I’ve often remarked that one of the really SPECIAL things about CRPS is the way it essentially “re-traumatizes” the brain: in many ways, it duplicates what happens to the brain when horrific things happen — car accidents, war, etc.
This is why we tend to be a leeeeeetle intense at times, and why those of us who survive it long-term become Jedi masters about managing how we appear to feel and how we manage how we really feel.
A key component, as many of you are well aware, is helping yourself find and develop the tools that let your brain process the endless hurt, integrate useful lessons, and release the bitterness, day by day by day.
This is where a regular inner practice comes in handy. I’m sure there’s something most of y’all have got going, possibly related to CBT or DBT or mindfulness, for anxiety, grounding and self-calming; these are great tools. To strengthen yourself further and create more resiliency, try taking that to the next level in some way.
Here are some tools from my life and from survivor workshops and so forth. Individually, they’re amazing. Together, they’re mutually reinforcing and geometrically powerful. They are:
Journaling (not the same thing at all)
Some kind of meditation
A. Free Writing:
1. Set a timer or page-count. If possible, use paper and pen rather than keyboard.
2. Once you start, just keep the pen moving forward, no crossings out or edits, just keep the pen moving forward.
3. When the timer/page count is done, stop right there. It’s okay to finish the sentence, but stop.
> This does something important, which we don’t really have language for but which is absolutely primitive-brain-supportive, that helps de-sting one’s thoughts and experiences.
> Start as short or long as you think it would be successful to do, and go from there. Time spent doing free-writing is never wasted, but running around and art are good too.
> Walk away and do something physical or practical afterwards.
>> Take at least 2 hours before coming back for another round. The brain needs the integration-rest-time, for this to work.
> If you leave out any of these points, then you’re journalling, which is also great, but it’s a totally different strategy as far as the brain/mind/emotional landscape is concerned.
This technique is particularly useful after school, after a big incident when the feelings have calmed down but the mind is still recovering, or before starting a big project.
1. Put it outside the head and onto a physical medium.
> Journaling can be written, drawn, painted, danced (if filmed), sculpted, photographed, montaged, whatever. Out of the head and onto/into a physical medium.
> We journal for ourselves alone. The writing, pictures, even the dance footage, are not for showing. They might be shown later, after the period of life has passed, but that’s not the point. More commonly, they lay the groundwork for exponentially better art that’s made later.
> Keep them close, where they can be consulted by the one who did them. Nobody else is involved.
> Journaling exteriorizes and preserves our thoughts/feelings/subjectivity so they get less “gluey” and less scatty and become easier to handle.
> Looking over a period of life’s journals can be a great way to shine a Klieg Light of God on things, and free you up to make great changes quickly.
> It’s compost. Don’t expect it to be sweet or glorious, just let it compost. It pays off over time.
C. Disciplined movement
Of any sort: dance (Traditional, hip hop, jazz, modern, square, anything), t’ai chi, yoga, playing drums, gymnastics, long-distance running, group sports (plenty of opportunities for seeing both useful and silly ways to handle conflict), canoeing, sailing, etc.
> This literally helps organize the brain, especially a growing brain, most especially that of an intelligent child.
> It also helps regulate neurotransmitters to a healthier balance.
> The body working under specific direction of the brain is enormously neuro-protective and re-balancing. Nothing else works half as well for the brain, the mind, the feelings, and the immune and digestive systems, as disciplined movement. Its value simply can’t be overstated.
Of any of several kinds.
It seems most useful to have a couple of different kinds of meditation, so if you’re not up to one, you can do the other, and the benefits are mutually reinforcing.
1. “Still” meditation is mostly based on breathing with attention, and once that gets more natural, there are progressive layers of using attention & breathing to strengthen, stabilize, and regulate inner life and responses to outer events in life.
2. “Standing” and “Moving” meditations are often easier than still meditation when it’s harder to focus. The posture and/or movement provides a way into the meditative state. Also, it qualifies as “disciplined movement.” Two-fer!
> Different methods of “still” meditation only become interesting once you’re generally pretty comfortable with sitting and breathing, and being able to put your attention on some place in your breathing path and just rest it there. (Feeling the air come in at the tip of your nose. Feel it come down to 2″ above your navel. Or rest your attention on any place in between. I love the feeling of it moving in my lungs, so that’s where I focus. My mom focuses on the tip of her nose. Just pick one and learn to rest your attention there — with a naturally-upwelling calm delight, yum! — while breathing.)
> Set a timer, and respect it — just like with Free Writing. For that period of time, all you have to do is the meditation, of whatever kind. It’s okay if it’s boring. It’s okay if it’s frightening — you’re actually safe and okay, and it’s okay to breathe through the feelings and let the time pass. The timer is your safety net. Remember that it takes about 5 minutes before and after meditating to transition, and that’s okay too.
> “Standing” and “Moving” meditations come in millions of styles and schools. These include yoga (hot, cold, slow, fast, many schools!), t’ai chi, qi gong (thousands of schools), judo (those who engage in judo are referred to as “playing” rather than “fighting” judo — it was my first martial art; surprised?), aikido, Shaolin — in fact, any martial art with a great teacher… and of course these come in styles relevant to the countries in which each particular school originated — Japan, Okinawa (my Dad’s karate style), China, Tibet, India, even France (savate) and Brazil (capoeira)… lots to choose from.
I’ve found that most more-detailed techniques of managing and clarifying thoughts, feelings, and decisions are basically variations or elaborations of these 4 core strategies. Play around and find what works for you.
I copied this from a comment I wrote on social media. So many of us need reminding, especially me. I’m so frightened and overwhelmed myself, I want to put this info where I can grab it quick.
I’m now attending a weekly meeting of fellow pain patients in the area. It’s very good. A few things came up which I felt confident to share with the group and am now sharing with you, because the body of info is so useful… even if it’s only connected “under the hood.”
Pain care in the western New England region
Here are the local resources I can (to some degree) recommend. Those of you from other states and regions, please feel free to make recommendations in the comments! 🙂
Baystate Pain Management
There’s a Pain Management Center in Greenfield, MA, which I never knew about. It describes itself as “interventional”, meaning their focus is on procedures and injections and the like. (This means they aren’t currently doing much with the material mentioned in the Readings heading, but that may change in time.) They also provide PT and acupuncture, the latter only at the Springfield site. https://www.baystatehealth.org/services/pain-management-center
The Springfield site is the old home of a doctor I’ve mentioned before and don’t want to mention again. I noticed they don’t list staff on their current web page, but I do intend to follow up and learn a bit more about their current practitioners.
My doc, Lloyd Saberski, is intellectually conservative, and will do nothing that has a fair chance of hurting the patient. (Since I tend to be more gung-ho, I consider his approach a necessary complement to mine.)
There are a couple of other specialties (stem cell treatment and a weight-loss thingy) attached to the clinic, which is probably how they stay in business despite putting something as rare, time-intensive, & low-paying as advanced pain diagnosis at the center of the practice. I have never had the least hint of being nudged towards either of those; rather, Dr. Saberski specifically mentioned once that stem-cell treatment was still an immature modality with only a few conditions it was proven for, and that it would be totally unsuitable for me. Despite my poundage, he has never mentioned weight-loss, not even with a glance.
