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, December 30, 2013

Another Song For My Mother


In the backseat of the car
On the way to the beach
You sang folk songs to me.
I was just a child
But I loved you so much
I thought about your mortality.

With my head in your lap
And your face like the moon
You sang with such joy
I felt truly at home,
At home.

I was following your footsteps
On Westhampton Beach
Long Island, New York.
It was the 1960s in the summertime
And you were making crazy patterns for me.

I followed your lead
And the sweet simplicity
From the salt in the air
To the sound of the sea,
You were there for me.

Play Song

My Mother, Ellen Mary

I think my mother is in the end stages of her life.  Early in August she had a heart valve replacement operation.  She survived the operation, but she awoke in a demented state.  We have all speculated that she didn't get enough oxygen to her brain during the operation. Now, almost 5 months later, she stopped eating and continued to sleep a lot and so she has a feeding tube connected to her belly.  It will be my father's decision whether to remove the tube or not within the next week or so.

As my uncle wrote to me a couple of weeks ago, it is a terrible irony that my mother, with her sharp, agile, knowledgeable mind, should end her life in a demented state.  I feel empathy for her because I've been in that lost place during the acute stages of schizophrenia.  It's a place where you cannot connect with others and where you are just getting by.  It's a place of isolation within the confines of insanity. And so, I cannot reach her and she cannot reach me.

I'm relying on the faith that I've nurtured over the years that each of our lives are witnessed from beginning to end and beyond by higher forces.  Not just witnessed but guided and comforted when we reach out in our pain and confusion.  My mother is not alone.  And when she does let go of this life, I will hold on to her spirit within my spirit.  She helped so much to define me with her intelligent honesty, her humor and her kindness.

Here are two songs I wrote for her:

Go With The Flow Mother

Go with the flow      
Mother, Mother      
Leave the misery    
Behind you;      
Let go of the shell    
That confined you.  
The times of sorrow    
Will come,      
But turn your face    
Towards the sun,
Go with the flow  

Mother, sweet Mother  
Has your time come?    
Mother, sweet Mother    
Are you going to move on
Without me?    

Go with the flow  
Mother, Mother    
Don’t resist your ending  
Walk into your new beginning.    
The times of sorrow  
Have come,  
Now turn your face  
Towards the sun,  
Go with the flow
Go with the flow  
Go with the flow.  


Where are you now?
Lost in a place    
Where I cannot follow you
You know I’ve been there, too
In a place where
Angels fear to tread
But I know they do    
They did for me and now you.  

Hold on to your spirit Mother    
Make the passage quick to the other side
When you get there, watch over me;
I will remember you with so much pride.

Songs For Mom

Click to hear.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Faith: The Bigger Picture

The truth cannot be contained within a scientific theory, though many people take comfort in the belief that it can.  Then again, many people also take comfort in a belief in faith which demands no tangible proofs.  I place myself somewhere in the middle, or perhaps I should say that some scientific facts form the groundwork for an exploration beyond the facts.  The material world and the spiritual world are not divorced in my world view.

It is human nature to struggle with not knowing.  The biggest struggle we face is coming to terms with our own mortality.  We commonly accept that we will die, but we don’t know when and often don’t know how.  The danger in being alive is that there is always the chance of physical injury or illness or, worse, death itself.  If we walk through our lives preoccupied with this shadow, we rob ourselves of the joys contained within life.  And so, even the most committed atheist, who relies heavily on the truth in facts, must walk out the door carrying inside himself, or herself, a degree of faith.

What can we do in this place of not knowing, this place of faith where we suspend the knowledge that we will die and place in its stead the belief that we will continue to live?  We commit to living moment by moment, day after day.  I think all of us, without exception, put our faith in something larger than ourselves be it the world we live in and our encounters with other people and places and experiences or a faith in some kind of higher power watching over us and guiding us through all our encounters.  We do not exist only for ourselves, but in relation to the world outside our physical bodies.  Even at our earliest physical beginnings, we were in a relationship with our mothers.  We have never been in isolation.

