The Tao of Fibromyalgia

It’s always something!  – Gilda Radner

“The subconscious habit of disease- or health-consciousness exerts a strong influence on the continuity of chronic problems. Chronic mental or physical diseases always have a deep root in the subconscious mind. In a mental or physical disturbance, one ought to be able to pull out the roots from the subconscious mind. That is why all affirmations practiced by the conscious mind ought to be impressive enough to stay as mental habits in the subconscious mind, which in turn automatically influences the conscious mind. Strong conscious affirmation is thus reinforced through the medium of the subconscious.
Still stronger conscious will or devotion affirmations not only reach the subconscious but the superconscious, the magic storehouse of all miraculous mental powers.”
–from the “Overcoming Stress and Fear” course

Had I mentioned that I’m ill? Mind you, I’m not very ill compared to some people, although it feels that way; and with this nasty mind-body ailment that seems to come in waves (waves that do subside between crashes on my shoreline), these last two cold, dark months have been pretty awful. Fibromyalgia has become a rather fashionable illness in recent years, possibly because so many women have it, and possibly because it does seem to strike a certain psychological type, which I will discuss below. But for those of you who don’t know what it is, I will share a description that I sent a good friend who wanted to know about it:

resurrection-church-11-1024x768You’ve probably heard the term fibromyalgia, and perhaps other illnesses like Lyme disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Rheumatoid (and other) Arthritis, etc., etc. . . . These are autoimmune illnesses that seem to be on the increase . . . that I would guess are a result of the increasing toxicity of the planet in general, and of substances like GMOs and other food additives and environmental toxins. For instance, we live in farm country and must deal with crop dusters out here in the summer.  Fibromyalgia was pretty much unkown until about 20-30 years ago, and originally, if one complained of the symptoms, the doctor was likely to say, “oh, you’re just depressed. How about some Prozac?” Or, hopefully privately, to label the person who had it a hychochondriac.


–Chronic muscle pain that seems to “migrate.” I.e., sometimes my left elbow hurts intensely, sometimes my lower back, sometimes my toes, sometimes my hands throb and I can’t type, etc. I long ago gave up trying to find rhyme or reason for any of these.
—Flu-like symptoms that cause all-over pain and feverishness and what is generally called malaise, which means, as far as I can tell, “It hurts and I’m miserable!”
—“Brain fog,” i.e., confusion, memory problems, inability to think straight, etc. These last two months have made writing hell for me, and it’s usually heaven
—Numbness and tingling in hands and toes
—Sleep problems
—Depression (well, as my doctor says, who wouldn’t be?)
—Chronic exhaustion
—Balance problems; I go crashing into things a lot, and losing my balance
—Blurred vision
—Migraines (I notice these are lessening as I grow older)

Research shows that these illnesses have a strong genetic component. They also seem to be strongly affected by seasons. During the warm weather months, I sometimes will forget that I am sick for several months at a time. This post-holiday season has nearly killed me. There seem to be “flares” and sometimes they last a few hours, or a few days or weeks or months.

No one really seems to know what causes Fibromyalgia, but the current explanation that medical science has given it is that it has to do with the way an individual processes pain, i.e., individuals who have it feel pain more intensely than “normal” people. I am divided about this, because it sounds a little too much like the old “blaming the victim” axiom, and yet it also rings true–for me, at least–on some subterranean level.  (Author, private communication)

So there you have it. I can just see numerous of my readers nodding their heads in heartfelt agreement, and others feeling doubt. It is one of those illnesses that no one can quite discern in the sufferer, although I have found that my husband knows when I am sick, as does my doctor. To others, however, one looks perfectly healthy and even glowing, or at least I do, even when my inner suffering is intense.

