CP: Disability and Spiritual Practice?

Can simply living with a disability be a spiritual practice? Although I have talked about having CP generally, I have yet to explain how my CP impacts my physical abilities. Due to my CP, I have always had to tap into a high level concentration to complete any task requiring muscle coordination. You may be thinking, “Doesn’t every physical task require some level of muscle coordination?” In one word… Yes. I use a motorized wheelchair, have less control of my hands and arms and work hard to speak clearly.

Like many with disabilities, I have adapted my lifestyle to fit my abilities. In the words of one of my favorite comics, “When life gives you a wheelchair, make lemonade… You know what I mean!” I love to ski, windsurf and ride horses. I have traveled internationally and have a wonderful community of family and friends. Some say I have accomplished these things despite my CP. Over time, I have become comfortable telling these people that I have accomplished these things, in part, because of the lessons and worldview my CP has given me.

However, recently, I have come to have a more expansive understanding of my CP. Yes, I have learned lessons as a result of having CP, but now I am beginning to understand my CP to be my greatest spiritual practice. When this thought first crossed my mind, I was both startled and liberated.  The disability advocate in me was confused and resistant to this concept; but, in the midst of that confusion and resistance, I was curious.

I wanted to explore  this concept, this new way of viewing my “diagnosis and prognosis.” But the questions came racing at me. How can a condition that limits my muscle control also be my spiritual practice? Am I confusing spirituality with something else? Am I officially off my rocker?These questions were so numerous and some went to the core of my understanding of myself, God and spirit. I began journaling about this and worked to become more aware of how my physical sensations impact my spirit and vice versa. So far, I have identified 3 ways my CP helps me connect to my spirit and the Divine.

First, our connection to the Divine is through the breath. Most spiritual practices- from yoga to meditation- teach us to be mindful of our breath. My CP causes frequent, painful muscle spasms. The spasms can occur at any time, with little warning and can end just as suddenly as they commenced or can linger for a while. At the beginning of the spasm or cramp, I often hold my breath at the sudden change in my body and my mind shifts from focusing on what I had been doing to the discomfort in my body. Holding my breath and focusing on the spasms always intensifies the pain. As soon as I am aware that I am holding my breath, I begin to take slow, deep, deliberate inhalations and exhalations. My singular focus is on my breath. All other activity in the world ceases and I am brought back to the center of my world: my breath. I have come to realize that by focusing on my breathing,  I am focusing on the Divine and bringing my connection to the Divine to the forefront of my existence. Experiencing spasms anywhere, at any time provides me the opportunity to bring my focus back to my spirit, at any time. Reminding me that the Divine is in all places and I am connected to it at all times.

Second, an aspect of spiritual practice is listening to the messages of the Divine that come through our bodies. These messages tell us when we are in balance and harmony with our highest selves and when we are not. My CP causes my body to be sensitive to phenomena such as stress, imbalances in physical activity or a harmonious environment. This sensitivity is expressed through heightened physical sensations.  Stress in my outer environment often triggers muscle spasms or cramps and the pain is much more pronounced due to my heightened physical sensation; I receive loud messages that tell me something needs to be altered to reestablish alignment with my spirit. Whenever I try to ignore those feelings and proceed with my activity, the sensations intensify. They continue to “speak” to me until I listen and change whatever stimulus is causing the sensation.

Similarly, when I am engaged in activity that supports my spirit or in a harmonious atmosphere, the Divine also speaks to me because my muscles are completely relaxed and pain free. This is when I know that my decisions and choices are aligned with my spirit. My CP acts as a megaphone for the Divine by  taking the message of the Divine and amplifying it through the heightened sensations of my body. By paying attention to the physical sensations of my body, I am listening to the whispers of my spirit, which is part of the Divine.

Third, to be in a state of flow with the Universe is to be connected to the Divine. Accepting what is rather than working against it is the gateway to God. However, at times, life can be surprising and unpredictable. CP can heighten that unpredictability creating increased opportunity to choose to be in the flow of spirit. My muscle control varies day to day and I depend on various equipment to perform many tasks of daily living. Both of these can create unexpected circumstances that  allow space for the Divine to flourish.

Like many, I begin most of my days with a to-do list. However, some days my muscle control is less and my physical ability to complete my to-do list simply vacates the premises(I still have yet to figure out just where it travels to). At those times, I initially may become stressed about what I will not be able to do. When I become aware of those feelings, I realize I have the opportunity to accept the reality of my body and to flow with the Universe. Once I choose to be in the flow, I often realize that my body needs rest. Invariably, while resting, I am treated to  something purple outside my window, or an inspired thought comes to me or I hear a message on the radio or television that answers a question I have had for weeks. Accepting the flow of my body enables me to receive messages from the Divine I may otherwise miss because I am in the flow of the Universe.

I am still exploring this revelation and understanding its practical implications. At times, the opportunity to practice the above spiritual principles through my physical experiences with CP can come at(what I think are) the most inopportune moments. Occasionally, when I have spasms while trying to meet a deadline, I think , “Can I be spiritual in an hour? Once I have met my deadline, I will welcome this spasm, and the opportunity for deeper spiritual understanding it brings, with open arms. But right now, I simply want to finish the task at hand on time.” However, perhaps it is just in those moments when I most need the reminder that at the heart of all human experience, including disability, is the Divine.

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  • Victoria Gordon Findlay

    Hi Allison,
    I am grateful that you continue your spiritual practices of meditation and yoga. Indeed they are powerful techniques that can help you maintain your physical, emotional and spiritual center and connect with your intuition. In the paraphrase of a dear teacher, ‘the aim of your yoga practice must be to become spiritually open to receive. Never hurry. Never strain. Feel that what you do is being done with God’s grace and help, by your willing cooperation with God’s power.’ Continued blessings on this amazing journey.