Blog Post: Honoring your Boundaries and Your Sacred Place in Creation

This past weekend was not an easy one. My fourteen year old little dog, Kira, had a serious cardiac episode. She’s been a cardiac patient for nearly two years now and we’ve had some episodes of syncope from which she’s always recovered quickly. This time she came into the house from a brief walk, coughed a few times, walked to her bed, sat and looked at me with a slightly dazed expression, and then her nose crashed into the bed and she didn’t move again. I picked her up. Her body was eerily light. Her head flopped lifelessly against my shoulder. I wasn’t scared so much as I was in disbelief. I held her against my heart, stunned that a vibrant life could extinguish so fast and without struggle. There’s a great sadness and also a blessing in being able to depart like that. I held her this way for what felt like a good minute, but probably was less.

Then, slowly and miraculously, her rib cage began to expand and she was breathing again. She still couldn’t lift her head. And so I kept holding her, not sure if she was making a momentary return, only to leave for good.

She surprised me. She lifted her head and looked around. I checked her gums. They were a mix of grey and lavender — hypoxia — and the first sign I’ve seen of it since her cardiac disease began. I looked into her eyes and they seemed to register. She gave me a look that I swear said, “If you can do this, I can.” She was straining to breathe, but she was in there and seemed to have an interest in staying. So I grabbed a blanket, wrapped her in it, and kept holding her.

I called a friend who is a hospice nurse and we decided that it was wise to give her a homeopathic for anxiety and her cardiac herbs, all of which she happily chewed (you have to love a dog who has a palate for Chinese herbs). A timid shade of pink was returning to her gums. I felt her energy sink deeper into her body and she had more of a substantial feel to her. In Chinese Medicine, we would say the Shen (the Spirit) was rooting back into the body. Slowly but surely (over a period of about 90 minutes), she returned to her old self, walked around, stood in front of her empty dish, looked at me with an expression that said “Are you gonna do something about this?” And I fed her, sitting on the floor next to her, never so grateful to watch that little creature eat.

She went on to play with her toys and look out the front door and bark at the dogs that walked by. Today she was even better and her energy levels seemed to be improved beyond what I’ve seen in her in weeks. She spent the day soaking up the sun as it streamed through the house, my job being to move her bed around so she could continue to sunbathe. (I am quite certain she was Cleopatra in a past life).

I am waiting on some labs this week and will then review options with my holistic vet, who is the only vet who has ever really understood Kira (or me, for that matter). And we will talk about maybe introducing a cardiac medication along with her herbs. I’m not sure yet how I feel about that.

There is an energetic component here too (isn’t there always?) and Kira is a sensitive dog. Less has always been more with her and pharmaceuticals have always held a price. So I’m not necessarily convinced that integrating meds will be right. But I am open. For now she is doing well, she is happy and playful, demanding as ever, and there is some seriously good Shen in those soulful brown eyes. She amazes me.

Kira has been my teacher since that early November day in 2002 when she ran across a basement room, crashed into me, wrapped her paws around my ankle and chose me. We have journeyed through so much together: divorce, three interstate moves, three businesses, the magic of holistic medicine, new loves, lost loves, two academic degrees, friends we’ve met (human and canine), friends we’ve lost far too soon. When I was scared and alone and had no one to count on, she forced me to get up each morning to take care of her. And in doing so, she made me believe in myself. God had entrusted me with this tiny life that was reliant upon me. What was God thinking? Through my panic and fears of inadequacy, Kira made me laugh and forget the terror. She astounded me at how smart such a tiny creature could be (she understands three human languages, plus sign language). She inspired me to give up cable because she was such an incredible puppy, all I wanted to do was play with her, watch her grow, and study for exams with her sleeping on my lap.

Two years ago, when she became old overnight with no clinical explanation and lost her hearing completely, she taught me how to be present to the unexpected. She also taught me about the grace of aging. Her muscular body was now thin and frail, her once thick and shiny coat had thinned and had become dull, but her spirit never wavered. She even barked louder, just like an old person who was hard of hearing. Her body might have gotten old, but she still knew how to get her point across.

Perhaps this past weekend was the best lesson Kira ever taught me though: sometimes it’s not only okay, but it’s absolutely necessary to put yourself and your own needs first in order to take care of those you love and who are truly are dependent upon you. She woke me up to the fact that living like this is part of honoring the sacred in yourself. I urge you to live this way, if you don’t already. As one whose vocation renders me a caregiver (and on-call most days), it’s a requirement to know when I am dangerously low on reserves. If I have nothing to give, I am not much use to others. Still I tend to give more than I wisely should. I don’t believe our Creator desires us to give everything.  What creator who loves her creation would? Honoring your boundaries is not selfish. It is a way to honor your sacred place in Creation and in the end, serve others better.

This honoring of boundaries in my life will be a new normal for a lot of people around me. But it’s healthy behavior and it’s what I need to do — for myself and for those I love. A lesson well-delivered by a 13.5 pound little dog with one great big spirit and a very determined heart.