The biggest mystery is not death, the supposed end point of existence, that implacable, unknowable experience.  The mystery is within our spirits, that is our everyday lives and process of living.  We live without a memory of our conception or our birth and so we don’t really know where we come from. We don’t understand the fundamental elements of how or why we came into being on this planet. We’ve learned some facts about the means of sexual reproduction for human animals, but the facts leave out so much and can’t reveal the precise moment we began to exists as a life force.

What does it mean to exist as a life force?  It is more than just blood being pumped by our heart into our organs, animating ourselves to continue breath by breath.  Our life force is contained within our awareness.  So much of our bodily functions are involuntary and accomplished without awareness, our hearts pumping, our breath in and out, the digestion of the food we eat.  It’s as if our bodies are on automatic pilot thereby allowing us either to rest in, or be restless within, our consciousness.  Our consciousness is greater than our bodies and has more in common with the space around us, the intangible, the vast, something with nothing to hold onto.

And so, with so much freedom we get frightened by the power of all the choices we can make and do make, with the present and potential consequences of our actions.  Beyond our instinct for self-preservation, the fight or flight reaction to negative stimuli, we have the ability to rise above our reactions by learning to pause and reflect, to take stock of our present lives and our pasts.  We rely heavily on memory, but because we all have lived such rich lives with so many moments, so many thoughts and feelings, only some memories get recorded.  There is a process of selection or editing out the parts of our lives that are not essential to our underlying spirit, the thing that motivates us to keep on going.  Our experience is too vast for us to be in conscious control of just what we remember and what we don’t remember.

This leads us back to the mystery of our spirits.  What is this unconscious self that selects what to store and what to release into the flow of our ever flowing lives?  I truly do not believe that our selections are haphazard, but how do we know what is essential to know, and remember, when we proceed so often not knowing the deeper nature of our thought processes.  Something within us does know that our lives have this greater meaning, even when we are so very doubtful about ourselves.  This inner self is not so easily explained away by scientists and psychologists.  We can talk about the effects of neurotransmitters and label our psyches as divided into superego, ego and id, but we truly do not know the origins of this mystery.

This mystery leads us right back to faith and to sitting with a sometimes uncomfortable mixture of knowing and not knowing.  People are deluded when they affirm that they do not have faith.  Whenever we take something for granted we have faith, faith in our lives, faith that the sun will rise the next day, faith that the world is turning.  Whenever we reach out for a greater understanding of our lives and the meaning within it, we have faith.  Faith allows us to open up instead of shut down.  Those people caught within severe depression struggle desperately with a lack of faith and so they shut down and they shut down some more until they are cornered within their minds and left unbalanced, left hurting so badly that they turn to various escapes, including suicide.

What do they or any of us have left to work with?  Our awareness which is greater than our minds. You can sit somewhere in silence with no thoughts and be so very aware of all the details of your environment, be very much alive because of your awareness.  When you sit with your awareness you can feel the life force all around you.  The beautiful simplicity of our awareness often is contrasted with the misdirected complexity of our thoughts.  Thoughts can point the way to underlying truths, but they can just as easily direct us into accepting lies.  The fact is we learn through misunderstanding except when we persist in cherishing falseness.  Some people cherish falseness because they are, as yet, ignorant and other people cherish falseness as a means of disguising themselves and/or taking advantage of other people and situations.

All of us have lied consciously to others and unconsciously to ourselves.  We are probably the only potentially insincere species on this planet.  We are not always what we seem.  Because we have this great power to deceive and manipulate, we rely heavily on our false thoughts to motivate us to continue in the deceptions.  We play a serious game with our lives and others' lives.   The problem with believing in lies and lying is that it produces delusional thinking within individuals and worse, the acceptance of illusion over reality for the general populace.

When delusional thinking takes hold within people and spreads into a collective of people, true awareness becomes obscured.  Prejudices and lies partially color every culture on the globe.  And so conflict is born over and over again and a seemingly unending need to inevitably find scape goats.  It is an illusion that we can find justice through blaming and condemning others.  Justice can only be found through an unprejudiced awareness using thoughts to seek out truth rather than using thoughts to hide the truth or only partially convey the greater truth.  Good intentions towards all beings really does count, just as negative intentions really do distort reality and cause great harm to harmless beings.

