Thursday, September 17, 2020

Life Moving Forward

Life moving forward needs to be different. This is always true, but now, more than ever, the necessity to change some of the ways we live is evident. Whether it’s Covid, fires, drought, hurricanes, politics, racism, or cancer, we are being called upon to live differently. 

 
I ask myself each day what I can do to bring balance and connection to this disconnected world. I begin with my own body. I believe that having a diversity of movement and breath within myself opens me to a greater diversity in my outer world. I listen. I respond. I am coherent in the face of chaos.
 
As we all know, life has been filled with distractions, hence my late follow-up to my post from May. I had a follow-up scan in August and we have decided that there’s nothing new rising on the cancer horizon. The PET scan is a very sensitive and fickle test. It seems ironic that too much movement, the very “medicine” that helps to inhibit cancer growth, can also create a “hot spot” on a scan. None of the suspect areas that lit up in the previous two scans are new. They are just glowing more brightly than they have in a while. Most of them looked better this time. None of them were worse. I have chosen to go back to scanning every 6-12 months, depending on how I feel. Considering that right now, as I enter my 11th year with Stage 4 cancer, I feel the best I have in over a decade, I will continue living and caring for myself as best I can until my body tells me otherwise. I am resting my mind after this false alarm.
 
We all have some issue that causes us to implode with fear. Whether it’s coronavirus, fire, or cancer, we are all at risk of embodying a rigidity that we imagine keeps us safe from the unwanted. Perhaps in the moment of being stalked by a predator, our primitive brain triggers this paralyzing survival response, but in our modern world, the catastrophes that trigger our fears are not usually helped by playing dead.
 
No one expects catastrophe. The day before an earthquake, a fire, a car accident, a cancer diagnosis, or a pandemic descends upon us, we rarely suspect that life will change suddenly and drastically.
 
I did not expect this pandemic. I expected something else: a climate catastrophe, an oil crisis, a toxic spill, a war, but not a pandemic. If you replace the word, "illness" with "pandemic" or whatever else scares you these days, in John O’Donohue’s poem A Blessing For A Friend On The Arrival Of Illness, our old lives do indeed feel distant. 
 
Now is the time of dark
invitation
beyond a frontier that
you did not expect.
Abruptly your old life
seems distant.
 
Our old way of life is not only distant, it is gone, and I'm fairly certain that I don't want things to go back to exactly the way they were. Of course, I'd love to hug people, teach a class in a room full of people breathing deeply together. I’d love to travel. I long for theater and live music to return. I'd love to go to a comedy club and share the air with other people’s laughter, or go out to eat with friends. I'd love everyone to be earning a good living and have access to good food, health care, and affordable housing, but oh, that didn't exist before! We need to find a new balance in many aspects of our lives.


Nothing before has made
you feel so isolated
and lost.
When the reverberations
of shock subside in you,
may grace come to restore you to balance.
May it shape a new space 
in your heart
to embrace this illness (pandemic) 
as a teacher
who has come to open 
your life to new worlds.
May you find in yourself
a courageous hospitality
towards what is 
difficult, painful and unknown.


Courageous hospitality is something I've practiced for almost 11 years - with cancer. Like the pandemic, I would prefer to live without it, but since it's here, I am willing to listen to its message and allow it to open a new space in my heart or any other place it needs to inform me of another possibility. I learned that being in relationship to cancer is the way to successfully co-exist with it, and perhaps this approach is necessary with coronavirus. We can't kill it, so let's learn what we can from it, and find a way to co-exist with this difficult, painful, and unknown entity.


Co-existence is not a popular approach to this virus or anything else in our culture, when you look at the overall ethos of our way of life. We have a cultural of killing. We kill the viruses, bacteria, and fungi that live in or on our bodies with antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, hand sanitizer, deodorant. We kill weeds with herbicides like glyphosate. We sterilize the soil so that our food will grow without weeds. We "freshen" the air. We wave ultraviolet wands over suspected contaminated areas. We put poisonous chlorine in our drinking water. We even kill people who are different and deemed unwanted. There has to be another way to connect and co-exist with difficult, painful, and unknown entities.
 
How do we find connection while living in isolation? Most of us have opened to the unexpected world of Zoom and other online platforms. I've participated in events that I could have never attended in person. I've seen and heard and felt so much unexpectedly, even while on an unstable internet connection. Emilie Conrad, the founder of Continuum, called the internet a “prosthetic device” for communication and connection. It may not be as good as the real thing, but it is better than having no opportunity to be together. And like the people who have amazing prosthetic legs that allow them to participate in the Paralympic Games, being together on Zoom grants us superpowers. We can gather without the fossil fuel we would use to travel. We can participate from the comfort of our own homes. People can attend who would not be able to make it in person.
 
This fall and winter I will be offering an online study group based on my book, Engaging The Movement Of Life, for those who want to dive more deeply into what my words mean to them as a felt experience in their bodies. If you’re interested, go to: https://www.bonniegintis.com/teaching/ for more information.

As we move towards autumn and winter, we must become curious about how to keep connection alive in relative isolation. All life is phasic: inhale/exhale, expand/contract, coil/uncoil, fold/unfold, flex/extend, contract/relax, sleep/wake, form/dissolve. There is constant interchange between receptivity and expressivity. Seasons come and go and so do pandemics as the phases of life move forward.

 
What has changed in you and your view of life moving forward from this unexpected unfolding? What are you learning? Where and how do you find refuge and respite? Life moving forward needs to be different. What does this mean for you?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Wisdom Arrives On A Warning

Everything is unfolding slowly these days: the opening-up of society in this middle stage of the pandemic, my tulips, the plot in the book I'm reading, my own writing, and my ongoing relationship with cancer. I had a PET scan last Friday, and as is usual these days in so many aspects of life, the information it provides is not great and is somewhat confusing.

