Thursday, April 26, 2012

Set This House in Order

Mannequin photo from my upcoming show "Mannequins and Miniatures" at EVP East in Madison, WI, May 1-May 26
I've got Shingles.

Because I am a linguistics nerd, my favorite part of the Wikipedia entry is about the etymology of the terms for this virus:
The family name of all the herpesviridae is derived from the Greek word herpein ("to creep"),[77] referring to the latent, recurring infections typical of this group of viruses. Zoster comes from Greek zōstēr, meaning "belt" or "girdle", after the characteristic belt-like dermatomal rash.[78] The common name for the disease, shingles, derives from the Latin cingulus, a variant of Latin cingulum meaning "girdle".[79]

But the fact is that when I google "shingles," which, of course, I've been doing a lot lately, the most common thing to come up, along with the actual virus, is references to house shingles. You know, the things that make up the roof. And so it seems, again, I am setting this house in order.

It is definitely clear that this outbreak is related to stress. In fact, despite the etymology on Wikipedia, and despite the links to websites about whether or not to have a metal roof or a shingled roof, the way Shingles is usually spelled in my circle of people is S-T-R-E-S-S. Though the Urgent Care doc refused to pin down a particular trigger, he did note that there have been more recurrences of shingles in younger folks (I am 34 - the usually age of incidence is 50+) and more common in general in the last ten years. It is also clear that unless someone is HIV+ (luckily, I am not) or otherwise has compromised immune system - temporary or otherwise - STRESS is usually the main trigger.

STRESS, as a conversation went with some of my students a few weeks ago after one of my writing classes, is a general term. It does not mean "bad" - eustress is "positive" stress, or excitement ("Terrified is excitement without the breath." --(the brilliant and beautiful) Jen Louden, as quoted by Susan Piver on Facebook this AM). Stress simply means the system being worked - sometimes overworked, sometimes simply worked, but always simply meaning "action."

The thing is that we have an assumption that order is the natural state. That when things are at all stressed, something is out of balance. I've been reading Karuna Cayton's The Misleading Mind, a book I much anticipated. It is a lovely introductory book to the ideas of Buddhism and meditation, and, as the reviewer I linked to notes, also a great illumination of points that those of us who "have studied" Buddhism think we "already know."  As he says in his introduction:

"And what is our human dilemma? That the nature of life is problematic. Problems are not an exception; they are the norm...We cannot stop problems, but we can end our understanding the nature of our mind and changing the way we approach our emotional struggles."
-page 6, Karuna Cayton, The Misleading Mind

I was pondering this passage, and supporting passages, for a week or so before the shingles kicked in. It is a great elucidation of the often misused-idea that "pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional," a nagging point that one of my favorite bloggers, Bindu Wiles, herself addressed last week.

What this means to me is that I, and I am going to own this one to be clear, though please understand that I know I am not the only one!, I often see problems as a sign that there is something wrong. Pema Chodron has a quote that I love, though I cannot accurately attribute, so I will paraphrase: We believe that pain is a sign that something is wrong. It isn't always a sign that something is wrong. Sometimes it's just a sign that something is in pain. So, for instance, when diagnosed with shingles, there is absolutely no question that there is pain. There is some question as to whether or not this particular pain was inevitable - maybe if I had handled stress differently, for instance, it would not have flared up. But the fact that it exists now means that blame, especially self-blame, is pretty useless. Now is the time to look at the suffering that could, and has, frankly, extended from the pain of the actual virus.

This (mental) suffering looks like:
-Denial. Nah, this isn't happening. This was short-lived -- this time.
-Blame. Dammit, I thought I was doing so well coping with stress. It's my fault.
-Worry/panic. I can't cancel things, people need me/I will lose my job(s)/money is tight.
-Inflated self-importance. If I don't do it, who will?
-Sadness. This is not how I wanted it to go. I must mourn what I wanted in order to get this. 

But the funny thing about something like Shingles is that the suffering also manifests physically.
That's right. The PAIN manifests physically, but so does the SUFFERING. In other words, the line - even the cause/effect of the two, is much thinner here. And this is what is most interesting to me right now.  The fact that the virus has flared up (pain) may have been caused by suffering (over-reacting to mental stress last week) but I can choose at this point to, as much is is under my control, limit the suffering that results.

For instance, this (physical) pain and suffering looks like:
-Pain: blisters
-Suffering: scratching them so they burn and itch more.
-Pain: aching joints
-Suffering: not resting enough/rubbing muscles, asking for massage
-Pain: soreness around my eye
-Suffering: fear of losing sight/panic/which clearly makes for more pain, and so on...

How can I do that? Pay attention. A lot of attention. As little judgment as possible. Rest. Be gentle. In other words, this is the perfect practice virus.

One of the many wonderful Facebook friend posts regarding my Shingles came from a fellow practicioner, who suggested a book a few students have pointed me to but I have yet to read. It's now on reserve at the library. It is How to Be Sick by Toni Bernhard. I guarantee I will be reading this one soon. Heck, my slowing down (though sometimes hindered by eye fatigue) means there's a lot of reading to catch up with. And, as is so often the case, the thing I know full well but so often avoid when I am "well" - physically, especially, but also emotionally, is that reading about awareness, mindfulness and how to limit suffering (eg dharma readings) always helps.

This house, these shingles and these Shingles, will never be in "order" any more than my actual house will be in order, not for longer than a day, anyway. But what can be in order is my understanding, my practices and my connection to myself. This is the house I am setting in order while I am sick. It will fall apart again - because, as Pema so aptly titled one of her books, "(When) Things Fall Apart." Not IF but WHEN.

How can you gently set your house in order? Get all your inner voices together and hold a conference? You don't need to wait until it all falls apart - simply know it will, and hopefully really knowing that it will, all of it, every last bit will fall apart, we can get an opening, a tiny glimpse, of what life could be like - is like - when we stop worrying and start loving.

1 comment:

  1. Hello My Friend,

    When I was 10 I had shingles... bad... the sores were like a wide "belt" around my belly and back. I still have scars! I had chicken pox when I was 3. Being 10 with shingles was VERY odd. I remember the doctor asking me "How are things going at school? Are you feeling pressure? Are you sad? Is something bothering you?"
    I do not know how I answerd those questions? I am pretty sure I said that everything was fine. I actually loved school and liked being around classmates/friends at school.
    I have thought about why I got them at such a young age... and then I remember a question that I've been asked by therapists over the years: "How long have you suffered from depression?" and my answer is "As long as I can remember." It is a challenge to express myself at my age now, I am sure that I woudln't have had a clue about expressing myself when I was 10. It would have been impossible for me to (at that age) say "I'm depressed." I mean, was that word even in my vocabulary at that time? I don't know?
    Anyway- I have been "feeling" for you. I remember exactly what you are talking about- the sores itch, but itching them makes them hurt more. And you are sooooooooo sleepy!!!!

    Take care, and "set thine house in order"- the Bible

    Love you MH.