What Is Spirit To You?

Spirit FlameI just started browsing a little book called “What is Spirit?”, edited by Lexie Brockway Potamkin. It’s a collection of answers to that question by numerous artists, philosophers, shamans, religious leaders, political leaders and common people.

Around the world I’m sure there are as many definitions as grains of sand on the beach. I think it’s an ongoing process for all of us. At the beginning of the book a blank page suggests the reader posit a definition of spirit before continuing. At the end is another blank page. It will be interesting to see if my definition changes after reading the ideas of others.

It’s been awhile since I wrote specifically about spirit. I wrote a long personal article on it months ago, now posted at the top of this blog in the menu bar. I also wrote a short definition for the book, which I posted here. But before you read either of those, go ahead and give me what you’ve got in your head right now.

What is spirit to you?

Not so Rare Air

High up on the eighth floor
the view spreads a smorgasbord
of warm golds, tangerines and greens,
lit by bronze back-light across the dream.
He could almost smell that odd burnt Fall
bouquet through the plate glass picture wall.
His world held a long, slow major chord.

The spacious room flooded with natural light.
(this would be a luxury efficiency in NYC)
He watched cars and trucks rush to and fro
along the highway through the forest, appearing
and disappearing into the waiting trees.
From up here the little bodies behaved
with such conviction, trusting the highway’s
path with utter certainly. The scene was proffered
a peaceful silence by the muted, glass plated score.

But the air up here is not so rare
as he thought it might have been,
considering the pain it took to get up those all those floors.

At the end of his third day in this room, Dorn felt truly refreshed, rested and ready to face the impending surgery to remove his ailing gall bladder. The pain which brought him here had now been relegated to yet another chapter in his living novel of that subject. But the experience of it had reminded him of how much of an unlikely teacher it had been.

Pain is no friend to anyone. It stretches and warps time. It removes even the most secure protections of philosophy and spirituality from any soul it inflicts. The self is laid bare. As he lay 2 hours in the ER 3 nights ago, moaning loudly for relief, Dorn reviewed all the pain he’d been through, mostly in the last 12 years.

All this began with cancer, the surgery for which he awoke from in a blazing supernova of raw pain; though, oddly, a minute before while coming out of anesthesia coma, he had asked for a Banana Split Sundae. With a dozen parts of his guts rearranged and re-attached, it would be 6 weeks before the Sundae dream could come true. Meanwhile, he had a morphine button which could be activated only every five minutes.

It is possible for time to stop. It stops when a train is about to hit you in the face, or perhaps after your gut has been hit and you are waiting for the pain to start. Or when you are waiting for a lover to return from a dangerous trip. When it starts again, it is not like normal daily time, but now moves counter to the holding time, counter to the waiting, not faster, but deeper, like in honey.

The awakening after his major cancer surgery was literally gut wrenching. Each five minutes took at least an hour. Sometimes one minute took a week to pass as he watched the clock, with the attentiveness of a dog watching the door for it’s deceased owner to return. After he pressed the button, or rather when he pressed it and it finally worked, since he pressed it many times in the seconds before 5 minutes were up, something happened which could only be described as a spiritual message being sent to each screaming nerve cell, soothing it momentarily, as if covering with a warm blanket each suffering pain victim in the world all at once. Then within a minute or two, the deceptive comfort is slowly realized and each cell begins spreading the word of truth, “We must scream in agony, for it is our destiny until its cause is eliminated.”

Pain had been his nearest relative for a good part of the dozen years since then, a relative which he’d rather not see but who keeps showing up uninvited and spins his life into chaos during that time. It’s tricky to build a lasting structure of behavior and habit when continuity is lacking. If you walked 10 steps through a field and tripped in 4 holes, you would continue only with trepidation.

