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, September 26, 2016

The I Ching

The I Ching is an ancient Chinese oracle that I first discovered when I was a teenager going through my mother's large selection of books.  She actually had two books on the I Ching one translated by John Blofeld and one translated by Richard Wilhelm.  I still have both books decades later.  I looked at the Blofeld book first but later worked a lot more with the Wilhelm book.  I remember being respectful of the book, prostrating myself three times before consulting it.  I had learned to be respectful from first using Tarot cards which I had purchased in a Westhampton Beach NY bookstore at the tender age of twelve.  With the Tarot cards I was full of questions about "the boys" and tried not to get too scared when I got either the Devil card or the Death card.  I learned that "white magic" was the way to go and "black magic" would hurt me deeply if I pursued it.  And really I wanted to be good and respectful because I knew I was delving into something powerful.

I guess that I approached both the Tarot cards and the I Ching with caution and a bit of fear.  I really did want answers, but I didn't know if I was strong enough to face the truth if it was not in my favor.  With the Tarot cards I was connected to the higher power through cards, very visual and very symbolic filled cards, but with the I Ching I was connected through first tossing three coins and then through reading a book, more specifically the the book of change, the I Ching.  The I Ching, too, was very visual and symbolic but through words instead of drawn images.  The natural world and the world of human relationships figures prominently in the I Ching.  The purpose of the book, of consulting it, it to teach the practice and rewards of virtue.  The goal is to transform into a superior person often symbolized by a just king or a wise sage.

The book of change, when used wisely, is a training manual.  The teacher is the Sage or the Higher Power if you will.  When you consult it you are the student and to gain the most out of the interaction you must work hard.  There are many, many translations of it and many, many interpretations of the main text of it.  So far, I have about eleven translations each with their own interpretations.  It is easy to get lost or overwhelmed by all the information in these books.  I have done that.  I am learning, slowly, that intuition and insight are crucial to working with the oracle.  And it requires patience, respect and strict honesty.  It also requires time and study.

I have returned to working with the I Ching at certain crucial points in my life, but I only stick with it for a month or two and then move away from it again.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that I suffer from schizoaffective disorder and the study of the I Ching can lead to obsessiveness.  My goal in life is to live a balanced life, so sometimes I need to step away from it.  Right now I am moving towards it again.  I rejoined a site formerly called Clarity and now called I Ching With Clarity created and run by a very intelligent and talented woman named Hilary Barrett.  She wrote and published her own book on the I Ching called I Ching: Walking Your Path, Creating Your Future, an insightful and sensitive translation and interpretation of the I Ching.  I took an email exchange course with her in 2007 which was also very good.  At that point I was five years into my recovery from schizoaffective disorder.  Now I am nearly fifteen years into my recovery, though I did have a relapse two years ago.  A year before I went into the delusion and paranoia of psychosis I was instructed by my voices, which till I got sick had been my guides and teachers for about ten years, to study the I Ching seriously, which I did.  I believe this was moral and spiritual training to prepare me for the descent into madness.

During the first three and a half years of psychosis, the acute stage of the illness, I consulted the I Ching on and off again when I was balanced enough to do so.  It helped me a great deal.  It steered me away from acting out when I was particularly upset for which I will always be grateful.  Because psychosis is often about ego imbalance, it is easy to get lost in my interpretation of the answers I receive from the oracle.  Luckily, I have returned to a more modest assessment of myself and my situation in life and can approach the oracle with much more balance than before.  As some of you know from reading this blog I strongly believe in a Higher Power, though I cannot define it clearly.  The I Ching is just another wonderful connection to that Higher Power.  More than anything I want to learn because I am a Truth seeker.  The I Ching is always available to teach me.  I'm hoping that I can go more deeply into my studies with it and learn a lot.

For anyone interested in studying the I Ching with others, here's the link to Hilary Barrett's site:

I Ching With Clarity

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Self Love: The Best Cure For Mental Illness

Yesterday I continued reading Dzigar Kongtrul's book The Intelligent Heart.  He stresses that self-importance is the greatest block to spiritual practice.  He also stresses that altruism is the highest form of spiritual practice.  Self- importance is not self love, it is egotism and it can move in the direction of seeing yourself as either much greater or much smaller than everyone else.  Dzigar Kongtrul teaches that we are all equals.  To see ourselves and all people as equals makes it much easier to reach out to others with unconditional love.  Before we can get to that level of spiritual practice I think we need to acknowledge that we are all essentially good and that goodness is the basis for the depth of our connection to each other.  Egotism blocks us from connecting to ourselves and others with love.

