January 1, 2014

A Body in the Parking Lot

I pulled into the parking lot at the cafe, and there was a body, lying on the wet pavement, in one of the parking spaces.

As I got out, she stirred, and tried to sit up; failed, and lay back down.

I hurried over and asked her if she was all right. Breathing, bleeding, shock, said my Dad's voice, in my head. She mumbled something. I crouched down beside her and took her hand, doing a quick look-over for injuries, for scene-of-accident signs. Nothing. She returned the pressure of my hand normally: not a clutch, but a trusting squeeze.

I couldn't get intelligible speech out of her, though, and she couldn't tell me her name. I asked if she wanted to try to stand up, and she gave it a brief try, but failed. There was alcohol on her breath, but she wasn't reeking. Some more people came by, and I asked them to call 911. While we waited -- a long time, it seemed to me -- she began having gentle spasms, and muttering in distress, murmuring about something about her babies, weeping a little. All the time she held my hand. "You'll be all right, hon," I said.

Other people came along: a young Portlandia couple with open faces. The young woman put her down jacket over her, to warm her. Why hadn't I thought of that? I'm useless, useless in emergencies. Someone came out of the bar to look for her; he knew her name, but not much else. Police showed up, asked some questions, established that an ambulance was a good idea. The spasms faded. The woman, secretively, brought my hand to her mouth and kissed it.

Finally the ambulance, the paramedics: people I have great trust in. I stood up to ease my knees, after all that crouching, and the sweet young woman who'd given her jacket took over the hand holding. The paramedics, brisk and clear, got her name from her, and more information than I'd managed to get in twenty minutes. They brought the rolling stretcher over. "They're going to make you feel better," said the young woman. A moment later I saw the woman surreptitiously kiss her hand, too.

Meanwhile, blood pressure, blood sugar, questions of the guy who had been at the bar. Too little food and too much drink, that was clear. The seizures were something the guy vaguely thought maybe she had before, maybe she took medicine for.

The rolled her away to the ambulance. Everyone dispersed. I went into the bathroom at the cafe, and washed my hands well. I felt a little ashamed of myself for doing so, but I also wished I'd warned the nice young woman to do the same: Hep C is no laughing matter, and the cops and paramedics had of course gloved up at once. I went out, sat down, and got my breakfast.

That's it, that's all the story I know. I did the only thing I really know how to do, which is to convey tenderness and caring with my hands. She'd responded to my touch, as clients sometimes do, like a dry plant to water, and I could not shake the conviction, though I knew it was groundless -- really just what I was predisposed to think -- that the alcohol and not eating enough were her responses to touch starvation.

We don't take care of each other. Half of what's wrong with us human beings, I sometimes think, could be headed off if we just still hunkered down together picking lice, imaginary or real, out of each other's hair, of an evening, the way all the other primates do: just touching each other kindly, huddling close, and tending to each other. Instead we've made a world of artificial light, and images thrown on the walls, that we stagger through alone.

November 9, 2013

How to be Uncomfortable

Physical discomfort. That's the second thing I thought of, when I was thinking about why people quit meditating. They will sit rigid, in incredibly uncomfortable postures, trying to hold still, hoping their minds will settle, while their mind runs through an increasingly tight loop of being distracted by discomfort, and attempting to ignore the discomfort, returning to the object of meditation, and being distracted again. Pretty soon the object of meditation drops out of the loop altogether, and all they've got is the discomfort and the attempt to ignore it. It's not surprising that after a session or two of this people conclude that meditation is not going to work for them.

There's a right way and a wrong way to sit, and there's a right way and a wrong way to handle physical discomfort. If you do either the wrong way, your meditation practice is probably not long for this world.

Will Johnson wrote a wonderful little book, The Posture of Meditation. If you aren't clear on how to sit, and don't have a teacher handy, I strongly recommend getting it.

Meanwhile, here's what I'd advise:

1) If you're going to sit cross-legged, or in some variation of lotus, put something soft under your feet, and get your butt up high enough that your hips are at least as high as your knees. Don't be shy about stacking cushions or pillows up. Stack them two feet high, if you have to. Once you're up that high, if your knees still won't go to the ground, put yet more cushions under them. (But they still shouldn't be higher than your hips.)

2) Or sit in a chair. Being able to sit comfortably in a lotus position is not something that's determined by how enlightened you are. It's determined by how much you sat that way when you were growing up. For most of us Westerners, that's not very much. Give yourself a break.

