Going Deeper into Bad-Assery

handmade greeting cards, collage artBy definition, a spiritual practice is never finished.  There’s no timeline, no stopping point, no date on the calendar that can be X’ed out.  The practice itself is the point—to keep returning to whatever activity was chosen to exercise mindfulness.  To keep using what is set before us in order to go deeper.

So, as a spiritual practice, bipolar disorder rocks.

For a couple of years now, I’ve seriously engaged my mental illness as practice.  I’ve tried to map the funky mental landscape.  I’ve gathered information from research and from my own experience to make changes in my routine and perceptions.  I’ve envisioned myself a warrior, doing battle with the vagaries of the illness.  A Bipolar Bad-Ass.

And now there’s a call to go deeper.

There’s no more data to gather, no more analysis to be done.  All that information is part of me now.  What’s called from me now is a deeper acceptance of the illness and my life as it is.  Always in the back of my mind, I held the belief that if I worked hard enough, stayed awake, fought my compulsions, slashed the delusions when they attacked, I would find peace.  Someday, I would get well.

In holding out for Someday, I skipped Today—which was deliberate, because Today is horrifying.  But, I’m called to embrace it.  All of it.  The poverty, the obesity, the solitude and the madness as well as my creativity and skills, the small pleasures and joys.  There’s a shift in the Bad-Ass from screaming in battle to something quieter.  I don’t know who she is yet, but I can feel her emerging.

Part of her Call is to be present to the Discomfort (once I pull away the drama and suffering, this is the word that fits best).  Discomfort drives the compulsions, attaches to the distorted thinking, flails and panics.  Discomfort underlies poor choices.  It warps reality.

But, it’s just Discomfort.  Greater or lesser degrees of it will travel with me the rest of my life.  My Constant Companion.  So, the next phase of Bad-Assery seems to include becoming comfortable with the Discomfort.  This feels like a koan, a riddle with no solution.  But, that’s also part of practice—holding a question for the sake of holding it.

Maybe this is part of my Bad-Ass’ journey—to set down the sword.  I can’t imagine it yet.

So, I’ll try to just sit with that discomfort.

I’m on an Adventure.

The Most Astounding Fact

handmade greeting card, collage art

Up all night with a cold.  Not suffering.  Hot tomato soup and warm blanket.  Cruising the internet with Kleenex close at hand.  I run across this bit of awe posted on David Kanigan’s blog.

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson answers the question, “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?”  A three-minute prayer.

Xiang Yu and the Long View

I’ve been unwell for awhile now.

While I enjoyed a few days respite traveling with my family, it was more a form of crisis management than a shift in mood.  Like those mothers who can lift cars off their children in an emergency, my brain shifts into some primordial survival mode when faced with a crisis.  One more thing I can’t control.

But now I’m back in the deep.  These long episodes are always a test of endurance.  I just finished watching my Firefly collection (Joss Whedon’s short-lived series about a crew of survivors in a harsh off-world future).  A bit of dialogue caught my attention.

Serenity, Sean Maher, Ron Glass, Simon Tam, Shepherd BookShepard Book: Did you ever read the works of Xiang Yu?

Simon Tam: Xiang Yu the psychotic dictator?

The Shepard: Yep.  Fancied himself quite the warrior poet.  Wrote volumes on war… torture… limits of human endurance…”

Simon: That’s nice.

The Shepard: He said—live with a man forty years, share is house, his meals, speak on every subject.  Then, tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge.  And on that day, you will finally meet the man.

Simon: What if you don’t live near a volcano?

The Shepard: I ‘spect he was bein’ poetical.

It got my unreliable brain thinking—am I finally meeting the real me?

And then yesterday I saw the movie Cloud Atlas.  It’s a stunning treatment of Karma, The Long Life, and the weight of our thoughts and actions.  Not only did the movie distract me from my rampaging mind, it also helped me pull focus.  I ratcheted back from internal scrutiny to a wider view of my tiny drop of water in the vast ocean of the world and how that ocean might flow over time.

I can never trust the notions that my brain spits out while I’m in the deep.  Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder if things might be changing as I meet the real me in the context of my Long Life.  Instead of fighting change, instead of trying to recreate what was, perhaps I need to relax my grip.  Instead of concentrating on the details, the minutia, perhaps a wider view is required.

I’m not sure what this means, or if I should even pay attention to it.  What I think it means today, is that I’ll stop hunting for a new coffee shop.  That sounds really petty when I write it down, but coffee shops are my sanctuaries.  The right ones can make me feel normal like nothing else can.  But the focus feels too limited now, too fear-based.  I need to look up and out.  Perhaps in all things, I need to look up and out.

