Five Days of Silent Meditation or QUEEN SPAZZY FREE-FOR-ALL TAKES TO THE WOODS

Sincere spiritual exploration is, and always has been, an endeavor of methodical discipline. Looking for Truth is not some kind of spazzy free-for-all, not even during this, the great age of the spazzy free-for-all.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Sunday August 12, 2012

I tried this once before, this silent retreat thing, just over a decade ago – and the results were disastrous. My monkey mind had its way with me back then, and I came out of the experience thinking that I would rather endure all manner of physical torture than the mental torture that silence and absolute solitude wrought. At that point in my life, I was way less than ready to come face to face with the shame, fear and confusion that drove my inner narrative, and I bailed after a day. After several hours of driving aimlessly along the Blue Ridge Parkway (there are worse things, ultimately) I pulled off on the side of the road and called my then partner, who listened to me cry and who said, memorably, “Baby, I don’t know how to help you.” And really – how could he have known? So there on the side of the road, I pulled out my journal and scribbled furiously: “I need a rebirth, a reclamation, a commitment to myself first and foremost. I need a dress, a ring, and Promises…” and the rest is history. (www.dressringpromises.com)

In any case, a decade and lifetimes of experience later, I am infinitely more prepared this time. I think. I have, for a long time now, had a sustained contemplative practice. Furthermore, this summer will go down in my personal history as the one in which I was the unofficial bride of the little stone chapel at Montgomery Bell State Park. (See photo, above.) For the past two months, in that sweet spot, I have logged in countless hours of meditation and centering prayer. I didn’t set out to devote this summer to a radical and transformative spiritual practice, but for whatever reason (likely a temporary bout with ill health that brought me to my knees, as it were) I suddenly this summer craved quietude in the way I have craved chocolate in the past. I have sensed untold amounts of Divine Grace in the silence. And now I want more.

I feel determined. Not only do I feel determined, I feel ready: I have a schedule mapped out (which I plan to adhere to rigorously), my bag packed, my food prepared. And yet … I’m putting off bed time because I’m scared. I keep saying to my son, Jacob, “I’m nervous.” To which he finally replies, “Dear God. By this point I am too!” As usual, he keeps me laughing all night.

Monday

I arrive at the park promptly at 9:00am, and it’s raining hard; which is perfectly fine, I think, assuming it doesn’t rain all week. The chapel is first on the schedule-to-which-I’ll-be-adhering-rigorously, and it is lovely as always. I plan to observe a sitting meditation for about three hours a day – if not zazen (kekka-fuza escapes me), at least silently. The rest of the day is for quiet contemplation, prayer, and swimming. Oh, and eating. I will, of course, be eating food from my strict and spare meal plan – to which, yes, I will also be adhering rigorously. (Incidentally, the word “rigorous” will grow less important as the week progresses.)

I love this tiny, sacred space. As much as I love it – and as totally as I have claimed it as my own this summer – I have refused to get proprietary about it. I refuse, for instance, to ever call it, “My chapel.” As often as I start to say, “My chapel” and catch myself, it is and will always be, “The chapel;” The sandstone chapel which commemorates the birth of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1810, to be exact.

There are visitors in and out all morning, which I’ll have to deal with eventually. I’ve been dealing with this all summer and am used to the distractions, which generally I have decided are good for me. In fact, I have made it a practice to personally welcome any and everyone who crosses the threshold of my – I mean the – chapel. But if I’m to observe a strict meditation schedule this week, I’ll have to ignore the folks that come and go. But I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. (It’s day one, people.) The upside is, I’ve had some lovely conversations this morning, as usual, and in between visitors I meditate until my schedule tells me it’s snack/swim time – at which point, I head to the lake.

***

There will be no swimming today. It’s raining even harder by the time I get to the water, so instead of swimming, I wrap myself in towels and surround myself with my favorite books. This place is beautiful, as is the rain, and I feel warm and cozy and delighted by the storm, and I can’t believe that I was ever, ever nervous about this week! I eat to my heart’s delight, rhapsodize in my journal about the sound of the rain (or something) and feel, for all the world, like I’m on vacation.

Somewhere in these initial, self-congratulatory hours I am dimly aware of the fact that vacation isn’t really the point, but for now this awareness is keeping a polite distance while I turn the page of my journal and commence making a cheerful list of my favorite Hafiz poems … Right up until I come across this one (with which I’m very familiar and which partially spurred this idea in the first place):

FOR THREE DAYS

Not many teachers in this world

Can give you as much enlightenment

In one year

As sitting all alone, for three days,

In your closet

Would

Do.

This means not leaving.

Better get a friend to help with

A few sandwiches

And

The chamber

Pot.

And no reading in there or writing poems,

That would be cheating;

Aim high–for a 360 degree

Detox.

This sitting alone, though, is

Not recommended

If you are normally

Sedated

Or have ever been under doctors

Surveillance because of your

Brain.