In order cultivate good intentions towards everyone, you have to get very, very honest.  Those hardest hit by distorted thinking and compulsive actions are addicts.  Addicts move into recovery when they acknowledge that their intentions towards themselves and others are not good intentions, but rather self-serving and self-destructive.  If they can get honest about that and if they can hold onto that realization, they can begin the recovery process of deconstructing the lies that they’ve been living under for so long.  As the distortions in their thought processes begin to clear up, they naturally find that their intentions towards themselves and others returns to health.  Health reinforces the positive and the positive is non harming.

I know some addicts struggle with 12 step programs because so much of the program asks each individual to either reach for a belief in a higher power or deepen the faith they already have.  Faith demands surrender and surrender for many of us is a scary concept and a scarier practice.  Faith also requires that you believe in the essential goodness in life and in everyone.  Faith allows room for a bigger picture to emerge, one greater than our individual stories.  As I said earlier, I believe we all have faith to a greater or lesser extent; it’s how we get through our days and nights when things get rough. As we rely on it, we also take it for granted.  The gift of facing one’s addiction is that one stops taking faith for granted.  Faith becomes a rich and rewarding way of approaching life with openness, honesty and dignity.  I have found in my practice that when I have faith in others higher self and tell them so, that they relax, open, and in return have faith in me too.  A supportive bond gets created, the basis rests in trust and trust allows people to live together in harmony while facing the continuing challenges of daily life.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Patriarchal Planet Earth

Sometimes we adapt to what is because there is no viable alternative.  I believe that this is what is happening on our planet for both the male and female of the human species.  We are still ruled by our biology.  On the whole, men are physically stronger than women and because of this advantage we have inherited a very ancient male dominated or patriarchal rule in nearly all of our societies.  Patriarchy echoes the natural world, the eat or be eaten world of predators and prey where the dominant animals rule over their group at the very least.  We have translated this natural tendency into a might makes right philosophy that continues to promote wars as somehow acceptable behavior.  But patriarchy goes even deeper than the ability to promote and support violent national conflicts.  It is interwoven into the fabric of our societies; it's in the way we govern, do business, educate ourselves, worship and more.  It's so all pervasive across the world that we've stopped seeing it.

Men should not be ruling the world, but then I don't think women should either.  The only really good form of governance is egalitarianism.  In order for that to happen there needs to be an infusion of women into positions of power in government, business, education, religion, etcetera.  I believe that culture is slowly moving in that direction, which might be why deeply patriarchal countries continue to severely restrict girl's and women's rights.  The old ways are being challenged and these countries are on the defensive, instinctually seeking to preserve themselves by attacking those that don't conform.  This challenge and conflict could be seen during the presidential election in the United States.  The country was given a choice to continue with a Democratic president who openly supported women's rights and gay people's right amongst other things or to revert to the more traditional patriarchal rule of the Republicans.  Though the country went with the Democratic candidate, the country is still deeply divided and there are many hurdles to go through in the next four years.

To me it is obvious that we can't go backwards; patriarchy does not work because the natural outcome is extreme overpopulation.  To be fruitful and multiply is no longer common sense.  If we continue doing what we've been doing we will become extinct one way or another.  Divide and conquer doesn't work either because we've divided up the whole world with imaginary boundaries that we take so seriously.  The new frontier is not in some physical location; if anything it is contained in cyberspace.  This is the era of globalization, the realization that we are not a collection of nations, but one people on one planet, a planet that we have been using selfishly.  Pollution is a fact and climate change is real and our resources are dwindling.

The question is, can we rise above our biology?  The testosterone level in men has dropped significantly in the past 20 years worldwide, which makes it appears as if our biological parameters are changing to include a different norm.  Testosterone levels in men who become fathers also get reduced which implies that nurturing behavior can affect an individual's biology.  Another change I've heard about is the rise of people who neither marry nor have children.  Could this be part of a survival mechanism for our species?  Reduce the births on earth, reduce aggressive, controlling, exploitative power.