I got a preliminary result by email yesterday. I can't get a phone visit until May 13th here with my university-based oncologist, but I do have a video consultation with my "second opinion" oncologist at Dana Farber (in Boston) this Thursday, May 7th. I find it amusing that I will be getting my second opinion before my first. Life is turned upside down and backwards these days!

I don't have access to the actual scan to look at it myself, so I am dependent on the written report until I have my appointment on Thursday to clarify things. Here are the high points:

  • My breast tumor (my 10th one) is about the same size, but is not as metabolically active as it was last October. That means the cancer cells are dividing more slowly than they were.
  • I have a new "tiny" spot glowing brightly in my sternum - damn! 
  • My 3rd rib shows increased cancer activity - but it doesn't hurt anymore. Go figure!?!
  • They did not even mention my 2nd rib, which showed up on the last scan as a new place of possible spread. I have no idea if it stopped lighting up or if they missed it.
  • The lymph nodes in my chest are lighting up in the same way as they've been for a while. They are not in my lungs, just around the area of the upper chest. They seem to be processing something...but what, and why for so many years?
I am mostly feeling disappointed. I had hoped to prove the trend to be wrong, but there's too much evidence that something is going on to ignore it. I don't want to cross that fine line between positive thinking and denial. I am also wary of the other fine line - the one between heightened awareness and paranoia. I am committed to my practice of staying grounded in the present and not allowing my mind to make things worse than they are.

It's easier to stay present and be clear about choices when I'm feeling relatively better than I have in a while. Steve & I hiked up Snake Mountain, the highest point in the next county south of us last Saturday, along with our friends Patty and John, whose birthday we celebrated on the summit. It was 8.2 miles round-trip. It's the longest hike I've taken in 11 years! I bow to the spirit of the serpent, symbol of the movement of water on land, and the mythic representative of transformation. I shed my skin in tribute as I move through this time in my life. Thanks to John for having a birthday and giving me the reason to hike that day up a mountain named after my favorite symbolic creature.

It's hard to be afraid of cancer when I am feeling so much better. Way back at the beginning of this ordeal, 10 1/2 years ago, I felt horrible. Deep down, I knew that something was terribly wrong way before I was diagnosed. Now, I have to find a way to balance information, sensations, and my gut-feeling about what's happening. It's not easy finding this balance. I'm exploring ways to be with what's unfolding, and I'm immersed more deeply into uncertainty. I have some waiting (a most challenging practice) for my 2 appointments to move into some phase of making choices. I have a sense that nothing is happening quickly and that I won't be taking any drastic measures.

I listened to Krista Tippett's interview with Ocean Vuong this week (https://onbeing.org/programs/ocean-vuong-a-life-worthy-of-our-breath/) and was moved by so much of what he said. He described how "wisdom arrives on a warning" and I have chosen this as my contemplation for this very challenging week. We are all surrounded by countless warnings in these times. How can I discern the difference between wisdom, useless information, dogma, and propaganda?
What matters most right now?

Monday, March 30, 2020

Radical Embodiment In The Time of Covid-19

I ventured into the bowels of my local hospital this morning, Monday March 30th, for my 6-month follow-up scan. It was eerie being that out in the world, as if the zombie apocalypse had already passed and all that was left were a few abandoned cars scattered about in empty parking lots. I descended into the depths of the massive medical complex to the corner where cancer patients are injected with radioactive dye and wait in frigid, dark rooms to be scanned in a noisy scanner tube…but I never got that far.

At the registration desk, they told me my PET scan was canceled.

I was not only never notified, I spoke directly to someone in my oncologist’s office last week and we scheduled an April 1st follow-up tele-medicine visit to review my results. That person assured me the scan was on and that I would be contacted if there was a problem. When I didn’t receive my usual reminder call the day before the scan, I called to confirm. I spoke to a clerk and she connected me to the radiology doctor on-call, who told me that I was indeed on the schedule and she assured me that they would not cancel without contacting me…and yet they did.

I sat there at the registration desk feeling the heat rise in my masked face. My skin began to feel stretched so thin that I feared I would burst open. I felt so vulnerable. I was angry, disappointed, and frustrated, not to mention hungry and in caffeine withdrawal from the pointless fasting I did in preparation for the scan. I didn’t know whether to cry or yell, so I took a breath, thanked the clerk who was not at fault, grabbed the doorknob with a tissue, and ran to the deserted parking garage where I got in my car and cried. The magnitude of the social distancing in the cavernous garage meant that no one saw or heard me.

This is where my years of practice pay off. I can be patient and then I can wait a little more. I can wait for the emotional storm to pass, knowing that it is just bad weather and it will subside. I am thankful to be living with a non-aggressive cancer. I don’t fear that delaying my scan a month or 2 or even 3 will make that big of a difference in the big picture, even though I have had a bit more pain in my rib that has the largest mass of bone mets. M
y heart goes out to all those who have been recently diagnosed and need their scans and infusions and can’t wait until the pandemic passes. Life goes on during a pandemic, and so does disease. My gut sense is that mine can wait a bit.

Before driving home, I paused for a few minutes and dropped down into sensing how my body felt. I took a few breaths and exhaled for longer than I inhaled, and that allowed me to stay connected to my sense of Radical Embodiment. Why do I call it radical? Because what I learned in traditional health classes and "physical education" in school did not prepare me to deal with having cancer during a pandemic, but Continuum, Osteopathy, and meditation have given me those skills. These are all radical approaches to embodied living, ways of fundamentally changing the nature of something in a far-reaching, foundational, novel, and thorough manner.