Dear one,

Don’t let Hafiz fool you–

A ruby is buried

Here.

Oh. Right. So, no books for the rest of the week, then. This means that whether or not I am officially meditating, I will have nine hours a day here by myself, with very few distractions.

I put away my books and practice another seated meditation, because there isn’t much else to do what with the rain and the moratorium on reading. But my tremor is a distraction, as is the relentless pain in my tail bone. In addition to that, the mosquitoes are out and my feet are cold and I can’t remember whether or not I set my alarm to alert me when “snack/swim time” is over and …

Yes. This is more to the point, and this ain’t no vacation. The thought makes me smile. And so we begin.

***

During my afternoon meditation in the chapel my goal is to (politely?) ignore anyone that enters. This is harder than I thought it would be. First of all, it makes me a bit nervous. The very many cautionary tales I’ve received from my friends and loved ones (who know of my plan to spend the week in a state park alone) have had an effect, meaning that everyone who approaches me (especially when my back is turned and my eyes are closed) is momentarily suspect. Even harder is dealing with the fact that I feel rude. I realize that I have come to love my role as the one woman welcome committee, and it is hard not to acknowledge the presence of all who enter. But I want – I need – to “go deeper” (whatever that means) and so today I do manage to ignore the few people who wander in. Interestingly, when I remain silent, everyone who enters does so quietly and respectfully. I hear people come in, but sometimes I don’t notice when they leave.

I have carried into the park with me a story of such tragic proportions that it will have to be dealt with sooner or later, and I decide to spend some time praying about it this afternoon. I have dear friends who know and work with a family who has, just this past week, experienced trauma of the highest order. The kind of human tragedy that is hard to wrap one’s heart and mind around.

I am somewhat accustomed to this line of contemplation. I have been an anti-death penalty activist for much of my life. Within this line of work it is necessary, early on, to find a place within one’s spiritual understanding for heinous and atrocious human behavior on the one hand, and unfathomable grief and loss on the other. And yet this story, which is unmercifully splattered on the pages of our local newspaper, is especially heartbreaking.

I think again of Hafiz, as I so often do, who writes gently:

There is no event in your life

You in some way

Did not drive a hard bargain for.

This chapel has become the place in which I actively wrestle with proclamations such as these, both as they relate to my own life and to the lives of the people around me. I realize, once again, that I gently, tenderly – apologetically, even – accept this as Truth. Across the vast expanse of lifetimes, in which the soul’s purpose is to evolve and to keep on evolving, it makes sense to me that we are, at times, broken (sometimes completely shattered, in fact) because we ask and need to be, on some level; because such brokenness serves us in some way. This is what I have come to believe, in any case.

That said, my pain for this family is overwhelming and I pray for relief for them; for some semblance of safe passage through this lifetime, in which nothing will ever be the same. I weep for them, as well as for my friends who know them and who have had to bear witness to their pain. Here in the chapel, I give this time to them. It is the least I can do.

Tuesday

I am, as it turns out, infinitely more ready for a week of intense meditation than I might have guessed.

That said, it’s not always easy. On this particular morning lots of anger is surfacing, which is relatively rare for me. I feel loads of anxiety and confusion bubbling to the surface as well, which is not as rare. I sit with it all. This is one of the most useful things about a contemplative practice, I’m finding: the increased ability to sit with pain and sadness very intentionally. Instead of running from the discomfort (and worse) – instead of distracting myself at all costs, I move right to the center of it. This practice, I think, has quite a lot to do with the fact that I feel a much greater sense of contentment than I ever have before. The persistent feeling that something isn’t quite right – the sort of low level, dissonant, background noise in the back of my mind is, slowly but surely, shifting to its opposite. This in and of itself is revolutionary for me.

***

I am here for Trenna, let’s be clear. And for Jacob. It’s the very, very least I can do.

***

It’s swim time, according to my schedule, and today there’s not a cloud in the sky when I get to the lake. As I peel off my sweat pants and head for the water, I can’t help celebrating the fact that the kids are back in school and the vacationers have all gone home – meaning that I am alone in this beautiful place; wondrously, blissfully alone. As I step into the lake, however, it strikes me that perhaps this is not such a good thing – because who other than me will scare away the fish? But I swim happily enough until I’ve had my fill, at which point I decide to spend the rest of snack/swim time meditating on the tiny, sandy “beach.”

So far, the biggest challenge I’m facing in my meditation this: Each time I close my eyes, my mind presents me with reams and reams of blank paper on which to write, and write I do – fingers flying across a mental keyboard, thoughts and paragraphs and bits of monologues coming so quickly that I can scarcely keep up with them. By week’s end I will come to understand that this is a gift – I haven’t generated this much creative output in years. Still, it’s distracting. It’s easy to overly identify with the material that I’m receiving, all of which appears effortlessly – unsolicited and fully formed. It’s tempting to think that I am very, very clever, all of a sudden. By the time Friday rolls around I will have learned – quite successfully, I think – to manage this phenomena. As well, I will have learned a great deal about the creative process in general (or at least about my own). The process really is wondrously co-creative. Ideally, I think, one creates huge amounts of space in which to listen and receive. Then, if anything is to come of such gifts, one must show up and suit up for the sweat equity part of the bargain…

Before this week, I probably could have intellectualized all of this, and even described it to some degree. But never before have I witnessed it in such stark terms.