I am hanging over the volcano, and maybe the true me is emerging.  But, maybe, there’s more than the fire.  Maybe, there’s also the Ocean.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

I feel like Drew Carey on The Price is Right—the next revelation, Come on Down!

I spent the weekend in Minneapolis with our Teachers’ Training group.  After several years of on again, off again gatherings to learn how to teach the material in Foundation fashion, this was my final learning module before I “graduate.”  The Foundation approach is holographic, using cross-cultural mysticism, hard science, art, literature, history, sociology, psychology and varied religious practices to open students to consciousness and to help them create a spiritual practice of their own.

What I discovered, after being in emotional distress most of the weekend, is that I’ve been holding on to this group as a piece of Minneapolis Grief.  Yes, I’ve known and worked with some of the people in the group for over twelve years.  Yes, I learned the skills that help me manage my bipolar disorder there.  But now that my grief over leaving the Twin Cities has faded and begun to heal, I’m seeing More about the group and myself.

My spiritual compass has been pointing me toward being more of a phoenix than a teacher.  My aim is to build a rich, meaningful life out of the ashes my bipolar disorder made of my old life.  If any quality of teaching exists in that it will come from my writing, from sharing my story, or from quiet one-on-one conversations.

I held on to this group out of hunger and pain.  We do share an openness and acceptance for others’ spiritual paths, but there are only two women in the larger Minnesota group whom I’m close to and consider friends.  The rest are acquaintances—like folks in a church congregation who chat and share a potluck dinner.  Even my teacher, Melanie, is an acquaintance.

It was difficult to let them go after holding on so long.  Fingers cramp and remember the strain of grasping.  But, a few days after the fact, my relief and sense of expansion hints that this might have been the correct course of action.  There’s more room now for what’s to come next.  More ashes for the phoenix to use as raw material.

Strain and resistance are powerful forces for transformation.  David Bowie had the right idea.  Turn and Face the Strain.

Mirror, Mirror

The impetus for my recent trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul was two-fold.  A good friend was about to undergo a simple but scary surgery all by herself, and I wanted to be there to support her.  Another friend and I had talked about me “coming up” in January sometime to spend the weekend.  It worked out that I could do both in the same trip.

I’ve been fond of saying lately that I’ve lost my people skills.  I used to be pretty gregarious and easy-going, but since my bipolar blow-up five years ago and the subsequent struggle toward sanity, I seem to be much less tolerant of humankind in general.  Staying in other people’s homes for ten days made me realize that what I’m really uncomfortable with is the view in the mirror.

Those of us who have gone through therapy, or done any spiritual work, or seen Dr. Phil know that when other people irritate us, we’re really just reacting to the same or similar qualities or fears in ourselves.  People act as a mirror to show us what we dislike about ourselves, and where we need to focus our love in order to heal.  Other people don’t piss me off.  I piss me off.

So, I received gift after gift of insight while staying with my friends.  I discovered that my best friends are my cats, and that I really don’t want to bother with anyone else.  I realized that I expect to be catered to, my needs anticipated and planned for through some miraculous act of clairvoyance (so much easier than all that pesky communication crap).  If I don’t have a person’s rapt and undivided attention, I am unloved, unworthy and unimportant.  I’ve gotten so fixed on order and routine that untidiness of any kind feels like a threat to my sanity.  And, perhaps hardest of all, men make me nervous, but I want one.

Holy Hand Mirror, Batman!  No wonder I hole up in my apartment with the covers over my head and a cat in my armpit.  I do not want to see these things about myself, but there they are—hiding in plain sight along with other niggles I’ve yet to translate.  But, this is the nature of the Work.  Look.  See.  Be curious about funny reactions to things and people.  Go deeper.  Look again.

I love and adore my girlfriends who opened their homes to me.  I bless them for tolerating my fussiness as I gazed into their beautiful mirrors.  And I thank them for the gifts, which give me my next bits of Homework.  On the other side of that work will be someone who breathes deeper and is more comfortable in her own skin.  And maybe even a better friend.

A Wished-For Song

You’re song,

a wished-for song.

Go through the ear to the center

where sky is, where wind,

where silent knowing.

Put seeds and cover them.

Blades will sprout

where you do your work.

—Rumi

≈ ≈ ≈

Back from my trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul, and I hardly know how to talk about its profound effect on my life moving forward.  I expected my ten days there to be meaningful and challenging as I reconnected with friends I haven’t seen in five years—when I left defeated and broken after losing everything to the bipolar disorder.

