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.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Shenpa = Getting Hooked

Shenpa is the Tibetan word for attachment, but Pema Chodron calls it getting "hooked" linking it much more directly with addictions of all sorts.  In her book Taking The Leap:  Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears she writes, "In terms of the poison-ivy metaphor -- our fundamental itch and the habit of scratching -- shenpa is the itch and it's also the urge to scratch.  The urge to smoke that cigarette, the urge to overeat, to have one more drink, to say something cruel or to tell a lie."  When we scratch the itch we get temporary relief, but then the infection spreads until it begins to cover us and makes us extremely uncomfortable.  All of us, without exception, feel the pull of shenpa in our daily lives.  For some of us we can still manage without totally falling apart, for others we spiral down into an addictive hole, but either way the essential quality of the pull, the pain and sometimes strange pleasure of it, is the same for everyone.  Lately, I've been awake enough to identify three main shenpa triggers in my life.  They are worry, eating and smoking cigarettes.

Monday I bought a pack of cigarettes and smoked them.  I felt the itch and I scratched it.  The first cigarette tasted horrible, but soon I was puffing away as I knew I would.  By two in the morning I had finished with them and threw away all the remnants, silently making the vow to not indulge in them again.  Today I took comfort in Pema's words:  "We can rejoice when we are able to acknowledge and refrain, and also we should expect relapses.  Sometimes it's one step forward, one step back.  Then maybe one step forward, a half step back."  Three years ago, I quit smoking cigarettes and in the interim I have returned and quit several times more.  I have heard that the more times you try to quit, the closer you get to a full quit.  Up until Monday, I had been clean for over six months and now I plan on going for another six months.  If I wind up smoking two packs in one year, I'll be doing all right.  It is a small blessing that a pack of cigarettes costs around $8 because I know I literally cannot afford to be a smoker.

Though the pull of wanting to smoke can be strong at times, my other two problems, worry and eating, are even more challenging because they are more deeply rooted into my life.  Worry quickly turns into a generalized anxiety which is hard to shake, but I have been sitting with it and not running from it.  And then it dissipates and I'm left without anxiety.  Those are the times when I feel good and relaxed.  Of course, the anxiety returns, but I'm trying to teach myself to breath into it for at least a few moments.  Even that short interruption noticeably strengthens me and gives me some courage to keep working at it. I have also been teaching myself to put off thinking about problems until my calm has returned.  Before I would latch onto the problem and scratch and scratch and frighten myself with visions of being overwhelmed and doomed.

As for eating, there is no way around that.  I have decided that I would rather be too fat than to be anorexic or bulimic.  I see eating disorders as a kind of death to the spirit.  But, of course, that's not the only choice.  I could start a healthy diet and gradually lose the weight that I've put on.  It's not that I eat so much, it's that I eat a little more than I should here and there and with my middle aged metabolism that means I keeping putting weight on a bit at a time.  Still I need to work with the shenpa of eating when I don't need to eat, the way I have been working with the worry, when I don't need to worry.  I have to learn renunciation, in Tibetan it is called "shenluk."  I have experimented a bit with this and there is a kind of freedom in turning away from the pull to eat that extra bowl of cereal, turning instead to nice mug of tea or to meditation.  I believe that it is possible to cultivate healthy attitudes and behaviors.  It's not easy, but it can be done.

Pema Chodron also talks about the shenpa of a prejudiced mind.  She says you should watch yourself closely when you begin to get self righteous because it is just another form of fundamentalism.  Recently I was reading a left wing blog that attacked a right wing media figure.  There were five comments and all the comments were backing up the blogger's point of view.  Now I myself am a liberal Democrat, but the feel of all this made me think of fascist Germany.  It doesn't matter whether you are on the left or the right, both sides are sick when they give into the pull of intolerance.  It's not the fighting spirit that's needed, it's the bridge of communication that is needed.  Polarization is just another form of war and war is not the solution to anything.  It's not an easy thing either to see your enemy as actually your brother or sister, but that's a lot closer to the truth.  In Taking The Leap, Pema Chodron tells the story of an American soldier in Iraq who after witnessing his fellow soldiers being blown up found some Iraqi men who might have been responsible.  He and his group wanted revenge and began to beat up the men, but it was nighttime and when they aimed a flashlight at them they saw one of the men was actually a boy with Down's syndrome.  The American soldier happened to have a son with Down's syndrome and was so disturbed by this situation that he stopped the violence right then and there.

