My friend Liz recently wrote a fine piece about her gratitude journal (you can find it at http://thefeministgrandma.typepad.com/). She inspired me to blog on the subject of gratitude also, a practice that has been uppermost for me the last few months.
Last fall I went to a documentary about the civil rights strife in St. Augustine during the 1960s. St. Augustine had no public housing and a black community that lived in dire poverty. At one point in this movie the film maker interviewed an old black woman whose 'house' - little more than a tar paper shack with a leaky roof - burned down. Whatever its condition, this woman had lived in that house her whole life, and she owned it. She said, "Well, I always thank God for the good things that happen, and I always thank God for the bad things that happen." This idea - thanking God for everything - is an important part of all spiritual disciplines, although rarely put in practice. I find myself staggering along under a load of unfair and unwarranted vicissitudes, real and imagined, whining away and plotting how I can escape the situation or make it easier.
This woman's statement had real impact. She was not some priest or guru sitting on a velvet cushion intoning words of wisdom. She was the truly surrendered voice of God. This idea took fire for me. I realized that to thank God for the bad stuff, I had to take a real look at the bad stuff and consider what life is trying to teach me. This is a process. I would find myself saying, "Thank you God for having Gladiola wake me up at five a.m. by kicking over my glass of water and breaking Freeman's clock." Followed by, "Sorry for lying. I'm working on it though."
Then a real challenge came along. In late January I had a mild case of the flu that involved an inner ear infection. It quickly went away with the homeopathic remedy Carolyn recommended and I thought no more about it, until a few nights later. I plopped down in bed and immediately had a sensation of falling out of my body and down into an abyss. I screamed at the top of my lungs and clawed my way out of bed, only to find that the room was spinning around me in mad circles. I stumbled along holding on to pieces of furniture. Finally, the room stopped spinning. I had never experienced anything like this before and assumed it was, to quote Fred Sanford, "The Big One." I called Carolyn in a panic and she said, "Oh, it's gelsemium flu and it causes vertigo. Ten of my other patients have had the same thing." I took the remedy she recommended and all was well, but not for long.
This episode reawakened a very serious anxiety/panic/sleep disorder I had battled with for the first 40 years of my life. It was part of the PTSD that has followed me around since my childhood. What with one thing and another - art, meditation - I had largely overcome the problem. Now I found myself dizzy and panic stricken every night when I tried to lie down. I ran through some emergency diazepam I had stashed away and tried to get more, with no success. Diazepam, Xanax, all the minor tranquillizers, got caught up in the big crackdown on pain pills. I think it would have been easier for me to score heroin than to get a prescription for a few tranqs. I was offered various antidepressant pills, but antidepressants give me anxiety as a side effect so they did nothing but make things worse. I began drinking Nyquil straight from the bottle, and still had many sleepless nights. I began to feel like my life was over.
Freeman kept assuring me, "We're going to find a solution for this. You are going to get through this."
In the meantime I tried one homeopathic remedy after another and took homeopathic tranquillizers by the handful. All the time I kept thanking God for giving me this opportunity to grow, and journaling about what I might learn. I could learn trust. I was no longer in the cozy illusion most of us have that, "I am the Captain of my Soul, I am the Master of my destiny." Surrender leads to union with the will of God and to real peace, no matter what's going on. I would lie down, with the bed seeming to rock and roll beneath me, and pray the Lord's prayer, slowly, thinking about what it meant, and then the 23rd Psalm. Both pieces came alive for me. Also my Buddhist practice: "This very body the Buddha, this very earth the Lotus Paradise." Right now under these circumstances. I began to feel Spirit's presence in my room.
I continued to work with wholistic remedies and the situation was gradually easing. Then, I reached a whole new level of gratitude. I started to see that these nightly attacks of anxiety had put me in a place of extreme passivity and victimhood, a place I hadn't actively frequented for quite awhile. It suddenly hit me, "I know how to have courage. I can be brave. I can say 'Screw you, anxiety.'" When I was a child, my grandmother, who was mentally ill, sometimes terrorized me at bedtime. She would lean over and say, "I may kill you while you sleep." During those years I felt helpless beyond measure. That was the feeling that came back and that, I recognized, had never quite entirely left. Underneath all my derring do, there was a little theme of whining and victimhood. Seeing it this way, in this context, I was able to start blasting it straight out of existence.
I am a now born again Gratituder! I get up in the morning and my mind starts nattering on about all that it has to do, and this problem and that problem, and my next thought is "NO! I am grateful for this day and all that it brings me." "This is the day that the Lord hath made, rejoice and be glad in it."
More and more, I am learning how to be happy. Gelsemium flu was a small price to pay.