Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.



Last Saturday our plans to sleep until noon to recover from all the sleep lost during OSCON were dashed by an early morning call from my Mom, phoning from ER. She'd spent much of the night with terrible chest pains and her husband had taken her into the closest hospital. By Saturday afternoon she was back at the hospital associated with her health care group and we went up to see her.

Here's where it goes weird.

Through some miscommunication my Mom believed she had been given a firm diagnosis of stomach cancer. That was back in February. I assumed that they'd done a scope, some blood work, and all those usual things to diagnose something like that. But they hadn't.

On Sunday morning they performed the scope and saw some spots that looked like ulcers that had likely been bleeding. These were cauterized and a tissue sample was taken for biopsy. On Monday some abdominal and chest x-rays were taken and nothing suspicious was found. We're still waiting to hear the results of the biopsy, but as of this moment it appears that Mom never had cancer.

Mom is furious that she was lied to. No mention of a "diagnosis" from a doctor appears in her charts anywhere; Mom sees this as a conspiracy and is certain records have been deleted. On the advice of her naturopath I've mentioned that she should make sure that all her records, even things marked as "sensitive" be evaluated. Mom is more concerned about having to tell people she was wrong about having cancer than she is happy to be freed of this burden.

CK and I believe that there was very possibly not a firm diagnosis. Mom was referred to an oncologist, but never went. She also had been told that it would be 8 weeks to get her in for the stomach scope and possible biopsy. She also never went. We feel that there probably was the suggestion that the digestive distress she'd been experiencing could be a recurrence of stomach cancer. Upon hearing that Mom went into her consistent behavior of reacting from fear and impatience, deciding that she did have cancer.

After a second Sunday visit CK said to me in the car on the way home, "That's what you grew up with?!"

I am first and foremost thrilled. On the other hand I'm furious with the way Mom spins stuff. I'm frustrated with her continual impatience and her drive to try and control everyone else while refusing to take care of herself. In trying to just offer sympathy at listening to her irritation I've been accused of belittling her.

Today we had a long phone conversation and she was much more rational to talk with. When she went off about her husband not taking care of himself I told her to let it go and take care of herself instead. She doesn't like taking care of herself and would prefer to think she's in control of everyone else so she doesn't have to think about her own needs. She also prefers to let other people take care of her and angry when they don't "do it right".

In a big moment for me setting boundaries as to what is acceptable I asked her to stop sharing a childhood story because for me it is a very painful, traumatizing memory. She hurt at hearing that this incident causes me nightmares to this day but wasn't defensive. She agreed to never talk about it again and made additional overtures in accepting that many times she did not make the best decisions for my well being.

All this and an incredibly intense EMDR session yesterday. Last night's sleep was frustrated by nightmares. CK reminded me again this morning that I need to "give in" and take Xanex when that happens. I'm about to head off to see my acupuncturist and hopefully that will settle some of this energy. It has been a really long, exhausting week and I'm feeling pretty worn out from the intensity of it.

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A Bitterness

Mom's back in town and I took her to see NEM on Monday. She was in really poor shape. She talked about her disappointment at not feeling better and the expectations she'd held close that the Chinese herbs and acupuncture would be more significantly healing. There is also the resentment she feels toward her husband and the motor home trip they took recently that should have been restful and connecting, but wasn't. She talks sadly about not having the energy to be a better mother to me and says she means in the present. A not insignificant part of me believes she's wishing she could affect the past by suddenly improving now.

I shared with her what my Zen teachers offer - that clinging to those expectations, even having them in the first place, leads to suffering. My Mom and her expectations, and the suffering of not having them met underlies so many of the selfish decisions she made in my childhood. She wasn't overtly hostile to this information, just unable to really hold onto the idea of trying to not have expectations.

When I see Mom like this, in terrible physical and emotional pain and so clearly suffering, it is difficult. I feel deep sympathy and compassion for her, I try not to let it slip into pity. I feel anger at her all in the same moment as the love and concern. I hear her regrets, her bitterness, her disappointment and know it is the same thing I've been hearing my whole life. It is painful and I struggle to accept, without guilt and shame, that when she is gone I will feel tremendous relief.

