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

Indifference and Detachment

Indifference and independence are the two wings which enable the soul to fly.  —  Inayat Khan

Indifference and independence are two words that those of us imprinted by the Judeo-Christina culture  put a spin on that causes them to sound rather uncaring or, in the case of independence, unconnected.  I think women, in particular, live their lives in ‘connection mode,’ the perspective that everything originates and culminates in relationship, and I think that is true, although not in the way it might seem, at first, to be. But one at a time:

I told, in an earlier entry here, about a dream I had (one of those dreams that is not a dream) about my Murshid, Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, who came to me and explained the true meaning of indifference to me:  indifference, he said, can only come from being completely and utterly in love.  This was a revelation to me, as I would have thought that indifference meant not caring.  But it’s true:  if one loves utterly, then one is indifferent to the other, because no matter what happens, no matter what the other person does, one sees only love.  My younger daughter demonstrated this to me recently, when in one of those “do I look ugly in this dress” trips women put themselves through, I said to her “I know why your father thinks I’m wonderful no matter how I look, but you say the same, and I’m sure you must notice my imperfections…”  And she just shrugged and said, “You’re just my mother, and I love you.”  And there we have it:  those who truly love us see only love.  This is why, I learned in a psychology class, children forget what their parents look like very quickly if they happen to die:  they didn’t see what the world saw, they saw only the face of love.  Perhaps our children teach us our first and last lessons in love, because one learns, as a parent, that there is no love so glorious, so horrible, powerful, and obsessive as the love one has for one’s child.  When our children are young, we are imprisoned in a love and protectiveness that are powerfully intense.   Yet if we use those feelings to learn to  love well, that love become transmuted into the deepest love that could exist on this earth, and complete indifference to what the child does, because whatever they do must be what they need to do.  I have been discussing recently, with some friends, the generation of parents that came before us, the one that learned “spare the rod and spoil the child” from their parents, and believed that giving their children whole approval and whole love would somehow “spoil” them.  With my children, I have found it to be completely the opposite, and although it was hard to grow up with such unforgiving and sometimes cruel parents, I feel more sorry for them that they missed the joy of true love with their children.

So, indifference:  to be able to love so completely as to be uncaring, detached from the actions of the object of one’s love.  Wherever it starts, whatever or whoever one loves completely, it seems that the next step would be to spread this love out to encompass all one’s relationships and finally, the world.  How could we have a problem with anyone if we love this much?  It sounds a bit daunting, though, to learn to love so much, because that degree of love might be seen as annihilating in its totality:  if I love that much, will there be anything left of me?  That is the pivotal stop on the road to true love.

In order to arrive at spiritual attainment two gulfs must be crossed: the sea of attachment and the ocean of detachment.  –Inayat Khan

I remember when I was young, spiritual attainment meant developing the ability to reach “high” states of consciousness, to be someone with an atmosphere that said to people “this is a holy woman.”  It didn’t take long, however, to learn that on this plane of existence, attainment means falling on love so completely that there is nothing but the beloved.  When I was that young, I saw the beloved in my children, my friends, my husband, my teacher….yet I learned, finally, that to do justice to that love so terrible in its intensity and its promise, I had to learn to love the whole world that reflected itself in my beloveds.  I thought that indifference and detachment meant a withdrawal from the world, and learned that it meant the complete opposite.

...Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. –Pema Chodron

Indifference and detachment are the end of love-longing  They are the mountain paths we follow to get there.