Friday, March 12, 2010

Tonglen for Dummies

"Tonglen is a practice of creating space, ventilating the atmosphere of our lives so that people can breathe freely and relax. Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain.
"When we protect ourselves so we won't feel pain, that protection becomes like armor. When we breathe in pain, somehow it penetrates that armor. With the in-breath the armor begins to fall apart, and we find we can breathe deeply and relax. A kindness and a gentleness begins to emerge. We don't have to tense up as if our whole life were being spent in the dentist's chair."--Pema Chodron, from When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

I thought that Tuesday, March 2, would be the worst day of my week because I had an appointment to get my gums assaulted--I mean "cleaned"--at 2. An hour in the chair with the hygienist telling me to relax, then digging her little hook deeper into the recesses between my back teeth, until I'm spitting blood swearing I will floss once a day. Please. Just be done.

I like comfort. Who doesn't? But I really like comfort. A lot. It means I'll probably never hike through the Amazon or go ice-fishing but I'm happy to skip those things. I'll read about others' experiences. Just put me in a 3-star hotel. It doesn't even have to be 4-star! Is that too much to ask?

But Tuesday was a hayride compared to Wednesday. Around lunchtime I threw up at work. In the bathroom, thank god, but I work in a small office and I guarantee that at least half of the employees heard my retching. I skulked out of the bathroom, grabbed my bag, and left the building. I got into a cab and gave the driver my destination, worried I'd get a talker. I stared out the window, acting fascinated with the scenery like I had never driven through Kenmore Square before, just so he wouldn't talk. If I had had to respond, he might not have liked my answer.

The next 24 hours are kind of hazy. I just remember a surging pain in my lower back and legs, like I'd been beaten up and left for dead. I had a pounding headache and was incredibly thirsty, and still nauseous. When Mike came home I could only utter "Coke" and "wet cloth" while I writhed on the bed, clinging to the heating pad wrapped around my middle. I was going from chills to sweat in 60 seconds.

"Kidney stone" my mother said. "You can take Tylenol Extra-Strength but there's not much else you can do until it passes."

I spent a sleepless night lying on my back, then rolling over and back again. I just couldn't get comfortable. Not even a little. The pain was constant. It was hostile.

The next few days I would experience more of the same symptoms, accompanied by some new ones just to sweeten the pot. I was thirsty, yet I couldn't pee so my bladder felt like a water balloon ready to be hurled at someone. If I had a needle I would have burst it myself. I could barely eat anything except ice and...yeah, I think that's it, ice.

At times my thirst was so acute that even after drinking a gulp, my lips and tongue would instantly turn to cotton. I started doing my own form of tonglen, breathing in my pain and the pain of others, breathing out relief for me and for everyone else who suffered. Except I really wasn't feeling relief. Only in theory.

I got to thinking about how precious clean drinking water is. It may seem like stating the obvious, but the typical American rarely thinks about how lucky they are to have the basic elements that they need to survive and thrive. They think, I have to have that new Droid phone or when can I afford that trip to Sardinia. They don't think, well at least I have fresh drinking water. There's that.

But I'm telling you--this past week, I could have easily gone without food but I wouldn't have lasted a day without a drink of water. I have even more respect for shipwreck survivors who find themselves stranded at sea unable to drink the water. If that were me, I'd have been the first to start hallucinating a shoreline and jumping out of the dinghy.

It made me feel empathy for everyone around the world who suffered and could not get relief. Me, I could at least drink flat Coke and chew on a Saltine while listening to old radio mysteries on my stereo. I had blankets and a bed and my husband to lean on (to the point that I left a dent in his left shoulder.) Others were not so lucky. I vowed that when I was feeling better I would give a donation to Doctors Without Borders.

I don't know what I had, if it was a kidney stone or gastroenteritis. My doctor never gave me a diagnosis. It could be A, she said, or B-G. I'm on antibiotics as well as probiotics; let them fight it out, I'm exhausted. I'm also ten pounds lighter, but I don't recommend this particular crash diet.

Last night I ate my first real meal in a week: stir-fry vegetables over rice. I knew my appetite was coming back when I sequestered myself in the bedroom so I could eat without threat of Joey Thumbs stealing food from my plate.

I feel grateful for all my food choices and the availability of Gatorade. We should all have it so good.


Pam said...

Glad you're feeling better. Sounds like hell. And I appreciate your comments about how friggin' good we have it. Enjoy your food.

Marguerite Manteau-Rao said...

Yes, glad you are feeling better too. And thanks for the reminder about us needing to be grateful for so many things we too often take for granted. I was not sick, but just came back from first trip to India, where many people are happy to just have a piece of sidewalk to sleep on, and dirty water to drink, along with cup of rice. The resilience of human spirit never ceases to amaze me! Also, realization that when body is in tremendous pain, mindfulness becomes almost impossible.

Levi said...

Sounds like torture and sounds like every day life. I'm glad you are feeling better and able to eat. It's interesting to have these kind of reminders.