Acupuncture Barbie

photo by Deborah Leigh via Flickr

As I wrote about in a previous post, Befriending the Body, I’ve experienced pain on a daily basis for many years now. I’ve tried all the conventional approaches: physical therapy, steroid injections, and two back surgeries. For the most part, I’ve made peace with the pain and just assumed it would be something I would deal with forever. Yet there was always a nagging voice inside me that said I owed it to myself to explore more options.

I’d read some research on acupuncture, and there seems to be some scientific basis to support its use in chronic pain. Although I live in a fairly small town, I’d heard about a physician here who had trained with Dr. Andrew Weil, a well-known alternative medicine “guru” and best-selling author of many books on wellness. One of my friends had been to Dr. Christopher Link, and had taken her daughter to see him, too.  She gave Dr. Link rave reviews, and I decided it was worth a try. What did I have to lose?

Once I decided to go ahead, I waited four months to get a “new patient appointment.” I figured he must be good as it took so long to get in.  I’ve now seen him three times, and there are many aspects to my treatment plan that I’ll write about in other posts. I had my first acupuncture treatment last week, so that’s the subject for the day.

First of all, I had a mini-breakdown the few days leading up to the treatment. I worried about the financial aspect. This is all going to be an out-of-pocket expense. Am I going to be wasting my money? Mostly I worried it would be just plain weird. I had done some more research and found some people had emotional reactions to acupuncture. I talked to my friend about it and she did say that acupuncture can “release a lot of energy.” That didn’t sound like a good thing. When I hear stuff about “energy work” I get turned off. I also didn’t like thinking about the very real possibility that I’d cry somewhere along the line. Ugh.

I had worked myself up into such a state, I called to cancel the appointment, but the receptionist talked me out of it.

The night before my appointment, I meditated. An image came to mind of a picture I have hanging in my office. It has a quote on it that says: “Sometimes your only form of transportation is a leap of faith.” I don’t readily trust doctors, but I took this as a sign that I should give Dr. Link the benefit of the doubt.

At my appointment, he first came in and asked how I was doing. I offered a brief “okay” before I launched into a list of questions. I think I was mostly trying to prolong things. I thought maybe we’d run out of time. I even suggested that he was probably running late and we could do the acupuncture at my next appointment! Silly me 🙂 Finally, I asked, “Do I have to believe this will work for it to work?” He said definitely not, and then he told me about research studies with animals that proved expectations had nothing to do with acupuncture’s effects.  He shared with me that he had been skeptical about acupuncture at first, too, and he added that he didn’t know for sure whether acupuncture would help me.  I appreciated his honesty.

The actual treatment wasn’t too bad. As always, my anxiety ahead of time is much worse that the actual event. I didn’t want to look at the needles, but I’m pretty sure he put at least two in my ear and I’d say about ten in my arm and hand. Then a TENS unit was hooked up to the needles, and a heat unit was directed to my arm. I felt like I was a ham being baked.

Next a nurse put a call button in my hand. I asked, “What is this for?” She said, “To call if you need anything.” What? I was going to be left? I was doing okay until this point. I guess I had missed the part that the needles are left in you for a period of time. I was going to be in a room all by myself with needles buzzing away in my arm. The nurse asked if  I wanted some music, and I said no (music would be more likely to make me cry). I did ask for a blanket for my feet, which were freezing cold. I was proud of myself for being assertive and asking for the blanket.

During the treatment, I tried to do some breathing meditation. I imagined Sharon Salzberg’s voice from my meditation CDs telling me to simply notice the breath. I didn’t have to change anything–no need to try to breathe slowly or deeply. Just follow the breath in its natural state.  At times my attention was drawn to various points in my arm where the needles were. There was one place close to my armpit that was a little uncomfortable. Otherwise, there was no discomfort–mostly just  strange vibration sensations. I heard a timer go off and the nurse came back in. I imagined I was cooked to perfection. She said I looked flushed. She said Dr. Link had told her that was a good indicator that your nervous system was actually being reached. I didn’t say the room was just hot and stuffy, but that’s what I was thinking. She told me I could get off the table, but I felt a little bit paralyzed or something. She must have noticed an odd look on my face, and she said to take my time, that some people feel a little dizzy afterward. When I was telling Greg about it, he said, You were probably really relaxed.” I informed him that I was definitely not relaxed! (This was serious, scary stuff.)

