Friday, November 27, 2009

I'll Take the Alternative Health--Hold the Dogma

There's a lot going on in the health care cafeteria these days.  The usual lunch ladies are upping their game.  The school population is in an uproar over the same old dishes being served day in and day out, as the quality fails to improve with the soaring prices.  Sadly for us kids, the drug pushers are becoming increasingly obnoxious and intimidating.  It seems there are dealers peddling at least three new drugs at every table.  Not surprisingly, the antidepressants and anxiety meds are going fast over at the geek table.  "Anybody paranoid over here?  Step right up, kid!" 

Luckily for some of us, cool alternative health dudes and well-intentioned shaman are joining us after the lunch bell and setting up their own stands.  "Don't want the corn dogs and goulash today?  Wanna get those pushers off your back?  We've got better products at a price you might like!"  Lately I'm lining up at these guys' stands more often than not.  I'm sick of the typical lunch line, not thrilled with the snack bar or vending machine options, and I'm honestly a little scared of the shadier looking dealers.  Herbal teas and tinctures taste good and they seem to work.  Preventive medicine is indisputably yummy.  To top it all off, you can't beat a good massage on your lunch break.  No better way to show up in Spanish class with a smile on your face--"Estoy muuuuy bien, gracias!" 

Solamente... sometimes I get a little annoyed by some of the healthcare hipsters.  It's hard to say that they don't mean well.  Clearly they are out there working hard for the benefit of the public.  In a cartoon world, they are the superheroes fighting the real DR. EVIL.  In their shaman batcaves, they slave away preparing their herbal remedies and crystallizing pure energy, while M.D.s in white coats broker dirty deals with Big Pharma.  They're even brave enough for hand-to-hand combat with beasts such as logic, science and linear thinking!  I did say "beasts", and I meant it.  Generally, linear thinking is helpful.  Logic can certainly get you out of a pickle.  Science has moved homo sapiens pretty far up the evolutionary ladder, no doubt.  But--like anything else, these are human concepts that implode and disintegrate when taken to extremes.  People need to know when the horse is dead, already.  I'm pretty sure the dead horse philosophy applies to everything and everyone with the exception of The Big Man Upstairs. 

So now we're back to dogma.  The healthcare hipsters don't like medical dogma, yet they want to help sick people.  They offer us another way, which can often be a better way.  I'm pretty sure this group will always collect some money from me until I finally kick it.  I may even have a special hipster ceremony performed at my funeral, as a final homage and offering.  The one thing I dislike about these guys is their tendency to adhere to their new and improved dogma.  "Hey, kids!  Don't fall for that old malarkey.  Come over here and taste this crispy new ideology with flava crystals!"  Wait a minute!  Isn't it packaged ideology that I was trying to escape in the first place?  I said I didn't want a corn dog anymore.  A vegan corn dog with flava crystals isn't really going to appease me, guys. 

How about some examples?  Well, let's see.  Since I have suffered from an idiopathic illness in addition to the mysterious and illusive condition called Lyme Disease, the past three years have given me a plethora of concrete alternative dogma examples.  Couple these with the myriad comments I have heard as a mother of two boys born in the past three years, and I could fill 100 pages in 8 point font size.  A bullet point list is probably best for the sake of concision:

  • Hand sanitizer doesn't prevent illness
  • C-section babies suffer from lasting emotional trauma
  • Allergies don't really exist and no one should ever admit to having them (direct quote)
  • Every person is singularly responsible for his or her own illness
  • Illness enters the body through wind and can be burned out by smoldering sticks of incense
  • I'm a well-meaning person, but my aura is black (WTF?)
  • My mother is pure evil (this was seriously quoted to me)
  • Multiple Sclerosis is caused by hard-heartedness and iron will
  • The flu is caused by mass negativity and beliefs 
  • Sagging lines in the face come from sagging thoughts in the mind (don't get a face lift; blame yourself!)
  • Polio is caused by paralyzing jealousy or a desire to stop someone
  • Herpes is caused by a mass belief in sexual guilt
I truly do understand and agree that many diseases and conditions have spiritual, emotional and psychological causes.  I remember hearing my father say when I was growing up that unforgiveness and resentment can lead to cancer.  I don't doubt it.  However--and this is a big however--there are such things as microorganisms like bacteria and viruses.  We do have something called an immune response or an immune system.  Possibly some alternative health practitioners don't like the sound of the word "immune" or the idea of a bodily system that can only be properly observed with laboratory tools and implements such as a microscope.  Maybe petri dishes are considered to be bad luck according to several aboriginal belief systems.  OK.  Fine.  I'm still not going to concede that influenza, herpes and polio are caused by anything other than a pathogen.  No way, no how.  I'm not going to believe that elderly new age healers with shiny, taut skin got it through their positive thougths alone.  I don't think that every person who gets an MS diagnosis needs to get on their knees and soften their heart.  In fact, I think that the judgmental healers that look at MS victims in this way could use a few lessons in humility, as they collect cash from sad and desperate people who will do anything to heal and regain the life they once had.  I do think that using a hand sanitizer after handling a shopping cart can prevent passing the microscopic fecal matter from the cart handle to my mouth, thereby preventing me from catching an intestinal bug.  I do think that cleaning surfaces prevents the spread of illness more effectively in hospitals than speeches over the loudspeakers on the dangers of mass fears.  If I wipe my sick kid's nose, I'm gonna wash my hands.  If it's springtime and I'm sneezing, I may happen to mention that I have allergies.  When I do, I don't want a speech on the non-existence of allergies from a hypnotherapist I just met in the park (yes, this happened to me last spring). 

Do you see what I mean about the dogma?  Just in case a definition would be helpful, here you go (from Merriam-Webster):
Main Entry: dog·ma

1 a : something held as an established opinion; especially : a definite authoritative tenet
b : a code of such tenets
c : a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds
2 : a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church

In short, I like what the health hipsters are dishing out.  I just don't need the extra side of dogma.  It weighs down the plate, and after all, isn't the goal to lighten our load a little?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Honoring the Matron of Thanksgiving

In a prior post on the spiritual practice of gratitude, I described my formative Thanksgiving holidays spent at the home of my paternal grandmother, Geneva Garrison, nicknamed "G.G."  She attended college and worked as a teacher.  At one point in her career, she taught in a one room school house.  She lived to the age of 101 before, as she would say, "going home to be with the Lord" this past winter.  I share two important qualities with G.G.:  1) I am very spiritual by nature, and 2) I love to write.  I would like to honor G.G. through sharing an excerpt from her personal journal.  If you would like to learn about making your own sorghum or riding in a covered wagon, this is for you.  Reading about the living conditions of our ancestors 100 years ago can make us thankful for what we have, and at the same time wistful for a more concrete experience with nature, the land, and even with God. 

Here is what G.G. had to say about the origins of her life:

"In the beginning:
On May 8, 1907, I was born to John Walter and Rose Ethabell Matteson at 26th and Bird St. Joplin, Missouri.  My parents and sister Lola, age five, gave me a warm welcome I am told.  When it was time for my arrival, Mom sent Lola to summon a neighbor to come and serve as my mid-wife.  She in turn notified Dr. Mays.  I was in a hurry to get here, so everyone had to get in action. 

When I was three months old we moved to a farm one and a half miles south of Anderson, Missouri.  Of course I can't recall any happenings there until I was two or three years of age.  I remember many fun times.  Lola told me later she was pushing me in a large baby buggy and turned it over on me.  She cried thinking she had killed me.  Lola was a good little girl.  She tried to assume duties to help Mom that she couldn't handle.  I remember quite vividly when we had the measles.  Mom put us in a dark room on a feather bed.  She brought our meals.  We didn't like the looks of our hands so we wore gloves. 

Mom raised chickens and geese.  One old goose enjoyed chasing us.  Lola was at the top of its list for victims.  She would run screaming bloody murder to reach the house. 

Mom had a dear Christian aunt who lived in Galesburg, IL.  Her name was Annie.  Mom wasn't saved, and she got much help and strength from Aunt Aunnie.  One day Mom decided to stay in a clothes closet until she had a know-so salvation.  I don't know how long she stayed there, but she came out shouting.  She told me later about the experience.  One day she started out to the smoke house when it was storming.  Lightning frightened her and she reacted to it.  She said her heard the Lord's voice saying, "Be not afraid, it is I."