Wednesday

No swimming this morning. The water is stagnant and decidedly unappetizing. My sweet little swimming hole today more closely resembles a sewage treatment plant for ducks. Perhaps this is what happens when the kids are back in school and the vacationers have gone home.

***

I have found a new place to meditate, as there are just too many people in and out of the chapel. Also, I’m not adhering to my schedule quite as rigorously as I was in the beginning. I’m meditating, or at least sitting silently, for more hours than I had originally scheduled. I’m now spending most of my time at the spill way, which is absolutely gorgeous and which offers the added bonus of the sound of falling water.

I am here at the spillway when it happens … When I get a brief and exquisite taste of the ineffable. (I can’t say I wasn’t hopeful …) I have been meditating for an hour or so when I tip over into a state that transcends my ability to describe it. I don’t get to stay long; it’s a tiny taste – a teaser. But it’s enough. It’s so much more than enough. It releases my head and pierces my heart, and when I open my eyes everything around me is so beautiful that it takes my breath away… I literally gasp out loud and have to resist the urge to leap out of my chair. I want to move, suddenly. I want to take this glimpse of Divinity and run out into the world with it. It takes no small amount of discipline to stay in my seat, but stay in my seat I do, and it’s not long before I settle in and bask in this feeling… I could (and do) sit here for hours.

A hawk circles above me, sliding along the sky. I think about how for El Gavilan, as for the rest of us, it’s not possible to take flight until one is able to rise above guilt and shame. I watch the hawk for a long time.

Thursday

This morning I deviate from the schedule in a big way. I decide to spend some time, while in this calm and centered place, getting a handle on the year ahead. I get out my calendar and my budget and lay it all out on paper, dates and numbers. It’s a fun exercise, all in all, though in the end my document more closely resembles abstract art (emphasis on abstract) than an actual budget. Numbers are not my area of expertise, to put it mildly. But still, I like where this is going. Through an odd combination of unceasing willfulness  (not to mention a dearth of alternatives), I have crafted a life which, for the most part, reflects my passions and interests all across the board. All of my work meets at the intersection of Art and Change-making, with particular emphasis on what can accurately be described as a new, worldwide women’s movement – as in, Gather the women, Save the World, and Not a Moment Too Soon. And happily, I’m traveling a lot this fall: to the beach with my sister in August; to Colorado to perform a beloved piece and to see beloved friends in September; and to Santa Fe, NM at the end of October, for another silent retreat at Christ in the Desert. All in all, it’s shaping up to be a lovely year as years go.

But I get so caught up in doing mode that it is hard to switch to being mode. After an hour or so, when I put away my notebooks and turn inward, I have a hard time settling in. Truth be told, I’ve probably been stalling a bit. Yesterday was so lovely that on some level I have convinced myself that today wont be. Not surprisingly then, it’s not.

Satori, the Zen Buddhists call it. I wonder if those who have been meditating for years experience Satori somewhat regularly – or if it is always purely an act of Grace. I’m not sure that what I experienced yesterday would qualify as such; I have experienced Satori once before in no uncertain terms, and yesterday’s experience (whatever it was) was so brief (seconds) that I’m not sure. I don’t know enough about such things.

***

I spend most of the morning fantasizing. Not the lurid variety, just to be clear. (My daughter hates when I use this word. What she doesn’t understand is that by this point, in my mid forties, my fantasies are as often inhabited by the well appointed kitchen as by the well appointed man.) That said, I do spend a fair amount of time, in general, daydreaming about some lovely man I haven’t met yet, and this morning is no exception. In any case, eventually I decide to move to another part of the park to see if a change of location will help. I find a pretty place I haven’t been before, haul my chair down to the water’s edge, and try to remember everything I know about meditation: relax, focus on breathing, don’t fight the thoughts – just let them float innocently by etc.

But mostly I’m just hot. The mosquitoes are even worse here, the fish are jumping in a way that’s distracting, and I’m sure I’m getting sunburned. I move again, back to the spill way, and when I park my chair in the usual spot I decide that I am here to stay for the rest of the day; that I will sit in silent meditation come hell or high water, transcendent experience or not. Despite my firm decision and the idyllic surroundings, however, and despite the fact that I do indeed sit here for the rest of the day, I never settle in.