I made it to the front window, paid for the treatment, and got instructions to drink a lot of water, and take it easy.

I went home and looked at myself in the mirror. Could I see any marks where the needles had been? Did I still look flushed? No, and no.

It was hard not to evaluate whether anything had happened. As pessimistic as I usually am, I actually thought I felt “more space” in my shoulder area. This experience of “more space” extended down my arm into my hand, and lasted all that day and the next day, too. I even forgot to take my Extra Strength Tylenol, which I take religiously.

Now if I could have only ended this blog post here.

A few days after that, the pain was back. I thought to myself, “Well, yeah, the first day I stayed off the computer–one thing I know aggravates my pain. Of course I felt better.” Even the second day, I was still trying to do less on the computer. “Maybe I just need to stop typing so much, then I wouldn’t need this stupid acupuncture!”

I didn’t expect one treatment to magically cure me. I’m going to keep going, at least for a little while. Dr. Link said we’d be able to evaluate after about 4 treatments what kind of response I was having. And I don’t know if it’s related, but I have slept really soundly since the acupuncture treatment.

As I’ve thought about this whole acupuncture thing, it dawned on me that it’s really not relevant whether it “works” or not. The point of this self-compassion project is to learn to be gentle with myself, regardless of the circumstance. Sure, it would be great to not be in pain all the time. But it’s not mandatory for happiness. Just two and a half months into this “project” and I already feel better equipped to deal with whatever life brings. Pain or no pain. It’s all good.

Self-Compassion and Limit-Setting

The Shifted Librarian photostream on Flickr

I think there are actually two aspects of self-compassion: the ability to nurture oneself and the ability to set limits with oneself. But when I think of self-compassion, I tend to focus primarily of the nurturing aspect.  For example, when I take a bubble bath, I view that as being self-compassionate. When I let myself rest when I’m tired, or when I take time to meditate—I see those things as practicing self-compassion.  And usually, since I tend to be overly serious and driven, it is the nurturing part that I most need to work on (as a side note: Greg said I must be the only person who puts a clock by the bathtub—I say, how else will you know when to get out?).

Right now I have several ideas for more blog posts to write. I have a gift certificate left over from my birthday, and I’d love to go shopping. It’s rainy and dreary outside, and curling up with the dogs on the couch reading sounds appealing. Not to mention, I just received in the mail some new Sharon Salzberg meditation CDs that I so want to try.  BUT, I also have a mound of paperwork to go through. I know you probably have this image of me that I’m super organized…that my “mound” is probably just one little pile. Not true. I literally have papers back from last summer still in multiple piles. Piles that have gotten so high that the contents from individual files have slid out all over the place; Piles that have migrated from the tops of the desk onto the floor.  The kicker was today when Greg said, “I can’t find our ‘Really Important Papers’ file.” Things have gotten out of hand.

I’ve always prided myself on being organized. And I’d be the last one to be described as a procrastinator (I always studied for tests and wrote papers way before deadlines). The truth is, I do procrastinate. I procrastinate by working. Then I can feel virtuous even as I’m procrastinating! I put off the mundane paperwork and housecleaning so I can pursue my creative interests, such as writing. While it feels good in the moment, when I walk into the rooms with all the piles, it’s unsettling, and I tend to keep a lot of doors closed.

In Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, she devotes whole sections to organization and getting thing done. She writes, “I was astounded by the dramatic boost in my mental energy that came from taking care of neglected tasks.”

So, right after I find the perfect picture to go with this post, I’m diving in to the piles of paperwork. And you know what, I think setting limits with myself will actually be the most self-compassionate thing I can do.

(P.S. In case my parent’s are reading this with alarm, while I was writing, Greg did find our “Really Important Papers” file.)

Take What You Need

I’ve been feeling both antsy and lethargic since Sharon Salzberg’s “official” meditation challenge was over in February. I almost hate to admit it, but I went a few days without meditating. I thought about it. But I didn’t do it.

I noticed a few things. First of all, I didn’t feel as good, just in general. I was more tired than usual, and I spent a lot of time lying on the couch. Now this could be for any number of reasons (a lot of people have been getting sick around here). It did cross my mind, though, that I was going through meditation withdrawal—or maybe even Sharon withdrawal 🙂 The second thing I noticed was a bit of a shocker: I wasn’t beating up on myself.  In the past I would’ve condemned myself for being a “fraud”—here I spent a month blogging about meditation and then I quit. Yet, I remembered Sharon’s words from Week One. The “magic” in meditation is learning that we can begin again. Maybe we made a poor choice about something; we can begin again. Maybe we said some unkind words to someone; we can apologize and begin again. Maybe we ate too many Oreos; we don’t have to wait for tomorrow (or Monday morning) to start eating healthier. We can begin again, right now.

