Listening to my body

What I have learned from chronic migraines

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My most recent teacher has been screaming at me lately, has been making me cry, has been placing demands on me that I can’t meet, has been interfering with my plans and goals and has been making my day-to-day life miserable. No, it’s not Venerable Chodron. It’s my own body. Who would have thought?

Venerable Nyima wearing sunglasses while listening to a teaching.
Ven. Nyima at Sravasti Abbey, listening to a teaching. (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

As it turns out, this teacher, my body, has been talking to me for a long time—I just have not been listening. It just so happens that the whispered clues it was sending me in my youth have turned into loud screams that I can no longer ignore. So, what’s this teacher trying to tell me? Deciphering this has been my homework for the past few months.

I Need Balance

I think my body is trying to tell me that I need balance. I love working with my mind, but I also have to pay attention to my body. Really? Maybe that’s why some practitioners prefer the formless realm, then they don’t have to worry about this fragile body that keeps getting in the way. 

Yes, the body needs and wants physical exercise and stretching as well as proper amounts of water and food. And yes, that most dreaded four-letter word REST! Which really feels to me like forced labor because I love my “to do” list. I love putting a checkmark on that “done” box. There’s just so much more satisfaction doing that than getting some rest in a dark room … without my computer!

However, balance is wise and I need wisdom. After all, the body is a necessity for practice. Finding balance benefits not only me but also every being I come in contact with and everything I do. This is my learning.

Think About Impermanence

The next big lesson is a lesson on impermanence.  At the subtle level, my body is decaying moment by moment. In addition, there’s also gross impermanence. One moment I’m OK and the next my head is loudly complaining. And that’s so embarrassing because when somebody asks how I’m doing and I say “I am doing well today,” and then another person asks me the same question five minutes later and all hell’s breaking loose, I feel like there is no consistency, no predictability, no control. 

Being a controlling person, having control or giving the impression of being in control is very important. Therefore, this situation is very unsettling. I no longer expect anything to go the way I plan, really. I know my situation can change on a dime. I make tentative plans only, and say to myself “let’s just see how this day goes.” And, as Venerable Jigme kindly reminds me, this is closer to reality than my previous approach of expecting everything to go according to plan. 

These days I go to bed and I expect that I may not open my eyes tomorrow morning.  I think that’s what my body is trying to tell me. It’s saying “don’t expect the next moment to be the same as this moment. That’s not reality.”

It’s OK to Accept Help

Perhaps the hardest lesson is learning to accept help—WHAT??? Nobody taught me that in kindergarten!!! I’m the helper, the fixer—just ask my mom how many times I have attempted to “fix” her living situation, with the latest attempt ending in her almost having a heart attack. 

I am also too proud to accept help. Are you kidding? I’m a self-sufficient, independent, professional woman. Don’t even attempt to offer help or you’ll get a growl. But really, accepting help is a sign of humility, of self-confidence, of understanding our interdependence. Today, I received help and tomorrow I will give help. That’s balance. That’s closer to reality.

Let go

And here is where the next lesson comes in: let go. Two words, but so difficult to do. Let go of what? Of my identity as a “doer,” of plans and expectations, of wanting to control my life and everybody else’s. 

Instead, listen to Shantideva. He said that I don’t need to put leather on the earth, just in my shoes. Let go of feeling small, or incapable of handling whatever is happening to my body. Let go of the pity party, and of the rigid idea that being happy and productive necessitates perfection. 

Let go of pushing myself and instead be content with contributing what I am able to contribute in any given moment … OK, I’m not ready to do that yet. 

Don’t be Afraid to Share

I live with a community of practitioners at the Abbey. We all know what’s happening in each other’s minds. Does that mean I’m willing to admit it? No, are you kidding? I love to look like I’ve got everything together. Nothing’s going wrong, I can handle everything. 

But I am not an island and it’s OK to let others in on what’s going on with me. That way people can understand. From understanding arise connection, harmony, trust and reliance. And it’s OK for people to have their own reaction to what’s happening to me. They may need a little time to adjust.

The truth is that this experience can help me be more compassionate. It can help me see myself more clearly as an other-powered sentient being controlled by afflictions and karma. So, this is a big lesson on dependent arising. 

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