Archive for October 2008

Teaching Moments

October 30, 2008

“Education is the manifestation of perfection already in man.”—Swami Vivekananda

What do our words and actions teach others? What do we learn by observing the words and actions of others?

You don’t have to be a “teacher” in order to educate someone. You do it by being who you are, indelibly shaped by your experiences and guided by your beliefs.

There are plenty of obvious examples of this. Parents show their children how to tie shoes, make sandwiches, drive cars and balance checkbooks. They sign kids up for piano lessons, dance or martial arts classes, religious instruction, sports clinics or art camp, and tutoring in preparation for college.

But what are you teaching others simply by going through life? When you have a brief conversation with a fellow passenger on a train, or stand in front of someone in the grocery store checkout line, the opportunities for being observed are countless. Whether it’s to notice the book you’re carrying on that train, or the different vegetables you’ve got in your cart, these can spark curiosity and encourage exploration, expansion of another person’s horizons.

We each hold unique knowledge that only we can pass on. Stories, songs, images, ideas—these are the vehicles for learning that humanity has relied upon for millennia. They will change as our society changes, to fit the needs and desires each generation has with regard to how they communicate and understand. (If you need an illustration of this, just consider the difference between sending messages with pigeons and sending them via e-mail, or hearing a village monk play a flute after a three-day pilgrimage as opposed to choosing from among ten thousand songs by pressing a button on your MP3 player.)

Each time we are presented with new information, we are also presented with a choice. Do we wish to further our knowledge and incorporate new material into our reality, or do we want to remain where we are?

To deny anyone this choice by restricting their exposure to education or limiting their access to it is one of the gravest disservices imaginable. For someone to say, for instance, that you can’t learn to read because you’re a girl or because you’re black or because you’re blind and can’t use print books like everyone else or because you can’t pay to attend a fancy school or because no one else in your family has ever done it before or because your parents work in a particular profession or worship in a certain way … These ideas may seem to make perfect sense to those who hold them, but from the outside looking in, they don’t.

Perhaps I’m thinking about this a lot since today, I will take sixteen boxes of Braille books to the post office and send them to a pastor in a very rural part of Malawi, a country in central Africa that is arguably one of the poorest places on earth. I’ve been sending books to this pastor since 2001. Where he lives, there’s no running water, no electricity. There are no services for people with disabilities, including the blind. In many cases, rather than going to school, they are sent out to beg by their families.

Not content with this outcome and knowing that, like every other human being, the blind and disabled have dignity, are respectable, and, most importantly, can learn and want to learn. So, he has gone from village to village and organized true grassroots groups of these people, teaching them to garden, to cook. Women who are blind have learned to cook. The Braille books have been passed from one person to another to another. Now, instead of one person reading them and discarding them, they may get read by twenty people, maybe more. Each person who touches the pages gains knowledge they didn’t have before and sees into a part of the world they never could have imagined before.

Once that’s done, I’ll go back to my “regular” job of teaching piano. It doesn’t matter to me whether you are five or seventy-five. All I need in order to teach you is your desire to learn. It is a great privilege to watch students of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds, discovering an expressive art form. Teaching, for me, is about passing on the things I think are precious–art, knowledge, belief in the innate power of the human spirit to rise above challenging circumstances–that inspires me to teach. These gifts shouldn’t die with me. I have a responsibility to pass them to others, whether they are in generations younger than me or those who began life before I did.

Even writing is a form of teaching, and I’ve learned more, I think, from the various blogs I’ve visited than I have from any other aspect of the Internet. Perhaps this hasn’t been “pure” knowledge, as in verifiable facts. But the sheer volume of possibilities to catch a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes is unparalleled anywhere on earth.

You can only give people the chance to choose. You can’t force them to follow your logic. For every person who chooses to change, there is one who refuses and remains in their current situation. To judge one as “better” than the other is easy, especially if we believe strongly in the advantages of one way over the other.

