From that point on, I began to seriously embrace a spiritual path that I have been tentatively heading towards for several years, that of Buddhism, more specifically the Tibetan Buddhist practice of mind training or Lojong. I was first introduced to this practice by the respected Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher, Pema Chodron on a six tape audio program called Awakening Compassion: Meditation Practice For Difficult Times. I had bought this program soon after I had my last psychotic breakdown, right around the time I began taking the anti-psychotic medications in the winter of 2002. I was struck by the idea that I could treat my severe depression and even my psychosis by working with a meditation practice and study of the dharma that focused on developing and deepening compassion for myself and others. So it was around this time that I began sending metta or lovingkindness to my voices, voices which continued to call me now and again "evil". As the years went by and I continued this practice, the voices began changing their response to me. Sometimes they would say that they were evil and other times they would say they loved me and, to be honest, they continued to call me evil during times of stress.
During most of this time, I did not practice the basic sitting meditation or the lojong meditation practice called tonglen, but I did purchase four books on Lojong. These books were: Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron, Training The Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness by Chogyam Trungpa (Pema's main teacher), The Great Path Of Awakening by Jamgon Kongtrul (a nineteenth century master) and The Seven-Point Mind Training by B. Alan Wallace. I read Pema Chodron's book and read through parts of the other books and then put them aside. It is only within the last couple of weeks that I gathered up these books again, along with the Awakening Compassion tapes and other audiobooks by Pema Chodron and other Buddhist teachers. I have been listening, reading, taking notes, reflecting and meditating. I have also found and joined an online Buddhist community called E-Sangha which is large and active and has several sections dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism. I hope to find friends and teachers there while I apply the practice to my daily life.
The Lojong practice is structured around the study of 59 slogans or pithy statements in conjunction with a meditation practice called tonglen. Some of the slogans are very accessible and easy to memorize, like: "Be grateful to everyone." and "Always maintain only a joyful mind." Others are more obscure and need further commentary to explain like: "Always abide by the three basic principles." or "Practice the five strengths." And still others are difficult to grasp and need further reflection over time like: "Regard all dharmas as dreams." and "Examine the nature of unborn awareness." All the slogans are more easily learned by referring to the commentary of the various authors that I've mentioned along with several others I have yet to read. Once the slogans become familiar, they begin popping up at different times during the day under varying circumstances. This is not only instructional, it is fun.
A key slogan that forms the basis for Pema Chodron's teachings is: "When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi." In other words, this slogan is saying use all your serious problems as a spiritual path to wake you up. Instead of shutting down or acting out when things go wrong, you pause and try to extend staying open and accepting. By opening up to the pain, you stop doing the habitual thing, which is the fight or flight reaction. You sit with it and, as Pema Chodron often says, you "make friends" with your pain. From there you make the connection that there are many, many other people feeling just what you feel right in the very moment that you are feeling it. This realization cuts through a pervasive sense of isolation, a sense that you are the only one to feel this way. And so you plant and water the seeds of compassion for yourself and others. It is this compassion that begins the transformation process of healing the suffering in oneself and others. But you have to sit with your pain and gently face it first before you can make that wonderful connection to others.
There is a wonderful black and white film called The Miracle Worker starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke when she was a child. It came out in 1962 and was a re-creation of an acclaimed Broadway play about Helen Keller and the teacher who taught her the meaning of words through sign language. In a crucial scene towards the end of the film, the teacher, who has been painstakingly trying to get the very spoiled and resistant young Helen Keller to make the connection between the feel of the sign made into her hand and the meaning behind the sign, makes the sign for water and then thrusts the little girls hand into the water itself. Suddenly Helen understands the connection and goes on to eagerly ask her teacher the names of the many things around her. That one connection between the sign for water and the water itself opens up an entire world for a little girl who has been shut out by several serious physical handicaps. My point is that we need to make the compassionate connection that we are all in the same boat together. The lojong slogans and the meditation practice are like the sign for water made into an open and ignorant hand. They set up the conditions that allow us to make the connection to our own wounded heart and from there to make the connection to others. That's the key to positive change in the world, to the beginning of the end of the cycle of addiction, abuse and war.
I know that sounds grandiose, but I really am coming to believe that the practice of compassion for self and others is a kind of miracle. So I'm going to test it out this year. I'm going to pose the question: can the practice of compassion be an effective treatment for a person who suffers from mental illness? More specifically can the Tibetan Buddhist practice of lojong guide me into a state of health and usefulness towards others. I have found in my years of being ill, that I respond positively to a certain amount of structure. Often I would visit my parents, adapt to their positive structure and feel better, only to fall back into negative patterns on my return home. Living alone has its disadvantages. But Lojong, as a spiritual, philosophical and meditative practice seems to offer a kind of structure that I can incorporate into my daily life with the help of teachers like Pema Chodron and perhaps this new online Buddhist community E-Sangha.
But there's more to this practice than sitting alone in my house studying and meditating, as Ms. Chodron is quick to point out. I have to go out into the world and connect with people in my community. I am very fortunate right now in that there is a new mental health support group starting in a town twenty five minutes from my town. I have been to four meetings that have been acting as preparation for an official weekly (hopefully) meeting. The first two meeting were primarily about whether we could become a NAMI (National Alliance On Mental Illness) meeting, which unfortunately is a bit complicated. We do have the minimum of five people who suffer from mental illness (myself included), but we have yet to get the required intensive three day training held in Albany only, it seems, twice a year. Several people at a counseling center, which is willing to sponsor the meeting, are working towards resolving the NAMI question. At the next two meetings the director of the counseling center got almost all of us together to guide us in how to lead a support group meeting. The next meeting is in a week, but it looks as if, one way or another, this support group is going to become a reality.
So the world is opening up for me right now, but that doesn't mean that my personal pain and problems just disappear. What it means is that I become committed to sitting with my pain and working with it in order to see myself more clearly and with more compassion. As I learn and bond with myself, I can learn and bond with others. Maybe this is the year I can become effective and useful in my community. Maybe this is the year that I truly embrace my own recovery. I plan to write about my process in applying the Lojong practice to my life in this blog. Wish me luck. And please keep in touch. Remember: we're all in this together.