Blessings and peace,
Maria Grace Mandarino

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Blog Post: Wherever You Go, There You Are

Six months ago, I had promised I’d write more about the unfolding of my journey into the healing arts. When I began on this road seventeen years ago as a student in the massage therapy program at the New York College of Health Professions, I was quite linear. I was learning. And I was a damned good learner. Muscle origins and insertions, innervations. Kinesiology. Neurology. There was plenty to keep my linear mind busy. Not to mention sitting for one of the most grueling massage boards in the country.

When things started to open up on that journey, I really didn’t quite understand what was happening and my linear mind wasn’t keen on making space for the non-linear stuff it didn’t understand. When I started to grasp it through T’ai Chi and Qi Gong, I couldn’t quite accept that it was happening to me and that it was happening so fast. Wasn’t this sort of thing supposed to happen over time with dedicated cultivation and the guidance of a wise mentor?

Over the years though, I came to realize this cultivation of energy had started long before I got to the massage program. This did not happen in a two year massage therapy program.

In Spring of 1996, I was a pretty intense Type A sort, working in medical editorial, driven by the almighty deadline. My boss, a physician from India, didn’t play into such physical world dramas, and one day when I had probably had one cup of coffee too many, and was chomping at the bit to select manuscripts for the next issue, he suggested that I learn to meditate. As only a dedicated Type A New Yorker could respond, I said, “I don’t have time for that stuff.” He nodded, smiled graciously, and said, “Precisely when you need to do it most.”

Some weeks later, I found myself in an independent bookstore on Long Island that was closing its doors. Everything was marked down. “Misplaced” in the literary fiction section was this book, facing outward so the title boldly stared me in the eye. It read, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”

I was fond of the Clint Black song by the same name that was popular at the time. So I took the book off the shelf.

It turned out to be about Zen Meditation. I recalled my boss’s recommendation. The book was half price. What did I have to lose? I bought it. I opened it when I got home and devoured it. It was the first thing that made sense to me in a long, long while.

That book altered the course of everything that followed.

Three months later, I received a phone call at work — a defining moment for which nothing could have ever prepared me. I learned of the death of a childhood friend who was only 30 years old. It was impossible to breathe. Sound distorted. Vision blurred. My mental focus was lost and stayed that way for months. I plunged into despair. And there was no consoling me. I wanted one last time with my friend. One last conversation. One last song sung together. One last moment of raucous laughter. One last hug.

There would be none.

It was my first adult journey into grief. And I had no resources to guide me, except for the daily Zen practice I had begun three months before. Practice grounded me. It calmed me. It slowed down my racing heart. The very thing I had told my boss “I didn’t have time for” was the very thing I made time for — now twice a day. And eventually practice acquainted me with the peace of letting go. That process took nearly a full year.

But my opportunity to cultivate my energy wouldn’t end there.

But for a half hour, it would have been the first anniversary of my friend’s death. I was driving home from my grandmother’s house after her funeral, a funeral which came after an arduous two weeks of her failing health. During those weeks, I watched my grandmother decline in a hospital bed and stood by my mother and helped her make the decision to remove her mother from life support. I was present when she died. I saw her spirit leave her body. Although I told myself I had imagined that. The thing was back then, if you had asked me the point from which the spirit left the body, I would have said the crown. Because back then, even though I was meditating, I still lived wholeheartedly in my mind. The problem was, the gold spiral of energy I saw leave my grandmother’s body just before she flat-lined? It rose above her heart.

I was beyond thinking about it. I was emotionally drained. And I was making the journey into another layer of grief.

That night after the funeral, I was only about 15 minutes from home when traffic came to a stop at a construction site on the northbound Sagtikos Parkway.  I saw the cars in my rear view mirror cascading off the road as they were struck one by one, a ballet of headlights as cars were pushed onto the shoulder in a surreal blur. I remember bracing against the steering wheel and the brake pedal. And then the unforgiving sound and feel of metal hitting metal as my car was struck hard by the drunk driver, propelling my car into the car ahead of me, which my then husband was driving. I remember the sensation of my body moving upward against the strain of my seat belt. Then a violent slam back down into my seat. And then nothing.

I don’t know how long “nothing” lasted but it couldn’t have been long.

I remember being suspended in blackness. A peaceful silence. And these tiny beautiful sparkling lights permeating the blackness. I felt like I was floating. The stillness was welcomed and I was held in it for what seemed a long time. Then I heard a man’s voice. It was not a voice I recognized. But it was clear and firm in its directive: “You need to go back. Your mother cannot handle losing you and her mother.”

And then the next thing I remembered was sound. Loud and intrusive sounds. My husband was banging against the driver’s side window, screaming my name, pounding his fists against the glass. I wanted to tell him to shut up. A distant car horn was piercing the night. And then I saw my husband’s face as he continued to pound on the window. I recognized a frantic look I’d never seen before. I had been married to Joe Cool. An attorney. Nothing flustered him. Nothing. But this had him unearthed.