Why do I call it embodiment and not mindfulness? Because I have come to not just believe, but experience that it is primarily through the body that we interact with our world, not through the mind. The body experiences things first, then thoughts happen. Embodiment is the conscious awareness of the many sensations that arise from inside the body that endow us with a sense of physical presence in the moment. Sensations keep us grounded because they only occur in the present. Cultivating a refined awareness of the many and varied nuances of sensations gives us a tremendous amount of information about our state of health, our environment, and allows us to choose where to put our attention, and what we need in order to care for ourselves more effectively.

Radical embodiment includes mindfulness; it’s not the other way around. Our silent-felt experience is primary, and mindfulness arises from the response to living that begins in the body and finds its way into awareness. Many people struggle with trying to access mindfulness through their thoughts, when it’s the body that holds the key.

Most people are oblivious of their bodies and take this amazing vehicle that carries them through life for granted. We don’t often acknowledge embodiment until something goes wrong, like illness, injury, or disappointment. Sensing what we feel inside our bodies increases self-awareness, self-reflection, self-regulation, and resilience. That’s what I needed this morning. I sat in my car and committed to my practice and my way of being in life. I felt my body respond and calm down with my prolonged exhalations. I felt the support of my seat and then decided that the sensation of the mask and gloves were no longer necessary or valuable and I ripped them off and tossed them in my plastic “contaminated bag.”

It's a strange time to be alive, but being alive is a good way to be. My body has the same basic needs and follows all the same rules, regardless of peace, war, or pandemic. Of course, I tailor the way I care for myself according to the necessity of the moment, but my body doesn’t respond differently because the governor told me to stay home. In fact, his directive has made me yearn for the wilderness. Since I can’t go on a trip right now, I can explore my own “portable wilderness”. I can discover the frontiers of my body’s wilderness anytime, anywhere. And that’s just what I did in the medical center parking lot before driving home. Sensing the wildness inside of my body refreshed me and readied me to face the rest of my day.

The fundamental basis of health is not the absence of disease, but the ability to adapt, and find ways to respond and adjust to whatever challenges we experience. Whether it is cancer, a paper cut, or disappointment, the body finds ways to repair itself as best it can, and then adapt to the new state of things. Health is not an object or a destination we will get to someday when the pandemic ends and things calm down. Being healthy is a work-in-progress, an on-going innovative, creative, adaptive process.

How are you creatively adapting to the state of the world right now?

Sunday, October 27, 2019

My Real Life Radical Embodiment

September 29, 2019
I thought I was no longer going to report my health status in my blog, thinking that my many subscribers don't need or want this much detailed information, but so many of you protested when I announced this, that I will continue to let you know what’s up with my health. To fill in the blanks, I am posting 2 emails I sent out to a few close friends, colleagues, and loved ones during this past month. I will (formally) go back to the topic of Radical Embodiment in a week or so, but this blog post describes my experience of real life Radical Embodiment better than any formal definition.

My periodic scans and tests (PET scan, CT scans, ultrasounds, tumor markers, and other blood work) are actually a test of my spiritual practice. Living with cancer is an exercise in relating to uncertainty. Then having tests that don't always clarify what's happening is another level of challenge. I'm the same person before and after the test results, but information feels like it changes me. I know that's a mental construct, and I try to be amused by the workings of my mind, even when I'm upset about cancer, potential decrepitude, and dying. "There I go again," is my mantra, when I find myself crumbling from the effects of abstract information on my mood. I am curious about how to dance with this situation.
"Not the high mountain monastery
I had hoped for, the realface of my spiritual practiceis this..."
as the Kim Rosen poem, Practice says.

I had my annual PET Scan on September 28th. My oncologist, and 2 radiologists don't know what to make of the scan:

Perplexing piece of information #1: My 1 breast tumor is the same size (1.4 cm) but it lit up more brightly, which should mean it's more metabolically active...but if it really was so, they say it should have grown.

Perplexing piece of information #2: My right 3rd rib that has been lit up for 10 years is glowing more brightly, as well as rib #2 above it. On previous scans they've both been lit up at some point. This activity seems to come and go - no one knows why. One radiologist thinks that if my ribs had metabolically actively growing cancer for 10 years, that they would have been eaten away already...so perhaps it's not cancer. Garden variety inflammation can make things light up on a PET scan. We can send a man to the moon, but we can't tell the difference between arthritis and cancer on a $14,000 Scan!!! Good grief!!!

Here's perplexing piece of information #3: The lymph nodes in my chest (mediastinal, subcarinal) are not enlarged, but light up...which they almost always do, but once again, a little more brightly on this scan. My breathing is fabulous and my lungs sound and feel clear. Hmmm...

Perplexing piece of information #4: None of my other 9 places of bone metastases light up. When cancer wakes up, it often does all over at the same time.

I spent the late afternoon in the University of Vermont medical center. and I had my oncologist, and 2 radiologists looking at all my scans and everyone had different opinions, which shows what an exact science this is ;)

Here's the plan:
1. I had blood drawn to see if any circulating tumor markers are elevated in my blood.
2. I'm having a breast ultrasound next week to more accurately measure the size of the breast tumor. It's been a year since we measured it last by ultrasound, and at that time it was smaller than the time before. A PET scan is a notoriously inaccurate way to measure tumor size.
3. I will repeat the PET Scan in 3 months.

My gut feeling is that this is nothing...but what do I know?! I got fooled 10 years ago when this all took me by surprise. I am humbled by my inability to accurately predict what's happening here.

Once again, I surrender to the curriculum of the "advanced course" of my life. I am the same person today as I was before the scan, and I feel the best I've felt in 10 years. Right now, that's the piece of information on which I choose to put my attention.

October 26, 2019
Progress is a funny word in the realm of cancer. Most people think of the word in a positive light, but in cancer terms, it refers to "progression of disease." They make the disease the reference point, as opposed to the health of the person. In Osteopathy, we quote the founder of our profession, who said, "The object of the doctor is to find health..." I have to remind myself of this when I enter Cancerland (that's what I call the oncology department.)

