Sunday, May 12, 2013

When Things Fall Apart

Last week I traveled to Nashville, Tennessee for one of two national nurse practitioner conferences and more importantly, to see my friends Eddie and Trish. 
I met Eddie my first or second day in nursing. “Come help me find supplies,” he said, his words Southern-slow, sweet and smooth like golden, Tennessee honey. “Let’s go change a dressing.” He was a surgical resident; I - a wide-eyed, newly pressed plebe in crisp white dress, nylons, shoes and cap. We became instant friends and have remained so for thirty-plus years, he - a natural teacher, me - a sponge.
Trish is a contagion of enthusiasm and joy, bringing new meaning to the words supportive wife, creative and caring mother and grandmother. I visited them in Puyallup once, after wrangling the Army into deploying me to Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state for my Reservist weeks. 
Every morning before their daughters marched off to school, Trish braided or pony-tailed, or pig-tailed, and ribboned or barretted or rubber-banded or did whatever their little coiffing heart’s desired. The mothering lessons learned in those weeks went light-years beyond perfunctory.
I could write reams of the heavily timbered hills, green sweeping lawns, white split-rail fences, and cicada songs of the genteel south that permeate their souls - but that is another story for  a different day. We talked in their living room, feet up, sipping southern sweet-tea. 
“You never really know who is going to travel through life with you,” I said. I am grateful they allowed me to tag along - their friendship has touched me in deep and meaningful ways.

My airplane hours were spent turning the pages of Pema Chödrön’s best seller, When Things Fall Apart - Heart Advice for Difficult Times. If you have not read Pema, let me highly recommend. She is an American Buddhist nun, her words are simple and ring true. In fact, her book titles exemplify simple truth, i.e. Start Where You Are and  The Wisdom of No Escape. 
When Things Fall Apart is a guide: 
to use painful emotions to cultivate wisdom, compassion and courage
to communicate in ways that lead to openness and true intimacy with others
to practices for reversing our negative, habitual patterns
to methods for working with chaotic situations
to cultivate compassionate, energetic social action

“This is a pisser for you; isn’t it?” he said.
I paused, choosing my words carefully, “No, not a pisser, something to manage.”
I thought about his assertion for days and it gnawed at me. What is it? When I don’t get my way, when the rules change, when I’m corrected, chastised or admonished, when things fall apart - who am I in the matter of it all?
Inside I am Ninja Monkey - all teeth, darts and daggers, nunchucks and swords, flying venomous stars and arrows - tips dipped in muscarinic, paralyzing agents. Ninja Monkey emerges as anger and argue and resistance. 
In the face of Ninja Monkey, in managing the snarling beast, there are seemingly two paths: suppression versus recognition and redirection, using “painful emotions to cultivate wisdom, compassion and courage.” I am interested in that. I’m interested in who I BE and how I behave when things fall apart, when things are a pisser.

One tool in unpacking upset (when things are a pisser) is to look within for unmet expectations, broken promises, and undelivered communication.
Is there an expectation I hold that is unmet?
Did someone break a promise?
Is there something I haven’t said OR don’t want to say?
Is there a conversation of redress required - so the upset can be managed mutually OR does one suppress?

Pema tenders the fear of impermanence is our great source of upset and resistance. Relaxing with the present moment, not resisting that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time - that is the basic message. No escapism. If we can give up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence.

I recently taught a Memory Class. This class provides basic information about memory loss and dementia versus natural aging. It is typically filled with the elderly and their middle-aged children. Some have been referred by their doctor, some have registered themselves, prompted by family and friends. Some are the worried-well, some are not. Talk about a room filled with people who can no longer ignore the reality of impermanence.
As I taught, I watched a young-ish woman become more and more irritated. Her body language, gestures and facial expressions grew in animation and anger along with the decibels of her murmurings. I should have stopped instructing and asked her to speak. I didn’t. I continued on, ignoring her agitation until she exploded from her chair and marched up for a face off.
“This is f__g bullshit!” she screamed, stabbing a finger at me. “I work in a nursing home with 69 residents who have dementia. There is no cure for this so we don’t need to hear about blueberries, diet, and exercise! Do you have a cure?”
Blueberries? Did I even use the word? “No,” I said, “There is no cure. Were you looking for one?”
“We don’t need a f__g class; we need a cure!” She pointed to her husband, “He’s already diagnosed. We don’t need another f__g class; we need a cure!”
“If you feel this class is not appropriate for you and you want your husband evaluated in the Memory Clinic, fill out that green paper and our medical assistants will contact you for an appointment.”
“And what?” She sneered, “You’ll send us to another class?”
“No, he’ll be evaluated in the clinic.”
She turned her vehemence on the class, “WHAT is the matter with you f__g people? Why do you put up with this bullshit?”
“We’re trying to learn something,” a man blurted in defense.
“Please,” I said, my voice calm but strong, “This class may not be appropriate for you. You are welcome to leave and we would be happy to evaluate your husband in our clinic.” I glanced at him, frozen in his chair.
“I don’t need your f__g clinic and I AM leaving because this is f__g bullshit!” she stormed through the door. When he did not follow, she reopened it and seethed, “Com’on!” He rose, apologizing as he exited. Minutes later, two request-for-appointment sheets were slipped under the door. One declined an appointment, the other requested one.

