September 2022: Hitting a Hard Reset

September has been a very challenging month. At the end of August, I had blinding pain in my skull on one side and behind one ear. A rash started developing on my forehead, and it ended up being shingles.

Yoyo has taken to sleeping in front of my shrine. She curled up by my knees when I knelt in meditation, and I took the photo immediately after the meditation finished.

If You Are Over 50, Get the Shingles Vaccine

Many of us who had chickenpox as children are naïve to the fact that, at any time in our adulthood when we are under stress or immunocompromised for another reason, the chickenpox virus living rent-free at the base of our spines can travel along a nerve path and lead to a really awful situation. It happens on one side of the body, usually impacting one nerve area — the right side of my head on my optic nerve and whatever nerve is behind my right ear, in my case. I’m still on antivirals because one of my eyes was at risk, but honestly, it’s good it was affecting my head — getting on the antivirals so early meant that the rash didn’t really blister, and there’s nothing like really bad head pain to make someone visit acute care in a timely fashion. Shingles is more commonly found on the torso, and there, it often misses early treatment.

There were points in the first two weeks of having shingles that the pain put me at risk of doing something truly unhinged. My mother had to talk me down from shaving my head because it hurt so much to comb my hair. Touching my right skull was an ordeal of pain. I was taking about 800 mg of ibuprofen spaced out over the day. When the ibuprofen wore off, the pulsing nerve pain down my ear and neck made me flinch, and I sometimes nearly choked while swallowing. I couldn’t sleep well because the ibuprofen would wear off and turn the nerve pain from dull to acute. Ibuprofen can delay periods, so my menstrual cycle was really screwed up, which made me even more tired. After about two weeks of very intense pain during which I was still working (with a few sick days thrown in when the fatigue got unbearable) because it’s the fall semester and I need to do my job, I tiptoed away from the ibuprofen and put up with the pain to try to get my menstrual cycle to behave itself. The pain had thankfully lessened, although it wasn’t a picnic. My ophthalmologist let me go down from 3 grams of the antiviral to 1 gram. That was good because it took me about half a liter of water to actually get those pills down even after splitting them, especially with the nerve pain that sometimes screwed up my swallowing, which made me over-hydrated. The pain lessened to only flaring up during exertion, which lessened to my skull being ridiculously itchy with some occasional twinges. The twinges lessened, but it’s still very itchy.

Shingles lasts between three to five weeks, with a possibility of long-term nerve damage. People I know who have had it say that they feel it coming back whenever they get over-stressed; that’s likely a psychological thing, but it’s still not good to be very stressed. Hopefully, my eye continues to improve on the lower antiviral dose. I’ve heard so many stories from people who have had shingles. I even heard a story from a man who got chickenpox for a second time from his wife when she had shingles. It’s wild how often this is happening to adults under 60 nowadays.

I mentioned in my August update that I’ve been feeling stressed out at work and have tried to mitigate it, and I definitely downplayed how much the return to the office has impacted me and how frustrated I have been. I’ve also been carrying residual stress from some things that happened in 2021 and some social anxiety related to the end of pandemic restrictions and a few other things that I won’t get into in public. I’m not looking for any sympathy and would prefer not to receive comments of sympathy about the illness. I’m prone to anxiety, which increases my risk of stress-related illness, and I haven’t been managing that to the extent I should be. Also, at this point, it’s 🤞🏼 nearly over.

I do have one ulterior motive, and that is to encourage vaccination. I am too young for it, but if you are over 50, it’s so important to get the shingles vaccine, so please take my September story as a motivating tale. I’ve heard that the vaccine side effects can be bad, but actual shingles is way, way worse — and one in three people will get this at least once. My bout of it, as painful as it was, was technically mild. I wish people in their 30s were eligible.

Like most cats, Yoyo spreads out on the washable cotton rug that I put down in front of my shrine so my kneeling bench doesn’t slip on the hardwood floor in a configuration that makes kneeling impossible. She has turned to the Gods in her old age. This started about when I started doing some evening offerings for Eir because I was setting down the rugs more often. Also, yes, her belly has been shaved. It’s not very photogenic.

Implementing a Backup Ritual for September

With that said, I think the best thing to do in this update post — and the thing I’d rather have someone take away from it — is the way that I managed my prayer routine while having this illness. For the most part, I was able to do some activities as long as I rested and took painkillers, so I was actively praying at my shrine using an abbreviated ritual schedule. This involved praying to the household Gods and spirits; a quick libation to all of the Gods with a shoutout to Athene and Belesama; prayers to Eir and Apollon; and prayers to the creative Gods.

That may seem like a bit of a list. However, it was about 10-12 minutes, not my usual 20-30 minutes. I changed up my meditation routine to ensure that I was doing pain management meditations in the apps that I use (Calm and Headspace; lately, I’ve been preferring Calm because the talk before meditation in Headspace distracts me from the meditation, especially on days when something the guide says reminds me of something in a Platonic commentator, and Calm does the two-minute talk after the meditation finishes). I’ve committed to praying to Eir daily during this year of my life, and I pray to Apollon daily. I think 5 minutes of the 12 was actually the prayer to Apollon.

