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.

Monday, June 21, 2010

NYC Visit

So I went to New York City a week and a half ago to meet up with my parents for a four night stay. About an hour or so before I arrived at 35th Street and Park Ave, my 83 year old father had tripped and fallen in the street while he and my mother were shopping for dinner and supplies. At the time he refused to go to the hospital and managed to walk back to the Unitarian church apartment we were renting out. He was waiting outside for me and quickly told me what had happened and showed me his wounds: a scraped left knee and a swollen and bruised left hand. I told him he should go to the hospital, but he refused, that is until the next day when his knee felt strange and he was having difficulty walking. He called a friend who lives in Manhattan and she suggested that he go to a hospital on East 17th Street. It was very fortunate we went there because we didn't have to wait. My father had come well prepared with a list of all his medications; he also filled out many forms with no problem. The nurse looked at his wounds and asked him specific questions, then a young doctor did the same and then my father had x-rays taken of his hand and knee. We got the results quickly--no broken bones, which surprised the doctor because my father's hand was quite swollen. A splint was put on his knee and one on his hand and wrist and he was sent home, told to rest, to keep his hand elevated and put ice on it as well.

My father decided that he would remain in the apartment for the duration of the trip, but we soon found out that he was having a lot of trouble getting in and out of chairs. So my mother and I stayed close to him. I took on the responsibility of going shopping. We were located in the Murray Hill section of New York and there were plenty of delis and drug stores and a supermarket. One night, after setting my father up in a chair in front of the TV, my mother and I went out to a nearby Korean restaurant and had dinner, which was very pleasant. The other nights we had sandwiches or a pizza and lots of tea. The day before we were to leave my parents urged me to go out for a few hours, so I took a 5th avenue bus down to 8th street in Greenwich Village. I had found a Thai restaurant on Bleeker Street that I wanted to try as well as walk around and do a little shopping. I didn't want to buy too much because I had packed too much in my duffle bag to begin with.

So, no going to museums and art galleries and no New York City Ballet performance this time. You would think that I would have been unhappy or depressed with the situation, but I wasn't. I see my parents so infrequently that getting to be around them and to actually be helpful to them satisfied me for the most part, though I certainly wasn't happy that my father had fallen and hurt himself. I think we were all relieved that he didn't need to be hospitalized because he had no broken bones or internal injuries. When things go wrong, count your blessings first. I was pleased with myself that I didn't back down from the challenge of the situation, which I probably would have several years earlier when I had been sicker. I enjoyed being in the small apartment with my parents and I enjoyed going outside and doing the shopping for us all. The City had visual appeal, skyscrapers and old brownstones, wide avenues and the delis and restaurants, but mostly the visual appeal was in all the people rushing past me, young and old, multi-cultural, a great and dynamic diversity. I still liked the City and felt the privilege of staying in an apartment so centrally located. I imagined what it would be like to live there, but knew that I wouldn't. In fact, this was the first time I went to the City where I wasn't dreaming of being back in it again, though I still wish sometimes that I lived only an hour and a half away from it. I had looked at a house in 1988-89 in Saugerties, New York which is roughly near Woodstock, New York (which is not THE Woodstock of the late 1960s festival, but close enough). It was a good location, but the road was too isolated and I knew not a soul around there. Not that I know so many people where I live now, but I do have my brother and that makes all the difference.

I did not meditate while I was away. I had thought I would meditate on the bus, but I didn't feel comfortable and then after getting together with my parents and after learning of my father's fall, I spent much of my time being attentive and supportive towards them. I found I also couldn't settle into reading my Buddhist books. I became easily distracted. I was disappointed in myself for not even trying to meditate. I guess it was too soon in my practice because I had only been meditating for just a month and under mostly non stressful circumstances i.e. me quietly at home reading and meditating. Some Buddhists say "The path IS the goal." And if the path is the goal then one day when I'm in a stressful situation I will remember to approach it through meditation.

I've been home for a week, slowly trying to get back into a routine of meditation and reading. I have not contacted anyone online except for my parents and uncle. This is a typical pattern for me. After I come back from a trip, I keep to myself for a week or so. And this will happen several times more this summer. I go with my brother each year for four days and three nights to a music festival in Ithaca New York called the Grassroots Festival. That's coming up in a month and then my parents will be staying at my house for a week and a half a few days after we get home from the festival. I have a little over a month to get this house in order. If I start now and do a little work each day, I should be in good shape in late July. A couple of days ago I listened to an audio program called Organizing From The Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern. I wrote down some of her ideas, such as, to analyze and take stock of your situation and then create a plan of action, a realistic schedule and then get to sorting and arranging.