The fear of impermanence. There is a goodly dollop of pent up hostility and frustration harbored within the Memory Class attendees. There is wide-spread sentiment that we should “do more” as their loved ones struggle with dementing disease. It surfaces in class and they lash out at instructors with the fear of impermanence.

Pema writes about leaning into the sharp points, recognizing upset as a place for growth and compassion for self and others. Upsets reveals our attachments, where we are stuck in the duality of how things should be (fantasy) versus how they are (reality). She calls this stuckness
How do we lean into the sharp points? Recognizing the barb is paramount. I have definite standards regarding appropriate public behavior and can quickly label and discount “people like her.” My position could easily garner hardy agreement among my colleagues and attendees. I could be right, righteous and move on. I could... and remain in my stuckness about how things should be. Without leaning into the sharp points, there is no new growth or compassion for self and others.
In the past, I might have become surly, my remarks biting. Whether I was outwardly disdainful, internally I would be a mess, damaged and filled with “shoulds.”
I recognized the barb in the moment and  did not react - not within or out, nary a churlish snarl from Ninja Monkey. I was the space of the Peaceful Warrior, leaning into the sharp points that allowed her expression, inviting her to leave, and amazingly, acquired no residue from the interaction. Later, I reflected that it signified a shift for me. Leaning into the sharp points allows for growth and compassion for self and others. 

What does Pema write about getting to the space of nothing, no reaction and no attachment? The practice of Tonglen is a method for connecting with suffering, dissolving the tightness of our hearts and awakening compassion that is inherent in us all.
As an aside - I LOVE the Buddhist assertion that we are inherently good, perfect just the way we are and are not. It is consistent with my experience - we are inherently good. A belief that (wo)man is inherently sinful does not resonate though I don't discount evil in the world. But I digress.

 The core of Tonglen practice is breath: breathe in the other’s pain so they can be well and have space for opening - breathe out, sending them that which would deliver relief. Often at the start of my yoga practice, we are prompted to dedicate our time on the mat to someone in need. Yoga is all about prana ~ breath. Breathe in suffering; breath out relief. Yoga is Tonglen, 75-minutes of breathing for another.

Pema makes a distinction between detached (and uncaring) versus no attachment (with compassion). Her discussions include tolerating versus patience. Compassion and generosity do not equate to doormat. No attachment is not equivalent to heedlessness and negligence.

Through the years, I have found embarrassingly few for whom I am always generous and always compassionate - always in all ways. Over time, as I exercised those muscles, my capacity for generosity and compassion expanded - including more. 
My buddy Hernando G is the personification of including more with compassion and grace. So sagacious he, I call him G-san and am inspired to follow, including more, always including more. Hold close those for whom you are generous and compassionate, for they will teach you grace. And grace, my friends, is the beanstalk to heaven.
And that is how it came to pass that I could include the young-ish woman screaming obscenities at me and my class.

In the moment - I saw her suffering, her fear of impermanence, her resistance to naked truth. In the moment - I knew it was not about me or my class. It was fear; it was resistance, it was struggle. I leaned in, breathed in, breathed out filled with compassion for her station. I acknowledged the class for their generosity in being with her pain. When day was done, I was undamaged, not one kernel of remorse, no residue or smoke of battle. At the end of the day I was perfect, whole and complete.
It feels important; it feels like a shift. There will be days ahead where I will undoubtedly stumble on the yogic path. There will be many more days when an event that would have been a pisser is naught but an exercise to lean into the sharp points, finding compassion and generosity for others, leaving us whole and present to love. I am intensely interested in that. You?

Chinese Proverb: 
Grant yourself a moment of peace and you will  understand how foolishly you have scurried about.
Learn to be silent and you will notice that you have talked too much.
Be kind and you will realize that your judgement of others was too severe.
Hasten slowly and you will soon arrive.