The sense of a power structure begins in the family unit.  If there are fewer families the reasoning behind patriarchal rule will weaken and new approaches will be tried and accepted.  I believe many Americans, who are part of the vast Christian/Republican orientation here, focus so strongly on a male dominated family unit as the basic building block of their social organization.  And this is why they are so threatened by reproductive rights for women and the right to marry and raise children regardless of sexual orientation.  The additional fear of socialism is once again the fear of the family unit being undermined, subsumed into the general population.  If one's community provides good services --  food, shelter, education, work, transportation, healthcare and community service and friendship -- there is no real need for the strong father (or mother) figure to be the overall provider for the children.  Likewise, if there were peace on earth, the myth of the superhero or supernation would be exposed.

Before I began writing this blog, I did an internet search to see if there are any matriarchal societies today and basically there are very few and they are small.  What this means is that we have only patriarchal models to follow.  I am not trying to assert that men are "bad" and women are "good" when it comes to organizing and running human societies, but the bias in favor of male rule is so pervasive all across the globe that there is a serious imbalance of power.  Being animals, it is not surprising that we are territorial and protective of our home turf.  Traditionally men have done the hunting and the warring over the centuries.  On a small scale, this is not so terrible, but as a blueprint for an entire world it is divisive and destructive.

Women continue to be second class citizens and yet instinctually women are inclined toward social organization and mutual cooperation.  Where many boys are out sparring and establishing dominance and relying on competition, girls tend to stay closer to home, working in small groups, relying on verbal skills more than physical dominance and prowess.  Of course, there is cross over between the sexes, with some boys having an aversion to competition and some girls being drawn to it.  But generally speaking boys and girls conform to the roles set up by the patriarchal societies we live in.  The women who do choose to compete in order to gain positions of power must follow male standards and rules.  In a sense, they must convert themselves because they are investing in the only system available.

Right now, approximately a fifth of the US Congress is female and it looks as if that percentage will increase given time.  The question remains, will an increase of women in the US government significantly change the balance of power away from male dominance and towards a more egalitarian society?  I believe, if the numbers approach 30 to 40 percent, this is what will begin to happen.  Women in a minority position are less likely to challenge the status quo and some go so far as to reinforce it as a means of consolidating their position.  But when there are enough women to offer mutual support on sensitive issues, there is a much greater chance for the change in society to take place on a deeper level, often put into law.

Both men and women struggle; no one has it easy if you look at an entire lifetime.  I live in a poor county of New York State and I know the people around here struggle to earn enough income to support themselves and their families.  We do live in a patriarchal society, but that doesn't mean that the men here are powerful.  Along with the poverty, there are problems with addiction, obesity, child abuse and domestic violence.  I know from personal experience that domestic violence is one of the ways that insecure, stressed out men usurp power over their partners and children.  These men may not have much power or respect within their communities and so in their sickness and distress they bring a little hell home with them each day.  It's a vicious cycle.  We teach our children that violence is acceptable in certain circumstances such as in the police force and military and that it is a predominantly male activity.  But men getting into drunken brawls at bars is also fairly common and to a certain extent accepted.  And what about the fine line between sports and violent outbursts?  Violence portrayed in television and films has become entertainment.  There's just too much in our culture to support a boy or man in crossing that line into abusive behavior.

Boys are given mixed messages right from the beginning.  It's only been recently that I've noticed in films that leading male characters are finally allowed to openly cry when something upsetting has happened to them.  The message to be tough and not feel and express sensitive feelings is a damaging one.  When you stuff your feelings and become generally less aware and sensitive, it's a lot harder to identify with others and easier to cross into controlling, judgmental and even aggressive behavior.  In order to work with others in a spirit of tolerance that's willing to compromise, men have to be willing to feel their fear and sadness and their insecurity and let go of, at least for a time, the tough guy persona.  It's not men who have to step up and take on responsibility and rule this world by being tough guys, it's all of us who need to share the responsibility.  A little toughness goes a long way, but tolerance and fair play and humor goes so much farther and is the glue that holds the world together.  We are all in this life and this one world together.  Let's stop setting up impossible and unhealthy standards for men and women.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Right To Bear Arms?