Readings on brain plasticity, with guidance on pushing back
I consider this the best lowdown on trauma gets put in place into the brain & body (and why this shows that Worker’s Comp and the insurance industry are specifically trying to destroy us, so don’t buy their evil story about you): “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk
It’s pretty science-y, so feel free to start with other authors like Pat Ogden or those listed below.
He’s a doc who developed central pain in himself, realized the current medicine on it was, um, let’s call it ill-informed, and eventually turned his extensive study on the subject into accessible material for the rest of us. He’s a good story-teller with an eye for the compelling detail that makes his point. He has two books out, both of them excellent, informative, and inspiring, avoiding all the usual pitfalls of physicians who like to write. He stays on topic, refers to the science, defers to the patient’s experience, and each side-trip turns out to be relevant and interesting.
I now mentally push my pain back up my spine and squish down on the pain regions in my brain every time I think of it 🙂 Week 2 — 4 more to go! Read more from him to understand what that’s about.
Credited with developing one of the most-recognized techniques (called EMDR) for accessing the neurobiology of distress and reprogramming the mind/body response to it. Some of her work is very clinical, and some of it is designed for anyone to pick up and use for themselves. Be aware that EMDR techniques tend to be multi-stage processes, and the “at home” techniques involve a little advance work to set up your mental safety-net. (I did that during my designated meditation time, which I use for any solitary mental healing work.) With that done, you have a lot of options later for catching yourself and quickly restoring your ability to cope.
An outstandingly practical person with tremendous insight and depth, she is one of the founders & leaders in the field of understanding how ghastly experiences interact with the brain, and how the individual can get consciously involved and get back in control of these systems.
Note: These last two skillful practitioners produce, not only video clips and their defining books, but also accessible articles, textbooks, narratives, and workbooks for both professionals and patients. This provides many ways to get into their information, whatever your sensory learning mode and attention span, so you can see what works for you.
A lucid speaker and explainer with many videos and a couple of books, especially (but not exclusively) for brain-science nerds. He co-authored several additional books that turn his theory into practical tools and techniques to use in real life. He focuses on hot issues for painiacs and those who love us: re-training our brains to identify and embrace the feeling of safety, developing healthy relationships in spite of twitchy brain responses, and re-developing our neurological coordination so we can get back in charge of ourselves.
Multiple access-points to get to the same root issues of healing our neurobiology
These brilliant practitioners have come up with different ways to access and engage with our natural neurobiological wiring, in order to manage our own brain and body responses better. Many of them focus on trauma recovery rather than the ongoing disruption of central pain etc, but, where that’s the case, I mentally edit for ongoing “trauma” (which ongoing pain is, strictly speaking), and I find considerable insight and useful techniques there. Great stuff. Also, if you’ve had awful things happen in your life, you may find a useful healing approach in one or more of their works.
Resources & info in this blog
I’ve been keeping a blog for ~9 years, though the earlier years got lost in a move. (Just as well; I was flailing.) Questions I could probably bore you to tears answering in person…
As I say elsewhere in this blog, it’s a bit of work to generate the first set of documents, but maintaining them is easy, and the payoff in personal poise and doctor response is tremendous.
Why is sitting in a moving car for hours so rotten?
Oh, boy, let me tell you what I’ve found about this! I think of it as 4 main issues, each of which I’ve developed ways to mitigate for my own case:
Our skin (where all those peripheral nerve sensors hang out) is hardly moving and half of it is pretty much unable to breathe, due to the mechanical pressure of our limbs against our bodies and the seat against our backs & thighs.
Hungry skin, with cellular & intestinal metabolic waste building up, no way to flush itself, with unhappy sensors, makes for serious discomfort.
I find a good song and dance & gently gyrate in my seat :))
Believe it or not, cars (especially American cars, sadly) are made of plastics that release molecules, which is called outgasing. Most plastics (including fabrics) outgas, meaning that molecules evaporate off the surface and escape into the atmosphere. These aren’t body-friendly molecules. Variously, they may interfere with endocrine (hormones) and aprocrine (sweating) activity. Many are neurotoxic, capable (depending on individual factors) of reducing impulse control, spiking irritation, and triggering emotional and physical pain. (Many of the studies around this have disappeared from the web, which somehow doesn’t surprise me. Sigh.) This lessens as cars age, but doesn’t go away as long as there is plastic, car fabric, foam, treated leather, varnish, etc, in the car.
The vehicle itself compounds all the skin stuff, and adds a constant low-dose exposure to neurotoxins.
Even in cold weather, I roll down all the windows every hour or so and purge the air in the car.
Our joints are not able to move much. The position, with the hips rotated slightly back, the shoulders reflexively rolled slightly forward to compensate, and not much room to do otherwise, is an unnatural position to be strapped into. It reduces ordinary motion, CSF/lymphatic flow, and nerve transmission, especially through the hips and spine. Our joints carry a lot of sensors, including those for blood pressure and balance; having them stuck in one position (while we’re breathing outgas, of course) makes the sensors unhappy, contributing to that general sense of yucky unpleasantness.
Unhealthy stasis in the joints, spine, and circulating body fluids, including CSF, lymph, and blood. This contributes to a central (brain & spine based) body-unhappiness.
When I’m driving alone, I stop every hour and, at least, stretch and move until I feel okay, or do t’ai chi/qi gong/yoga if I feel safe enough. When I’m being driven, we stop every 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 of an hour. We usually stop for 20-30 minutes, unless we’re in a real hurry, in which case it’s 15. I don’t tolerate less.
Mitigation bonus: stopping this often means I can get potty breaks, making it easier to stay hydrated and up on my electrolytes — which makes everything more bearable and significantly reduces recovery time.
For many of us, vibration is a problem. It certainly stimulates the nervous system, especially in the spine and feet, and wherever you’re touching the structure of the car.
Whether vibration itself is obnoxious or not, car vibration is irregularly irregular, having no consistent pattern whatsoever. This means my brain/body has no chance of anticipating or compensating for the rhythm of it, putting my body in a constant state of jolt. I find it exhausting, and it pushes up my dysautonomia as well as my pain.
Central stimulation in a relentlessly irregular vibrating pattern can be really harsh.
I adapted the inside of my car to reduce my exposure to seat outgas, improve airflow to my skin, and cut steering wheel and seat vibration to manageable levels. I also chose my car carefully to get maximum smoothness & good shocks in the first place.
“Never give up. Never surrender.”
Leonidas of Sparta, Jael the wife of Heber, Alexander the Great, Queen Boudicca, Mary Magdalen, the Prophet Mohammed, Hildegaard of Bingen, Vlad the Impaler, Queen Isabel of Spain, Geronimo, Copernicus, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, Aung Suun Kyi, Terry Pratchett, the 14th and Final Dalai Lama…
Rest and retreat, yes.
Pause for thought, please (unlike some of those listed above.)
Knowing when to acquire a sense of proportion, ideally (again, unlike some of those listed above.)
