Doing Tonglen

I can’t pretend to understand the practice of Buddhism, but I am dipping heavily into a wonderful book When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron.  It’s an excellent reference for those who are dealing with chaos and change in their own lives, as I am in mine. I usually read a chapter and then go away and think about it for a week or so, then dip in again. The thing that had hit me most until now was her statement that we must abandon hope, because that leads to despair. Interesting thought.  Had to chew on that one for a full month.

Today, though, I was in the tub reading, thinking about my poor (ex)mother-in-law, who is dying with a recently diagnosed ALS. She’s a fighter, but I know she is getting weary of having to give up everyday things, to lose her sense of competence, to feel a burden. It’s not her, she who spent all of her life serving others. Of all of the horribleness of this illness, that’s the thing that bothers me the most, perhaps because my loss of identity is still so close as I cope with disability and MS and all the much lesser evils I live with every day.

So I read about Tonglen, breathing in other’s suffering, breathing out relaxation and joy, and wish with all my fervent little heart that it was so simple, that I could breathe in her suffering, and that of everyone else who has to suffer from ALS, to breathe in health suffering in total, bring it on board my frail body, and breathe out, breathe out, that feeling of joy and relaxation. I mean, they even have T-shirts with the theory on it.  Can’t be that tough, can it, if it can be reduced to a T-Shirt…

But there’s this tiny problem. I’m too busy wallowing my own self. I had set up tonight to be a total self-affirming, aggressive self-care evening, one where I could be selfish and feel a bit bleu and I even bought pillowcases to embroider that had forget-me-nots on them in a true flashback to times of old when I used to be a sweet young hopeful creature that did things like embroidery.  I even met another woman in the shop and talked her into doing some, too – we both reminisced about lazy-daisy stitches and French knots (called, hilariously, Colonial knots, in my American kit – must have been from post 9-11 and freedom fries…), outline stitches and the horrible behaviour of most types of green embroidery floss, which WILL tangle if you just look at it a bit sideways. I planned to wallow in the bath and do girly things to my legs and inhale scented oils and listen to soft music and pretend I wasn’t alone on a Saturday night, thinking of how I am expected to survive on a diet of no salt, no fat, no chocolate and no booze, and wondering whether surviving was really all it’s cut out to be.

Then doom.  “Oh”, I thought, “I really should dip into Pema’s book again.  After all, she’s been such a help…”

And now I feel so small and insignificant and as if I should have been instead sucking others pain into myself all night like a vast mountain of Bounty (the quicker picker-upper) instead of just chewing on my own.  I felt awash with guilt for not giving cash to the scary panhandler I passed the other day, for every mean thought (and there have been a few) about a certain person who shall remain nameless but let’s just suppose she is planning to marry my ex, just saying, for every time I was too lazy to offer a smile or a positive thought or whatever to my fellow travellers.

It’s pathetic. Surely I should be due a good wallow now and again (oh all right, for those who know me well, they’ve been a little too frequent these days for even my liking) without that ol’ guilt rearing its ugly head? Can’t I fret about my ingrown hairs on my legs like any normal woman without being cast mentally to the starving hordes in Asia who probably have no hair because of malnutrition or wish they didn’t have ingrown shistosomes in their legs that are busy migrating to their eyes to make them blind (look it up)? Surely I can feel a wee bit desirous of a huge honking chocolate bar  – one of those Dairy Milk ones with 65% fat that stretch when they are melty and fill your mouth with a sensual gloopiness without thinking of people who can’t chew anymore and who can never experience that feeling ever ever again? Maybe I can feel my aches and pains from being too lazy to exercise without thinking about all my fellow MS’ers who can’t exercise anymore because their neurons are in worse shape than mine?

Well, apparently not.  I don’t know whether it is that Roman Catholic upbringing that inserts guilt into your DNA, or whether it’s the persuasive argument of Pema as she tells us to be less petty, and reach to be better, but my “aggressive self-care” evening is ruined. I think I’ll head off and eat some bran or something, or maybe just fix myself a strong drink, and then try to breathe out some joy in the alcohol fumes.

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