Category Archives: Overcome Difficulties

Lacking In Ambition

My father went to the kind of school where they developed character, encouraged creativity and generally turned out half way decent people. Passing exams and going onto higher education was not a high priority. As a consequence I had a pleasingly unambitious father who could turn his hand to most things but would not be said to have had a ‘career’ in the usual sense. I could say the same about myself.

Here is some of his creative work which I recently sent to my American relative to be passed down the generations as a link with their roots in England.

Lino Cut by Tony White
Lino Cut by Tony White
By Tony White aged aprox. 9 years.
By Tony White aged aprox. 9 years.

In the 1960′s it was probably easier, more sociably acceptable, to drop out of higher education and then follow a career path than it is now. The best youngsters seem to be able to do currently is cram in as much adventure into their gap year before going on to university.

And I’m in the thick of preparing to travel on Saturday. Adventure? I’m not so sure about that however there will be tales to tell. But before signing off I will link to a Guardian article about a man who inspired me at my final school speech day. Freddy Spencer Chapman, an SAS officer who some say is the most unsung hero of the war in East Asia. I was impressionable, he said those of us who hadn’t received prizes or who did not have exam passes could get on in the world and be a success. I took heart at the time. Sometimes a word or two can change the direction and outlook of a whole life. My fathers unambitious presence was a passive influence and Spencer Chapman’s words that day inspired confidence. He was an army man and man of his time. My dad was a private in the army, a conscript. All of his life he remained a man outside of his time. He would have been 94 come August 20th.

Dealings With Pain – Guest Post

This article was first published in October 2009. There were many helpful and appreciative comments left at that first publication. Since pain seems to have become a bit of a theme it seems good to draw attention to this Guest Post.

Introduction Due to orthopedic surgeries and treatments I have been dealing with long periods of excessive physical pain. Because of my body’s condition, being without pain is a rare thing in general. So training with pain is a necessity. The following is an excerpt of sorts, some bits and pieces on my personal dealings with pain. I guess what I am learning in the process is in essence applicable to any form of difficulty or adversary we may encounter in daily life.

Unbearable?
When in hospital, several times a day, you are asked to assess your pain level by giving it a rating between 0 and 10, zero being no pain, ten being unbearable pain. This made me reflect on the meaning of unbearable. There have been lot of times that the agony I was in completely filled the whole of consciousness, excluding all else, and I felt it was utterly unbearable. But having reached unbearable nothing much happens really, you do not drop dead, you do not explode to pieces, you do not vanish out of existence. Having reached unbearable you just continue to live, your heart simply continuing to beat. The truth is, despite the agony being unbearable you continue to bear it anyway. So however excessive, I though it would be contrary to the truth to rate my pain a level 10, since if it was truly unbearable I reckon I would have dropped dead. I think this is an important distinction to be aware of when dealing with all kinds of stuff; to see clearly how something feels, how your experience of it is and then how that relates to the truth of how things really are, the bigger reality.

Room for complaint
There is a difference in mild to reasonably severe pain and truly excessive pain in the way it affects the mind. With excessive pain there is no escape, it nails your consciousness immovably to a single point, that is, the now, The Reality Of Pain, that reality excludes all else. One has no option but to face it without flinching and to endure, whether you think you are capable of it or not. With milder forms of pain there is more room for distraction, room for escape in familiar forms like being grumpy, feeling sorry for oneself, complaining. When I catch myself complaining sometimes, I smile and think: actually, if I have room for complaint, I am doing not too bad!

I should say that the above way of differentiating is for internal use only. I don’t think you can reverse it to make inferences about someone else’s pain based on their “complaint level”. That would be trying to step in another’s shoes, which – apart from being impossible – does not really help and can lead to a judgmental attitude, which in turn is bound to heavily tax whatever is going on.

Preserving resilience
There is nothing that drains your energy more then chronicle pain that lasts and lasts without giving you a break. This can be quite exhausting and depressing. What helps me to get through bleak times is to find helpful distractions that lift the mood like watching movies and television or chatting to friends and ways of relaxing the body as much as possible to minimize the accumulation of tension and stress. But by far the main thing that preserves your resilience in a situation of ceaseless pain is to not give in to gloomy thoughts, to stay focused and to keep looking at the distinction between the feelings, the experience of the now and the truth, the bigger reality of how things really are. Not loosing sight of the bigger reality prevents the mind from getting into isolation where you feel all alone in your agony. I guess that loneliness is the most unbearable of all and can make you apathetic or spiral you down into the pits of depression and despair.

