Working with Pain

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Thursday, August 20: Understanding and Treating Pain
with Janet DeLong of DeLong Wellness
6:00-7:15pm, via Zoom
A couple of years ago, I heard Janet speak at the Monroe County Public Library, and her presentation stuck with me. She explained that pain is complex, a “sensory and emotional experience,” that can be worked with, as much as managed.

If you or someone you care about experiences pain that impacts quality of life, or if you’re just curious to learn more, please join us. This event is free, but virtual space is limited and registration is required. To register, contact me–please include “working with pain” and your phone number in the comments box.

The Healing Art of Guo Fengyi

 

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Essays by Rosario Güiraldes, Laura Hoptman, Kathleen M. Ryor, Xu Tan

Chinese artist Guo Fengyi (1942-2010) created mesmerizing ink drawings, intricate images derived from visions that came to her during qigong practice. Qigong is a subtle body practice from the Chinese tradition, and Reiki–Japanese in origin–is sometimes compared to it. Both practices are meditative and seem to facilitate healing experiences. (You can find an earlier post about qigong, here.)

Guo began practicing qigong for pain relief, after severe arthritis forced her to quit a career at a chemical plant, in her late 40s. Guo understood qigong as a method for understanding, and healing, her body; she made detailed descriptions of how her body, mind, and spirit moved as she practiced. In one journal entry, she encouraged herself:

“You have to have a strong will and endurance. Through sustained practice, you will achieve enlightenment. If you hold on to the [qigong] practice, naturally, everything will be achieved through real practice.” *

As Guo immersed herself in qigong, written descriptions quickly gave way to powerful visual images, which she inked onto paper. The images became more convoluted. Guo strongly believed that these drawings were healing, and she never wavered from that intent. The contemporary art world of China regarded her as a curiosity; even those who admired her work were hesitant to call it “art.” Her images were too raw, too weird. And they were rooted in a quest for personal healing—the work of a middle-aged woman, who had no art education, circling at the fringes of a contemporary art scene dominated by men.

No matter.  Guo Fengyi kept practicing. A decade after her death, the first major institutional exhibit of her work in the United States took place at The Drawing Center in NYC. How is wish I could have seen it! Maybe I’ll be able to catch it in Savannah, Georgia, the next stop. For now, I have to settle for the exhibition catalogue, which has well-written, accessible essays and lovely reproductions of Guo’s detailed images.

As I read about the artist’s work, nourished by her qigong practice, I noted how much it reflected my own experience of Reiki. My background is in the arts, but when I first learned Reiki, I had consciously stepped back from art, to focus on a demanding job. However, after a few years of Reiki practice, I noticed that my perception of color seemed to shift; in particular, I perceived a new sense of relationship between colors, a rich conversation that I suddenly felt privy to. The spectrum of color–our old friend ROY G BIV–seemed to stretch and deepen. It was like discovering new flavors that I’d had no idea existed.

When we practice paying attention, we gain new information about ourselves, and the world around us. When we have new information, new options may appear. Often, these options were completely out of our line of sight: out of the blue, we might say. Through focusing on our practice–Reiki, yoga, meditation, qigong–anything that takes us simultaneously out of ourselves and deeper in–we soften our gaze, which allows us to see what is at the edge of our vision.

In many ways, Reiki practice reminds me of walking a path in snowy woods, at night. If I look for the path, it’s difficult to see it in the darkness. But if I move ahead slowly, my eyes roaming gently side to side, the path emerges as a muted brightness, winding ahead of me. It’s the subtle difference between looking at something, as opposed to taking it in.

Practice. Walk the snowy path of whatever practice speaks to you. We commit to walking the path, but we need not stare at it–we simply need to show up, and be receptive.
____

* Guo Fengyi: To See from a Distance, exhibition catalogue, Footnote 5, p 27

Reopening in a New (Old) Location

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Photo by the amazing David Ondrik

*Please read my Reopening Protocols, effective June 29, 2020.

