Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Doctors: You May be Wrong For all I know, But You May Be Right.

Today I got to see some old friends again. I had not visited Sacred Heart Community Service. I had not visited them in close to two years. I had not had a chance to help out since the day I left San Jose in 2005. For this day, I knew there was a chance I would be working out in the pantry. I knew that I might be working with food. I knew to visit SHCS I would need to wear regular, close-toed shoes.

My mother bought me some fine shoes in the weeks preceding my trip to the island of Jawa. A pair of Brown Skechers, these shoes look simple, clean, and very stylish. Besides, they are the only close toed shoes I own, and I was actually excited to pull them off the shelf. My memory is not spectacular, but I stand assured I wore those shoes at least once, but no more than three times. Froom the day I prepared to board Cathay Pacific's flight to Hong Kong, I put on a pair of quality sandals, and they remained my footwear of choice until today.

I will say this was a casual decision until I actually attempted to put on the shoes. I pulled the skechers off the shelf, and put on some white socks. I have been in a wheelchair since June, and did not realize the challenges my legs are giving me. I loosened the shoe laces, and (after pulling my left leg onto my right thigh), noted that I di'd not have the strength to force my foot into the shoe. After less than ten minutes of wrestling with myself (think Edward Norton in Fight Club), I wiped the blood from my nose (just kidding) and succeeded in getting both shoes on my feet. I proceeded to bus off to SHCS.

I showed up at the back dock. My friends, Andy and Maureen, had given me a Pronto electric wheelchair.Wheeling to the back dock, I spoke to the supervisors, and they directed me to the clothing closet. Behind rolling petitions, SHCS keeps enormous bins refilled constantly with clothing. My supervisor, a woman named Angela, instructed me to sort the clothing, and place them on hangers.

The enormous bins are filled with donated, un-folded, and unsorted clothing. Actually, some of the clothing is folded. Some of the clothing is actually washed, and some of it is brand new. Some of the clothes are dirty, unfolded, and torn. My instructions are to sort the clothing, and select which clothes that seem to be of greatest quality. I am not to put out clothing that I would never purchase for myself or family . Ignoring the desire of some to have clothes with stains, rips, or tears, we have a standard that such clothes are automatically recycled. Everything from old socks to pristine dress suits make way through the clothes closet.

Standing in line, people are given a time limit to find and select what clothes they want to take for themselves. Once I realized how much quality clothing finds new homes through this service, I developed a deep appreciation for the work. Looking at the bins of outdated, mismatched, and unwanted clothing, I sometimes lose sight of what an enormous amount of clothing gets moved into grateful hands on a daily basis because of this organization.

As an aside: this past week I visited for the first time a neurologist here in San Jose to address the problems I have been having. I have a dragging foot, a loss of balance. I am losing sensation in my hands, leaving myself able to type with only my two index fingers. I am now spending the bulk of my waking hours in a wheelchair, with a walker to help me around my new apartment.

My new doctor has reviewed my file, interviewed me for over an hour with a Stanford trained doctor reviewing my chart,and the two of them told me the same thing. Despite my previous diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, they do not believe my test results, nor my history support conclusively that diagnosis. The possibilities I was told included the hinted suggestion my problems may be reversible. We are awaiting more tests, but I am staying hopeful.

I already have family members worried that I am investing too much in the possibility of even a partial recovery. Even I have to admit that my condition could even be worse than I thought. I smile, because I remain far more productive when I invest in hope. Never once did I see a bumper sticker that read : "Got despair?"

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A long time ago, someone presented me with the concept of a mantra. I realize that many learned people can take the word 'mantra' back to its etymology, or at least find some expert to share an authoritative understanding on what a mantra is. From some traditions the mantra involves using a sound that helps someone focus their body's energy. I was also told that a mantra can help to keep the head clear while sitting, while breathing.

The first mantra many people hear of or learn about is the word "Om." This is a Sanskrit word, and was described to me as be "the primordial sound of the Universe" which sounds mystical enough for me. I see many people walking around with these symbols on their necklaces. I asked a woman, and she told me that it is the symbol for the Sanskrit word "Om". I smiled at her politely, and told her that "Om is where the 'eart is." I am not much of a mystic. I believe my few experiences with meditation proved that -absent any mystical pretexts- it is a very practical endeavour.

