Category Archives: Body Mind Spirit

Let Go with a Limp

hiking with Springloaded technology braceA few months back I wrote about my experience in letting go of running.  You can read about it here.  One thing I should make clear is that the physician who diagnosed the osteoarthritis in my right knee talked about me not running marathons again, but she did not rule running out entirely.  She prescribed an off-loading knee brace and said, “You might be able to run with it; I don’t know.”

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The Breg Fusion® OA Plus Osteoarthritis Knee Brace that I have. 

In early December I was fitted with the brace and started using it.  I noticed that I had a slight limp or hitch in my walk as I use it.  I mostly wear it when I go on longer walks of three to four miles. Also I have worn it on occasion at the gym, using it with an elliptical trainer and walking on a treadmill.  I have not as yet tried to run with it.  Partly because it is winter in Minnesota and I fear slipping on some patch of snow or ice.  Partly because I want my body to adjust to wearing the brace during walking.  This spring, when I feel the urge, I will try a short run.

For now, at this moment, I have set running aside.  I may be able to run in the future, but for now I am not.  What mindfulness continues to teach me is to live in this moment, accepting as life is, not as I would like it to be.  In the past I have wasted a lot of mental and emotional energy regretting some event or yearning for something different.  Learning to live in this moment is challenging.  My mind seems to have a default mental state (sometimes referred to as the default mode network) that likes to ruminate about some past event or fret about some future challenge or problem.

Jesus warned about the danger of future worries in Matthew 6:34

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Centering Prayer is retraining my mind to let go of these ruminations and worries while coming back to the simple awareness of God’s presence.  As one sits in centering prayer, one may notice the mind wandering to some thought, feeling or judgment. When one notices the mind moving off on this mental tangent, whether it be some joyful anticipation or some anxious though,  the practice of centering prayer is to gently let go of whatever thought or feeling my mind is following and return to my chosen sacred word.  I may do this dozens of times during my twenty minute session. It is the continual practice of letting go and turning to God that is the exercise portion of centering prayer.  (You can read more about centering prayer here.)

Like walking with my brace, my practice of centering prayer still feels like it has a pronounced limp. Yet my trust is not in my feelings during centering prayer, but in the fruit of the Spirit that has come with the practice in my daily life.  I have discovered that I am more consistent in letting go of my worries and my attachments, such as my fixation on running.  At least for the moment, which is sufficient for today.

Gate Closed

Yesterday a gate closed for me.  Others may close in the coming months and years.  All are a part of the growing older.

Grand Valley

Last summer I backpacked in the Olympic National Park and my first day included a two thousand foot descent into Grand Valley.  It was late in the afternoon and my right knee began to ache as I dropped altitude rapidly.   I took some ibuprofen that night and hiked on.

When I returned home and started running again I notice that my right knee became sore after most runs.  It usually subsided in a few hours, but not always.  Occasionally the pain and discomfort woke me up at night.  In late September after a full day bike ride, I noticed the discomfort as I drove home.  I stopped running and biking.  The pain continued.   I started a series of trips to my family physician, an MRI, and finally Dr.Andrea Saterbak , a respected orthopedic surgeon who is the team physician for the US Ski team.

I went in knowing from the MRI that I had a torn meniscus but that it was “complex” tear.   Many meniscus tears can be “repaired” with arthroscopic surgery.  Friends had told me of their surgery and how they were back running within weeks.  I hoped my story would be the same with a successful arthroscopic surgery soon behind me.

After examining my knee and while looking at the MRI Dr. Andrea Saterbak said emphatically, “This cannot be repaired by surgery.”  Then she wrote at the top of on my treatment plan, “Early Osteoarthritis in Right Knee.”

She asked, “What exercise do you use to stay fit?”

“Running.   I like to run marathons.”

“I don’t think marathons are in your future,” She responded.