Today, I’ll be helped by many people. The woman who drives me to the post office has grandchildren of her own. What will I learn from her as we talk, laugh, carry boxes, maybe share a cup of tea? What will I absorb during my piano lessons, and who am I to say the “wisdom” of a 7-year-old is more or less valuable than that of a 12-year-old or an adult? That’s a judgment I refuse to make.

Judgment is, in its own way, a lack of education. If we can’t accept the endless array of humanity around us without a basic level of universal respect regardless of differing viewpoints, then what does that teach others about us? More importantly, what does that teach us about ourselves?


First Snow

October 29, 2008

October is a strange month. You can have bright blue days of seventy degrees and sunshine and nights scented with dry leaves and the neighbors’ woodsmoke. Then, not less than a week later, you can be getting snow.

Yesterday, we got our first snowfall of the season, although I’m not sure purists would call it “snowfall” because for a big part of the day, it was mixed with so much rain that it was coming down in clumps instead of flakes.

My afternoon students made it to their lessons before it got too bad to drive, but the evening crew didn’t.

I love teaching piano. So much of it is figuring out each student’s particular mind and designing the best lessons possible for them. Even two sisters, or two students who started at the same time, or two of the same age, all present differences that I find both fascinating and challenging.

But I enjoy “free time” as much as the next person, and there is certainly plenty of things I can fill it with. Yesterday was no exception.

At first, I thought it would be nice to just curl up and read. There’s nothing like a damp, cold day with grey skies to encourage staying tucked in.

But there were groceries to buy, dog blankets to wash, compositions to work on, phone calls to return, writing to do, a calendar to fill in for November, mail to sort and bills to pay.

Before I realized it, I’d filled the time, and it wasn’t “free” anymore.

What do I have, beyond clean dog blankets, an organized datebook, a smaller stack of mail on the table?

This time last year, I was in between trips to Poland and Kansas for piano recitals and lectures. These autumn days always make me look back over what I’ve done and where I’ve gone, remembering the people I met along the way, some of whom are still traveling with me yet, others departed long (or not so long) ago.

Perhaps this is a harbinger of old age, that autumnal season in life, when we are past the majority of years we’ll spend on this earth. If so, what life event coincides with the first snowfall?

Holding Up the Stars

October 28, 2008

In every aspect of life, from business to art, there are people at the top, and there are people at the bottom, with countless others in between.

We hear a lot about reaching our full potential, and we try to do this. But just as one person’s fingerprint is unique, their potential is, too. We have our own ideas about just how much we can achieve, and, whether we like it or not, the feedback we receive from the people around us plays a big part in shaping these ideas.

When we are children, no matter what environment we grow up in, we absorb things from around us. These can range from language and pronunciation to parenting style. They can include notions about what kind of career we will have (notice how many funeral homes include “and son” in their name!) to who we will marry.

No wonder, then, that we get ideas about what we can—or can’t—do, expectations that many people simply accept without thinking about where they came from, who they came from, and whether or not they are truly theirs.

Not everyone can become an internationally renowned musician, best-selling author, millionaire athlete or top-flight surgeon. Not everyone can become a teacher, farmer, veterinarian, secretary, cook, mother, or garbage collector.

To say that “surgeon” is better than “garbage collector” is impossible, since both are necessary. Without the surgeon, we have no recourse if something needs to be repaired in or cutting out of our bodies. At the same time, without the garbage collector, we would soon be overwhelmed by waste and clutter.

There are always people, in various callings, who will garner most of the public attention and recognition. Those are the “stars”. But for every one of them, there must be thousands of others behind the scenes, keeping things running smoothly.

We are all intricately bound together, from the surgeon to the garbage collector. The surgeon discards used sponges, needles, syringes and gloves without thinking twice about what happens to them once they leave the operating room. So the surgeon is directly connected to the garbage collector. Their salaries may be different—six figures versus five—but both callings, both professions, are invaluable.