Orange Flower Healing has been closed for three months. In the grand scheme of things, this is not a big deal: I have much to be grateful for, and I am okay, when many others are not. But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. I have missed my clients and my colleagues, and the quietude of sharing Reiki with others. The well-tuned structure of my work week was upended, and while that’s been great for working in the garden, it hasn’t always been great for my sense of purpose, or for paying bills. I closed my doors in the chill of spring, and am cautiously opening them to the heat of summer.

Now I am charting the path to a slow reopen, returning to my (hopefully temporary) home office. I started Orange Flower Healing in the front room of my house, so in this time of contraction and global upheaval, it feels fine to retreat to the origin-place of my professional practice. The space has served as a study for nearly two years, but we still refer to it as the “Reiki room,” and it’s my favorite room in the house.

Orange Flower Healing will reopen following Indiana’s Back on Track suggested guidelines for Personal Services. There will be very limited appointment times, and we will be required to wear masks—if you do not have a mask, I can provide a cloth one.

Appointments will initially be offered to previously-established clients, and after two weeks, I will begin phasing in new clients.

I am also planning a First Degree Reiki class at the end of July.

This is the anticipated schedule (subject to change):
Week of June 29: Accepting appointments for previously-established clients
Week of July 13: Accepting appointments for new clients
First Degree Reiki: July 23-25 (Thurs, 6-9pm; Fri 9am-4pm; Sat, 10am-1pm).
*Please note that I ask potential students to schedule a Reiki session with me before registering for a class; I offer a discounted session fee for potential students. Important details about Reiki classes can be found here.

This schedule is subject to change, depending on how things unfold with Covid-19, and how well practicing in my home is working for my family. Thank you for your patience and your support!

Earth Day Meditation Video

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Image from NASA, via NPR

Earth Day turns 50  this year. And what a strange Earth Day this will be: air quality has drastically improved, but at great cost to human life and economies. Seismologists are marveling at the readings they’re getting, with the world being so quiet. The wild creatures are getting bold… or comfortable.

Each April 22nd, I offer a guided Earth Day meditation. This year I’m posting it online. My hope is that this meditation–or your personal adaptation of it–helps deepen your connection with our beautiful planet, with the landscapes that you love, and with your own earth: the sacred body that comes along with you, everywhere you go.

You can access the meditation here.

Much gratitude to:
Video editing by David Ondrik
Music interludes plucked from Thursday Afternoon, Brian Eno
Artwork, Guanyin, Patrick Nagatani
Meditation inspirations from Reiki Master Shantika Bernard and Bioneers

Breathe, Digest, and Sleep

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Breathing better, digesting better, and sleeping better are three things that Reiki seems to be particularly good at. How is this possible? As I readily admit, I don’t know exactly how Reiki works. But I can say that, as a general rule, a Reiki session helps people to relax. I’ve observed how the breath deepens, the face softens; people sigh, they swallow, and sometimes they fall asleep. Something about this practice appears to evoke the power of the parasympathetic nervous system–the “rest and digest” system that is so restorative for the body and mind.

We think of highly stressed people as being in flight or fight mode, but there is a third mode: freeze, the strategy of the rabbit. It strikes me that COVID-19 has put many of us into all three modes simultaneously. Irritability, insomnia, and panic attacks abound. If you are fortunate enough to have Reiki, you can self-practice. And you can share with others in your household, if they’re interested.

But many people don’t have Reiki in their home. So what can you do, right now, to help your body breathe, digest, and sleep better? There are options, even while sheltering in place and socially distancing.

BREATHE.
Meditation. You don’t have to sit on a cushion for an hour. You might try setting an alert for the start of every hour, and spend five minutes watching your breath. When you pay attention to your breath, you breathe better.
Exercise. When you move your body, you move the air in your lungs. You don’t have to run a marathon! Go for a brisk walk, dance in your living room, take the stairs.
Go outside. It is springtime–breathe it in.

