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, October 21, 2012

This Sacred World

From when I was little up until my late teens, I knew the world was sacred.  I think many of us do at that age.  The power of youth lies in part in its intensity.  It doesn't matter what your life circumstances are, everything is new, fresh and alive.  Your mind and heart are awake and you are only tentatively conditioned by the society you live in.  Later on you will armor your heart, thereby dulling your mind, and accept your place in society but without the intensity of the young, wise heart.  As you grow into adulthood, you will take on more and more responsibilities.  These widen your skills and allow you to live independently.  They also numb your sensitivity to the fact that your present moment is sacred.

I grew up in New York City.  During most of the year I lived in Brooklyn and went to school in Manhattan and during the summers I lived on Long Island on the beach.  I got to experience city and country life, to taste the rhythms of both.  In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, there were tree lined streets and a large park nearby.  Nature seemed to survive fairly well in an environment of car exhaust, many houses, apartment buildings, stores, schools and a moderate number of people.  I was lucky to have that park nearby.  Any open spaces, including the sky and the sky line, in a city as large and complex as New York City, are truly valued and needed.  It's a kind of balance to the stress of living amongst so many people.  But that city environment and all its multi-cultural inhabitants are a large part of what makes city living as sacred as living close to nature.

It's not just that the environment we find ourselves in is sacred, but we ourselves are made up of subtle and obvious, intricate and plain sacred stuff.  I got to experience people as sacred on New York City streets and subways.  The obvious and plain sacredness of the people in this city is in their wonderful diversity.  I realized later on that a lot of people just don't get to experience this and are possibly afraid of all the differences in humanity.  But for me living in the city at the time it was the natural state of affairs.  And amidst that throng of people, there were truly acts of random kindness that defied the stereotype of cities as large and hostile places.  Yes the city was large and in certain places, at certain times hostile, but for the most part the life within the city kept moving.  More people followed the rules of coexistence than didn't.  Courtesy, tolerance, patience, generosity, humor and even joy circulated throughout city life.

The subtle and intricate side of the sacred in the city had to do with the darker side of it.  The traffic, the car exhaust in the air, the dirt, the noise, the extreme poverty of homeless people, the threat of misunderstandings turning into altercations or even violence, the fast pace, all of this interwoven into the pulse of the city.  How can dirt, noise, poverty, violence be sacred?  Because it is part of the whole scene and it offsets the harmony and beauty which is also to be found there.  This duality in us between the light and dark aspects of ourselves is the playing field for the sacred in our lives.  Success and failure, beauty and ugliness, peace and violence, it's all very rich and messy stuff and it's all we have to work with as we each go through our particular journey.

I think more people associate the sacred with nature, rather than with city life, and I was privileged enough to experience that also in what started out as a very small beach house on Long Island during the summers.  My upwardly mobile parents, who worked their way up from fairly poor beginnings, determined to get this house on the bay side of the beach for about $9,000 in 1958, the year my older brother was born.  They never regretted it and my brother and I got to experience nature up close.  Compared to the city, there wasn't the dirt, noise, poverty or potential violence at the beach.  Instead there was the luxury of unpopulated open spaces where nature thrived.  I remember the smell of the ocean, salty and mildly sulphuric, as my family got out of the car, and how quickly I took off my shoes and socks to feel the sand between my toes.  Soon after that I would check on the bay behind our house and then walk across the road and up a dune to see the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.  It was like greeting a long, lost friend.  My family also brought our six cats with us and set them free during the summers; they were beautiful to watch and so happy in their freedom.

I moved away from both the city and the beach when I was twenty seven, moving far into the country of Western New York, which is closer to rural Pennsylvania than to the metropolis that I grew up in.  Predominantly white, Christian, Republican, often poor amidst the open beauty of the countryside, a very different setting for me.  Ironically, I had to come deep into the country to encounter prejudice, violence, addiction and abuse that I somehow mostly avoided in the city.  But I also found the solace of living in the country in relative privacy in my own home for the first time in my adult life.  Everything was new, the countryside, the roads, the towns, the stores and the people.  I still had some of the flush of youth in me then and I was curious.  I was also sick and quickly committed myself to someone who was also sick, a victim of prejudice, abuse and addiction.  He tried to pass on the cycle of abuse that he had endured and rebelled against to me.