Of course, I didn’t have these revelations with out a tiny bit of struggle.

Yesterday I was pacing around the living room, feeling wound up and agitated, and I told Greg, “I just don’t know what I need.” Fortunately, he sometimes knows what I need better than I know myself. He said, “Why don’t you go and meditate?” Hmm. That sounded okay. So I went into the room that I have dedicated to this practice. I have a picture on a little table that says, “Take what you need.” I lit a candle, gazed at the picture, and enjoyed some soothing music for a while. Then I listened to Sharon Salzburg’s breathing meditation, and followed with some more meditating on my own.

I love the saying, “Take What You Need.”* But what if you don’t know what you need? What then? What if I hadn’t had Greg to nudge me in the right direction? I felt so relaxed and peaceful after meditating. Why had it taken me days to figure out that’s what I needed?

Of course, I always like things to be wrapped up in a neat little package. I asked Greg to help me brainstorm “tips” for how to figure out what you need. It seems like all good blog posts need tips. (My niece would add “LOL” at this point.) Without pausing, Greg replied, “When you don’t know what you need, just let yourself be.” Well, that sounds poetic, but it wasn’t very satisfying to me. I still had the urge to “operationalize” it more. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Accept the fact that you don’t know what you need.
  • Give yourself compassion for not knowing what you need. Say things to yourself such as, “It’s hard when you don’t know what you need.”
  • Try some things on for size: Do you need to call a friend? Do you need to take a warm bath? Perhaps make a cup of tea? Do something you’ve been putting off?
  • Realize that you may need more than one thing. Just try one and see how it goes. You can always change. You can always begin again.

I wonder whether, over time, meditation will help me be more in tune with what I need at each moment. I’m betting the answer is yes. But I’ll let you know.

(If you enjoyed this post, click on over to my Facebook page and hit like. I post shorter tidbits about self-compassion, share good links, and let you know when I’ve written something new. Thanks for your support!)

*See Kelly Rae Roberts blog for some of her awe-inspiring artwork and the idea behind this picture.

This, too.

From Pinterest

I’d about worked myself into a full-blown worry attack. There are a lot of things up in the air right now in which timing is key and I don’t have control of many of the variables. I felt crabby, and I craved a big bowl of New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream. My inner rebel kicked in and my self-talk sounded something like this: “I should meditate, but I don’t want to meditate. I’m sad the 28-day Meditation Challenge with Sharon Salzberg is over, and I probably won’t be able to keep the practice going on my own. Who am I kidding? I’m not the meditating type!”

Before I could go much further (as if that wasn’t far enough), the words popped into my mind, “This, too.”* Now where did that come from? The words came to me in a quiet, kind tone of voice, unlike the critical tone I’m so accustomed to hearing in my head. I can’t believe it. Only a month of meditating and I can’t even indulge in a good worry episode? This was new for me. I felt a gentleness with myself that hadn’t been there before. My worries were still there, but I felt some space…a little more room to maneuver. The quiet voice continued:

Things end. This, too.

Things aren’t in my control. This, too.

I don’t want to do things, even when they’re good for me. This, too.

I worry. This, too.

I laid down on the couch and took some deliberate deep breaths. I said some lovingkindness phrases for myself and others. And then I took a nap.

This, too.

*I’m sure I’ve heard the phrase “This, too” somewhere. I’m getting paranoid that with all the reading I’m doing, that others’ words are seeping into my consciousness and I don’t know to whom to attribute them. Whoever came up with this phrase, thank you. It’s a really good phrase.

(If you enjoyed this post, click on over to my Facebook page and hit like. I post shorter tidbits about self-compassion, share good links, and let you know when I’ve written something new. Thanks for your support!)

Tweeting with Sharon

Sharon Salzberg

A week ago today I participated in my first “Tweetchat.” This is quite an accomplishment for me as six months ago I didn’t have a clue what Twitter was all about, and I still don’t fully understand it. For those Twitter-challenged like myself, a Tweetchat is sort of like a virtual meeting held on Twitter. Everyone gets together at a certain time and uses the same hashtag (#) and an actual conversation takes place (it’s magic!).

