other room while I continued on at the counter.  In no time I could hear it, that unmistakable wailing “NO” that can stop your heart and make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.  Death had entered the house and grief was well on its way.  I don’t deal well with grief and as soon as that familiar “NO” was heard I began to pace like a wild animal in a cage, all the while looking at the cat, rubbing the back of my neck and saying, “Oh fawk. This isn’t good.  Oh fawk…oh fawk.”  (Yup, I’m an “Oh fawk-er” when things get really rough.)  K. had just found out that her favourite client of 12 years, the man who had become more like a Grandfather to her than simply a work connection, had died suddenly, and his widow was on the phone relaying the story.

I’m not so sure it’s the grief part that sends me reeling, although it is the world’s reminder to all of us that we, too, will suffer the searing pain of loss over and over again as we move through this life. (Still not sure about that part of your plan, God, and absolutely not a fan of it, by the way.  Just sayin’.)  I suspect it’s the raw, bleeding vulnerability that grief calls forth that makes me cringe.

It’s a strange thing, I can fully embrace and protect the innate vulnerability in babies, animals and the elderly, but when it comes to the vulnerability associated with a torn and shredded, broken heart, I fail miserably.  I can feel a hard shell coming over me, like watching a shallow puddle beginning to form ice crystals and crust over on a frigid winter’s day.  I bristle.  I tense up.  My muscles seize.  And I crawl, no, SPEED towards my brain and as far away from my own tender heart as possible.  I become a logical problem-solver when someone really needs her hand held.  I strategize instead of hug.  Heck, even the act of writing about vulnerability has me wanting to run!  I’m not proud of this; I simply have to admit to it.

What is it about softness that can feel so scary?  I suppose there are all kinds of possible answers for this.  Animals guard their “soft bits” (throats, stomachs, etc.) as a means to survive.  Yup. That makes sense.  We’re naked animals.  Perhaps this applies to us as well.  I also come from a family where my Grandparents spent years in forced labour for the Germans during the Second World War.  Surviving those conditions often hinged on not showing weakness; vulnerability in any way could get you shot.  Yet another form of covering your “soft bits”.  Perhaps this mentality gets passed down through the generations and I have somehow adopted the notion that becoming open and delicate equals death.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that it can feel like crap to pull away from the openness of another in her time of need.

How do we learn to soften in the face of vulnerability when our instinct is to harden and run?  I think we all have to find out for ourselves what works and what doesn’t.  Of course, understanding our patterns in the face of vulnerability is a great start.  For me, I “take it to the mat”.  I drag myself, kicking and screaming, to my Yin yoga practice where I take some unbelievably uncomfortable poses and I hold them for long periods of time.  Yes, this is a tonic for my body but, more importantly, it is a way for me to learn to soften and to let down my guard.  In Yin, a pose can become that much more agonizing if you strain against it.  Conflict within the pose can restrict my breath and cause increased tension, a contradiction to what I hope to achieve in the practice, which is more fluidity and ease.  The way through is to notice the tension, the holding, to consciously soften the hardened tissues, and to fall (sometimes quite literally) more deeply into the pose.  And if the conditions are just right, maybe, just maybe, a flood of emotion will wash over me and I will begin to cry.  Maybe I will begin to soften the edges.  And maybe if I do this enough with myself, I will be better able to do this in service to another who is crumbling before my very eyes.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  😉

So, what about you?  How do you behave in the face of great vulnerability? How does it make you feel?  And if you find holding space for someone who is raw and wide open is easy, can you share that story with the rest of us?  I could sure stand to learn some tips.  🙂

Here’s to peeling away the layers!

All my love,

Tabitha

ps.  My friend Dana shared this TEDtalk with me.  It’s by Brene Brown and it’s called “The Power of Vulnerability”.  If you’re in the mood, have a look.  It’s quite brilliant…and it made me smile.  Thanks, Dana!  🙂

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