The cycles of abuse in our culture are also a part of how we learn about what's sacred in our lives.  One of the drawbacks of living in the country is the isolation because isolation can breed abuse.  A sick, tyrannical, addicted boyfriend or husband living in an isolated house with his girlfriend or wife and possibly children as well, can reek havoc in that little home virtually unchecked.  Worse, the suffering abuser will go on to teach how to perpetuate the cycle of abuse especially to the children.  People who become the victims of abuse have two choices, either to continue the cycle or to end it.  It sounds like an easy choice, but it is not.  The pull to feed into resentment, whether it's an abusive person blaming those around him for his troubles or an abused person blaming his or her abuser, is what keeps this virus alive.  I guess this is why I tend to stress the fact that abusers are not bad, evil people, they are incredibly sick people who most likely have been abused themselves at a young age.  And the abused, after years of it, are mentally ill as well.  This is what cements the cycle in place -- when the people in the relationship are both sick, how can they possibly get well?

Too often they don't get well and spiral downwards.  It takes at least one person in a deeply sick relationship to reach outside of the confines of that strange partnership towards help.  I tried to do that by going to support groups and counseling, by studying literature on addiction, codependency and domestic violence, by secretly writing in a journal.  My attempts to continue with support groups and counseling were blocked by my sick, abusive partner.  But at least I gave him the opportunity to stop the abuse by setting a good example.  I knew that I was very ill, so instead of blaming him, I was trying to take care of myself.  I invited him to do the same.  In his attitudes and actions, he refused and I began praying for the courage to leave him for good.  And I did.  One of the reasons why I could was because I didn't have a child with him.  There are countless women out there who cannot leave their abusive partner so easily because of the children involved.

So the darkness of the city is also the same darkness of the country, the setting is different but the substance is the same.  I consider the years that I spent living with my lover/abuser as sacred years.  I feel the same way about the years I spent in acute psychosis.  Just because it is dark, dirty, smelly and painful, doesn't take away from the fact that there were profound lessons being taught.  You can be very sick and yet very alive at the same time.  Again, the sickness highlights the way back to health through negative example.  If you can acknowledge your sickness and study your habitual triggers and reactions, thereby increasing your awareness level or your mindfulness, you can heal.  But you have to take responsibility for yourself and put not harming yourself and others at the top of your list.

Regardless of whether you live in the city or country, whether you are young or old, you always have access to what's sacred.  It's in every moment; you carry it around with you and you move through its space.  It's there every time you meet another human being and it's there when you are alone.  It's particularly evident when you cultivate awareness of the moment you are in through self-reflection.  Self-reflection is at the heart of the sacred.  It is honest mindfulness of the heart, mind and spirit; you are the witness to your own life.  This is why it is important to stop what you are doing each day and sit, either in formal meditation or in informal meditation.  This stopping is just as important, probably more important, than somewhat blindly doing all the time.  If you have a lot of responsibilities and are active most of the time, it is essential that you take time for yourself to value just being.  Turn off the computer, your phone, the TV, the radio and go sit quietly for at least 20 minutes.  Do it now.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Mental Illness Awareness

This is the last day of Mental Illness Awareness Week, but for me everyday is a day for mental illness awareness.  It should be obvious that awareness is the key ingredient for beneficial change, first in attitude, through gaining knowledge, and then through speech and action.  But how do you get people who are unaware to the place where they can wake up to the fact that mental illness is a part of the human condition?

Those of us who have not fallen into acute mental illness still have personal experience with depression, anxiety and irrational thinking during stressful times.  We've all touched into mental and emotional imbalance.  Perhaps that is why the stigma against mental illness is so great -- it's too close to home.  People want to foster the illusion that "crazy" people are different, other, the enemy, out there somewhere.