We usually think of the word "negative" negatively, but in cancer testing, it's good to have a negative result. I am amused by the paradoxical lexicon of living with cancer. It’s a good thing that I am so easily amused because my life is full of paradoxical challenges right now.

I was deeply inspired to write Friday morning...and then the phone rang. Cancerland called with a last-minute opening for a breast ultrasound. I took it, instead of waiting until Monday for my scheduled appointment. So much for inspiration! I spent the remaining pre-appointment part of my day rolling on the floor, doing Lunar breath (you Continuum folks know what I mean...and the rest of you need to take a Continuum workshop so that you too, can practice this extremely valuable way of breathing.)

Ok, I don’t want to tease you, so here is the instruction in a nutshell:
Breathe in normally and exhale with the whispery sound of "ha." Now breath again, but this time when you exhale, close your mouth, allowing the air to exit your nose, and still imagine you're whispering "ha." This is the Lunar Breath. I also like to imagine that I am fogging a mirror on the back of my throat when I prolong my exhalation in this way. It's soft and gentle. It is NOT Ujjayi breathing from yoga. There should be no use of force or constriction in the throat. Most people find it supremely relaxing. (There is an urban myth that doing it can make you invisible. Emilie once forgot her passport at the Canadian border and did Lunar breath while the border guard managed to not see her sitting in the back seat of the car. Emilie could pull off things like that!...sorry, but I digress.)

My breast ultrasound is hard to interpret, like everything in my life these days. The radiologist says that my boob-buddy (sounds better than "tumor" or "mass") is very irregularly-shaped and hard to measure. It seems a little bigger to her, but she says it's tricky to measure such an oddly shaped blob. “We could be looking at a diagonal this time, which makes it seem bigger,” she tried to explain. It seems only about 2-3 millimeters bigger, but it could be the angle. So much for science! The take-home message here is that it isn't smaller. My disappointment feels like the floor dropped out from under me and I’m sinking in deep dark water. I am fortunate to know my way around deep dark immersion.

My tumor markers (from a blood test) are normal-ish - on the high side of normal. More inconclusive results - ugh! I need to test them again in 3 months to see if there's a trend. My next PET scan in on Jan 27th. It will be helpful to see if there's a trend 3 months from now.

I am waiting to speak with my oncologist. I have a gut feeling that I shouldn't accept that my cancer has made "progress" and wait to see what the January repeat of my PET scan shows. If it looks like a trend, then I won't fight with what reality seems to be. Nothing happens fast with my type of cancer, so I think I can take a few months to see what unfolds.

From where I am now, I am not sufficiently convinced that a few millimeters should define a trend that would make me sign up for a monthly injection of a new drug (Faslodex) for the rest of my life. That would be the next step if I decided to do a different treatment. It would literally be a pain in the butt. It gets injected into the butt muscles and it has to be done monthly in a hospital, even though I am capable of injecting myself. It's a fancier form of what I've taken orally for the past 10 years, that blocks estrogen receptors. It seems to work well in many women who stop responding to oral estrogen blockade. It has a lot more side effects.

Cancer is smart and evolves to adapt to the low-estrogen environment. It figures out new ways of growing when it’s deprived of its favorite fuel. So, until I am ready to switch my treatment medication, I will meditate on how this situation can evolve differently. I like to think of myself as a highly adaptable person. But how can I evolve without the cancer adapting to its new milieu? This is where the relationship with cancer gets tricky. I don’t want to take an aggressive warlike stance. But I want to outlive the metastatic trickster. How can I be in relationship to something I want to get rid of? This has been my decade-long inquiry, which is expanding now that the plot has thickened.

Life goes on, and it's my practice to find my way back to that inspiration I had yesterday morning amidst the distraction of scans and tests and the uncertainty of cancer progress. Many of you have been in workshops with me in which I ask you to bring your attention to a problem, an illness, injury, or something that you wish would be different in your body, and then I ask if you can feel the longing to feel better, the yearning to be cared for, and drop the object of your negativity. I find this exercise in perspective profoundly helpful right now.

My body is part of the natural world and what’s happening is being guided by the laws of nature. I’m not being singled out and punished. Nature is just doing its thing in this crazy world of ours. How can I support nature to express itself in my body like I do in my garden? I want to selectively cultivate flowers, not weeds, so I adjust the soil, the water, and what I feed the plants to alter their behavior. How can I do this with my body and the cancer that grows like a weed within me? How can I listen more deeply to my bones and discover what they need?

Writing helps me find the longing to live and express myself so that I can connect with other people. Love is a not-so-secret ingredient.

with gratitude for all your love,
I couldn't do this alone,
Bonnie

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A Decade Of Unexpected Life

I have a visceral memory of my 53rd birthday. It was 2009 and I was at an Osteopathic continuing education course on “The Anterior Midline” taught by Elliot Blackman, DO in San Mateo, California. Ironically, my anterior midline, my sternum, to be exact, was red hot and bulging. I could barely move my arms. I couldn’t carry my treatment table or my suitcase. I ached all over. I was severely fatigued. I knew something was gravely wrong, I just didn’t know what it was yet. I suspected something like multiple myeloma or some other blood disease that was causing my bone marrow to expand. 

Little did I know that breast cancer had spread through my bones. How could I have known? I had a normal mammogram. My nine breast tumors were not palpable. Nothing else that medicine knows how to measure was abnormal. 

My mother died when she was 53 from ovarian cancer and I had walked around for a few years prior to my 53rd birthday feeling like something might happen to me soon. I thought and felt that, “something was terribly wrong”. Was I caught in my mother's history, or was that a sensation or a premonition? After years of medical screening, therapy, and deep soul-searching, I could only conclude that I was working too much. I was happy, and I loved the work I overdid. This pain was out of proportion to what seemed like the mundane stressors in my life. It was out of proportion, because it wasn’t just about stress, my work, or my mother, I was feeling the fast progression of Stage 4 breast cancer.