Pema has said that we are all addicts of one sort or another, be it in our hateful attitudes or with particular substances or any number of things.  The process some of us are going through is called waking up.  The way to wake up is to interrupt habitual patterns and do something different in a non harming way.  The importance of waking up has to do with peace on earth, has to do with taking care of this planet.  It starts with each of us as individuals.  Too many people don't believe that there can be peace on earth and too many people don't believe that we can take care of this earth or worse, don't even care.  That means each person who steps forward and starts working on him or her self is a precious commodity.  I for one believe peace is possible, which is why I'm working towards taking the leap.  Seeing where I'm hooked and being honest about it is a good place for me to begin.  What about you?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Buddhist Practice

A few days ago my Kindle appeared to have gotten some kind of virus and I couldn't open any books or audio programs.  When I tried to go online with it, it froze, so I turned it off, but when I tried to turn it back on, it wouldn't come on.  I assumed the worst, that I would have to send it back and either have it wiped clean or get a new one.  And so I avoided dealing with it until today when I went to the Amazon Kindle support page and read what to do when the Kindle freezes.  The instruction was to hold the power switch for 15 seconds.  I did that and the Kindle began powering up.  Once it had, I turned it on and found that everything was in place and I could open up the books and audio programs.  This was a great relief to me.  It was only after I couldn't use it that I realized how attached I had already become to it within the three weeks that I had had it.  Each day I listened to at least 45 minutes of Pema Chodron and each day I read from it.  I mention this because according to Buddhist practice it is important not to become too attached to anyone or anything or any situation.  Too much attachment leads to craving and inflexibility which are forms of suffering.  The key is balance, what Pema Chodron calls "not too tight and not too loose" or not too grasping, be it with craving or aggression, and not too indifferent.

When I couldn't listen to Pema Chodron on my Kindle, I turned to an audio program of hers on CD called "True Happiness".  Am I getting too attached to Pema?  I don't think so.  I see her as my main teacher for now.  She helps me to stay connected to dharma study.  No doubt there is some attachment but hearing her voice each day does cut through my isolation.  I feel grateful to her; I might even write her a letter telling her my story and how much she has helped me off and on in the last 8 years since I first discovered her.  Of course, I wish she could be my teacher, but she cannot, only indirectly.  The main thing is that I continue to do the practice each day.

In the "Noble Heart" audio program she was teaching on the 6 Paramitas.  The word Paramita means "to go to the other shore"; the other shore is enlightenment.  We are on the shore of suffering.  When we begin Buddhist practice we get into the boat.  The boat symbolizes all the various meditation practices and dharma studies including the 6 Paramitas.  The 6 Paramitas are the means by which we benefit others and ourselves.  They are the practices of Patience, Generosity, Wisdom (Prajna), Meditation, Joyful Exertion and Discipline.  This week I consciously practiced the Paramitas of Patience and Generosity with my brother.

My brother is a great talker, he has what the Irish refer to as "the gift of the gab".  Over the years he has taught me how to be patient when he meets someone on the street or in a store and starts talking.  At first I felt annoyed and hurt because he would leave me standing there waiting for him sometimes for up to half and hour.  But I realized how important it was for him to connect with others this way.  It was his way of practicing generosity, his way of being a good friend and/or neighbor.  The other day we went to the store.  On our way in he met someone coming out who he hadn't seen in a while and they began to talk.  I continued on my way and did my shopping.  When I came out, he was still talking to the young man.  I didn't say a word, I just went to the car and sat down.  I realized that I felt self-conscious sitting there waiting for him, so I turned on some soothing music and listened to it.  I began meditating while I looked at the concrete wall of the store.  Every now and then I would get restless and irritated and look over towards my brother, but then I would return to thinking about being patient and to my breath.  Pema Chodron has said that people show us where we're stuck and that's what my brother showed me.  I didn't run away from the discomfort.  Instead I sat with it and accepted it.  Eventually my brother stopped talking to his friend and did his shopping and came back to the car.  He made some brief apology, but I told him it gave me the chance to do the Buddhist practice of patience, which it did.  I actually felt grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to practice.

