Today in yoga class I was struck for a few moments by the miracle of the body: by what a marvelous, phenomenal, generous gift I had been given. That what Mary Oliver refers to as the “soft animal of your body” in her poem, “Wild Geese,” was given to me to inhabit so that I could have the experience of life. It is so easy to judge our bodies. To worry about them, resent them, struggle with them. For a few minutes I was blessed with the sweet simplicity of seeing the gift we have each been given.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes experience things as inconveniences or interruptions. When I do, they are problematic. But if we take a closer look, how can anything interrupt life? The only thing that interrupts life is arguing with what is.
Sometimes we lives as though there is a way things should unfold, that certain things should happen and other things shouldn’t. Our spouses should be faithful. Loved ones should not get cancer. When we look more closely, though, we see that doesn’t make any sense at all.
At the end of my August 3rd video, Nothing Is Expected, I said that I was grateful for my experience. A reader wrote and asked how that could be true, given how painful it had been. This is my response. I welcome your questions and comments!
On July 14, I had a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. It’s been “interesting.”
Prior to surgery, I was in a very calm and settled place. I was happy with the decisions I’d made. I respected and trusted my medical team. The Charming Prince was a source of constant, steady support. I had love and healing vibes flowing in locally and via social media at a truly phenomenal level. (Thank you so much!)
At the beginning of July I posted my intentions for the month to a thread in the Brain Trust form. (The Brain Trust is a mastermind group of dear friends.) My first item was “Don’t freak out.”
In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. At the time I wasn’t freaking out, and I don’t think I was anticipating freaking out.Perhaps some wise part of me perceived that one might freak out from time to time when diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing surgery and treatment.
A less wise part of me seems to have thought that not freaking out was better than freaking out. I get that. By and large, I would much rather feel peaceful and calm than freaked out. But from where I sit now, it seems to me that setting the intention to not freak out is like planning to get on a roller coaster with the intention of not experiencing the descents.
The ride got dicey after eight days
Eight days after surgery I went in to have two of four surgical drains removed. The skin around the drain sites was very unhappy, and the surgeon decided, all things considered, that it would be best to take all four drains. She also suggested that I get my first “fills,” injections of saline into the tissue expanders that were placed after the mastectomy to gradually stretch my muscle and skin to accommodate implants.
I cannot begin to tell you how excruciating the drain removal was. I am still astonished that no one has figured out how to mitigate the pain of the process, especially because such great care was taken during all of my other exams and tests to prevent or manage pain.
Then came the fills. The injections were not at all painful; I felt only a mild sense of pressure.
But OMG, by the next day I was in agony.
The freak out commences
I had started to taper off my pain meds the day before drain removal, and I had continued to take half doses afterward. By Friday, two days after the drain removal and fills, I was a wreck.
On Friday morning I lay in bed arguing with myself about whether or not I could tolerate the pain.
I kept trying to figure out what an acceptable level of pain was. I wondered if my pain tolerance was higher or lower than other people’s pain tolerances. I don’t know how I thought the answer to that would help, but that’s one of the places my mind went.
By mid-morning I had three pain pills left. I couldn’t imagine how much worse I would feel when I ran out, so I finally decided to call the nurse and let her know what was going on.
To my embarrassment, I burst into tears on the phone. The nurse listened carefully and asked me nurse-y questions. She gave me some context for things seeming to get worse before they got better, including the fact that nerves that are damaged or insulted during surgery can start waking up at various times in the days that follow. It appeared that I had some very cranky nerves waking up.
The bottom line is that she arranged for me to get more meds.
Bursting into tears opened a door
Something about bursting into tears showed me how really crummy I felt, and that gave me a bit of self-compassion. (One of the biggest things I have am learning from this experience is that self-compassion is profoundly heart-opening. It’s doorway to compassion for all beings, the very opposite of selfishness.)
I decided to go back on a full dose of pain medication for a couple of days. Though it meant being woozy and confused and nauseous, I could sleep through that, and I couldn’t sleep through the pain.
A new intention
Fast-forward to the first of August. Once again it was time to post monthly intentions to the Brain Trust forum. Here’s how I opened the list this month:
“Go ahead and freak out knowing that I will come back to center. Show up for life, including all the feelings. Don’t spiritualize it before experiencing it.”
Spiritualizing life is pretending or seeking to not be affected by the roller coaster ride. It’s profoundly different from seeing that even though the ride is scary you are safe.
The mistake we make is not freaking out; the mistake is freaking out about freaking out, freaking out in advance of the ride, or continuing to freak out after the ride is over.
I love that I was able to stay in the present moment in the days leading up to surgery. I didn’t freak out by imagining how things would go or worrying about the future.
But I was mistaken when I set the intention to not freak out during and after surgery. There’s no need, nor is there an advantage, to trying to manage our experiences.
If we are truly safe and whole in our essential nature at all times (and I believe that this is so) then there is no need to manage our experiences at any time.
We are safe and whole whether we are freaking out or not.
I don’t know why we are here
I don’t know why spiritual beings are having human experiences. It works for me to assume that there is meaning and value in it. If that is true, I propose that there is meaning and value in all of it, from freak out to transcendence.
It’s all good.
When we make an aspect of the human experience into a problem, we impede the natural process by which what troubles us invariably subsides and we are returned to peace.
That’s what matters. Not that we never freak out, but that we come to see that freaking out is not terminal. Freaking out is a temporary response to a temporary set of thoughts and perceptions.
In other words, this too shall pass.
It happens that as we see more and more clearly the temporary nature of our freak outs, we naturally get more comfortable with the roller coaster. As a result, we tend to freak out less often and less intensely.
But that is a side effect. To make it into a goal activates a sort of spiritual competitiveness. Not helpful.
Spiritualizing experience disconnects us from life and each other
Trying to spiritualize our experience preempts whatever insights might arise if we would only simply be with what is arising. It disconnects us from life and from each other.
Time and again the freedom and peace we seek are to be found right here, right now in the heart whatever joy or sorrow, pleasure or pain we are experiencing.
NOTE: The last video in this month’s video Roundup says more about what I’ve been learning in the wake of surgery. You’re also welcome to visit my CaringBridge Journal, and as always, I welcome your comments.
In mid-July I had a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. I went into surgery feeling peaceful, calm, and confident. I came out of it feeling ravaged, confused, and sad. The hardest part of that was expecting myself to feel differently. Here are some reflections on what that is teaching me.
As always, I welcome your comments!