I am on the verge of my 63rd birthday, a day I did not think I would live to see. Some say it’s a miracle, but ten years have passed, one day at a time, and from my perspective nothing miraculous happened. There wasn’t a moment with a fanfare of trumpets or mystical voices. No prophetic dreams. I just wake up each day devoted to staying present as best I can, so that I can sense the necessity of the moment. I have had to cultivate curiosity and not panic or dwell on the terror and fear of suffering and dying. My day-to-day survival depends on my ability to be present, tolerate uncertainty, and make good choices. I have been blessed and privileged to have great mainstream, alternative, complementary, and Osteopathic care, wonderful friends, and the resources to care for myself as a full-time job. I couldn't have lived this well, for this long alone. My life is filled with love, the love from friends, colleague, students, patients, family, and especially my beloved husband Steve, my step-sons Luke and Ben, and Ben's wife Jenny. All of this adds up to look like the miracle of living 10 years with cancer and continuing to thrive in the midst of it.

Up until now, this blog has been a way for me to let you all know how I’m doing. This was especially helpful during the first year or two after my diagnosis, when it was impossible for me to respond to the hundreds of people who wanted to know how I was doing. I couldn’t bear to keep repeating my status and report my test results. That necessity has passed and it’s time to re-purpose my blog. I have always written philosophically and poetically about a wide variety of issues, but each time I try to post something, I struggle with the “Health Update” aspect of the blog. It’s time to make a change.

I opened my book, Engaging The Movement Of Life this morning, looking for an inspiring quote as a warm-up for this blog and a workshop I'll be leading soon. I randomly flipped through the pages and my eyes landed on this paragraph,

“Reverence for the relationship between the known and the unknown continues to expand and contract, like my breath. Moving from part to whole, from detail to big picture, from movement to stillness, the territory of exploration is endless. Living life in a spirit of inquiry is far more fascinating, fruitful, and satisfying than any of the specific answers to questions. The known world expands exponentially as I become willing to enter this inquiry, informed by my silent, felt experience.”
I accept the uncertainty of my life, and of life in general. Life is fragile, temporary, not subject to any of the rules of fairness, and naturally filled with surprising twists and turns. I don’t have to like what's happening to accept the harsh realities of what I face. This acceptance allows me to feel it in my bones and be deeply informed by the state of my body. There is part of life that I can explore and potentially understand. If it’s knowable, I want to try to know it. If it’s not knowable I want to bow to the mystery and move on. In embracing the known and unknown realms, I keep diving more deeply into an ongoing inquiry. In the midst of uncertainty I anchor my acceptance with inquiry. I am curious about my precarious existence and as I ask each question, another interesting thread of inquiry leads me towards the horizon.

(For more of my writing on living with uncertainty, go to: https://www.watermarkarts.org/portfolio-item/the-continuum-of-uncertainty-article/)

The spirit of inquiry has inspired me to search for a “Unified Theory of Everything.” The Unified Theory or The Theory of Everything in the study of physics refers to models that describe two or more of the four fundamental forces of nature previously described by separate theories (these forces are electromagnetic, gravitational, weak, and strong.) I am always looking for the biological equivalent of this sort of theory for human life.

Many years ago I began to weave a philosophy and a set of principles to guide me that applied to every aspect of my life. It seemed to me that there was common ground shared by aspects of my life that had become compartmentalized.
  • I had a philosophy that influenced my sense of my body, but it shifted in different contexts. 
  • I had one set of principles that guided how I cared for myself, but a slightly different set that informed how I exercised. 
  • I had yet another set of principles that guided my internal life – my thoughts, my beliefs, my emotions. 
  • And another that applied to matters of the natural world. 
As I move through life, I have found the common threads of connection in the story I weave in order to make meaning, and provide guidance about how to live my life.

No one way has ever satisfied me. I have explored many philosophies and approaches in an attempt to unify my worldview into one cohesive guide, but I see contradictions and inconsistencies in most philosophies, spiritual practices, exercise techniques, meditation practices, approaches to healthcare, and other attempts to prescribe a way of living.
  • When I was meditating, I felt like my body was left out and not valued.
  • When I was exercising, I felt like my desire to tune in to my silent-felt experience and deeply sense the unfolding effects of my efforts were not valued as much as my heart rate or my form.
  • When I was cooking, I did not fully understand the relationship between my food, my community, the environment, and my health.
  • When I was choosing healthcare options, I did not feel like my body was treated as a valuable part of the natural world.
  • When I was out in nature, hiking in the woods, I felt like my activity was separate from the rest of my day.
  • When I was in relationship with another person, I did not appreciate that being relatable is the same whether the relationship is between people, food, places, animals, or things.
  • When I gazed up at the night sky, I did not know that I was a living part of the cosmos.
This new incarnation of my blog explores my creative life path to a unified theory of everything, uniting health, exercise, meditation, the natural world, nourishment, relationships, and moving through the world in all the many and varied ways that I do. What unites all these aspects of living is what I call Radical Embodiment

Radical Embodiment is the topic of my next blog entry.  Enter your email address in the Subscribe box, up above on the right, to be notified when I post each new entry.