Egotism is mental illness.  Self love is its cure.  Self love is not selfishness or a preoccupation with self that leaves no room for thoughts of others.  Self love is the basis for loving others.  Many people caught in the addiction of codependency think that they are being altruistic when they sacrifice themselves in order to help others.  This is not altruism but just another type of egotism.  Codependency is about rejecting one's responsibility to oneself to love and take care of the self first before attempting to be helpful to others.  The core belief of codependency is that one is not lovable, not essentially good and worthy.  Hence the need to prove oneself, to seek approval outside of oneself.  In contrast, altruism comes from a place of self love, a love that sees self and other as equal, good and lovable.

I have trouble with using the word self-importance to describe egotism.  I view the word literally.  I think what we think of as the self is important.  If we don't value the self, we cannot deeply value others and we become trapped inside ourselves with no way to reach others and find healing.  There is another word that some Buddhist teachers use to describe egotism and that is self-cherishing.  And again, I view the word literally and think, yes, we should cherish ourselves, not as an end in itself, but as a means to connect with others and love life.  I also have trouble with the word altruism because I think many people in the US confuse it with codependency.

Placing others' concerns and problems ahead of our own is not really altruism.  I think it is important to attend to our emotional well being all the time.  Sometimes there are no problems with attending to our well being and others' well being at the same time.  Other times we must withdraw from others' concerns and keep the focus on ourselves and attend to what is unbalanced within us.  If we attend to ourselves as a parent attending to a sick child, we can heal that child and reengage with the world.  Dzigar Kongtrul writes about self-importance as the "rascal" inside of us, but I don't see it that way.  I see our egotism as a symptom of the sickness of the child within.  It is easy to judge and attack a rascal, but not so easy to judge and attack a child.  Judgmental attitudes lead back to egotism, back to being blocked from our spiritual path.

A spiritual path starts with ourselves.  It can start at no other point.  You cannot skip steps and jump right into helping others in a big way when you have been neglecting yourself for years.  First attend to your own wounds.  Find a way to love yourself even if it means detaching from others for a while. Addicts do this when they go into withdrawal.  I believe it is the same process for people who have been practicing self-hatred.  At first, people who have been unconsciously hating themselves need to become aware of what they have been doing to themselves.  Once aware it takes great courage to then ask for help from others rather than trying to always be the one to offer help.  Then it takes great vulnerability to allow yourself to take the help.  The awareness, courage and vulnerability are all important parts of self-love.  Once self-love is established as a daily practice, then one will be able to extend help out to others from what one has learned about oneself.

Many people in our culture do help others as their job or career, but if they don't take care of themselves and love themselves first they will eventually burn out.  Self-love replenishes and balances and all of us need that very badly.  You cannot endlessly give your time and energy to others when you have been neglecting giving time and energy to yourself.  Be a best friend to yourself for you have been with yourself from before birth and will be with yourself till death and beyond.  Helping others is also part of being a good friend to yourself.  Helping others feel good and natural.  When it doesn't feel good and natural, then you need to attend to yourself and find out what is happening inside.  When you acknowledge that your life matters, that you are worthy and good, you have laid the foundation for showing the same to others, that they are worthy and good and deserve love and help, too.  This is stepping into the flow and going with it.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Precious Human Life

Buddhists believe in reincarnation.  From their perspective all of our souls have been around for a long, long, long time.  Compared to all the life on this planet, to be born human is rare and precious.  It is precious in many ways, but the most precious way is that those born to live lives of leisure and opportunity can choose to devote themselves to their spiritual path, the path of the truth seeker, the seeker of dharma.  They can study with all the best teachers these days through books, CDs, DVDs and, if very fortunate, in person.  Right now I am one of the fortunate ones who can study lessons and apply them to my life so that I can grow spiritually.

I have returned to the study of Lojong after downloading Dzigar Kongtrul's newest book, The Intelligent Heart, which is his interpretation of the 59 Lojong slogans.  Last week I got up to the third or fourth slogan and then stopped reading.  I realized that I was going through the book much too quickly.  I wrote my last blog entry on the 2nd slogan, "Regard all dharmas as dreams."  That didn't sit right with me either and I saw that I was still going too fast.  I needed to start at the beginning with the first slogan, "First, train in the preliminaries."  I needed to also look at other teachers interpretations of each slogan and really dig into the study of them.  I began to read B. Alan Wallace's book on Lojong called Buddhism With Attitude.

