Of Tribes and Farty Pants

Gathering at Barb's

This weekend I got to spend time with some of my Tribe.  These are folks who have travelled The Seeker’s path with me, going to workshops and intensives to learn how to be more conscious and mindful.  The four of us who get together in Des Moines for meditation are part of this larger community, called Foundation, as are people all over the country.

It was hard for me at first.  It always is when we come together.  I’m so used to being solitary, that more than two or three people can be overwhelming.  But I can say that to this group, and they hear me.  I’m safe with them.

I have history with these particular people, who knew me before electroshock.  Some of them hold parts of me I’ve forgotten.  Their memories of me are such a gift—like filling in holes with beautiful light.  Their prompts help me remember the person I was and, in many ways, still am.

Part of our tradition is to share meals together.  Food flows non-stop.  Many of us are trying special diets—vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, gluten-free, diets for blood type or a particular illness—so we’re not easy to please.  But we always have glorious, delicious meals.  It always works.

When we get together, we meditate and we talk.  Everyone is engaged, whether we study quantum physics, yoga or sacred dance; whether our lives are settled or are in chaos; whether we lead with our intellect or our heart.  Friction happens, which creates the best opportunities for mindfulness.  We get to watch how we react to each other and follow those reactions to the source—expectation, judgment, pattern.  Then, we discuss all that, too, if we want.

Often, our work together allows personal issues to surface—fears, anxieties, grief.  In the safety of the group, we can be vulnerable.  We can feel what we feel and be held by the group with compassion and genuine love.

And genuine laughter.  I never laugh so hard or as long as when I’m with these folks. Especially when Sandra whips out the Fart App on her phone.

Sandra's Fart Ap

Sandra and her Farty Pants app (I’m the one keeling over).

We gain so much from each other—not just the book lists we tend to generate, or the theories we throw around, or the practices we share.  We connect and are enriched by the connection.  We know each other on a deep level even if we don’t know each other well personally.  We really are We.

I drove back and forth from my home in Marshalltown to Des Moines each day, which takes about an hour.  While all my friends in Des Moines offered to keep me overnight, I wanted to drive.  I knew I’d need time alone to rest after being with a big group, and I wanted to be as functional as possible.  Driving home from Barb’s for the last time on Sunday, I felt in my bones that while I may be an introvert and solitary, I’m never alone.


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.

On the Road Again

I’m off to Minneapolis again—just for the weekend to attend my spiritual group’s Teacher Training.  Our teacher, Melanie Oates, will be skyping in from Pittsburgh, but several of the recently “graduated class” will also be handling the teaching chores.  After this session, I’ll also be a graduate, so I’ll become part of the faculty next time we meet.

This weekend, we’re studying the development of intuition in spiritual development.  Lots of right brain activities are on tap, and discussion of Frances Vaughn’s book Awakening Intuition.  To prepare, we also did some work in the book Mandalas of the World by Rudiger Dahlke.

It’s always a great joy and greater challenge to be with my twenty-odd fellow seekers and long-time friends.  Since I had my lovely vacation in the Twin Cities recently, I’m not as starved for companionship as I usually am when we drive up.  It’s a different starting place—one that feels more solid and centered.

Which is good, because one of the aims of getting together is to push one’s spiritual envelope.  Friction breeds opportunity for growth.  I just don’t want to set myself on fire.

In any case, I’m sure I’ll bring back blog fodder.

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.

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.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 20

Aside from getting some guidance from my spiritual mentor, the other reason for traveling out to Pittsburgh was to spend a week with a houseful of folks on the same spiritual path.  This esoteric-woo woo-sand box is generally  not one most people want to play in.  Eyes glaze over when I mention the words consciousness or meditation.  And if I dare venture into the realm of subtle energies or consensus reality, the same people start muttering, “Doesn’t she have a mental illness?”

I don’t have to mince words or be guarded with my tribe.  They’re just as comfortable talking about the latest research on light and vibration unlocking junk genes as they are sharing a new Sanskrit chant or pondering the role of culture in spiritual pursuits.  In one way or another, we’re all attempting to raise our consciousness, and when we come together we share our tools and practice together.  They remind me that I’m not alone in my quest, and they understand the work I’ve been doing to manage my bipolar disorder.

Everyone needs at least one person who gets them.  I’m so very grateful to have a whole community.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 19

One of the main reasons I went to Pittsburgh was to get my teacher’s input about the next step in my spiritual work.  As I journaled on my way out there:

It’s more than being on the road and on my way to Melanie.  I’m fine.  I haven’t had an episode in three weeks.  That’s a new record.  Truly.  What’s happening?  Are the drugs finally out of my system?  Has my brain started to manufacture the chemicals it needs again?  Is my practice working?  Is it the energy of the group coming together?  Is it the work with the Gratitude Journal?  Could it be possible, can I dare imagine, that maybe now I can actually work on the food compulsion?