My dad was a fine man.  I know of no one who disliked him.  He was saved in a Christian Church when he was a young man.  He was baptized.  He and mom later joined the Baptist Church at Anderson.  Dad was a finish carpenter and a farmer.  Lola and I enjoyed watching him make sorghum.  He raised his own cane.  He had his own mill.  Hitching a horse to it, the cane was ground.  A large vat held the juice which was boiled until sorghum was produced.  He then put it in tin pails to sell and for family use.  Before the mill could be cleaned the cats got in it, and had a hard time getting loose.  Lola and I had fun over that, especially when they lifted one foot at a time trying to shake off the sorghum. 

1911 - When I was about four, dad decided to go out in Kansas to work in the wheat harvest.  What was our mode of transportation?  A covered wagon pulled by Bess and Queen, two beautiful mares.  So we loaded our belongings and departed.  Sometimes we slept in hayfields, making our beds on piles of straw.  At one point we were in heavy rains.  Water came up in our wagon.  We couldn't see the edges of the road.  I imagine mom and dad did some praying.  We went to Turon, Kansas.  Mom cooked for the farm hands in a "cook shack."  Lola helped, and I probably got in the way.  The men bragged on mom's cooking.  They said the former cook majored on rice and prunes.  I don't recall any refrigeration or buying ice.  While we were there, dad traded the horses and wagon for a new Model T.  He had never driven one, but we started for home anyway.  He had problems staying on the road.  They were sandy ruts about 100%.  With his tenacious spirit and the Lord, we made it home.  When we came to a steep hill, we had to get out and push.  "Tin Lizzie" was like a balky mule.  So we had a different mode of traveling when we got home.  Of course, car heaters were unheard of then.  Mom heated rocks, irons and used lanterns to put under our lap robes."

To me, G.G's stories are fascinating.  I always loved hearing about my grandparents' earliest memories.  I am very thankful that G.G. kept a journal and gave a copy to all of her progeny.  I know that her spiritual path was 100% Christian.  I also know that she had Cherokee ancestors who believed quite differently than she did.  It was very important to her that all of her children and grandchildren follow Christianity as a spiritual path.  Here is what she wrote about me in her journal: "David has a daughter, Michelle, from a previous marriage.  She is dear girl too.  She is kind, warm, attracive and talented.  She has a nice disposition and best of all she is a Christian." 

Am I a Christian?  Am I on the path that she wanted for me?  The answer is not 100% clear.  I am certainly on a spiritual path.  I do read scripture from the following faiths: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism.  I absolutely have faith in God.  I pray and meditate as often as I can.  Do I believe that we need "salvation?"  That answer depends on what it means to be saved.  I believe that we need to be saved from the worst part of our natures and from the hate and violence that we propagate against one another.  I believe that salvation comes from Love.  I am on a quest to love myself, love my family, and then to spread that love out as far as I can to the rest of the world.  I believe that Jesus will help me to do that, and so in that way, I am a Christian. 

My heart will be with G.G. this Thanksgiving as it has been every Thanksgiving that I can remember.  I will do my best to honor her legacy and I pray that her spirit can be a light unto my path. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

That's When You Find Yourself

So I've seen the Disney Pixar Cars movie about 100 times.  I mean, not all the way through or anything!  I haven't actually sat in one place and watched Cars in its entirety more than twice.  Here is what usually happens: my son Alec wakes up at 5:45 a.m. and starts asking for Lightning McQueen.  That is when my husband will go and start up the Cars DVD for 20 more minutes in bed.  As our morning progresses, I hear bits and pieces of the film over breakfast, potty training, then washing and dressing everyone.  Once things have quieted down a bit the film ends and as the credits role, I hear the song "Find Yourself."  Here is the chorus:

When you go through life
So sure of where you're heading
And you wind up lost
And it's the best thing that could've happened
Cause sometimes when you lose your way
It's really just as well
Because you find yourself
Yeah, that's when you find yourself

You may find these lyrics to be any of the following: trite, sappy, schmaltzy, cheesy, pedantic, boring, or Oprah-esque. 

