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.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Making Friends With Ourselves

Maitri is a Sanskrit word for unconditional loving-kindness.  Pema Chodron writes:  "Without lovingkindness for ourselves, it is difficult, if not impossible, to genuinely feel it for others."  We're born, we live, we die and through it all we are always with ourselves, but we are not always loving-kind towards ourselves and this unfortunately often translates into not being loving-kind towards others.  When we were little, we all experienced someone else being unkind towards us; we might have acted out against the unjust treatment, but we still internalized the hurt.  When we were shamed, we fell into shaming ourselves and then we either repressed it or acted out in defiance of it.  Children imitate their parents and teachers, little girls scold and punish their doll babies and boys try to establish dominance in their games and contests.  Children learn to teach themselves and others through being taught.  To watch little children at play can be heartwarming and heart wrenching because they naturally imitate and follow the adults who can't help but reveal their own strengths, insecurities and prejudices.

We are imperfect beings.  We always have been.  I won't say we always will be because I am starting to believe that we are all moving towards eventual enlightenment.  But in the interim, that is in this present moment, we need to right that initial wrong done to us and stop shaming ourselves and others.  We do that by making friends with ourselves.  I know that that is particularly hard to do when you've been abused.  After I left my abusive boyfriend, I wrote in my journal about feeling this undercurrent of self-hatred.  On the surface I was okay, taking classes, being creative and then going back to school, but deep down I was not accepting myself just as I was.  I wanted to be different or to have someone in my life to make me feel happier and this led me right into the delusions and paranoia of my psychosis. I had been shaming myself for years; my abusive boyfriend just took that to its extreme.  Later I could see that he was doing the same thing to himself.  We were both caught in that negative cycle and what love we did manage to have for ourselves often turned out to be misguided or distorted.

When I left the abuse, I thought that I had liberated myself and was moving on to a fresh start, a new beginning, but I had internalized the shame that I generated for myself and that my boyfriend seemed to confirm in me.  My illness taught me that I wasn't being my own best friend; I was still buying into negativity.  I endured the onslaught of psychosis and it brought me even farther down than I had been before.  I moved from being externally abused to being internally abused.  There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  The negative voices forced me to confront my darker side:  my prejudices, my resentment, my egotism, while the positive voices beckoned me to take care of myself.  In order to take care of myself I had to befriend myself, all of myself, dark and light and all the shades of grey in between.

When you really make friends with yourself labeling parts of yourself as good or bad doesn't work and labeling others good or bad doesn't ring true either.  We are all a mixture of many things and black and white thinking doesn't suffice when you are really trying to love yourself and others.  And yet people persist quite stubbornly in taking sides, in painting a picture of self as "good" and other as "bad" or visa-versa.  Doing this is being in the thick of an ego orientation and it is an illusion.  It would be truer to say that I am good/bad and you are good/bad and everyone on the planet is good/bad.  The loving-kind way to say this is that we are all fallible human beings.  If we take this to heart, we begin to realize that we are all part of the same family and this deepens the love.

There is just one world and one people on this world.  Again so many of us rely on the illusions we create.  We make imaginary borders that supposedly divide countries from each other.  It's not real and yet we all agree to abide by the fantasy and even structure our lives around it.  It's not real that there are good people and bad people because we are and always have been a mixture.  Yes there are evil intentions and evil acts, just as there are good intentions and angelic acts, but what we fail to acknowledge is that both can reside inside one individual.  We are complex and challenging creatures.
Pointing the finger at ourselves or at others goes nowhere; we have to befriend ourselves, each and everyone of us.  Peace is possible, but only if we each do the necessary footwork within ourselves.

The difference between an illusion and a delusion is that an illusion is shared by many and a delusion is just experienced by one individual.  It's a deep irony that people without serious mental illness look at those in the grips of it as if they were crazy, when, in a sense, we are all crazy.  We all allow ourselves to be controlled by our conformity to socially oriented illusions.  We think we've divided up the world; we think that we own things, that paper money is real, that the clock tells the true time.  And then there are the illusions we accept into our lives as a form of entertainment: tv, movies, books, games.  Buddhists say, look at life as if it were a dream and we should because that's the way we treat it.  How much are you taking for granted right now?