This Tweetchat was with Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation. Although I had some anxiety ahead of time (What would I ask? Would I sound dumb? Would I make some Twitter faux pas?), it went really well and I got a lot out of it. Since then, I’ve been obsessed with organizing the content. I saved everything right afterward (because I don’t think Twitter keeps things very long), printed it all out, and then organized tweets by topic. This isn’t everything, but it will give you some of the highlights.

First, as with any social engagement, there are a few pleasantries and introductions:

Sharon Salzberg Getting ready for the #realhappiness #tweetchat at 1:30 PM today! Tweet you soon!

barbmarkway Ready for my first tweet chat with @Sharon Salzberg #realhappiness

HMKoutoukas Happy President’s Day! This Month’s #TweetChat will start at 1:30 PM with @SharonSalzberg. Open to all! #realhappiness

On meditation practice in general:

HMKoutoukas Q: What time of day is best to start your practice via @FaceBook Fan #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@HMKoutoukas The time when U’ll actually do its the best time. Going from thinking abt it 2 doing its the hardest part #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@HMKoutoukas I try to sit first thing in the am, before e-mail! #realhapiness

barbmarkway Sometimes I feel like I’m just daydreaming with a few deep breaths thrown in #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@barbmarkway Sometimes it is just a few mindful breaths! but in the long run, we are still building awareness. It’s good #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@TheBuffyProject They say the Buddha taught med. in 4 postures – sitting, standing, walking & lying down #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@2catsandapencil Even if I’m sleepy or concentration seems crummy. In the end, it’s all good. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@2catsandapencil Sometimes we think things r going badly but when we look back we see we were building strength and openness #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@2catsandapencil Please keep going. it takes time but meditation really does have an effect. #realhappiness

On dealing with thoughts and anxiety:

SpicedNutmeg When I sit initially my mind is quiet and then there is flood of thoughts and no stop to it. Thank #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@SpicedNutmet Practice cn B more abt getting space from thought than stopping them. Then flood of thoughts is no problem. #realhappiness

CharleySez Hi. Meditating can give more space for anxieties and worries as there are no distractions. How best can we sit with these? #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@CharleySez true. 1st understand it’s normal. 2nd, we work w/balanced awareness & compassion 4 ourselves #realhappiness

SharonSalzbert@CharleySez it includes feeling the worry in yr body then moving attention 2 something easier 2 b w/then back. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@CharleySez We try 2 call anxiety painful rather than “bad”. that takes practice 2! #realhappiness

CharleySez@SharonSalzberg Thank you. Being with the worry, also with compassion for self, taking it moment by moment – I will do that. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@CharleySez That sounds great! You will see changes, more in your life than on the cusion. but that’s where it counts. #realhappiness

On dealing with emotions:

SpicedNutmeg I find it difficult to separate the thought and emotion. I’m caught in it. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@SpicedNutmeg mayB ask yourself “What am I feeling in my body?”. Breath & body will giv sum space w/out denying the emotion. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@SpicedNutmeg Can u feel your emotions in your body? that is often grounding, and interesting 2 #realhappiness

TheBuffyProject Sometimes it’s important to give yrself the space to feel unhappy, too. That, too, is #compassion #realhappiness

TheBuffyProject “I feel what I feel, and it’s ok.” Recognition leads to potential options. #realhappiness

On dealing with anger:

Stacysingsone Wanted to ask ? about compassion–the more compassion I feel, the more angry I feel when others do not #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@Stacysingsone When you c lack of compassion can u remind yourself that the lack is itself suffering? #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@Stacysingsone It is hard 2 c. The Buddha said, within & without, we are fighting ignorance. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@Stacysingsone It’s not that anger is “bad” but it won’t work. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@Stacysingsone If we think of it as bad we usually strengthen it. even tho we don’t want to #realhappiness

Stacysingsone@SharonSalzberg Thanks for thoughts on anger. have more work to do. #realhappiness

On working with pain:

barbmarkway I struggle with “Is pain real?” I blame myself. I sometimes use the mind/body connection against myself. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@barbmarkway Pain is real @ it’s hard. it also changes w/in itself. we can make it harder due 2 habits. Rt. thr is R work. #realhappiness

barbmarkway@SharonSalzberg Yes, I do a lot of “add on” like you write about. Trying to notice that more. #realhappiness