He also believed that abdominal pain accompanied by nausea could be the most un-grounding kind of painful experience, an earthquake at the center of emotional open-ness. That perspective was only natural, since that’s the kind of pain he had experienced most. He’d also had migraines, a close second for the most disruptive pain. He had never broken a bone, never been shot. He had been punched to the ground once. That hurt, but his ego suffered more than his body. When he was 6 or 7 he dove into a shallow cement pool head first. The water turned a pretty shade of bright red around his head. However, that pain diminuendoed after a quick crescendo. As long as it’s receding, even the worst flood of pain seems less threatening.

But combine gnawing, constant pain in the nerve filled center of your gut, where your gut reactions come form, with the most universally ignominious of feelings, nausea… now there’s a combo platter from the fast food counter of Hell’s Kitchen!!

What had this intimate familiarity with such black pain gained him? Stories of pain without some glory are a hard sell. The war vet gets credibility for his pain because he has the heroism to match it. For the most part he had treated pain the same all a long, as something private and to be avoided. Thought he knew and believed that avoiding his pain was a natural right, he also knew the side affect could be a pleasant slowing of time, a poetic state of mind and body where the world became a large terrarium to be observed and enjoyed from a distance.

Alas, one of the almost inevitable side effects of being in pain so much is that one becomes all to eager to reach for that “blanket” of treatment to temporarily sooth the fires of all the wretched suffering. One of the limits of scientific knowledge is how to treat pain without resorting to narcotic “cover up” drugs (morphine or its derivatives), which don’t alleviate the pain as much as coat the consciousness of the sufferer with opiate honey to dispel the worst of the experience. The pain doesn’t go away, it just appears much, much further away. It’s a powerful illusion, but it’s still the best we have.

The pleasure of the release of pain under a narcotic blanket is two fold. First,the body’s own endorphins are released as the stress of pain subsides. Second is the the known effect of opiates, the softening of all edges in life’s pushy world. This narcotic buzz is well known from the poetry and philosophy it has inspired, from Baudelaire to Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes). Even American thinkers such as Jefferson, Emerson and Thoreau used opium as we use a glass of wine to relax. As the poem in the beginning of this post implies, the world seems clearer and more beautiful from the narcotic distance, but it is neither so rare nor so distorted as either end of its experience might seem. That is to say, it is not as evil as as its detractors say, nor as beautiful and singular as that addict might think.

The problem of addiction to pain meds is global and severe. The prevailing solution is to place a hefty dose of bureaucratic doubt into the system of health care. Suffering in the ER and many hospital rooms is the counter-balancing epidemic resulting from conservative doubt of pain to filter out pain med. abuse. A patient needs to really show suffering to convince the painless, comfortable skeptics surrounding him. That kind of commonly acceptable lack of compassion is reprehensible.

One respected European doctor had explained to him a radical minority opinion; “Pain” he believed, “is an evolutionary survival mechanism which is no longer needed in modern, human civil society. Pain should be treated immediately and with complete compassion and trust for the sufferer. Any problems of addiction should be handled secondarily.” Dorn agreed. And it wasn’t without experience of both ends, pain and addiction.

His addiction to pain meds had caused ripples of problems in his life, but none worse than the suffering of the pain itself. In fact, addiction had not so much created problems as covered ones which might have otherwise come to light in a more timely fashion. The deepest problems are the ones we run from when we resort to pain meds to soften the edges of a normal day. For Dorn, his depleted self-esteem was easier to inflate temporarily with the “distancing” effect of pain meds. Brush fires are easier to consider with authority when their heat seems far away. Composure can be maintained, and “normality” along with it.

Little of the experience of pain serves common use to the world, except perhaps a lesson in compassion for other’s suffering. But he felt he had learned much about who he is, was and could be. He could survive suffering. Mostly it had taught him how frail he really is, we all are, really, that our accustomed patent approval of our selves is often just a blink away from agony. Funny thing is, knowing that made him feel stronger, not weaker. Moment to moment self-approval and confidence is more real than the illusion of security as something continuous and solid.