3) Whatever you're sitting on, scootch forward so you're sitting on the edge of it, so that your pelvis tilts forward. If you don't do this, your spine won't form its S curve -- it will be more like a C -- and soon, soon, you will be miserable. Trust me on this.

4) Sit up as straight as you can. I always picture (was this an instruction somebody gave me at some point?) Milarepa reaching down from the sky, seizing me by the hair at the top of my head, and pulling me upright. That straight. Then let it all settle a little, so it's comfortable. Let your shoulders hang loose. Put your hands anywhere that makes that possible -- put them on your thighs, or fold them in your lap.

5) Sway a little, in a circle, and make sure that you're really plumb to the floor. Picture yourself as a stick that someone's trying to balance on end. Find that balance point. Then let your head sway in a little circle. It should balance the same way, on top of the stick. Keeping yourself upright, at this point, should take very little muscular exertion. Almost none.

(Some people, by the way -- is it a Zen thing? -- have these cool kneeling-board thingies. I don't know anything about them or how you sit on them.)

Okay. now you're ready to sit. Very soon -- often immediately -- you will be uncomfortable. Something will ache or tickle or twitch. But if you're sitting properly it should be a manageable discomfort

Some traditions are very strict about sitting absolutely still, and "white-knuckling" your way through the discomforts. That works for some people, but I don't think it's necessary, or (usually) desirable. All that you need to do is delay your response. Work with it. The back of your hand will itch. A lifetime (at least) of habit will urge you to scratch your hand. Don't do it. Let the itch be there. Experience it as vividly as you can. If your attention has left the object of your meditation, put it back, without trying to block out the itch, or make it go away. If you refrain from scratching once, and just notice the itch, without trying to make it go away, you have just done something with your experience that is profoundly different.

Doing that, just once, is good enough. You can go ahead and scratch after that. Or you can push it further. Keep on refraining from scratching. Watch how your mind reacts to that. (It's usually pretty entertaining to watch.) But if you come to the point where your whole mind is occupied with the struggle not to scratch -- just scratch.

Stay with the object of meditation, or return to it, if you've dropped it -- and just start fresh. You have NOT failed. You have done exactly what you set out to do -- practiced a new habit of mind. A habit of awareness, rather than knee-jerk reactivity. And again, if this happens five times, ten times, a hundred times in the course of your sit -- so much the better. So much more practice.

Itches are a great place to start. Pain is a little trickier, because it's always possible that the pain is a real signal that your body is resting in a way it shouldn't. In the very beginning, if you've got a pain telling you to shift somehow, just shift. Get comfortable again. If it was a real signal, it will go away. But usually what happens is that you'll find that -- lo and behold! The new position, too, is a painful one! And if you shift again -- so is the next! Even though, really, you are sitting in a position that's far more comfortable than the position you usually adopt to sit at the dinner table, or to sit at a keyboard.

Two things are probably in play at this point. One is that you need to develop the muscles that hold you upright in the meditation position. Either they're getting uncomfortably tired, or they're giving up the job and letting you sag into an uncomfortable position. With practice -- not very much practice, because the real muscle needed to sit properly is not very great -- the muscles of your back and abdomen will get stronger.

The other thing in play is that your mind is afraid of holding still. It's your mind, not your body, that's uncomfortable. As you get more practice, you get better at distinguishing mental from physical discomfort. The lion's share even at the start is almost always mental, the mind latching on to some little molehill twinge -- something that you wouldn't even notice if you had the ordinary level of distraction in place -- and making a mountain of it. You can practice with this, exactly as with the itch.

It's important to keep a light heart and a sense of humor. It's not a tragedy if your mind pulls a fast one on you. This is comedy. A little broad for sophisticated tastes, maybe. In the slapstick line. But it really is funny.

When you do give up on holding still, you'll usually find that shifting just a little bit doesn't do you much good. It's better to really change position for a while. Hug your knees to your chest, or stick one leg out in front of you, or even get up and walk around for a little bit.

Enduring discomfort of this sort is a little like "finding the stretch" in yoga. You go just a little past comfortable. Not a lot. It doesn't have to be a lot; in fact it shouldn't be a lot, usually. And a little past comfortable won't be the same on Thursday as it was on Wednesday. Some days letting a fly walk around on my face might be just past comfortable -- some days that might be unendurable. On those days, "just past comfortable" might be sitting still when a fly buzzes past my ear. Or even, sitting still when I know it's in the room. Objective measures are useless. Which is good, because it means that wherever my mind is, whatever state I'm in, I can always "find the stretch." And the stretch is equally valuable, no matter where I find it. If sitting still for three seconds after I realize that the window's open and a fly might get in the room is a stretch, then that's the stretch. And it's as valuable as any other stretch.