Somewhere in our evolution we learned to make tools.  Tools by their very nature are useful in some way or another.  Being omnivores, we not only gathered food, we hunted.  And so tools of violence were created to kill animals to feed ourselves so that we and our family and tribe could survive, especially during harsh seasons.  Because we were animals, we were also territorial.  We laid claim to sections of the land, built our homes there, had families, hunted, gathered, cultivated the land and stored our treasures.  When some outsiders arrived and threatened to take our stuff and/or hurt and subjugate our tribes people, we acted out.  If they hit, we hit.  If they used hunting weapons to hurt or even kill others, so did we.  Hunting was sometimes a matter of survival, but so was conflict with the violence of people outside of the tribe.

The very foundation of the predator/prey (or master/slave) relationship is the "us" versus "them" mentality.  We say to ourselves, we are valuable and they are worthless.  We must protect ourselves and they must be sacrificed.  For thousands of years we have de-humanized the other, the "enemy", in order to preserve and benefit ourselves.  The message has been drummed into us by ourselves that we must desire victory for ourselves and defeat for the enemy.

Other predators on this earth have no means to justify their aggressive impulses.  They are instinct driven.  When a kitten plays, it is training for one day hunting.  It sometimes seems as if we are ruled by instincts, too.  And yet, many live non violent lives and some have even forgone meat in their diet.  What this shows is that, unlike most of the natural world, we have a choice.

If we have been given dominion over the earth and all of its creatures, we have proven ourselves to be very poor stewards.  The human species has been raping this planet ever since our population exploded and we entered into the industrial age.  We are in such trouble now because of the choices we all have made, past and present.  Perhaps we are just following our animal instincts, but these same instincts, which once preserved our little tribe, now serve to destroy us.  We can either continue to evolve into an enlightened, peace loving society of humankind, which would require that we face our collective mental illnesses and destructive ways, or we can devolve and self-destruct taking the life on this world along with us into extinction.

No greater authority gave us the right to bear arms and use them; we gave that to ourselves in service of our primal us versus them mentality.  As a species, still dominated by the male sex, we are born warmongers.  But at this crucial point in our human history, with a planet that is rebelling against our abuse of it, we do not have the time or resources to waste on warring tribes.  The experiment to prove the necessity of violence in our civilization has been done ad nauseum.  Aggression no longer has any useful place in our world.

I do understand that many people in the United States are very attached to their guns.  Without guns, we would not have defeated the British and started this country.  But then, we also would not have slaughtered the native people here or institutionalized slavery of Africans.  We would not have had a civil war.  What if no one had the right to bear arms?  We would be forced to cultivate a deep and abiding diplomacy as the rule of law.  We would have to learn how to all get along with each other.  The very first step would be laying down our arms and turning away from them.

In our popular culture we have glorified the gun, made it a symbol of strength and heroism.  In typical (and instinctual) ways we are taught to believe that there are good guys and bad guys.  We are taught that because the bad guys are so out of control, we have no choice but to be out of control, too, resorting to violence and destruction in order to obliterate the bad guys.  The possibility of any kind of diplomacy is ruled out so that we can get to the real entertainment:  the fight.  If you can step away from the pull of entertainment to really look at what is being promoted, you will see that the message is one of mental illness and not the triumph over "evil" forces.  Look into your own heart, you are neither totally good nor totally bad; we are all good/bad.  The negativity you project onto others is inside of you as well.

Why aren't we taught that resorting to violence is not an act of bravery, but one of cowardice?  Because we have so much invested in perpetuating the illusion that we are better than others.  We are NOT better; we were created equal.  It is ironic to me, a person who has survived severe mental illness, that what I see in the world of humans around me is also severe mental illness, a form of mass denial.  The reason I attempt to write forcefully about what I believe is that I want to challenge my readers out of whatever complacency they have, to challenge deeply held assumptions, such as this topic of the right to bear arms or in other words the right to maim and murder other beings.

