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.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sitting With The Pain

Thanks Mike for the comment you left on my last blog entry. It's good to know that there is someone out there sometimes following my blog who is interested in both Buddhism and the I Ching. I really would love to hear from you, especially about your studies with the I Ching, since I don't talk about it much with anyone.

Actually, I have not been consulting the I Ching as frequently since I turned my studies over to Buddhism, but I'm still keeping in touch several times a week. When I do, I have been getting in response to my questions a single hexagram with no moving lines. It's supposed to be an emphatic response, a hexagram to contemplate in its entirety. You're supposed to stop and look for a while. I asked the question "What should I focus on this year?" and I got 26 Great Taming. That stuck with me intuitively, though I couldn't say why. Then I asked if I should take this Buddhist course and I got 60 Measuring. Measuring, which I see as setting limits and being disciplined, also fits with Great Taming or, in this instance, me taming myself through meditation and philosophical studies. I was also reading a Pema Chodron book and she repeatedly used the word "tame" in talking about Buddhist practice.

So I've continued to meditate once or twice a day all this week. I've also been trying to just be, just sit still with my pain when it comes up; invariably it returns. I don't just sit still, I look at the pain. What I found was that the pain was not pure, solid pain, but pain sharing the same space with pleasure or non pain. The pain was concentrated and around it there was a lot of non pain or space or even pleasure. What this means is that the situation is not completely desperate. I have the choice to let go of the pain by redirecting my attention to the open spaces.

And I've thought this before in a different context. I've thought that the voices which have been capable of much cruelty and sickness are really part of a wonderful mystery. They are aware and can communicate and are subtle and intelligent and creative. There is a lot of space around them as well. My next thought was that people automatically attach the idea of hearing voices to something negative. They are a sign of mental illness, period. Though I'm aware that there are people who hear voices who are not mentally ill. I heard voices that were mainly benevolent for years before I became delusional and paranoid. Granted, I was still sick but not so much because of voices as because of the personal choices I made in life up to that point. I have said to those who are ill with voices or to their caretakers: Look for the good in the voices, don't just focus on the bad and you will begin to ease your suffering by expanding your perspective.

Buddhist practice seems to be expanding my perspective on my immediate experiences even more. I had heard Pema Chodron talk about the open space or in Tibetan "shunyata" that is always available and about breathing in pain in the tonglen meditation practice and breathing out the healing of pain, but it is only now after meditating for a couple of weeks that I am starting to understand that the two go together. And instead of pain being all bad, it is like another quality of experience, something to compare and contrast with other experiences, reactions and feelings. Don't get me wrong, I still want to run away from pain, but just being willing to sit with the pain and not do anything and let thoughts go even for a minute I am changing my mental atmosphere and opening myself up gradually.

But before I came to that awareness, I was just sitting in meditation with the attitude that I wasn't doing it to feel good, rather to find my way awkwardly to wake up to my present experience. That's an important point. Meditation can be very pleasant, sometimes so pleasant that you attach to it as a way of meditating "right", but really whenever you stop doing and rest in just being, you are meditating, regardless of whether you are comfortable or not or whether you are lost in thought a lot or not. There is no "right" way to meditate, not really, there is just having the courage to face your present moment and breathe through it and to let yourself keep waking up. You know how it feels to get all sleepy sitting next to a stranger on a train? You keep drifting off into sleep leaning into the person beside you only to wake up suddenly and with some embarrassment, only to fall again into sleep. Meditating can be like that, except you get all caught up in your thoughts, which, if you look at them, have no substance, only to realize that you are caught up, which then wakes you up to rest from your thoughts for a while. Either way, you are pulled into sleep/dreaming and then you wake up for short intervals...and that is meditation. As you go along training yourself to label thoughts as "thinking" and to encourage yourself to "Wake Up" I believe the intervals of being awake, aware and not lost in thoughts gradually become longer and longer.

So Buddhism is The Big Experiment. Each individual who approaches Buddhism must look to their own experience and start watching and asking intelligent questions. But I'm starting to see that you do need contact with others along the way, especially a teacher and other students. I was given permission to join the online Sanghaspace and I got my introductory course materials yesterday along with contact information for the Lama and one of her senior students. Within the next couple of days I will contact Lama Shenpen and the contact person chosen for me via email. I'm pretty sure the contact person is a volunteer, so I will be very respectful towards her. I have read through some of the materials and it is the real deal. It's written clearly, intelligently and sensitively and it has substance to it. I'm very pleased so far. I keep hoping that something that I do will take hold and that I won't continue in my pattern of embracing one thing, letting it go, embracing a new thing, letting it go, returning to an old thing, etc... I have good ideas, but I don't often follow through or I follow through but it takes me years of moving away and towards again. Maybe that's okay, as long as I don't give up on myself.

That's a new thought too: maybe it's okay to be the way I am. Maybe, but I'm not convinced yet. What I do tend to do is view myself as wrong in some way. If I feel pain, then I'm doing something wrong. When I look closely, that's not accurate. Pain doesn't have to be a judgment upon you, it can just be a fact of life. We demonize pain and blame all our troubles on it, but it's really just one of many aspects of our experience. The fact that it stands out makes it easier to study it, if you have the courage to do so. That's where I'm at right now, just getting used to sitting with discomfort/pain/suffering for a little while, here and there throughout the day/night. I'm even getting to the point where I welcome a bit of pain just so I can study and understand more about it. It's a tentative welcome, but there nonetheless.
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