A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Visit


Home again after a week away in Florida visiting my parents. They were both in good health and good spirits; it was a pleasure to be around them. My mother is now officially eighty years old. I am relieved that my parents have made it this far in relatively good health and hope that they will continue this way for a while yet to come. I take comfort in the fact that they have lived full lives. I brought with me my hand held tape recorder and recorded conversations with them and I plan to do so in August when I see them again.

The retirement community had a birthday lunch for all those born in the month of March; they have birthday lunches each month and family and friends are welcome. My mother, father and I sat at a table with three other people, an unmarried couple, both widowed I believe and and a single man, also widowed. I sat between my mother and father and smiled a lot, but said little. I felt self-conscious about having neither a job/career nor a family of my own and about being mentally ill and overweight. I worried for a few moments that someone at the table would ask me questions about myself and wondered what I would say. My brother, who had not come to visit this time, would have been busy talking. He’s in his element when he’s around people because he’s a skillful and interesting talker. He puts people at ease by being attentive and humorous. Luckily for me, in this instance, the unmarried couple and my mother (and occasionally my father) directed the conversation.

They talked about how twenty percent of the retirement community were over ninety years old, most still living independently. But then they also talked about the relative prevalence of people there suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. They didn’t talk about this disease with dread and depression, perhaps because everyone at the table was in good mental health. Their attitude was practical and compassionate. Sometime in the past six months one man with Alzheimer’s disease had managed to wander outside one night and was found the next day drowned. His family had refused to put a device on him that would have alerted the staff that he had left the buildings. The result of this sad incident was that everyone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia was now required to wear this device.

My mother then steered the conversation towards the toy sailboat race that had taken place the previous morning. We had all been there and two of the men had competed using expertly crafted three or four feet long boats that were operated by remote control. It had been a sunny day with some wind, but not enough to cancel the race, as had happened once or twice before. Only a handful of people were racing mainly because the boats had to be purchased and they were expensive, though the other woman at the table had found a boat at a rummage sale and bought it for a mere fifteen dollars (it would have normally cost close to three hundred dollars). A real bargain because it was in tip top shape. Out of the handful of people racing was only one woman and she lost sight of her boat part way through the race and had mistakenly been watching the wrong boat. This was an easy mistake to make as several of the boats looked alike with numbers on them that were not visible enough. She decided that she would stain the jib of her boat a brilliant color so that she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

We finished the birthday lunch with coffee, cake and ice cream, which I enjoyed because I rarely eat cake and ice cream, and then headed back to my parents apartment. It was the day before I was to leave and while my parents took a nap I reviewed the week. We had had a successful week. They had taken me to see an exhibit of some of Picasso’s work at an art museum in Naples; we had gone over to Sanibel Island for lunch and then spent some time on the beach; we went to Barnes and Nobles to shop, a special treat for me as there are no large book stores where I live; and we had gone to see a movie. I had spent more of my time talking to my mother than to my father as my father would more often than not retreat to his room to read, work on the computer or watch television, but I did get to tape him talking about his family for a couple of hours one evening.

My mother had very graciously given her room to me for the duration of my stay. Sometime after my father had retired, my mother had chosen to have a room of her own. When they moved into this retirement community about nine years ago, they picked an apartment with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. This way they could live together yet have a measure of independence too. My father stays in the master bedroom, which has two twin beds, a bathroom and a space for the computer. While I was there, my mother would spend much of her time in the communal space of the combined living room and dining room reading or doing the New York Times crossword puzzles. I confess that I spent a little too much time in my bedroom reading, listening to audiobooks and meditating.

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I had wanted to meditate more than I actually did. I found it hard to keep up the practice that I had begun at home. My need to be attentive to my parents outweighed my desire to keep my focus on my breath. I realized that this was only natural because I was a beginner and not well trained, but against my better judgment, I was disappointed. This trip had caused me to lose momentum, but it didn’t deter me from keeping in touch with the practice off and on throughout the day. At Barnes and Nobles I picked up an audiobook by Jon Kabat-Zinn Ph.D. called Full Catastrophe Living. I had meant to get it for several years. For quite a while he has run a stress-reduction clinic in Massachusetts using meditation or mindfulness practice. The program he teaches on the 5 disc set is meant for people who suffer from chronic pain or other severe stress producing illnesses. The basic practice is to meditate for 45 minutes daily for an eight week period with the ultimate intention of incorporating the practice into one’s life.