Oh, I should mention: the large majority of sufferers of Fibromyalgia are women. And of those, a large proportion are caretakers. People who care for older people, professional helpers of one kind or another, etc. . . . What does this tell us? I think most of us know, but let us not turn this into a psychosomatic illness! Rather, let us say there is a strong “mind-body” correlation. Most of the people who spend time here will be familiar with that idea, but it is important to stress the difference between “hypochondria” and “soul exhaustion.” Or whatever term you use for that feeling of being so sapped of life-energy that you have reached the place of just going on from day to day, having given up the belief that there is anything left for you. That is when such illnesses can happen, and some of them are far worse than Fibromyalgia. I highly recommend an old classic that describes this syndrome: Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, It is a marvelous mytho-poetic explication of the myths and realities that guide women’s lives, for both good and bad. She describes this soul-tiredness I mention as:

. . . feeling extraordinarily dry, fatigued, frail, depressed, confused, gagged, muzzled, unaroused. Feeling frightened, halt or weak, without inspiration, without animation, without soulfulness, without meaning, shame-bearing, chronically fuming, volatile, stuck, uncreative, compressed, crazed. (Pinkola-Estes, 1992)

Elsewhere in this wonderful book, she points out that the body is a sensor for experience, and that our bodies reflect the roads we have been down, whether in terms of our own behaviors or the things that happen to us. These autoimmune-type disorders that are becoming more and more prevalent are very possibly the result of women’s “independence”  in a world that still leaves them  making less money than men and having to do all the housework besides.

In any event I am sick, and I could attribute it to having raised an intensely difficult child or coming through personality-disordered earth-parents, or any number of things. All in all, I’ve made at least as much of a mess of my life as most people, but illness–soul and body–has its benefits, and perhaps it can be useful for redirecting one to one’s true path. Pain is, in short, quite instructive. I can even say I recommend it, although that isn’t necessary: as Lord Buddha said, life is suffering, and there’s plenty to go around.   So what do we do with it?

While recognizing the reality of the dire physical pain endured by many, sometimes beyond the normal limits of human endurance, our recourse is to call upon the influence of mind over body, first by recognizing the impact upon body functions of our attitude towards psychological trauma. Resentment, remorse, self pity, envy, hatred, frustration, anger, addiction and co-dependence alter physiological functions, mediated by the endocrine glands affecting digestion, blood pressure, the lymph glands, the immune system, neurotransmitters, and the replication of the DNA by the RNA. A large body of research is being carried out at present to determine which psychological syndrome affects which hormone secretion, and which hormone affects which body function. But we can explore methods of dealing with the psychological trauma. –Khan, Pir Vilayat Inayat (2011-11-01). Life is a Pilgrimage (p. 24). Omega Publications, Inc.

I myself have done my share of whining, and I am no stranger to self-pity, at least historically. I personally find that, while we are all entitled to a certain amount of both, in the end they are far more weakening than they are strengthening and energizing. So to hell with those!

What happened for me in my life, finally, is that I began to sit. And sit. And sit. And then I sat some more. (We are talking about meditation here, in case that wasn’t apparent.)

I am still sitting as much as I can make myself sit, and I like it more all the time. They say running around is good, and I have no doubt of that, but I recommend sitting in the interest of penetrating the heart of any kind of pain. And where that has gotten me is a lot of places, but just recently, I was given a new grace:

On one of those days when I was feeling the pain quite fiercely and being pretty cranky about it, I sat down to meditate, and the words came to me: “the Kingdom of God is within.” Being prone to fleeing into the cosmos instead of bring it all back in, this was big–for me. I got that. And when I got up and went on to other things, I noticed that the pain was still fierce, but…I wasn’t. I was able to just notice it, to even laugh about it, and remain cheerful:

“Oh, look, I’m really in pain!”

“How about that, it’s really intense!”

That kind of thing.

This stuff works. What else can I say?

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Khalil Gibran

A Good Story by Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a story about Buddha and Mara, who represents the forces of evil.  One day the Buddha was in his cave, and Ananda, who was the Buddha’s assistant, was standing outside near the door.  Suddenly Ananda saw Mara coming.  He was surprised.  He didn’t want that, and he wished Mara would get lost.  But Mara walked straight to Ananda and asked him to announce his visit to the Buddha.

Ananda said, “Why have you come here?  Don’t you remember that in olden times you were defeated by the Buddha under the Bodhi tree?  Aren’t you ashamed to come here?  Go away!  The Buddha will not see you.  You are evil.  You are his enemy.”  When Mara heard this, he began to laugh and lag.  “Did you say that your teacher told you that he has enemies?”

That made Ananda very embarrassed.  He knew that his teacher had not said that he had enemies.  So Ananda was defeated and had to go in and announce the visit of Mara, hoping that the Buddha would say, “Go and tell him that I am not here.  Tell him that I am in a meeting.”

