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.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Magical Thinking

Magical thinking can be found in most religions; it can also be found in psychotic disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  There are various definitions of what magical thinking means, but it can swing from "normal" even positive to abnormal and possibly harmful.  I suffer from a mild case of OCD and I've had some of it since I was a young woman; it might have begun when I started to hear voices.  What I do obsessively/compulsively are minor things -- tearing toilet  tissue on the perforated line and not raggedly ripping it, when I microwave something often I make the time add up to the number 7 which I see as a lucky number, making sure my paper money is not in the reversed position in my wallet, making sure the tag on my comforter is down by my feet instead of up by my head, reciting a prayer not to hurt myself or any living thing when I drive my car.  That's all I can think of right now, but you can see that none of my OCD symptoms really incapacitate me, but I do notice them and they do disturb me.  Well, reciting the prayer mostly releases some of my anxiety and gives me the confidence to drive, but there are times when I think that I am not hitting any animals mainly because I am sending out a thoughtful prayer not to.  I do believe some of that, that turning your will towards lovingkindness, not just in your actions but in your deepest thoughts and feelings, can be both self and other protective.  Good will engenders good will in others and allows serendipity to occur.  

Pema Chodron has talked and written a great deal about a Buddhist meditation practice called tonglen.   The meditation goes through four stages.  First you imagine a wide, open space such as the sky or the sea, then you imagine breathing in the dark, warm, heavy, negative and breathing out the light, cool, refreshing and healing.  In the third stage you think of either your own pain or the pain of someone you care about; you breath that in as completely as possible and breath out anything you can imagine to release the pain into healing.  Pema Chodron has called this "changing the atmosphere" from dark to light, from painfully obstructed to liberated.  In the final stage you universalize it by realizing that other people suffer just like this and then wishing for all beings to free of this suffering.  To be free of suffering is to be in Nirvana or heaven.  I think that this is training in magical thinking/feeling because in essence the practice is about believing in the power of meditation to change the quality of life for yourself and then using that to extend the benefits out towards other people.  It's a magical thought that you as an individual can transform the negative into the positive merely through breathing and training your mind to harness the imagination.  But just because it is magical thinking should it be discounted the way we discount a delusion or can we remain openminded?  

Many religious people believe in praying, same for some non religious people who consider themselves spiritual nonetheless.  To an atheist, praying is magical thinking and for them praying is a waste of time and certainly has no effect on other people or situations.  Praying is just meant to comfort oneself during stressful times.  I believe there's truth in that, but I don't think that that's all there is to it.  So far, there is no good scientific test for the benefits of prayer, but there are more and more studies proving the benefits of meditation.  The latest Shambhala Sun, a Buddhist magazine, dedicates a whole issue to it.  On page 47 there's a chart that says on top, "Scientific Minds Want to Know".  The chart is divided into "The Question", "The Study" and "The Results".  Here are the questions:  "Is meditation effective for pain control?", "Can long-term meditation practice reduce brain atrophy and help prevent dementia?",  "Can Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) help prevent relapses of depression?",  "Does mindfulness benefit cancer patients?", "How does yoga compare with conventional treatment of lower back pain?", ""Does meditation help women cope with menopausal symptoms?" and "Does meditation affect brain structure?"  The results, to varying degrees, confirm that meditation/mindfulness/yoga are beneficial to human health, even brain structure is changed with an increase of "gray-matter density in the hippocampus, important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection."  They also found a decrease of "gray-matter density in the amygdala, which plays a role in anxiety and stress."  The decrease meant a reduction in stress levels.  

Prayer and meditation are related, but not the same.  Prayer involves magical thinking, either a belief in a higher power or spirit world.  You formulate a prayer and send it out.  Out into what?  Some primordial spiritual space where mere thoughts can travel across space and time and reach some unknown destination where it is heard and possibly acted upon.  The act of praying is not mysterious, but where our thoughts go when we pray is mysterious.  Western philosophy asserts that we are individuals, separate and solid, and that there is no primordial spiritual space where we can interact with either higher powers or each other.  Buddhists say that the idea that we are separate and solid is an illusion, a trick of our ego orientation.  Meditation is a method for them to uncover this trick in order to begin to free themselves from their dependence on their egos.  Our egos work through thoughts, speech and actions especially when we assert that this monolithic "I" is the center of the universe, that we are a big deal and that is also magical thinking.  Mindfulness meditation is applied to ego inflamed thoughts, speech and actions as a balm.  Through practice ego becomes more subdued, while awareness of the present moment increases.  I only think of mindfulness meditation as magical in that valuing the present moment in doing or being mode does make for heightened awareness and clear seeing.  What makes mindfulness practice accessible to nearly everyone is that it does not rely on the magical thinking of religions.  You don't have to believe in anything but the value of your present moment. 

In a meandering way, my point is that magical thinking can be either useful or harmful depending on how it's used.  Sending out a prayer for good health to a friend who is sick can be useful even if it has no effect on one's friend's health.  It can relieve stress and deepen compassion; it is not hurtful to yourself or anyone else.  And ultimately, we don't know what prayer might or might not do.  The point is, our intentions are good.  We desire to help and heal if only in our thoughts.  But the magical thinking involved in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can lock you into excessive behaviors that are harmful to yourself and possibly towards others.  And maybe you could even say that schizophrenia is an excessive form of OCD.  Delusions start out obsessive and then as they are accepted become compulsive.  To a paranoid person often their first thoughts are that someone is trying to persecute them, even when nothing is happening and no one is around.  I know the medications helped me to break out of my delusions and paranoia, but I had also gotten so low that I was sick and tired of being sick and tired and I knew my main priority had to be taking care of myself on very basic levels:  taking the medications, getting enough sleep, talking to my therapist, staying creative, writing in my journal etc...  I believed that doing these basic things would help me stay on the right, sane track.  For me it's not the OCD that really bothers me, but my dips into depression and anxiety, though OCD certainly has to do with anxiety, but it's attached to a specific action rather than being a generalized feeling of threat that can last for hours.  

One thing I'm pretty sure of and that is that most mental illnesses are related to each other.  People get misdiagnosed all the time because the doctors aren't quite sure.  Schizophrenia, Schizo-Affective Disorder, BiPolar Disorder, Major Depression are all in the same genetic soup.  Some of us started out with some magical thinking that de-evolved into delusional thinking/feeling.  Magic is borderline, but delusions are over the line and into insanity.  Magic can charm and delight and surprise, delusions can do some of that too, but the outcome is mostly negative.  But magic still relies on unseen forces and this belief in the unseen can pull you from a tentative balance into delusional distortions...or it can raise you up to a greater faith in the goodness of a higher power which can restore your sense of balance.  The mind at its best is flexible and allows room for the unknown; the mind at its worst is inflexible and shuts out fertile possibilities.  When I was delusional, I thought I knew The Truth and now that I'm in recovery I know I don't know The Truth, only little facets of it.  But I still believe in Magic.  The sanest amongst us must admit that appearances can be deceptive and the truth elusive.  We live with not knowing all the time, we live with life in flux all the time.  Magical thinking can help us come to terms with some of that.  
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