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Becoming 'one with the sofa' — author/artist comes to terms with her disability

by: PHOTO: MERRY MACKINNON - Skyler Freimann recently published her book of artwork and spiritual teachings titled 'One With the Sofa: A Taoist Guide for the Physically Challenged.' Behind her are displayed examples of her digitally created cosmic art.

When Skyler Freimann wakes in the morning, she’s in pain. The 75-year-old has fibromyalgia, chronic kidney disease and arthritis. She has had five hip and two knee replacement surgeries. And so, at the cozy Southeast Portland house where she lives with her family and two dogs, she spends a lot of time lying on the living room sofa.

Once, when an understanding friend, who is also physically challenged, remarked, “Some days I feel like I’m one with the sofa,” Freimann had an idea. An artist and award-winning photographer who made her living as a mental health care practitioner, Freimann began photographing people on couches. She took photos of her granddaughter and anyone else who would agree to pose for her. Then, using a computer graphics program, she transformed the photos into images of individuals sitting, stretched out and curled up on couches floating in cosmic dreamscapes. Accompanied by brief spiritual teachings compiled while she was confined to the sofa, the project “just clicked,” Friemann recalled.

Eventually, the project materialized into her recently published book, “One With the Sofa: A Taoist Guide for the Physically Challenged,” with the sofa metaphorically signifying life’s ordeals. A contemplative lesson plan for reaching a higher consciousness when faced with pain and illness, the book is organized into 52 themes, such as Oneness, Expansion, Pride, Karma and Effortlessness, expressed in Zen-like subtle statements.

“I have a deep hope that the book can help people with physical or emotional suffering to learn to surrender,” Freimann said. “It’s almost like the 12-Step Program.”

Shedding the inner illusions that block the serenity she seeks has been Freimann’s lifelong mission. And her living room portrays that journey. One wall is covered with photos of friends and family. Spread above the couch are samples of her art work, some looking like bursts of light from birthing galaxies. On her fireplace mantel sits a colorful statue of an elephant-headed man, the Hindu god Ganesha. Above the mantel are pictures of many of Freimann’s spiritual gurus and mentors.

Influenced by a variety of religious traditions, Freimann doesn’t pray to a specific deity. However, she does meditate for one hour daily.

“My practice is to work on accepting everything that comes my way,” she says.

All that she learned from her mentors, her studies and her own thoughts is summed up in her book with its multi-layered, first-person statements, such as: “In practicing acceptance of what is, I feel less the need to force things, until finally I arrive at non-action.”

Her method of achieving non-action is not that different from what she had been taught years ago in childbirth classes — to relax into the pain.

“Resistance tightens up everything,” Freimann said.

Consulting her own book for guidance, Friemann figures she’ll be on this spiritual path “to the day I die.”

In the several years it took to create the book, Freimann also endeavored to avoid presenting herself as a disabled person. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” she said.

And she has succeeded. Her presence is strong and serene and her voice, calming and kind, mirroring a koan in her book under the theme “Compassion”: “In surrendering to the sofa, in giving up judgment and desire, I grow naturally compassionate, toward myself and others.”