But the Buddha was very excited when he heard that Mara, such a very old friend, had come to visit him.  “Is that true?  Is he really here?” the Buddha said, and he went out in person to greet Mara.  Ananda was very distressed.  The Buddha went right up to Mara, bowed to him, and took his hands in his in the warmest way.  The Buddha said, “Hello!  How are you?  How have you been?  Is everything all right?”

Mara didn’t say anything.  So the Buddha brought him into the cave, prepared a seat for him to sit down, and told Ananda to go and make herb tea for both of them.  “I can make tea for my master one hundred times a day, but making tea for Mara is not a joy,” Ananda thought to himself.  But since this was the order to his master, how could he refuse?  So Ananda went to prepare some herb tea for the Buddha and his so-called guest, but while doing this he tried to listen to their conversation.

The Buddha repeated very warmly, “How have you been?  How are things with you?”  Mara said, “Things are not going well at all.  I am tired of being a Mara.  I want to be something else.”

Ananda became very frightened.  Mara said, You know, being a Mara is not a very easy thing to do.  If you talk, you have to talk in riddles.  If you do anything, you have to be tricky and look evil.  I am very tired of all that.  But what I cannot bear is my disciples.  They are now talking about social justice, peace, equality, liberation, nonduality, nonviolence, all of that.  I have had enough of it!  I think that it would be better if I hand them all over to you.  I want to be something else.”

Ananda began to shudder because he was afraid that the master would decide to take the other role.  Mara would become the Buddha, and the Buddha would become Mara.  It made him very sad.

The Buddha listened attentively, and was filled with compassion.  Finally, he said in a quiet voice, “Do you think it’s fun being a Buddha?  You don’t know what my disciples have done to me!  They put words into my mouth that I never said.  They build garish temples and put statues of me on altars in order to attract bananas and oranges and sweet rice, just for themselves.  And they package me and make my teaching into an item of commerce.  Mara, if you knew what it is really like to be a Buddha, I am sure you wouldn’t want to be one.”  And, thereupon, the Buddha recited a long verse summarizing the conversation.  –Thich Nhat Hanh, in Soul Food, by Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman

Balancing Acts

Keep fast and eat also, stay awake at night and sleep also, for verily there is a duty on you to your body, not to labour overmuch, so that ye may not get ill and destroy yourselfs; and verily there is a duty on you to your eyes, ye must sometimes sleep and give them rest; and verily there is a duty on you to your life partner, and to your visitors and guests that come to see you; ye must talk to them; and nobody hath kept fast who fasted always; the fast of three days in every month is equal to constant fasting:  then keep three days’ fast in every month. –from The Sayings of Muhammad, by Allama Sir Abdullah Al-Manum Al-Suhrawardy

So I am healing after the terrible ordeal the world and I imposed upon myself, the one that finally caused me to have both knees replaced and nearly killed me.  It was the first foray I had made into the halls of allopathic medicine for quite some time, having concluded long ago that too many of the doctors of today are more invested in making money in keeping their patients sick than in true healing.  But sometimes, perhaps, one must elect to be “healed with steel,” as in my former posts about all this;  and so I tried that, and it was a terrible way to convince myself that I was right in the first place.  And now I work to heal the damage and make use of these new joints which gradually come to seem more and more a part of me.  What other choice is there?

These days, my healing process is a nutritional one, through the very important work of Joel Fuhrman, M.D., who strives to take us back to the diets of the Yogis and those other ancients who taught the original lessons we have in healing through the mind-body connection.  The above quote from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) shows that those who teach the path of the soul have always shown that honoring the physical self through right attitude and right nutrition and, very importantly, balance, is the way to keep the soul fit and supported by the body on its journey.