Praying to the Gods daily is an anchor for me. Shortening the routine drew me to reflect on what about my current routine has been hollow and what has been enriching (as ritual is always iterative, even while it has some foundational elements). I prayed to Aphrodite on the autumnal equinox and thought about what it means to be in her season. Over the past few days, I’ve slowly broadened out my ritual routine, although some elements of the shift have persisted.

Reading

My partner didn’t see me until the 24th due to the small risk from shingles. She is young enough to have had the chickenpox vaccine (amazing what a 3-year age difference means), but that doesn’t guarantee anything with this. In fact, she is likely the only one who was at any risk of contagion, as we would have been sharing bedding, and the scenarios in which I could see anyone in my broader life grabbing my head are nonexistent. On the weekends, and often on weekdays (as I was working from home more due to the fatigue; that accommodations request process was brutal paperwork), I read. Work Won’t Love You Back. Simplicius on Epictetus (both volumes). Olympiodorus on Alcibiades I. Porphyry’s Letter to Marcella. It was advantageous, admittedly, because I wanted to finish most of the Platonic texts on my currently-reading list in advance of the Nobel Prize in Physics announcement, especially since I have two communal venues for digging into Platonic texts that I want to prioritize over the next few months. I started rereading the Phaedrus at the beginning of September’s final decad, and my heart swooned. The dialogue is so lush and bright and I am beside myself. I wonder if the beautiful living thing Plato has Socrates discuss in the Palinode (when he’s referring to a beautiful youth, a beloved) is the dialogue itself. Following it, we cannot stray from our memory of circuit of the Gods.

Simplicius’ commentary on Epictetus has been on my TBR for a while. Arguably, it’s something that someone just starting out with spiritual development should read, especially someone interested in Platonism. We read texts when we need to read them, though, and reflecting on the passages while recovering from shingles has been good psychological and philosophical medicine for handling an extremely painful illness and reflecting on my life.

A collage of images from reading Simplicius. Inside, outside, all-side.

I’m currently reading Phaedrus-related things, listening to The Universe Speaks in Numbers, and reading a fiction book, Before We Visit the Goddess. The second part of Hermias’ notes on Syrianus’ lectures on the Phaedrus comes out in a decad. I cannot wait.

Lifestyle Changes and Self-Care

Back in June, a community discussion on the Crito had me reading Socrates’ discussion of his submission to Athenian laws and the way in which he viewed himself bound to a system he never disputed or left. Reading the Crito was the primary factor in leaving Twitter — most of my reasons for remaining there were absolute nonsensical excuses, and submitting to the unwritten constitution of Twitter was wrecking me with its toxicity. Unfortunately, rejecting a social media platform for self-care reasons does not indicate that someone is practicing all of the other parts of self-care that are important, namely differentiating (as Epictetus wisely said) between what we can and cannot control and ordering our lives in such a way that we are not overly encumbered by the accidentals of our situation.

One of the things I cannot control is the way my nervous system is wired to amplify the impact of stress. It’s likely why I got shingles the first time (unless I have something unknown going on). I decided to make some additional lifestyle changes this month to improve my calmness and reduce my chances of getting another flare-up of the chickenpox virus.

And now for an off-the-cuff discussion of self-care.

The Platonic view of self-care is a bit far afield of the agora. It pulls from Platonic interpretations of Stoic writings and from the life of Socrates and anecdotes about the philosophers. We are each partial souls that are projecting irrational lives, to paraphrase Simplicius — both in the sense of how our immortal souls interact with our specific incarnations and in terms of the shape of our entire soul-cycle. True self-care is placing the rational soul, the driver, at the helm and managing the irrational desires and emotions one has. A desire-driven life engages in self-care activities as a pleasurable telos, and an emotion-driven life engages in the same activities in order to pacify and self-soothe into positive affect. Unfortunately, pleasures and pains only further rivet the soul to the body, as Plato teaches us; these very acts of trying to make things right — while aiming at the good of homeostasis — further bind us to the world of coming-to-be.

From Simplicius, it’s evident that the correct approach combines evidence-based techniques with our understanding of the rational soul — knowing what our accidentals and incarnation-specific things are versus knowing who we each are as souls (an individual partial soul in the series of a leader-God) and knowing what we do control (our attention). The goal of self-care is to have mastery over ourselves (and to avoid being too harsh on ourselves when we slip up; we can’t change the past) so we (at least, for those of us into this) can do contemplative and intellectually rigorous work. It means focusing on integrating ourselves and ensuring that what we do has a positive impact on our sense of unity, that we are vibing with Gods like Athene and Apollon who collect our souls, which are in a sense the images of Dionysos, back together again.