Each of us is a star, and our light is the brightest thing in someone else’s skyscape. We shouldn’t necessarily go around trying to be this light. If we did, got caught up always wondering how a particular action or word from us will increase our shining, we’d become unbearable.

But every once in a while, particularly on the days when someone stops to mention it to us, it’s good to consider this, and even take time to savor what we’ve done that has inspired growth in another human being, lifting them higher so they, in turn, can become brighter stars in their own universe.

“Pain” is a Four-Letter Word

October 27, 2008

I thought I was done with “four-letter words”. But …

Emotional and physical pain are part of being human. Not that we should expect them, but they do occur, and no one is exempt.

Western medicine has developed a vast array of drugs to combat pain, both psychological and physical. Even so, it’s the elephant in the living room—definitely there, but too often, not discussed.

People on both sides of the patient/physician spectrum have deep-seated notions about what’s “acceptable” as far as expressing pain. We all, at some level, think that it’s “better” to simply endure silently or with as little fuss as possible. “Complaining,” “demanding,” “difficult”—all these words are the last labels we want attached to us as patients.

We’re taught to “quantify” pain to try and understand it better. We say, “On a scale of 1 to 10 …” On this scale, 1 is barely a nuisance, while 10 is so excruciating it is unbearable.

If I’ve learned one thing, both as a healer and as a recipient of healing, it’s that people’s scales are all different. One person’s 3 is another’s 9.

Many people have also absorbed the “no pain, no gain” lesson a little too deeply. (I know I have—and then I wonder, “How am I supposed to relax and receive if it hurts so much?”.)

Medical students spend a lot of time learning how to fix the body, diagnose symptoms, and prescribe drugs that will produce specific results. With so many drug choices, pain can become just another symptom to assign a chemical solution to. We hear, “Tell me where it hurts,” or “Describe your pain,” but seldom are given much more than a few minutes to try and respond. Yet too often, pain robs us of our ability to communicate clearly, both with ourselves and with those trying to provide healing.

Pain is one of the biggest obstacles to effective healing. You can’t “just relax” if you’re in such severe pain. You can’t “just take some deep breaths”. Pain clouds our ability to process information, take suggestions, or sort through the emotions that get kicked up when we’re hurting.

Drugs often only add to this cloudiness, and many people either use too much of them to sink into oblivion, or avoid using them altogether in order to maintain mental clarity.

It might not make any difference at the general level whether the pain being experienced is psychological or physical. But how we, as healers or caregivers, approach our calling with respect to pain management has to flow from compassion and understanding, not simply a practical desire to “make it stop” or “get rid of it”.

The first step on this road is to acknowledge that, as healers, we are not going to be able to alleviate all pain. To think that we have this kind of power is arrogant and can be deeply harmful to us and our clients.

Second, we must go beyond simply having people rate their pain on a 1-to-10 scale, or describe it as “hot,” “cold,” “aching,” or “stabbing”. We can, and should, ask all these questions, but don’t just stop when you’ve gotten the answers you want.

Pain is a companion. Long after the appointment has ended and the prescription has been filled, people will still be living with it.

The approaches to managing it are as varied as the kinds of people we encounter as healers. What brings relief to one person with a particular condition may have no effect on a second person with the same condition. Pharmaceutical companies produce drugs that work on a broad range. If we are providing truly compassionate healing, we must target the specific ways that each of our clients can find and experience pain relief.

Sometimes, when there is no way to change the actual situation, simply being heard and acknowledged is enough to bring tremendous relief.

Pain manifests itself in innumerable outward responses. People lash out or withdraw. They cry. They stop speaking. They scream. They pass out. Pain increases the severity and duration of asthma attacks. It raises heart and breathing rates, heightens muscle tension, exacerbates inflammation, causes insomnia and anxiety, depression. It has such a capacity to stir up every realm of life—physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual—that it is no wonder that so much “treatment” is aimed at eliminating it.

I have talked with many, many people, both as a healer and just as another human being, and heard many stories about the pain of loss, disease, disappointment, grief, loneliness, separation, disability, depression, injury, aging. Some conversations have been less than five minutes long, while others have been dialogs that span years, decades.

