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Waking Up Sick

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My first impulse is resistance.
I'll simply pretend that the icy pulsing around the envelope of my stomach is not happening. It's 1:48 a.m. Maybe I'll fall back to sleep and it will go away. 2:07. No luck. My nausea is growing more intense and still I think, "This is not happening." Refusing to concede, I compromise by marching zombie-style around the kitchen. Appendages become heavy and slow like the Tinman slowly rusting in place along the Yellow Brick Road. All along, my cats glare at me irritated by the disturbance while my mind races immediately to the past.

Over the previous days, the Petri dish of our home had blossomed into stomach bugs, fevers, mysterious rashes, and a swollen gland the size of a Hummer. Days were filled a cacophony of whining and laugh tracks from Disney tween sitcoms. I thought I had made peace with my two daughters and my wife being simultaneously sick. I'd cook, clean and repeat. Settling into our post-apocalyptic bunker with a six pack of ginger ale, I prayed for time and carbonation to exorcise the viral demons. I'd logged eleven hours of Harry Potter movies, seared my retinas creating a Minecraft utopia, and failed repeatedly at convincing my children to watch PBS Civil War documentaries. Eventually my suffering went existential: "Why is this happening to me?" I whimpered, with the little surplus energy that wasn't being expended to hold up my head.

A sudden stabbing of faintness interrupted my moan of injustice. "It's time to head to the bathroom," I thought. I am no longer pretending to contain the nuclear fuel in its final stages of detonation deep in my gut. "This is going to happen," I mumble between rancid burps. In this moment of reluctant acceptance, my thoughts surge toward the future: "With all the appointments, speaking engagements, emails and projects in the next 48 hours, I don't have time for this." Stomach viruses mock your plans and eat them for breakfast.

Allowing the Unwelcome
I fall to my knees on the bathroom floor and study the ancient grime embedded in the icy 1937 hexagon tiles which are unforgiving against my ankles. For a moment, I ponder the cost of retiling the bathroom floor and conclude it's beyond our budget. I stare at the toilet and try not to think of what usually happens here. Then I laugh and think, "Without a toilet inches from my face, this posture looks a lot like meditation."

I'm sweating now and my heart is racing. My stomach is cramping, and I remember the breath. "The present moment is always the safest place to be," I repeat to myself. In the moment, I'm not sure I believe it. Soon, language fades, and I'm panting like the animals that we truly are but pretend not to be most of the time. The serpentine urge to reverse gravity is primal and involuntary. My body is no longer my own. Allowing the virus to have its way with me, I empty the contents of my belly too many times to count. I am thrown around like a rag doll in a raging toddler's fist. The new toilet seat that I installed last year is holding strong. My momentary surge of pride is pierced by hot tears spilling down my cheeks. I remember the words of the poet Rilke, "Just keep going. No feeling is final."

Sometimes we wake up to wisdom in the presence of a great teacher or in the presence of breathtaking natural beauty. Over the past 15 years, I'd been on countless meditation retreats, contemplated ancient scriptures of many religions and studied mindfulness with some of the most famous teachers in the world. Tonight, vomiting is both my mindfulness practice and my teacher. Waking up had never been so painful.

Sometimes in life, we are powerless. If we are open enough, we yield to the wisdom that unwelcomed circumstances bestow. In moments of powerlessness, there is nothing to solve or fix. Past or future will not support us here. There is no action to take or plan to form. Sometimes the only choice we can make is the choice to show up, to be present and to allow the moment to unfold. Getting in the way only creates more suffering. This was my lesson from the bathroom floor that night.

For three wretched hours my mindfulness practice is simply the practice of no resistance. I try over and over to get out of my own way and allow what wants to happen to unfold. I try to show up to the moment as uncomfortable as each grisly moment is, steadily redirecting fantasies of the past and future back to what is actually happening right now. I remind myself that I'd rather show up in the reality of the unpleasant present than the projected illusion of a more perfect future. "Just be here now," I tell myself. "Just be here now." This gentle redirection to the present moment allows life to unfold with less resistance.

Mindfulness offers a stable foundation.
Mindfulness is not magic; it does not remove pain or erase the challenges of life. Mindfulness is simply the willingness to be fully present without judgment to the entire human drama. I remember a Zen teacher telling me, "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." Being human involves vulnerability to physical and emotional pain. This is the simple consequence of having a beating heart and moving through life with its ubiquitous fragility and vulnerability.

While pain is undeniable in the human condition, what we do with that pain is the constant choice for us as human beings. How we respond to the pain of grieving, the frustration of not getting what we want, the ache of injustice or the countless variations of human hurt is the great project of life. While mindfulness doesn't eliminate pain, it does ease suffering as we find a stable foundation to ground us amid the inevitable storms. The very act of bringing deep non-judgmental awareness to the pain of life itself is healing. I continue to be amazed by this simple and enduring reality.

What do you do with your pain?
"Pain that is not transformed is transferred," Richard Rohr, a wise contemporary Christian contemplative teacher, reminds us. We send unhealed hurts along to others. Our hurt propels us to hurt others. People don't do hurtful things because they are evil, but because they are in pain. We are all connected in this human drama and when it comes to pain; the extent to which we care for ourselves is the extent to which we can care for others.

"What do you do with your pain?" is the great question of life upon which all our relationships and the very survival of our species depends. Some of us pretend we are not in pain by distracting ourselves with various projects. Work, screens, home improvement, shopping, sex and food obsessions are among the most common, though there are infinite ways to numb ourselves from what we do not want to feel. While some pretend they are not in pain, others over-identify with pain and pretend that there is nothing but pain. Counterintuitively, the constant stream of self-help books, TED talks, supplements and doctor visits don't put a dent in the emotional pain if we seek in them an escape. Such running from pain inevitably transmutes it into suffering as we learn new and creative ways to resist pain and run from the present moment.

Every moment is an opportunity.
Mindfulness can become a powerful off ramp from the hamster wheel of suffering and resistance in life. Mindfulness does not exclude any situation, but includes the entire spectrum of human experience by bringing curiosity and compassion to whatever is arising. By bringing present moment, non-judgmental awareness to our pain and to all of life itself, we see the nature of our experience more clearly allowing healing and compassion to arise. This capacity to pay attention is both inherent within us and trainable through any number of contemplative practices of which meditation is perhaps the most well-known. When we practice generating the energy of mindfulness, we recognize that all of life is a teacher. Every experience, those we label pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral all contain seeds of wisdom. So each moment can be a laboratory for our growth and awareness. Each moment contains everything we need to find contentment and peace. Until we recognize this, we will forever search for something outside ourselves and beyond the moment to fulfill us. With practice, however, we can learn to meet pain from a place of stability and curiosity while fostering compassion for ourselves and others.

I awaken the next morning shaking in a fetal position. My weak body has found its way to the couch, and I'm swaddled in a lap blanket which carries the sweet smell of playdough and the sharp stench of my sickness. I feel the tender touch of a hand to my head. "I love you Daddy." Before leaving for school, my daughter brings me water in the ceramic mug that she made me in kindergarten. My stomach is empty but my heart feels full to be loved so completely. Now she is the caregiver, and our roles have reversed. To give and receive care amid the pain and joy of life -- this is the great practice of mindful living. If waking up with a stomach virus is the price to be paid to remember this, I am willing to wake up, again and again.