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.

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.
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