Many Buddhist teachers stress, including Mr. Wallace, that we all want to be happy.  The goal of following a spiritual path is happiness regardless of circumstances.  I do believe that there are people following spiritual paths who are deeply happy people and that they live all over the world.  For Buddhists it is not just the desire to be personally happy, but that all sentient life be happy, hence the desperate need for bodhisattvas.  Pema Chodron and her teacher Dzigar Kongtrul and B. Alan Wallace and many, many other teachers all are offering training in how to become a bodhisattva, perhaps even in this lifetime.  For them, that is the most precious use of our time as human animals on this planet.

Intellectually I believe in reincarnation.  It makes a lot of sense to me.  Emotionally I don't know.  I'm so rooted to this life and I have trouble conceiving that my soul might be very, very old.  If that's true we are all very old and have much hidden (and open) wisdom.  One thing I do strongly believe is that we are all essentially good, though many get let astray by mental illness.  I have gotten led astray into delusions of grandeur, which is basically into a very unbalanced ego.  Right now I feel mostly stable. I know that my place is a humble one and in many ways I am glad of that.  And yet if I could help others and be some kind of healer that would make me very happy.  Bodhisattvas are healers because they show those they have contact with how to work to heal themselves.  They show  by example, by practicing health in their attitudes and behaviors.  I aspire to be healthy.

Health is living a balanced life.  My life is still out of balance, which is why I need to raise my awareness level and appreciate my life and be grateful that I have some time to study any dharma I can find.  If I can have faith that I have the potential to learn a lot while I'm still alive, it could motivate me to keep practicing.  I do want to be happy.  I want all of us to be happy.  And so I will continue to do the work.

Monday, September 12, 2016

"Regard All Dharmas As Dreams."

The slogan, "Regard all dharmas as dreams" is the second slogan out of fifty nine in the Tibetan Buddhist mind training (Lojong) practice.  My first question is what is dharma?  Today I did some online searching of the meaning of the word and discovered, as I had already vaguely knew, that the word has many, many meanings.  Wikipedia states, "There is no single word translation for dharma in western languages."  Google puts up just two meanings - "1.  Hinduism: the principle of cosmic order.  2.  Buddhism: the teaching or religion of the Buddha."  Another translation of this slogan is, "Regard all phenomena as dreams" which implies that dharma can be seen as all phenomena.  When I looked for a google image for dharma I found the Chinese religious symbol of the bagua, a yin/yang symbol in the center surrounded by the eight trigrams of the I Ching.  Then I saw the image I posted above with the word Dharma in place of the yin/yang symbol.  

Based on some of this information I could say that dharma has something to do with the basic qualities of life which include much balance and order.  If there weren't much balance and order we would not be able to orient ourselves, we would not be able to perceive, interpret and act upon life.  There would be chaos without identifiable phenomena.  The Buddha's teachings are based on an interpretation of the phenomena we call life.  Both the Buddha's teachings and life are the dharma.  So the slogan instructs to regard Buddha's teaching and life as a dream.  But what is a dream?

We know we can dream while awake or asleep.  Some of us know that dreams are not reality.  Dreams are an illusion for many and can turn into a delusion for those who lose their mental balance. Dreams can come to us while sleeping from some unknown place of conception.  How sleep dreams are created, we do not know, but they involve us in remembered elements of our daily lives and turn those elements into something symbolic.  Dreams can be powerful and can direct our thoughts and speech and actions after we wake up.  Dreams are mysterious.  We respond to dreams with all kinds of emotions from fear to anger, from sadness to joy.   Dreams can be logical and dreams can be absurd.  If we are to regard life as a dream, it would include all of this, power, mystery, logic, absurdity, the capability of stirring up emotions and questions, yet at the same time all of this would have no substance.  

We place a great deal of value on substance, on "reality".  People like myself who have for periods of time lost reality by being consumed by delusions know how precious is the balance of perceiving truly.  We see our lives as the ultimate reality.  But what if what we perceive and see, hear, feel, smell and taste is not reality?  If life is not real, then what is real?  We base our thoughts, speech and actions on our perceptions when our ability to perceive is faulty.  We misinterpret people and life situations all the time.  The worst example of this insanity is when people volunteer or are coerced to engage in war.  For too many insanity is what life is about.  

I think the yin/yang symbol and dharma point to reality.  For us, it appears to be a higher reality, some kind of Nirvana/heavenly place of peace, balance and joy.  Our "reality" has a lot of violence, imbalance and pain in it.  Because our perceptions are off, we create a great deal of the violence, imbalance and pain, but far too few are willing to claim responsibility for this.  Reality is not truly higher, it just is what it is.  But we block ourselves from it by being so adaptable.  We adapt to each other's misperceptions (which invariably lead to many illnesses) and perpetuate the illusions that we know what reality is, when we don't.  The slogan to regard life as a dream was formulated to challenge our assumptions that we know what life means, that we are in touch with reality.  If life is a dream for the human animal, the next question is how do we wake up to experience the true reality?