The first time I really listened, I liked those lyrics.  I said to myself, probably out loud, "that sounds like me." 

Anyone who has seen Cars will remember the little blue Porsche called Sally.  In case you can't remember, she is Lightning's girlfriend, OK?  Got it?  Anyway, Sally used to be an attorney working long hours in Los Angeles, California.  At one point, her engine started to give her problems and she decided to break out of the race.   She kept driving and driving until she hit a rundown little town in the desert called Radiator Springs.  When she broke down, Doc took Sally in and she decided to stay.  You'll have to watch the movie again to find out what happened after that. 

I used to be an attorney working in NYC, Paris and London.  I didn't really like those jobs.  I felt like I was in a race where I didn't belong.  A high school teacher once said this to me: "Michelle, I know you are smart but for some reason you don't try to compete.  You are like a souped-up race car parked on the side of the road and getting passed by old pick-up trucks."  Her name was Anne-Marie Correggia.  I will never forget smoking Gitanes with her in my attic after a French class party.  When I went to college, I decided it was time to compete.  I studied a little bit and graduated magna cum laude, winning a scholarship to graduate school in Paris.  Then I decided that I needed to go to a top 5 law school.  Once I got into law school, I studied a fair amount but I wanted to stop competing.  I didn't try to write onto a journal.  I enjoyed life for a while and spent another semester in Paris.  I got a C in Constitutional Law because I skipped the class regularly and spent as little time as possible on my take-home final.  I still got a job at a "magic circle" firm in London the semester before graduation.  Life seemed pretty good.  It seemed good because I was running from place to place and taking in the sights.  Running around felt good. 

Eventually, five years of faking it in the law firm world caught up to me and sure enough, my engine started to backfire.  I quit my job.  I developed Bells Palsy.  I had a baby.  I moved to a little town called Dobbs Ferry and I'm still here.  I feel like Doc has taken me in and I don't want to move back to the race.  I did get my engine fixed.  We've got good mechanics up here on the river. 

I'm not competitive.  I never was.  I don't care if I get passed by an old Chevy truck.  I am on my own road again, and that's better than racing. 

I'm not saying I don't love cars, or Cars.  I can be a racing fan, just like anyone else.  I enjoy going for a ride, and more than anything, I love the open road.  Now that I've found myself, there's no telling where I'll end up. 

Best of luck on your trip.  Don't fall! ;)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Finding Presents in the Past

Keeping our focus on the here and the now is an excellent spiritual practice that improves our relationships with loved ones.  If we can be fully present with our children, our spouses, our friends... that is the greatest gift.  However, I find my thoughts drifting to my grandparents lately.  None of them are "with us" in the physical sense.  Can I still be with them in the present moment? 

I also think of how quickly time is passing, as we all cannot help but do at least occasionally.  We are all aging.  In the spirit of my former post on gratitude, I am feeling like I need to spend more time speaking with my parents and collecting their memories of their own parents. 

Whenever I look at old photographs of my grandparents and my Mom and Dad, I try to appreciate the unique qualities that they possessed at that moment in time.  For some reason, I particularly like to see photos of all of them at my current age.  As an inspiration for connecting with older family members, wherever they may be now, I am sharing some of these images below. 

Stay in the present moment, but never forget to love each day as you live it because life is beautiful and time IS fleeting.

My paternal grandparents, Geneva and Wayne Garrison:

My maternal grandfather, James Finley, pictured with my mother and his cousin in uniform (he is the handsome one on the right):

An even younger James Finley in the 1920's, posing with my grandmother Mildred and some very early American cars:

My parents at their wedding, with both sets of my grandparents:

And finally, my favorite picture of my mother, Donna, when she was my current age:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Expressing Gratitude

Last week I received a letter from a church proclaiming that miracles can only happen in an atmosphere of gratitude. 

I belong to a group on Facebook called Thanks a Million!- A Daily Gratitude Group.  The purpose of the group is to provide a public forum for each of us to state our gratitude for the blessings we receive.  The group administrator believes that everyone should have a daily gratitude practice for spiritual health. 

In my Meditation Handbook, beginners are encouraged to commence practice through contemplation of "our precious human life."  In Buddhist meditation, practitioners begin with gratitude as a cornerstone. 