Endless night
When dealing with pain, the nighttime forms the biggest challenge since for some reason everything is multiplied; the pain, the isolation, the loneliness, the arising fears. The nights in the first week after a major surgery for instance seem to last eternally.

I remember one such night about two years ago after a particularly extensive operation. I think it was the third night after the operation. By then the pain is not only from operation wounds and fractures but every bone, joint, muscle and tissue hurts after lying in the same posture for days on end because you cannot move and bedsores start to kick in. Any sense of time completely lost in the mist of the morphine haze from the two morphine drips, I spend the time subsequently by dozing off a little and then looking at the clock on the bedside table, hoping maybe it has advanced at least half an hour, but always to find that it is only a few minutes later then the previous time I checked. Time has become like a rubber band, every minute stretches and stretches and stretches, to infinity, making the dark night last forever. A little after 1.00 am, when the pressure on my spine from lying on my back for days has become terrible, I tried to shift, turn a little to one side, but impossible, I cannot move. I decide to call for the night nurse and see if I can perhaps manage with some help.

This human being
It takes a while before the nurse answers, must be a busy night. When she finally comes, she enters the room only halfway, staying at a distance from the bed. Not a good sign. It’s dark in the room, out of the corner of my eye I can only see her silhouette against the light from the open door, I sense agitation emanation from her, something is not right at all. Trying to over bridge the distance, I ask if she can help me to shift a little to one side. She snaps: “You are not allowed to turn!” This is not true, she knows it and I know it. She is flatly refusing to do something. I’ve been on this ward frequently due to the unending schedule of operations. Notwithstanding the understaffed situation that seems to be common for most health-care institutions, usually the staff here is friendly and helpful, including this nurse, but she has the tendency to become snappy when she is stressed. It is a big ward and there is only one nurse during the night, and lot of freshly operated patience at the moment, so gathering from her reaction things must be rather tough tonight. But right now this nurse is the only human being in the whole universe that I’ve got to be there for me in some small way in this dark night, and yet she is not able too. She is very stressed and annoyed; her agitation fills the single-bed hospital room like a dark cloud, intensifying the shadows. I remain silent; I know I am in no position to argue the situation. She hesitates, not quite sure how to read my silence, she then turns abruptly and leaves the room.

Expanding awareness
I am alone in a hospital room 900 kilometers from home in a foreign country, everything and everyone familiar is far away. It is just over 1.30 am, worst part of the endless night still to come. A feeling of utter loneliness and abandonment engulfs me like a huge wave. My mind is trapped like a caged bird in this terrible now without escape. I focus to prevent it from being hurled into dark pits of desperation and existential fear opening up all around. The flat rejection of the nurse in a situation where I am most vulnerable and helpless is spiraling my mind into withdrawal, into isolation from sheer panic. I somehow need to find my way back. To reverse the withdrawal I use all the willpower I can summon to focus and to expand my awareness. First to the hospital bed, I feel it’s size, it’s robustness, how it supports my body together with all the many tubes coming in and out of it, I then expand to feel the space of the room, it is pleasant and spacious, expand to its walls and beyond, to the ward, the fellow patients, lot of them no doubt in pain and without sleep like me, to the whole hospital, the city, to my friends far away. When my awareness expands to include it all, I become suddenly aware of this stream of love and care coming towards me from all those thinking of me, wishing me well. They may be far away and at sleep now and yet this stream is still pouring forth from them like a river of light. The stream simply leaves no room for feelings of entrapment, despair, loneliness, abandonment, such powerful emotions a moment ago, and yet where did they go? They have simply evaporated in the light of the stream when I was able to reverse the isolation and reconnected. The darkness that fills the room, where does it go when you turn on the light switch? Like darkness, these feelings, despite their all powerful and overwhelming appearance, don’t seem to have a real substance in the end.

Nothing has changed, the lonely hospital room, the excruciating pain, the endless night ahead, the terrible weariness and exhaustion, all still there. And yet my experience of it now is very different. There is a sense of being carried, being embraced, me and everything I am going through. It is all right to just be and endure without flinching or need to escape.