But… don’t give up. Don’t give your rightful self away.
It’s always been easy for me to be determined, but not easy to pick the right things to be determined about.
In my 20’s, I wanted to save the world.
In my 30’s, I was willing to work only on that part of it that wanted my saving.
In most of my 40’s, I was dying — sometimes by inches, sometimes by yards — and couldn’t quite save myself.
I’m 50; what a relief!
Given that trajectory, it’s no wonder that my priorities have shifted a little.
I figure that, as long as I have working pulse and respirations, I’ve got a job to do. (I suspect everyone does, but I could be wrong.) My particular job is to re-possess my physical self, and, given enough slack, help others to re-possess theirs.
Our bodies are not just machines, despite the inherent dis-inheritance proposed by Descartes (considering the body a separate entity from awareness), and the even more extreme model funded and fomented by a slightly misguided Hearst (who fell in love with interventionism, and drove the mechanical-problem-to-be-fixed model of medicine over the shifting-dysfunction-to-right-function model of medicine.)
Bodies are the media we experience life through, the means we have to respond with. Despite the relentlessly shallow concerns over appearance the media saturates our lives with, our fundamental experiences of life are not just seen. Life is an all-body experience.
Bodies are marvelously self-aware organisms on an enduring quest to care for and maintain themselves by communicating as effectively as possible within themselves, and responding as usefully as possible at every level — within the cells, between the cells, from cells to organs and back again — with the marvelously alert circuitry of the nervous system and the dazzlingly subtle chemical dance of the endocrine system drawing the whole show together.
That’s a bit more complex than just meat-sacks wrapped in hide.
I’ve been mulling the twined facts that my body is an amazingly tough, brilliantly adaptable organism, and at the same time, is an organism constantly under sieges both subtle and overwhelming. Yet it never stops trying to find a useful set of responses, it never stops signaling and listening.
It never gives up. It has never surrendered.
I admire that.
Just for grits and shins, here are a few other things that I mutter to myself over and over.
C’mon, you can do it.
Motion is lotion.
Use it or lose it.
Change or die.
That’s quite a set, when I look at it laid out like that.
Not all of them are cheerful. Sorry.
They’re all thoroughly grounded in my reality, though, and they all have had something to do with my getting this far. They are hammers and screwdrivers in my mental toolkit of radical presence, pushing back on neuroplasticity, and not settling for what this disease would leave me.
Naturally, I say these things to myself in tones of firm, loving parental authority, since it’s all about re-re-plasticizing my brain, and those are the tones it responds to.
FTR, I’m sincerely glad it responds at all. When I was in nursing school, they told us adult brains were fixed for life. I doubted that from the start, and events eventually caught up with my skepticism. Brain plasticity FTW!
It’s been a crazy winter, even for New England. Those of you with pain syndromes know what that means: changeful weather means unstable pain neurology which means more pain and less brain.
I’m so much more stable here in other ways that I found it frustrating to be soooooo daffy. I wanted to tuck that daffiness back behind the dam I can usually hide it behind, and use the creative and practical components of my mind to drive what I show in public.
I revised my supplements a few times, and finally found a routine that does seem to stabilize things a bit better, although it’s kind of hard to tell (it’s like inspecting a crystal with the lens inside, or possibly the other way around.) I’ve stopped fiddling, and will let the test of time tell me how this regime really does.
Also, we’ve had 2 or 3 strains of flu (so far) dancing through the household. The second one was nice, because the really awful part lasted about 5 days and it had an incubation period of about 6-7, and we got it one by one; as soon as 1 person got really sick there were 2 people to take care of him or her. In one case, this meant miso and ginger soup; in another, raw garlic in mashed potatoes; in a third, goldenseal and vitamin C; in all cases, loads of homemade chicken soup and buckets of fluids.
I’m not sick of homemade chicken soup, as every pot is different, but I am *so over* herbal tea, broth, diluted juice… everything. I had a big mug of plain hot water yesterday because at least I’m not sick of it.
I find that viruses affect my brain. They have for as long as I can remember. One of the first signs of viral illness, for me, is getting cranky and forgetful all of a sudden. With all these brain issues I have now, it just turns the volume of pain, reactivity, and goofiness up to 11.
Into this brew of brainlessness, add one more element of confusion: my most expensive brain prescription, Savella, looks exactly like my cheap antihistamine, generic Zyrtec; I take them both twice daily.
You can see this coming, can’t you…
I found out a week ago that I’ve been double-dosing on Savella and underdosing on Zyrtec. (No wonder my asthma has been acting up.) That, more than the virus and sinus activity, would explain the intense dizzy spells, disembodied feelings, uncharacteristic irritability, and eerie emotional detachment from my nearest and dearest. (No medication is harmless. Now you know what an overdose of SNRI does to me.) It was a relief to know what really caused all that, but it still sucked to go through it.
So, thanks to the daffy-dam getting burst by those bugs, I blew my brain out of the water (and also blew about $150!) AND set myself and my housemates up for a few weeks of needless unpleasantness. I’m still recovering, but well enough to think coherently about it, so that’s a huge improvement.
To my morning pre-pill routine of apple (malic acid) and sunflower butter (digestible folate, minerals and anti-inflammatory oil), I now have ~1/2 cup of defrosted Boreal blueberries (intense brain food with anthocyanins and antioxidants for recovery) topped with grated aged cheddar (intense brain food with dopamine precursors and saturated fats for those nerves) during and after pills. My pills go down better, and bit by bit the fog seems to be clearing.
Now that I might be able to think my way past a soggy Kleenex, it’s time to get that “activity” thing going again… if I can remember how. There is absolutely no substitute for activity, because it balances the autonomic system, improves neurochemical stores and their behavior, and can even reduce pain, with *no negative side effects* — as long as you don’t get hurt or over-do.
I had a dream last night of dealing with broken gym equipment, and of absolutely longing for good t’ai chi instruction. Until I find it, I’ll work with what I’ve got: my class notes and a couple DVDs from my old Academy. It’ll get me started, and then we shall see.
A dear friend is embroiled in one of those ghastly legal tangles where the vultures are rigged to win. I’m the key defense witness. This comes up later.
This whole winter, I’ve been basking — simply basking! — in the sheer delight of being safe, sheltered, warm, loved, and with as little chaos as anyone with a recent move, a complex illness, and widely scattered relationships can get. Occasionally, I’ve wondered if I’m allowed to be in such a situation, and strained my ears for the sound of the other shoe dropping… Then I do a reality check, tune in with my lovely partner and my lovely housemate/hostess, and it appears that no, it’s okay, things are right, and this is what’s right now.
My nod to the fairly relentless self-management that got me through the past decade has been an occasional effort at meditiation, a minute or three of qi gong, a few moves of t’ai chi now and then, or the occasional mood-check.
In short, diddly-squat.
In December, I lost it with a dear friend.[LINK] I did more mood-checks for awhile, a bit more meditation, maybe ten whole minutes of t’ai chi every other day for a couple weeks.
I was heartbroken at the mess I’d contributed to, but couldn’t dig up the motivation to really “do the Do”, to restart my hard-won disciplines.