Sometimes out of the mouths of babes and other times out of the mouths of crazy people come startling truths, the truths we keep running away from.  Those same truths came out of the mouths of Buddha and Jesus and still we're running.  I'll probably keep saying this till I'm blue in the face but loving your enemies is the direct route to healing your heart and doing your part to heal the world.  And the greatest enemy we'll ever have is ourselves, especially when we're wasting precious time hating others along with ourselves.  The problem is not out there, it's in ourselves, in our attitudes and how we relate to pain.  This is good news.  We can't change other people, but we can change ourselves.

My brother and I were talking the other day about how so many people who claim to be Christians don't follow Jesus.  He was speaking in terms of intolerance and a lack of forgiveness.  I brought up how so few Christians practice loving their enemies.  He responded that that was a tough thing to do and I agreed.  What I didn't go on to say was that just because it is tough doesn't mean we shouldn't always work towards that goal.  The Buddhists before Jesus approached this practically starting with loving those who loved them to loving those they didn't know well to loving those they didn't particularly like to loving those they outright hated.  The foundation for all this love practice is loving yourself and not just the "good" parts, but the whole deal.  You can work with yourself on the spot anytime, anywhere.  We are our toughest judges, our own enemies.  If we can face ourselves with love and compassion, we can face anyone the same way.  No one is too bad to be part of the human circle and in realizing this, we can change the world instead of destroying it.  The voices once said to me, "Change your attitude and you change your behavior."  Too many of us behave very, very badly towards ourselves, others and the earth.  Is a change of attitude so much to ask?     

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Seeking & Giving Help

In the last two weeks I've been to two NAMI mental health support group meetings.  The group is small so far, just five people each time, including myself.  I'm coming in contact with my desire to show up and be of some help to the group members and also in contact with my own vulnerability and limitations.  At home I get so into expressing myself through keeping an audio journal, a written journal, blogging, making up songs and sometimes doing artwork that I've felt as if maybe I could teach some of what I've learned to others.  But going to this meeting is teaching me that I have a lot to learn from other people.

The first step is just listening with an open heart, being present while others speak with courage and share their stories.  I did this and found that some of the people in the group were struggling not only with mental disabilities, but physical disabilities, problems with housing, with finding paid work and taking care of a small child amongst other things.  I realized that though my problems with mental illness were certainly valid that I did not have as much of a burden as some of these people.  This made me feel very respectful towards the individuals in this group and towards the group as a whole.

I also felt some feelings of helplessness and a wish to come up with answers to try and "fix" their problems, but I saw that for many of their issues I didn't have the knowledge or the experience and I had to be quiet and let others offer their guidance and ideas.  But when it came to coping with mental illness, I did find that I could contribute to the group.  There was something very special for me about listening and talking and looking into the eyes of the people sitting at that conference table, something that I've been withdrawn from in my self-imposed isolation all these years.  It's been a long time since I've been to any kind of support group and now I see what I've been missing -- personal contact.

Yes, there's also a sense of vulnerability and personal limitations, but that is good, too; it keeps me in contact with a sense of humility and a wish to keep trying.  I think many people don't go to meetings because of that vulnerable quality, but in sharing your vulnerability and recognizing that we are all vulnerable, all in the same boat, there is a kind of liberation.  I'm not saying that going to a support group a couple of times is going to solve all your problems.  It won't, but, with a good attitude, it can help a lot.  Not only do you get the chance to learn from others' mistakes and successes, but you get to share your own.

Sharing in itself gives personal validation and possibly helping others raises the quality of your life.  Unless people come together either virtually online or in person in a group, the opportunity for solutions even little (or big) miracles gets lost.  People can and do change the world for the better despite those stuck in the cycle of blame and violence, but they have to get organized and come together little by little.

My goal for now is to commit to showing up once a week and to think about the people in the group and what I can do to help during the time in between meetings.  Helping also includes being honest about my own problems and open to asking for help from the group.  One of the reasons why I stayed locked into my illness for years was that I wanted to deal with my problems on my own.  I didn't want to bother anyone.  I found out the hard way that I had to ask for help, but I stubbornly resisted that; even now I am awkward about it.  When I did reach out, I found people who were willing to help me. In a sense, being vulnerable before people gave them permission to be vulnerable, too, and when we admit to our problems, we generate goodwill.  That goodwill keeps us afloat during the painful times and give us reason to rejoice during pleasant times.   Conversely, stubbornly refusing help and holding onto, even nurturing, our resentments just makes us internalize our own ill will and keeps us sick and miserable.