It was Election Day here in the US on Tuesday and my brother was scheduled to be a poll watcher at the voting place in town for a 16 hour stretch from early in the morning till the evening.  Poll watchers help people through the voting process and can't leave their post all day.  I told my brother that I would stop by a couple of times and bring him food or whatever he needed.  The night before I was thinking about how I could help my brother have things to occupy him during that long stretch of being on duty.  I decided to bring him some magazines, my iPod and my Kindle.  And so I was practicing the Paramita of Generosity and it was good practice because I found myself not wanting to give him the Kindle; I had come to rely on listening to Pema Chodron each day to reduce my depression and anxiety.  And then I worried that he would accidentally leave it behind somewhere because I knew he would head for the bar after work.  So I told myself that I could listen to Pema on Cds and that I could bring the Kindle to my brother in the morning and then pick it up later in the afternoon.  It took a little while, but I decided that I would indeed let him use the Kindle the following day.  Just deciding to do that made my heart open a little wider.  The irony was that after I picked up the Kindle the following day, it froze and I couldn't use it and so I had a double lesson about letting go of my attachment to it.

Two other things have been helping me with both lessening my sense of isolation and with doing my Buddhist practice:  I have started an email correspondence with someone who suffers from schizophrenia and is studying Buddhism and a dear friend of mine and I have begun to exchange audio tapes.  My dharma buddy, as I call him, has problems with anxiety, just as I do.  He said he was reading a book called Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.  I happen to have picked up that book at a book sale a while back and I decided to start reading it too.  Jon Kabat-Zinn is well known for promoting mindfulness meditation to help cope with stress and chronic pain.  The book was written to describe an eight week stress reduction clinic workshop and to encourage others to experiment with it.  I actually had bought the audiobook before I got the book, but never applied it to my life.  One of the meditations is called a body scan.  My dharma buddy highly recommended the meditation to help cope with anxiety.  So for two days in a row I have done the body scan and plan to continue doing it as part of my meditation practice each day.  I have yet another audio program called The Mindful Way Through Depression which includes a guided body scan practice, some standing yoga and guided sitting practices and I've been using that Cd to organize myself.  With the body scan, you lie on the floor and place meditative focus on all the parts of your body starting with your toes and feet and working your way up.  The meditation session lasts for about a half an hour.  If I continue on to the yoga practice and the sitting practice it can take over an hour total of meditation which is a good, healthy practice.

The audio exchange practice with my friend is a great success so far.  We are both finding that it is bringing us closer and having a therapeutic effect.  Just the other day I re-listened to her tape when I was feeling down and isolated and found myself perking up and even laughing at points.  It is so obvious to me that she cares about me because she is genuine and direct and that immediately softens my heart.  I also get to connect with her life and her struggles which deepens my compassion for her.  The fact that we go way back to grade school and junior high school just makes the whole deal even more special.  I feel a sense of continuity which was lacking before reestablishing itself in my life.  I lost that continuity when I left New York City and began a relationship with an abusive partner who was so threatened by my past that I systematically shut out my memories.  Now they can return at least in part.

The last part of my recent Buddhist practice that I want to write about has to do with addiction.  October 30th was my six month mark without smoking cigarettes.  It has been the last in several attempts to quit for good.  Mostly I've gotten through the six months with not a lot of craving, but lately I've been feeling the pull back to smoking yet again.  This time of year gets me down.  Thanksgiving in particular is a trigger holiday for me.  Last year I bought a couple of packs and then gradually began smoking more and more, off and on, until I quit last spring.  I've been listening to Pema Chodron speak about addiction in some of her talks.  She says we are all addicts of one sort or another.  For some it is food or lying or being hyper critical of others and for others it is addiction to physically addictive substances like cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, etc...   She calls the addictive craving the "hook".  Not biting the hook she says is hard work and takes a lot of courage.  Sometimes we get how harmful the behavior or attitude is and we just stop, but other times we go through what Pema calls "The Big Squeeze" between our ideals of ourselves and how we want to behave and the craving itself.  When we're really stuck, we go for the instant gratification of feeding the craving, which only makes it worse in the long run.

Part of the core of Buddhist practice is a combination of both not running away from discomfort when it arises and being lovingkind and compassionate towards ourselves and others.  It's a lifelong practice because there will always be discomfort and a tendency to lack compassion for ourselves and others when we fail.  And so I have to work with my mind and with my heart.  There is no easy solution most of the times.  I've felt this addictive pull many times before.  I haven't bitten the hook yet, but I know I'm close.  For now, I reach for my sweet tea or sometimes I'll indulge in a cookie.  I'll listen to Pema, study my notes, do the meditation practice and take it day by day.