October 20, 2013

Lines, Gleams, and Shadows

You know, if your body disgusts you now, it will disgust you after you've lost 20 pounds, after you've toned your abs, after you've developed your glutes. If you can't see your body as an extraordinary feat of biology, by virtue of being alive and having got you here, as having risen to amazing demands upon it, as being warm living flesh wonderfully reassuring to touch, and as creating heartbreakingly beautiful lines, gleams, and shadows – right now – then my advice would be, fix that problem first. And it's relatively easy to fix. Really. Just go out and practice. Look at people, touch them if that's allowed in your culture, and practice thinking about how wonderful they are, how much you enjoy their skin, their hair, their grace of movement. Practice. You don't need to carry this poisonous judgmental attitude one step further. Just drop it now. It will never serve you. Never. It's not keeping you from "going to pot." It's just a cup of media-stirred poison. Don't drink that crap.

October 9, 2013


When I was a graduate student, a career or two ago, and purportedly on my way to being an English professor, people would confess to me. Strangers. The fact of my intended career would come up. A moment of silence -- shame struggling with the desire to be made clean -- and then the stranger would say, breathlessly, maybe compulsively, "English was my worst subject. I can't write."

I hated this. I would see myself as they saw me, a member of a judgmental, vengeful priesthood, always on the lookout for malefactors. "Oh yes," I would want to say, "when I meet someone, of course my first thought is 'are they worthy? Can they write?'" And I would be tempted to whisper my inmost heretical thought to them: "You know what? I don't give a damn. Who cares if you can write? What does it matter?"

Now that I'm a stress-relief professional, people have a different confession to make. "I can't meditate," they tell me. The impulse seems much the same. "You may as well know this at once: I'm someone you'll despise. Don't bother trying to teach me. I already know I can't do it." And usually, as with the English confession, there's a pinch of defiance mixed in: "and you can't make me try to learn it, either."

But in this case I do care. So I usually try to find out what they mean. There are a few people who really can't or shouldn't do quiet meditation -- there are a few conditions, physical and mental, that make it impossible or inadvisable. But these are rare. Nobody who has confessed to me has referred to such things. What they say is that they sit down, and their minds go crazy; thought piles on thought; their anxiety increases, if anything; and if their minds settle at all, it's only for a moment.

Most experienced meditators will look a little perplexed at this description of meditative failure. "Yes," they'll say, "that's what happens to me, too."

What people usually describe sounds like perfectly good meditation. The problem, apparently, is that they expected something else to happen.

Of course I know what they expected, or hoped for, anyway. Stillness; a transcendent experience; clarity; something to ground oneself on, to center on. A tranformative experience. An end to anxiety. The beginning of a new life.

And it can be any of those things, or all those things. And (I'm told) sometimes it happens that way, bang, first time out of the box. Beginner's luck is a real phenomenon, in meditation. Having no idea what you're doing or what you're going to find out is the ideal state to be in when you're sitting down to meditate. Unfortunately you only get that state for free once.

But mostly -- you know what's going to happen. That's precisely why you hadn't been sitting quietly in a spot where nothing happens, hitherto -- because you knew that being alone with your mind would make you nuts.

The thing to bear in mind is that it isn't sitting down and being quiet that has made you nuts. You were already nuts. Sitting down and being quiet has just given you the chance to notice that you're nuts. Your mind is doing that all the time. All day, all night; a ceaseless fret of worry and desire, fantasies of the future and replays of the past, a constant evaluation of everything in terms of what it means about me. What does the fact that I'm sitting down to meditate mean about me? What does the fact that my mind won't settle down mean about me? What does the fact that I'm worrying about what things mean about me mean about me? It rolls on that way, playing out as dream at night, playing out as "reality" in the daytime.

If you've discovered that you can't meditate, you have already learned the first of the only two things meditation has to teach you, to wit, that your mind is not under your control. There is only one thing more to learn. (No, not that it can be under your control. It will never be under your control. Give that up, it's a lost cause.) The second thing meditation has to teach you, is that the mind can be still. "You" can't make it hold still, because "you" are the problem. But it can be still. Put the conditions in place, and eventually -- eventually -- it will become still. As you practice, it will become still more easily, it will quiet down faster and it will stay quiet longer. It's not a linear progression, not by any means, but it is a reliable progression.