What I didn’t realize is that I literally left my life there.  I never expected to survive moving back to Iowa, let alone start a new life.  Most of these past five years are a blur of mental pain, drug-fog and a near-sighted view of putting one foot in front of the other.  That’s not a life.  My life was in Minnesota.

But, I could never go back, so I shut that door and bolted it.  When I did visit one or two friends there, I kept my head down and my eyes shut because the grief and loss were too much to bear.

This week, out of the blue, while I ate supper with my friends Kirk and LaRae, they suddenly invited me to move in with them.  I dismissed it immediately (the door stayed firmly bolted), but other friends suggested I consider it.  So, for the first time, I cracked the door and imagined what my life might look like if I went “home.”

The three of us talked more about the possibility, and it became clear that it wouldn’t work.  But the process of considering, of listing what I want in my life, of writing down what I value and what I need, started a whole avalanche of inner change.

The crippling grief lifted.  The overwhelming sense of loss and desperate longing for my old life vanished.  I started to envision how I could create a life worth living in Marshalltown—a life that celebrates the glorious parts of me that survived and the Bad-Ass parts born here.

I started planting seeds today, and will continue to do the Work required to help them grow.  Now, I feel like I can go back to Minneapolis anytime, reconnect with more of my old crew, take those friendships forward instead of spinning in the past.  And then, I can come home, to Marshalltown, where my life is growing.  Where my life is.

Affirmations and Visions

I recently visited a new-to-me blog site and, once again, was astounded by the many things I have in common with the blogger.  Lara is bipolar, a student of Buddhism and in the middle of a huge weight loss.  Her inspiring site is full of information.  I’m giddy over my find.

One of her recent posts on creating vision boards reminded me that visual affirmations carry powerful juju.  No matter how committed we are to change and growth, we can’t escape the tapes that natter in our heads.  They become so ingrained that they play like background Muzak at Wal-Mart.  We don’t even know the music is playing until we find ourselves walking to the beat.

Unfortunately, these old tapes are mostly negative and self-defeating.  The only way to shut them up is to replace them with new messages.  Our personalities don’t like this.  Our personalities want us to go back to sleep and quit causing trouble.  Changing channels requires effort and awareness to recognize the crappy messages from the past and substitute something more truthful.  Affirmations and vision boards help reinforce our preference for Alternative Music.

My friend, Lily, used to stick affirmations all over her house to remind her of the power of love, the power of grace, and her own personal power.  I used to love reading all the Post-its around her lavatory mirror.  It made going to the bathroom a religious experience.

Last year I made a vision board, what I call a dream collage, around my goal of losing weight.  I stuck it on my bedroom door and mostly forgot about it.  But, Lara’s post reminded me of the power there.  The images and words I chose are significant now as they were then.

I recently dreamed about Bruce Willis (not one of my regular heroes, but he’ll do in a pinch).  In the dream, he looked down at me with his usual smug expression and said, “You can do it.”  In the dream, it felt like one Bad-Ass bolstering another.  When I woke up, I found a picture of Bruce on the Net, printed it out, taped him to my front door with his words nearby.  You can do it.

Now as I walk out the door every day, I’m reminded of my Bad-Ass power.

If you want to make a change and are finding it difficult, I invite you to visit Lara’s post on vision boards.  She offers directions and guidance that are superb.  Stick those ear-buds in and start singing a different tune.

Count the Blessings

I’ve been down with an intestinal flu the last couple of days.  Nothing to do but watch movies, drink ginger ale and ponder the year that’s about to end.  But pondering can be a dangerous exercise, especially when I’m sick and in the middle of an episode.  I’ve learned it’s never a good idea to give too much attention to the thoughts that swirl up then.  Too much darkness, too much regret, too much grief.  So instead, I’ll focus on a few of the blessings 2011 brought me.

A place to sell my art cards.  My last visit at The Perfect Setting was disappointing compared to all the other times I’ve sold my cards there.  Pam, the owner, placed another employee in charge of the greeting cards.  This person pulled a couple of mine as “inappropriate”.  It seems she and I don’t share the same sense of humor.  So, Pam bought only half of the bunch I brought in this time instead of all of them.

Even though I know better, I took it very personally.  I know every shop has to make careful selection and cater to the clientele, but it surprised me since Pam always seemed to love everything I brought in.  Every artist has to tailor their work to fit the market—I know and understand this.  It just caught me on a very bad day, and I haven’t been able to sit at my studio table since.