Check my schedule for updates: https://www.bonniegintis.com/teaching/   

I am also a frequent contributor the Continuum Teachers Association blog. Check it out at: https://www.continuumteachers.com/blog

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Handless Maiden Has Foot Surgery

In 2010, shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I found myself having hand surgery. I had struggled with numbness and tingling in my hands since age 10, and it only got worse as I got older, especially after 30 years of practicing hands-on Osteopathy. I assumed that I had carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive microtrauma and overuse of my hands. I had tried everything alternative, and then after almost a year of rest due to my cancer situation, when I was feeling worse, not better, I decided to have surgery. 
Here’s a link to that blog entry from May, 2010:
http://bonniegintishealth.blogspot.com/2010/05/handless-maiden-explores-path-to.html 

My surgeon was surprised by 2 findings:
  1. He found an extra artery inside my carpal tunnel. It was an embryonic remnant of the median artery. This artery that helps provide nutrients to the developing embryo’s hands usually shrinks and disappears by about the 9th week of life in the uterus. Mine continued to grow and supply my hands with blood flow. However, the carpal tunnel was not big enough to hold it without compressing the nerve next to it. Every time I used my hands and increased the blood flow, I felt numb and tingly from the compression.
  2. I had an excess of extra tissue growth (like fluffy scar tissue) around my tendons and between the joints of my wrist. This was definitely a side effect of my cancer treatment.
Although my symptoms were the same as carpal tunnel syndrome, the causes were very different. He made some space around my extra artery and trimmed away some of the extra tissue that was clogging my carpal tunnel…and here I am 9 years later doing fairly ok in the hand department. 

However, my feet are now the issue. For the past 5 years, I’ve struggled with pain in the balls of my feet, with my right foot being significantly worse than my left. I blamed it on the repetitive irritation of dancing tango. Dancing in flat jazz shoes and hip-hop sneakers still puts excessive pressure on the front of the feet. I never danced in heels. In fact, in my entire life, I have never owned a pair of heels. Many tango dancing followers develop problems, especially neuromas, in their right foot from excessive pivoting. All of you tangueras know what I mean when I describe how a leader that leads too many ochos, molinetes, or calacitas can ruin the rest of your evening…as well as the next day, or 2 or 3. I assumed this is what I had. Once again, I was wrong!

After 5 years of struggling with the pain and the gigantic lump in my foot, I had foot surgery on 2/28. It went smoothly. It’s now 5 days post-op and I’m hobbling around the house in my walking boot. I haven’t needed any pain medication for the past 3 days. Last night I dreamed about dancing and hiking downhill (down has been more painful than up). I am looking forward to new pleasures when my foot is healed.

Leave it to me to have something "special" and different. It wasn't really a typical neuroma, which we had assumed. She (my wonderful orthopedic surgeon, Deborah Henley) removed a fibrous nodule (a wad of gristly scar tissue) larger than my thumb, right next to the sensory nerve in the ball of my foot between the 3rd and 4th toes (counting from the big toe as #1). Although she has removed countless neuromas, she has never seen one like this before. Neuromas are fibrous nodules that usually grow around the nerve, not in the space next to the nerve. Another mystery of my quirky body!

It is possible that it grew as a side effect of my anti-estrogen cancer treatment. No one knows why, but estrogen blockers causes certain tissues, like tendon sheaths and joint linings to thicken. So far, my research about whether or not anyone has found this oddity in other women on my same treatment regimen, has not revealed anything. I see the orthopedist on March 14th and I look forward to seeing what they found on the pathology report.

I have a very ugly little open-toed boot that velcros shut and is easy to get on and off that I will be fashionably sporting with warm socks until I can get my foot into a shoe. I call it my “dancing shoe.” I should be able to drive in a few days, which is a good thing, because I am planning on going to Kripalu for Robin Becker's Continuum workshop on 3/17 to dive into some serious rehab and healing. If you are free, sign up and meet me there!
Here's a link: https://kripalu.org/presenters-programs/coming-home-body-continuum-workshop

If you’re not free in March, maybe you can join me for my Kripalu workshop May 5 -10, 2019. Here’s a link to register: https://kripalu.org/presenters-programs/transformative-self-care-exploration-continuum-mindfulness-and-osteopathy

In the meantime, I'm spending a lot of time rolling around on the floor, doing micromovements, sending wave motion through my feet, and sending movement messages from my left (the other) foot to the healing foot. I hope to be dancing and hiking soon!

Why do I still refer to myself as “The Handless Maiden?" 
Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Jungian interpretation of this tale (Remember her? She wrote Women Who Run With The Wolves)  helped me through my hand ordeal, and continues to apply to the situation with my feet. The old tale of The Handless Maiden is about a woman's initiation into the dark realms of life through the rite of endurance. The word endurance has many meanings. It can refer to stamina, fortitude, tenacity, and the ability to go on in the face of hardship. To endure also means to make robust, to strengthen, and this is the foundational principal of the tale, and of the creative aspect of a woman's inner life. I'm not just tough and plowing ahead mindlessly; I am creatively adapting to the challenges I face.

I made another pair of hands for myself, and now I will make another pair of feet. This will in turn lead me to a new life. I am being as creative as I can as I continue to dissolve and reform my body into constantly changing versions that are capable of carrying me into the next part of my life. I yearn for a rest from this hard work and suffering, but it's not yet time to be done with this enduring.

My old Santa Cruz friend Mary Quillin sent me this poem when I went off for hand surgery. It still cheers me up and helps me navigate the turbulent waters of living in a body and encourages me to gaze beyond the ever-extending, ever-unfolding horizon.


Blessing the Boats (at St Mary's)
        by Lucille Clifton from Quilting Poems 1987 - 1990

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back
may you open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The 3 Anatomies Of Embodied Experience

It's been 6 months since you've heard from me and since today is my 62nd birthday, I thought I would write a blog entry and let you know how life is unfolding. I am alive and thriving, even though it's not necessarily easy or always "going well." But that's the reality of life, and I'm so happy to be alive that I am quite content.

The things that are important to me these days are going well: I continue to shrink my newest of breast tumors. My next big scan is in November. Although my hands and feet are seriously compromised, and I am frequently slowed down or stopped by fatigue, I am mobile and up and around in my little world. Steve and I are very happy together. Fall and winter are on their way. The planet is still alive. The government can't go on forever like this. The MeToo conversation has expanded into the abuse of power at many levels. I'm trying to hold the long-term bigger view. I do a lot of lovingkindness meditation and I am writing a lot these days.