I'm doing what many people who suffer from mental illness are doing, I'm writing in a blog with the intention of helping myself and others to understand the nature of mental illness, specifically and generally.  Specifically, through relating personal stories, and generally, through reflecting on those stories and bringing in a bigger picture.  It's an education process that in some ways is very old and traditional, very human.

Before the invention of writing, there was a serious oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation. People got together and told each other stories.  Many stories were forgotten, but some lived on.  Those who learned and told the stories were skilled performers and sometimes stories were modified or embellished and the initial story began to be transformed.  This mixing of fact and fiction is a part of what it is to be human.  We're drawn to tales and drama and confessions.

For me, I work hard to keep fact and fiction separate.  I think many other bloggers with mental illness try to do the same.  Our stories still have some drama and some confession in them, but I think that has more to do with where we went astray with our illness, where we tried to transform fiction into fact.  The lure to turn fiction into fact is in the way we entertain ourselves with books, television, movies, video games and popular music.  The internet can used this way too and yet it is also a library and a communications center, a place where with some determination you can gather some facts and express your views on what you've found.

Bloggers who write about their mental illness are reporters and witnesses.  The more honest and articulate they can be, the more the shroud of stigma gets reduced.  This is what I've been witnessing these last six years that I've been blogging.  There still should be more of us writing about our struggles and successes, but there are enough to reach a solid percentage of people surfing the web. The illusion that those of us particularly with psychotic disorders are always on the borderline of having a violent outbreak is just beginning to diminish.

Slowly major depression and bipolar disorder are becoming accepted by the general population, as are anxiety disorders, but schizophrenia and schizo-affective disorder continue to be much maligned.  That's one of the reasons why I write to show that I am as human as anyone and not some kind of freak or monster.  I also write to show that those who are psychotically ill and have been violent towards others are also human and deserve compassion.  They are not monsters, they are very, very ill human beings.

There are no monsters; there is no enemy, there's just us and we are complex psychological beings.  We share the same stuff.  In order to survive we need to be inclusive and not exclusive.  In the human race there should be no gated communities.  We share everything, our mental illness and our mental health. But the more aware we can get of being side tracked by mental illness, both great and small, within "crazy" people and "normal" people, the more we can understand its dynamics and re-direct ourselves towards mental health.  Awareness and understanding go hand in hand and make us wiser.

Friday, October 5, 2012

What Is Ego?

According to the Buddhist perspective clinging to our egos, which is a form of bondage, is the root cause of all suffering.  But what exactly is ego?  I associate the word ego with egotism and imagine an individual who is conceited, self-serving, unbalanced, using language filled with I, me and mine, a person who is so full of themselves that they can’t empathize or connect with other people.  An egotist is a person who is mentally ill because he or she has an overblown sense of self.  An egotist is deluded.  And yet we all have egos; we all at times exaggerate our own importance, clinging to definitions of ourselves as more important than that of other people.  Ego comes into play when people really like us or really don’t like us or when we feel we’ve been wronged by someone or some group and foster this pervasive sense of resentment.  So ego is about how we perceive ourselves and how we think others perceive us, about Self and Other.  It colors our moments.

Anger, hatred and violence are expressions of ego; even minor annoyances and impatience show where we are holding on to our own self-importance in relation to others.  Cravings and desire, anxiety and fear, withdrawal and indifference all circle around our sense of self, what we want and what we don’t want.  None of us can say, even the most spiritually well trained person, that we don’t encounter some of these elements in our daily lives.  Ego oriented thoughts come into our awareness a lot of the time.  They are part of what makes us human and fallible.  But when we are in the grips of these thoughts and feelings we lose our balance and our happiness.  Neurotic or psychotic we fall in and out of deluded perspectives.  Most of us don’t challenge ourselves to question our reactions, we just accept the reaction, feel the feelings and stay stuck inside the anger or desire or fear.  In this way, we give permission to our egos to stay in control of our lives.