Dear heavens, it was soooooo good to rest, just relax for a change, enjoy the sensation of not looking over my shoulder and not being constantly *forced* to calm sometimes-legitimate terror or possibly-reasonable panic.
It was winter. I was safe. I let my disciplines sleep.
Meanwhile, the brakes on my car[LINK] were acting up, or rather, occasionally failing to. $2,000 later, that was supposed to be fixed.
Gradually, I noticed that J was telling me, more and more often, to lower my voice: “I’m right here!” Huh. I didn’t think I was talking that loudly…
As I relaxed, other humans became more interesting and I started striking up conversations with strangers, as I used to do. They didn’t respond as well as they used to. Odd…
On social media, I found myself being snippy where I used to be sweetly witty or wryly amusing to make the same point. I backed off of my online time, because if I can’t manage myself well, I’d better not interact with anybody else who might be feeling frail. “Do no further harm” has been wired into me from way back. It’s the most basic courtesy.
I took the car back for a second brake job a few weeks ago, only $150 this time, and that seems to have taken care of the problem. So my cynicism about car dealerships remains unimpaired, thank you.
Meanwhile, there were some tellingly unpleasant procedures[LINK] which illuminated a fact I’m still failing to accept: CRPS has moved into my viscera — it has leaped out of the musculoskeletal bounds and gotten right into my core. I used to say my case was “all-body”, but that was because of the gastroparesis and subtle endocrine weirdness, which I figured was simply faulty autonomic signaling. It has definitely become much more.
I could feel every line of my intestines and the springy squashiness of my organs as the ultrasound tech noodled around on my abdomen, and the less said about the gynecological exam the better. It’s real. It’s a bed of coals in there. This finally sank right through my skull over the past few days.
Damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn damn. With extra damn.
So, now we’re up to this week.
I spoke with the lawyer involved with the vulture case mentioned above. I went off on a tear about the duplicity and injustice involved. He finally broke through by howling my name in exactly the tone my mother used when I was getting out of hand. Once I was quiet (and abashed), he said very sweetly, “If you’re going to go on like that, you might as well hit your friend over the head with a two by four.”
Two things happened. I realized that my self-regulation was much worse than I had ever imagined; and I spent the day in a state of total exhaustion and emotional fragility, the classic signs of a massive adrenal-dump.
SIMPLY GETTING WOUND UP IS BAD FOR ME. The mere state of emotional excitement is poison to my system.
I used to know that.
I used to know when the emotional excitement was coming, and could head it off.
Nope. Caught me completely by surprise.
So, I’ve been processing all this for a few days to a few weeks now. I’m coming to some conclusions, and have a few remaining questions.
I’m pretty sure the spread into my viscera had a lot to do with the merry-go-round of the past few years.
The spread in my brain may be related, in fact it must be; however, I’m pretty sure that re-incorporating my habits of self-care and diligence can get back quite a lot of the gentle precision, sweet tact, and pleasant diplomacy I was once capable of.
So, in keeping with this revelation, I’m going to acknowledge that I’ve completed my alotted time for being on the computer and get up to go do some morning activity. Then I’ll put my feet up for a bit and lunch on brain-supporting food. After a digestion break of an hour or two, I’ll do something physical in the afternoon, including 20 minutes of t’ai chi or qi gong. After that, an hour of work, which today will consist of loading my classical collection onto my tablet. This evening, I’ll spend an hour listening to classical music, then meditate, then apply my lotions for pain and muscle spasms before bed.
There are no bloody shortcuts. None. It’s just work, and it doesn’t stop.
I’m still supremely glad to be safe and warm and loved. I just have to wrap my thick head around the fact that it doesn’t mean I’m off the hook for taking care of myself.
My desk setup is nonexistent and much of it still buried in unpacking. I wish I’d been writing some of the wonderful blog ideas that have passed through, but I didn’t. Rather than trying to reconstruct them from addled hindsight, I’ll just go on as if I had a whole nest of posts to plop this one into, and go on from here.
As my desk situation indicates, I still feel perched, rather than settled. I’m going to have to find a rental in the spring and then start looking for a miraculously good deal on a house to buy after that, so it’s hard to unpack all the way.
Moreover, California is still extending opportunistic tendrils into our wallets, task lists, and attention.
And then there are the periodic health crises: a bit of allergy exposure here, a bit of partner’s chest pain there, a sprained wrist from me overdoing, a sprained back from him overdoing… you know. Stuff.
Oh, and the holidays, with a trip and gifties to prepare, mostly for people I haven’t seen for over a decade… no pressure.
These aren’t excuses, they’re reasons. I don’t really believe in excuses; it’s largely an irrelevant concept. It’s for an injured party to decide if I’m excused, not me, so “offering an excuse” just doesn’t make sense. I have reasons, but so does everyone.
Here’s the thing I feel a need to mention my reasons for:
I’ve let my self-disciplines go. T’ai chi, qigong, meditation, reiki, relaxation exercises, stretching, even listening to chamber music — I think about them, but I don’t do them. I still have my morning routine, or at least half of it… if that… OK, yeah, my self-disciplines are pretty much out the window.
Like medication, meditation only works if you use it.
After weeks, actually months, of coping and managing with (and concealing, because that’s what chronically ill people do) my rising instability and neural chaos, I’ve finally started skidding off the cliff.
As for the effect… I’m trying to come up with a good image.
Imagine a patch of sea. I’m in a well-rigged little sailboat, noodling along in a fair wind.
The oil of willpower is constantly sprinkled on the water’s surface, keeping it smooth and flat, easy to sail along on.
Underneath, the weedy patches pluck at the propeller and keel, the barnacles grow restive and start plucking back, the creatures swimming underneath get bigger and more voracious, and then they get big enough to break the surface now and then.
More oil! Keep sailing!
Those surface-breaking tiddlers get chased off by the real mondo beasts. The boat is getting sprayed by the monsters breeching.
Everything’s fine, I’m too busy to pay attention, la la la la la I’m not listening!
Also, the wind is acting up. The boom is starting to swing across at head-height.
Just a little farther now! More oil! /BOOM/ It’s OK, I’m fine, just a flesh wound!
Unbeknownst to me (since I’ve got the radio turned off, because I’m not listening), there was a string of earthquakes.
Since Banda Aceh and the meltdown at Fukijima, we’ve all learned about how earhquakes make waves. The shock of the quake trundles happily along the ocean floor until the ocean floor rises towards the shore. Then it sucks the landward water into itself and brings it all back as a tsunami.
If you’re afloat and listening, you move out to deep water, sail over the bump without losing stability, and you’re fine. If not… cue exciting sound track and hire George Clooney for the (possibly race- and gender-inappropriate) lead in another disaster movie.
There was a wave and I wasn’t in deep water. I didn’t handle it well; I was dysregulated and chaotic for days. Days. I was so dysregulated and chaotic I didn’t even see that that’s what I was, until it was pointed out to me — by the person who’d just gotten butt-kicked by an earthquake. That is not a fair burden to put on someone who’s already having trouble.