My voices did torment me in the beginning, but for a good reason.  They said that I had to be around people and help them even though what I really wanted to do was to crawl into a hole and possibly die.  They hurt me, but in some ways I asked for it.  Before the psychosis took hold of me I was mainly interested in myself and not oriented towards helping others.  As was my way, I pulled into myself, into self-gratification and fantasy.  I had been hurt badly, but I held only my resentment and it colored my world and led me more deeply into serious mental illness.

And that pattern of holding onto resentment repeated itself while I went through the early stages of my recovery and slowed down my progress.  I didn't regret the fact that I did help some people, but I continued to resent the voices' method of teaching me.  What began to change me inside out was the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness towards myself, the voices and the people I encountered.  That little shift in attitude that I cultivated on and off for years rescued me from my own self-centeredness.  It has taken a long time, but I'm in a much better place now and my attitude is good, is open and willing to keep trying to continue recovering and to helping others to do the same.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cultivating Nirvana: Remembering To Remember

You've probably heard the phrase, "What's goes around, comes around."  This is the cyclical nature of karma.  Good will and good acts, and ill will and hurtful acts, will circle back to you, so you reap what you sow.  This is true for everyone.  But this pattern is not an expression of fate or destiny because you  have the free will to choose just what it is you want to sow.  This is where the benefits of waking up come into play and where the yearning for enlightenment takes root.  The more aware you are of your habitual patterns, that is, living on autopilot and thoughtlessly reacting to your environment, the more chances you get to sow the seeds of goodness taking the necessary steps towards enlightenment.

What is enlightenment?  That depends on you and what is most important to you.  I like to think that enlightenment must have the harmony of heaven.  We all want to be happy.  We yearn for heaven on earth and if we can't get it now, we imagine finding it in the time after we die.  I'm more concerned with cultivating heaven in the present moment.  Nirvana is in the now, even if you are tapping into the pain that runs through it or inside it.  The elements of happiness are already here.  This planet and the sun we orbit sustain our lives, and the life on this planet is a miracle.  That we breath in oxygen and out carbon dioxide continuously replenishing our blood supply is a good symbol of the harmony in every moment.  So people who practice awareness meditation of the breath focus in on that ever present harmony; they tap into a resource, into the perks of being alive.

Meditating on our breath lets us see how often we forget to notice our breath in the midst of being lost in thoughts and feelings.  In forgetting the breath, we forget our essence and the basic element of why we are alive.  We forget so very much.  I mentioned earth and the sun and the miracle of life here, but did you really stop and consider that?  Moments of appreciation and of awe we walk past as if we were wearing blinders.  I do this a lot of the time.  The voices used to say two phrases when I was acutely ill and they were "Forget to Remember" and "Remember To Forget".  If you forget to remember, it is understandable; forgetfulness happens and sometimes is necessary.  But when you remember to forget, you make a conscious choice to push it away.  I think we do both, forget and make a choice to forget.  I also think that we are aware and can make the choice to stay aware.  I see myself as this mixture of being partially aware and partially unconscious, sunk in amnesia.  I see my vulnerability and yet I am not as vulnerable as if I were totally asleep.  Within a speck of awareness are all the supports I need to keep practicing, if I can remember to not forget, not push away what is right in front of me.

But I do; I've trained myself since I was little to grab onto pleasure and push away pain.  Pain comes in many guises, from mild discomfort to torment with the whole range of intensities in between.  If we look honestly, we see that we co-exist with pain; it is part of the landscape.  It may be as simple as a sore back or a nagging worry, but the elements and potentiality of pain are close at hand.  Perhaps it is no wonder that we seek to distract ourselves with instant gratification.  We are still the helpless infant with the bottle or the breast.  Think about your beginnings, your infancy and childhood.  Think about your caretakers and the emphasis on learning and learning quickly, mostly through imitation.  And yet no one taught us how to crawl.  I remember taking care of a friend's baby when she was just starting to learn how to crawl.  I lay her on her back on a blanket on the floor, so there was no chance of her falling off anything, and I allowed myself the joy of watching her.  This particular baby had a lovely, open, cheerful spirit and she wasn't satisfied with just lying on her back staring up at the ceiling; she wanted to move.  And move she did, with the patience of a trained gymnast learning her routine.  But obviously she wasn't a gymnast and there were no rules, regulations or instinct for competition, there was just the simple yet powerful desire to move, to explore the world she found herself in.

