13 February 2009

An Update on Everything



13 February 2009 - An Update on Everything
Renate took these photos during a yoga practice that Kosta and I did in mid-December. It was a Wednesday evening, 2 days before I was due to leave for a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat. (That's Kosta in Virabhadrasana ll and doing a jump-through and that's me moving into one of the seated Padmasana poses)

Kosta had arranged the evening yoga session so that two of his female friends, one a website designer and one a photographer, could photograph us during a practice for his new website. Renate sat on the sidelines with her own camera – she’s developing a series of abstracted paintings that combine a yoga theme with the feeling of motion – so she was trying to get the hang of taking photos while moving her camera. (Reminder to me – I must visit her studio and see how the paintings are coming along)

Anyway it was a strained practice, just me and Kosta in front of these onlookers and under bright lights, occasionally being directed to hold a pose or move the mat – you know how it goes – it wasn’t really a yoga practice, more like a yoga performance.

And that led to the disaster.

We’d been following the Ashtanga Primary series (our well-worn and favourite sequence), stopping and starting so the photographers could reposition lights and I’d jumped through to Paschimottanasana. I deepened into it, more for the shot than for myself, I extended my hands past my feet and gently took hold of a wrist while they adjusted lights and snapped from different angles.
Coming up from the pose I knew something was very wrong – my lumbar area and hips were paralysed by an indescribable ache that was physically shocking. It worsened over the next few forward bends, but I doggedly pressed on through to the end of the practice.
Sitting on the floor after practice I was in silent agony as we reviewed the images and chose a short list.
I left Kosta’s studio that night and drove to a friend’s house close by, gasping aloud in pain each time my leg had to press down on the clutch pedal. When I arrived I lay on the floor and went into shock.

The crippling pain episode lasted three days before it started to ease up a little. I couldn’t drive my car. I could hardly move without an agonising pain shooting through my lower back and hips. So this was it. This is what had to happen. And how many years have I been ignoring the signs?

Instead of starting the retreat on Friday evening, I had to leave it until Sunday. Just before I left for the retreat I reluctantly dragged myself to the Sports Med clinic and had xrays (I say reluctantly because since my son’s serious illness that no-one could diagnose I’ve developed great contempt for the western medical system).
The xrays showed up not an injury, but a degeneration of the discs between L4 and L5 and between L5 and the sacrum, plus some pars defects and a slight bony growth on L5. The sports doctor put me on painkillers and anti inflammatories and suggested I start a program of physiotherapy and Pilates when I returned from the retreat.
Well I went to the physio once and cancelled the follow-up appointments. My distrust of all western medical practices is pervasive. But admittedly I did borrow a couple of books on Pilates, and tried a few of the exercises – boring, boring, boring, too one dimensional for me to practice it with any conviction. But the principle of core abdominal strength that forms the basis of Pilates is one that I’ve now incorporated into my yoga practice and it has definitely helped in the healing of my back.

I've now accepted that my lumbar area probably won’t ever regain its youthful strength and flexibility so I have to care for it and manage the condition so that I never have to experience another of those acute pain episodes. When practicing yoga, I have to focus continually on engaging the three sets of muscles that support the lumbar: the pelvic floor muscles, the transverse abdominus and the lumbar multifidis. Since starting to do this I’ve felt a little more stable and therefore more safe, not only during yoga practice but also in the little daily moves: getting out of bed, tying my shoelaces, sitting at work etc.

Some cutting edge research done in Australia has resulted in a breakthrough realted to back problems. Researchers at The University of Queensland have discovered that when there is an acute pain episode in the lower back, the muscles that support the spine (the pelvic floor muscles, the transverse abdominus and the lumbar multifidis) turn off. They just stop working and play dead. This leaves the spine even more vulnerable to further injury. Rehabilitation involves specialised internal exercises to re-ignite the receptors that fire up these muscles. I’ve felt all this, I've experienced the dead internal numbness in this area and believe me, it’s really frustrating not to be able to activate a muscle because it has decided to ignore you. AAARGGHH.