I have a personal meme about being good to friends. This is important for us spoonies (as chronically ill people sometimes call themselves.) My disease treats me like crap, but that isn’t a license for me to treat others like crap.
People who are protected from the true impact of this illness need to not get it at close range, or they run away (understandably) feeling as if they just got burned.
People who have this illness can understand a lot more, but are able to do much less.
I have to communicate appropriately. That’s my job in each relationship.
Basically, humans are emotionally fragile creatures and — whether I want to be judgmental about it or not — I can either respect that, keep the worst of my crap to myself, and have good relationships; or I can expect them to be as tough as me and to do so on my schedule, neglecting that they have to be as tough as themselves on their own schedule, and wind up isolated. Because I’m human too, I’m emotionally fragile enough that being isolated sucks.
I absolutely dropped my backlog of frustration and pain and rage on someone who was about the last to ever deserve it. That’s quite a breach of trust.
I stopped taking care of myself. As a result, I fkdup and hurt someone else. Now I have to own up (did that), figure it out (working on it), and do what needs to be done (re-integrate my practices) to prevent it ever happening again (and find a way to cue myself before I get bad: the missing piece.)
At that point, I’m allowed to make amends. It’s another tweak of my logic that I can’t make amends until I’m sure I won’t make the same mistake.
Being a spoonie is hard work. Part of that work is these time-intensive disciplines that seem like “oh how nice, you’re so cool, I wish I could do that” — but, as it turns out, are really not optional if I want to function.
BTW, do you notice how people excuse themselves by saying, “I wish I could do that”? I listen for these words coming out of my own mouth. It’s a sure flag that I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Oh, a little extra effort up front to save a whole lot of trouble later on? H’mmm…
We all screw up at times. The consequences for spoonies can be life-threatening, if the wrong relationship gets ruined. Handling these issues is part of “living anyway” in the face of profound disease. It’s harder to figure out and harder to repair the damage, because of the nature of central nervous system diseases. So, dear reader, I’ll try to stay on the right side of the line between washing dirty laundry and discussing a common issue here.
We often tell each other, “You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.” That’s a tough one for caregiver personalities; we’d much rather take care of others than ourselves. However, it was through failing to take care of myself that I actively hurt another. That is a whole different octave of problem. I guess I’d better learn this lesson.
This is a lot of thinking for a breached boat. I can do it, though. I must. I’m still a long way from harbor.
We’re on an extended camping trip, simultaneously waiting for my broken foot to mend, waiting to find out when we can move our travel trailer into a long-term spot, and figuring out how we are going to manage this relationship over the long term — which involves a lot of waiting. So things are quiet and scenic, but, on the whole, not very comfortable.
I was sitting by the cold firepit, looking out across the sere grass and low hills, in a quiet reverie in a quiet hour. I sent my imagination off to find something utterly irrelevant.
What came back was the sign of Pluto, which approached in a portentous manner —
And, in the sideways manner of dreams, said it was Mercury, which normally looks like this:
Then it grew flames, starting from the ball.
The flames spread, and as they spread around the symbol and over it, the symbol came close to me.
Then it hooked its barbs into my side. It was intrusive as dammit. It poked right into my flesh, as if it wanted to climb in.
Trying to pull away, I said, “What the heck are you doing? What do you want?”
It said, “We need your stories.”
I thought of my science writing at my biowizardry blog, and it said No. I thought of my anecdotes here, and it said No.
It waved a few pages of books and stories I’ve half-written and said, “We need your STORIES.”
Oh. The imaginative stuff. Didn’t think that was the most unique thing I had to offer, but hey, I’m a writer … I usually do what the little voices tell me.
So here’s a story.
One day, there was a woodcutter and … no, wait, you’ve heard that one. How about this, and I’m writing it from sentence to sentence, no idea what comes next, so be kind…
The story of Bathsheba
Bathsheba was beautiful and did not know it, despite her luscious name. She wanted little, and got slightly less, but she had a gift for appreciation and made the most of it.
One day, while dumpster-diving (she did even that with grace), she came across half a salmon, nearly fresh, cooked with red wine and oranges. It was heavenly. She was only three bites in when a bully named Tom came by, heard her happy little sounds, and cursed and smacked her away so he could have the rest. He never learned that it’s wrong to hit people smaller than you, especially girls.
She scrambled out in a hurry, but he didn’t come after her, so she calmed down and wandered away to somewhere more peaceful. She was glad she had gotten the three bites, and sat on the curb in the sun, licking her lips and enjoying the aftertaste.
A car drove by, spitting fumes and loud music, and a half-empty can nearly beaned her. She leaned aside to dodge it, and went back to soaking up the sun. It was part of city life — she could tell that they hadn’t been aiming.
Another car pulled up, partly blocking the sun, large and with something sturdy on the roof. She pulled her feet in neatly. The occupants didn’t seem to notice; they were busy talking, sounding uncomfortable and distracted. The one on the street side got out and opened the back up, then returned to the front. The two occupants opened out an enormous sheet of paper between them. A map.
Bathsheba loved maps. It had been ages since she’d been able to just relax and look at a map. Curiosity flashed a fin.
Very quietly, she sidled closer to the car’s rear end.
No reaction from up front.
Very gently, very quietly, she leaned — oh so casually — against the rear bumper.
They were having technical issues: the space was too small to turn the map over in, but they were trying.
Bathsheba put one foot on the bumper, experimentally. The piles of clothing and sleeping gear obscured her view.
Up front, the map turning had not gone well, so there were some knocked mirrors and banged knuckles and bumped heads. The trivial dip of the bumper didn’t even show up in the chaos up front.
She shifted her weight, oh so carefully… just to see …
And, up front, the map tore.
One of the occupants burst into tears.
Bathsheba leaped towards the front of the car, then remembered herself — you don’t just go up to strangers, even if all you want to do is comfort them!
Instead, with wide eyes, she crouched behind the back seat, half-buried by piles of clothing and pillows, her back against the hard plastic side of a cooler, looking all her sympathy, yet terrified of the very questionable position she found herself in. She had absolutely no idea what to do.
The conversation up front shifted gear, from frustration and recrimination to apology and comforting. Eventually, and more or less in the middle of a word, the driver put the idling car into gear and pulled away from the curb.
Bathsheba clutched the clothing under her, eyes now very wide indeed. She definitely didn’t belong here, but the car was going too fast to jump out; all she could do was hold onto the clothing, which she was now half-buried in, and hope with all her might that it didn’t fall out the still-open back.
Some time later, she was startled awake by a thud. The driver had stopped the car and put the back lift-gate down. He apparently hadn’t noticed Bathsheba, curled up among the tumbled clothing. The car lurched forward and took off again at highway speed.
She peered over the cooler and gazed out at the darkening sky. There was a great big wall along the road and city smells blew in through the vent, but not the strong stenches she was used to.
She wondered if being homeless out here was any better than being homeless in the heart of the city. She couldn’t even begin to think of how she’d get back. It wasn’t a great life, sure, but at least she knew where the good dumpsters were, and who to avoid. Mind you, it smelled better out here.
