An Inch of Will

Several weeks ago, I asked my spiritual teacher for advice on how to work with the compulsions I experience during a bipolar episode.  She suggested I read what G.I. Gurdjieff or P.D. Ouspensky had to say about Will.  After several library searches, I finally found a copy of Ouspensky’s The Fourth Way, and what he had to say about Will gave me some much-needed direction.

Both Ouspensky and his teacher, Gurdjieff, viewed Man as a sleeping, mechanical automaton.  What’s normally thought of as will, or free will, is actually a line of action that follows our desires.  Since our desires constantly change, the direction of our will changes with them, resulting in a line of action that goes every which way.  We think we’re heading in a straight line.  That’s part of being asleep.

To develop true Will, Ouspensky said, one must save enough energy to be able to struggle with weaknesses in the personality and to resist following one’s desires.  If a person doesn’t have enough energy to resist strong urges and big weaknesses, tackling something smaller and less difficult will save one’s energy.  These smaller battles also increase a person’s capacity for making the larger efforts.

It’s the friction generated by these struggles that create the energy needed to fight bigger and bigger battles.  I forget this.  During an episode, I become so focused on surviving and getting past it, that I forget to use it.  If Ouspensky is correct, the efforts I make in controlling my attention (taking it away from distorted thinking, for example) and observing myself help to grow true Will in that moment.

He said, one must try not to “escape” from the friction, which would call for a minimum of distraction.  Granted, he wasn’t talking about individuals with mental illness, so all this must be filtered through that particular lens.  Like most things, a balance must be found.  How do I hold the tension of resisting desires and controlling weaknesses in my character without stressing myself into an even worse mental state?

I believe I’ve started that process.  Last winter, I thought surviving a six-day bipolar episode was more than I could bear.  This current episode has lasted over three weeks, and while I’m certainly sick of it, I’m managing.  As my compulsive eating and spending rise and fall, I resist to the best of my ability.  Now, I’ll try to turn my attention to the energy being created by that resistance and use it to further my cause.

“Will has to be used,” Ouspensky said.  “We are never ready for Work, but we must Work all the same.  If one has an inch of Will and uses it, it will grow.”

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 22

My last offering of gratitude for the week I spent in Pittsburgh goes to all the unintentional opportunities to do the Work.  Imagine 17-19 people in a spacious, yet single-family home; eating together out of a small galley kitchen and one dining room table; sleeping together in four, large basement rooms on a few beds and mostly air mattresses (four people slept outside in tents).  Add four bathrooms with two showers.  Also add three little dogs, two of them quite old and temperamental, who lived in the kitchen/family room area.  Then, floor the meeting room, dining room, walkway to the kitchen, hallway to the bathrooms with showers, and exit to the pool with expensive carpet that Melanie wanted kept dry and spotless.  Include dozens of antique china plates, cups and saucers displayed openly all around the dining and meeting areas.  Surround the pool area with a huge garden of precious day lilies and set old, fragile jade plants near the entryways.  And keep boxes of wine available on the kitchen counter to those who would like to imbibe.

To say we needed to stay conscious and self-aware just doesn’t cut it.  And of course, none of us could hold that awareness perfectly.  Wine got slopped.  A plate broke.  An ink pen marked the sofa.  Pool water puddled in the bathrooms.  Rules got forgotten, remembered, then forgotten again as our attention was captured by discussion topics, the rush to finish in the bathroom so someone else could use it, fatigue, finding a place to perch to eat a meal, or the heat.  The tension of navigating so many people in a high-maintenance space created the potential of sending us all into our personalities and egos, but it also created the potential of building chi.  And with more chi comes more raw material to build consciousness.

I felt myself doing both—diving into personality (especially when I broke a plate) and building chi.  And as I worked that space between the two, I marveled how I continued to be emotionally stable under all that stress.  My emotions and reactions were the same ones everyone else had—irritation, wounded pride, guilt, shame—and my response was the same as others as well.  Clean it up, shake it off, and move on.  And while the work of holding awareness and tension was incredibly difficult, the fact that I could accept my imperfection in the task seems huge to me.  I am who I am, whether that’s stable or during an episode, aware or asleep, fat or thin.  No more apologies.

My Petty Tyrant

Petty Tyrants, according to Carlos Castaneda, are people who make our lives impossible—tormentors.  They hold positions of power.  We can’t control them.  I don’t like to think of myself as a person with enemies.  Gosh, I’m too nice, too enlightened.  But, I’ve got one, and it’s time I faced that ugly truth.

