This is not me!
Recently I’ve been pondering the impact that continually seeking strength has had on my life. Clarity always seems to improve with hindsight, and as I can now legitimately call myself “old” (at least in CF terms), the influence of this seeking is dawning on me.
For the first five decades, this was all about physical strength. I wanted to be strong. As a little kid, I wanted this desperately but had no reasonable expectation that I could achieve it. I remember being completely obsessed with winning the “Presidential fitness award.” The initial version of the Presidents Test included pullups, situps, the standing broad jump, the shuttle run, the 50-yard dash, the softball throw (my favorite), and the 600-yard run. I would have a massive stomach ache the day before the 600 because I knew it would kill me to get the necessary time to be in the top 85% required for the Presidential award. The performance anxiety was torture. I don’t know why my little elementary school-aged brain needed this affirmation so strongly. Perhaps it was the earliest indication of trying to overcome the shame I felt from living in a body that didn’t seem to function correctly. If I won the award, at least I could say I was ‘fit’ even if I spent half my life (it seemed) on the toilet.
Later, in my early twenties, I discovered weight training. This was one of the most important discoveries I made for my psychological health. By this point, I was thoroughly disgusted with my body. It had embarrassed me over and over, like Chinese water torture. Mostly, this was the result of a gastrointestinal tract that couldn’t digest fat, but I also had a chronic cough, weird looking fingernails, and yellow/grey teeth (tetracycline anyone?). I tried in vain to hide these perceived faults from the world, but a) most were pretty obvious, and b) this took a ton of energy and advanced planning. It seemed my life was destined to consist of hiding my repellent inner truth–I hated my body.
But then I started watching Jane Fonda (I kid you not) and doing her workout every morning. I’m pretty sure I wore leg warmers. This lead to the discovery that resistance training was something that I really enjoyed doing. I’ll never forget the morning I put on a short-sleeved shirt that I wore all the time, and noticed that my upper arms were actually filling out the sleeves like they never had before. I lifted one arm, and recognized that I actually had triceps! What? Somehow, this thing I was doing every day was actually showing the effect that it was supposed to, even though my body wasn’t supposed to (in my mind) work normally. I had discovered a CF work-around. I actually had some control over this meat-bag after all. Thus began one of the best life-long coping mechanisms that I have discovered–exercise.
That day I learned that I could actually make my body grow and get strong, even though I was skinny, even though I didn’t digest food properly, even though my lungs hated running. Not only could I get strong, but I was good at getting strong. I was persistent. I read every body-building book/magazine out there at the time. I learned what exercises to do for what muscle groups. I learned to enjoy the ‘burn.’ Soon, I developed the confidence that comes with spending hours almost daily at the gym. I developed the gym strut. Sometimes, I would even look around and notice that I was actually the ‘strongest’ woman in the room. What a rush!
Of course, at certain points, CF would step in and crush me. Starting in my mid-thirties, the sine wave of of my fitness pattern began. I’d get in top shape (for me), usually from both running and lifting. By this time, I had learned to like running mostly by figuring out how to work up to longer distances gradually, so that I never had an “I hate this” moment. Without these “I hate this” moments to kill my motivation, I kept coming back for more, and before I knew it, I was a long distance runner. Then with more confidence, I explored almost every form of exercise out there. I found my groove. AND THEN BOOM, I’d land in the hospital with pneumonia. I’d have to take two weeks off of exercise, infuse poisons to kill the bacteria that also seemed to drain me of all ATP, miss sleep, lose weight because who can eat when the antibiotics make the site of food nauseating. When the dust settled and the PICC came out, there I was back at step one, where jogging a block was unthinkable and bodyweight exercises kicked my ass.
So, I’d start again. I’d outline my new workout regimen and commence the long trip up the sine curve, only to be knocked down again. Over and over this happened, but I kept getting back up again, because each time I did it successfully, I developed stronger faith in my ability to come back. This is the way resilience works–the more you practice coming back from a set back, the more confidence you have that you can do it, so you do it. My strength was in re-discovering my strength.