If you want more info on this see the bible ‘Therapeutic Exercise for Lumbopelvic Stabilization: A Motor Control Approach for the Treatment and Prevention of Low Back Pain'
by Carolyn Richardson or just google her name for lots of related articles.

Surfing
Three weeks before the yoga session at Kosta’s that set off this episode, I tried to go surfing. I knew my lumbar was fragile so I took it pretty easy, staying close to shore, observing how my back responded to the undulating movements. After trying to jump up to standing three times and falling off my board, I had to give up. There was no support in my lumbar spine. After this my back ached for days - a precursor to the agonising episode at Kosta’s.

So now there’s no more surfing for a while, and my yoga practice has changed radically.
It had to happen.

23 December 2008 - The Vipassana Retreat

I had to start the 10 day retreat 2 days later than expected so this year it was an 8 day retreat for me.
The main difficulty I encountered in this retreat was getting to stage one (which I recognise as a single moment of concentration).
For six entire days, my mind remained obsessively and obstinately stuck in the fantasies that populate my inner world. I couldn’t summon the presence of mind to even focus on my breath for the first few days. What a mess my mind was in.

Now and then, on rare occasions, a little light would flicker on and I’d momentarily realise how deeply lost I’d been in runaway thoughts. It seems that I’m able to sit still for 11 hours a day, completely lost in my own fantasy world, much like a child. I can keep myself amused with a never ending stream of internal dialogue, it’s so entertaining, I am my own very best friend and companion because I talk to myself back and forth, I dream, I fantasize, I play, I analyse, I amuse myself with odd jokes and a rather funny view on life, I plan my day, I am never lonely.

Switching on that little light of awareness illuminates this captivating mental hyperactivity. Like coming up for a breath out of the swirling currents of the ocean.

I knew that I needed to hold onto those moments of awareness when I wasn’t being kidnapped by my thoughts, hold onto them and consciously lengthen them before being whisked away by the force of the current and falling back into unconsciousness.

Problem was that the little light wasn’t coming on very often so I spent most the retreat completely lost in the swirling haze of my never ending thoughts!

Some of the mental mess naturally began to settle around my 6th day, and a deeper, more conscious mindstate arose. I can’t even call it clarity, just quietness, a welcome rest from the ad nauseum.
Perhaps once or twice I was able to scan and gently sweep my mind through my body in the true Vipassana way…that was nice…my body tingled then sparkled then almost dissolved into its billion particle components.

So I’m trying now to weigh up the benefit I’ve gained from 8 days of continual sitting where I was barely able to even follow the instructions, at times even blatantly ignoring them, and at other times admitting defeat before even sitting down on my cushion.

Perhaps starting the retreat at the end of Day 2 put me at a disadvantage. I missed the carefully constructed introduction to the Anapana technique in those first crucial days. Or perhaps I no longer have the mental application, the will, the devotion, to commit to the Vipassana technique. Or perhaps this is just how it is after eight retreats, this is why it never gets easier no matterhow many retreats you sit – you just have other issues to deal with and this is mine.

I picked up a chest infection on my third day on retreat and started to cough during the 1 hour Addhitana (strong determination) sittings. The only way to neutralise the coughing when it was happening was to infuse and flood my mind with equanimity which immediately increased and raised the vibrational frequency of my body – it was literally lifted out of the lower frequency and suffused with a light and peaceful energy which neutralised the cough.
It was quite interesting to watch and feel the internal processes of my body as this infection took hold over the course of three days. It moved around my chest and I could actually feel the sticky mucous substance forming in the top part of my lung, then feel the slight blockage of the air passage around it, then feel the chest creating a sort of windiness in this air passage. The wind blowing through the tunnel resulted in a cough to expulse the mucous out of the air passage.

