Monday, July 28, 2008

Mastering One's Own Nature

I work with a young man who behaves badly when he believes he’s being treated unfairly. I’m sure you’ve seen this process: perceived injustice leads to outrage, outrage triggers explosion, explosion results in consequence, and the original inequity is all but forgotten. Except by the young man, of course, who harbors resentment which becomes kindling for the next match.

In our discussions about this, I have invoked the spirit of Gandhi. My TIVO found the wonderful Attenborough movie Gandhi with Ben Kingsley. It also found a Biography Channel segment on this amazing man. At least initially, my client reacted favorably to the idea that there is a way to fight that enlarges, rather than cripples, the fighter.

As so often happens, an effort to assist another brought riches my way as well. I don’t know when I first became aware of Gandhi~~certainly well before I saw that award winning movie in my late twenties. I had been quite affected by his approach to injustice and the courage he demonstrated in standing up to power. Just like my client, battling unfairness was a major focus when I was young.

At 52, however, I was struck by something else this time around: Gandhi’s emphasis on self~mastery. As I saw footage of Gandhi explaining that it would be wrong to harm the British for qualities we all possess and teaching his followers that the real task is to master one’s own nature, his tutoring reached within me to a deeper level.

I began to ponder this notion of self~mastery. I know it is, indeed, my work in this lifetime. Of course, I believe in harmony, in being kind, in speaking my truth with respect. Am I always successful in enacting this approach? Absolutely not! I also believe that even the most painful experiences can teach us much if we choose to truly listen. However, I succumb to victim thinking in one of its many forms~~self-pity, anger, insecurity, fear, discouragement, hurt feelings~~all too often.

While I do feel regret if I have hurt another or missed an opportunity to grow myself, I don’t feel particularly bad about my shortcomings overall. It is simply my life lesson, and I am a work in progress. Life will always throw me something that will test me, and I will pass or fail those tests. This is just the way things are and, I assume, the way they are meant to be. As long as I’m attentive and generally moving forward, I feel I’m doing okay.

Seeing my task as self~mastery makes things rather simple. Each interaction becomes merely a different verse of the same song. No matter what confronts me~~from within or without~~my challenge is the same. When I choose to perceive the incident as opportunity rather than imposition, the context changes. I am offered an opening to deepen, to smooth my rough edges, to grow in wisdom. That certainly beats victim mentality any time!

I think self~mastery has been given a bum rap. Our 60’s culture taught a necessary wariness of control and discipline. By self~mastery, though, I don’t mean a regimentation that strangles the life from each moment. As we all know, some of the most spiritually advanced individuals are also the most spontaneous, flexible, and child~like in their ability to find pleasure in the simplest experiences.

By self~mastery, I am referring to the quest to know oneself well, and the ability to act from a deeper place than superficial egoic impulse. Self~ mastery requires and inspires an allegiance to a higher good than momentary personal whim.

In marital therapy, individuals are often assisted in aligning themselves with the needs of the couple, rather than simply pushing their own agendas. Self~mastery requires this same type of shift to that which is good for the whole. If I ‘win’ a battle by diminishing another, it is a Pyrrhic victory indeed since my adversary and I are joined in this thing called life. However, when I find a way to be true to my own conscience while respecting my opponent and the opportunity we are both being offered, an authentic victory is already achieved, no matter the actual outcome. And this type of victory is one that can enlarge us both.

So, let's bring this down to earth. The decision to write this essay came to me in the wee hours of the morning as I sat meditating (see Hot Flash As A Call To Prayer). I saw my task then as mastering a mind that prevented sleep by grabbing on to minutiae, a spirit that spun disastrous webs about the effects of sleeplessness on my day, and a will that was having trouble welcoming meditation when sleep was preferred, albeit seemingly out of reach. And of course, after the idea for this essay was established, self~mastery included releasing these thoughts to return to my meditation. This morning when plans for the day changed due to another’s anxiety, mastery included being flexible and welcoming other opportunities. When Plan A was reinstated, mastery required compassion for the rippling effects of fear. Mastery also entailed discussing with a dear friend my reactions to a misunderstanding, and doing so without rancor.  And within this writing itself, self~mastery reminds that when one word doesn’t work, a more appropriate one will appear and I needn’t fret. In other words, whatever occurs is just part of the song, and my reaction the next verse.

Self~mastery. A challenge that offers gifts aplenty. I hope this week finds you reaping your own rewards.