Each moment we have a choice to be ego or self centered or to be other centered.  Even when we’re alone we can be other centered, realizing that we are interconnected, a part of the web of life.  I still spend much of my time alone.  Part of that is due to my sickness; I pull into myself and block out having contact with others.  I mistakenly think that I am protecting myself.  But more often I spend my time alone because I want to work at my spiritual practice by listening to spiritual teachers, taking notes, writing, reflecting on what I’m learning in an audio journal, reading and making up songs.  There is a Buddhist mind training slogan that goes, “Liberate yourself by examining and analyzing.”  I take that slogan (many of the slogans) seriously.  I don’t see it as being self-centered and self-absorbed; I see it as being self-reflective in order to free myself from my ego so that I can reach out to others from a position of self-acceptance or lovingkindness.  Helping others starts with helping yourself and that takes the discipline of self-honesty.

Ego is about self-deception; egolessness is about self-honesty.  Buddhists would say that if you are really honest with yourself, you would see that there is no self.  The ego and self are a fabrication of our thoughts and our thoughts have no substance.  They arise from nowhere, exist and disappear and arise again like clouds in the sky or waves in the ocean.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t exist, but our existence is more subtle and more connected to the environments we find ourselves in.  We are not separate, solid and fixed; we are interconnected, spacious and always in flux.  But inside the learning dance of everyday life, we deceive ourselves about important things using our egos.  I still succumb sometimes to the belief that I am isolated from other people.  This illusion of isolation breeds fear in me and my fear distorts my reality.

There is the pull in those moments to distract myself, to run away from my discomfort or to indulge in thinking about my fears and get pulled into a negative orientation.  For the last year I have trained myself to not do those things but to sit with my suffering and befriend it.  What I’ve discovered is that the suffering starts to diminish when I don’t act out or repress my feelings.  Of course the suffering doesn’t go away entirely, it returns, but then I return to working with it, thereby lessening it.  The change in me is in my attitude and my beliefs.  I believe that I am connected to others and not alone most of the time now.  This is an important shift that challenges the ego orientation that I am separate, solid and vulnerable to attack.  Because we are interconnected we support each other and are not as vulnerable as the ego would have us believe.  So we don’t need to keep armoring our hearts by listening to our misguided, self-protective thoughts.  The result is that we stay more open and responsive to ourselves and others and we begin to see through our more egotistical thoughts and feelings.  We become less reactive and more responsive.

The difference between being reactive and responsive is that when we react we don’t think, we are on automatic pilot, but when we respond we become more thoughtful, more gentle, more willing to work with the situation or person.  We have reinforced our reactive responses to external triggers all our lives; they are very deeply ingrained.  The likelihood is when someone or something triggers us that inside we will still react.  Cultivating the practice of self-honesty through reflection, which to me is the essence of spiritual practice, we slow the process down and allow for the room to respond.  We begin to transform aggression into peace in our daily lives.  When our egos are in control we react, get defensive, over or under estimate ourselves, lose a balanced perspective.  War and violence are the expressions of a fortified ego.  The ego depends upon an us versus them mentality.  When we stop clinging to our egos, we find many ways to be peaceful by acknowledging that we are all in this life together and that we depend upon each other.  We are one huge family and not a bunch of warring tribes.

That is not the way many people see it despite the globalization of our world.  This is because we each have to contend with our attachment to our egos, to our selves.  Our ego won’t just go away, just as our thoughts won’t just go away; we have to re-train ourselves through some kind of spiritual discipline.  This doesn’t have to be religious, it can be humanitarian such as in helping others through social activism.  Just seeing ourselves as part of something larger and greater than ourselves gets us back into a better balance.  Clinging to our egos does make us suffer, but letting go of identifying with our egos has to be a gradual process.  The ego is not the enemy, for really there is no enemy, but to over-emphasize it in our lives is to live inside an illusion.  Spiritual practice is about waking up from the dreams we feed ourselves and each other generation after generation.  Cycles of abuse can be stopped, but only through awareness.  We have a choice; we can fortify our ego and our suffering or we can let go of ego orientations and let go of so much unnecessary suffering.  This is some of what Buddha taught.