I got out of the car. I could walk, even though people told me I shouldn’t. I remember pacing like a wild animal on the shoulder, wrapped in a blanket until help arrived. We went to the ER. No bones were broken. Nothing required stitches. But soft tissue injuries and chronic pain plagued me, which provided me with more opportunity for Zen practice over the months that followed. I was also left with a heightened emotional sensitivity and spiritual awareness I didn’t understand and often scared me. And I was hesitant to breathe a word about those things to anyone for quite some time.

It wasn’t until years later, while in my first Myofascial Release class, that I had recall of a similar experience, when I was 17 years old. I grew up on Long Island and any Long Islander knows you never turn your back on the ocean. I had been taken under by a silent wave that rose up behind me. I remembered losing my footing and spiraling in the water, not sure what direction I was moving in. I pushed down on the ocean floor in panic and could feel my hands and legs being scraped by sand and rocks. I struggled. I fought. And then I had no fight left. I let go.

I experienced that same blackness with the sparkling lights. The same restful silence. The same feeling of suspension. Time ceased.  And then the harsh intrusion of sunlight as I found myself on the shore.

I told no one about this, not for years anyway. My linear assessment of the event went like this: 1) I was infinitely stupid for turning my back on the ocean, and 2) I was damned lucky to not be carried out to sea. And that was all I was capable of understanding at the time — luck had beat out stupidity. No need to celebrate it.

While I had forgotten about that day at the beach, when I experienced the blackness with the sparkling lights after my car accident, I knew I would never be the person I was before that night. I knew I was here to do something completely different from anything I’d done before. It would be a long time before I could give any of this a voice and put language on it. But the one thing I knew without a doubt was that after that night, there was positively no going back to life as I had known it.sedona-cairn

Blog Post: Alchemy and the Radical Transformation of Metal into Water

 

We are soon approaching the Winter Solstice, which in Celtic Spirituality is said to be a thin time, a moment when the spirit world is a bit closer to us, a time which celebrates the end of darkness and awaits the return of the light.  We cannot see it yet. But the promise of light is near.

In Five Element theory, we hold a similar idea. We leave the season of Autumn and the element of Metal as we progress toward the season of Winter and the element of Water. In the practice of acupuncture, we call this particular transition a radical transformation.

Consider the process. How can one transform Metal into Water?  Metal is hard, dense, and unyielding. Water is fluid, embodies movement, and life is born from it.  How can we logically explain such a drastic transition? The creation cycle of the other elements is clear: Water creates Wood. Wood creates Fire. Fire creates Earth. Earth creates  Metal (minerals).

But what of this radical transformation of Metal turning into Water? How does it happen? How can we apply laws of physics?

We can’t. This process involves magic. Alchemy. The hand of God.

In Five Element theory, the shift out of Metal and into Water is said to be the movement of death into birth,  similar to the Celtic view of the Winter Solstice and moving from darkness into light. And so this is why the shift from Metal to Water is called a radical transformation. We must make a giant leap. A leap that science cannot explain.  A leap of faith. Hard and unyielding Metal will be affected so deeply by some inexplicable force that minerals will be turned into water and life will start anew.  It is a transition beyond the mind’s reach.

Magic. Alchemy. The hand of God.

This transition involves a belief in a divine process,  in divine law, not man’s law. A process which requires us to make space in our lives for divine movement. This is the space in which God plays. And it is the space in which we wait and trust in our Creator’s deep love for us and in the belief that life will go on, despite what seems to be highly unlikely odds.

We experience this transition — this waiting between endings and beginnings — in times of grief and sorrow as well. In Chinese Medicine, it so happens that grief and sorrow are associated with the element of Metal. And the element of Water is associated with fear.

Ah, now, doesn’t this get a little more interesting?

When we grieve, we hurt so deeply that we are convinced we cannot survive our pain. Grief is a momentary death of our spirit. We are at the end of the cycle of Metal. Water is on the other side. Grief checks us. Fear stares us down from the distance. We are afraid of what’s on the other side of sorrow and grief. We wait in darkness, immobile, resisting the alchemical shift from death into birth. We are at an impasse. We are terrified of living again, of feeling again.

On the other side of darkness though is emerging light. Always. The Celts knew this. The ancient Chinese knew this. Metal waiting to be turned into Water. Death waiting for rebirth.

Magic. Alchemy. The hand of God.

To consider rebirth though and to start this cycle again is to risk great pain. We clutch at the darkness. Darkness is at least familiar. It is not normal or sensible to want to feel pain.

Birth is painful. For the woman. For the child.

But it offers immeasurable joy too. Birth is the only path to the human experience. To experience joy means to eventually experience sorrow. You cannot have one without the contrast of the other.

As we move toward the Winter Solstice, ask yourself these questions:

  • What in me has died?
  •  What in me is waiting to be reborn?
  • Am I willing to take the radical journey of alchemy from Metal into Water?
  • Am I willing to make space for magic and trust in the hand of God?

And in the tradition of a woman who asks no one to take a journey she has not taken herself, I assure you that I am on the path of radical transformation as well, walking right alongside you.

Blessings and peace to you as we all await the light’s return,

Maria Grace Mandarino