Spiritual Crisis

For one to be able to live one must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.

Leo Tolstoy
Green lane1Walking down a green lane with the birds singing and wild flowers in abundance. However… However heavenly life is there lurks the potential for the bottom to drop out of the bucket. Here is how it was for Leo Tolstoy when he had everything, and had everything to live for.

Shortly after turning fifty, Leo Tolstoy succumbed to a profound spiritual crisis. With his greatest works behind him, he found his sense of purpose dwindling as his celebrity and public acclaim billowed, sinking into a state of deep depression and melancholia despite having a large estate, good health for his age, a wife who had born him fourteen children, and the promise of eternal literary fame. On the brink of suicide, he made one last grasp at light amidst the darkness of his existence, turning to the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions for answers to the age-old question regarding the meaning of life. In 1879, a decade after War and Peace and two years after Anna Karenina, and a decade before he set out to synthesize these philosophical findings in his Calendar of Wisdom, Tolstoy channeled the existential catastrophe of his inner life in A Confession – an autobiographical memoir of extraordinary candor and emotional intensity, which also gave us Tolstoy’s prescient meditation on money, fame, and writing for the wrong reasons.

Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World, Brain Pickings.

For all those who find themselves in extremity – there is a place for you.

Thoreau Reflects on Age

These past days I’ve been looking through stored paperwork, letters, photographs etc with a view to doing something with them. That’s other than returning to storage. This evening I decided that I’ve come to the end of my capacity to tear up paper and the shredder is jammed (but not any more due to a kind friends actions).

I’ve family archives which hopefully I will be able to pass on to younger family members coming soon to visit from America. My father wrote a number of letters after my mother died which I’ve been reading. What an interesting person! Out at midnight to watch the clouds blow over the full moon which reminded him of ‘something’. And had done so all his life. Maybe I will copy some of his words here to share. In the mean time here is some thing from Thoreau.

Writing in the afternoon of October 20 of 1857, shortly after his fortieth birthday, Thoreau does what he does best, drawing from an everyday encounter a profound existential parable:

I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days. Far be it from me to call it avarice or penury, this childlike delight in finding something in the woods or fields and carrying it home in the October evening, as a trophy to be added to his winter’s store. Oh, no; he was happy to be Nature’s pensioner still, and birdlike to pick up his living. Better his robin than your turkey, his shoes full of apples than your barrels full; they will be sweeter and suggest a better tale.

This old man’s cheeriness was worth a thousand of the church’s sacraments and memento mori’s. It was better than a prayerful mood. It proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy… If he had been a young man, he would probably have thrown away his apples and put on his shoes when he saw me coming, for shame. But old age is manlier; it has learned to live, makes fewer apologies, like infancy.

Taken from Brainpickings, Thoreau on the Greatest Gift of Growing Old.

Our Body Remembers

From the edge of the road.
From the edge of the road.

How do we let life, with all of its disappointments and sorrows soften our heart? In the Tibetan tradition there is a story about the great cave-dwelling yogi Milarepa that illuminates the often bumpy road we travel in the process of releasing resistance and making peace with ourselves.

From an article in Tricycle titled, Into the Demon’s Mouth.

While in The Netherlands I was passed the link to this article by somebody who derived much benefit from the teaching of how Milarepa dealt with ‘demons’ he encountered in his cave. Which were of course aspects of himself turning up (so to speak) to help him go deeper. Later in the article we find this section copied below which I can certainly bow to in recognition.

We have many ways of distracting ourselves so that we don’t feel the full impact of pain. Instead of being accepted into consciousness, the feeling goes underground and enters the cells of our body. It doesn’t go away; it goes in. Anyone who has had deep body work, has done intensive meditation practice, or has engaged in somatic practices on their own has likely experienced how the body reveals our history in surprising—and sometimes unsettling— ways. Things we’ve long forgotten, our body remembers with impeccable accuracy. We may imagine that spiritual awakening is something separate from our physical embodiment, but awakening and embodiment go together. To be embodied isn’t just about feeling comfortable in our own skin—it’s about a complete opening to life.

Thanks to the woman who sent me the link to this article. Merit goes to your extended family at this time.