When meditation was studied, many aspects were reviewed. Blood pressure was lowered. Chance for stroke was lowered, and heart attack risk dropped. Of course, I have a friend who used to b a boxer. He apparently had issues controlling his temper in the past. He joined a program that got him on a machine to measure his stress levels, and played soothing tones when optimal levels of calm was achieved. Apparently using a basic behaviour modification model, he accomplished levels of calm and peace that others seek out in meditation classes with incense, discussions about energies, and chakras.

Indeed, researchers in biofeedback labs no little if anything about chakras, about extending your energy to flow from the Universe, and filter into the ground. They rarely would suggest the act of burning incense hoping to add to the biofeedback experience. With stated goals and projected results, biofeedback seemed to want to minimize the distractions that these mystical models provided. If I burn incense, perhaps I like the smell. If I put a mandala on my wall, maybe mandalas look nice. If I utilize a mantra, possibly I find focusing -on a sound, word, or sentence- I can stay on track in a meditation. Perhaps the mantra itself provides meaning for me.

Avoiding the primordial sound of the Universe, I came up with my own mantra. Without trying to ascribe any metaphysical significance, I felt inspired by a phrase from the Bible. The mantra I picked -and I used this one about two years ago- was the sentence "The truth shall set you free."
I needed a focusing mantra. I have no chakras to align, no auras to fix. My third eye is best left shut. So, I avoid the lure of Latin. "Veritas Liberabit Vos" sounds very beautiful, and certainly carries the same message as the English sentence. For my purpose, I need my mantra in English. This phrase I would say on every out-breath.
I find this mantra truly focuses me. In time, my perspective on what I believe starts to change. Just like my friend in his biofeedback clinic, I find my calm, and achieve new levels of efficiency. I live well,communicate better, and live to greater purpose.

Many of the books I read in the 1980's suggested that meditating to achieve those things would only sells the act of meditation short. I do not know that. But I do know many folk say to me "bring the body, and the mind will follow." I come to trust the experiences of others as guides. I learn from taking the actions I am shown. I have accomplished little by trying to change my motivations. If meditation has greater rewards, then I will find out by doing it, not by shaming myself for my failed enlightenment.

I thank you for reading.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Scattered Thoughts on Bumper Stickers

I am listening to Jethro Tull playing "It Was a New Day Yesterday, But it's an Old Day Now." I feel poorly qualified to share anything meaningful about the transitory nature of time. I have spent the last seventeen years listening to people saying things like, "If you have one foot in today, and one foot in tomorrow, you are pissing all over today." What does that mean? I know of other people who say things like ,"Today is a gift, that is why we call it the present." That sounds quaint enough, but still has certain limitations.

I feel sure that there exists truth in both of those thoughts. But just as I know of no law that really states "pedestrians always have the right of way", I know no prevailing wisdom in disregarding the past, or suggesting no chance of a future. Having been both a driver and a pedestrian, I took comfort in my experiences overseas where it became clear that cars, not pedestrians, always have the right of way. Drivers regularly, dispassionately honk horns at pedestrians to remind them to get out of the way. So, when I hear these pithy little sayings, I still smile at the frequent usefulness of such sayings.

I wonder how many asshole pedestrians have gotten killed in traffic, believing this nonexistent right of way would magically engage the braking systems of oncoming vehicles. I ought to ask a police officer if she or he believes pedestrians "always have the right of way." I just like to be careful not to let my life run on quaint generalizations.

But, when I live my life, I hope to know when to keep my reflections to myself. I get tired of people trying to control my thoughts or my words by telling me one of their canned wisdoms. Now, I can think all I want about the past, and I can plan as much as I want about the future. Do we have a message, a caution, in this time preoccupation? Without the guarantee of tomorrow, anytime spent in planning- keeping a calendar, perhaps- becomes useless? Maybe equally silly to reflect on our joys, sadness, successes and failures from the past? Surely we have nothing to gain in that.