Well, maybe I'm a little disappointed about the trip to NYC, but I did learn that I can make the trip to the City, that I can handle myself better than I realize. That's good to know. I also learned that I need more overall meditation practice and to take it slowly.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Meaning & Purpose

Karen in her blog post "Suicidal" writes of her unhappiness, a unhappiness that led her to think again of suicide. Further on in the entry she writes about how her therapist said that from the first day he met her he knew her life had meaning and purpose. She questioned the validity of that statement when she learned that he felt the same thing for all of his patients. After I read the entry, I asked myself if I thought my life had meaning and purpose. In response I felt unsure and lost. I thought, certainly my life must have some meaning, but as to purpose I could only get the image of me scrambling after different pastimes, shifting from one to another. Then I thought of what I was learning about Buddha Nature, that all of our essential natures are like a Buddha, good, free, wise and pure. Certainly amidst all of that we can all say with confidence that our lives have meaning and purpose. Enlightenment is available for everyone, there are no exceptions. Karen's therapist is just voicing that belief to her. And when I think of Karen, who I have had the pleasure of corresponding with, I think, of course she has meaning and purpose. She is a vital, sensitive, intelligent woman and she offers a lot to whomever she meets.

I'm glad she brought up this idea of meaning and purpose because lately I have been getting anxious, mainly about going to NYC to visit with my parents. When I get anxious I no longer believe my life has meaning and purpose, it just has fears and worries. But I've been working with it by doing meditation, which includes just sitting with the discomfort and staying open. When I do that with a certain amount of patience, I feel a shift into being mode. I sit with what is without trying to change it and when I accept where I'm at there is a further shift into a sense of release. At that point I am awake and aware, but I'm not thinking, I'm just being like a small animal in the wild listening to the sounds of the night. The thoughts do return, as they always will, but the point is to extend the gaps between thoughts and rest there. We tend to ignore the preciousness of those gaps. Within the gaps there is no right and wrong, no pressure. You are awake, you are aware, but there are no words and no need of words. Words are tools to express our connectedness with the world around us, but they are not an end in themselves. What is the end (and the beginning) is in those wordless gaps, the experience itself, life. So often we are lost in our imaginations, our hopes and fears and yet we can tap into the quiet of the present moment at any time. Even now, try it, just stop reading and look up and out; look and don't think, feel what it feels like. You don't have to be thinking, talking, writing to be acutely aware. You can just be, anytime you choose.

The truth is that we generally don't choose to just be and when we do just exist, we feel guilty that we're not doing something. And the chatter in our heads tell us it is so important to engage in thinking and worrying, when it is an illusion. It is self hating to say that we are not meaningful when we are just sitting or walking and meditating. To exist is to have meaning because our awareness and our minds and our bodies are quite miraculous. When I look around my living room or look outside at the countryside, I feel the meaning everywhere, in the walls and books and cats and trees and birds and insects. And what is everywhere is also in me, we are all made of the same stuff. Buddha Nature.

It is clear to me there is meaning but purpose is a more elusive concept. What's the purpose in just existing? And yet, I know there is a purpose. If you've ever loved someone who became very sick or crippled, you know that that person had great meaning and that their just existing was purpose enough. Each of us has a spirit, whether you are religious or not. We interact with people's spirits daily. Most of my friends are online friends, but I have no doubt that I am interacting with a living spirit every time I exchange an email. Precious stuff. So it is worthwhile just to exist, the hard part is convincing yourself of this. But every time you just sit there and let go into a meditative state, you affirm that idea, that it is okay to let go and be. To be is to be full of meaning, to be full of meaning is to have a purpose.

Buddhists would say that the purpose of life is to cultivate lovingkindness and compassion for all sentient beings. First you must start with yourself and then extend it farther and farther out. I hold back, afraid to let my heart get its feeling back, afraid of being hurt, but in holding back I am hurt already. The healing comes from letting go and acknowledging that we are not alone; we're all interconnected. I have trouble with this as well, especially since I live alone and spend much of my time at home. It's the sound of the cars passing by my house that remind me that I am not alone on earth. Years ago I began a praying practice. I pray for the people in the cars each time they pass by. I say to myself: "May you be well, safe, healthy, happy, useful. May you find happiness and the root of happiness." Without even knowing it I have prayed many times for my neighbors (most of whom I have never met and don't know), my teachers, the police, community members all. I have thought, too, that I have prayed for violent people and people who are being abused or people who are addicted, all just casually passing by my house. I wish everyone well equally and it is a pleasure to do that. Goodwill is very potent as well as joyful. I feel better when I send out good wishes to loved ones and strangers alike.