DIGEST.
Meal planning. This can go either way. Some people I know say they are eating better than they were before shelter-in-place, because they have more time to cook. Others have been stress baking and eating cookies for breakfast. (Yep, that’s happened at my house.) Whichever direction you’re leaning in, healthy meals are a gift to your body now.
Fresh foods. Eat as many fresh veggies and fruits as you can–they are full of life-force, and add water to your diet, too. The Supergrain Salad above is a rainbow-on-a-plate dish that I fell in love with in Portland, Oregon. I have a few versions of my own!
Exercise. Moving your body moves your digestive system, too. And exercise encourages us to drink water, which keeps the digestive system hydrated.

SLEEP.
Exercise. Perhaps you detect a theme! The human body evolved to be on the move, not sitting in a chair. Who doesn’t sleep well after a long walk or a day in the garden?
Log out. Turn off tech gadgets (all of them) one hour before bed. Set an alarm if you need to. Read a paper book, take a bath, journal. The mental gears need time to wind down.
Relaaaaax into sleep. Consider going to bed a half hour earlier than you typically do. Once in bed, place your hands behind your head, in a looking-up-at-the-clouds position. Feel the weight of your skull settle heavily into the cradle of your hands. After a few minutes, place your hands over your heart. And a few minutes after that, if you’re still awake, rest your hands on your low belly. Breathe.

Reiki as Refuge

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Kuan Yin in the Garden, photo by David Ondrik


Querencia
is a Spanish term that can mean a few different things: it’s the place where one feels secure; the deep love of place; affection for home; a favorite spot. It is often associated with bull fighting, querencia being the place in the arena where the bull feels strong, and confident that he can survive the brutal contest he’s stuck in.

When I first learned about querencia, towards the end of my fifteen years living in New Mexico, it was described to me more as a way of being, or a way behaving. I was offered the image of a dog, circling and circling, and circling yet again, before plunking herself down to rest, with a big sigh. All is well, for the moment, at least.

These last few, strange, weeks, I have been circling endlessly, but not quite getting to my querencia. Time and again, sometimes several times a day, I think I’ve got it and then—poof—something happens and I find myself starting again. Anxiety, fear, and doubt are taking up more time in my head (and heart) than I’m used to—and boy, they are tenacious.

In my own life experience, this time of uncertainty most reminds of when a loved one was dying, several years ago. The sense of limbo was almost unbearable; I was waterlogged with anticipatory grief that seemed too intimate to share with my work colleagues, the people with whom I spent most of my waking hours. I felt overwhelmed and isolated, and I was not a lot of fun to be around. It was like being at sea; no land in sight.

At that time, the only place where I consistently found peace was in Reiki—a practice that was new to me, but which felt like my one reliable place of rest. And much like my grief, I had trouble putting Reiki into words. Paradoxically, it felt critical to my vitality, and utterly intangible. I felt foolish when I tried to explain Reiki to others, and finally I stopped trying. I took comfort in a passage from the Tao te Ching: “Those who know, don’t talk; those who talk, don’t know.”*

As years have passed, my daily practice has become almost second nature. Reiki saw me through the difficulty of that period, and has been with me through many other changes—some that I welcomed, and others that I wanted to resist. I have developed a mindset that I mostly find helpful: When in doubt, apply Reiki practice. When not in doubt, still apply Reiki practice. I’ve slowly accumulated some words that are useful when trying to talk about Reiki, but they are, “(in the traditional Buddhist metaphor), fingers pointing at the moon; if you watch the finger, you can’t see the moon.”†

Navigating this strange new world of coronavirus, I have found myself thinking hard about Reiki as refuge, perhaps as the querencia I can retreat to. My professional practice—the hands-on practice with others, that brings such peace and comfort to many clients—is impossible. I’m realizing how much holding that space with other people helps me, too. It seems cruel that just when we most need comforting touch, it is denied to us—whether through Reiki, massage, or just plain-old human hugs and hand holding. 