Gratitude supposedly has its own unique holiday: Thanksgiving!  When I was growing up, I spent Thanksgiving at my paternal grandmother's home.  She had four children, eleven grandchildren, and a number of great-grandchildren that I am unable to count with accuracy.  She instituted a tradition of standing in a family circle while holding hands as each family member stated to the others the blessings for which we were thankful.  She always cried when she spoke of her gratitude.  As a child, I was unable to fully comprehend the importance of gratitude and humility and as an adult, I have still not mastered these lessons.  I feel in my heart that my grandmother mastered gratitude and humility during her lifetime.  I didn't get to know her as well as I would have liked, but I know that she was a deeply spiritual person.  I hope that she is somewhere now that allows her to guide the rest of us on our quest to attain these high qualities. 

Meditating on gratitude and expressing it through prayer are very powerful practices.  Recognizing the blessings in our lives and letting them sink into our consciousness can transform us from within.  We will know that we have been transformed when we begin to display that gratitude to the other people in our lives.  I make an effort to do this, but I know that I do not always succeed. 

I do express my gratitude through spoken words, and sometimes through written notes.  My mother and matnernal grandmother applied consistent and diligent effort in training me to write notes of thanks, so my occasional failure to do so as an adult is certainly no fault of theirs. 

I express gratitude through tipping 20% at restaurants, salons and spas (whenever I am blessed enough to go into such heavenly places!)  When I used to take cabs, I would normally tip at least 10% of the fare. 

I try as much as I can to express my gratitude to our childcare provider by thanking her at every opportunity and through accomodating her needs.  Sometimes I know that I am thoughtless and I arrive later than I promised so that she can go home.  I hope that she knows how grateful I am for the love that she gives to my children, and I can see how much they love her back. 

There are certain categories of professionals where I am uncertain as to the proper expression of thanks.  How do we thank our doctors?  I thank them verbally and I try to be respectful and understanding of their time.  How do we thank alternative health practitoners?  Rather than tipping, which in my mind is somewhat insulting to a healer, I have tried to show genuine respect for their unique talents.  What about nurses?  I know that when my two sons were born, my nurses were the most crucial care providers and the greatest source of support to me in those first few hours and days.  We sent food to their floor after leaving the hospital, but I think that nurses in particular can never be thanked enough.  How do we thank lawyers?  I used to work as a lawyer and I often felt that I was supposed to be grateful for the opportunity to work with a client, and not the other way around.  I think that is generally the way that the legal profession is supposed to work.  It is designed to be a helping profession, even if it does not always work that way.  How do we thank teachers?  Students and parents give holiday gifts to teachers and this is a wonderful way to express our thanks for selfless and essential work, but like nurses, teachers are some of the hardest working and least appreciated members of our society. 

When I sit and think of every person who deserves my gratitude, the list is endless.  I have a favorite checkout man at the grocery store who consistently brightens my day.  Our mail carrier is always prompt, reliable and friendly.  Several business owners in our town make a point of speaking to my children and giving them gifts on a regular basis.  I am helped by an individual who is completely new to me at least weekly.  I don't know if it's possible for me to outwardly thank each person who helps me or my family. 

Lately I am trying to remember everyone who touches my life in prayer and meditation.  For me, this is the most powerful means of sending love and gratitude.  I was taught as a child to "remember others in prayer", but it is only now that I am coming to an experience of what that means and how such a practice can change me for the better.  In focusing on gratitude in meditation, I am slowly becoming more aware of others and less fixated on my own needs.  Perhaps this is one available path in learning to "love thy neighbor as thyself." 

Since I am still learning the practice of gratitude, I will continue to contemplate new ways to show my thanks. 

Here is one new capacity that makes me feel grateful, and if I can I'll recite it at the table this Thanksgiving:  I am grateful for the ability to continually correct myself and adjust my views to get closer to Love.  As long as these adjustments stem from spirit rather than ego, I believe that they are valuable. 

I am very interested to learn how others show gratitude and how I can improve upon this practice in the future.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Experiencing Setbacks and Frustration

Intention is important and sometimes given short shrift.  Actions frequently fall short of good intentions.  This is especially true when we are reacting, rather than acting from a pure motivation.  I find that my best behaviors and actions result from a good intention carried through to completion.  In opposition, I find that my worst behaviors result from reacting to a situation or the actions of another person. 