Today the monkey mind (whom we might call KoKo) is in complete control. She is behaving like three year old, very smart triplets in an attempt to entice me into doing something infinitely more fun than letting my thoughts “float innocently by…” The more Koko tries to distract me the more stubbornly I try to shush her, and soon we are engaged in a full on battle of wills. I’m trying desperately to ignore her, and she responds by amping it up a few notches—presenting me, for instance, with a game she finds both fun and entertaining and which she dubs: Potentially Pithy facebook Posts (my favorite being “It’s no fun ovulating when you’re single”). I don’t have to mention that this is exhausting. All in all, I want to go home.

Thursday, it seems, is a wash.

Friday

Except that Thursday wasn’t a wash. It was a necessary and important part of my experience as a whole. It’s all good, as they say.

And here is Friday already. I’m leaving early, I’ve decided. I have put my life on hold for a week and decide that I have to come out at noon to chop wood and carry water, as it were. There are things I simply shouldn’t put off until next week. I settle on this decision firmly as I turn into the park.

Interestingly, all mental chatter ceases as I turn in, and it feels as if I’m entering a sacred space. I feel alert and present to a degree that is surprising and unexpected. That said, I think I somehow knew, even before I went into the woods, that it would all come together in the end.

I’ll be in the chapel this morning. The dear, dear little chapel.

Here I have my best meditation of the week, by far. I settle in immediately. Thoughts come and go, but I’m not attached to any of them. People come and go, but I’m not attached to them either. The coming and going barely ruffles the edges of my consciousness, and the hours slide by quickly.

At noon, I drive out of the park. It’s raining again, which is perfectly fine.

Taming Dragons

Sigurd and Fafnir by Arthur Rackham

TAMING DRAGONS

The savvy reader will observe that in keeping with THE LIST OF THREE (which has emerged as a minor focus of interest today, for reasons that escape me) I have mentioned exactly three friends in this post:

1. Berta 2. Jamie, and 3. Amy.

Just saying.

So my last post (CHRONIC HOPE, 7/29/12) was to be the last post about my bout with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or any syndrome, for that matter – though that’s the only one I’m aware of having) because the conversation is, admittedly, a bit of a downer. But before we move on to happier things – like the fact that my book little book is making its debut in two boutiques and a bookstore this week – a follow-up seems necessary, if only to serve as a reminder that radical self care requires much more than dresses, rings and flowers. Beyond that obvious statement, a follow up to the “Chronic Hope” post seems necessary for three other reasons, as well:

1) It wasn’t overly hopeful (title notwithstanding)

2) It alarmed many wonderful people in my life; people who are concerned not only that I feel punk (as my mother used to say), but also that I am being unnecessarily hard on myself. As my wise and beloved friend Berta wrote, referring to my tendency to be self-condemning Re: this Chronic Fatigue thing: “I know saying ‘please don’t do that’ is virtually ineffective and not helpful, but please don’t do that.”

3) And this is important: I feel very sure that if it hadn’t taken me quite so long to really understand what it means to Love, Honor and Care for myself in the way my own little book prescribes, (like I said – I grew into my Promises slowly, with time) I wouldn’t be suffering from a chronic power deficit. This is what happens, you see, when you give away your power for two decades.

So, three things about those three things – because my friend Jamie and I are really into lists lately – especially, for some reason, lists of three (although she says “A, B, C,” and I say “1,2,3.”) I digress. The list:

1) I absolutely agree that relentless self-condemnation is never helpful.

2) I had NO idea how hard I was on myself until I removed very nearly everything from my TO DO list (for the first time in years) got profoundly quiet, and commenced listening – deeply.

3) Re: that giving away my power thing? I didn’t know better, and now I do. Or, maybe, I couldn’t help it, and now I can. In any case, It’s true that I gave away my power for two decades – because I was scared; because I felt guilty about having been a powerful but selfish young person; because I am the consummate people pleaser, have shamanistic tendencies, and am a diehard empath to boot. But those days are OVER, friends. They are decidedly, powerfully, lesson-learned-thank-you-Jesus OVER.

SELF CONDEMNATION and RECLAIMING MY OWN POWER and, oh, the information that bubbles to the surface when one clears the decks and spends a good amount of time each day in silent meditation.

On SELF CONDEMNATION, briefly.

At one point, a few (we’ll say three) weeks ago, I had the following conversation (via text) with my friend Amy:

Me: I had no idea how blisteringly hard on myself I am. Quieting the deeply buried (and now surfacing) voices in my head – the ones that have long told me that I’m pathetic for having succumbed to such ill health (among other things) – is harder than taming dragons.

Amy: Yes. But think about how cool it will be to have a tame dragon.

(With friends like these who needs therapy?!) At this point, I’m happy to report (happier than I can hope to express, frankly) that my inner work is, evidently, thorough and vibrant enough that I needed only to recognize the fact that these dragons existed to quiet them almost instantly. The degree to which and the speed with which I 1) acknowledged said dragons, 2) dealt with them lovingly, compassionately, firmly and 3) kissed them good bye once and for all surprised even me. At this point, getting quiet enough to hear them was the key.