When I hit fifty, I entered a different stage of life, one that required a new approach. Of course, being stubborn, I didn’t recognize this at first. My fiftieth birthday present to myself was to train for and pass the RKC Challenge. I didn’t see anything wrong with this idea at the time. I had always set challenging fitness goals and made plans to achieve them. This was how my motivation game was played. But after the weekend when I came home to be admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, it began dawning on me that perhaps I needed to rethink things. This body didn’t just have CF anymore, it was also getting old. And things were starting to break down.
Now eight years after that fateful weekend, strength has taken on a different meaning. I still exercise daily, but I’m not quite a maniac anymore. I still am in fairly good shape (for the shape I am in), and I still strut a bit, but I have left it to the young CF kids (by this I mean anyone younger than me) to run marathons and do Tough Mudders. This body is tired, and has more than a few angry joints and one entirely new body part (a titanium ‘cage’ fusing L5 and S1.
But I am just as strong as ever.
To what do I attribute this feeling, no, actually this knowledge? Well, I’ve discovered that I am not my body.
Well, for the first 50 years, I lived by the maxim that I could keep CF at bay by whipping my body into shape. And it sort of worked. At the minimum, it turned out to be a great treatment strategy. I have no doubt that part of my reasonably good health is due to my obsession with exercise. But my meditation practice has shown me that this strategy of ‘beating’ CF to a pulp was not needed anymore, at least not for my psyche.
It turns out that when you spend hours upon hours doing nothing but watching your mind and body, it becomes clear that your essential ‘self’ is neither of those things. Right now I can feel the sensations at the bottom of my foot, and it is immediately clear that I am not my foot. “Okay, sure,” you say, “but it is your brain that is watching your foot and you are somewhere in that brain.”
But from where in the brain comes that feeling of ‘me’? Nobody knows. Materialist scientists say that it is obvious that consciousness comes from the brain, but they really have no proof of this. This is the ‘hard problem of consciousness.’ How does physical matter (the brain) give rise to something decidedly not physical (consciousness)? If you sit and just watch bodily sensations arise and pass, thoughts arise and pass, emotions arise and pass, this whole mind/brain connection thing gets pretty weird. It seems to me that ‘I’ am in none of this business. Instead, all of these things are like a movie playing on the screen of ‘my’ consciousness. I put the ‘my’ in quotes because it is definitely not clear that this consciousness belongs to ‘me.’ It is just there, for my viewing pleasure.
I know this may sound a bit woo woo, but it is also a very freeing experience, and one that leaves me profoundly happy in the occasional moments when it solidifies into a knowing. Based on direct experience, it seems that ‘I’ am not in my body, but my body is in ‘me.’ The same holds true with thoughts and emotions. They arise within this thing that is much greater than they are, this thing that feels like ‘me.’ One word for this ‘thing’ that I like (because ‘me’ doesn’t feel quite right) is awareness.
So when CF has its way with my body, I feel like there is a bit more space to breathe. I watch it happen. I respond appropriately. I watch the emotions of fear or sadness arise and pass. I bide the time, infuse medications through my port, and plan my recovery routine. All the while, I know that none of this has to do with who I really am. CF can’t touch that. This feeling is beyond strength. This is uber-strength.
So I invite you to give this experiment a try. Don’t take my word on anything. Become comfortable watching the body and mind play out their games. Establish a routine doing this, because it takes some time to develop the skill of watching life play out without all of the distractions your brain likes to throw in to muddy up the waters. Stability of mind allows the water to calm down a bit and the dirt to settle. Then you can begin to see clearly what’s going on. When things become somewhat calmer, ask yourself the simple questions, “Who am I? What am I? Where am I?” Then you can properly put CF or whatever bodily condition you live with in its place.