She wanted to cry, and maybe she whimpered very quietly so nobody else could hear, but she didn’t dare to announce herself. She had no idea how she was going to get out of this, but maybe something would go right… later…
With nothing else to do and a short lifetime’s experience of stress under her belt already, she burrowed in and went back to sleep among the strangers’ clothes. They smelled kind of nice, like cotton and lemon and something crisp and soft which she couldn’t name, but felt so at home with.
She woke later to a voice, a nice gentle man’s voice tinged with wonder: “Kate, come look.” It was one of the occupants.
The car was still. The air was full of that crisp, soft smell. The sky was dark, with millions of points of light — stars, so rare in the city. There was a fire burning nearby under a grill loaded with wonderful things. The other occupant got up from her seat by the fire and came over.
The two people looked down at Bathsheba, utterly tangled in their clothing, utterly helpless, and curiously at home.
They didn’t snarl. They didn’t throw cans. They didn’t invade her privacy or try to grab at her.
They just smiled — two kind, sweet, wondering smiles. They looked like they were witnessing a minor miracle, and like Bathsheba was someone they already considered a friend.
Bathsheba couldn’t help herself. The clothes under her fingers curled. Her chest stretched. Her eyelids squished gently closed, then opened again. She purred.
“I think you’re going to like it a lot better out here, kitty,” said Kate.
Bathsheba wanted to correct her, and say her name was Bathsheba, not Kitty. But just then, Kate reached out with two hands and gently scooped her in. Bathsheba felt Kate’s slow, solid heartbeat — thubump, thubump, thubump — against her own soft little body, and melted into joy.
Don’t worry. There will be plenty more science, and plenty more stories too.
CRPS tends to demineralize the bones, creating a sort of Swiss-cheese-looking osteoporosis. I’ve held that at bay so far, and I believe it relates to jumping on the vitamin D bandwagon long before I saw it in the news — I followed a tip from a friend without CRPS, who found that it kept her teeth from chipping. Well, I know why teeth chip — demineralization. So I started on the D3 at the first sign of soft teeth, years ago.
The other main thing to hold back osteoporosis is weight-bearing exercise.
I am absolutely certain that the old nursing/physiotherapy trope, “Use it or lose it,” is nearly always true.
Mind you, there are no guarantees.
Another trope: absolutist statements are always flawed.
Preferring to stack the oddds in my favor, I’ve stayed active and weightbearing despite considerable slumps, occasional backslides, and the occasional wish to throw myself off a bridge rather than mobilize.
So here I am with a broken foot, bone pain for the very first time since I got CRPS, and camping in our trailer as a diversion and a coping measure for being in between homes right now. (And that’s another looooong story.)
The second week post-fracture was interesting, as I figured out how to stay mobile. In this third week, I’ve learned that I should probably spend more time sitting down with my leg up.
Lay-people keep asking where my cast is. Casting slows healing. I have CRPS, which means my healing is already slowed considerably. Do I really need to slow it further? Hard to see an upside to that.
The point of casting is immobilization, and there are other, safer, saner ways to do that. Jamming a hard surface against a soft and variably swelling one doesn’t strike me as the best way to stabilize a small but essential bone. There’s nothing quite as rational as just leaving the darn thing COMPLETELY ALONE. Especially when even the touch of the sheet is unbearable … because, oh yeah, I’ve got CRPS.
The single biggest cause of nonhealing bones is overuse. Even I, type A-ish as I might sometimes be, can’t think of anything stupider and more wooly-headed than putting any weight or stress on a broken foot. Those are small bones with the most fundamental job in the whole skeleton. When they go wrong, it’s not good!
At first, I didn’t even put a sock on it — just a light lady’s scarf at times (a gift from a healer friend), gently wrapped around to keep the breeze off — or, as I thought of it, the burning blast from hell.
Recently, I graduated to a loose, bright red fleece sleeve with the end stapled shut (breeze…) Now that the swelling is down enough, I can wear the “walking” (no, that’s not a sensible suggestion) shoe…
… to minimize the effects of the occasional little bumps and jostles the foot gets as I dart around on my stunning little knee-walker.
I can’t use the knee-walker in the trailer, too close to the car, on rough terrain, or when the bruising on my shin gets too bad. So the moves I developed in my first week are getting more refined.
Major problem… Despite an eating pattern averaging 1,450 kcal a day of steamed greens, lean protein, and highest-quality fats, I weigh 200 pounds (90 kg.) So,
every time I lever myself up from the floor on one foot .. that’s 200 pounds going through one knee bent double, on a frame designed for less than 150.
Every time I hop, even in my scoop-bottomed sneakers, that’s 200# — plus velocity — landing on that leg each time.
I do my best to control my velocity and distribute the load through the whole spring-structure of the leg, but … 200 pounds. I thought my Achilles tendon was going to pop off my heel yesterday.
Every time I brace myself with my hands on a rail or counter as I swing or scoot along, that’s 3 digits of poundage on my CRPS’d carpal tunnels.
And then there’s getting in or out of the trailer I’m living in, with its two and a half foot rise… makes me feel faint to think of it.
The t’ai chi is invaluable. It’s all about the curves. Everything, in the end, is embodied in the swooping lines of the taiji symbol.
I can get a lot more leverage than should be humanly possible out of a curving or looping wave of my hand — a Roll-sideways rather than Roll-back, for my fellow t’ai chi-kans.
I propel myself from the ground up onto my foot by sending energy down from my back in a spiral into the floor, and letting that “imaginary” spring push me up. Go Dragon!
I settle onto the toilet while keeping one foot aloft by using a really cool sort of 3-D scissor-swoop with my two arms — Part Wild Horse’s Mane, but with less tilting and more curve.
The pain is, well, beyond words, so let’s pass on. The level of dependency is, for me, even worse. The hardest part of all, though, was giving up chocolate. It interferes with calcium absorption. I did say about not slowing healing, right?
I’m grateful beyond words for the t’ai chi moves. They save me, in a very physical, literal sense.
While we may find, in impossible situations, that we are a little superhuman, it isn’t good that we have to do these things. It isn’t healthy. In fact, it’s all rather ghastly from the first-person standpoint, however much it seems to inspire outsiders. In short, it sucks. And we suck it up. Then move on.
Swoopingly, if we know how.
I think I’m halfway to Bagua Zhang by now.
But it’s all related.
I wish I were an animator. I have these ideas in mind of a cartoon character who wiggles where I do, and not only could I make the character bounce and thud and stagger and scoot like I do, but I could animate wa-wa-ing waves and oscillating ropes of pain in morphing colors for each move. It’s really rather elegant, as well as side-splittingly funny in a greusome way. At the same time, extremely informative. Extremely.
Hmmm.. I guess I’ll download and learn some suitable animation software. In between the fractures, fallouts, fall-throughs, snafus, and the dribbling detritus of a slightly ridiculous life.
The first thing our bodies do when we get a burst of pain or other shock is, clench. Hard to breathe effectively when clenched and, oddly, it’s hard to do anything else — except let the anxiety-mad sympathetic nervous system run riot.