I don’t stand above these encounters, looking down on them and thinking, “Oh, here’s what you should do”. I try to see the circumstances from the perspective of the one I’m listening to. How would I feel, for instance, if my daughter dropped out of school, or my brother got angry and refused to speak to me for the rest of my life, or my employer let me go with lame excuses after I’d worked for ten years? What is it like to feel powerless to control myself when presented with a particular chemical? What must it be like to lose a husband after thirty years of marriage, or learn that I have a disease that will gradually rob me of my ability to think coherently? How would I respond if, on an ordinary drive, my car was hit head-on and I woke up three days later unable to walk?

The answer I have is, “I don’t know”. But I can ask questions, listen to the responses, and learn. By learning, perhaps I can pass something along to someone else in a future conversation that will help them.

And, if there is no “concrete” suggestions to be made, just the asking and the listening are a gift that goes too often overlooked.

We can find “concrete” aids to pain management—medication, meditation, music, massage, just to name a few. But there is no substitute for compassion and no prescription or dosage instructions for understanding. These must spring from the heart, without regard to how the other person will receive them, repay them, or respond to them.

Courage Comes in Many Guises

October 26, 2008

Yesterday, I went bowling with a group from my church. Now, I make absolutely no claims to greatness. In fact, when asked if I was interested, I think I only said that I did bowl, not that I bowled well.

I lived up to my own reputation for ungreatness. I finished my first game with a 34. I thought, “Oh, next time will be better–maybe I’ve just got to get warmed up.”

Oh, it wasn’t, though. My second game earned me a whopping total of 7.

In jest, I said that I would tell people I got four strikes in a row–just wouldn’t tell them how long it took me to get them, or that they were “broken” strikes.

But really, what’s the point of my going bowling with a bunch of people? It was to have fun, and I definitely did that. I think it was more frustrating for the people who were so graciously (or mercifully?) giving me suggestions to try and make me better.

But really, it was a lot of fun. If I want to demonstrate publicly that I’m good at something, I’ll walk up to a piano. In that realm, I’m great, and I’m getting better.

This morning, I got a certificate for being “Bowler of the Day”. Everyone thought that was great. Me, I turned really red. Mention was made of my “courage”.

At first, I thought, “Oh, come on! How much courage does it take to go somewhere and pay money to eat really greasy pizza, wear hideous shoes, and throw a ball that weighs more than some newborn children?”

I was just about ready to dismiss the whole thing as sappy–hey, let’s give the blind lady an award!–and then I stopped myself.

To me, it’s not “courage” at all. I do all kinds of things every day. (I came home after church and vacuumed my house, and I’ll take out the trash later, plus write an article, practice a Beethoven concerto, feed my dogs … you know, typical Sunday or every day stuff.)

“Courage” is a sort of catch-all word. It’s what people call it when you do things they don’t think they could do if they were in your situation. So, for most people, doing lots of things without looking seems really scary and close to impossible.

It’s not, and I spend plenty of energy convincing people that it’s not. Many folks learn this, but many more don’t. Still, even if they come to accept that I, or anyone else with a disability, can do things they don’t think they’d be able to manage, “courage” is the word that gets used to describe what pushes us to do them anyway.

To a majority of people in my church, who only see me on Sunday mornings playing piano, the idea of my bowling, or flying cross-country with my guide dog, or cooking–all those things just seem too big, and they can’t get their minds around them.

But, little by little, they’re all learning. Whether I’m helping carry chairs from one room to another, bringing dishes to potluck suppers, or any number of other tasks, they’ll figure out that most of those things are no big deal to me. They’ll stop being a big deal to them, too, and there won’t be any more certificates for courageous bowling.

That’s fine with me. Mark Twain once said: “On the whole, it is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them.” To me, there are plenty of other things more courageous than a blind person bowling. Save the accolades for the soldiers fighting overseas, the police who work on some of our most dangerous streets, the people facing daily struggles with the pain, loneliness and heartache caused by lifelong illness or family disintegration.