The apartment I live in is part of a government subsidized complex for people with mental disorders.  We’re a quiet lot, mostly, until the apartment manager comes around.  This woman (let’s call her PT) bullies, lies, loses paperwork, ignores requests for information and basically does whatever she can to get out of work and cover her ass.  She takes advantage of the renters because of their disabilities, treats them in a sickening, condescending manner, and never follows through.  It breaks my heart to see how some of my neighbors spin out of control because of her ignorance and incompetence.  She really hurts them.  I try everything I can to stay out of her way and off her radar, but there are times I still have to deal with her.

Encounters with PT make me so mad, so frustrated, so indignant that I make bad choices.  The rage is so uncomfortable that I scramble to feel better by stuffing my feelings with food or by watching non-stop TV.  I don’t like how I react to her.  And I don’t like how I let my reactions spin me into unhealthy behavior.  I’m long overdue for a change in tactics.

Castaneda says the damage from Petty Tyrants comes from the humiliation and offense that results from taking ourselves too seriously. Instead of raging over the PT’s behavior, instead of feeling victimized and helpless, Castaneda suggests working with Petty Tyrants as a form of Stalking.  The twist is that we don’t stalk the PT, we stalk ourselves in relation to the PT.  We use encounters with the PT to develop strategic control of our own conduct, which helps break us of self-importance.  Stalking also returns all that emotional energy wasted on the PT to be used more effectively elsewhere.

Unlike Castaneda’s mentor, Don Juan, I’m not out to destroy PT (though it sure would be nice to get her fired).  I just want to unhook.  Castaneda says this requires control, the ability to tune the spirit while being trampled.  “A warrior is self-oriented,” he wrote, “not in a selfish way, but in the sense of total and continuous examination of the self.”

Control, like balance, is a rare commodity in my life with bipolar disorder.  But, I think I can start observing my thoughts and emotions in my encounters with PT like I observe them during an episode of my illness.  If I watch, I’ll be able to see when my sense of self-importance flares up, when I get offended and self-righteous.  Seeing is always the beginning of change.

Training Checklist: Plug the Leaks

In this last installment of the Bipolar Bad-Ass Training Checklist, let’s take a look at first aid.  If a warrior doesn’t use the time between battles to bind up the bullet holes and sword gouges, she won’t live to see the next fight.  Too much leakage.  With bipolars, it’s not so much a matter of blood and guts.  What leaks from us is chi, vital energy wasted through emotional spewing.

Just like blood loss, the lack of vital energy leaves a body weak, unable to perform, unable to develop the awareness required to manage the illness of bipolar disorder.  The illness itself generates strong emotion.  During episodes, I radiate depression, anxiety, anger, resentment and fear.  Between episodes, I’m still somewhat volatile.  I leak like a sieve.  Awareness helps me slow the waste of chi.  But awareness requires chi.  So, during the pause between episodes, I must use the time to staunch the flow and build up my reserves.

The most important thing I can do is look at how I waste my emotional energy.  How much do I worry and about what?  Where am I throwing up resistance against what is, fighting against reality or the inevitable?  Where is my anger coming from?  What thoughts of lack and want trigger feelings of loneliness and poverty?

I need to assess how I spend my time and with whom.  I recently volunteered to tutor high school kids, but I found the anxiety it created overwhelming.  I’m very attached to the notion of being productive in society, being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.  But, if I don’t let go of that attachment, I’ll continue to waste all my chi on that desire and have none left to manage my illness.  I simply cannot afford it.

All of us have a toxic relationship or two—someone in the family who is consistently critical or judgmental, a friend who never follows-through, a boss or co-worker who sabotages every effort.  I can spend a lot of time and energy fussing over relationships—wanting acceptance and love from people who can’t give it, trying to fix someone who neither needs nor wants my help, dodging barbs and criticism.

Sometimes reclaiming chi in relationships is a matter of inner work—addressing the issues that create feelings of inadequacy, desire and judgment.  But, sometimes reclaiming chi requires letting go of the relationship completely.  It may seem cold, but as a warrior with limited resources, I have to do it.

Other things that eat up vital energy are the habits and patterns in our lives that have become unconscious.  Where have I become rigid?  If I don’t make it to the Y by 7:00 every morning, I get irritated.  This is a waste of chi.  I’m attracted to men who are not attracted to me.  This is an old pattern that still operates unconsciously and burns up vital energy.  In order to reclaim this energy, we simply watch our reactions when a pattern emerges or our rigidity is threatened.  We observe the emotions that rise.  In this way the habits and patterns become known to us instead of hidden.  They lose energy that then comes back to us for use elsewhere.