For normal people, the exercise I’m about to describe is a calming exercise, but for the chronically ill and chronically hurting, it’s more like an elementary coping exercise.
That feeling of being frozen? It’s shock. It’s normal to go there, but don’t dwell in it.
Ways to help yourself through it are largely little physical shifts that send a message back up to your brain that it’s time to process now.
Notice where your shoulders are. Just notice. Notice how your neck feels. No judgment or “I should”s, just notice. Notice how you’re sitting or standing. Notice how your hips are rotated in relation to your posture. Just observe these things.
Now exhale all the way. Not to the point of straining or coughing, just comfortably emptied out. Let your lungs spring open naturally and — this is key — open your teeth as you inhale.
Now, when you breathe out, purse your lips softly, as if puffing out a match. That does two things: keeps your jaw unlocked and nudges a little extra oxygen into your lungs.
When you breathe in, after that first open-mouth inhale, breathe in through your nostrils if you can. If you can’t, put your tongue tip on the roof of your mouth and breathe around your tongue. Either way, it opens the back of your throat slightly so you can…
Imagine the breath sliding down your spine and into the bowl of your pelvis. This helps your body do an end-run around the clenched-torso breathing we get into when we freeze. Just let the good air wash into your spine and slosh into the bowl of your pelvis.
Then let it out through gently pursed lips, and in through opened throat, then down, and back out, and so on.
Do ten cycles. It’ll be a different and better world after. Notice how your shoulders and neck soften, and your hips unwind. Colors are a little brighter. Feelings are closer, but less overwhelming.
You can do this. I have faith in you. You are life warriors and we handle it. It’s our gift to be this strong and still be this alive.
Ted Mancuso is famous for his enthusiastic Renaissance mind and the kinds of explanations it leads to. If that kind of thing doesn’t drive you up a tree, it’s enormously rewarding, because it can pay off for years.
It may not be immediately obvious how Chinese calligraphy, the evolution of the yin/yang symbol, James Joyce’s “The Dubliners”, a great general who died 2 thousand years ago, and the spinal root of a nerve, all relate to each other — let alone to the logic of a single move in t’ai chi.
For him, they do.
Moreover, when he explains it, it makes perfect sense.
Compared to his ferally free discursiveness, my mind is almost tame. It helps me relax into training, because I don’t have to struggle with my own lateral-mindedness and force it into literal-mindedness — I can just say what I think and get instant yes/no/kinda, from a teacher who gets it. As I said to his wife once, “I LOVE that man.”
There’s a lot to think about in t’ai chi chuan, the way it’s taught at Ted’s academy. For that reason — and here I apologize to my fellow ADD-ers — this is a long piece, because I have to circle through a few related ideas to get to the point in a meaningful way.
One thing that’s becoming very clear to me is that, ideally, there is no such thing as an inattentive moment or an inactive body part. Even a part that’s held still, is still alive, still alert, still awake to the world and present in the mind.
Introducing Peng (however you spell it)
The concept of “peng” leads us closer to understanding this. If your native language is a Chinese language or French, your pronunciation is fine or nearly fine. If it’s not, you’re in trouble.
The word is pronounced with a very hard P and an English A that clearly came from the upper crust in the south of England. Its pronunciation is closest to “bong” in English, but, as a resident of a medical-marijuana state, I can’t write “bong” without inviting confusion, and as a longtime pain patient, I can’t write “pang” for much the same reason.
So, hard P, haughty A, and in here I’ll spell it pæng.
Pæng is often explained as a defensive or guarding force, but that’s an oversimplification. Ideally, pæng never leaves, except when displaced by a more specifically directed action.
Pæng makes directed action a lot faster, too, because of the way it creates potential space in any direction, which is then easy for you to fill. Much more efficient than the usual wind-up we usually find ourselves doing before initiating a directed action.
(This Marx Brothers compilation is hypnotic, to the point of being kinda creepy. If you’re triggered by casual violence, skip it.)
Pæng is the force you use to define the space you inhabit. Since you’re always in your own space, it makes sense to maintain pæng. Pæng is the ground state of each limb “at rest” (a relative term.)
This is what we work towards, anyway.
A relevant discussion of expertise
I’ve noticed, for much of my life, how the true experts in any movement (martial arts, dancing, rock climbing, surgery) don’t get in their own way. This is a lot easier said than done.
There’s a reason why true excellence is generally pegged at 10 years of experience. I figure it takes a couple of years to learn what’s supposed to happen, and then it takes most of the rest of the time to unlearn the reflexes that get in the way of achieving that. That’s my theory. Unlearning is that hard.
We lack faith in ourselves, at a subtle level, and it creates the interferences of hesitation, fidgets, and engaging the wrong efforts, then having to disengage them and reassess, then go forward again, in a sort of ongoing, half-unconscious dance towards accomplishing the goal.
Ted says that people come to his classes hoping to come in as they are and go straight on to excellence, and have to come to terms with the need to back up to roughly when they learned to walk/run really well and go on from there.
It’s part of his particular genius that he doesn’t try to get each person to unlearn their ways, he simply creates what he calls a shadow posture, and I call a parallel posture (though we mean the same thing), so that class time and practice time are spent in this new and evolving structure that creates the foundation for excellence to be built on. It’s up to you whether you go into that space the rest of the time, but it’s pretty hard to resist, because it’s delightful.
That very delightfulness is unnerving. I’ve had to integrate a lot to be able to accept something so alien to my experience of the last 14… no, actually, 40-odd years. It’s just so foreign, so antipathetic to what I have known for so long. Fortunately, I have ways of dealing with that…
My style of learning something profound goes like this:
I charge in for a bit, throwing myself at it like spaghetti at the wall.
Then, when my body-mind has reached a saturation point of new information and everything inside is sitting up and screaming, “WTH??”, I sit back for awhile to rethink and mull the new ideas involved in these skills.
I feel and learn how they filter down and across and through every applicable aspect of life, and I have to semi-consciously work to let those old assumptions shift, evolve, and change.
Then, when my mind has reached a saturation point of digested information, I can move back into activity, usually with a significant bump up to a new level.
Winter is a good time to digest, and with the waxing days I’m getting impatient and ready to bump up. I’m thorough, and I give full credit to my subconscious processes and the importance of mental digestion. When it comes to my learning style, I’m fairly relaxed…
We’re not relaxed in our tasks until we’re expert. I wonder if we can accelerate towards expertness by learning to relax in our tasks. There’s an empowering thought.
Expert surgeons have far better outcomes, partly because their lack of irrelevant motion means that they leave less trauma behind. Their scalpels don’t make any pointless cuts, their hands don’t jostle any irrelevant flesh, there simply isn’t anything done under the skin that isn’t directed towards the goal. There is not a wasted motion, and not a wasted moment.
They don’t dither; they do, and they do it decisively and cleanly. If something turns out a bit different from what they expect, they go with it — no holding back, no denial, just accept, redirect, and move on. They don’t interfere with themselves, and thus they don’t interfere with the work.
The truly expert surgeon, a few of which I’ve been privileged to see, is a breathing artwork of purposeful action and focused intent.
