Monday, February 9, 2009

Breathing Through the Contractions

While listening to an ER doctor tell me my heart was not beating properly and might need to be shocked back into submission, I did not see my life flash before my eyes, as I'd heard others describe. Instead, a whole slew of overused cliches spent some time roving around my brain. It puts things into perspective. It changes everything. Spend every moment like it's your last -- Those and a few more. Though I was lucky enough to be receiving the care I needed before anything fatal could occur, the idea that my 40 year old heart could make some of its own decisions about my mortality did indeed wake me up. And it did change everything.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Library)Upon returning home from the hospital, I scoured the house to find Pema Chodron's book When Things Fall Apart, a book my pastor had mentioned while visiting me. I was sure I had purchased it a few years ago, but had never read it. I'd wanted to, but books on parenting and homeschooling kept taking its place in the queue. In fact, I'd realized the day before while watching the heart monitor hover between 130 and 150, the list of items I'd pushed to the back of the line was shockingly long: vulnerability, relaxation, community, meditation, passion. I'd been working so hard to offer my children a dedicated, loving mom that I'd forgotten to show some devotion and love to myself -- yet another cliche realized.

Pema Chodron offers a place for me to start:
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart... The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
A month ago, I was honored to attend the birth of my friend's son. My friend is now my hero. Each time a contraction came, she simply held up her finger to alert us that the contraction was beginning, a signal to us to give her the space and serenity the contraction demanded. She then breathed, humming, slowly and steadily through the entire contraction. Once the contraction ended, she would literally pick up exactly where she had left off prior to the contraction, occasionally finishing a sentence, sometimes beginning a new conversation, every once in a while requesting assistance. She would show no hint of discomfort or concern until her finger went up to signify the next contraction.

Later, after discovering that I would need to learn to better handle stress in order to prevent my heart from betraying me another time, I asked my friend how she'd done that. She told me that she just didn't think or worry about each contraction until there was something to consider. She knew the contractions were going to come no matter how much she thought or didn't think about them. In fact, she confessed, that was how she lived her life: when a concern appeared, she addressed it. Where there was no immediate concern to address, she just didn't worry about anything. Basically, she lived in the present.

The cliches keep coming.

My heart falling apart has indeed been both a test and a healing for me. It has tested my ability to live in the present, to save worrying for moments when worrying is warranted. It was the big push following a series of painful contractions. I, however, spent the time between those contractions perseverating about the next big, painful thing to come. There was a major event leading up to my coronary episode: my husband, the purveyor of our only income, lost his job during this major economic recession. We'd used our savings when he went through a lay-off 6 months ago and we were just about to lose health insurance for us and our 3 children (which we did, for 4 days -- until our new emergency policy took effect-- the same days I was in the hospital). Prior to my coronary warning, I'd spent literally every waking moment worrying. I'd spent every sleeping moment tense. While it is, of course, understandable to feel stress when something like this happens, I truly believed that it was my job to fix every little piece that was falling from our lives. I thought it was my job to make sure we would not suffer any negative ramifications of our unemployment. I also thought I needed to preserve our financial facade. While wondering how were going to pay the next month's rent, I smiled for friends who asked how were were doing and cheerfully explained to the kids that we were having an "adventure". Meanwhile, my heart was telling the rest of me that it needed some "room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."

Each of us lives our lives navigating through a series of painful contractions. The trick to managing those contractions is in how we spend our time between them. The pain of the contractions is inevitable. Things are going to fall apart regardless of how much we worry or even how much we prepare. This is true for me and it is true for my children. It is true for the big contractions like unemployment or illness or loss. It is true for the little contractions, like my 4 year old daughter melting down daily because the seam of her socks does not match up properly to her toes. So my first goal in learning to manage stress is to experience life's contractions when the pain is present and to mindfully allow the time in between to pass peacefully.

There you have it, one final cliche, a new one this time: Life is a series of painful contractions, punctuated by peaceful moments of clarity and mindfulness. Or perhaps this one: Life is a series of peaceful moments of clarity and mindfulness, punctuated by painful contractions. I suppose the one we choose depends upon our mood in the moment.

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