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, January 13, 2013

The Benefits Of Buddhist Practice

I just wanted to thank Chris, Ashley, Karen and Pam for leaving some great comments to my last blog entry about Pema Chodron.  These are all women who have experience with mental illness and yet each in different ways are deep into recovery.  They are smart, creative, talented and perceptive people and they have come a long way and have a lot to offer the world.  I respect and admire each and every one of them and am honored that they took the time to read my entry and comment.

I would like in this entry to address some of Chris' comment.  She wrote that while she responds to several of Pema Chodron's books, she can't commit to being a Buddhist or following Buddhist principles mainly because she believes that Buddhism shares with other organized religions the imperative to follow without questioning.  She also wonders whether it is appropriate to pick and choose what to believe while leaving the rest behind, which is an approach that I have supported in previous blog entries.

First of all, I have to say that while I am strongly influenced by Buddhist principles and have applied many to my life, I do not consider myself a Buddhist.  I did not grown up living with any form of organized religion and was taught to be suspicious of religions in general.  I turned towards Buddhism in my thirties, after having survived an abusive relationship but before I became actively ill with schizophrenia, because I had begun practicing yoga and meditation and I was curious.  The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, was my main teacher via audio programs.  He introduced me to the practice of mindfulness.

There is no dogma in the practice of mindfulness.  It's all about focusing your attention on what you are doing in the present moment and really staying aware.  Thich Nhat Hanh gave examples of mindfully eating and mindfully washing the dishes and said that one could apply mindfulness to everything.  And what was the point of doing this practice?  For me, as I practiced, the point was to really appreciate my life.  When I was mindful, and mindfulness lends itself to a kind of heightened perception, I was not lost thinking of the past or planning for and worrying about the future.  There is a great freedom contained in the practice of mindfulness, freedom and common sense.  I found it to be both enlightening and healing to my spirit and so I touched base with Buddhist practices just before my breakdown and then during it and beyond.

The Buddhist teachers that I went on to encounter in books and audiobooks over the years did not browbeat their readers and listeners into swallowing what they were teaching without questioning.  Instead they offered up a variety of practices and invited their audience to test these practices out in their own lives.  Pema Chodron has often said that she provides hints and clues about applying the practices, but that the ultimate test has to be done by each of us alone.  It was the Buddha himself who said that people should not blindly follow what he was teaching, but should test it out.

One of the reasons why I'm so enthusiastic about writing about Buddhist practice is because I have tested some of it out and found it to be, without a doubt, beneficial to myself.  The basic principles and practices encourage open mindedness, acceptance, tolerance, patience, generosity and love towards oneself and all others.  Being a pacifist, this loving philosophy gives me a lot of support to continue being a pacifist.  It also gives me hope that a lot of other people are turning towards the philosophy of peace in the world simply by applying these Buddhist practices to their lives.  When you embrace mindfulness, you embrace self responsibility and responsibility towards others, be they friend, stranger or foe. Mindfulness is about gently becoming more and more aware, more awake.  Too many of us are on automatic pilot, going through our busy lives without stopping to reflect and appreciate ourselves and life.

My purpose in writing about Buddhism is not to get readers to become Buddhists, but rather, to encourage them apply some of the Buddhist practices and attitudes to their lives.  The practices of mindfulness and sending lovingkindness prayers out to self and others alone are enough to benefit individuals and ultimately communities as well, if enough people turn their wills towards being aware and non harming.  What I'm proposing, along with most Buddhist teachers, is a gentle, gradual shift in awareness towards love, not just for self and loved ones, but as a basis for relating to people and life in general.  But in order to shift into love as a basis for relating to all people, individuals must have at least one or two spiritual practices to follow and guide them.  These do not have to be Buddhist practices, but I have discovered that Buddhism is rich in various practices and is quite accessible.

Chris questioned in her comment whether it was okay to pick and choose what to practice and what to ignore from either one religion or various religions.  I still believe that it is perfectly okay.  The point is to do what works for you and that could mean that you adhere to only one religion and follow it in an orthodox manner.  Whether you are orthodox or not, you are nonetheless on your own path.  You can choose no religion at all and be on a spiritual path.  I think we are all on the path whether we can consciously acknowledge it or not.  This is because we are beings that gravitate towards love, love of other people and love of all kinds of activities, with and without people.  It's the ones who turn towards anger and criticism, perhaps because of having been abused earlier, who are hurting the most, along with the ones who have moved from having been abused into the role of the abuser.