On RECLAIMING MY POWER, briefly.

Don’t get me started. Or, let me count the ways. Since the list of ways in which I’m having a joyous time reclaiming my power would easily exceed a neat and tidy list of three, I’ll write about the one way in which I feel I must reclaim my power in the face of a chronic illness.

Now that I have “come out” of the chronic illness closet, as it were; now that I have decided to take a few weeks off to deal with this debilitating fatigue very directly, the question is this: how do I effectively deal with a “chronic” condition without becoming overly identified with it?

I believe the answer lies not only in radical self-care, dragon taming, and righteous optimism, but also in continuing to take responsibility for the decisions I have made which have led me to this point. And make no mistake: without this crucial step, I will never regain my power and/or energy. (Not to mention the fact that this is the least I can do for my friends and family – most particularly my sister and dear parents – who have worried about me and supported me through the years in ways that have gone above and beyond the call of duty.) Beating myself up, either consciously or subconsciously, is counterproductive at best, yes, and it’s important not to do that. But recognizing that I didn’t get here in a vacuum is every bit as important. I am tired because I have worn myself out over the years, making one disempowering decision after another. But this, too, I believe: Every last disempowering decision I have made was worth it for one simple reason: I “didn’t know better and now I do,” as I said earlier (and as I note in the book).

This is the magic formula, then, so far as I’m concerned – taking absolute, 100% responsibility for my mistakes – which have been as grave as any made anywhere at anytime – and refusing to cripple myself with guilt and condemnation. Instead, I will go about the rest of my life joyously employing everything I have learned from my mistakes to keep others (pray GOD) from making the same ones. This is the least – the very, very least that I can do.

My life lessons have left their mark, and the cumulative effect has brought me to a place of extreme fatigue and forced surrender. As frustrating – indeed as terrifying as this has been – I recognize the inherent gifts here.  This period of profound quietude has forced me even further inward – where I’m finding more than just dragons. There are jewels here too; jewels of such magnificence that they bring me to my knees, again and again, in the little chapel at Montgomery Bell Park, where I have spent the better part of my days these past few weeks.

In any case, fear not, friends. I’m okay and getting better.

Sara Sharpe lives the wonderful, piecemeal life of an artist in Nashville, TN. She is an actor, a writer, a Holistic Life Coach (at Center of Symmetry) and the author of A Dress, A Ring, Promises to Self: an unconventional wedding planner for one. www.dressringpromises.com

CHRONIC HOPE

Publishing even a small book about radical self-care is, evidently, a sure fire way to run headlong into the many ways in which I still fail to take care of myself; sometimes in epic ways.

Despite my recent experience at Montgomery Bell Park (see “Choice Rock” below) I’m still tired. In fact, I’m profoundly tired.

As I’ve said before, I can’t begin to express how tired of being tired I am. And not only am I tired of being tired, I’m tired of hiding the fact that I’m tired from my friends, my family, and even from myself on some level. But the fact of the matter is, I’m not functioning very well – physically, anyway – loath though I am to admit it. (I’m forcing myself to deal with the fact that I have long viewed my fatigue as a monumental, personal failure.)

Being overly tired isn’t anything to crow about in the day of over achieving supermoms, and those of us who suffer from a lack of energy (to put it mildly) aren’t eager to call attention to this glaring flaw in our character. Instead, we suffer silently; sometimes for years. We quietly deal with virus’ and infections that don’t go away; we wait for “up cycles” during which we run ourselves ragged trying to get as much done as possible before the fatigue bears down on us again; and on tired days, we climb into the backseat of our cars between every appointment – for a nap that more closely resembles a coma – while resigning ourselves to the hazards of potential dehydration when temperatures outside climb near 100. I realize that this in no way resembles self-care, but when you’re single and an artist – making a living in whatever way you can – you do what you have to do, right?

My tired days aren’t a complete secret, because the sort of mind numbing, debilitating fatigue I’m describing can’t be hidden entirely. But at this point, there are only a tiny handful of people who know the true extent of my suffering and who bear the brunt of my fear and complaining. But I’m about to expand my circle of friends-in-the-know. It’s time to let you all in on my dirty little secret:

I suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or CFS.

There. I said it. This is no small admission. And yet, is it just me or does the pronouncement fall a bit flat? (I mean, who ISN’T chronically tired in this day and age?)

A quick word, if I may, about CFS, denial, and shame. Those of us who have, at some point, dared admit to suffering from Chronic Fatigue are often met with derisive laughter and an assurance that everyone does, indeed, suffer from chronic fatigue in this day and age. Either that or we are silently chastised for not being made of tougher stuff. Or perhaps we imagine it; perhaps the real truth is that we chastise ourselves for not being made of tougher stuff, and project this particular form of self-flagellation onto the people around us. I suspect it’s some of both. In any case, combine toxic amounts of self-doubt with the lack of a definite, medically sound, physiological cause of said condition, and the result is a vicious combination of denial and shame. (Recently, my son came home while I was napping, and I leaped out of bed so as not to be “caught” resting.)