Mr Kabat-Zinn says, and I have found it to be true, that being mindful of the breath going in and out is not easy. Resting in a state of “non-doing” does not feel natural. The impulse is to get up and do something or to get caught up in thinking. I think during those restless times it’s important to do yoga or any slow stretch while breathing deeply. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s audiobook Wherever You Go, There You Are and he encourages his listeners to get down on the floor at least once a day. So, I’ve been doing that fairly regularly and it has led me back to yoga. My extra weight makes me cumbersome, yet I’m more flexible than I thought I would be. I used to be a bit of a dancer and I still know after all these years that I must proceed slowly and cautiously. Feeling the floor beneath my body and then feeling my body is another way to gently wake myself up to all the good stuff in the present moment.

Today I exercised on my stationary bike for an hour while listening to Pema Chodron. Later I did a short work out with 5 pound weights. Of course, I want to lose the weight I’ve put on, but more than that I want to stay in touch with my body. If I can open to myself as I am then I can gradually establish healthy patterns of behavior--exercise, eating right, meditation. Proper self-care.









Saturday, March 8, 2008

Tonglen Meditation Practice


I’ve just about committed to the practice of Buddhism though I’m still feeling it out. I’ve been meditating every day for the past week. It’s not an easy endeavor; I feel my restlessness and my anxiety. Sometimes I settle into the meditation and my discomfort begins to disperse and other times I just sit breathing in the discomfort. I’ve been listening to audio tapes of Western Buddhist teachers and I’ve been reading books by them as well, especially Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun who follows the traditions from Tibet.

I first encountered the teachings of Pema Chodron soon after my last psychotic break six years ago. I had gone to Borders’ bookstore and bought one of her audio tapes. It was called Awakening Compassion, meditation practice for difficult times. I was about to go on a week long trip with my family and I felt fragile and unprepared. I thought this meditation might offer me some relief, some guidance and so I listened to the tapes on that trip. Pema Chodron talked about an in depth practice called lojong or “mind training”. This includes meditation on 59 pithy slogans in conjunction with a meditation practice called tonglen. Tonglen means “taking in and sending out”; you take in pain and discomfort and you send out healing and joy. First you do this for yourself in an abstract way, then you focus on a particular pain such as anxiety or depression and finally you imagine that you are breathing in other people’s pain and breathing out or sending to them healing. So the first part is the in-breath; you take in, breath in, make room in your heart for discomfort and suffering. You get in touch with it in a visceral way.

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths. The First Truth is the fact of suffering. Breathing in pain is getting in touch with this First Truth. But what is also true for most of us? We want to run away from suffering, our own and others, not always, but often. We look for pleasure to mask the pain. And so, choosing to breathe in the pain, to sit with it for the span of an in-breath and then keep returning to it breath after breath is extraordinary. Instead of running away, we face the problem, we give suffering it’s due attention and respect. And then comes the out breath, the release, the healing, repeated over and over. It’s like saying--face the problems in life, embrace them and transform them, first for yourself and then for all others.

Sounds great, but the practice takes courage. Sometimes the courage is there and sometimes it’s not, either way the practice is rich. When the courage is there you can embrace the pain, love it and release it, which feels wonderful. When the courage is not there, you sit with the pain and feel it. You are the pain. You acknowledge that you are tense, fearful, angry, restless or sad and you stay put. You remember the core of what you are working on, the fact of suffering in yourself and all others. This propels your spiritual quest, to understand suffering and to end it. I’m finding that both states, those with and without personal courage, are very valuable. This may be why many teachers instruct that the point of meditation is not to feel better. The point is to wake up to your present moment by cultivating love and compassion for yourself. If you’re having a “good” meditation, then you feel a calm, deep pleasure, a cessation of suffering, which is essential to experience. But if you’re having a “bad” meditation, you are struggling to sit still and breath through the suffering. That is also essential to experience. This practice involves commitment and a gentle, lovingkind discipline.

