Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

Now you can find the phrase "engulfed in flames" in headlines about truck accidents, but it's a strange locution.  Engulfed is a water word, with synonyms like flood, overflow, deluge.  Wikipedia explains where David Sedaris got the title of the book above, which features an early van Gogh study for a cover.  Van Gogh's life was not all sunflowers.
Sedaris was a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central June 3, 2008. During the interview he recommended moving to Japan for three months to stop smoking. This smoking cessation method, which cost the author $23,000, is the subject of the last essay of his book. He also described the genesis for the name of his book. It was the name of a chapter in a book he found in a hotel room in Hiroshima, Japan. 
There is something gruesome about that, and he knew it. Maybe, like me, he was once assigned to read descriptions of the holocaust at Hiroshima.  You don't forget that. Or, I don't. And we shouldn't.  It's too easy to engulf this planet in flames.
So it's, what do you do when you personally feel engulfed in flames?  Overwhelmed?  Life can be like a tsunami, big problems tumbling in on the shore even as the waters rise.  That's how I felt last night when I started this post and ended up diverting myself by rereading David Sedaris.  Not a bad strategy, but not enough to get me to sleep.

My biggest anxiety now, the one that put my stress over the top, is this infarction in my eye caused by a  landslide of household stress a couple of weeks ago.  It hurts, and it may or may not heal itself.  I got to a good doctor and have a followup with him in three weeks.  I'm talking with my psychiatrist about this sense of overwhelm.  Meanwhile, how to deal with the feeling?  I turned to a talk by one of my favorite Zen teachers, psychiatrist Barry Magid, on Practicing With Sickness.   Here's a bit of that talk, formatted to clarify the points for myself.
If we're going to practice intelligently with illness or with pain, what we most need to do is cultivate a psychological awareness and honesty about how we handle ourselves in the face of it. Do we -
1.  try to always tough it out, and never admit anything is too much for us?
Or do we
2.  easily feel overwhelmed and always think things are too much for us to handle? Real practice should equally expose and challenge both of these positions.  Our practice should always be about watching our selves as honestly as possible - and keeping that honesty intact and functioning is the real goal.
There.  Isn't he wonderful?

So to end with, another van Gogh.  He found nature healing, and I find his paintings healing.
Wheat Field with Cypress, Vincent van Gogh


  1. Dear Grandma - there is nothing wrong, and much to be gained, by talking about how you feel... I agree that honesty is the goal, but then what to do with what you identify?

    If I feel overwhelmed, what I find helpful is to try to get the situation into a different perspective .... and try not to panic. Often a nice bath and a good rest are great helping things - be kind to yourself and keep in mind that you have been overwhelmed before and came through it.... it's important to remember that and so look after yourself until you come good again.

    Focusing on the overwhelmingness of a situation will not be helpful... it's the 'light at the end of the tunnel' that you are looking to reach.