The key to acceptance ~ understand everything changes with time

Here is my piece featured on http://www.tinybuddha.com

“If you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.” ~Byron Katie

I love this quote. Ironic, really, because when I first read it I was furious—furious with my reality and anyone who encouraged me to be accepting of it. In my mind to accept chronic illness was to accept defeat.

I had just been diagnosed with fibromyaglia, an incredibly painful condition that had me bedridden most days and unable to care for my then two-year-old daughter, never mind myself. My home became filled with carers, aids and adaptations.

Rather than starting a new career as a newly qualified occupational therapist, I was struggling instead with the fear of lifelong pain, the shame of unemployment, and the guilt of not being the active mother I so desperately wanted to be. I was in no mood to accept such circumstances in life.

So how did I move from a position of resistance to one of restoration? How can we find some wiggle room in situations that may feel utterly immobilizing? Well, chocolate and cake help, but what really started creating space for growth was the Buddhist notion of impermanence and the insight, acceptance, and mindfulness that flowed from that.

Impermanence is a universal law; every single thing is in flux. Take the British weather, for example. We know it’s unpredictable and always changing, so when we go on holiday here we often take boots and raincoats as well as sun cream and hats! We see this same principle mirrored in ourselves as we age. I remember a time when I was washing dishes and, in looking down at my hands, was taken aback at how much they resembled my mother’s. Soft lines and delicate wrinkles that had found a home on my skin stared back at me.

The deep realization that not a single person or thing is fixed and ultimately impermanent can cause some sadness and anxiety, but within this there is a freedom and hope.

The Glass is Already Broken

Someone once asked a well-known meditation master, Ajahn Chah, in a world where everything changes, how can there be happiness?

The teacher held up a drinking glass and with much compassion explained, “You see this goblet? For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it. I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over, or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

When I read this and really let it sink into my bones, slowly, gently, something shifted. Though my ill health had initially caused so much loss and sadness, I was able to move from a place of “Why me?” to a “Why not me?” It cooled my rage, and the first shoots of acceptance began to show.

We will after all, all experience pain at some point in our lives. It is part of the package of being human. Accepting this can help ease the emotional suffering sometimes enmeshed within pain and encourage us to truly embrace and appreciate life’s pain-free moments, the pockets of joy.

Saying Hello to the Here of Our Circumstances

There is a wonderful story in Pádraig Ó Tuama’s book, In the Shelter, about a photojournalist who was returning to a tribe in Papua New Guinea where she had lived as a child. Within this tribe there was no word for hello. Instead, upon seeing someone you simply said, “You are here” and the response being equally clear was “Yes, I am.”

Isn’t that wonderful? Can we say hello to the here of our circumstances? No matter how dire or unfair they seem, if we can we’re better able to accept them. Acceptance is not defeat. It is an acknowledgment of the truth. Once we can accept where we are we can move forward with greater clarity, courage, and strength. It’s an opportunity to become unstuck, to experience well-being in the midst of our symptoms and well-being beyond our symptoms.

The Power of Mindfulness

Another thing that helped me get unstuck was mindfulness, which means conscious awareness of our moment-to-moment experience, without judgment. When I began to tentatively practice mindfulness each day I soon realized that my experience of pain was never static. It changed in its intensity and location, and ultimately had many flavors. Sometimes it was a stabbing or burning sensation, at other times a dull ache. I could observe how it felt in different parts of my body and how, like waves, it had a tendency to rise and fall. I was shown how my experience of chronic pain was, like the weather, ever changing.

I was finally able to whisper a faint hello to the pain and the emotions around it, to the here of my circumstances and the practice of listening became a sort of self-hospitality. I could welcome what is just as I would welcome a friend.

Within this I also saw the flip side of impermanence, the gift that nothing is set in stone. I was told I would always be in constant pain, but I knew my pain experience was fluid. I had occasional respite from it, even if it was just one hour a day, and with new pain knowledge and Buddhist principles I was learning to emotionally disengage from it.

Seven years after my devastating diagnosis I actually recovered from the pain of fibromyalgia. That was over three years ago, and I have never had to take pain medication for it since, but that’s another story.

As it stands I’m currently learning to navigate life with another painful chronic illness—hello, broken glass—but I’m much better able to live with it, sometimes even thrive despite of it, now that I understand the universal truth of impermanence and have nurtured the willingness to say hello to the here (albeit at times begrudgingly).

If a black mood does settle on me I try to take myself out for a mindful meander in nature.

When I can be still and behold a gyre of jackdaws, twisting and twirling like leaves caught in a breeze, it cuts through the chatter and noise, frets and fears. It’s a sweet balm for life’s concerns, and mindful moments like these, when there is peace in every breath and joy in every view, are sacred to me. They remind me that there is so much beauty in the world to balance the pain. It enables me to appreciate the present moment, helping to create the chance of a promising future.

Happiness is, after all, an inside job.

Practicing mindfulness, appreciating nature, and understanding impermanence are some of the things that have helped me—and could help you too. When we embrace what is, enjoy what we can, and accept that all things inevitably change, peace becomes possible.