“The Second Noble Truth is the origin, roots, nature, creation, or arising of suffering. After we touch our suffering, we need to look deeply into it to see how it came to be. We need to recognize and identify the spiritual and material foods we have ingested that are causing us to suffer.” --Thich Nhat Hanh (The Heart Of The Buddha’s Teaching)

I think tonglen practice continues to echo the Noble Truths. Breathing in the pain we “touch our suffering”. Returning to it again and again we have a chance “to look deeply into it to see how it came to be.” The Third Noble Truth tells us that an end to suffering is possible by refraining from doing the things that harm us. And so we breathe out all the suffering, release it into the wide open. I’ve found that I visualize being trapped in a box on the in-breath and then on the out-breath I feel as if I am breaking into a breast stroke in calm waters, a sudden release. I am held by gentle waters, buoyant, relaxed and free.

“The Fourth Noble Truth is the path that leads to refraining from doing the things that cause us to suffer. This is the path we need the most. The Buddha called it the Noble Eightfold Path. The Chinese translate it as the ‘Path of Eight Right Practices’: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.” (ibid)

Except for Right Speech and Right Livelihood, I think the tonglen practice can be seen as an expression of the other Right Practices--View, Thought, Action, Diligence, Mindfulness and Concentration. But I have only just rediscovered the tonglen practice and the Four Noble Truths and may be caught up in enthusiasm.

Since the onset of winter, I’ve been detached from people online and offline. I dug myself a hole I wasn’t sure that I could get out of, but now, returning to Buddhism has given me a way to reconnect with others. I start with myself, my suffering and my happiness. When I feel how I suffer, I can also know how others suffer the same way and when I feel my moments of happiness, I can know others feel the same way and wish for more of it to come for all of us. I can cultivate sympathy for myself and empathy for others, day in and day out. I continually lose my way, but then I remember my breath and the practice and I return and keep working on it.

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I leave Tuesday morning to go down to Florida to visit my parents for the first time in six months. My mother’s eightieth birthday is in a week; it will be so good to see them. I’ll be back by the nineteenth. Take care and stay well.



Saturday, March 1, 2008

More Thoughts On Thinking


My study of Krishnamurti has led me back to Buddhism. Alan Watts, an English philosopher, who was an expert on Zen Buddhism and Indian and Chinese philosophy, tried to clarify for Western audiences the nature of Eastern philosophy. He wrote a somewhat famous book called The Wisdom Of Insecurity in the early 1950’s. I bought that book just before I moved to Western New York in 1989, got part way through it and put it down. Now, almost twenty years later, I have picked it up again. But what does he mean? Why is it wise to be insecure? Perhaps because most people think that aiming to be secure is the wisest and most logical pursuit. Watts is flipping the conformist perspective around and taking a fresh look at what many of us take for granted.

What we take for granted is the illusion that we can exist in a secure state. Life is insecure. If it weren’t insecure, it would be static, dead. No matter how much we try to make life predictable, it isn’t. The present moment is always new; we are forever stepping into the unknown: “For most of us this conflict is ever gnawing within us because our lives are one long effort to resist the unknown, the real present in which we live, which is the unknown in the midst of coming into being. Living thus, we never really learn to live with it. At every moment we are cautious, hesitant, and on the defense. And all to no avail, for life thrusts us into the unknown willy-nilly, and resistance is as futile and exasperating as trying to swim against a roaring torrent.” (p. 94-5)

When we resist the torrent of life, we become conflicted and anxious. Basic logic would indicate that if we go with the flow, like water, which takes the path of least resistance, we would lose much of our conflict. Krishnamurti said that our thoughts were the source of all conflict. If this is true, then thinking is an unnatural process and a way of resisting life instead of embracing it. Meditation is a way of acknowledging the compulsive nature of thoughts then letting them go while returning to basic awareness. Basic awareness does not rely on language. Basic awareness is greater than language. Awareness doesn’t cease just because thoughts have temporarily stopped. If anything, life becomes more vital, more in your face. I’ve been meditating and I notice when I keep returning to an awareness of my breath that my anxiety begins to diminish. This is a physiological reaction to slowing down and deepening the breath, but it illustrates how breath is connected to our state of mind. When we are anxious our breath is shallow, when we are relaxed it is deep. Sighs can be very satisfying, a release of built up tension.