Even people who have been severely abused as children have experienced times of love and acceptance, if not from within their families, then from outside of them.  I think we are all born with the instinct to recognize the deep value of giving and receiving love.  So many of us lose sight of this when we've been hurt by people and life circumstances.  I know my heart went into a deep freeze and stayed frozen even after I left the abusive situation I had been living in.  It took a severe form of mental illness to wake me up to the absolute necessity of valuing myself and others daily.  The method of waking me up was harsh and painful, yet at the same time the lessons I was learning were branded in my heart and, over a decade later, I am still practicing what I learned then:  to be of benefit to myself and others.  The aim of Buddhist practice is the same, which is why I have been able to embrace it, apply it and share it.


Ashley Smith said...

Thank you, Kate for your kind words- they make me feel very good about myself, and the peers I am associated with online.

In response to what you said: "...I have to say that while I am strongly influenced by Buddhist principles and have applied many to my life, I do not consider myself a Buddhist." I am learning more and more about Buddhism from individuals living with a diagnosis, and who practice it in some form, and also accept other faiths.

The values and exercises of Buddhism is what attracts me to desire more information- "The basic principles and practices encourage open mindedness, acceptance, tolerance, patience, generosity and love towards oneself and all others." However, I am selective about who I share my open-minded spirit on Buddhism with because many of my friends are Christian and are not open-minded to other principles of different faiths because it is shunned in the Bible and encouraged 'to put away all other doctrines.' However, I know I should not be like that- secretive about my willingness to engage in different faiths because I want to behnest with myself and peers, and to also learn more about oneness and to be at peace by means of studying Buddhism.

Lastly, I am in agreement with your statement: "The point is to do what works for you and that could mean that you adhere to only one religion and follow it in an orthodox manner."

Stella said...

Hi Kate, just wanted to say that I've
been reading your blog regularly for the last year or so, and that I enjoy it very much. I'm 36 years old and from the Netherlands and I live with schizo-affective disorder. Just wanted to say hi. Keep on doing what you're doing!

Karen May Sorensen said...

Dear Kate,

Just during the past week I have said to myself, "I have a lunatic therapist". He is reading religious material constantly and doesn't care much whether it is eastern or western religion. He picks and chooses from these sages who are long masters of their religion what he thinks will work for his patients and himself. Practices, attitudes, bits of advice, and the gestalt view of ourselves in relationship to the universe. I think he is on a quest for sanity and peace of mind (for himself first for his patients second) - and instead of looking for it in traditional psychology he has decided to look for it in religious thinking. Some of the concepts, like mindfulness, which he describes but never names by that term make me look at him like he's lost his marbles, I mean he describes a way of thinking that is so alien to the mess of emotions that usually dominates my head that I wounder "can I ever get to the place that you describe. Your asking me to do the impossible". And so I get angry and call him a lunatic.

But while I was thinking after our last session that he was NUTS (he says my vocabulary sometimes makes him cringe), the thought occurred to me that out of all the therapists I've had, he's the only one that really helped me. I've been seeing therapists for way more than twenty years. All different kinds, but I'm feeling at my best right now. I've no choice but to give him due credit.

Last week my therapist told me he is writing a paper titled "My Therapist Doesn't Listen To Me" which is an interesting title, but I hate the practice. Because it is true, he has in the past stopped me from talking. Weird. But when he does it it is I think because my perspective is so destructive and unhealthy that it causes him pain to listen to it. When I'm thinking wrong he just shuts me up.

So my therapists number one concern is not for me to air my feelings, but to get me to see things differently, to handle reality differently. I swear its like trying to airlift an oceanliner. I'm so difficult to budge. I know that what he is doing is in no way traditional therapy and has moved into the realm of spirituality, but it works. I don't even know what religion if any he personally follows, (I know he loves the yin yang symbol) but as ever he reads books to find wisdom that works and he himself is a work in progress. And he has suggested that if you are lucky you will be a work in progress until the day you die.

I think what I'm trying to say in a long winded way is that you are proof that Buddhism works - if you say it brought you peace of mind then it did, and readers who are suffering I'm certain sit up and take note - because they are probably suffering too and looking for relief. There is no shame in taking on a religion late in life, kinda out of nowhere, and there is no shame in picking and choosing what works for you from that religion. If you think you are unique with testing Buddhism, you have real competition from my lunatic spiritual therapist who is wandering through any and all religions.

I thank you and I thank my therapist for the work you both have done testing and editing what you have learned from your religious study. Both of you are taking it and putting it out there in the world with the suggestion "it worked for me, it might work for you".

Keep on doing the good work you have been doing. Go on, heal yourself, and in doing so, and spreading the word about your experiences, I think you will influence others to heal as well.

All my love,

The Blue Morpho said...

I am not a Buddhist, either, but practice yoga and meditation. I've found them to be very helpful. In general, these practices seem to emphasize a "don't take my word for it, try it for yourself" mentality that I really like.
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