After suffering from this condition for years, I have only recently been willing to put the words “chronic” and “fatigue” in the same sentence. This, I suppose, because in addition to copious amounts of guilt and shame, I still fancy myself a mover and a shaker, as do a lot of other people, I think. And Mover/Shaker types don’t have chronic tired days, you see. We MOVE. We shake things up. We are relentlessly creative and we encourage other people to move and to shake things up and to be relentlessly creative, too. We do NOT spend half the year scraping ourselves out of bed after the third nap of the day. But the hard truth – and it’s time to admit it – is that I haven’t been moving and shaking, effectively anyway, for several years now despite a heroic (if I do say so myself) effort. Instead, I’ve been fighting an uphill battle.

CFS is tricky. According to the Mayo Clinic, the condition “worsens with physical or mental activity, but doesn’t improve with rest.” Great. And despite the fact that a person suffering from CFS has symptoms that are marked and debilitating, treatment – at least modern, medical treatment – is difficult in that CFS is not the result of any clear, physiological abnormality. This is both good and bad news; good in that this is a relief of sorts, bad in that treatment is hard to come by and generally ineffective.

After years of research, I’ve come to believe that the traditional Hindu system of medicine, Ayurveda (popularized in this country by well known physician and writer Deepak Chopra) comes closest to getting it right. According to the Ayurveda, CFS can be directly traced to a nervous system imbalance (generally a result of stress) and toxicity in the body. Ayurveda alone, so far as I can tell, offers an unparalleled and comprehensive approach to CFS. And though for years I have fantasized about a week at The famous Raj Health Spa (in Iowa, of all places) getting personalized and intensive treatment, the $4800 price tag demands that this idea remain, for now, within the realm of fantasy.

I do what I can. I don’t appear to be ill, for the most part. No doubt this has something to do with the veritable smorgasbord of supplements I take, along with an uber healthy diet and fairly regular exercise, when possible. And now, for the first time in years, I have taken a genuine vacation (or “staycation” as they say; meaning that I am vacationing without leaving home.) My original intent was to “get better,” at least to some degree, before fall comes bringing with it a very, very busy schedule. No such luck in that regard; as yet I can’t discern any improvement in my physical condition. This cycle is as bad as they get, and it will last for as long as it lasts. Sigh.

Will I ever heal completely? I believe so, yes; because as chronically tired as I am, I am even more chronically hopeful. And, oh, the things I have learned as a result of this illness – especially, during this very intentional rest period. Such lessons deserve their own column, and I look forward to writing, in the near future, about one dim but dawning realization after another.

In the meantime, the words of spiritual luminary Emmanuel ring true and bring comfort:

“So much can be gathered

in that time of quietness, of introspection,

that illness forces upon you dear souls

who are always outer motivated.

Such times can be used

for the alchemy of taking the clay of physicality

and breathing the spirit into it

that will change that clay into gold.”

Choice Rock

Three random but important things about today:

Random but important thing # 1. It was, in the beginning, a “tired day.” For a long time I have felt powerless in the face of them. This is unfortunate as I have had “tired days” more often than not these past few years – commitment to self, exercise, exhaustive research, “Time for Being” (or TFB) as my friend Amy calls is, energy work, endless amounts of vitamins and supplements, and an uber healthy diet notwithstanding.

Random but important thing # 2. I have just read Anita Moorjani’s book about her bout with cancer (stage 4b when she was taken to the hospital as her organs shut down), her NDE (near death experience), and her spontaneous remission. The book has affected me profoundly in that it has given me a new lens through which to view my own (lesser but still challenging) struggle with ill health.

Random but important thing # 3. Not to be morbid, but I think about cancer frequently these days; this because in the past three or so years, I have had two family members, one dearly beloved friend, and several wonderful acquaintances succumb to it. Also, I think about it because cancer, as it turns out, is the lens through which I am currently exploring many of life’s major questions. And, finally, I think about cancer because a little over a year ago, while packing for a training program for female litigators in CO (which I would come to call “cancer camp,” but that’s another story), I took time out to meditate. Toward the end of my meditation, I heard a very clear internal voice say that if I “didn’t do something differently soon” I would “end up with a cancer diagnosis” of my own. One tends to pay attention to audible, internal voices. Or, at least, I do.