A wednesday in winter

(a ten minute poetry challenge)

The robin that feeds at my window

whispers a hymn

and tentatively

I follow, stepping by streams

that seek no rest.

Cold stares from stones

betray my mind,

the fall has never been so welcome.

My body opens in weakness

as sundrops shine holy light

on my broken pieces with tender peace.

A communion of presence,

and a remembering of place.

Still, seen, sung into silence.

Resurrection; the ebb and flow

of natures song.

I go back to my window.

I am home again.

Illness & Imperfection: Embracing Life’s Messiness

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“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people, it will keep you cramped and insane your whole life”.

Anne Lamott

I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ve had to be. Illness, especially chronic illness, tends to put a spanner in the works of any life plans we may have concocted. It is, in reality, both an unhelpful & maladaptive personality trait to have, so why do we have it? Fear.

Perfectionism is fear tied up in a (neat) pretty little bow. It tricks us into feeling like we have some assemblance of control over our lives as we fumble around on this beautiful blue spinning rock called Earth. Brene Brown describes perfectionism wonderfully as armour against vulnerability. I get that, I really do, if there is one emotion I am very familiar with it is that of feeling vulnerable but life is much more pleasant without the ‘P’ word.

I was supposed to have a successful career as an occupational therapist after university, grow my family, care for my daughter, learn to drive, hike long trails & forge new paths through the adventure of life. It seems however that the universe wasn’t altogether aware of what was supposed to be happening.

The lack of control & role loss, the shame of being unproductive & the uncertainty I experienced with ill health was incredibly distressing. However I wonder now looking back, how many days did I lose to worry & stress? How many precious moments did I miss because I was fretting over the future? My life was far from perfect after all. Yet I made the classic move of what buddhists call shooting myself with a second arrow, over & over again. Buddha described how anytime we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. The first arrow is the actual negative event, which can cause pain. The second arrow is the suffering – or our reaction to the negative event & the way we emotionally respond. No doubt the moments I missed & energy I expended raging against my imperfect life are too numerous to count, I knew no better but as the wonderful Tara Brach writes, “when we learn to relax with imperfection we no longer lose our life to moments of fear”.

For my own sake & for the sake & health of my family I  had to learn to let go of the shoulds & supposed to’s. Trees & gardens are a wonderful lesson in this. Each autumn they shed so easily that which no longer serves them, making room for fresh new growth in the spring. I began to realise that my mind was like a garden & I had the power to grow resentment, anger & fear or I could plant seeds of compassion, love, joy, courage & hope.

It wasn’t & isn’t necessarily easy or straightforward. I often falter & weed pulling is a daily habit but I’m aware I have choice. That’s the point. The sweet spot. Whether or not I always make a kind choice is another matter. Eventually though I managed to let go of the feeling of shame that I carried around with me. Slowly replacing it with the belief that I was enough, am enough. None of us are defined by our illnesses or misfortunes.

There is a poem that I love by Padraig O’Tuama it reads, “the place of pain is the place of survival (and sometimes barely that)”.  In order to survive well we need to nurture ourselves with whatever gives our life meaning. Nature, music & friendship are some of the things of joy & value in my life; the things that help stitch me back together when I’m tattered & torn. In moments of struggle I like to step outside if I am able to. The Talmud has a lovely saying, “every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it whispering grow, grow, grow!”  – the whole world sacred ground & when I can sit & let the sun explore my face, I let go a little. When I can be still & open to my reality, I let go a little. Each moment an act of holiness as I welcome what is.

I still hope that pain will one day be less of a companion in my life but I’m learning to take the pain with me, into whatever future may unfold, one imperfect step at a time.

Claire Marsden @occulife

I’m a qualified occupational therapist with a passion for nature, mindfulness and well-being. I have a painful chronic illness that I’m learning to navigate life with, my second after recovering from a previous illness three years ago. I guess I’m a bit of an expert at living life with ill-health! I hope my thoughts will be of some use to people on their own journeys to well-being.

Awe; our secret weapon in the quest for well-being

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We’ve all felt it, the moment as a child when the vastness and beauty of the night stars beheld you and momentarily  stole your breath, the intellectual jaw drop the first time you saw the vision of our tiny blue planet as seen from space or the feeling that was all-enveloping when you summited a mountain and were given the gift of vistas below.

Such grand and vast examples may be  what first springs to mind but feelings of awe can also be elicited by smaller events – the beauty of a tree as it is painted with the brush of autumn or the delicate light in a forest dappled with sun. As Aristotle once said, “in all things of nature there is something of the marvellous”.  Science too is taking note investigating awe and its impact on well-being and health. The Greater Good Science Centre (GGSC) at the University of California has recently published a white paper – The Science of Awe – and the results are fascinating.

But first what is awe? The authors at GGSC describe how  awe experiences can be characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation”, the need for accommodation being when a stimulus exceeds our expectations in some way. Hence my young daughter’s first observable moment of awe. At four years old we were walking into the park, not unusual, except this time nature captured her attention  –  she noticed a single tree aflame with the reds, golds and burnt umbers of autumn, she stopped dead in her tracks and simply and beautifully  exclaimed; “wow!”.