Melanie and I discussed the nature of compulsion, how it’s the complete absence of Will.  She suggested I read about Will from authors like P.D. Ouspensky and G.I Gurdjieff to get a sense of what compulsion is not.  And, like Geneen Roth, Melanie believed many clues to riding the compulsion will come from attending the sensation of it in my body.  Where do I feel the drive to eat in my body?  Does it rise and fall?  Does it expand and contract?  Does it have edges or boundaries?  Does it change as I bring attention to it?

I thought I had come a long way in paying attention to my body, but I realized I’d just begun.  Now it’s time to let my body be in control.  My job is to pay attention to the signals and give my body what it wants.  I love ice cream, but it gives me diarrhea.  My body is telling me something.  I love coffee, but it makes my stomach bloated and gassy.  My body is telling me something.

Another piece came to me one morning as the group sat in meditation.  I became aware of my body as separate and also part of the group.  I was Group.  In that state, the Group Will became accessible to me, something more subtle and more powerful than my little will.  I realized that to work with my compulsion I would have to connect with and call on this larger, higher Will.  This was a key piece for me.  As with any Twelve Step Program, the process of relying on a Higher Power opens up the psyche to all manner of possibilities.  What my little will cannot do, a larger Will can.

When I came home, I looked at habits and practices that set me up to ignore my body and went about making some changes.  For the past few days, I’ve sat in meditation before making supper, getting in touch with the Group Will and concentrating on the signals my body sends me.  I make choices on what to fix based on those signals, then check in several times in the evening to see if my choices were received well.  I’m finding that the signals are very clear.  I’m also finding that it takes energy and my little will to keep making good choices, though I can sense the greater Will at work weaving a new matrix.  My intent is to keep reinforcing this new pattern for three weeks until it becomes habit, then continue to draw on Group Will to maintain it.

That’s my plan.  We’ll see what happens.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 7

So many people, animals and places have taught me how to live my life, how to cultivate the best in me, and how to perform the skills needed to maneuver in the world.  These four are the ones who have floated to the top of my consciousness at this moment in time.

(Clockwise from the top left) Melanie Oates has been my spiritual advisor and mentor since 1999.  She introduced me to all the Buddhist teachings that became instrumental in managing my bipolar disorder—living in the moment, detachment, observation of self, the difference between pain and suffering, developing consciousness, etc.  Her holographic teachings—bringing in information from ancient mystery schools, current science theory, history, sociology, metaphysics, as well as using art, interpersonal relationships, and physical activity—gave me an entirely new sense of what is humanly possible.

Marshall Wright served with me as a Ministerial Guide at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community in Minneapolis.  He shucked off a financially successful business persona to live life “In The Flow.”  Marshall never lets me get away with half-truths or any kind of delusion.  He carries a big stick wrapped in love which he routinely sets in my path to stumble over.  We communicate through a kind of poetry that is open to multiple interpretations, so I find I listen very closely and choose my words with greater care.  Marshall helps me remember my connection to nature and ancient traditions.  In the picture above, he took me on a walking tour of a Florida river.  If there were crocs or snakes nearby, they didn’t bother us.  We were in the Flow.

My grandma passed on to me all her creative skills—needlework, cooking, drawing, the love of color, and gardening.  Like a fairy tale, she lived in a tiny cottage on our farm.  The path to her house wound from our back yard, through our apple orchard, to her trellised gate.  Like my dad, she tended to look on the gloomy side of life, but she never showed that side to me when I was little.  Instead, she encouraged me to tell my stories, praised my drawings and the first little quilt I made for a doll.  She helped me tend the Kitty Cemetery I kept in the woods for all the strays and kittens that died.  Gramma entered into my world and played with me there.  She taught me it was perfectly fine to do just that.

Sarah Benson was a Master of Sacred Sound.  I started working with her when we met in Colorado in the ’90’s and made several treks to her home in the Massachusetts woods.  She taught me about the sacred geometry of sound, the levels of healing and transcendence it can reach.  With Sarah’s help, I rediscovered the power of my own voice and its natural ability to foster healing in others.  Her playful, pixie-like attitude kept me from taking myself too seriously and reminded me to always turn toward joy.  Sarah died a few years ago, and is sorely missed by a world-wide community.

These are my teachers of this moment—wise and stumbling, educated and street-smart, pillars of society and apart from the world.  The one thing they have in common is love—their love of others, and my abiding love for them.