We all have to have courage at some point in our life. Courage doesn’t mean we lack fear. It simply means that, faced with a situation that induces fear either in us or in others, we find it within ourselves to keep moving forward. We refuse to let doubt or others’ misunderstandings limit what we choose to accomplish.

Mind Over Matters

October 25, 2008

I know, that title looks like a misprint. Should be “Mind over matter”, right?

Not really. As a healer, I am being reminded time and again that, while the physical aspects of what I do are important–pain relief, improvements in sleep, relaxation–there’s a huge component that is “behind the scenes”.

The mind-body connection is no news to anyone with even a mild interest in how we go through life. Whether you’re coming to it as a healer or as a recipient of healing (and we all fit in both categories at some point in our lives), that connection, and the interactions between the mental and physical spheres, can’t be ignored.

Symptoms that manifest in the physical realm can certainly be treated with varying degrees of effectiveness purely on the basis of their physical traits. For example, how many times have you taken aspirin for a headache, or antacids for heartburn, or cold medicine to get rid of congestion? We do a lot of those things without even thinking about it, content to just get rid of whatever physical problem is bothering us.

But because the mind and body are so closely bound up together, it’s prudent to consider what it is that underlies those physical symptoms on a psychological/emotional level. Is the headache caused by tension related to a hostile work environment? Are problems in the family so severe that they are literally making your stomach churn?

I’m not suggesting that every physical ailment springs from our minds. After all, viruses and bacteria are abroad in the land, and you can’t think or feel your way into or out of infections by them.

But the mind, and its potential to both help and harm, is a powerful force. We have plenty of new technology to take stunning pictures of the brain at work, and vast strides are being made in understanding what parts are active at various different times. We have developed a huge array of chemicals to alter how the brain works, and we continue to progress in our grasp of how people learn, acquire behaviors based on cultural influences, and process information.

But we have no way of knowing if we have reached a figurative wall in our understanding. We don’t know, for instance, what the limit is to how much information a mind can recall. We can’t quantify most of what goes on in people’s heads.

The mind is deeply mysterious, and its role in healing can be tremendous. For instance, painkillers for the most part don’t actually do anything to the nerves that are transmitting that scream of “I hurt! I hurt! I hurt!” They suppress the area of the brain that handles those transmissions. Talk to anyone who has had to rely on painkillers for a long period of time and you’ll often hear that, while they do help, they often cause mental fogginess that’s an unwelcome side effect.

Is there a way, then, continuing with pain as an example, to harness that potential in the mind to produce a painkilling effect or enhance what can be achieved using narcotics?

In a word, yes.

Not everyone’s mind is exactly alike, and while there are some general guidelines that can be useful when trying to work from a psychological starting point, the best thing one can do is listen to each client and discover what will be most effective to him or her. Someone with a highly active mind may struggle to do meditations independently, yet they may have a high degree of success with guided meditation in which the healer reads aloud. Why is this so? Because for a person whose mind is always in motion, filtering all those inner distractions–not following every train of thought–can be supremely difficult. Consequently, they feel that, if they can’t do it on the first or second try, or if they can’t do it for even three minutes, they can’t do it at all. Hearing someone else’s voice and having images described so that the mind has something to fix on can actually be very freeing for this type of client.

You won’t figure these things out by having clients fill out forms. You also won’t see this on the “front lines” of Western medicine–in emergency rooms, operating rooms, or in the ICU during serious illness.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the illusion that, as a healer, if you aren’t actually changing bandages, stopping the bleeding, or doing hands-on medicine, you’re not effective or important. Personally, I struggled with this, and still often do.

But recently, I have been reminded that there are many types of healing and, consequently, there must be many kinds of healer. To heal the body is a priceless gift. But a body without a healthy mind, spirit, or heart is no more than a complex biological machine.