One of the ten commandments in the Judeo-Christian Bible is Thou shall not murder.  Then there was Buddha saying all life was precious.  And then, there was Jesus instructing that we love our enemies.  The United States is predominantly a Christian country and yet all of this spiritual guidance fails to register in many of our daily lives, which is why I don't see us a Christian country.  Believing in the right to bear arms is antithetical to spiritual practice.  Moses or Buddha or Jesus would not have picked up an automatic weapon and aimed it at anything with the intention to harm.  That's a fact.  If you are an American Christian and you had to choose between owning a gun or guns and following Jesus, would you have the faith to let go of your attachment to firearms?  I know many in this day and age would say no.

Instead of focusing on the right to bear arms, why not develop in yourself the right to be a mature, non violent individual, the right to grow up and work with others instead of against them?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Benefits Of Buddhist Practice

I just wanted to thank Chris, Ashley, Karen and Pam for leaving some great comments to my last blog entry about Pema Chodron.  These are all women who have experience with mental illness and yet each in different ways are deep into recovery.  They are smart, creative, talented and perceptive people and they have come a long way and have a lot to offer the world.  I respect and admire each and every one of them and am honored that they took the time to read my entry and comment.

I would like in this entry to address some of Chris' comment.  She wrote that while she responds to several of Pema Chodron's books, she can't commit to being a Buddhist or following Buddhist principles mainly because she believes that Buddhism shares with other organized religions the imperative to follow without questioning.  She also wonders whether it is appropriate to pick and choose what to believe while leaving the rest behind, which is an approach that I have supported in previous blog entries.

First of all, I have to say that while I am strongly influenced by Buddhist principles and have applied many to my life, I do not consider myself a Buddhist.  I did not grown up living with any form of organized religion and was taught to be suspicious of religions in general.  I turned towards Buddhism in my thirties, after having survived an abusive relationship but before I became actively ill with schizophrenia, because I had begun practicing yoga and meditation and I was curious.  The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, was my main teacher via audio programs.  He introduced me to the practice of mindfulness.

There is no dogma in the practice of mindfulness.  It's all about focusing your attention on what you are doing in the present moment and really staying aware.  Thich Nhat Hanh gave examples of mindfully eating and mindfully washing the dishes and said that one could apply mindfulness to everything.  And what was the point of doing this practice?  For me, as I practiced, the point was to really appreciate my life.  When I was mindful, and mindfulness lends itself to a kind of heightened perception, I was not lost thinking of the past or planning for and worrying about the future.  There is a great freedom contained in the practice of mindfulness, freedom and common sense.  I found it to be both enlightening and healing to my spirit and so I touched base with Buddhist practices just before my breakdown and then during it and beyond.

The Buddhist teachers that I went on to encounter in books and audiobooks over the years did not browbeat their readers and listeners into swallowing what they were teaching without questioning.  Instead they offered up a variety of practices and invited their audience to test these practices out in their own lives.  Pema Chodron has often said that she provides hints and clues about applying the practices, but that the ultimate test has to be done by each of us alone.  It was the Buddha himself who said that people should not blindly follow what he was teaching, but should test it out.

One of the reasons why I'm so enthusiastic about writing about Buddhist practice is because I have tested some of it out and found it to be, without a doubt, beneficial to myself.  The basic principles and practices encourage open mindedness, acceptance, tolerance, patience, generosity and love towards oneself and all others.  Being a pacifist, this loving philosophy gives me a lot of support to continue being a pacifist.  It also gives me hope that a lot of other people are turning towards the philosophy of peace in the world simply by applying these Buddhist practices to their lives.  When you embrace mindfulness, you embrace self responsibility and responsibility towards others, be they friend, stranger or foe. Mindfulness is about gently becoming more and more aware, more awake.  Too many of us are on automatic pilot, going through our busy lives without stopping to reflect and appreciate ourselves and life.

My purpose in writing about Buddhism is not to get readers to become Buddhists, but rather, to encourage them apply some of the Buddhist practices and attitudes to their lives.  The practices of mindfulness and sending lovingkindness prayers out to self and others alone are enough to benefit individuals and ultimately communities as well, if enough people turn their wills towards being aware and non harming.  What I'm proposing, along with most Buddhist teachers, is a gentle, gradual shift in awareness towards love, not just for self and loved ones, but as a basis for relating to people and life in general.  But in order to shift into love as a basis for relating to all people, individuals must have at least one or two spiritual practices to follow and guide them.  These do not have to be Buddhist practices, but I have discovered that Buddhism is rich in various practices and is quite accessible.