I’ve been given the opportunity—ugh! that word feels so hard, right now—to reflect more deeply on my self-practice. And my partner and I have been exchanging Reiki more often. Hawayo Takata, the woman who brought Reiki to the United States, said: “You are Number One! Then, if you have time, treat your family and your friends; but in Reiki, you first, then other people.”‡

I’ve also heard Takata said that every household should have a baker, and a Reiki practitioner. Reiki? Check. Baker? Check.

Querencia? Still circling.

* Chapter 56, Tao te Ching, by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell
† Notes, Chapter 1, Tao te Ching, by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell
Reiki: Hawayo Takata’s Story, by Helen J. Haberly

This Human Hand

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Cuevas de las Manos, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina, 2005. Photo by Mariano.

“I’m looking at my hand… it’s got a lot of wrinkles, but it’s linked to hands like this back through the ages. This hand is directly linked to hands that learned to reach and grasp and climb and push up on dry land, and weave reeds into baskets, and it has a fantastic history. Every particle and every atom in this hand goes back to the beginning of space/time, we’re part of that story.”

From “A Wild Love for the World,” Joanna Macy and Krista Tippett at On Being.


TheHand A few years ago, I read a wonderful book called The Hand, by Frank R. Wilson. Published in 1998, I’ve never read anything quite like it: equal parts anatomy book, anthropology text, and medical memoir, mixed together with the life stories of individuals who put their hands (and brains) to use in curious ways. It features rock-climbers, mechanics, puppeteers, musicians, magicians, Feldenkrais therapists, and more. A broad-scope humanities book, it’s the kind of read that I am always on the lookout for, where science and stories are brought together in a way that is thorough, and compelling.

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From A Primer of Higher Space (The Fourth Dimension), by Claude Fayette Bragdon

The human hand can be an agent of healing and creation, and is depicted as such in myth and throughout history. There are dozens of meaningful mudras and hand gestures in religious art. The touch of another human’s hand greets us at birth. As we move through the world, the touch that we welcome from others releases oxytocin into our bloodstream, helping us to feel calm, relaxed, and happy.

Thoughtful touch, and the fine work that the human hand is capable of, are becoming ever more precious as we tumble onward into the rabbit hole of the digital age. Our hands can do so much, but these days most of us spend a lot of our hand-time at computer keyboards, or swiping and tapping electronic gadgets. Esther Perel has spoken poignantly about how for many of us, our phone is the last thing we touch at night, and the first thing we touch in the morning, at great cost to human relationship.

As the days shorten and the calendar year draws to a close, the temptation to huddle around the warmth of our devices grows even stronger. This winter season, I encourage you to spend a little time meditating on the miracle of the human hand, your own, and others’. Massage a lightly scented oil onto your paws before going to bed, or exchange a hand massage with your partner or best friend. Spend some time gazing at your uniquely mysterious palm-lines, the wrinkles that make you, you. (I only recently realized that the ring finger on my left hand is a full quarter-inch shorter than my right ring finger–this, despite the fact I have probably spent more time than the average person, contemplating my hands! Weird.)

Studies on the effectiveness of Reiki are a challenge, because the placebo group often receives “sham” Reiki from a person who goes through the motions of a session, without actually being initiated as a Reiki practitioner. The thing is, human touch in and of itself can convey comfort and encouragement, which supports healing. I suspect one of Reiki’s gifts is that it helps individuals cultivate the willingness to be still, to practice quiet, agenda-free human touch on a regular basis–not just with others, but more importantly with ourselves. I personally experience Reiki on the meditation spectrum, in that a teacher empowers us in our practice, listens to our questions, and encourages us to always return to the practice: to let Reiki teach you, through your very human hands.

Vampires and Garlic Gardens

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Garlic by David Ondrik

I recently read an article in an issue of Breathe about empaths and “energy vampires.”

This is a phrase I’m hesitant to use, because it encourages us to (literally) demonize other people, especially those whom we find personally draining or difficult. 