Once I’ve plugged the leaks in my vital energy, I can better determine the best use of my chi.  What activities, relationships and commitments provide a return on my energetic investment?  What will fill my emotional well?  In Bipolar Bad-Ass terms, what will make me stronger in the coming battle?

This is the ultimate goal of training—to make us stronger, smarter, better equipped and better supported.  Becoming a Bipolar Bad-Ass requires a shift in perception from seeing ourselves as victims to acknowledging ourselves as the heroes we are.  The Quest we’ve been given is hard and long.  Along the way lies temptation and heartbreak, wounds we think will never heal, betrayal, and many nights lost in the wilderness.  But, a Bad-Ass rises up, spits the blood out of her mouth, and keeps going.

I’ll see you out there.

Health Rant

I’ve got bronchitis again.  This is the third major respiratory infection I’ve had since December, which is just too weird.  I’ll go to the doctor today and get antibiotics, but something else has to shift here.  I started sneezing as soon as the heat came on last fall, so I’ve put filters on all my HVAC registers to try to keep out any bugs that might be in the system (the maintenance man said he changed the furnace filter).  I take vitamins and supplements.  I eat my veggies.  I exercise.  I’m not sucking on or licking people.  My immune system just seems to be shredded for some reason.

I know that the energy spent during my bipolar episodes depletes the chi.  I’m wondering if all my fussing about money, my compulsions, the death of my car, etc. wiped me out.  Maybe this particular bug is really virulent and the antibiotics just slow it down for a while before it bounces back.  Maybe going off my psych meds kicked my immune system in the ass.  Maybe, I’m just telling myself stories.  I guess the thing to do is be aware of where I put my attention and energy, keep up with my healthy habits, and concentrate on healing.  My family doc is a sweet man—maybe he’ll have some ideas.

At any rate, today it’s Earl Grey—hot for me, my snuggly comforter and a cat on my lap while I watch DVRed episodes of Star Trek Enterprise.  I hope your day is snot-free.

Holding Tension

My spiritual teacher, Melanie Oates, told me that it takes energy to gain awareness.  In order to build up this energy, or chi, we have to learn how to stop leaking it.  To do that requires what she calls holding tension.  My understanding of this process is to use the Observer, the part of us that is separate from our thoughts, feelings and physical body.  The Observer stands outside these functions of the self and simply watches without judgment.  So, when we get angry, for example, we engage the Observer who can see the anger (I feel angry), identify the thought that preceded the anger (Jack just called me an idiot), and find the perception or interpretation of external events that generated the thought (Jack disagreed with me, and I perceived that as an attack).  With the Observer online, we’re better able to Watch our reactions instead of acting on them unconsciously.  We hold that emotive energy in reserve instead of leaking it.  And then we can use this additional energy for other things, like building awareness.

In the psych ward and in therapy, we’re taught to use the Observer, too, but in a different way.  Bipolar disorder creates distorted thinking, but it also generates floods of emotion unconnected to an originating thought.  Depression and mania arrive unannounced.  Then, the mind scrambles to create a reason, to cobble together cause and effect, and to rationalize.  So the task for the Observer in BP is to Watch the distorted thinking that arises out of the emotive turmoil churned out by the illness.  Once the irrational thoughts are identified, we can Watch for the compounded reactions that come from them.  The leak has already sprung, but we can keep it from flooding.

After I tried to commit suicide, Melanie said to me, “The illness got away from you.”  I didn’t understand what she meant then, but I think I do now.  It takes a lot of work to develop an Observer and even more to engage it when emotions run high.  Think of the Little Dutch Boy plugging the leak in the dike.  But, with BP the dike is already broken open.  The Little Dutch Boy has rolled up his sleeves and is sandbagging.  The waters will keep rising, the flood is inevitable, unless the crew steps up and builds the levy.  It can get away from you.

I get confused sometimes about when I’m holding tension and when I’m in the middle of flood control.  Yesterday I got my allowance for the coming week and, boy howdy, I needed it.  I had one dollar left in my billfold, less than a quarter tank of gas in the car, and an empty fridge.  I could feel panic climbing up my back like a cat the last few days.  But, I could also see that I was fine.  I made calm choices all week about how to spend my money so that I still had a dollar at the end of it.  I had plenty of gas for my immediate transportation needs.  And I’m a creative cook—I had plenty in the freezer and cupboard to make good meals.  I spent the last few days holding that tension moment by moment, sometimes spewing water, sometimes keeping it back.  But here’s the question I never know the answer to:  are my thoughts creating the emotion or is the illness creating the thoughts?  I think I need to know the answer to this, but maybe not.  The Observer Watches no matter which way the tide is coming from.

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