So today I took Anita Moorjani’s book, DYING TO BE ME, to Montgomery Bell Park. I go to MBP often (usually with Hafiz in tow) either to sit in the tiny, quiet chapel there, or to run the trails, or both, depending on how I feel. By the time I got to the chapel with my book, it was clear that today was not a running day. I was so tired that I didn’t want to sit up to read. I lay down in one of the pews and thought about Anita’s NDE, and about how she came out of it understanding that, in her particular case, cancer was the result of a lifetime of fear. (I want to say here that I do NOT believe cancer and other various and sundry health challenges are always self-induced; only that I believe that they can be.) I also thought a lot about her description of having made a conscious choice to come back at all. She could have “gone on,” but chose to come back with the full understanding that she would heal rapidly if she did. This was possible, she says, because during her NDE – while in a blissful, nonphysical realm – she had a direct experience with her own “magnificence, undistorted by fear.” This revelation elicited in her a seismic internal shift, which brought about a seismic external one; when she came out of her 36 hour coma/NDE, her cancer disappeared within a matter of days.

I had been lying (laying?) in the pew thinking about the implications of Anita and her story for ten or so minutes, when two older gentlemen (small town farmers, by the looks of it) wandered into the chapel. We had a nice chat, and I was then treated to an impromptu concert when one of them sat down at the piano to bang out a few hymns. (I couldn’t decide, at first, whether to be amused or irritated by this intrusion on my TFB. But the piano playing was so bad, and the piano player so cute – in the way that only a small town farmer playing the piano at a tiny church in the middle of Montgomery Bell Park can be – that I caught the wave and enjoyed it.)

Backtracking briefly: When I’d first heard people approaching the chapel, I immediately sat up and feigned reading. (Reading in a chapel requires no explanation, you see, while lying in a pew might). As we were chatting, I kept expecting the farmer/piano player to ask me what I was reading. He didn’t. For whatever reason, once he was busy at the piano, I rehearsed the imaginary conversation in my head:

Farmer/piano player: Whatcha readin’?

Me: A book by a woman who had cancer but healed completely.

Farmer/piano player: Oh. Do you have cancer?

Now. This is a strange question, admittedly, even for an imaginary conversation. (This is the sort of thing that happens during TFB – even when interrupted by farmers and pianos.) Even stranger was the fact that I had no imaginary answer for this imaginary question. I kept trying to formulate the simple answer (“No”), but the imaginary word wouldn’t form in my mind.

This is odd only because the answer is no. Right? No. Of course I don’t have cancer.

But as the real farmer/piano player was banging out a horrible yet heartfelt rendition of some hymn or other, I started to cry. Because I felt tired. And because I’m tired of being tired. And because I didn’t understand why I couldn’t answer the question. And, finally, because a great deal of important information surfaced as a result of this imaginary exchange.

I don’t have cancer. But I had the distinct and inexplicable feeling, in the midst of this meditation-set-to-bad-piano-music, that I have created fertile ground in which this particular disease might manifest. You know how, during TFB, big chunks of information occasionally seem to download instantly and with great clarity? In this instance, my inability to answer the imaginary question seemed to translate immediately into the knowledge that I have, indeed, created the energetic possibility for cancer within my physical experience. The realization felt like a lightning bolt.

(Quick aside: I got some bad news a few years ago. At one point, I remember telling a friend of mine that I wanted to know that my loved ones were safe and okay, and that I would then welcome “a cancer diagnosis or something”. I said those words exactly. Low point. Didn’t last long, but there it is.)

In any case, eventually the real life the music stopped, we chatted a bit more, and the farmer/piano player and his friend went on their way.

As I sat in the chapel, I thought about Anita’s choice as to whether or not she wanted to came back to this life, and I realized that perhaps I had a choice to make too; that one way or another my fate was not set in stone, and that a choice would be helpful here, now.

And then, after a few more minutes of contemplation, I made a choice. Cheerfully and emphatically, I chose life. And health. (With full knowledge that whichever choice I made would be fine, ultimately.)

And then – and I’m not making this up – the two gentlemen came back into the chapel and announced that they were going to pray before they left. So they both sit down at the back on the tiny chapel and the farmer/piano player offers up a heartfelt prayer, in which he assures God that it doesn’t matter where one chooses to worship, or what one looks like, so long as one worships somehow, somewhere. He goes on to pray for the “sinners,” that they might be “saved,” and last but not least – I shit you not – he prays for the “sick,” that God might “reach down his hand from heaven and heal them, in Jesus name, Amen.”

And with that, farmer/piano player/angel wishes me a good day and leaves with his friend.

As they left, I let the feeling wash over me – the feeling of being enveloped in that sort of miracle frequency which, physically, feels warm and tingly but is so much more than that. Not surprisingly, I felt a shift within. Suddenly I was less tired. Tired, but less tired.

And then I was outside and suddenly I was filled with so much awe and joy and gratitude and LOVE that I had to run the trails. And I loved every tree that I passed, and every bird and every rock and every leaf and the sky, and EVERYTHING sent a jolt of LOVE and gratitude through me, and I understood what Anita says about how the most important thing is to “be the love that you are.”

When I got off the trail, I found a rock to signify today’s choice, which feels like an important and intentional one. I found a rock in the creek bed, took it back to the little chapel, and put it on the altar. Farmer/piano player/angel was long gone, so I offered up my own prayer and brought the rock home.