I have seen myself as experiencing everything with partial blindness, which is why I rely so heavily on intuition and insight, which I believe comes from a higher source.  And yet, I am not totally blind.  The Lojong slogans are other human beings' attempts to stir up our intuition which can lead us to insight which can lead to a change of perspective which can lead to waking up and clearly seeing, to enlightenment.  But first we must see and acknowledge the core of the problem and that is we do not live our lives in reality.  Yes, we have real moments, but they pass and are obscured by so many misperceptions.  We do not see truly.  Sometimes we do not see at all.  

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Facebook Friend Request From Dzigar Kongtrul

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche has been Pema Chodron's main teacher for over twenty years.  I am two and a half years older than he is, so we are contemporaries, but coming from very different cultures.   He grew up with parents who were Tibetan refugees in Northern India and I grew up in New York City.  His life was monastic and mine was secular and urban, upper middle class Irish American.  He came to the United States to teach at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado when he was in his mid twenties around the time that I moved from Brooklyn, NY far out into Western NY.  As I was beginning a relationship that would transform into a relationship that kept sinking into domestic violence and addiction, Dzigar Kongtrul was deepening his Buddhist practice and his wisdom by committing himself to teaching.  He has become a major Buddhist teacher and has deeply touched the life of an American woman nearly thirty years older than him who has become a famous and, by many people, much beloved Tibetan Buddhist Nun and teacher.

So yesterday evening when I checked in with Facebook I shocked, honored, and confused in receiving a friend request from him.  Why was he initiating contact with me?  I did like his page and  get updates of his page on my home page.  But there was no message.  I went to his page and saw that he has a new book out called The Intelligent Heart:  A Guide To The Compassionate Life which turns out to be a book compiled from his teaching of the Tibetan Lojong (mind training) practice that I began studying years ago mainly through Pema Chodron.  Of course, I downloaded the book immediately to my Kindle and have begun reading it.  I had been thinking of returning to my Buddhist studies a few weeks ago after leaving off on my studies (but not my practice) several years ago.  This was like a wake up call.  I did a small amount of research on Dzigar Kongtrul mainly going to a Wikipedia page on him because I knew very little about him.  I discovered that his Facebook page is run by his senior students, so I wasn't sure whether he actually made the request.  I spoke to my therapist today and she suggested that I send a message asking how he or they knew me.  I haven't done so yet.  Still nervous to reach out.

I just needed to get past my ego oriented imagination because I began to think that maybe he actually had encountered my blog.  Some of my blog posts on Buddhism and on Pema Chodron have gotten between eight hundred and a thousand views over the last few years.  I also wrote an essay a long time ago for a proposed book on Pema Chodron; it was about how she had affected my life, but I never heard back from the woman who was organizing the book and forgot about it.  I think the essay was called "The Learning Dance" a phrase that was taken from Pema Chodron in one of her audio recorded talks.  I know it is somewhere in this cluttered house, but I have no idea where.  Well, for twenty four hours I wanted to believe that Mr. Kongtrul knew of me through my writing and creative work, but now I'm thinking I just want to get back into Buddhist study and this is like a welcome mat for me to go inside again and renew my appreciation of Buddhism and now go more deeply into the dharma.

This conclusion has not stopped me from being curious about Dzigar Kongtrul.  Perhaps it's a call to study his teachings and learn from him.  That would be great and much appreciated.  I drew and painted the above portrait of him to get familiar with his face, to get to know him better so to speak.  I might just post it on his Facebook page for his students and other fans of his work and teachings.  It's a way to reach out and a way to say thank you.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

On My Own

I just finished watching a film called Becoming Jane that is loosely based on part of the life of Jane Austen, a novelist of the early nineteenth century.  It is, of course, a romantic film, but the challenge of the storyline is that the heroine does not get married and live happily ever after.  She compensates for this by writing novels.  She also has a kind and supportive family.  As the film shows, the subject of marriage, when Miss Austen was of marrying age, must have struck some emotional chords within her family, who were relatively poor.  Marriage was a way out of the family and into some sort of independent financial security and proper place in society.  But Miss Austen had lots of talent and an independent spirit and a supportive family.  Perhaps she would have preferred to be in a marriage if it could have been a marriage of love and affection, but that did not happen in her case.