Martial arts is a bit more accessible to most people, so let me show you a popular and priceless example of an expert martial artist next to a couple of wonderful actors who can’t help getting in their own way. Here is the famous fight scene between Darth Maul and the two heroic Jedi, Qui Gon and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi:
All rights to this film belong to 20th Century Fox, in case someone forgets.
I included the whole fight scene. (You’re welcome, Marie P. and Steven R.) If you’re impatient, skip to the last 2 minutes. You’ll notice that the only reason the bad guy lost was a moment of inattention. He moves with effortless elegance, decisiveness, and power, while the Jedi are fighting their own bodies with every move, hulking their shoulders and flexing like mad. It looks exhausting! It took a lot of Lucasfilm to spin the contest out past the first minute, the imbalance of skill is so great.
Darth Maul is relaxed. It makes him effective. Qui Gon and Obi-Wan are not. They’re braced and clunky, utterly without pæng.
All right, given that this force (as it were) of pæng both protects space and creates space, what the heck is it, exactly?
Very simple. Not easy, but simple.
Pæng is the yielding resistance of a tree branch or a length of spring steel, or, for that matter, of a good dancer’s arms.
You push one part of the branch, and the whole bough may sway, but its balance is undisturbed. You push your good dance partner’s hand, but that doesn’t just move her hand — her whole frame absorbs and responds to your push with a graceful springy motion and she rotates, balanced over her own feet, as far as your push goes (backwards and in high heels, most likely. Be impressed.)
That is the force called pæng.
Let’s return to the tree branch for a moment. It allows us to extend the analogy without special training.
Take a good look at an oak, maple, or a eucalyptus tree. Look at a branch from its tip to the root of the tree. You can always follow a single, sinuous line from tip to root.
That tree holds the branch up from root to tip, without any muscles at all. It lifts it from underneath its feet, up its trunk, and floats it out into space from there. This is how the force flows. Not muscular at all, but very, very strong. It’s pure physics.
The tree also holds the branch outward with curves that act as support structures (like the curvilinear welts in plastic packaging, to keep the package from being flattened), in order to make the most of the space.
Bounce a branch lightly. Observe the change in the movement. It bounces more near the point of impact, and as the springiness absorbs the motion, it moves less the closer it gets to the spine. I mean trunk. Did I say spine? I meant trunk. Of the tree. In this case.
This calm-but-alive springiness, this resistance without strain, lifting up from the root through the trunk, opening without pushing, pressing without squeezing, all at the same time, is pæng: the whole branch, from trunk to leaftip, is awake all the time, ready to play with the wind all the time, ready to soak up the raindrops all the time, connected through the trunk or stem to its root all the time. Every touch on the way is received and understood, and responded to naturally. It is always alive with this springy yet relaxed, rooted yet responsive energy.
In humans, pæng can be modulated. This is part of the martial aspect of t’ai chi: intensify pæng to ward off an attack or prepare for one, shift pæng to draw the opponent, release pæng to snap into an attack, but always, always have pæng as your ground state. It gives you a safe, structured space to work from.
Ideally. That’w what we work towards.
Now that we’ve mulled the nature of pæng, we’re a bit closer to understanding what Ted and the t’ai chi chuan classics mean when they use the word “relaxed.” In our extreme-adoring Northern/Western Hemisphere culture, “relaxed” is the opposite of “tensed”, or even “stressed.” A certain floppiness comes to mind, even a resistance to being vertical.
Relaxed (Western style):
A “relaxed” body, in this sense, is not ready to move — far from it. It probably wants another drink!
The ancient Chinese traditions cultivate the middle way, not extremes.
As it happens, this is an excellent approach for many people with central nervous system dysfunctions, because our disrupted systems are hardwired to charge wildly between extremes. The more we strengthen our access to the middle ground, the more stable our central nervous systems become, and the better we can get.
Simple. Not easy.
With this in mind, we have to repurpose the word “relaxed” so it’s not a synonym for “floppy”, but a distinctly different term that describes the useful middle ground between “floppy” and “tense.”
It’s easy to see, even in these keyboard-figures, which level of energy makes it easiest to move in a useful way, doesn’t it?
How do you want your surgeon to be, heaven forbid you ever need one? How do you want to move when you dance?
Darth Maul seems quite a bit different now, doesn’t he? Actually, he does remind me of a couple of doctors I’ve worked with…
Shortly after I drafted this, Ted saw me struggling through a leg-intensive exercise. He said, with sympathy, “I see why you find these leg exercises so exhausting. Your leg muscles are fighting with each other in every direction.”
I went away and thought it over.
Well, of course they were fighting each other in every direction. This was the setup:
When I was 10, I got the silly idea that I should have an adult arch to my foot, so I began to supinate.
That led to my thigh muscles developing lopsidedly, and since I played varsity soccer in high school and ran in my 20’s, they developed lopsidedly a fair bit.
That led to my kneecaps tracking wrong, and me losing the cartilage under my kneecaps. (I used to think that hurt. Cute!) Ted steered me away from his t’ai chi class in the 1990’s because I was so nervous about my knee pain (really cute!)… so I took his shaolin kung fu class instead.
So, over 15 years later… I’m far too frail for serious kung fu and Ted has become a breathtakingly subtle teacher of t’ai chi; I’ve gone through several rounds of posture training (round 1, round 2, round 3); and, now that the pieces are finally coming together (big clue: if it bears weight, it affects your posture), I’ve been working like mad to rectify my knees.
They still pull to the outside, from the habits laid in by my childhood efforts to lift my arch, and my knees hurt like blazes when they bend. To manage that, I practiced pulling them to the inside, but not directly — kind of rolling my lower thigh muscles inside and upward at the same time… While my habitual muscle pattern pulls outward and up.
Weren’t we just watching Liam Neeson and Ewan Macgregor do something very similar (if a lot more cutely)? Muscles fighting each other in every direction, literally at every turn?
The fighting was simply wrong. …And I don’t mean in the movie.
That’s no way for a body to behave, fighting itself. I don’t want my body to fight itself.
I didn’t see that changing the fighting would work, because there would still be fighting.
Finally, I straightened up. I said to myself, in tones of firm parental authority, “Knee, do it right. I’m not having you fight about it. I’m going to relax — unwind every muscle and make them stand down and wait for orders. You’re going to do it right the first time, because nothing is interfering and nothing is asleep. It is … relaxed.” Pæng.
I lifted my leg and put my foot down. It felt different.
I bent my knee. It was fine, absolutely fine.
I tried the exercise. The thing was completely painless, and floatingly easy.
Buyer beware — it’s a process. For me, the issues are simple, although annoyingly tricky to work with:
My levels of tension and awareness, not to mention relaxation and attention (those are 4 completely different concepts, you’ll notice), change so much from day to day.
I still have nearly 40 years of walking habits that I’m building an alternative to.
I still have to take lip from my knees now and then, which slows me down for recovery, and I have to mentally go down there and tell everyone to stop arguing and let me mend.
It’s a process. However, it’s well begun. It’s all about relaxing, in this special sense of pæng.