I fell in love with the spirit inside that little girl and was grateful to be able to provide her with a safe place to experiment, practice and learn.  She was a good teacher, too.  A very mindful teacher.  She was in the midst of the joy of trying to learn something new.  She worked hard and gradually learned to crawl.  But a lot of our learning is not so natural, it is taught through the medium of a caretaker/teacher.  We have to learn how to pay attention, follow, imitate and interact.  Caretakers/teachers are human and were taught by other caretakers/teachers who made mistakes.  We learned good and bad behaviors from how other people behaved and acted around us.  Back to karma. But regardless of whether we behaved well or poorly, we got an abundant dose of instant gratification starting with the bottle or the breast and moving on to food, television, games, toys.  We were taught to seek out pleasure to cover up our uncertainty and pain, to pacify ourselves.  Distraction became a temporary antidote until there was a lull and the pain came back.

Maybe the underlying pain stems from the first few times we realized that we were helpless and that what we wanted most desperately was outside of us.  Born along with the sense of self is the sense of loss.  Yes and no are the first basic words we learn.  We said yes to being fed, held, cleaned and talked to, to being loved and no to the sense of separation and the ensuing insecurity.  Are the terrible twos terrible because that's when a child learns how to say "No!!" ?  When a child say no, it means so much more than just refusing to do a certain activity or task.  It's more a big NO to the human condition itself.  It's an expression of pain at the same time that it is a demand to stop the pain.  Unreasonable, passionate, expressive, this is what many assertions of self revolve around: the hurt, the anger and loss.

Cultivating nirvana in the present is about learning to let go of our reactions to loss long enough to realize that there is so much left over that is good.  The beginning of life for us all was nine months in the womb, sealed in, protected, well fed and one with our mothers.  Being born is a loss and yet what each of us gain is the world itself.  In order to survive we become explorers and every moment is a new frontier.  The baby learning to crawl has tapped into the joy of this.  She has her breath and body and the space to practice and learn.  As we practice, we make mistakes, but from those mistakes we learn even more than if we had done the practice flawlessly.  And sometimes mistakes turn into new discoveries.  Instead of doing it the "right" way, we do it another way that is just as right as the initial way.  That's a discovery in itself:  there are many ways to experience our lives and the choices make life workable.  We are not sealed up and dependent on one source of happiness as we were inside the womb.  We have freedom and many access points to happiness in every moment.

Instead of remembering to forget the pain in life through distractions, we could remember to remember that there is so much space around the pain and in that space is harmony, nirvana.  Even the pain itself is instructional and because of this it is also part of the harmony.  The question we should ask ourselves is not "What is wrong with this moment?", but "What is right in this moment?"  This shift of focus is monumental; it is a shift away from the belief in original sin and the experience of hell on earth towards a belief in original goodness, also called Buddha Nature, and heaven or nirvana in the here and now.  But before you can get to the question of what is right in this moment, you have to sit with your pain, acknowledge it, respect it and what it can teach you.  Don't be afraid of the pain.  Fear of pain magnifies the pain and distorts the greater truth.  When you sit with it like sitting with an ailing friend you de-escalate the suffering and thereby give yourself the strength to continue sitting instead of acting out, running away or stuffing your feelings and numbing out.  And when you stop and sit you give yourself the chance to reflect with balance and ask the question "What is right in this moment?"

I really believe that transforming ourselves and the world we live in towards peace and harmony is very possible, but it requires this shift in attitude in every individual.  No one can do the practice for you.  Look at and reflect on the pain you encounter in your lives; don't be so quick to label it as "bad" and don't let that mistaken assumption color your world.  Pain and pleasure are just part of the landscape of our lives, but they are also the best teachers we'll ever have.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Balancing Act Of Yin And Yang

We are like this seagull:  we can find balance or we can fall or we can even, symbolically, fly.  Balance allows us to land and settle and balance allows us to take off and fly.  The experience of falling also has balance in it, the balance of letting go and trusting despite the thrill or the fear of it.  To me this photograph is a good example of actual and potential balance, yin and yang in action.

In Chinese the literal meaning of the word yin is shadow and the literal meaning of the word yang is light.  The yin and yang symbol is often illustrated in black and white showing the greatest extremes co-joined in a balanced duality.  The symbol is perfectly contained yet implies movement.  It is supposed to represent the elements of nature, opposing yet not in opposition, rather interconnected.  Human beings are animals and evolved from nature and have literal and figurative elements of shadow and light in their make-up as does everything in our world.  This experience of contrasts is how we sense, and make sense of, ourselves and our environment.  We see the difference between sunlight and shadows or we feel the difference between the warmth from the sun and the coolness of the shadows.  These contrasts, and all the subtleties between them, make for the profound richness of our lives.