Awe – aka wow.

We have all hopefully experienced awe at some point in our lives and we know the scientific parameters of awe but how can it help you or I ? Well according to researchers at GGSC there are both psychological and social effects.

They found that awe :

  • can create a diminished sense of self – meaning focus is shifted away from our own concerns
  • makes people more humble, “awe led to self-diminishment, which in turn gave rise to humility.”
  • expands the perception of time , which for the study participants meant they were then more willing than other people to volunteer their time to help others, to prefer experiential purchases over material ones, and reported greater satisfaction with their lives.
  • connectedness – awe helped people feel more connected to other people, and to humanity as a whole.
  • encouraged a positive mood and well-being
  • linked to better physical health – awe promoted healthier levels of cytokines. High levels of cytokines are associated with poor health and disease, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and depression
  • increased life satisfaction and decreased materialism , participants who recalled an awe experience placed less value on money than did participants who recalled happy or neutral experiences, and viewing awe-inducing images reduced the effort people were willing to put into getting money

Awe – it’s pretty awesome!

So how can we help manifest more of this marvellously magical  mood? One word – nature. Awe is when nature puts her best dress on and dances like no-one’s watching. She is our invitation into awe and available to all, the sick and the healthy. So much so that researchers found using virtual reality to showcase awe inspiring landscapes yielded many positive results – participants did not have to physically be in the landscape to benefit from it. From an occupational therapy perspective as-well as a personal one I find this very exciting. It also drew my mind back to the  ‘five ways to mental well-being’ from the government office for science, in particular their call to ‘take notice’ and to ‘catch sight of the beautiful’.

I do however feel most alive and find most meaning when I am physically out in nature, even if I am simply sitting in the garden. Having a chronic illness means that sometimes the closest I come to living life on the edge is using my mobile phone in the bath but I can and do experience awe when I am able to take a slow stroll in the woods near my home – when trees tremble with the first touch of autumn and leaves float down like confetti welcoming me into their home, then like a small child I am in awe. So what are you waiting for? Bend your heart towards nature and let awe welcome you home.

Claire Marsden @occulife

I’m a qualified occupational therapist with a passion for nature, mindfulness and well-being. I have a painful chronic illness that I’m learning to navigate life with, my second after recovering from a previous illness three years ago. I guess I’m a bit of an expert at living life with ill-health! I hope my thoughts will be of some use to people on their own journeys to well-being.

The outdoors – medicine for the mind

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In my mind’s eye I see an image of the sun’s rays rising to meet a masiff. Hungy shafts of dawn-light falling on granite blades of mountain and moss. I too am eager to set foot and boot and bone on it and in it, to set my senses on nature. It is in nature that I feel truly hushed, seen, found and grounded.

Like the solid timeless rocks of mountainscapes which resist erosion so well, so too can we, by being in nature, resist the ever increasing pace and force of modern life which so often seems to leave us wanting & for those with a disability frequently discriminates against. Yet an illness or disability does not have to separate us from our inheritance.

Walking is my axis mundi. There is a freedom on the trail, labels disappear and job titles are tossed aside, we are hikers, explorers, adventurers, equals. I haven’t always being physically able to take part in hiking however. Between the age of 28 and 35 I spent most of my days in my home crippled by excruciating pain from which I was told I would never recover. The 500 pain killers I took each month only served to give me a window of perhaps two hours a day with which to spend time with my young daughter and husband. There was no pressure to ‘make the most of it’, honestly!

So what to do in times like this ? Well sometimes when we are unable to venture out into nature we need to bring the outdoors indoors. I started to live vicariously through artists, writers and musicians. Some would argue, as the narrator in Proust’s, ‘the prisoner’ espoused that, “the only true voyage of discovery…would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others and to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds”. I don’t completely agree with this but it did temporarily satiate the desire to escape my restrictive reality.

However when, as often happened, pain levels were too high to read or even listen to an audio book I found simply gazing out of my bedroom window onto the ever changing scene of woodland and wildlife brought me to a place of momentary peace and restoration.

Fast forward a few years and with some luck, lots of hard work and perseverance I healed from that illness and spent 3 lovely years walking locally, wild swimming and easing back into the world. Yet after planning (to attempt) a long distance hike I’ve found myself again diagnosed with another painful chronic illness – none of us has a monopoly on health I angrily told myself. So now I find I’m falling back on my occupational therapy training (not to be confused with occupational health) adapting activities, grading, finding a way to incorporate my meaningful occupation of walking in nature, into my current circumstance and with some mindfulness, creativity and patience, like John Muir counselled, I am able to make sure a few of the paths I take in life are dirt.

Claire Marsden @occulife

I’m a qualified occupational therapist with a passion for nature, mindfulness and well-being. I have a painful chronic illness that I’m learning to navigate life with, my second after recovering from a previous illness three years ago. I guess I’m a bit of an expert at living life with ill-health! I hope my thoughts will be of some use to people on their own journeys to well-being.