This isn’t sounding much like gratitude.  But I am extremely grateful to Pam for taking a chance with my work.  She hung my weird collages even though no one in Marshalltown will ever buy them.  She bought all my cards, even when her other employees raised eyebrows.  She let me be the square peg in the town’s round hole—no one else here has ever done that for me.  Yes, I’m grateful.  And eventually, I’ll start making more of the cards that the town will accept—along with a few naughty ones.

Healing.  This year I learned how to manage without psychotropic medication.  I developed my Bipolar Bad-Ass Training guidelines.  I graduated from the Silver Sneakers water exercise class to the deep water, high-powered, water aerobics class.  I pushed the envelope of my reading disability and actually finished eleven whole books this year.  I’m learning how to be a woman alone without being lonely all the time.  I’ve moved past my fear of cooking and can now fix supper for myself every night.  I’ve started again on the weight loss journey, losing 12 pounds since my visit with the allergist at the beginning of December.

It’s an important practice to remember all the healing this year brought, all the hard work and dedication I put into it.  The illness always grabs center stage.  The loss of Will, the scrambled routine, the swamping thoughts tear down self-worth and confidence.  It’s so easy to see only failure.  So, remembering the success and joy play a vital part in bringing reality back to true.

Saying Good-bye to my dad on my terms.  I am deeply grateful that I was able to spend so much time with my dad in his final days and participate in his funeral in a meaningful way.  It was a gift.  Just as easily, my illness might have flared like it did this past Christmas, incapacitating me and keeping me from any human interaction.  Frankly, I expected to be a nut case during my dad’s rituals, and the stress did eventually cause an episode.  But I was fully there when I most wanted to be.  A miracle.  A prayer answered.

These are just a few of the gifts the Heart of the Universe placed in my lap this year.  What treasures did you receive?

Triage

I’m going to say I’m back from the bipolar battlefield even if I’m not sure.  I seem to be back enough to do triage, sorting the casualties into who needs immediate attention, who can wait, and who is too far gone to warrant any attention at all.

What needs immediate attention is my home.  During an episode, I tend to “let things go.”  So, the bathroom needs a scrub, as does the kitchen.  Laundry, vacuuming and a general picking up and putting away.  I have a duffel bag full of pictures and photo albums to put away from creating the slide show for Dad’s funeral.  A general dusting might be a good idea, too.

Concurrently, I need to get my routine back.  It’s not too far off—I’ve been getting to the Y every day, doing a little writing and art—but off enough.  Watching TV during an episode is positive distraction, but watching too much and continuing on after the episode fades like this sets me up for mindlessness and compulsive eating.

Once I get my apartment and routine in order, I need to stock up.  The cupboards are pretty bare, which makes me reach for take-out, which I can’t afford.  I’m out of any kind of analgesic (Advil, Tylenol, et al.) and Kleenex (little things, but vital when you’ve got fibromyalgia and allergies).

Finally, I need to move ahead with projects and plans that I set for myself.  Check out another juvenile book from the library.  Call my cousin, Ray, to set up a time to meditate together.  Call my friend, Joyce, who I haven’t even told about my dad yet.  Go out to the Animal Rescue League and talk to them about volunteering. Get outside while the weather holds.  Dust off my sketchbook and draw.

I’m relieved to see no dead bodies in this triage run, no parts of my life that I’ve ruined or blown up, no relationships destroyed or bridges burned.  That, in itself, is a miracle, considering my past.  It makes me think I can actually evolve with this illness, learn from it, and make a few lasting changes.  One thing about bipolar disorder is that there’s always another opportunity to practice these new ways of thinking and behaving, always the next crazy-bomb set to explode.  Hopefully, the casualties will continue to stand up and walk away.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 21

The format for our time in Pittsburgh was fairly loose for our group.  First thing in the morning and the last thing before re retired, we gathered to meditate together.  We also ate our meals together.  But the rest of our time was flexible.  We could enjoy the pool, the grounds with endless varieties of day lilies, read, sleep, go off on our own or meet together in small groups.

A week or so before we left for Melanie’s, she sent out a syllabus of sorts for us to consider (her college professorial nature in evidence).  In it, she asked us to ponder what elements were essential in our spiritual practice.   She gave us a list of questions and activities to address each day if we chose to meet in small groups.  I ended up being a small group leader, so I got the opportunity to indulge in long conversations about why folks continue to do this wacky spiritual work and what pieces of the puzzle fit for them.  I was awed by everyone’s thoughtfulness and wide-ranging opinions.  While we all do this work, we come at it from diverse directions, histories, and sensibilities.  The richness of the discussions was truly tasty.

There was learning to be had from these discussions, but the stated “Teachings” was only a small part of the spiritual work I did in Pittsburgh.  The Big Stuff I’ll write about in my next post.

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