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, July 5, 2010

Wake Heart Be Open

I made up these cards to help me to meditate. On the first card -- Wake Heart Be Open -- are words chosen by the head teacher, Lama Shenpen Hookham, from the online Buddhist course I am taking. The longer version is "Wake up. Connect to your heart. Be fully present. Open out into space." Lama Shenpen places a lot of emphasis on the daily practice of meditation, gradually extending it from sitting to include walking and then to weave it into daily activities. I'm at the very beginning still. I sit, albeit restlessly, for around 45 minutes a day. The bare minimum is 15 minutes. The meditation instructions we are following are for Shamata Vipashyana or "Calm" "Insight" meditation. It's insight that made the Buddha wake up, but first he practiced calming himself. But I am not calm. I have moments of calmness, but they get repeatedly swept away. So I continue the practice and wait. I have a resistance to sitting cross legged on the floor because my back gets uncomfortable and yet, ultimately, that's the sitting pose I would like to adopt. Years ago I wouldn't meditate until after I did at least 45 minutes of yoga and that worked fine because the yoga stretched out the kinks in my body and settled me down through my breath.

I'm trying to understand what Buddhist practitioners mean by "waking up" to the present moment. I know it does not mean being lost in thoughts. How much time am I lost in thoughts each day? Quite a lot and some of that thought is negative and leads to anxiety and/or depression. Then other thoughts are pleasant or helpful. Not all thought is bad and must be gotten rid of, but one point is that there is so much more to life than thinking. The only way to see that is to rest in non thinking moments. What's going on when you are not thinking? Unadulterated awareness. If you are fortunate, you have all your senses, alive and well and they sharpen your awareness.

If you've ever wondered if an animal can be considered as intelligent as a human animal, feel your own non thinking awareness. There is great intelligence in basic awareness. It's not the thoughts that make you smart. I saw a bear outside my house very, very early one morning. There was just enough light to make out her form. I was standing on my couch looking out the window and the bear noticed me right away. I could tell by her body language. Her body language even in such little light was so expressive and I had no doubt that the bear was smart and very vital. I recognized something in her that was in me too -- alert awareness. Also I was a little frightened and that made me even more aware.

Above my computer, I have tacked on the wall a small abstract painting I made in art school, one of my favorites. I put it there so that I can look up and see it during the moments when I'm resting from reading or writing at the computer. It talks to me, but not in words or thoughts and I just like looking at it. There's a medium sized rectangular window above the painting and I get a similar sensation of satisfaction when I look out at the sky and the tops of the trees. I don't think, I just look, listen, smell, feel. I am awake in those moments, the way a cat or a dog (or a bear) is awake. How am I different from the cat or dog? I respond to visual symbolism: words/books, photographs, paintings, films -- the world of illusions. My sign telling me to "Wake Up" is also an illusion. I imagine that it is telling me to be more alert, but it is not telling me anything, it is a piece of paper with marks on it that I have interpreted and given meaning to. I am, in effect, using the illusion to my advantage.

The "Wake Up" sign has no meaning unless I attach the words to memories of being awake. I need to make a strong association. This is also thinking, but of the useful kind. It's all about remembering because for so much of the time we are forgetting what we've learned. I know I am lost in forgetfulness too much of the time and so I study and then spend that 45 minutes just existing and while I'm existing I have thoughts and when I get lost in thoughts there comes a point where I realize it and wake up and sort of shock the thoughts into silence and say "thinking". I'm grateful lately when I do get to that point because usually I am too restless. Honestly, I want to get lost in thoughts, wake up and then say "thinking" so that I can identify that sense of space I feel when I label the thoughts and let them go. I want to know that it is okay to let go of elaborate worrisome thinking. I need to give myself permission to stop taking it all (and a lot of it is purely imaginary) so seriously.

How many of us stop for a half an hour and do nothing once a day? No computer, no TV, no books, no cooking, no cleaning, no writing, no talking etc... just sitting in a chair (or cross legged on the floor). When I first meditated the instruction was to close my eyes, but in Lama Shenpen's Tibetan tradition you are supposed to keep your eyes open. I both like this and find it distracting. I want to look around. I see a cat (and I have many cats!) and I want to pet the cat(s). I see my mug of tea and I want to drink the tea. I want to move my head and study the room. I am awake, aware and not thinking very much, but I am restless and unfocused. I know I need an anchor and the anchor I need is placing bare attention on my breathing. I think it will prove to be more important than my "Wake Up" and "Wake Heart Be Open" signs. Lama Shenpen made the point that her instructions are just suggestions, gentle guidance. The trick is knowing when to use what technique. There's a lot to test out in Buddhism.

"Wake up" and "Be fully present" are closely related, but not the same. "Wake up" is the main instruction for all of Buddhism. "Be fully present" is added emphasis which lets you sit up straighter and with more dignity. "Connect to your heart" is harder for me to understand but, according to the Lama, very important. I know she doesn't mean it in any sappy way. I think she means tap into your own tender sensitivity. The "heart" of Tibetan Buddhism is compassion, which is another word I have to reflect on. Before you can have compassion for yourself and others, you have to connect to your heart. You have to feel something. Being intelligent, aware and awake is not enough. The heart run deeps into everything that is alive. It shouldn't be ignored. My heart is getting more flexible, but for a long time it was numb. It's easy to ignore a numb heart, but it is not wise.

"Open out into space" is also hard for me to understand, but I do associate it with the heart, opening the heart and letting go. But how do you open a heart and how do you let go? Flower buds open, doors and windows open, hands open--how does a heart open? Through kindness. What is kindness? It's a special sensitivity to the needs of yourself and others. When you do something nice for someone you open up something in yourself that was shut down, you offer your good intentions. There's a lot of talk with Buddhists about space. What's so important about space? Space is forgiving, all embracing, calming and space is everywhere. Even in an atom there is space. In order to open you need space.

"Wake Heart Be Open" is a meditation puzzle. You can move each word around, make different phrases, turn it into a mantra, add new words. But they are still just the finger pointing at the moon. The real prize (the moon) is in understanding, intuition and insight that comes from playful meditation. I need to remember that when I begin to get overly serious. I also find labeling my thoughts "thinking" sometimes makes me smile and lighten up. So does the Tibetan Lojong slogan "Always maintain only a joyful mind."