I have been very ill for the past month. Debilitatingly so. For much of this time I haven’t been able to walk, hardly even to the bathroom, without large effort, holding myself up by the wall. My muscles stopped working properly, I couldn’t hold myself up, or bend. I’ve had endless intense fatigue, I’ve had and continue to have complete insomnia, sleeping zero to 90 minutes a night for three weeks, vision changes, unbearable skin and muscle aches and pains over the entirety of my body, urinary problems, pounding blood flow in my head, continuous muscle tremors and shakes, electric shocks running through my body every few minutes – the list of very intense and overwhelming symptoms is bizarre. I’ve run it past four doctors, one of which sent me straight to the emergency room when he saw me, and none have any idea of what’s going on. I have my own theory, decidedly non-Western, but I’ll leave that for another post.
Just before this began, for the previous month I did a fun road trip crossing the country twice. I drove from Seattle, Washington in the Pacific Northwest, across Washington State, Idaho, Montana, into Wyoming, North Dakota, Minneapolis, Wisconsin, Michigan, then into Ontario, Canada. Phew! I stopped along the way, visiting National Parks & doing a fair amount of camping, on my journey exploring the outdoors and following my heart wherever it leads me. I visited friends in remote Ontario for a few days, and then I hightailed it across the continent again, this time to the South West, driving again across Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, the very large state of Kansas, Oklahoma, walked into Texas, and then into New Mexico. My destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I drove the last part, all the way from Canada to Santa Fe, New Mexico, straight through in just over two days. I was following a strong heart signal to come here. I had a plan to radically re-orient my life around healthy eating & movement, and around writing, coaching, and growing the Fearless & Sea Change programs that I run with and for my friend and mentor Leo Babauta. Body & Business was to be my focus, and I was excited to get started.
But, the day after I got to Santa Fe I fell ill, and my plans were no longer feasible. That saying came to mind – if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. It began with huge energy crashes in the middle of the day, and rapidly progressed into being unable to move for hours on end, in a lot of pain, total insomnia, and a whole host of other symptoms.
That began a really tough month, with a weird and worrying set of physical ailments, and a much diminished capacity to do anything much at all other than keep the lights on and look after myself as best I could. But fast forward a month, and I have great improvement in the physical symptoms in the last week, which feels most delightful! How beautiful to be able to walk and bend again freely – the most mundane experiences are all the sweeter now for their prior absence. And now the latest gift is the dissipation of the mental fogginess that I was experiencing, it feels like I’ve come out of a dark grey surreal dreamland back into high contrast reality.
About a week ago, as I began to feel a bit physically better than the previous day, I spent pretty much the entire time either just lying comatose, alternating total apathy with watching endless clips on my phone from Britain and America’s Got Talent. I discovered that I am particularly partial to the magicians. Some of them are totally mind-blowing as to how they do what they do! It wasn’t completely deadening, distracting, mind-numbing watching. I did marvel at the commitment that the performers clearly had to their art, to their skill, to mastery to do what they did. But, over the period of many hours, through the day and into the night, it was absolutely a distraction, distraction from the uncomfortableness of life right then.
The next morning I felt a turn-around in direction, and I recalled the teaching of Great Eastern Sun. This is a teaching from my main Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The teaching is a powerful vision for how we can conduct our lives, from the smallest day to day actions and interactions, to entire societies. The idea is simple, that we can conduct our lives in an uplifted fashion. At each and any moment we can turn towards the rising sun, towards daylight, towards the very life energy that runs through this world. We can raise our heads. We can remember that we are the very bridge between heaven and earth.
In the teaching this approach is contrasted with the “setting-sun world”. This is the world that comes when we pay no attention. When we forget, or don’t care enough to tend the garden of our lives – tend our relationships, our homes, our skills, our posture, our approach. It can be so easy to sort of give up, and roll down the hill. It takes effort to weed, to pay attention. And it can be absolutely radically counter-cultural to pay attention. Not the manipulative soporific attention-grabbing distractions of the news or the TV, but real attention to the fabric of reality in front of us. None of these things are by any means bad in themselves – it is our intention, our awareness, our attitude that determines whether we are gazing towards the Great Eastern Sun, or we are faced into the setting sun.
I am quite taken by the word “uplifted”, and I’m using it throughout the day as a little extra energy booster. For me, on that day, what this meant for me was that even though I was sick and very fatigued, when I did have a little energy, I practiced this teaching by making the bed. This simple act, done as a practice in creating a more beautiful world – in doing that, I felt uplifted. Every time I went into the bedroom, the sight of the made bed gave me a little boost of upliftedness. I could clean the dishes or at least some of them according to my energy level. I sat up a little in bed rather than lying comatose. I was able to make the container of my living space sacred by the nature of the awareness I brought to how I conduct myself in it and how I care for it and myself.
So for me this was quite a shift in direction, even though it was a tiny action, and yet possible to do in any moment. And that is indeed it’s nature. Just like the Boddhisattva vow, which is a vow taken by those dedicated in the Buddhist path to helping others. The vow is basically impossible to carry out in its entirety. A Boddhisattva vows that even though there are infinite beings, he will help every one of them. In the same way there are always dishes to wash, there are always gardens that need weeding, beds to be made, but indeed there is a deep joyful beauty in this infinite task. The destination is not the goal, but the very act of tending is. The act of uplifting oneself – this is where the beauty lies. Yes it is beautiful to experience a manicured garden, but the sacredness is in the weeding.
I think we have a choice, even in times of physical discomfort, whether we wallow in it, and turn away from the experience, turning towards the setting sun of distraction, denial, and the mundane, or we turn towards the endlessly rising sun, the full experience of life. This word wallow has a strong connotation, it can be strongly pejorative. A voice rears up in my head when I see that word… wallow. The voice says “I’m sick, it’s ok to lie still and rest and watch some TV.” There is a strong cultural trend in that direction, giving ourselves permission. And indeed it is right and a beautiful thing to cradle ourselves in loving-kindness – at all times, but particularly when we are weakened. And yet, this question gets to what is loving kindness in this situation – is it kindness to give yourself the entire chocolate cake because you want it, and you’re sick, or is that not so kind? Is it kind to watch a video, then another, then another, and then another? For me this particular area, these questions as to what is real loving-kindness and deep complete friendliness towards myself can be very challenging, and a beautiful rich source of practice for me these days.
So this is my practice these days – to lift my chin upwards, even a little. To carry myself in an uplifted fashion, which may be simply how I lie in the bed when fatigued, or may be how I approach doing my work, how I approach conversations with others. It is tending the sacred garden of our lives – seeing that everything we do can be sacred if we choose to make it so. Recognizing the already-sacred nature of life and everything in it that we have created through the magic of where we place our awareness. And in this practice – in making the bed joyfully, in deciding to be uplifted, in approaching conversations with others in an uplifted fashion – we can make our society, our own individual society, an enlightened one. One bed and one conversation at a time.