And when the mind becomes still, it's just as wonderful as everyone says.

September 15, 2013

How to Be a Sobbing Mess

I was struck by your comment about seeing that moment of letting to and feeling safe. It's been a difficult year for me and I find myself craving the relaxation and tenderness of a massage. But I also know that the tenderness would open up the floodgates, so to speak, and I'd be a sobbing mess within minutes. Right now, not letting go is the only thing keeping me together.

What are your thoughts regarding clients crying? Have you had that happen to you? What is the best way for a client to handle the situation?

I responded:

Oh, of course! It happens all the time. There's nothing to handle, except of course you'll want a big box of kleenex to hand. (It's a sadly unprepared massage therapist who doesn't have a box of kleenex in the office!) It's not a problem. You cry for a while, maybe say whatever you have to say, sniffle & blow your nose, and the massage goes on.

What the does the massage therapist do? Sit quietly, maybe hold a hand in both of ours, maybe rock them a bit: it really doesn't matter. We listen. We do need to remember that we're not trained as talk therapists, and we're not healers, whatever our clients may say. Our job is easy. As Kristen Burkholder says, "Keep your heart open and your mouth shut."

I think some people are worried that they will dissolve into tears and howl for hours, if they get started. But however big a deal it is on the inside, on the outside it's usually just an upwelling of tears and a sob or two. I work in-home, so people can howl all they want, but mostly they don't. The tears come and go.

People warn me, sometimes. "I might cry this time." But often those aren't the people who do: often it takes people by surprise. I don't think it's always even very emotional: sometimes it seems more a purely neurological response, something the nervous system does in response to touch, as part of a long-delayed transition from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic state. In any case – it doesn't come as a surprise to me, or to any experienced massage therapist. And it doesn't wreck the massage; not for me, not for you.

In general, I would say: if you need to have a good cry, the sooner the better.

September 7, 2013

Three Fun Facts about Biological Clocks

Reading this book about biological clocks, and picked up these fun facts: 

1) there are light receptors in the eye that apparently are never used for vision: their function is to inform the clock center (there is one) about the amount of light. Blind people may or may not still have the use of these receptors: if they don't their biological clock won't synchronize with day and night properly. If they do, they synchronize as well as sighted people. 

2) It's a LOT brighter outdoors than indoors. Even on a dark day, lots more light showering down outside than in a brightly-lit room. The numbers really surprised me. If you're having trouble synchronizing your clock with the day and night cycle, getting outside as soon as you wake up will probably do you a lot more good than dimming the lights before bedtime. 

3) People vary, but most commonly, if kept in a space with nothing to reveal what time of day it is, most people will settle to a circadian cycle longer than 24 hours. So the system *tends* to run late. If you don't keep nudging the clock by getting that blast of light in the morning, the natural tendency will be to stay up a bit later every night.

September 3, 2013

Pin That Thought

Lots of lovely comments on my last post, from people wishing I was in their neck of the woods, so they could get a massage from someone who would accept their body as it is. I'm grateful for the comments and for all the readers who came this way from Go Kaleo -- a flood of people! But you know, the problem is not that I'm not in your neck of the woods, the problem is that you're imagining the therapists who are in your neck of the woods are any different. They're not.

Of all people, massage therapists may be the ones least susceptible to the media images, to that whole bizarre photoshopped world of sixteen-year-olds posed in adult costumes. We work on real bodies. We don't get our clients from Central Casting. The line in the grocery store this morning -- those are my next five clients. Every imaginable shape and size, at every imaginable age and level of fitness. You may feel that you should look some other way, but we don't. We really don't.

So if you want a massage from someone who accepts you as you are -- and a lot of you are clearly longing for one -- then call up the nearest massage therapist and make an appointment. Do it now. The person who thinks your body is not fit to show to a therapist is not the therapist; it's you. If you're a fan of Go Kaleo, as I am, you're probably in the process of making peace with your body. And if your first impulse is to think, "well, maybe ten pounds from now" -- hold it right there. Pin that thought to the wall and watch it wriggle. That thought is the enemy; that's the thought that's keeping you from treating yourself kindly. It's that thought, and not the ten pounds, that's in your way.

Wherever you are, there's a massage therapist who will honor and cherish your body as it ought to be honored and cherished. You just need to find them. I'm betting it won't be hard: in fact, I'm betting you'll win first time out of the gate. Take the chance.