Chris questioned in her comment whether it was okay to pick and choose what to practice and what to ignore from either one religion or various religions.  I still believe that it is perfectly okay.  The point is to do what works for you and that could mean that you adhere to only one religion and follow it in an orthodox manner.  Whether you are orthodox or not, you are nonetheless on your own path.  You can choose no religion at all and be on a spiritual path.  I think we are all on the path whether we can consciously acknowledge it or not.  This is because we are beings that gravitate towards love, love of other people and love of all kinds of activities, with and without people.  It's the ones who turn towards anger and criticism, perhaps because of having been abused earlier, who are hurting the most, along with the ones who have moved from having been abused into the role of the abuser.

Even people who have been severely abused as children have experienced times of love and acceptance, if not from within their families, then from outside of them.  I think we are all born with the instinct to recognize the deep value of giving and receiving love.  So many of us lose sight of this when we've been hurt by people and life circumstances.  I know my heart went into a deep freeze and stayed frozen even after I left the abusive situation I had been living in.  It took a severe form of mental illness to wake me up to the absolute necessity of valuing myself and others daily.  The method of waking me up was harsh and painful, yet at the same time the lessons I was learning were branded in my heart and, over a decade later, I am still practicing what I learned then:  to be of benefit to myself and others.  The aim of Buddhist practice is the same, which is why I have been able to embrace it, apply it and share it.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Tribute To Pema Chodron


I painted this portrait about two years ago and I have hung it in my living room where I can see it often.  It was such a pleasure to capture a likeness of this woman who I think is a wonderful person and teacher.  I look up to her as an example of the best that the human species has to offer, a person of integrity willing to go the distance to promote peace and healing here on this troubled planet.  

Pema Chodron was born in July of 1936 in my hometown, New York City.  She celebrated her 76th birthday this past summer.  She became a Buddhist nun in 1974 after having been an elementary school teacher in New Mexico and California and after having given birth to two children.  When she decided to become a nun she was still young enough to be open to the Buddhist teachings and teachers (especially her root teacher Chogyam Trungpa), but old enough to have a lot of life experience with being a wife, mother and teacher.  These skills served her well as she moved from being a dedicated Buddhist student to being a Buddhist teacher in her own right. 

I discovered Pema Chodron at a crucial point in my life, only a couple of months after my last psychotic break eleven years ago.  I had only just decided to commit to taking the anti-psychotic medications; I mark my entry into recovery from severe mental illness from that point on.  I bought a six audiotape program by Pema Chodron called Awakening Compassion:  Meditation Practices For Difficult Times.  I responded right away to her down to earth style, her intelligence and humor and honesty.  I confess that I chose her audio program not only because she was teaching about Buddhism, which I had been interested in since before I became ill, but because she was an American woman.  I needed a female role model to teach me, a mentally ill, middle aged woman, how to follow a spiritual practice that would help guide me through my symptoms and, at the same time, deepen my connection to the people I encountered in my life.  She offered me a way to begin and several practices to follow in my day to day existence.  

I began to collect other audio programs as well as books by Pema Chodron.  During the early stages of my recovery her voice and words and the Buddhist teachings she taught on were like a lighthouse beacon when I began to get lost.  She radiated both common sense and a wholesome goodness and I came to trust her overall guidance.  I live in a rather isolated place that has an almost entirely Christian population with little access to Buddhist teachers or community.  And so I came to rely on books, audiobooks and some information and community on the internet.  More than half of my studies were devoted to Pema Chodron, but I also studied such teachers as Thich Nhat Hanh, Alan Watts, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, Chogyam Trungpa and Robert Thurman.  I read and listened, took notes and meditated, but more than that I took what I was learning to heart and began applying it to my life.  