Duality, then, is an essential and intimate part of all our lives.  The yin and yang symbol, though it uses the visual language of extremes, really teaches about moderation, balance and the perfect compromise.  So why are humans often immoderate, unbalanced and in conflict?  The balance of yin and yang is perfection, heaven or "the pure lands", yet there is always flow and flux to it.  There are innumerable combinations which allow us to become unbalanced.  But is that lack of balance a lack of perfection?  Or is it the perfection of a process that moves towards a larger view, a broader picture?  We too often label the low points in our lives as bad and the high points as good when really they are both just different aspects of a fertile and fully experienced lifetime.

I don't mean to minimize the intensity that our suffering can reach, but suffering never is or has been the whole picture.  If it were, we would have no means of surviving and certainly none of being happy.  It is when we are seeing black, really imagining that all is hopeless and dark, that we can make the biggest fall of all into aggressive acts against ourselves and/or others.  But before the act comes the thoughts and feelings, the reactions to the real and imagined pain in our present moment.  Always there is the touch of light amidst a black background, but when we focus on the darkness and even add to the darkness, we blot out the one door out of our prison.  Controlled by our imagination we think there is no door to freedom, to the outside.  I'm convinced that the reality is that there is always a door available.

There is a Tibetan lojong slogan that goes, "Train in the three difficulties."  The first difficulty is to recognize mental illness as mental illness.  Pema Chodron uses the word neurosis, but I have found that it applies just as much to psychosis, depression and anxiety.  Recognition is intuitive awareness and awareness is the first major step towards beneficial change in yourself and towards others, which leads to the second difficulty which is to do something different after you recognize your illness.  Doing the usual thing, the habitual thoughtless thing, leads you to reinforce the original illness.  Instead of finding some liberation from sickness, you settle more deeply into it.  The only way to find the door, the access to light, is to take the blinders off your eyes.  That's doing something different.  The final difficulty is to make this your life's practice.

Actually, I think the first and second difficulty are one in the same.  The act of recognizing is an act of doing something different.  The question is how to you get to the point where you are ready to become aware?  I've been looking back on some of my adult life, reading a journal from the early years of my recovery, and I see now what I was unable to see then, that I was harboring, even cultivating, resentment towards these mysterious and challenging voices in my mind.  I was full of questions and I chased the questions wanting answers like a cat chasing its own tail.  Some of the questions were understandable, but others revealed my particular bias towards blaming them for my own ills.  Interspersed in the resentment was the germination of a compassion practice towards them and myself because we appeared to both be ill.  That practice was enough for me to see the touch of light in the midst of my persistent depression.

It's been almost eleven years since I entered into recovery.  The early years, when I was struggling to get my BFA degree, were not easy.  Now I can see that I made them harder.  I was self centered, self isolating and resentful, but I was also curious, thoughtful and basically non harming.  I did return again and again to the practice of gratitude and lovingkindness however imperfectly.  Anyway, it was enough to get me to this point where I'm more ready to be aware than I was before.  A lot more ready.  It's only been since I finished reading "Dharma In Hell" that I realized that I do have a daily Buddhist practice.  I practice lovingkindness towards myself, the voices and everyone, but I came to the practice gradually.  A little bit here and a little bit there while going in circles and falling backwards.  I believed strongly in that little ray of light and when I could I nurtured it.  None of it has gone to waste and life on the path continues.  I am just beginning to enter into compassion practice which is harder than lovingkindness practice in that I will have to feel the pain in myself, others and the situations we get ourselves into.

Next Tuesday, on September 11th, I will go to my first NAMI meeting in a nearby town.  This is very important to me and hopefully to the other people who attend.  It will give me the chance to be of service to a few of the people in my community.  Early in the acute stage of my psychosis, the voices ordered me to be of benefit to my community and despite battling the delusions and my paranoia I did help a few people out.  Then I pulled back into myself and gradually I have started reaching out.  It took me years just to reach out to people online and then years of me wishing that there was a support group to go to.  The time has come.  I'll be nervous, but I will work to stay open to the opportunities that present themselves to me, opportunities to share my story and to listen and learn from other people's stories.  The flux and flow of yin interacting with yang has brought me to this place, a place where I can finally open the door.