Most of the time, a person we think of as an energy vampire is simply someone who is not conscious of themselves, or their impact on others. Think about when children are sick; we love and want to care for them, and when they are deeply depleted, they need more of our ki—our vitalityto sustain themselves. Generally speaking, we don’t think of children as vampires!

What if we apply that same patience and compassion to adults who aren’t able to straightforwardly ask for what they need, due to stress, illness, or past trauma? It’s entirely possible that the person who is draining you thinks that they don’t matter enough to affect other people—a sad situation, indeed.

How do we feel more kindly towards people who exhaust us? The best defense against anything that feels depleting is self care. Deep self care—Self Love, really—is the best protection, because when we are well-rested, well-fed, exercised, and truly engaged with our own life, we are less susceptible to getting swept up in someone else’s drama. When we find ourselves feeling drained by a person or situation that we believe has snared us, it’s usually a sign that that we need to take a good, compassionate look at ourselves. Are we offering up our own life force for the taking, consciously or not?

Another thing to be aware of is our own capacity to BE that energy vampire. What? Me?! No way! Yes. This does not make us a bad or weak person; it means that we are human, and we have down times, just like everyone else. If we’re not attentive to our own needs, and aware of our own less-than-helpful coping strategies, it is easy to tip over to that “dark side,” where we harbor unrealistic expectations of our friends, family, and co-workers, worrying about our unmet needs and unconsciously trying to pull people in to help us.

Building up our psychic immune system is the best way to avoid—and to avoid becoming—an energy vampire.  When I say “psychic,” I mean of the psyche, of the soul or the mind. We strengthen the psyche so that it’s flexible and resilient, able to spot and easily move around or accommodate difficulty, and also able to recover more quickly when knocked down by a challenge. Challenges come in all shapes and sizes, and often they blindside us—such as unexpectedly harsh words from a friend, or criticism from a colleague. When our psyche is strong, we can stand confident in ourselves, sure of our healthy connections with others and in our ability to weather whatever happens next. We can watch something play out, and even though we may not like it, we can wait and see what happens rather than jump into the fray.

Garlic has a long tradition of being beneficial to the immune system (although contemporary medicine isn’t entirely on board with this). And as the old stories go, garlic keeps vampires at bay! So how do you tend the garlic garden of your psyche’s immune system? Here are a few strategies:

  • Schedule yourself first: sleep, good food, exercise. Mind your work, your relationships, and your household.
  • Find a daily practice that requires focus: Reiki, meditation, yoga, martial arts, writing, art.
  • Set your phone to “do not disturb” an hour before bed; turn off your computer and television, too.
  • Go to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual, at least once a week. 
  • Take a social media break. Focus on doing what nourishes you, rather than posting about it.
  • Spend your free time doing things you enjoy, hanging out with people you like, and participating in work (and fun!) that is meaningful to you.

Do these seem too simplistic? Simple is good. Simple is healthy. Simplicity doesn’t drain your resources; it builds your primary resource, which is YOU, and your vitality.

If you often find yourself drained by others, try to resist being the girl in the flimsy negligee, barefoot, inching her way down the dark hallway with a wooden stake in her hand. You know where that scene ends up! Instead, get your boots on, go outside (yes, even if it’s nighttime), and check in with your psychic garlic garden. Touch the cool dirt, break off a garlic scape, and breathe in the pungent scent. Look at the stars, and feel yourself a part of this real life on Earth.

There’s no need to waste precious time being afraid of imaginary monsters.

Journey to Mt. Kurama

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This photo by Becky Holtzman; all others by photographer David Ondrik.

This summer I had the opportunity to visit Japan—something I’d hoped to do for years, long before I even knew about Reiki. As luck would have it, my visit was based in Kyoto. Mt. Kurama, the sacred mountain where Reiki was first perceived by Mikao Usui, is about an hour’s train ride north of the city. Traditionally, Usui is said to have discovered Reiki after a three-week fasting meditation on the mountain, in 1922. Of course a visit to the origin place of Reiki was at the top of my list!