Not such rare air really, but worth the climb to get there.

Let (Give)

I will be taking an indefinite hiatus from blogging. Most of my writing is relevant anytime, so please browse around, or do a search for a specific topic if you wish. There’s lots to dig into. I’ll be back. I just can’t say when. Let’s say I’m in a non-verbal phase of development in my life; acting on intention rather than processing.

Ineffable Present
careening, seething,
(gelatinous collision of
past and future)
Universe breathing.

Mute Mother
(whispering) (yes),
perilous fusion
resonating us.
There is no choice
but to give in
to terrifying

Bliss (consciousness).

Honor the seed, the flower,
the book, the hour
(and the subtle, singing space between)
Forgive as you go.
Let rest
all this.

A Lesson in Fear, Anger and Freedom

FearThe other day on my walk to the park, I was almost run over by a man in a large pickup truck. It was a nice, shiny red Ford or some muscular American brand, the kind you see in ads pulling a house or 18 wheeler, like that’s what you need it for. The man in it…well, I’ll let my description of the truck speak for itself.

The road is as residential as it gets, of no use to anyone but those who live nearby. There are no sidewalks in our neighborhood, which is a mixed blessing. Everyone who drives through (or almost everyone) knows pedestrians use the road, so they slow down. But unfortunately some drivers consider pedestrians to be a hazard to their vehicles and would rather they just get the hell out of the way, so they can get on with their busy day!

As I reached the middle of the intersection, I noticed the large, red truck coming from my right. So I started to trot to get out of his way. Instead of slowing or going around me, he stayed his course and drove in front of me, barely missing me as I moved in the direction of his path. He actually swerved a bit to his right to make sure he made his point to drive in front of me. Needless to say I was alarmed, frightened and then very angry.

Anger, RageVery, very angry. I had every right to be. He was scum for doing this to anyone. My mind raced, wondering if he treated his wife and children with such obnoxious disdain. Since I’m gay, I assumed he was homophobic. I gave him the finger, several, in fact. I shot an Uzi full of fingers at him. I noticed he turned left at the next intersection. I thought he might be turning around to confront me. My adrenaline rushed. Every cell in my body prepared for defense. I was invincible, ready for the fight. My righteous indignation and rage would cover me for any lack of power. I picked up a large rock to defend myself. My body shook, but I felt high with power!

Well, he didn’t come back. Relieved and a bit embarrassed when I realized people along the bike path might be wondering why I was carrying a head sized rock, I began to calm down. I put down the rock and continued my walk.

Right away I knew what I had to do. The words came to me as from a teacher, though the voice was mine. “By giving in to your anger, you are letting him control you, becoming like him.” I struggled with this for a few minutes before putting my rage aside. I filled my lungs with the breath I had come to know on these walks, a breath of playful introspection. I began to feel sorry for that man, but left the thought at that. The trees and river and prairie beckoned.

A half hour later on the same walk, I was surprised to find myself running like a child around a large, open field with my eyes closed. I felt as if I were flying. By closing my eyes, I was able to face the fears I had of losing control, of falling into a pit, or perhaps the fear of making a fool of myself by falling flat on my face. But by releasing my neck to float above my body, I was able to (with concentration) release the fear from myself. Then I was free to playfully navigate the slightly irregular ground.

Running BoyA feeling of free abandonment entered me, or at least my body. I began to swerve from side to side, leading with my head. My body followed. Suddenly I flashed back to being 8 or 9 years old, when I last remember being so free and “floppy”. For some reason, that period in my life held a transition from feeling free to self-conscious. I specifically remember how differently running felt before and after. I don’t know pivotal the event, if there even was one. Perhaps I just “grew up”.

Flopping as I ran through that field with eyes closed, I felt I regained some of who that child was, and that he was still alive in me. I had come a long way during that walk, from poisoned, fearful, vengeful man to free flowing, replenished child.