Loanne Marie

Monday, July 21, 2008

Welcoming the Light

As a psychotherapist who has somehow managed to develop a specialty in trauma work~~no conscious decision, this~~I routinely hear stories of sexual harm, beatings, witnessed murders, accidents and disasters, and wounding words. I have become skilled in listening intently without absorbing the other’s pain. I am certainly moved by the stories I hear~~ often deeply so~~but seldom do I become confused about whose trauma it is. I don’t make another’s pain my own.

The ability to be fully present yet unbound by the suffering before me is sometimes tricky, but after many years, I find it most often manageable. It is also essential. Folks heal, not through my collapsing into their pain, but by having a steady someone to walk with into the darkest places of their lives. They need me to be quite clear about this distinction. And as I said, I usually am.

However, occasionally someone comes into my life whose trauma goes well beyond the average soul piercings. These are folks who have sustained abuse of mammoth proportions. The world in which they were reared was so pervasively perverse that it left damage of a particularly all-inclusive kind. Their spirits seem shattered and their sense of self tenuous. Disorganization of this degree often leaves the simplest coping skills just out of reach.

And my own coping strategies can be overwhelmed through witnessing such devastation. I’m pushed to look into the face of a horror that is far easier not to see. Such experiences require me to use~~and to welcome~~all my resources simply to retain, and in some cases regain, my equilibrium.

After a session this week in which secrets were shared and the depth of the struggle to function laid bare, I found a heaviness had crept into my spirit. I recognized what was happening to me, but couldn’t seem to shake it. And a busy evening ahead was not going to allow me the time I needed to work it through, to let it go. Or so I thought.

As often happens, I was given exactly what I needed, this time in the form of a poem that came my way early that night~~Check, by James Stephens. The rich imagery describes a growing darkness that is not, however, able to obliterate the light of a single candle. I had my metaphor.

With that image, my focus changed. I remembered my own spark and chose to expand its brightness once again. I welcomed the larger Light into my own in order to dispel a darkness that, though cast on another’s flame many years ago, sought now to cover mine as well. And my candle grew bolder, more robust. I felt myself revivify and slough off the sludge I had unwittingly absorbed.

Long ago I realized I would never comprehend why some folks experience such grave misfortune while others do not. I also accepted that there is truly no reason I should understand, given that I am a soul immersed within her own phase of this journey. However, while such large issues are beyond me, I do know that our task is to align ourselves with the Light at each juncture. And I trust that when we do, we give that Radiance a greater access to our psyches and to our world.

Professionally, my job is to welcome the Light into the room. The experience I’ve gained over the years, the specific techniques I’ve acquired, and my intuitive sensibilities can all be seen as methods for enlarging the opening for Light through increasing the capacity to receive it. And when that Beam touches and illuminates the darkness, shattered spirits begin to heal, reuniting with that enduring essence within which was never harmed to begin with, just covered temporarily by muck.

The Light is there waiting, always. Our job is simply to open to it. Such is my belief and my experience.


Loanne Marie

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Her Name Was Arrow

How does one say good-bye to a spirit so true, a companion so steady? Let me try…

Her name was Arrow. She was not only as fast as one, but resembled her namesake from the 70’s animated film, The Point, though she wasn’t blue. Her color had been described as champagne, though that sounds a bit fancy for a dear soul who’d been abandoned to the streets one frigid winter~~luckily a brief sojourn before moving into our home and into our hearts.

Arrow’s eyes were a soft brown, her spirit gentle, attentive, constant. She accompanied me wherever she could~~living room to kitchen, kitchen to bath, bath to bedroom. Everywhere but upstairs because, although we’d carpeted the open slatted steps so she’d be more comfortable, she never got the hang of stairs. She’d just lay in her place by the couch waiting, without regard to time, until I came back down.

Her bed lay at the foot of ours. I’m usually the first human to rise in our house and Arrow my first connection in what is often a long day of meaningful contacts. She’d rise and she’d wag, eager eyes welcoming me to the morning.

We were a therapy team on the days she accompanied me to the office. She’d lay at the door, front paws crossed before her, ready to greet folks arriving in search of healing~~a welcoming presence who put tender souls at ease. I never tired of learning from her about timing, noticing when my furry co~therapist listened to a client’s tears from her blanket and wondering how she knew it was time to move forward, to offer a soft ear to stroke, a brown eye of comfort, a reminder that soothing can exist in this often harsh world of ours. Her instincts were always true.

