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comforting the gerbil

Gerbils curled up together.Not doing. That has always tripped me up. How do you not do? I imagine a monk in a foggy chamber high on a mountaintop, a peasant woman sweeping and cooking for him as he does not do. (Say that last phrase five times fast!)

But try on “non-striving.” Try on the notion of not pushing so hard. Try on easing your grip, ala a Chinese finger puzzle. Don’t force yourself over the finish line. In fact, don’t even run in the direction of the finish line (because it’s not there – if you think you see it, a small and impish troll will run out and move it to some place else or turn it into something entire different). Just run and find grace and ease.

This non-striving notion speaks to me. It is a matter of the quality of the action, not whether the action occurs at all.

To be fair to Buddhism, non-doing is a form of action and is about the quality, as well described in this article by teacher Gil Fronsdal.  But like many Westerners, I get wrapped up in the language and stop there. Lately, I’ve been learning more about this concept from the pain that’s been with me for about six months. The first to arrive was a knot of hot discomfort in my shoulder that moves around like a gerbil, nesting in the latissimus one hour and in the front of the shoulder head the next. It’s clever, that gerbil! There’s  no one thing to do for it,  no one place to search for it.

More recently, the gerbil has been joined by a lightening bolt that radiates down the back of my leg, starting somewhere in the hip or glute or a number of smaller muscles whose names I’ve discovered only recently. (There’s nothing like one’s own body to propel one to learn anatomy.) This sciatic pain, in particular, seems to be inviting me to live differently. At first, I was terrified of it. I threw everything I knew at it and strove to get it out of my life as quickly as possible. I remembered my dad’s sciatica, how it numbed his foot and he never got the sensation back entirely, even after surgery. There have been nights when I’ve crawled up the stairs, it’s hurt so much, and several times when I just sat down where I was in tears.

When I asked one of the amazingly intuitive and patient body workers with whom I work if an MRI was in order, she said that an MRI comes when nothing is talking to the pain; “If you can get a conversation going, then that’s not necessary.”

The conversation is  indeed happening. Not quickly. But it continues day by day, reminding me to stretch in the morning and again at night, returning to asana in new ways. Reminding me to get up and move at work. Helping me to put down the sugar and the dairy. Encouraging me to breathe more deeply and more often. “Yes,” says this  sensation, “that’s good. And now try this, too.”

And on the days when I forget, it pinches me with a reminder that I’m not “getting better” but am instead changing my modus operandi. This isn’t short term. This isn’t about no pain. It’s about unraveling the old ways that have not been supporting the whole me.

The kicker to all of this? I can’t strive in any of it. Striving to solve the pain only feeds what caused it in the first place. So I play with the volume and the tension of each thing I do. I surrender to its pace. I’m not going toward that mountain monastery (which, I must admit, I have longed for at various points of my life) but for living each day here and now with awareness – listening to the gerbil, awake to the lightening bolt.

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