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.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Learning From Nirmala

I first encountered a spiritual teacher named Nirmala (born Daniel Erway) on my Kindle.  (You can find his site here.)  I had been downloading books by Buddhist teachers and one day as I was checking out the Kindle storefront, I happened to look at their lists of suggestions.  There were several inexpensive books by Nirmala.  Most of the reviews were very positive and so I decided to buy one of his books.  The book I bought was called "Nothing Personal:  Seeing Beyond the Illusion of a Separate Self".  I found myself responding to some of what Nirmala was teaching.  I responded strongly enough that I downloaded the other three books, one of which is a book of his poetry.  I haven't read much of his poetry yet, but I have read his latest book called "That is That:  Essays About True Nature" and am in the process of reading the book that came out before this one called "Living from the Heart".

So I read "Nothing Personal" several months ago and wrote a blog entry called "Something Rich and True" on September 14th.  Nirmala, who may or may not be a Buddhist teacher, was asserting that Awareness is God.  This idea touched me on several levels.  It made me curious enough to begin to study my then present moments.  In his book, Nirmala kept inviting the reader to tap into present moment awareness, to test what he was saying out.  So from time to time I would put my Kindle down and just look around the open space of my living room and dining room.  I've lived in this house now for approximately 23 years and I continue to find the space interesting.  But perhaps it's not the space that is so interesting, but my awareness of the space.  Awareness is interesting.

On some level we are always aware, even when we're asleep some part of us is experiencing the dream state as if it were real, when it is not.  The idea that life is a dream is not a new one; it's deeply entwined in Buddhist concepts.  And yet, awareness of what is not real can be as interesting as an awareness of what is real.  Obviously this is so because so many of us are more aware of our thoughts, which are actually not real, and not aware of our surroundings, which are real.  Living on automatic, going from thing to thing while worrying, doubting, anticipating, is not being aware of the larger picture.  Our focus narrows, Nirmala would say it contracts.  We only see what is directly in front of us, often some worrisome thought, and fail to experience a greater mindfulness, a greater awareness of the moments that are always passing away from us.

When we contract, shut down, become myopic, we suffer.  Our awareness becomes limited, imagined problems grow large.  When we expand (again this is a Nirmala word), we open up and begin to see that there's a lot of space around everything and we relax.  Some Buddhists talk a lot about space, what they call Shunyata, also called emptiness.  One of the first things I noticed when I began to sit with my pain and look at it was that the pain was concentrated in one place, but became less intense as the space expanded around it.  I realized that the space around the pain was crucial; it gave me a choice.  I could focus on the center of the pain, weaving stories about the pain and feeling miserable or I could identify with the space around the pain and feel a release from some of the suffering.  So pain occurs within a large space.  Put in that context, our personal pain may be rather small, but only if we make that shift in our perspective.  That's hard to do because from childhood we have been taught to remain self-centered about our pain and the pain of those we care for.  We have been taught that pain is a Big Deal.  In making it a Big Deal, we magnify it and in magnifying it, we distort it and forget that the truth is much vaster.

I said that Awareness was interesting.  In the instance of me looking closely and impartially at my pain, awareness allowed me to consciously shift my attention away from my pain.  This shift left an impression on me.  I began to doubt that the pain I continued to feel off and on with my bouts of depression and anxiety was a solid and semi-permanent thing without much space within it or around it.    The space concept began to form an open foundation for further study.  I am also comforted by it.  The value of space shows me that there is always room to grow and that pain is just a smaller part of the landscape, not the whole picture.  Buddhists also say that there is no intrinsic self because what we are is spacious awareness rather than a body with thoughts.  This idea is a new one for me.  I still attach to myself as a body with thoughts, but not totally.  There's still room for the concept of spacious awareness as self to sprout and grow.

Mindfulness is Awareness practice whether you are meditating or going about your day and night.  You've heard something about mindfulness.  Really I think we go in and out of mindfulness all the time.  But what is it?  Awareness that is heightened.  Simple activities such as cooking,  eating, cleaning, bathing, driving as well as just being, stopping and looking around are infused with something special when you pay attention to either the details of the activity or the details of your surroundings if you're looking around.  And then there's sitting meditation practice where you identify thoughts as thoughts, return to the breath and let them go over and over.  The mindfulness lesson in that is that awareness gives you the power of having a choice, either to remain lost in the dream of thoughts or awake to the space of the present moment once the thought bubble has been popped.  Awareness of space is also awareness of self in space, hence the term spacious awareness.

From what I can see, Buddha Nature is what is intrinsic to spacious awareness, to Self.  Before the thoughts come and the judgments, there is unadulterated you, the essence of which is all good.  If space is the basis of everything and space is by its nature all embracing, accepting, non judgmental, peaceful, adaptable, essentially loving, even joyful, then we can heave a sigh of relief and train to shift our attention away from our preoccupation with the thoughts in our minds.  This is a radically different approach to understanding ourselves than the Judeo-Christian model which believes that our natures are fallen and essentially sinful.  Instead there is this idea that we never left the garden of eden, that we are still there in all our wonderful innocence, only we have fallen for the illusion that we are essentially bad and unworthy.

Living with acute psychosis telling me over and over again that I was evil, but never really believing it in my heart of hearts, led me to a compassion practice for myself and the voices.  Compassion practice led me to the idea of Buddha Nature.  Yes, people can and do do hateful, horrible things but the essence of the doer is not in the action, though many people appear to think so.  An "evil" action can brand the doer of that action "evil" as well.  I believe an evil action can produce some harsh karma; I think that what goes around comes around, but I don't believe in inherently evil people.  I believe in deeply ill people.  The harsher the crime, the greater the compassion.  Unfortunately, we are a bloodthirsty lot and behave towards offenders with as much illness as it took him or her to commit the act in the first place.  But our need for vengeful "justice" is mostly conditioning and still beneath that grisly veneer there is our essentially good nature and a way to get beyond our own brands of negativity.

I think it is fair to say that you can't recover from severe mental illness for very long if you continue to view yourself as essentially sinful and potentially evil.  The concept of Buddha Nature or the essential goodness in everything is a treatment for such a sick orientation.  It gives you permission to love yourself, love others, the whole world and beyond.
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