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, January 18, 2012

Fight or Flight Versus Mindfulness

Most of the people I know are affected by depression on some level. This past week I've been struggling with it too.  For some people it is a chronic low grade depression called Dysthymia, for others it is a cycling between mania and depression also called Bipolar Disorder.  There are many types of depression to fit many types of people and situations.  Unlike my schizophrenia, my depression is not chronic; instead, it comes and goes.  This Sunday I was depressed, Monday I wasn't, but Tuesday I was again.  When I get depressed I sleep during the day and into the evening and don't get anything accomplished.  And when I am awake and depressed I feel guilt over not wanting to get anything accomplished.  It's a negative cycle between sleep and aversion to activity.

I haven't been practicing Buddhism lately and I think that contributes to my dip into depressions.  Buddhism is about being awake in the present moment in either a non doing state or in some activity, especially basic activities like cooking, cleaning, bathing.  When I'm depressed, I'm not so much awake as caught in a negative dreaming state and in that state I label myself as bad and show to myself the ways that I am bad or at least lacking in the good stuff.  It's a self centered state.  I then review the past, noting my mistakes or worry about the future, but I avoid being in the present; I avoid cultivating a non judgmental state to be in.  Buddhism is about the nonjudgmental cultivation of the present moment.

I've wondered many times, why do I run from the present moment?  It's as if it is hardwired into me to run away and maybe it is.  Our instincts are to fight or flee when danger arises.  That's the way it was for us when we were more primitive animals and it is still true.  All of us can be on extra alert when we smell smoke in our houses or hear an unusual sound outside at night or when we drive or take a walk.  The potential for accident or violence can seem close at hand.  In many places in the world torn by war, starvation, disease or natural catastrophe, living with threats is common place.  I'm blessed to live in a peaceful, relatively safe place, but I act as if I need to worry and run.  Apart from sleeping to rest the body and spirit, sleeping is another form of running away.

Meditation is about redirecting our instinctual response to imagined threat; it's about a retraining of ourselves to keep letting go the worrisome thoughts or desire filled thoughts in a non judgmental manner.  Being non judgmental is the key point.  It's what allows you to let go.  And once you give yourself permission to be that way, it is such a relief.  Remaining in that non judgmental state is spiritual practice.  It doesn't usually come easily and that's why it's called practice.  Letting go is not rejecting.  Letting go in its earliest stage is sitting with and accepting first.  You won't be able to let go unless you sit and accept first.  So meditation is not about eliminating thoughts.  Meditation is not about war, violence, territory, conflict or subduing.  Meditation is about peace, but that doesn't mean that it is peaceful.  A roomful of people meditating can look very peaceful, but what is going on in each individual's mind and spirit can be both active and complex.

To be in a peaceful state is wonderful, but that is not the real point of meditation.  The point is to accept what is, whatever that happens to be, without reacting in the typical, habitual pattern.  When I was very psychotic the voices instructed me to sit with the question, instead of jumping to find an answer.  Just sit with your discomfort.  The habitual response is to run from discomfort.  Addiction is about running from discomfort.  Using the drug or doing the activity masks the discomfort temporarily, but it always comes back and the negative cycle continues just the way the negative cycle of depression continues.  Every time you engage in addiction or a negative thought pattern, you reinforce the behavior and thoughts, making it stronger, harder to resist.  Meditation is a gentle way of saying NO to addiction and negativity, to this deep pattern we've been taught and have taught ourselves.

Artists and other very creative individuals know about meditation intimately, though many don't call it that.  Artists sit with the present moment and make something while they sit.  They are in love with the moment.  They suspend self-hatred and worry because if they don't it will rob them of their ability to create.  They get down to the business at hand--the words, the paper, the colors, the sounds, the shapes, the hidden and obvious meanings.  Being and doing melt into each other.  Meditation as non doing is very important.  It's important to stop for artists and for all of us, to regroup, to absorb, to intuit.  But when we go, meditation is also important.  It is doing meditation or mindfulness.  Mindfulness means putting your heart into your practice, be it sitting practice or doing practice.  When you sit, you sit and when you act, you act.  You need some discipline and dedication in order to be mindful.

When it comes to being honest with myself, I have some discipline and dedication.  I am mindful of the words that come out of me.  I don't write my blog entries casually and quickly.  I go slowly and it can take hours.  Generally, I'm not depressed when I write my blog entries.  I'm too busy paying attention to what I want to write.  It's that way when I draw or paint too.  Or lately, when I cook.  Or when I spend time with Sam, Rob or Richard.  Songwriting and singing are more problematical because I have to face my limitations in my ability to sing and play.  Sometimes I play and/or sing badly and I get discouraged and give up.  I've found that when I push past my discouragement and commit to the song I'm singing and experiment that I not only enjoy myself more, but I sound better.  It's common sense that insecurity leads to poor performance and confidence often to good or better performance.  And practice leads to mastery over time.

When I get hung up on my insecurity and my lack of mastery, I get depressed.  I've wanted to be an artist since I was young, but artists are artists because they practice their art.  Writers write, painters paint, musicians play, dancers dance, etcetera.  I am multi-talented, but not committed to one practice on a daily basis.  I keep switching activities, so I master none of them.  I am artistic, but not an artist.  I deeply value my creativity, it might have saved my life.  I strongly urge everyone to stay in touch with their creativity on a daily basis, especially when dealing with mental illness.  Generally, I do something creative every day.  I would say that I am in touch with the artist within me.  That's a good place to begin.  I believe if I were to cultivate the discipline and dedication to mindfulness, I would develop the confidence and mastery that I yearn for.  I would re-train myself away from the negative attitudes of depression and towards the positive and accepting attitudes of mindfulness.  Art is a good tool for practicing mindfulness, but the real gem is mindfulness itself.  Mindfulness is a way of being in harmony with self and others.  If everyone practiced mindfulness I truly believe there would be no war and not much depression.  Actions would not be done reactively and mindlessly, but slowly and consciously with discipline and care and love.
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