Two hundred years have passed since Jane Austen lived and we are now in a time in the US when more single people are staying single and choosing not to have children.  Marriage is no longer mandatory for women across the country.  But it wasn't that long ago that there was great pressure for single women to marry.  Certainly during my mother's lifetime.  And she did get married at what seems like to me the tender age of twenty four to an upwardly mobile young man two years her senior.  And she went straight from living at home with her family to living with and taking care of my father.

I remember telling myself at age seventeen that I wasn't going to marry.  I decided this before I had even had my first boyfriend.  I have had very few boyfriends and the only one I ever considered entering into some kind of partnership (always in a better future time) was too young for me, very addicted to alcohol, and mentally ill enough to be repeatedly abusive towards me.  But I was love/relationship addicted to him.  After I left him there was a window of three years before I entered into psychosis where I fantasized about being with a non abusive, kind man, but I had gone through too much by then and was not emotionally ready.  And then psychosis hit me hard and I fell far down into some hellish experiences with an abuser in my mind instead of in my physical world.

First domestic violence and then a kind of psychic violence.  My self esteem plummeted with my abusive boyfriend and then once again in psychosis, but in the psychosis I fought against it.  I didn't believe it when the voices called me evil.  I knew I had goodness in me.  There was no room for a romantic relationship let alone a marriage at that point in my life.  And that acute stage lasted for over three years.  And then came serious depression and much weight gain and entering into middle age.  Just once a few years later I joined the Yahoo personals and began writing to a man, but when we met it was clear that we were not compatible.

I was a fantasy addict before I became psychotic, then I was lost in delusions and then I mostly came out of that, but never returned to fantasy.  I am glad of that.  I am also mostly introverted and still spend most of my time alone, though now I have a few friends that I make sure to see.  I still do not want to be in a relationship.  Being creative keeps me loving myself and gives some pleasure and meaning to my life.  I am not against some day being in a relationship.  It could be a great experience.  But for now, I will keep to myself and continue focusing on the present moment.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Praying For Continued Motivation

I have been praying off and on for a while to organize and clean my home.  It's been a serious problem for me ever since I went into psychosis.  This Monday I began the process and worked all day organizing my studio space in my living room.  I knew that if I wanted to keep up with doing artwork at home that I needed to have easy access to my supplies and books.  I succeeded in creating a work station, but the rest of my home is in disarray.  I have another work station in my dining room area where I keep my support books and journals.  Because I've been moving things that area is a mess and so far today I don't want to deal with it yet.

And then there is my library room which is overflowing with books.  I've been gradually transferring my art books to my living room work space, which is exciting because I haven't looked at them seriously in years and I have many good books, thanks in part to my mother who had great taste in giving me books as presents.  I managed to pack up three boxes of books to give to the local library.  They have a major book sale each year towards the end of September.  I might be able to give away several more boxes of books which will free up needed space.  My books are loosely organized and I'd like to change that.  I want easy access to books and to make a habit of returning books to the library room after I've looked at them.

I live with intermittent voices in my mind and generally feel the presence of them even when they don't speak.  They have moved into a darker place lately and have been trying to hurt me.  I have thought of them as my companions and friends a lot, but lately they have been more detached about sharing information about themselves and more negative about me.  I know that regardless of how they are feeling and expressing themselves that I must take care of myself, make myself the top priority especially when they want to pull me down.  I really value them and the support some of them have given me over the years, but the other ones that are sicker I need to detach from them and wait it out.

I need to appreciate how much they have changed from at times insanely abusive to generally decent and mostly kind.  It is a miracle in my life to have survived the worst of this illness and to have gotten to a place where I feel safe.  Sometimes I wish that they would be removed from my consciousness because all of their problems and issues are a bit of a burden to me.  At the same time, because of my firm belief in a higher power or presence that affects all of us, I know that there is a good reason why I am connected to these voices and that I must be patient with the process of learning and growing.

My life is good.  I feel blessed and grateful for the blessings.  Of course I feel pain and confusion along the way; that is the human condition.  Pema Chodron has called it "the fundamental insecurity of being human."  That insecurity, a sense of not being sure about the direction I'm going in, allows for an opening to the many choices available to me every minute.  I seek guidance from the powers that be several times a day.  I ask for direction and generally I find my way.

The voices have had a mixed reaction to all the art work I've been doing.  They like to toy with my ego either by overestimating my work or underestimating it.  My assessment is the more important one.  I know I have some talent and skill and I know that I have a lot to learn and a lot to study.  After this creative surge I do have to push myself to continue.  I think it is very important that I play as much as possible with the different mediums I have.  It's not good to get too serious.  Art making should be about joy.