The goodwill I have to have now, is towards myself when I get anxious. I've been experimenting with smiling when I'm feeling particularly worried or negative. I got this idea from the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh who often encourages people to include smiling as part of their meditation/mindfulness practice. I also say aloud the Lojong slogans: "Always maintain only a joyful mind." and "Be grateful to everyone." It's quite a challenge to quietly smile to yourself when you are not feeling well, but it also opens you up, adds a touch of relaxation to a tense situation. One of the points is to not do things the way you always do them. Another slogan is "Don't be so predictable." So smile when you want to frown and if you tend to feel depressed sitting in one spot, choose another. Change of attitude, change of location, change of activity or change into non activity. I've heard that the definition of insanity is doing things the way you always do them and expecting different results. And it is hard to change. I know I cling to my comfort spots even when they are not so comfortable. That's why small changes are the best to start with like including smiling in my life more and more.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Karma & Buddha Nature

“The true religious person...accepts the truth that he or she is responsible for the pleasurable and unpleasurable feelings he experiences, these being the fruits of his own karma [actions].” The Dalai Lama

“Drive all blame into one.” Lojong Slogan

What if you really were responsible for your own pleasure and pain because of karma or for whatever reason? Stop and consider this a moment. I have been in deep psychological pain. I have been suicidal. I have been hit, slapped, spit on and strangled. I have had my house trashed and my love scorned. But what if it was no-one’s fault or responsibility but my own? I have thought about this, but only for a little while, and what I feel is relief...relief and compassion for myself.

As I turn more towards being meditative, I am seeing that I get in my own way. Actually I have noticed that for a while, especially since experiencing psychosis. I’ve always had a lot of choice available in my life and yet time and again I have turned away from the healthy one. If that is because of me and not due to anyone else, then I still have the ability to change. We all have this ability to change. The 12 Step Serenity Prayer goes “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” There are things, situations and people we can’t change, but that doesn’t extend to ourselves. It’s not easy to change our own habitual reactive patterns, but I believe it is possible. In the same way we taught ourselves how to be self-defeating, through regular repetition and persistence, we can re-teach ourselves in a new way how to be self-healing. This is what recovering addicts are doing all over the world, but it applies to everyone.

The key word in the quote above by the Dalai Lama is “responsible”. Once you accept responsibility for your life and stop blaming external circumstances or people for your particular problems, you give yourself a sense of freedom. You stop seeing yourself as a victim. If you do as the Lojong Slogan instructs and drive all blame into yourself, you put the negative practice of blaming others to a stop, you detach from that painful, sticky connection to others and stand free and clear. You face the music, you take responsibility.

If you are going to take responsibility, you have to have a certain faith in yourself. Buddhism offers the belief in “Buddha Nature”. Buddha Nature says that our essential nature and everyone’s essential natures are solidly good. Buddha Nature is like the river, the air, the earth of life. It’s a part of everyones psychological makeup. Though, on some level, I think I have always suspected this, that there is a lot of goodness in people, it is only now that I have been passing people on the street saying to myself “And you have Buddha Nature. And you....” What that does is subtle, but effective; it softens me, relaxes me and makes me smile. The real test is to apply it to people that you feel conflicted about. You may say it through gritted teeth--“And you have Buddha Nature.”--but it acts as a reminder to loosen your grasp on your aversion and let some basic acceptance enter into your heart.

So Buddhism teaches that the basis of everything is good, so why is there so much conflict and suffering in the world? One reason is that humans are blinded by instinct and appearances. We forget that we are animals, most of us are domesticated, some rather wild. The wild ones amongst us make the rest of us nervous. We are often assessing the threat level when we walk out the door. We are fine trigger sensitive to behavior. The fight or flight response in us is alive and well. I think a lot of people take this sensitivity for granted to the point where we no longer are aware of why we are moving towards or away from people or why we feel attraction or aversion.

Taking things for granted is something you train not to do as a Buddhist. Taking things for granted means staying asleep, reacting automatically, thoughtlessly. No wonder we feel badly and get into conflict with others; we are thinking, speaking and acting blindly. And being blind, how do we tell when it is day and when it is night? When are we really awake?

Essential Buddha Nature is always present, steady. The image that’s often given is that of the sun. Our habitual, reactive natures are like all kinds of bad weather that obscure the sun. Too often we identify ourselves with the weather, ignoring the bigger picture. It’s not just acutely psychotic individuals who are deluded, it’s nearly everyone. We have a mistaken view of “reality”, but because so many people have the same view people think this is just the way it is and stay stuck inside an illusory cycle and remain sleeping. What can shake a person out of his or her slumber? Most often pain. And that’s why pain is useful and informative. Driving all blame into yourself sounds painful and cultivating compassion is also painful, but at least you are looking at the problem head on. Actually seeing the problem leads you right back to Buddha Nature, back to a base that is all positive, a base that gives sustenance to work through the problem.

Note: I am a beginning student of Buddhism, though I’ve had contact with it off and on over the years, and this blog entry (and probably those to come) makes definite assertions that I haven’t yet fully tested. I mainly want to get you (and me) reflecting in order to tap into insight on our human condition. Please feel free to question my conclusions.