SharonSalzberg@barbmarkway Very hard. But good to examine what makes things worse. that’s the part we don’t have 2 feel helpless about #realhappiness

barbmarkway@SharonSalzberg So hard not to anticipate more pain when you’re in “chronic pain” cycle #realhappiness

MettBomb RT@SharonSalzberg@HMKoutoukas Research shows Med. affects pain first by helping us not anticipate next hit of pain. #realhappiness

barbmarkway@SharonSalzberg Thank you for this! #realhappiness

(If you enjoyed this post, click on over to my Facebook page and hit like. I post shorter tidbits about self-compassion, share good links, and let you know when I’ve written something new. And of course, you can follow me on Twitter. Thanks for your support!)

Unique and the Same

I’ve had ideas swirling in my head all day. My thoughts seem random, yet connected. I’m not sure how to express them in a coherent fashion, yet I feel compelled to write.

I was talking to Greg about how sometimes I want to feel unique and special.  And yet, at other times, I want to feel I’m not alone. This dilemma makes me recall when I’ve been in therapy and the therapist tries to “normalize” my experience by saying, “I think everyone feels that way.” Sometimes this can feel validating, and at other times, it feels dismissive. Why is this?

Greg said it reminded him of a poster he once saw that says: “Remember that you are unique, just like everyone else.”

After this philosophical discussion, we ate dinner, not really talking. Thank goodness I’m married to another introvert who is comfortable with silence.

I still couldn’t figure out what I wanted to write, so I went downstairs to walk on the treadmill. I watch DVDs while I’m walking, and I’m on Season 2 of Mad Men. In the episode I was watching, Don Draper is having marital problems, and he is visiting with an old friend who offers some sage advice: “The only thing keeping you from happiness is the belief that you are alone.” What a great line! I thought this was surely a sign I needed to go upstairs and get busy writing.

Still, nothing came. I decided to do my meditation practice for the day.

This is week 4 of Sharon Salzberg’s Meditation Month and the focus is on Lovingkindness meditation. In this type of meditation, you focus not on your breath, but on certain phrases such as: May I be safe; May I be happy; May I be healthy; May I live with ease. You then extend these phrases (along with heartfelt intention if possible) to someone in need, then to someone you may know only casually, then to someone who you find difficult, then to people everywhere.  (For more details on this type of meditation, click here).

The person who popped into my mind when it was time to think of someone who may be in need was a previous client of mine. She had a child with a very rare and complex health condition. The condition wasn’t visible to others, so she was often given standard parenting advice that simply did not apply to her situation. Well meaning people would say things such as, “That’s just normal teenage stuff” or “You just have to use tough love.” These statements, meant to help her feel less alone, actually did just the opposite. She often told me she felt isolated from others, and that she was “crazy.” She seemed to feel better in our sessions when I found a way to validate her experience that, yes—her situation was different and unique. Somehow, paradoxically, that is what helped her feel less alone.

Looking back on it now, I wonder if I could have done more if I had helped her realize that somewhere (although not necessarily in her peer group), there are other mothers with similar challenges, going through similar painful circumstances. Would that have helped her feel less alone? It’s so easy to second-guess myself, but I  really don’t think I would have done anything differently.

Well, I’ve thoroughly confused myself further, and probably you, as well.

If I can come up with any take-away points, they’d be:

  •  Life is hard. It’s okay to acknowledge that fact.
  •  We’re all in the same boat.  We all want to be happy. We all want to suffer less and be at peace. It’s not always easy to find that place. I’m learning that meditation can help.
  • We’re not alone, even when we think we are.
  •  I need to use the word “AND” more. We are unique AND we are the same.
If you enjoyed this post, click on over to my Facebook page and hit “like.” I share shorter tidbits on self-compassion and let you know when I’ve written something new. Thanks for your support!

Would you help a friend in need?

This is the last paragraph of Sharon Salzberg’s book, Real Happiness. I think it’s so powerful, I want to share it:

“I often ask my students, ‘If you learned that there’s a simple, safe activity you could do for twenty minutes a day to help a friend in need, would you do it?’ They answer, of course they would, eagerly and without question. Spending that same twenty minutes to help ourselves, however, seems to make us uncomfortable; we worry that it’s self-indulgent, egocentric. But helping ourselves is helping our friends. Our own real happiness is the wellspring out of which our ability to give to others flows. As Thich Nhat Hanh once said, ‘Happiness is available … please help yourself.’ “