I am thinking about my legacy; what do I want to leave this world when I'm gone? I can only take care of so many people one-on-one, or in classes and workshops, but many can read what I write, so I'm putting my energy on paper. "Transformative Self-Care" will become a book someday. In the meantime, I teach a workshop by this name at Kripalu once a year. My next workshop dates will be May 5-10, 2019. Registration should be open any day now, if you'd like to come.

I am also working on an interview about "The Creativity Of Health" with Elisabeth Osgood-Campbell for Watermark Arts. You can check out my contributions by visiting the site and visit the other galleries and list of events while you're there. The interview won't be done until sometime next year...so stay tuned. If you don't want to miss it, go to Watermark Arts and sign up for their mailing list.

I am the editor of the soon-to-go-live blog section of the Continuum Teachers Association's new website. You can read about Continuum and search for a teacher or workshop near you. The site is being upgraded as I type this, so check back for updates if you visit the site and the calendar and blog are not up yet.  https://www.continuumteachers.com/

I am giving you a preview of the first blog entry I am posting on the CTA blog. For those of you who aren't Continuum folks, this is one of the many foundational concepts in our somatic movement awareness practice. Read more on my website or at the CTA's website, or better yet, come to Kripalu this May! I would love to spend 6 days with you all.

The 3 Anatomies Of Embodied Experience
Emilie Conrad, the inspirational founder of Continuum described in her work three distinctions of embodied experience: the biologic/primordial, the personal/cultural, and the cosmic.  These distinctions were not intended to separate experience but to highlight our ability to seamlessly move and shift attention between domains with awareness. 

She invited us to inquire about how much of our lives are trapped in our attachment to a view through a cultural or personal lens. We each have a unique life experience based on our particular circumstances dictated by our families of origin, our culture, and our physical and emotional individuality.

While it may occasionally be effective to view and experience the world through the lens of each of us as individuals, it is crucial to remember that we are much more than our biography. She enhanced our embodied experience of our “self” to include what she called the primordial or biologic anatomy. This domain is the natural world of the living human body and this basic fundamental field is common to all humans and is shared to some extent by all living beings. This is the instinctual and inborn world of biologic function, and the primordial basis of growth, development, healing, adaptability, and change.

The cosmic is by definition the “something greater” that holds all other fields. The cosmic is not a belief system. The cosmic is not an opinion. The cosmic is not a religion or a specific spiritual path. We exist in a universe where the parts are in relationship with the whole, and the whole is unimaginably vast. The cosmic spans the known, the unknown, and the unknowable. 

Cultivating an awareness of these distinctions of embodied experience is a profound and powerful aspect of Continuum practice. This broad awareness allows us to “fly under the radar” of our usual limitations and defenses or to “sneak in the back door,” as Emilie used to say, and have an unexpected experience of the vast potential of expression of creative living. If movement is what we are, not what we do, then we must continue to be curious and ask, “where and how can the expression of movement in my life be enriched – in the personal, in the biologic, in the cosmic?” 

She called it “Three Anatomies” because people tend to overly use their sense of their physical anatomical body as a reference point for their identity. Perhaps there are more than three anatomies. It’s the question that is more important than the number of anatomical domains we can count. These three are just models of our experience, not the actual territory. If all people could broaden their awareness to consciously include all three anatomies, and choose which one, if any, needed to be tended, then we would exist in a state of infinite possibility that she called being “a broadband virtuoso.”

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Honey, I Shrunk The Tumor

I'm not sure why I keep growing breast cancers, but at least I know how to shrink them. My original crop in 2009 involved 9 tumors, which are all completely gone. The one that showed up last fall is my 10th!

I had my follow-up ultrasound today and my newest "breast buddy" is smaller in all dimensions. It's a full centimeter smaller at it's largest point. 4 months on a new estrogen-blocker seems to doing a good job - along with all the other things I do to care for myself. 

I also seem to have quieted whatever that was that looked like Rheumatoid Arthritis. I give my low-lectin diet full credit for that. If you're curious, or struggling with auto-immune disease, check it out. The book is called The Plant Paradox. It's by Steven Gundry, MD, who I wouldn't want to have at a  dinner party, but I'm filled with gratitude for his insight. 

Now what I'm left with is the usual stuff one experiences after 61 years of wear and tear, along with the bone and muscle pain caused by the estrogen blocking drug. I'll take pain over cancer any day!

I am off to teach The 3 Anatomies of The Heart: Personal, Biological, Cosmic
in Durham, NC April 19-22. I'd love to have you there. 

Here's registration info:

And here's an inspiring quote from Parker J. Palmer's, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit
“Under stress, an unexercised heart will explode in frustration or fury. If the situation is especially tense, that exploding heart may be hurled like a fragment grenade toward the source of its pain. But a heart that has been consistently exercised through conscious engagement with suffering is more likely to break open instead of apart. Such a heart has learned how to flex to hold tension in a way that expands its capacity for both suffering and joy.”

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Curiosity Saved My Life

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has saved my life…more than once. A few weeks ago, during the week of my 61st birthday I received a message from my bones. My sternum and 3rd rib began throbbing, broadcasting a message of the return of cancer. Although the exact content of the message was somewhat cryptic, it’s general theme was perfectly clear. In 2013, I wrote, “I promised to listen, and now I hear an unexpected language spoken in a strange tempo that sounds like the static blur of a shortwave radio transmitting a distress signal from a faraway place in the night.” Cancer has called out to me again, has gotten my attention, and has sparked my curiosity.