The rock, like my ring, will serve as a tangible reminder of my choice and my commitment – to life, to self, to health.

And if you haven’t read Anita Moorjani’s book, may I recommend it?

Marrying Yourself: Empowering or Creepy?

Nadine Schweigert

I’ve been closely following the story of Fargo, ND local Nadine Schweigert, who “married herself” in a commitment ceremony last March. Last week, Schweigert appeared on Anderson Cooper’s day time talk show to talk about her ceremony. During the introduction, Anderson bluntly asked, “Is it empowering or is it creepy?”

Presenting the question in such a way is, one supposes, good for ratings. These days, it would seem, a story is hardly news worthy without some inherent controversy. Brad Wilcox, for instance, Director of the National Marriage Project, accuses Nadine of being “a bit confused.” His concern, apparently, is that marriage is not a “solo act.” Marriage, according to Wilcox (who also appeared on Anderson’s show), is about “bringing two different people together.”

Well, yes. But as someone who performed a similar commitment ceremony in 2001, I can assure Mr. Wilcox that those of us who “marry ourselves” are not confusing an important symbolic gesture with the institution of marriage. (Did I really just have to write that?)

No one – not even Mr. Wilcox, I daresay – would quibble with the idea that committing to a program of self-care makes good sense.  What some of us recognize, however, is that while making a commitment is one thing, following through can be quite another; because lifelong habits (of co-dependency, for instance) are hard to break. But by specifying and ritualizing the commitment and, better yet, by wearing a ring that serves as a constant reminder, the promises one makes to oneself seep into the cells, as it were, and  become a part of one’s permanent makeup – the framework around which to build a life. For those of us who have spent years in relationships in which we performed daily acts of self crucifixion as a matter of course, the value of this particular symbolic gesture cannot be overstated.

It’s a good thing, as it turns out, that Nadine is committed to taking good care of herself in good times and in bad, as she’s been the recipient of some relentlessly snarky commentary – all of which she’s handled with uncommon grace. Now, don’t get me wrong. I recognize that the idea of “marrying oneself” is ripe for parody. (I am an actor, after all.) In fact, my friend Trevis, inspired by the little book I wrote about my own ceremony, has written extensively about grounds for divorcing oneself. “Your honor,” he writes, “I find that I’m spending less and less time with myself, and that I have less in common with myself than before. And, frankly, if I am forced to continue to listen to myself snore, I may just up and leave myself without notice. In fact, I seek an injunction against myself though, legally, I’m not sure what I mean…”

Let the hilarity ensue. I totally get it. But let’s not forget that shoddy self care and damaging relationships are common enough that in addition to our laughter, we might entertain the idea Nadine is on to something here. Because, really, there’s nothing creepy or confused about recognizing the value in making a commitment to love, honor and care for oneself so that one might better love, honor and care for others.

Take that, Anderson.

****

Sara Sharpe is the author of A Dress, A Ring, Promises to Self: an unconventional wedding planner for one. www.dressringpromises.com

BOOK LAUNCH!

Sara Sharpe, author of A Dress, A Ring, Promises to Self: an unconventional wedding planner for one

In the summer of 2001, I married my self.

In the beautiful town of Balsam, North Carolina, I bought a long white dress, a huge bundle of flowers, and a ring that I wear to this day. I stayed up all night writing a list of promises to my self, building a temporary altar at which to perform the blessed event, and decorating my cheerful, purple room at the Balsam Mountain Inn. The following night I donned my dress and, with a home-made wreath of flowers in my hair, tearfully made a commitment to honor my self, first and foremost, henceforth…

From the Introduction

Dear friends,

This beloved little book, A Dress, A Ring, Promises to Self: an unconventional wedding planer for one, has officially leaped off of my personal book shelf (where it sat comfortably for nearly a decade) and out into the world. It is with great pleasure that I offer it to you now.

There are, I believe, personal reasons that this little book is suddenly enjoying  life outside my immediate circle of friends. Beyond that, however, it is my belief that this book represents an idea whose time has come. This is not to imply that the idea of making a commitment to love, honor and care for oneself so that one might better love, honor and care for others is a new one; it isn’t. But ritualizing the commitment – setting the intention and concretizing it – is somewhat new to most folks and, I think, valuable.

I offer it to you with a firmly held belief that the world needs you. Not some watered down version of you, but a healthy, whole, fully expressed and passionately alive you. I encourage you, with all the passion I can muster, to celebrate and take seriously this opportunity to heal, to grow, to commit to feeling and being your best not only for yourselves, but for your children and children the world over. We can care for them effectively only when we’ve learned to care for ourselves at least as well.

Wild hope,

Sara

For more information, please see our website: www.dressringpromises.com.

JOIN US on Tuesday night for a BOOK LAUNCH PARTY with Sara and friends.

Center of Symmetry ~ 212 Louise Ave, Nashville, TN 37203. (Louise Ave is just off of West End Ave.)