I've been mulling one of Mary Oliver's powerful poems. So many of them capture practice, nature and life so well that I just sink into the words. A handful of her poems cut right to the core of suffering and seem to haunt me. One of her poems, A Bitterness, has been resonating with me a lot recently around what I feel about my Mom and the way I see her many cancers as some kind of physical manifestation of all the anger, resentment and bitterness she's held close to her heart during my life.

A Bitterness
by Mary Oliver

I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery,
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
I believe music had to be melancholy or not at all.
I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as
your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser
and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful
flowers of the hillsides.


Contemplating the Dirty Cup

Wednesday's appointment with the EMDR therapist was honestly grueling. I left feeling mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. The lowering of intensity wasn't as profound, but then it was such an inter-connected, multi-year mess of stuff that to even reduce it minimally is progress. That I was unable to neatly separate out the events to work on individually, something I'll continue to work on with PB, underscored something my cognitive/mindfulness based therapist has been saying for some time. The trauma I experienced in my late teens served to reactivate earlier, unaddressed trauma from childhood. The events become intrinsically linked to my mind and body regardless of the differences of time, place and people.

The session also brought up muscle spasms, particularly in my legs. I vocalized something important in reacting to the pain and strangeness of them. When I have muscle spasms I do not feel like my body is my own. The statement came up a couple of times and in the second visit it hit me hard. We looked at it, the age I felt and it was in that 4/5 age range. It is painful to accept that I felt like I did not control my body at so young an age.

The last four weeks of intensive EMDR have revealed another uncomfortable truth. On a lot of levels I believe the abuse was my fault. That I possess some intrinsic flaw that makes me an easy target for abusers. To a part of my mind it seems like the most reasonable explanation as to why I experienced abuse from so many different people I trusted across so many years. "Clearly I am flawed.", says a part of me.

Last night I was having a hard time getting to sleep with anxiety creeping in. Bits of bad memories popping into that liminal time where I'm just starting to drift into sleep. I hoped to sleep in to make up for it but that energy is still around this morning and I awoke rather early. Something that has been kicking around for the past two days is the bit of Rumi I've been chewing on since early September.

Take sips of this pure wine being poured.
Don't mind that you've been given a dirty cup.

I've written about this bit a little already and have let it just be a part of my everyday life. It keeps unfolding for me the longer I keep it close. It brings up for me again and again how much time I spend wrapped up in the stains on the dirty cup and not able to fully engage with the pure wine of life.

All the thrashing around trying to cling to the notion of My Happy Childhood is just another way of obsessing about the stained cup. PB gently pointed out to me that recalling the brief hours here and there where I enjoyed my childhood does not make a happy one. All I'm doing is staring at that cup and trying to say, "Look here, this spot isn't dirty, it is clean and lovely. Yes, that's the cup I want!"

Many weeks ago GM asked me why I practice Zen. I feel unheard when my community treats veganism as anything less than the deep reflection of my vows and practice. Retreats leave me feeling like I was pulled by my heels through glass. Sitting down to do zazen has nearly continually woken up my Inner Critic for over a year now. At times, for no apparent reason beyond a mere nanosecond of silence, I find I am completely triggered emotionally and physically. Why do I do it?

At the time she asked I had no answer but I've kept practicing hoping one will be revealed to me. The sad answer is that those triggers and pain happen because the trauma was real. Feeling unheard about being vegan awakes the years my voice, my thoughts were not valued by my family. I've spent years trying to make these things not true, to persist with the idea that if I just don't acknowledge them or talk about them, they will go away. The truth is that no amount of cherishing the few hours of baking with my Gram or picking berries with my Mom makes up for the the rest of it.

Zen and yoga point us to the truth. What is the essential self? What is true? I practice because it reveals the truth. The truth points us to what is real. Some truths mean we live on the edges of what the whole of society considers "normal". Most importantly, as radical as acceptance sounds for some truths, not accepting the truth is suffering.

The truth is that my childhood was profoundly unhappy. It is the "dirty cup".

Equally true is that the sun is shining brightly into the lovely, generous home I share with my wonderful, future wife. Our cats are alternately basking in sun beams and playing. I have a very good cup of tea, the prospect of a delicious breakfast, and the hectic fun of preparing for a party ahead of me today. This is the pure wine of this present moment.

In this moment the wine is pure, precious, and briefly I am able to rest in knowing that the stained cup is irrelevant.