Although I admit to initially being a bit freaked out, I was/am mostly disappointed. It was like that chopped steak moment I described in my blog entry on November 5, 2009. https://bonniegintishealth.blogspot.com/search?q=chopped+steak This isn’t what I expected! We all go through our lives thinking we know what’s going to happen next, and when the unfolding reality doesn’t match our interpretation, judgment, and conclusion about life, we react in ways that are often not helpful. Each moment is uncertain. What makes us so arrogant, to think we know what’s going to happen next?

When I catch myself doing this, I have a mantra, “there I go again.” I can’t force myself to stop feeling what I feel, but I can become aware that I’m feeling something that may or may not be real or true (whatever those things mean.) I can put a little space between me (whoever that is) and what’s happening. In that space, I can choose where and how to pay attention and how to expend my precious energy.

Once I let myself have a good cry, like bad weather, my emotions passed. Then I dropped down and felt the sadness of loss where it landed in my body, and I leaned in and listened with curiosity. I let go of being afraid, and discovered that I am very interested in what’s actually going on. Being curious is about recognizing novelty and seizing the opportunity it has to offer, without judgment or making a story. Curiosity often leads to buried treasures.

Whenever you get bored, you’re not paying attention. There’s always something to spark curiosity. I got curious about the pain in my chest and responded by asking my doctor to move up the date of my annual PET scan from December to October. I got the message from my body, and the really curious thing is that the messenger, the pain, went away in a few days, and nothing ever showed up on the scan in the area that hurt. But responding to the message of the sensation led me to find this tiny new cancer growing in my breast in time to do something about it before it spread.

It's not about whether to pay attention but how to pay attention. It’s possible to be attentive without curiosity. I can glance over the surface of things and miss what’s important, or I can ride the fine line between positive thinking and denial and completely miss the message.

I am committed to a life of curiosity in which I fully participate in the present moment. This allows me to become sensitive to what's actually happening regardless of how it differs from the past, or from what I expect the future to be. The best we can do to resolve the past and prepare for the future is to savor the possibilities of what can be done in the present moment. When we encounter a problem, we often go to quickly into “problem-solving” before we’ve been informed enough to have insight into the necessity of the moment.

On a mundane note, I have a Plan A, B, & C. Plan A is my switch back to another estrogen blocker. It's no big deal; just a different pill once a day. We will re-evaluate in 4-6 months to see if it's working. I'm addressing some new approaches to diet and supplements to boost my immune response. As I type this, the pathology people at UVM are comparing my recent biopsy to my original 2009 biopsy to see if they can learn something about the character of what I'm growing. It won't make any difference in the short-run, but in the long run, I might need to understand the difference (or lack thereof) between version 2009 and version 2017, and implement another plan. 

We have a new window facing the woods and the rocky ledge behind our house, and although I could never recommend that anyone have construction at home while going through a biopsy, now that it's over, I can say, "it was worth it." Watching the birds, the squirrels, and the plants change each day is endlessly enjoyable and feeds my sense of connectedness to the natural world. I'm curious about the medicinal value of window-gazing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What Transformation Isn't

As always, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is what I have known deep down since my rib started throbbing a few weeks ago – the biopsy showed that it is breast cancer. I already knew that, so I’m not in shock or upset – mostly disappointed.

The good news is that it is still highly estrogen-positive and HER-2 negative (for you non-medical types, that means it’s less aggressive and treatable with several relatively non-invasive options.) I will most likely switch to a different estrogen-blocking oral medication and monitor again in 4-6 months. More tests will be done to see if it’s a new cancer or a regrowth of what I had before. And as always, we will monitor to see if it spreads or stays put, or better yet, disappears.

I got the phone call and literally ran out the door for a massage that just happened to be scheduled long before I know it would be perfectly timed. It was just what I needed to ground me in my body and help keep me feeling expansive. Thank you Natalia!

Cancer is a transformative ordeal. So much of my life has changed because of it, and not all for the worse. Even though I cringe when I hear some people refer to cancer as “a gift” I can see how it has made me pay attention, cultivate discernment, and refine the way I make choices. As far as the “gift” goes, if I had a choice, I’d return it to Macy’s and exchange it for a sweater. But since it isn’t a gift, and I can’t return it, I ponder what this transformation is about…

What Transformation Isn’t?

Transformation isn’t about self-improvement. If you approach making changes in your life in the spirit of what’s wrong with you, then you might miss the opportunities that arise from what’s right with you. There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be helped in some way by what’s right with you.

Transformation isn’t about curing a disease. It’s certainly great when this happens, but many diseases are chronic or terminal and their presence in your life doesn’t prohibit you from experiencing transformation in some other way. Being attached to getting rid of a malady can prevent you from experiencing transformation elsewhere in your life.

Transformation isn’t about fixing something. Some things in life that are broken are simple and can be mended. A paper cut on your finger seems dramatic when it happens, but a week or so later you notice that it has healed on its own without a trace.

A broken bone can knit back together, but a trauma that is forceful enough to break a bone causes other tissue damage, as well as a generalized reaction to the shock can leave a residue of vulnerability in the system. A broken heart can mend, but often leaves a trace of sensitivity. Leonard Cohen, in his song, “Anthem” reminds us that it is this brokenness that allows light to shine,
“There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”
Consider that broken-heartedness might not need fixing. Even the word “fix” is problematic. It comes from the Latin “fixus,” which means to fasten, which is contrary to the very nature of the living human body, which is in constant motion. Everything in the body, as well as in our emotional and mental activity needs to move freely to express optimum health. Fixing something, holding it in place is contrary to the laws of the nature of living systems.

I can’t “fix” my cancer. I want it to move, to metabolize itself and leave me intact. I can’t help wanting this…and I know my best chance comes from meeting each moment and listening to the call from this deep dark process that has grown inside me, and allow the light to shine in all directions.

Here’s a sculpture by Paige Bradley that inspires me: