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, May 16, 2010

First, Train In The Preliminaries

Several years ago I bought something called The Compassion Box. It is an actual box with a book by Pema Chodron called Start Where You Are in it, a CD on how to do a meditation practice called Tonglen and a Card Deck with the 59 Tibetan Buddhist Lojong (or mind training) slogans. I have read and re-read (and underlined) the book in an attempt to learn some of the slogans, but I have not worked with the cards or the tonglen meditation practice very much. I'm presently working with the slogan cards before I approach tonglen. The very first slogan is "First, train in the preliminaries." This is what Pema Chodron has selected to be the commentary on the slogan: "The preliminaries are also known as the four reminders. In your daily life, try to: (1) Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life. (2) Be aware of the reality that life ends; death comes for everyone. (3) Recall that whatever you do, whether virtuous or not, has a result; what goes around comes around. (4) Contemplate that as long as you are too focused on self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will suffer. Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don't want does not result in happiness."

The preciousness of life. According to the Buddhist perspective, we have been reincarnated as all kinds of living beings since the beginning of time, but of all the life on the planet, to be born a human is a great achievement in itself. Only humans can learn, apply and teach the dharma, the teachings of Buddha. Being in a position where you have the shelter, food and time to study the teachings is considered precious indeed because it is a big step towards reaching enlightenment and then being of benefit to others on their up and down road to enlightenment. But all this stops me. Do I believe in reincarnation? Do I believe in enlightenment? Before I can approach those issues, I need to ask "What is dharma?" All I know is that the word dharma is used very broadly; it is not just the teachings of the Buddha, but also all the wisdom that was generated after him. Pema Chodron teaches dharma and the 59 slogan are dharma and developing an awareness of your mind is also a part of dharma practice. There is another lojong slogan that instructs "Regard all dharmas as dreams." In that instance dharma means life itself, or regard life as a dream. The final question is "Do I believe that life is precious?"

My automatic response is "Yes, of course, life is precious." But if I believe it, do I practice it? I know I put a value on my life because I worry about accident, disease and death. If I didn't value my life, I wouldn't worry about dying. And so the next reminder: life ends; death comes for everyone. It may be ironic, but the fact that death is inevitable makes life all the more precious. Which is one reason to contemplate death while you're alive. Contemplating death is also contemplating the impermanence of life. Everything changes. You're changing from moment to moment. Every seven years you will have all new cells in your body, the old ones will have died. We are rejuvenating as we are dying. So there's something precious within that very impermanence, maybe even something precious in that we all die. We have a strong common bond: all life is precious and we all die and new life keeps returning out of the ashes of the old life.

The third reminder is about karma or what goes around comes around. The law of cause and effect. This hooks right back into reincarnation. What you did in a past life can have an effect in this life and what you do in this life can affect a future life. But disregarding reincarnation, I think it is fair to say that if you generate kindness, you often receive kindness in return and if you stay hostile and critical, hostility is often drawn back to you. There's a lot of logic in karma. My brother, who is a devout agnostic, believes in the law of karma. So, be kind and generous to be kind and generous--stick with that as a rule.

The final reminder is a warning against what Buddhists call "ego-clinging". They challenge people to look closely at themselves, to see the unsatisfactory nature of craving/attachment and aversion. Feeling the suffering is a good way to motivate an individual to put Buddhism into practice. The goal of Buddhism is to end suffering (not to be confused with pain because some pain is necessary). The First Noble Truth is that life means suffering. The Second Noble Truth is that the origin of suffering comes from attachment to things and concepts. Self attachment or "ego-clinging" causes the most suffering because it is so pervasive and untamed. Once you look closely and get in touch with all the subtle and not so subtle suffering that goes on from day to day inside yourself and with others and once you see that getting attached to things and concepts cannot give you any lasting happiness because the nature of life is change, you are ready to embrace The Third Noble Truth that the cessation of suffering is possible. The Fourth Noble Truth is to follow the Eightfold Path to end suffering.

So everyday train in the preliminaries/reminders: the preciousness of life, the fact of death, the law of karma and the unsatisfactory nature of self-importance/ego. Actually, that's a lot to train in each day. I'm finding that Buddhism asks a lot of individual practitioners which is both a challenge and an obstacle to overcome.

I've been meditating every day for almost a week now. I've decided not to sit in the traditional cross legged pose on the floor, but rather to sit straight up in a chair with my hands on my thighs/knees and my feet flat on the floor. I decided this because I kept getting distracted by physical pain in my back and shoulders, an overall restless feeling. Too much restlessness and I give up the practice, so better to try the alternative, which has been working out. It's not that I'm expecting meditation practice to be just generally pleasant. Practice is a mixture of pleasure and pain, the ever shifting thoughts and feelings. I still am believing that the thoughts themselves are somehow important when, generally speaking, they are not. And so I hold on instead of becoming aware that I am thinking and just letting the thought go and resting in an aware but thought-free space. I'm also having trouble being lightly aware of every out breath. So right now I am just getting used to my mind watching itself, then getting caught up and then back to watching itself, saying gently and kindly "Thinking" in my mind when I want to let go of the thoughts.

Included in the Buddhism course I'm about to take is a forum called Sanghaspace. By taking this course I am entering into the Awakened Heart Sangha and this forum is where I get to meet other travelers on this path. But in turns out they upgraded their system sometime this past year and I was logging on to the old system, where barely anyone was posting. So I left a post there introducing myself (including my diagnosis), left a photo of the drawing of Pema Chodron I did and asked where everyone was. Someone got back to me today giving me a link to the new forum space. I registered for it and am awaiting approval to begin checking it out and posting. I was very relieved. Part of why I joined this course was to have access to other Buddhists as well as to the main teacher and one of her senior students. Isolation is a big theme for me even before I became seriously ill. And so I hope to become a member in good standing (albeit online) in time. What's good about this group is that it is based on a real life sangha in Wales, U.K. It also revolves around the teachings of Lama Shenpen Hookham as well as of her husband and her main teacher. So there is both a focus and perhaps an intimacy to this group that I haven't experienced on other Buddhist forum sites.

So that's what I've been doing this week, studying dharma and trying to apply it to my life gradually. I have not been being creative otherwise. No memoir writing (though I am sharing some memories with an old friend), no painting and no singing/songwriting. I was saying to Karen in an email that our lives are meaningful even when we are doing nothing. I do get hung up on valuing myself based on what I happen to be doing. If I paint a good portrait, then I am good, but if I don't paint (write, play, etc...) then I am bad. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the mindfulness meditation teacher, jokes in his audiobook that Wherever You Go There You Are that people should say to themselves "Don't just do something, sit there!" instead of saying it the other way around. There is something powerful about not reacting and just being for some time each day.

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