I am discovering that, while I have some skill in the physical aspects of healing, my true calling seems to be more along the mental/emotional/spiritual lines. This kind of healing work doesn’t get noticed much–fine with me. It can get lost in the hustle and bustle that is modern medicine.

It’s not a one-off job, either. If you want to help someone understand their own mind and see them realize their own potential to capitalize on the vast power that is latent within them, you can’t do it in one session. Often, it can feel as if you’re going in circles, reworking the same lesson for the six hundredth time.

Yet with each pass, something is getting in, going deeper, being absorbed and incorporated, until change occurs and the person is living in a new way because they wanted to change and grow.

Listening to people, accepting their decisions without judgment, and, when you’re granted the privilege, witnessing this growth are the rich rewards we can look forward to as healers. I don’t force people to come looking for me so I can “fix” them or demand that they change. They find me, begin a conversation, and, sometimes, get something out of our interactions.

This is what matters–that we treat everyone with compassion, whether we heal with our hands or listen to another’s heart. We must all “take matters into our own hands,” think for ourselves, choose for ourselves, act for ourselves. Giver or receiver, we can only control our own self.

But, as I am discovering over and over, in ways large and small, when we embrace our true calling with joy instead of trying to be all things to all people, our effectiveness in healing skyrockets.

Psalm 8: “What is Man”

October 20, 2008

Some of the most powerful writing is expressed in the fewest words, and Psalm 8 is no exception. The last time I wrote about one of the psalms was in February 2007. I’ve been prompted to take up that thread again, in no particular order. The psalm appears in quotes, my commentary in parentheses.

“Oh Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! Who hast set thy glory above the heavens.
(Whatever name we use to identify that which is beyond us—creator, universe, source, god,–the sheer wonder we experience when contemplating the vastness, infinity, and power of such a one as that is almost impossible to set down in words. This sentence, with the exclamation point that couldn’t wait until the end, is as good an attempt as any.)

“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.”
(“Enemies” and “avengers” aren’t always necessarily people. Events, illness, circumstances,–we can even be enemies to ourselves if we keep ourselves from making choices, or purposely choose ways for ourselves that we know lead in a direction opposite of where we are supposed to be going. As for “babes” and “sucklings,” these are the people, events or circumstances that, though they seem simple on the surface, have a profound effect on our lives. We can never tell where inspiration or direction will come from, or who will be the messenger. If we approach everyone with the openness to accept what they have to give us as lessons, then we are always prepared to receive, even if the lesson takes a lifetime to absorb and put into practice.)

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?”
(As if “the work of thy fingers” wasn’t enough to send chills running up and down my spine—consider that phrase next time you stand and watch an eclipse or any other astronomical event that’s not as “ordinary” as the rising and setting of the sun—“What is man, that thou are mindful of him?” … the idea that the creator of the universe holds each of is in mind leaves me speechless. I once heard a choral setting of this psalm, with very close harmonies for this particular verse. I can’t remember who composed it or who sang it or even the specific notes. But the effect of hearing those men’s voices, echoing in some hall somewhere but, even more, continuing to echo in my own mind, is one of the most profound musical events I have ever experienced. I will never forget it to my dying day.)

“For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.”
(This verse always makes me think about the power of reason and choice we have been given, as well as the great abilities of expression—language, art, science, philosophy,–that set us apart from other animals. With those gifts, though, come the responsibilities of using them in ways that are constructive and reflect the compassion and wisdom of the universe.)

“Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.”
(This is just an extension of the previous verse and puts specific expression to it, mentioning the animals of earth, water and air. From the great whales to the tiny hummingbirds, even if we can’t see a use for a particular creature, it has its place, and we must honor it and preserve it as best we can.)

“O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!”
(There are nine verses in the psalm (three times three), and it ends as it began. So much of creation is circular and spiral—galaxies and orbits, planets and stars, cells and atoms. How fitting that this expression of wonder should be a circle, too. That wonder, whether it’s at the forefront of our minds or carried as an underlying principle, should be with us always.)