I thought about the value of patience as I sat waiting for my brother to finish shopping so that we could get home before dark.  I thought about the value of generosity and the deep bonds it creates in friendships as I offered the use of my car to a new friend who could neither afford to repair her vehicle or to pay for the monthly insurance.  I thought about the value of honesty as I continued to write and talk to myself in my audio journal, passing on what I'd learned to the people who read this blog and to the people in my life.  I especially took the Tibetan Buddhist mind training slogans "Always maintain only a joyful mind" and "Be grateful to everyone" to heart.  

In the moments when my spirits flagged and I was heading towards a depressed kind of circular thinking, I would pause and remember to be joyful.  Just saying aloud "Always maintain only a joyful mind" made me smile with relief.  It was as if I had just given myself permission to be happy, to be content with the advantages and limitations of my situation, of my life.  I have a refrigerator magnet that says "Count your blessings" and when I aimed to be joyful that's what I did.  I found joy in my easy breathing, in all the space around me, in the shelter of my home and the light that came in through the windows.  Joy in the ability to move, in my senses, in the ticking of the clock, in the fond attention of my cats.  I took and continue to take much comfort and guidance from the basic goodness of the stuff of existence.  Amidst all that goodness I also felt my own essential goodness as both a witness of life and a participant in it. 

What Pema Chodron has done for me is to help me believe in Buddha Nature or the essential goodness in everything inanimate and alive.  I think I spent much of my youth and adulthood in the shadow of the concept of original sin even though I wasn't raised with Judeo-Christian religion at home.  By the time my parents got married they were ex-Catholics and had rejected the concept of God or a higher power, but shame and guilt had unfortunately been instilled in them early on.  I think I followed my mother when I began to believe that there was something wrong with me and along with that shame came a sense of guilt, too.  I had too much and I didn't feel as if I had earned it and I thought that there was something wrong with not just me, but with my family.  

Pema Chodron has said on many occasions that self-denigration is one of the biggest obstacles to acquiring wisdom, that and always blaming others while ignoring our own faults.  And so we swing from two poles, seeing ourselves as either less than or more than others when in truth we are all on the same playing field or, as Pema likes to say, in the same boat.  Much of my suffering came from believing that I was different and less qualified than other people.  Because I believed this I cultivated a tendency to pull into myself and by the time I had my first nervous breakdown that pattern was deeply entrenched.  It was my mysterious voices that alternately helped and tormented me into reaching out to help others in a community with very little mental health resources.  To my surprise, I found that in helping others, they helped me to cut through my isolation and they gave me a warm place to occupy and some purpose.  I was an odd mixture of both insanity and sanity, at times succumbing to the force of my delusions and other times keeping them hidden from others.  

Before I moved away from New York City, I shamed myself; afterwards I began a relationship with someone who took my sense of shame and amplified it into a potent mixture of shame and resentment.  Those two negative emotions would eventually grow into an outbreak of schizophrenia.  When the voices overtook my life they quite plainly forced me to be useful in a way that I had not ever been before.  They turned me upside down and there was much pain and suffering, but part of it was because I held on to the sickness that I had oddly nurtured over the years.  Through Pema Chodron's wise guidance I began to see, after years of struggle, that encountering and overcoming obstacles is a spiritual path in itself and that many people are on that path; it is not just me alone. 

My self imposed isolation is on the wane.  I will always need a lot of time alone being creative in one way or another, but my heart has thawed out and I am including other people in my life.  I realize now what I didn't believe before, that we are all interconnected in a magical web and that I've always belonged here.  Pema Chodron has been for me the best of guides through the twists and turns of my mental illness always pointing out possible healthy paths to take.  Pema Chodron's message is the same as Jesus' message and Buddha's message: Practice lovingkindness towards yourself and spread it out towards all others.  Call it what you will, love, compassion, tolerance, generosity, gentleness, patience -- all of it is the basis for spiritual practice for any living person and a collective spiritual practice of love, preferably at all times, is the only available key to finally change the face of humanity individual by individual.  I am not enlightened, but I think I am on the mend because I am more awake to the profound meaning behind Buddha Nature.  Thank you Ani Pema.