The train ride was beautiful: as the city eased into suburbs, lush rice paddies and vegetable gardens began to replace dwellings. Our train tunneled through maple trees as we moved into the mountains. Finally, we were deposited at Kurama Station, and our trek began.

We paid the entrance fee at the main gate, and received a lovely, pale purple “Summer” ticket, which told us that Mt. Kurama is “imbued with life energy, a wide variety of life forms resides here in serenity, and the rich natural environment continues to flourish.”

Perhaps a quarter mile up the trail, we encountered another large stone entrance gate. Just beyond that, we found a beautiful, large, hand-constructed ring of vegetation, an ephemeral and marvelous entrance. We thought perhaps this was from the Bamboo-Cutting Ceremony that had happened a couple of weeks previous. The multiple thresholds opening onto the Kurama trail created a sense of ceremony, of being led deeper into the pilgrimage.

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Beyond the green-gate was a flight of steps, which ran alongside a huge, old Grandfather Sugi tree—estimated to be about 800 years old, adorned with a rope and a “lightning strike” paper streamer (called a shide), elements from Shinto rituals. Gigantic trees, and reverence for them,  was a common theme in my experience of Japan. When you look at these old beings, and see the many lichens, mosses, plants and insects that live on and whirl about them, one can’t help but appreciate these magical ecosystems-unto-themselves.

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The trail up the mountain alternates between paved path, dirt switchbacks, and long flights of stone stairs. So many stairs! Lanterns line the route. The mountain is home to dozens of Shinto shrines, both tiny and large. The bright reddish-orange of the lanterns, a shade that also trims the shrines, positively vibrates against the various greens of the forest. 

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One of the things I had most been looking forward to was visiting a particular shrine near the top of the mountain. My (admittedly out-of-date) guide book said it was a not-to-be-missed quiet treasure of Mt. Kurama, nestled into a sacred grove of massive sugi trees. As we neared the top, I mentioned this to my partner, who hesitantly broke the news that the shrine had been destroyed in 2018’s Typhoon Jebi, the strongest typhoon to hit Japan in 25 years. Ah. Well.

After traversing the Tree Root Path…

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—a labyrinth of living tree roots right out of a fairy tale—we came upon the shrine. Uprooted trees were everywhere, and parts of the shrine lay in piles. The exception was a small stone bowl resting on a short pedestal, and also a rectangular stone basin—perhaps the former purification trough. In this basin, dark tadpoles swam with vigor. Life wants to live!

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Near the wreckage of the shrine, amid the overturned trees, several humble wooden benches had been installed, low to the ground. A small sign was staked into the ground by the benches: Meditation Place.

I sat down, and looked around me: the downed trees, the mud, the shattered shrine, and the robust green of the still-standing trees. I searched for feelings of sorrow in the wreckage at the sacred site, but wry humor is what came forward: the traveler-from-afar fantasy I had harbored, of having a perfect meditation in the perfect place where Reiki was literally born … that fantasy had tumbled down the mountain.

In fact, I was having the perfect meditation, in the perfect place; it just didn’t look the way I had expected. As the birds sang and the insects buzzed, I let my gaze drift back and forth between the downed trees and the trees still growing. I felt the heat of my partner’s leg next to mine, heard our breathing, and I asked myself to be present in this landscape exactly as it was: uprooted and tempest-tossed. I loved this sacred grove, which had made a sacrifice to forces bigger than itself: the wind and rain, a climate that is raging in ways this old mountain might be untroubled by, but which is challenging to the hundreds-of-years-old “youngster” trees. 

Echoing through it all, continual birdsong.

Several years ago, right before another big journey, a good friend asked me if I felt happy. I thought carefully before responding. I replied that I felt content in my life—that I experience happiness as a transitory emotion, while to be content is to be rooted in satisfaction, a sense of “this is enough,” even as happiness, sadness, and all the other human emotions wash over and through my days, again and again. I thought of this conversation as we descended Mt. Kurama, considering how once we commit to a journey, we can find contentment with whatever we discover along the path. All that’s required of us is to show up.