What this means on a practical level likely looks familiar: Engaging in a healthy diet primarily composed of colorful vegetables and complete proteins with some complex carbohydrate sources and little sugar (under 5% daily calories); doing moderate exercise with a bit of weight training; meditating daily; prioritizing real social bonds over the parasocial hells of social media; doing good works; refraining from spending money that is not explicitly related to essentials or goals; and avoiding overconsumption of the news. Simplicius goes a lot farther in his commentary, which could perhaps be titled Emily Post for Aspiring Philosophers, but the core point is that reorganizing one’s life in order to prioritize the soul’s fulfillment, insofar as one can, is always the best choice. The primary issue at stake in this section of the commentary, and in the potential conduct of someone seeking that kind of lifestyle, is the soul’s forgetfulness of itself and the potential for one of our irrational components to overthrow and become a tyrant to our rational self. The prohibitions, the emphasis on austerity, and so on are all highly obvious personal cues for prioritizing what is important. Prioritizing our soul is true self-care — the care for who we truly are. Porphyry’s Letter to Marcella provides an even more austere version of this, with its ample discussion of how Marcella should establish her life priorities and what outlook she should cultivate now that she knows that she is the soul.

The second page of the brainstorm I did after I finished the quadrant portion. This was an integration of what I was reading in Simplicius on Epictetus with a tool I had gone through from Rowena Tsai, along with her midyear update. The “abiding compassion” thing comes from something I’ve been thinking about with Apollon over the past year or so — that sense during compassion meditations, when focusing on the God, of that superabundant goodness and that endless care.

In this vein, I can’t control a lot of what has been upsetting me, and the emotions during the return-to-work upheaval over the past year have definitely disturbed my equilibrium. I also have frequent flashbacks to things that happened in November 2021 and feel a hollow pain in my chest every time I think about it, especially how easily people believed lies, and feel echoes inside of the two or so weeks that I spent not being able to really eat. Often, when under stress, we kick our self-care routines to the curb (which is definitely true for me). We stop meditating, we stop eating well, we stop all of that, often to engage in self-soothing behaviors (for many people, according to the prevailing research, scrolling online) that will only create a temporary respite. And sometimes we try to push through injury instead of actually addressing it.

Pulling back the reins and forcing ourselves to engage in healthy habits when we don’t want to — cultivating self-discipline — is the way to ensure that things stay OK during times like these. It’s not about what feels best at the time. It’s about treating our bodies, our desires, and our emotional selves the way that we would treat any dependent, “you can’t leave the table until you finish your vegetables”-style. Last week, I brought my 18-year-old cat to the vet for her wellness checkup, and as part of that, they held her down and shaved the mats on her belly while she howled and howled and my heart beat fast and the world felt distant listening to her scream. They never nicked or harmed her. I was jittery for hours after Yoyo and I got back home. And now the mats she wouldn’t let me touch are gone, along with the risks that not attending to them posed. Sometimes care and attention for who we are responsible for is not pleasant.

I restarted a subscription to a meal planning app that I once used (PlateJoy), which lets me filter out foods beyond gluten that I cannot eat. So. Much. Spinach. At. My. Table. I started doing yin and hatha yoga after work, prioritizing yin, to wind my nervous system down after work. I started taking magnesium in the evenings, which has improved my sleep. I scheduled my COVID-19 bivalent booster shot and my flu shot (for different times). I brainstormed improvement areas related to work, physical/emotional/mental health, relationships, and soul/spirituality. I re-started asking myself what about my current life can best express the unique gifts of the series I am in and the beauty of the God, prompted by some prep work I was doing for discussing seirai with others and the discussion itself. I decided to process the emotions that I am feeling about the return to the office and drain the pus from old social wounds and come into a place of acceptance that’s a bit different from where I thought I’d be. Thank you, Simplicius, for helping me process things I hadn’t even realize I needed to, definitely many things I have not mentioned here because they are for the ears of friends or my private notes and thoughts, not for the public. After watching a video from Buddhist monk Nick Keomahavong about evening routines (full disclosure, I’ve been binge-watching his videos), I pondered what “sleeping in a sea of merits” means in my own spiritual context. I experienced the joy of it while reading the Phaedrus and Simplicius and want to manage my evening/morning routines so I can build on that.

It hasn’t all been easy. The what is in our power/not in our power, especially Simplicius’ take on it as someone who directly experienced the crackdowns that ended the Platonic Academy, needs to be balanced against other things like our responsibilities and roles in society, like our obligations as citizens. (His situation could become very relevant if the Republican faction that wants to eliminate the separation between church and state gains power.) There’s also the puzzle of how to do self-discipline in a way that does not become unbecomingly tyrannical to the self. We want to exercise self-compassion, obviously, and not viciousness towards ourselves, even as we seek to be as honest as possible about the conditions of our interior city and how they came to be as they are. We want to be able to gently tell ourselves that, no matter what happened, we are purified (which I bet is a weird statement for those who haven’t read a lot of Platonism), we have experienced whatever our soul needed to experience: We should hold our heads high and move on without gnawing on what was.

I’ll leave you with a self-care video from someone who has training in mental health that provides some solid advice.

I hope that everyone has a good close to September, and may you be well.

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