A gate closed for me as she said this.  She went on to explain that the pounding of running will aggravate the knee further, resulting in more arthritis.  My heart sank a bit as she carefully explained that my tear was more like a “frayed” meniscus and that orthopedic surgery would only aggravate the joint and cause further  pain.  She didn’t rule out running entirely, but she emphasized I will need to be gradual in my approach and see how my knee responds.

Other aerobic sports will need to be monitored as well, including biking and hiking. Especially long downhill descents like the one I did last summer into Grand Valley. She said a specialized knee brace may be helpful for such adventures and she gave me a referral for the brace.  The gates to bikes and hikes may be closing as well, but it is too early to know.

She gave me a four point treatment plan.

1.      Lose 10 pounds (mostly by restricting calorie intake)

2.      Cortisone Injection  (she gave me one before I left)

3.      Low impact activity

4.      NSAIDS (Ibuprofen occasionally as needed).

I walked out of her office disappointed but not devastated.  I could look for a second opinion.  Dr. Saterbak said that I could probably find a surgeon who would arthroscopically “trim” the meniscus, but I would be back in the surgeon’s office complaining about pain and inflammation within six months.  Overall, I trusted Dr. Saterbak’s experience, diagnosis and treatment plan.  I may not like what she said, but that does not invalidate it.

My practice of Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation, has strengthened over the past three years.   Centering Prayer has a corollary prayer called the Welcome Prayer in which I am instructed to welcome whatever new circumstance may enter my daily life with the prayer,  “Welcome, Christ, in the midst of this new circumstance.”  Whether it is a pleasant experience that I enjoy or drudgery that I wish to avoid, God will be present in my response.    With this diagnoses of osteoarthritis I am practicing the Welcome Prayer as follows  “Lord, I may not like this diagnosis, but You are here in the midst of it and I welcome you and ask you to help me respond with grace and compassion – towards my body, my community and you.”

One thought I have embraced is that this diagnosis is not life-threatening.  I will not die tomorrow or next month.   It is life-changing and that is the part I am seeking to understand and affirm.

Now I could respond with requests for healing, but somehow that seems unwise.  God could miraculously heal my knee, but then I would miss out on what God is teaching me in the midst of this situation.  I believe that God is present as I rethink, refocus and deepen my trust in God.

The diagnosis is still fresh and my emotions and thoughts are processing.  This blog post is part of that process.  I will probably write more in the coming weeks and month.

Thanks for taking time to read this.  Peace be with you.

Breath Focus

This post is the fourth in a series focusing on my path to Christian Mindfulness. The series starts here.

At the second class of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) we were introduced to a simple form of meditation.  We sat on a yoga pillow or chair in an upright position, keeping our body in a relaxed but vertical position.  The instructor gently directed us to close our eyes and to focus on our breathing. We kept a non-judgmental focus as we breathed in and out, simply observing how each breath felt and where we experienced it.  I noticed my attention focusing on my nostrils as each breath passed in and out of my body.  (Afterwards I observed that this kept my observation safely near my “head” since this is my place of security.)

With the instructor’s gentle guidance I was able to stay focused.  However, as her vocal instructions became fewer and fewer, my mind tended to drift away on wandering thoughts, “Am I doing this correctly?”  “I did this once before in CPE, and it was different.”  “Will this work when I go home?”

I was instructed that each time I noticed my mind wandering away to return my attention with gentle compassion to my breath.  This was a frequent occurrence since I found my mind wandering off on some tangent ever few breathes.  The instructor had warned us that no matter how many times our mind wanders, simple let go of the thought, idea or feeling  and bring our attention back to our breath.  I remembered the struggle I had had on the PCT, where my mind kept shifting to various thought streams. The solution was to consistently and gently return to the moment. Patience and perseverance were critical components.

Our homework each week was to practice this meditation every day, slowly expanding the amount of time we invested in meditation.  By the end of the 10 week class, I was able to meditate for 30 minutes, though I continue to have wandering thoughts that distract me. I continue to patiently bring my attention back to my breath (or my sacred word.)