It is this idea of balance that concerns me at the moment, because I have been through quite an ordeal, and there must of necessity be times when a pretty extreme balancing act in the cause of restoring health and wellness is warranted.  At the moment, I follow a pretty restrictive nutritional regime which includes occasional fasting, and otherwise includes a great many dark green, leafy vegetables, beans, few grains and a lot of fruit.  I have a daily exercise routine, and there is theoretically not much room for socialization and celebration in the sense that the rest of the world terms such.  I just had a birthday, and of course there is a certain obligation to celebrate on those sorts of occasions, at least so the rest of the family can eat cake, but my daughter lovingly made me a wonderful chocolate cake made with tofu, bean flour and flaxseeds, and the only problem was not eating too much of it (perhaps I should post the recipe here).  So I got through that one.  But balance is the name of the game on this planet, at least, where we come to learn how to be human, which is to say, fully Whole, fully God(dess).  We seem to be a culture of perpetually guilty people.  We strive to “do it right” and beat ourselves up when we think we haven’t.  We attach ourselves to various gurus who will supposedly take responsibility for us, making sure we are on the right path, and if they are authentic gurus, they generally do advocate balance in living and loving kindness toward the self and others.  Yet we continue to be exacting and unkind to ourselves.  What is behind that?  And why is it that we cannot seem to trust ourselves to do the right thing, and must have someone else to take that responsibility from us?  I refer to the aforesaid gurus here.

The true meaning of faith is self-confidence.  –Inayat Khan

As far as I can tell, it begins in infancy.  Food is the center of our lives of necessity, and as the providers of food and other nourishments necessary to the soul on earth, it is the parents who become the first gurus.  If they fail us, and if we believe in the theories of Freud and others, it is in those years that we learn the lessons that will dog us our entire lives.  The very act of breastfeeding, if a chid is fortunate enough to be nursed, is rooted in the emotions, the heart-feelings of love and nurture.  Sexuality comes into it, simply because it is the same hormones that let down the milk that bring about orgasm.  These are inevitably tied to the development of trust.  Thus, it is in these very earliest years that we make our decisions about how we will live, and whether we can trust the world.  If those first gurus fail us, then we may conclude we can only trust ourselves, or we spend the rest of our lives trying to find someone to trust.  If our parent-gurus don’t fail us, if they are there for us and encourage us to develop autonomy out of the womb of their containment, then we are fortunate enough to grow up trusting ourselves.

At least that’s the way it would seem to be historically.  In this day and age  we are, however, victimized by an increasing barrage of contrary messages to the ones we learned from our first nurturers, and we are encouraged over and over not to trust ourselves.  Depending on our innate resiliency, we either survive and flourish despite all the false gurus, or we fall under the weight of the huge corporations, the pharmaceutical companies, the fast-food restaurants and food and alcohol commercials and ads, all of which promise us that if we will just use their product, we will not only be well, we will find the meaning of life and achieve perfect happiness.  How many of us can turn a deaf ear to the promise of instant gratification and an easy “fix?”

Recently, I have been privy to a discussion about the proliferation of Buddhism in this culture.  The Dharma, I hear, has moved to the West.  While my own world-view holds that there is truth in all religions, I can see why the Middle Path is a lifeline to those of us who are trying to swim our way to the far shore through the wreckages of junk food,  junk living and junk emotions we have had forced upon us.  In fact, as illustrated by the quote I started this entry with, moderation, self-trust and loving-kindness are among the teachings of all the authentic teachers of humankind.


Hold Still.

Breathe in and out.

Let go.


Better to stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.
Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
Retire when the work is done.
This is the way of heaven.   –Tao te Ching, trans. Feng and English

Ah, letting go…  It’s been called renunciation, relaxation, even crucifixion:  somewhere along the line, if we want to come Home, we have to let go of the untruths and, from the vantage point of a clear playing field, examine What Is.  Somehow, somewhere, the voices have to stop clamoring, the frenetic visions have to be tuned out, and we have to come home to ourselves prior to the stories all these tell, all the stories told from the very beginning.  Is it possible to live without story, without the myths that shape our days and nights?  What if we become able to look at our actions and our practices in a clear light that is not surrounded by Concepts.  Then what will we do?

I would say that renouncing the myths I live by (also known as “Killing the Buddha”) is just about the hardest thing I have done or ever will do, because I expect it to be a lifelong project.  It requires being constantly present to the moment and to myself.  It requires examination of my motives and actions, first to ask myself what myths I’m playing out in them, and second, by deciding what is Right Thought and Right Action when the stories have been cleared away.  It requires loving-kindness toward the world and toward myself, and it requires self-confidence.  It was lack of self-confidence that made me sick, and it is Wise Pride, as Inayat Khan terms it, that will make me well.