Each breath is real and life sustaining, but thoughts are not real. And yet we latch onto thoughts as if they were real. We are always thinking, planning, assessing, investigating, but while we do all that we often miss what is right in front of us. We stop seeing and experiencing what is. I know I am not mindful of my breath throughout the day, not mindful when I eat or bathe. Right now, I am fixated on the computer screen and the rest of the room is out of focus. I am trying to live in my thoughts rather than live in my life. I write for the same reason that teachers teach, to pass something on to someone else. But the something that I’m trying to pass on is elusive, not solid at all; it is passing memory that is fixed and objectified like a photograph. My thoughts are turned into things. These words on a computer screen are abstractions; they are symbols, echoes of an experience of thought in a particular time and place.

“Intelligence is the door to freedom and alert attention is the mother of intelligence.” ---Nisargadatta Maharaj

Mind, awareness, intelligence all wrap around each other in mutual support. Why then do thoughts attack and distort them? Aren’t thoughts the products of intelligence? The more I look into it, the more mind seems separate from thought. Mind is a presence and thought is a construct. To be in your right mind is to be in harmony with yourself and the world around you. To be out of your mind is to be ruled by delusions or false thoughts. Thoughts attach themselves to beliefs and beliefs lead to conflict. For instance, many people believe in a higher power in one form or another or several forms, but there will always be those who don’t believe at all in a higher power. These two groups generally look askance at one another, each group believing in the superiority of their position.

There really are no good people and no bad people, there are just people who have done good and bad things and have good and bad attitudes based on various thought/belief systems. Human beings are complex. Thoughts generally oversimplify, reducing the lushness of experience into it’s skeletal frame. Language can be a marvelous tool for expression, but there is always a compromise. It doesn’t represent reality; it’s an approximation, it points in a certain direction, it paints a picture. The problem is we mistake ourselves for our thoughts. We are much more than our thoughts. Mind is as vast as the universe, thoughts are a few stars with their solar systems.

Of our five senses, sight is the most dominant sense and the other senses often fall into the background, coming in and out of focus throughout the day. For those of us who can see, we rely on our sight and in relying so heavily on it, we also take it for granted. We see superficially and selectively. I know I pass by so many objects in my house and rarely stop to look at them. It’s the same with language; we rely heavily on our ability to communicate with each other. We forget that language is a by-product of intelligence, of mind. When we focus on words, we disregard our greater awareness; we divorce ourselves from our experiences.

If intelligence is “the door to freedom and alert attention is the mother of intelligence” it makes sense to remain alert. Buddhist call this alertness mindfulness practice. The first step is bringing the focus of your attention on your breath during the day. If you’ve ever been to the ocean you’ll notice that it is in constant motion. Metaphorically it breathes, in and out. When you are sitting or standing, aware of your breath, it is as if you are the ocean but instead of waves there are breaths. They never stop and yet, unlike an ocean, you can slow the rhythm down. Watching the breath seems to do that. If you can watch/feel your breath while you wash the dishes, fold the laundry, eat your food, bathe or do any number of things, you will find that your awareness gets clearer and you become calmer. This calm, clear awareness is intelligence. If intelligence is like the sun and the sky, thoughts are like passing clouds. Sometimes the clouds block out the sky and the sun, become dark and foreboding and other times they are light and beautiful. They dissolve and reform and change shape. As a meditator you watch the passing display, but you rest in the expanse of the sky and the warmth of the sun.