I thought of my mediation practice as a new form of prayer.  Later that summer I would discover centering prayer that closely resembles this form of breath meditation.

Jon Kabat Zin, the principle founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Class, offers a guided meditation exercise at this link 

Next post: The Key Ingredients for Meditation

 

 

 

Homework: The Body Scan

This post is the third in a series focusing on my path to Christian Mindfulness.  The series starts here.

Our homework for the first week of MBSR was to do a daily “body scan.”  This was a guided meditation exercise in which I laid on the floor on my back.  I listened to a thirty minute audio recording during which my instructor systematically guided me through my body, focusing my attention on different parts.  She started with my feet and with a gently voice helped me observe any tension and/or sensation occurring there.  She gave me visualization cues to help my feet relax.  Then she moved on to my legs and through the rest of my body.

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The corpse pose in yoga is useful for the body scan

The process was relaxing and peaceful. I remember having a similar experience in my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) class in seminary decades ago.  My CPE supervisor was active in meditation and he led us in a similar exercise each Friday afternoon.  That pleasant memory reassured me that scanning my body was a healthy and life-giving form of prayer.

As a Christian I have experienced a love/hate relationship with my body.  My Christian belief sees the goodness of God’s creating human bodies, including my own.  I was taught and still believe that God chose to become a human being in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) and that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16).   Yet my Christian heritage also has elements that negate or de-emphasize the body, seeing it as corrupt and evil.  My sinful appetites (the lust of the flesh, I John 2:16) are centered in my body.  I was taught that my body was not to be trusted, since it was weak and prone to sin.

Growing up, I  learned to live mostly in my head. I was a bright child intellectually and grasp new ideas and concepts quickly.  I received most of my affirmation from being a good student, which also focused my attention on the thoughts and ideas revolving in my head and less on my body.  I was not much of an athlete, so my body did not receive much consideration growing up.  I was a gangling naïve nerd that basically ignored my body.

iStock_000016821441SmallThat began to change when I began to train for my first marathon in 1999.  As I ran I learned a lot about my body (what ached, what thrived) and became more familiar with it.  Yet even my running seemed to be in my head.  Running friends shared how running helped them calm their minds and relieved their stress.  My running rarely did that.

As I continued to practice the body scan meditation, I discovered tension that rested in my shoulders, as if I were carrying the load of the world’s troubles. I often fell asleep, showing me how tired I was. I explored the knot or ache that sat in the bottom of my stomach and how often I ate for emotional reasons.  My body was trying to tell me something, but I was so busy living in my thoughts that I rarely listen. Now I was learning to listen.  My home work was starting to lead me home.

In what ways do you listen to your body?

Stop and Ask for Directions

This is the second in a series of posts on my path to Christian mindfulness practices.  The series started here.

Mountaintops were not the only places I recognized my run-away mind.  I remember getting trapped in catastrophe-thinking-patterns after some criticism at church.   My sermon hadn’t gone well, I made some flub leading worship, or too few people showed up for new member class.  My thought pattern would devolve into a revolving rant that “I was worthless” or “I am a terrible pastor.”  Occasionally I recognized the untruth in these thoughts, yet I struggled to let them go.  I would pray asking for God’s help, but at times prayer only added power to the whole destructive thought pattern.

In 2013 my life hit bottom.  For a variety of reasons, I separated from my wife.  I moved into the farmhouse owned by the church where I was serving at the time.  My wife and I started marriage counseling shortly afterwards and I started visiting with another pastoral counselor for myself.  Though we both wanted the marriage to work, we each had our turf to protect. I was lost and uncertain what path to take.

Then one day, after describing my mini-tantrum over a broken mailbox, our marriage counselor mentioned that I might benefit from a Mindful Based Stress Reduction Class.  By God’s grace that suggestion stuck with me as my answer to prayer.  I went on-line, found where a class was being offered locally and registered.  What did I have to lose?  Like a driver hopeless lost without a phone or map, I figured I needed to stop and ask for directions.

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The text book of MBSR

The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class started on a Monday morning in March of 2014.  I entered the storefront yoga studio to discover I was the only male in the class of fourteen.  The instructor welcomed us and led us through a meditative body scan. What I immediately appreciated was that the class was not a series of lectures, but actual practices that engaged our body, mind and spirit.  The piece of wisdom that stood out that morning was the instructor’s insistence to practice the various exercises and meditation daily, whether one felt like it or not.  The benefits would not be instantaneous, but if we practiced over the ten weeks we would see benefits in our lives.  I made the decision to practice daily and trust that the Spirit of God would work.  I was not disappointed.

 Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.Proverbs 3:13 

Next time: some of the lessons I learned through the MBSR class.

 

 

Path to Mindfulness

Nearly three years ago I started a path that eventually lead to my own Christian mindfulness practice.  Over the next weeks I will describe my journey.

The vista was spectacular, what I had dreamed it would be.  But my mind kept jumping to internal perspectives.

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Beauty surround me but I had trouble seeing it. 

I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) near Glacier Peak in Washington State.  I was in the middle of an eight day hike that I had been planning for months.  That day the trail followed a high ridge whose side dropped a thousand feet into a deep green river valley.  Beyond the valley were several snow capped peaks.  The sky was clear, the alpine flowers brilliant and the view stretched for miles.  Still my mind could not stay centered.

IMG_3289As I walked I noticed that my mind kept jumping back to Minnesota, to worries about work or family.  Who could I find to help with the church stewardship drive next fall?  What sermon series would be helpful to the congregation?  How were my children doing, each starting new work adventures?  These were not “bad” thoughts, but they certainly distracted me from being centered on the present path.
I remember stepping back (inside my head) and noticing how these different trains of thought were jumping around.  Who exactly was this observer inside my head noticing the jumps? I prayed, asking God to care for these different concerns, but my prayers seemed only to add to the confusing cacophony of thoughts and ideas rolling around in my head.

IMG_20130817_143516_947As the trail began to descend from the ridge, I was surprised to be passed by a fellow solo backpacker.  He was moving at a fast clip with a light pack.  He had the harden look of a PCT thru-hiker, but he was southbound. May a yo-yo hiker, I speculated.  I watched him quickly disappear around a corner.   My mind thought, “Moving that fast he must be missing out on truly seeing the spectacular view.”  But another thought followed, “But are you any different, with your mind jumping around?  Are you present to this moment?”

I knew that I wanted to change my busy mind but unsure how to go about it.  So I asked Jesus for help.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Matthew 7:7-8)

Next post: Introduction to MBSR

The Shirt Off My Back

Four bikes were outside when I arrived for our Saturday morning run.

“No one told me that they were riding this morning?” I thought as I walked inside.

I noted the four who wore cycling gear as they greeted me, though several others were dressed to run.

“Hey, no one told me about a ride this morning.” I said, a bit miffed at being left out of the loop.  As I said this, I felt this surge of anger bubble up inside me, not sure where it was coming from.  My voice and actions became more dramatic, nearly shouting, half in jest, half in anger, “Why didn’t you include me in the text message.  Don’t I count!”

The others laughed at my outburst (as I had wanted), but I also realized that I had overstated my case and began to apologize.  Tim, one of the cyclists, said, “You need to take some time to center yourself.”  He was right.

Preparing to race, Shannon is in pink vest

Preparing to race, Shannon is in pink vest

Shannon, also a cyclist, apologized that she had sent out the text invite and used an old thread that did not include me and several others.  I calmed down and said it was okay, especially since I knew Shannon would not do it intentionally.  Shannon is a gracious and generous child of God who gives of her time and energy to help others.  She is a physical therapist who opens her workplace early on Sunday mornings so that our group of runners can do strength training as way to avoid injuries. She regularly travels to Haiti on mission trips and feels comfortable praying for our group.  I consider her a friend.

l525182534As the runners and cyclist prepared to leave, Shannon approached me to see if I had a spare shirt.  It was cooler than expected outside and she needed another layer.  I looked in my running bag and pulled out the only long sleeve shirt I had: my finisher’s shirt from my last marathon.  I teased Shannon that she needed to return it freshly laundered.

After a short prayer, the group headed out the door, cyclists and runners.  I had a great run that morning and headed home prior to the cyclists’ return.  It had been a gorgeous Saturday morning and, after my initial outburst, I was grateful for having a great group of runners to challenge and encourage me.

Later that afternoon, Tim called me to tell me some bad news. During the ride, Shannon had taken a fall.  Fortunately she had a good bike helmet that had protected her head.  Still she had to go the ER where she discovered that she had broken her collarbone.

I texted Shannon that I would be praying for her quick and full recovery.  She texted back that she appreciated the prayers, she was doing all right but that she owed me a shirt, since they had to cut off her jersey and my shirt in the ER.

When I read the text, two thoughts in quick succession flashed into my mind.

The first thought was: “That was the finisher’s shirt from my last marathon.   That can’t be replaced!”

The second deeper thought was, “John, which is more important, a shirt or a friendship?”

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.  Matthew 25:40

The Courage to Change

I knew something needed to change as I hiked one summer along the Pacific Crest Trail.  I had looked forward to the seven-day backpack for several months.    I had entertained frequent day dreams in which I visualized myself hiking across open alpine meadows, surrounded by the snow-laced  peaks of the Cascades and swimming in cold sky-blue lakes. But as my fantasy became reality I notice something troubling.   My mind had trouble staying on the trail.

IMG_20130816_105142_210Instead I would discover that my thoughts were ruminating about some worry or concern back home in Minnesota.    For a moment I might be able to enjoy a colorful alpine flower or a striking mountain peak, but all too quickly my mind jumped to some pestering concern at my church or my family.   My intention was to be on the PCT in Washington; my mind seemed to be at dozens of other locations.  And I wanted that to change.

bowl-with-spoonWhen I came back to Minnesota, I began to hear about “mindfulness” – the ability to be in the present moment.    My health plan offered a simple six-week exercise that focused on mindful eating.   I thought it would be easy to simply focus on my meal as I ate.   I discovered that it was incredibly hard for me.  My eyes continually looked for something to read; my ears sought the noise of the radio.  The challenge was to simply be present to my bowl of cereal, to see the color and texture of the granola, to taste each bite, and to give  thanks to God for the meal.

Emotional LifeI began to read more about mindfulness and my emotional impulsiveness.  A key book  was The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson.   I remember reading about how our brains have plasticity, that they can be rewired or remolded with certain practice.  The author discussed how people who have participated in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes have been able to deal with their chaotic, impulsive mental thought patterns.   After reading the book, I signed up for a MBSR class.

“Courage to change the things I can” is the second part of the Serenity prayer.  I once thought courage was reserved for the “big” things like racism or sexism.  I admire Dr. Martin Luther King’s courage to challenge the racial injustice of his time. We need such models of courage in every age.

Yet there is also the daily kind of courage to face our own flaws.  Through the MBSR class I learned the practice of daily meditation.  The practice has begun to calm my busy mind and to live in the present.   I am thankful that God gave me the courage to change the ways I look at the world and to be fully alive in each moment.

How do you stay living in the present moment?

Lord Jesus, thank you for your promise to be always with us.

Lap Sitting

Yesterday was my mother’s 89th birthday.  She has been a resident in a memory care unit at the Woodbury Health Care Center for the past three years. We celebrated with cake, flowers and great-grandchildren. Moms 89 bday

Like many adult children with aging parents, I struggle how to best honor and love my mother at this stage of her life. Due to her many falls and dementia, my wife and I cannot take care of her at home.  Earlier in her life, when her dementia was just beginning, my siblings and I tried to talk with her about what living arrangements she would want as the disease progressed.  Like many in her generation, she did not want to discuss those issues, so my siblings and I did our best to find places that could care for her in a loving, humane way.

