A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Wednesday, January 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.