Mobile phones are not allowed on retreat – but I think a lot of people sneak them in – including me. I keep it turned off during the day and just check text messages at night in case of family emergencies.
This was the first retreat where I had a family emergency.
There was a text message from my daughter Ebony on Friday evening (my 5th day on retreat) that my mum had collapsed and been admitted to hospital. She’d had two blood transfusions. After reading this I had to go and sit the one hour meditation from 6-7pm with an exploding head…non stop firecrackers exploded in my brain for one whole hour – the neurons were being electrocuted by the news of my mum. After the one hour sitting, the back of my eyes were burnt out.
The experience shocked me into realising how delicate the mind is on retreat. A Vipassana retreat really is like a 10 day open surgical operation. This is the reason we must not take mobile phones on retreat. For days after this, my eyes felt badly bruised and the muscles behind my eyes ached, as if they had been punched black and blue.
(Note to this – my mum had an operation on Christmas Eve for a ruptured bowel – she spent 5 weeks in hospital with a few complications but is going OK now)


26 January 2009 - Sadness

Is it depression, or just a deep sadness for what is impermanent?
I’ve been gradually cutting myself off from society and friends over the past two years. I avoid phone calls, I hide away, I avoid all challenges and anything new.
Why am I doing this?
Perhaps the pain in my body that has partially crippled me has also crippled my self-confidence. I don’t know who I am anymore so I don’t’ know how to relate to anyone.
But I suspect it has something more to do with my son and deep pain we both continue to experience and express in and around our lives together.
I feel safe hiding away in my cave as if I need to be immersed in solitude to find my essence before re-emerging one day. Is it a shedding of dead skin, an old personality?
I often feel this deep sadness. It isn’t personal, it isn’t because of any one thing and what I perceive as my personal sadness has no logical basis. Somehow my heart taps into the global, universal sadness of all humanity and it takes root inside my heart and blossoms exponentially.
Then everything I see and feel becomes coloured with the sadness of blue.
My sadness seems to have a deep core that originates in the core suffering of all human beings – that everything we have now will be lost, our body is slowly decaying, our youth is fleeting, our closest friends and loved ones will suffer, we will all suffer illness, one day we will all die, and our life is meaningless unless we find the key that unlocks the secret of living joyfully and permanently in the glorious present.
This is why we take up spiritual practise – to escape what Buddha described in this first Noble Truth – that life is suffering.
I wonder whether the intense Vipassana retreats serve to peel away the superficial layers of life to reveal this core of sadness.
Is it a good thing to touch this tender core? It doesn’t make me a better person to feel this all pervading sadness. Life just hurts. I know I should use it to develop compassion for all beings but I’d rather just hide away and cry.

2nd February 2009 - Benjamin Buttons

I went to see 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons' on the weekend and was very surprised. It is a brilliant film. It has captured the innocence of times past when life wasn’t so complicated but it is a multi-layered commentary on the suffering of our human condition – aging, loss, wasted time, missed opportunities. It uprooted the tender, budding seed deep in my heart that knows and feels the ephemeral nature of our existence. I could barely talk after the film. Words fail me when my heart dissolves into the profound journey that is our life. I cried on and off for a few hours after the film.

Tears
Tears are a fascinating physiological phenomenon.
They provide a physical release of pent up emotional energy.
I remember feeling them well up at one point during the Vipassana retreat. I was reflecting on my son and the pain he lives with, having lost his three best friends to suicide in his late teens and suffering from depression ever since.
My son is my teacher – he is brutally honest - our relationship goes way beyond this lifetime and we have an eternal bond that emotionally grips us both.
I think the sensitive mindstate induced during an intense Vipassana retreat brings up all the deep feelings and thoughts that haunt me so the tears are really not a surprise.
I remember watching the emotional response in my body increase as I let myself succumb to the thoughts about my son. It really was like a well filling up, and when it reached fullness, there was a sensation somewhere beneath the sides of my nose – I can’t recall or pinpoint it exactly anymore, but I remember watching the physiological process that led up the formation of a couple of soft tears.
It starts with a thought, which causes a feeling reaction in the body, which sets off a physiological process to finally release the energy of the emotion from the body.
How extraordinary is this body/heart/mind.

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