Now the dementia has progressed to the point where she no longer knows my name or relationship to her.  She cannot hold a conversation.  But she still smiles when I approach her and call her name.  She likes to have her hands rubbed and her arm stroked. She will occasionally look at pictures of her family. We can sing Happy Birthday together. She enjoys cake and ice cream.

Mom and GracePerhaps the greatest joy for her yesterday was holding her newest great-grandchild, Grace.  Mom did not fully comprehend who Grace was.  She could not say her name.  Yet I felt God’s grace surrounding her and us as she held her great-granddaughter.  Love flowed from each.

As I reflect on the moment, I take great hope in the knowledge that God is holding my mom in his lap.  And God is holding me and you as well.  We may not fully realize who we are as children of God, but God fully knows and cares.  God loves holds us even when we forget God’s name.  Someday God will call my mom (and me and you) home and only then will we fully know whose we are.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:12-13

Lord Jesus, hold me as your own.

PCT Day 1and 2: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

I confess: I am a biased hiker. The high alpine country above timberline is where I prefer to hike.  The sweeping vista of snow-capped peaks and the dazzling array of alpine flowers strike the sweet spot in my backpacking experience.  I was exposed to this as a young child, making the annual family trek from sea level to ski level on the seventeen mile road from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge.  The Olympic Mountains remain spectacular in my humble opinion.

Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park

Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park

 

Start of the trail

Start of the trail

Still to reach timberline, one often needs to hike through timber.  This was the case in August when I hike my third section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in southern Washington.  The trail is aptly named in that it seeks to follow the crest line of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington.  Often the crest is above tree line, but not always.

For this portion of the PCT I decided to skip the first forty miles as it climbs through the thick forest of the Columbia River Gorge (the border of Washington and Oregon).  I started just south of the Indian Heaven Wilderness where a forest service road crossed the trail.  After my brother Robert snapped my picture, I plunged into the forest.

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I soon discovered that the wilderness area named Indian Heaven is not my personal vision of heaven.  Though dotted with dozens of small lakes, the trail was all below timberline.  Occasionally the trail climbed a small ridge where one could glimpse some of the distant peaks.  But mostly, for the first two and half days and 35 miles, I walked through a multi-green tunnel.

As I hiked through the forest, I explored my mental bias.  I recognized that forest hiking is part of long distant hiking.  Just as in life, one cannot always choose the surroundings one may prefer.  I also discovered that forest walking is a great place to practice both intercessory prayer and mindfulness.  As I walked I prayed for my family, friends and for my congregation.  I used a simple prayer of compassion.  For example, my prayer for Resurrection Lutheran Church was

May Resurrection be filled with loving kindness.
May Resurrection be filled with peace.
May Resurrection be strong and vibrant
May Resurrection live as children of God.

I would repeat the prayer several dozen times, as I breathed in and out.  A peace and purpose came with the prayer.

IMG_20140822_162010_988I also practiced mindfulness, dwelling in the present moment, experiencing each footfall and each touch of my trekking poles.  I try not to race ahead mentally to when I would reach the high country.  Rather let this moment in the forest be my experience.

It was not easy.   My mind still likes to jump around, bouncing from one habitual thought to the next.  Yet the more I practice, the more I see the reward of simply being in the moment, even when surrounded by a green tunnel.  And truly God is in the forest valley as much as the high country.

I was reminded of Psalm 1 as I hiked:

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;  but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.  They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

An abandoned saddle resting in a trail-side tree

An abandoned saddle resting in a trail-side tree

And if one keeps one’s eyes and mind alert, strange sights can be encountered.   One can imagine all kinds of story on how a saddle ended up in a tree.

 

Lord Jesus, keep me alert to your constant presence.

 

Next, Reaching High Country.