On the days I went to work alone, she’d be waiting on the porch when I returned. After a few yips of greeting, we’d move to the bedroom, and while I changed into my off~duty duds, the Happy Dance would be enacted in earnest. Arrow’s version was this: playful puppy pose~~front legs outstretched, butt in the air~~interspersed with full body circles and wild rubbing of her face against her bed, all accompanied by deep-throated groans of sheer joy.

Despite her tolerance for upset with our mutual clients, Arrow reacted visibly whenever my husband or I were agitated, particularly so if we were angry with one another. She was our barometer. As soon as a discussion would begin to heat up, she was there, gentle eyes urging our better selves forward. On those occasions we deliberately chose to disregard her sound advice and have at it anyway, she’d simply lay down at our feet, patiently waiting for us to be done with such foolish waste.

Arrow was a shining presence~~in our home, in our lives, in the lives of others. But on Saturday morning, this dear dog let us know it was time to let her go. The Inflammatory Bowel Disease that had plagued her for years~~we assume a legacy of surviving (barely) on garbage so long ago~~had returned with a vengeance this past week. Antibiotics were no longer effective. After some short~lived improvements, she now turned away from food, could barely walk, vomited water.

Asking for guidance~~or more likely, reassurance~~I drew the 4 of Swords from my Waite-Ryder Tarot deck. An effigy of a knight lying in repose on a casket. This card does not tend to be associated with a physical death~~ more of a retreat and withdrawal~~but in this context, the message seemed quite clear~~particularly after my friend, Kelli, pointed out the connection between arrows and swords, the number of swords and my 4-legged friend. Yes, it was time.

So, we gave this loving dog one last loving gift. Euthanasia comes from the Greek eu-, meaning good and thanatos, meaning death. We gave our Arrow a good death, kneeling on a blanket beside her, attended by the gentle hands of Dr. Lori who’d already given her an additional 3 years of quality life. We stroked those velvet ears for the last time, cried tears from hearts grown deeper and richer through her presence in our lives, and said farewell to an amazingly sweet and loving soul.

And now it is the day after and I return to a life without Arrow. No tail wagging or warm brown eyes greeted me when I rose. I walk between rooms unaccompanied now. The space left by Arrow's passing is enormous and I feel the loss keenly. I am sad and empty and a bit discombobulated. In other words, I grieve.

Yet, it is not so very terrible. Arrow continues to teach from beyond, this time offering a deeper knowledge of acceptance, of letting go, of putting myself in harmony with the Great Round of life and death. It is easier to do anything when one is truly loved~~and I have been truly loved. And I have truly loved in return, and I will cherish this dog, my companion on this earth walk for 12 precious years, forever.

Arrow Shuka
November 25th, 1994~~July 12th, 2008

Good-bye, my Arrow Shuka girl. Namaste, my dear, sweet dog.

Loanne Marie

And for a tribute to Sasha, Arrow's husky friend who lived half a year longer though she was over a year older, click here.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Hot Flash as a Call to Prayer

So, I’m laying in bed in the wee hours of the morning, wide awake after yet another flash of heat yanked me from a sound sleep. I’m knowing I really gotta find a helpful way to look at this particular challenge or I’ll make myself nuts. My dear husband, having heard more than he ever cared to about this transition of mine, is having challenges of his own in this regard. For both our sakes, I gotta get a grip!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer in whining. Just ask those who nicknamed me Mona Lott during our ill~fated women’s hike through the mountains of Maine! Whining. An important activity, but only to a point. As a way of life, it leaves something to be desired. After the moaning is done and the groaning spent, it’s time to get down to figuring out a way of relating that works. That’s where I was regarding my hot flashes. It was time to get serious about living with them, perhaps even using them to live more fully.

So, here I lay, now in a pair of dry PJs, but finding no amount of position~ shifting or pillow~fluffing effective in returning to sleep. And I’m trying. I really am. I’m thinking I need to put my money where my mouth is~~we’re not given challenges without the tools to meet them...there is help available even in difficulties...all is holy...blah, blah, blah~de~friggin’~blah!

