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.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Lovingkindness And The Trip North

“We may look for that which is stable, unchanging, and safe, but awareness teaches us that such a search cannot succeed. Everything in life changes. The path to true happiness is one of integrating and fully accepting all aspects of our experience. This integration is represented in the Taoist symbol of yin/yang, a circle which is half dark and half light. In the midst of the dark area is a spot of light, and in the midst of the light area is a spot of darkness. Even in the depths of darkness, the light is implicit. Even in the heart of light, the dark is understood, acknowledged, and absorbed. If things are not going well for us in life and we are suffering, we are not defeated by the pain or closed off to the light. If things are going well and we are happy, we are not defensively trying to deny the possibility of suffering. This unity, this integration, comes from deeply accepting darkness and light, and therefore being able to be in both simultaneously.” Sharon Salzberg , LOVINGKINDNESS -- THE REVOLUTIONARY ART OF HAPPINESS, p. 11-12.

Light in darkness and darkness in light. I’ve found this to be true. Without the perfect balance that emanates from the yin/yang symbol, there is suffering, but not just suffering because I think all of us shift in and out of a kind of perfect balance. There is joy when there is balance and suffering when there is not, but each state is not totally separate. I’ve heard Buddhist teachers say repeatedly that one thing is certain about human beings, we all want to be happy. Is it possible to settle into being happy knowing that the future is uncertain and that death awaits all of us? Is it possible to be happy when we know that we will continue to intermittently suffer? I believe it is so, but it requires a dramatic shift in point of view.

“Everything in life changes.” The trick is to go with the flow, to ride the wave. When we were children, my brother loved to ride the ocean waves in the summer, but I couldn’t do it. I asked him to show me how and he found he couldn’t explain it in words. It was something you had to do for yourself, something you had to feel out and practice. The Buddhist teachers I’ve listened to are trying to explain how they have learned over time and with much practice, to ride the wave of life. Listening to teachers like Sharon Salzberg is comforting and helpful. She comes across as a person willing to learn the lessons of life, but even more importantly she is willing to repeat the lesson to others.

The lesson I’m trying to learn is loving kindness or metta towards myself. Ms. Salzberg and other Buddhist teachers say that this is the foundation for loving others. I have practiced for several years sending metta towards other people, including strangers. Towards myself, there’s been a lot of silence. Why? Because it’s difficult. Not only have the voices said disparaging things to me over and over, but I’ve taken up the negative mantra and said the same things to myself. I do it unconsciously. So every time I turn to the spiritual guidance of established teachers, I give myself a new opportunity to wake up to the fact that I am a good person who deserves happiness. In order to feel some of that happiness, I have to give myself permission: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.”

This past week I spent with my family mostly in Canada. We went to the Shaw Festival in Niagara On The Lake. It was generally assumed, considering my parents are in their 80s and my brother doesn’t drive, that I would do all the driving. And I did. I also did a lot of praying while driving. My favorite prayer is “May I not hurt any living being on or off the road including myself and my family.” My parents had rented a small cottage nine blocks from the main drag of the town. The cottage was great, but the distance walking a little too far for my parents and so I drove us into town so that we could go to the theaters and eat out. For the most part we set the pace slow, taking long naps in the afternoon and eating some of our meals at the cottage. My family often watched the Olympics in English and French while I read a novel by Ursula LeGuin called THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. We went to see four plays, two by Shaw, one by Lillian Hellman, and a musical by Stephen Sondheim. I enjoyed all of them, especially since I rarely get to go to the theater. My mother stubbornly refused to bring her hearing aids on this trip and had trouble hearing some of the actors and actresses. Still, she and my father and brother all seemed to have had a good time.

The voices were subdued for most of the week, but I did have several disturbing dreams. In one dream an ex-boyfriend was a serial killer, in another dream I betrayed my therapist and she wanted retribution. I slept deeply nonetheless. There were minor tensions in the family, but mostly we got along. There was a bakery a couple of blocks away and my parents made a habit of picking up bread and treats, so I wasn’t always eating wisely, but I did enjoy it. I got to tape record my family talking around the kitchen table. We talked about what it was like to summer at the beach, about the cats we’ve had and their different personalities and about remnants of a chimney blown off a house and into the bay by a hurricane before I was born. Another night it was just my mother and brother and me and my mother was playing a game with us. She read out clues to her crossword puzzle that she had already figured out to see if we could come up with the answers. It was fun and I’m glad I have a record of it on tape.

On the last day I managed to get us to the Buffalo Airport which I’ve never been to before. We ate lunch together and talked. My mother almost cried saying that we wouldn’t see them till Christmastime, which is true. This year I’ve only seen them twice. And now with the fuel prices so high it is getting too expensive to travel often. At some point my parents will stop driving and will be even more tied to their retirement community. These are just the facts of life, but I’m not used to it yet.

It was a mixed blessing when I got home. My house still a mess, but the cats were all right and I was relieved. Very quickly I started feeling stressed out about the various things I had to get done. I made a list and the list kept getting longer and longer and I kept getting more negative about myself. Then I asked for guidance from the voices and they suggested listening to Sharon Salzberg. I also started to re-read her book. One of the first exercises in the book is “Remembering the Good within You”. I thought about my first boyfriend who lived in a one bedroom apartment with his alcoholic and sometimes abusive mother (who slept in the living room). My boyfriend had needed the refuge of my home and my family. He became a member of my family for several years and I feel good about that. I should be able to collect good memories like fruit off the vine to bolster me up in times of suffering.

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