I write what I wish to learn.  I wish to learn the art of acting from pure motivation.  I do not mean this in a theatrical sense, though I was a thespian in high school.  If I could rub the belly of a genie and be granted three wishes, here is what I would request: 1) pure thoughts, 2) pure speech, 3) pure actions.  According to the Christ, the Buddha, and undoubtedly countless rabbis, these three can flow only from a pure heart.  Here are some universally wise words from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6, verse 45: "The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."  Many of us dislike black and white terms such as "good" and "evil", and I am notorious for getting tripped up by semantics.  Let's put the concept of evil aside for another day, and simply accept that it is an adjective used for lack of a better term.  The concept of a pure heart is found throughout Buddhist, Jewish and Christian teachings.  In Hebrew, pure heart is Lev Tahor.  In Hinduism, the concept is no less important: "The man who is pure of heart is bound to fulfill himself in whatever way he is taught" (Ashtavakra Gita, 15:1-2). 

I intend to purify my heart.  I intend to produce good out of the treasure of my good heart.  I intend to speak love and not spite or hate.  I intend to fulfill myself in the ways in which I am being taught. 

I do not possess a pure heart.  I do not possess a pacified mind at all times.  I produce evil actions out of my partly evil treasure.  I speak hateful and spiteful words sometimes.  I am often unfulfilled in the ways in which I am being taught. 

I set good intentions to open my heart to all of my family, yet I find myself succumbing to frustration and speaking hasty words to my parents, my spouse, my siblings and children.  I set good intetions to remain loving and calm while driving, yet I succumb to anger when confronted with other drivers.  Does this sound familiar?  Of course it does.  This is OK.  This is good news.

Assume for a moment that your personal faith is simply a ray of light shining forth from the universal sun of Love, so you are allowed to listen to all enlightened teachers.  One of them said this: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."  I think that's a statement that could comfort us all if we choose to believe it.  My level of present dissatisfaction does not determine my future contentment. 

I experience setbacks and frustrations on most days.  Some days seem to flow smoothly and I feel surrounded by peace.  Unfortunately, these days are fewer than the average of my days.  Many days I experience small or forgettable setbacks and by evening I am reconnected with peace.  On certain days, I experience setbacks that make me crawl under my covers at night in an attempt to slow my heartbeat.  I really do lie in bed some nights, consciously attempting to lower my blood pressure.  Obviously, those are the worst days.  Today was one of those days.  I know that YOU have those days as well.  Perhaps it's once a year for you.  Perhaps it's once per decade.  If you are here in human form, then I know you have experienced this. 

How do we handle setbacks and frustration?  Acceptance.  Today my son said to me, "It's OK, Mommy." Me: "No, it's not.  I'm sorry."  My son: "It is OK, Mom."  Understood.  He said it and he meant it.  No need for elaboration.  He accepted my setback, even though it affected him directly.  He immediately accepted it and moved on.  He is not quite three years old.  I thank God for him each day. 

Here is a short list of things that frustrate me or set me back: smashed food scattered around the floors of my home, multiple intentional spills of beverage, incessant high pitched screaming after repeated requests to use the inside voice, drivers who honk their horns when someone in front of me won't turn fast enough, drivers who tailgate, LEFT LANE DRIVERS ON THE HIGHWAY, exclusionary tribal and racial loyalties, family members who knowingly abuse their bodies through diet and alcohol, people who complain to me about their health and then criticize the lack of sugary treats in my pantry... really, the list is nearly endless.  Honestly, it is a random list.  It is true what the Buddhists say:  these frustrations are delusions.  It's a fun fact that we all suffer from such a wide variety of delusions.  The seeds of our anger are like snowflakes!  Poetry gone awry...

Smokers don't bother me.  How odd. 

Today, right now, I am accepting my unsavory reactions to the stimuli enumerated above.  My reactions are OK.  They are simply another part of my existence that I must learn to embrace with love and compassion.  It is damned hard to do that.  It's a long hard road, but I'm gonna get there.  "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."  Keep talkin'!  "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."