Parallel Tracks

I seem to be maintaining altitude so far, not dipping any lower on the bipolar altimeter.  I’m tired but moving ahead on my story rewrites and my art.  My eating compulsion gnaws at me, sometimes taking a big bite, but most of the time I can still make good food choices.  I can hear, faintly, the negative thoughts nattering in the background—wisps of doubt and dread.  But, I’m also still carrying a great capacity for delight.  All in all, this particular state is very livable as long as I do my work.

Life seems to be running on parallel tracks.  The track I operate in is the Bipolar Track.  Here I’ve got my daily routine, my daily goals, the tools I use to manage symptoms, my apartment and my cats and all the familiar sights and experiences.  Along side the Bipolar Track run other parts of Life.

Last week my dad, who is 88, fell and suffered a compression fracture of the spine.  He’s in quite a bit of pain, but my mom is determined to take care of him at home.  My sister and I are helping as much as they will allow, but my parents are fiercely independent.  It’s a dance that I let them lead.

School finally ended for my friend, Cheryl, and she’s out on summer vacation.  Yesterday we shopped at Wal-mart.  We chattered and laughed and goofed around.  We pushed our carts up and down the aisles, oggled colorful pretties, and I bought some things I’ve wanted for years—a pair of slip-on shoes, new underwear.  To top it off, we stopped at Wendy’s for a Coke, but decided to give the Wild Berry Tea a try.  Spontaneous delight.

My spiritual buddies in Minnesota and I are starting to plan our trip to Pittsburgh in July to work with our teacher for a week.  There are lots of questions flying back and forth—who’s driving?  who’s riding with whom?  who can bring a tent? sleeping bags? air mattresses? when are people arriving? how long are they staying?  All plans are still squishy-soft.

These tracks seem oddly separate from my Bipolar Track.  I feel them running next to me, I feel myself participating in them, but they’re still outside of me.  Maybe the state I’m in is screwing with my perception.  Maybe I’m hesitant to fully engage.  Maybe running in the Bipolar Track takes all my attention.  Whatever the reason, it’s an odd sensation.  Not unpleasant, not threatening, not scary.  So, I’ll just keep trotting along and watch.

I’m on an Adventure.

Uncharted Territory

I thoroughly enjoyed my day off yesterday, reading art magazines with an iced coffee at Barnes and Noble, purchasing a few supplies (on sale!) at Hobby Lobby and Archivers, and then finishing the day with my meditation group.  As usual, we sat around Barbara’s kitchen table to catch up with each other’s spiritual work and personal lives (which are often the same thing), enjoying Barbara’s brewed tea and delicious Ranger cookies.

I can always bring my questions and ponderings to these women.  They listen.  They offer their insights.  And they often push me to the edge of my comfort zone.  I felt that yesterday as I talked about my observations during my recent wide mood swing from full mania to depression.  Barbara commented that the layers of my depression and mania, with state-specific memories, brought to mind the different states of awareness we’ve studied from authors like Castaneda, Charles Tart and J.G. Bennett.  This chilled me, because I’d also wondered about a correlation and had sent that question to my teacher, Melanie.  Laney looked at me and said, “You’re doing new work.  No one’s done this before.”

Oh, dear.  All I want to do is learn how to manage my illness.  If I find anything useful, I’ll share with the class, but I’m not out to chart new horizons.  It felt pompous to me, grandiose.  Of course others have looked at these layers of symptoms and feeling states.  I’m sure every case is different, but there must be some similarities.  There must be something written about it somewhere.

But, when I got home, I found Melanie’s reply to my email.  Aside from being my spiritual teacher, Melanie is also a registered nurse and holds an MBA.  She worked as a psych nurse before becoming a college professor, so she understands the practicalities of mental illness.  After reading her note, I’m willing to hold the possibility that cartography may become part of my journey.

It seems that you have a better grasp of your condition than do most people with bipolar illness.  Given this ability, you may be charting new territory and you may be able to help others learn to discern the realities of their mental states.  In my past experience with bipolar students, I have observed that the difficulties of the psychotic phases have sometimes caused people to assume that they were clear when they were, in fact, delusional or even paranoid.  Assuming that you have cleared this hurdle, you will be a wonderful resource for others.

Love, Melanie

What I’d like to do is create a new page for this blog.  On it I’ll describe the different states of depression and mania as I experience them.  It will take me a little time to distill my notes and journal entries, but this feels like right action.  It feels like I’m stepping up to the plate without a head blown out of proportion with grandiose pomposity.

Of course, delusion can be tricky that way.

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