I only mention these thoughts, because the people sharing them, often seem intent on changing people's lives with these cutting-edge wisdoms. Do I seem recalcitrant? Does my resistance, my irritation seem unreasonable? I throw these ideas out to the world.... I have bumper sticker wisdoms of my own, I am sure. I continue to smile and placate opinionated busy-bodies, and then I write about them.

You may sense sarcasm in my examples. I think bumper sticker philosophies can work. I still like to keep friends around me who have a collection of life experiences that help iron out, and transcend bumper stickers when I make life decisions for myself. I enjoy having such friends in my life. With such people, I can see the success they have in their life, I can hear how they achieved their success, and I find most of them share about the things they do without needing to advise.

Years ago, I attended a meeting of a group called Al-Anon. Al-Anon groups gather together and works the twelve step program to help themselves learn how to live with alcoholics in their lives. One thing I remember vividly from those groups was every meeting they ended with a fixed statement including the phrase, "Let there be no advice, gossip, or criticism ..." Can human beings grow and develop without those things? Maybe a person can even grow better in the absence of "advice, gossip (and) criticism"? What do I have to gain by learning to leave people alone if they fail to live a standard I hold true for myself?

Of course, maybe I am just being silly.

Thank you for reading.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Oleum Infirmorum

I have many friends, people who, for whatever reason, have shown more interest in my well-being than they are in trying to change me. My distractibility is high as I write, and I feel like I have to work so hard to adjust my external world to capture my internal peace. Back when I was in high school, I learned how to practice meditation, and only now do I realize what it takes to get that back.

In meditation, I remember being able to overcome my general anxiety to sit for select periods of time. I was not an adept. I did not have some guide. I am saying I sat for ten minutes, fifteen minutes. I learned how to breathe. As I pass through the different changes in my life I realize what I had forgotten. I realize what I lost. I now know what I work to regain.

I do not practice as a Buddhist. I never formally studied Zen. All I know is when I was younger, I needed guidance.I read many books. I needed a reed to grab to keep from drowning emotionally. I was struggling with myself, and one tool i was given was meditation. Many refer to it as "the art of sitting." I ask now why I sit, and I believe that the act of starting to sit is more important than understanding why I do it. I am not a Buddhist indeed. Still, the art of sitting is a useful one. Everyday I remember some piece of something I discussed, something about which I wrote in this blog; I know I was trying to build a bridge to something, to somewhere.

So, the path I started twenty three years ago got distracted. I discovered beer worked faster than meditation. I found my girlfriend was able to bring me to a peaceful place faster than meditation. It really seems- or at least it seemed- that meditation was tedious, and unnecessary. This act of sitting alone, checking my posture, watching my breathing, and -to the degree I understand- clearing my mind, I felt it (the meditation) was all too much work. Sitting still seemed very difficult. With less things in my life about which I needed to worry, I find myself more distracted by this sense of lost time than in times past.

Back then, my thinking was clearer. My heart stayed peaceful. My eyes stayed focused on the horizon of possibility, while I worked to stay grounded in the present. So, today, I am home with my family and friends. I laugh, because as my diet has improved, and my health has gotten better, I find myself less focused than ever before.

Sitting works. Now I am finding that with my challenged nervous system, getting back my patience is a must. Learning to breathe purposefully becomes a great asset. I also find I am learning how to stretch my body, and stretch my mind. I am learning that yoga can improve my functioning in day-to-day activities. I find that my limitations are minimized , and I am freed to maximize what is left. If I am forced to sit, I can at least sit purposefully.

So, today I woke up in time to meet my friend for Mass. Today is Saturday, and his parish offers a special Mass to anoint the sick. Today I joined him. The service was short, and simple. We celebrated the Word, and listened to the priest's homily. After that we all lined up for the anointing. Scented oil was placed on my palms and forehead. I was blessed, and I celebrated as the Eucharist was shared.

Now that I am home, I can capture that part of myself that was drifting. Learning to live a slower life is challenging. I am used to doing things, going places on a moment's notice. Today I am blessed that I can see this world from a new perspective.

Thank you for reading.