But I know it’s true. Or at least I know that it is a much more helpful way of looking at life’s challenges than getting stuck in victim mode. So, I set about finding the gift in this. After all, it’s not like I’m sleeping, am I? I have time to burn, so to speak. And this is what comes to me...
  • Christ’s exhorting us to love our enemies. While I know this is usually seen as advice on how to relate to those who don’t have our best interests at heart, I don’t believe it’s the only interpretation. Couldn’t the enemy be seen as something unwanted in our psyches, in our lives~~even in our flippin’ hormones? If our true challenge is our own nature, perhaps this teaching is urging us to take a softer, kinder, and more helpful view of our internal foes. 
  • The Muslims call to prayer. I’m touched each time I hear the rich, haunting voice of the muezzin calling followers to ‘hasten to prayer’. I love the image: a whole community, five times each day, ceasing all activity save turning attention to the Divine. How wonderful to weave worship throughout the day! 
These two thoughts meld together to suggest a helpful coping strategy. Could I use my hot flashes as reminders to turn my attention to what really matters? I could hear them as my own personal muezzin, calling me to prayer at random times of the day or night.  I could recognize in them the whispered voice of Spirit urging, “Pay attention. Breathe. Be here, right now. All is well (albeit a bit toasty).” On a night such as this, after I stop feeling sorry for myself because I can’t get back to sleep, I could decide I’m being offered a chance to rise up and meditate instead. It could work.

However, I do get stressed about the fact that I likely won’t be my best in the morrow with so little sleep. Notwithstanding the spiritual lessons ripe for the taking within this tendency, my mind moves on to...
  • Feminist explorations of how things would be different if men had some of the challenges women do. (Just google ‘if men could menstruate’ or ‘if men could get pregnant’, if you need a refresher!) Our society insists that women hide their menopausal symptoms, pretend their bodies are the same each day, deny the existence of the overheating furnace within. It doesn’t have to be this way, does it?
  • Some native traditions seeing women’s transitions as beneficial to the whole. For example, in some tribes, women are seen as particularly powerful during menses, with dreams important for the welfare of the whole tribe.
These ideas press my thinking further. If our society were woman~friendly, how would it deal with hot flashes and other indications of movement into later life, our wise years? Honor them, of course. A gal would be free to dress comfortably, would be proud of her sweaty brow. A woman who didn’t sleep the night before would be given paid leave, a flexible schedule.

And then my two images merge, and I envision a society where women’s hot flashes are honored as calls from Spirit. Hot flashin’ souls would cease all activity~~albeit after shedding a layer or two~~to attend to an inner voice. Others around them would drop into awe~filled silence, privileged to witness such a divinely~inspired moment, a visitation from beyond that was surely a gift to the whole community. Nearby The Red Tent would be The Cool Pool, welcoming amid an oasis of shade trees. CITs (Crones-In-Training) would be encouraged to retire there as often as needed, allowing cool waters to freshen, time apart to replenish.

A bit out there, it’s true. But it was 3:30 a.m. and I hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep! Still, there are truths within such wild visions.

Hot flash as call to prayer. Why not? The alternative may be to feel victimized by evidence of a natural passage into our later years. While I’m a firm believer in doing anything possible to bring our bodies into a balance that will soften this transition (hey, just cause ya can learn from difficulties, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do everything you can to minimize them!), when a symptom remains, you may as well seek a positive interpretation of it.

We humans need reminders. Our lives are so busy, with numerous squeaking wheels clamoring for our grease. Markers that remind us to pay attention, to remember what is truly important, are of great benefit to us all, from whatever source they arise. And the reminders that most interest me these days are the ones that come from the stuff of my life, those that are organic, personal.

Hot flash! My own form of adhan, a call to prayer.

May you see each of your challenges as a call to prayer. May your inner muezzin ring out in a voice rich and haunting. And may you heed the call.


Loanne Marie
a.k.a. Svetta Lott, or at least Svetta Tuddon-Mutch

PS. As an aside, this essay has been percolating for many months. However, in our group meditation last week, an incident occurred that propelled me to write it. I’d been having great trouble staying awake, kept nodding off no matter what I did. I asked for help. Within minutes, I was hit with a hot flash. That certainly woke me up, and I had no trouble remaining alert for the rest of the time. When I shared it with the other folks afterward, I found that 2 other women had also hot flashed. Now this could just be a coincidence as many of us are CITs and the day was hot. Or it could be that, not only should I be careful when the gods give me what I ask for, but that my requests oughta be a bit more specific! My fellow meditators would be grateful.