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.

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.

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.

Back from the Crucible

Rejuvenated.  Renewed.  Re-energized.

One weekend in Minneapolis with my spiritual clan and I feel like a whole new person.  My god!  I had no idea how much I had put my head down and slogged through the last few months.  Think Little House on the Prairie snow drifts with gale winds and biting cold.  Think numb limbs.  Think hypothermia creeping up the spine to whisper, “Just lay down and sleep.”

Suddenly, I could see colors—the waxing, gibbous moon silver against the gray-blue dusk.  I could smell the lilacs and the worm-thick rain.  I could wrap my arms around my friends and feel their very different bodies—Karen, slim and athletic; Richard, vibrating and solid; Tina, enfolding and lithe.  I could taste the glorious, healthy smorgasboard prepared by folks who dig the energetics of food.  And the chorus of their voices, their laughter, rang me like a bell.  Conversations ranged from “The End of Days”,  to the artificial satellite in orbit around Mars, to theosophy, to prophets and channelers, to the quality of the sunsets in Puerto Rico.

Then, there was the Work.  This session we discussed the book Spiral Dynamics, a study of the development of cultural complexity.  The book presented different cultural “memes” or ways of seeing and responding to the world.  We study these materials to learn how to be better spiritual teachers, to help us develop sensitivity to the many different ways human beings are unique in their development and cultural anchors.

With our teacher, Melanie, beaming to us via Skype from Pennsylvania, and our colleague, Ken, joining us similarly from New Jersey, we listened to lecture, broke into work groups, and gave mini-presentations.

For me, the intellectual stimulation was exciting and challenging.  After attending so many sessions in total brain-fog, I actually grasped the material and contributed to our group efforts.  I could feel my brain humming, clear and bright.

But what we do at Teacher Training is much more than participate in classwork.  The group acts as a crucible, forcing us to watch our reactions as we become triggered by each other.  All the little irritations, joys, hilarity, and deeper feelings like insecurity and pride that pop up in any group setting become fodder for our personal work.  We get to see what we’re attached to and how we use up our energy focusing on those things.  And because everyone in the group is doing this work, we can go to each other with our process.  “I need to check something out with you…”

And then, there’s the love.  The connections between us come from respect, honoring the vast and amazing Work each person seems to have found, and standing together through triumphs and tragedies.  We don’t all like each other, but we love each other deeply, and we choose to keep coming back together for more of the alchemy.

This time I brought packets of my handmade cards as “favors” for everyone—a token of my gratitude.  The group responds to my art the same way they respond to me—with delight, appreciation and wonder.  They hold those cards so gently, but I know they will slap stamps on them and send them out in the world.  That’s what we’re all about.

Waiting to Exhale

This weekend our spiritual group will gather in Minneapolis to study with our teacher via Skype.  I’m thrilled for so many reasons.  First, I love all these people.  We’ve gone through workshops, intensives and Teacher Training together.  We’ve shared deeply, laughed and cried, and helped each other in times of crises.  This is my spiritual community, the folks who get me.  When I’m with them, it’s like exhaling after holding my breath under water for a long time.  Such a relief.

Second, even though Melanie won’t be there in the flesh, we still get the benefit of her electronic presence.  Everyone needs a teacher, someone who plants markers along the path, someone who will point out those markers when the way gets treacherous and dim.  I started working with Melanie in 1999, several years before my mental break and the point where my life changed so drastically.  If not for the work she did with me on awareness and energetics during those early years, I’d be dead now.  More than any doctor, therapist, medication or hospitalization, Melanie gave me the tools to deal with being bipolar.  I’m so very grateful to her.

And while I love the people I’m going to be with and my teacher, the sheer joy of going on a road trip almost eclipses them both.  It’s been a year since I’ve spent the night out of town.  Driving an hour to “the big city” for the day breaks my budget, so anything more than that is something I don’t even consider anymore.  I love to travel, but I’ve gotten used to my smaller life.  As my friend Deb says, “It is what it is.”

Thanks to my meditation buddies and the other folks in Minnesota, I can still participate in our training sessions.  Tonight, I’ll stay with my friend Barb, and in the morning we’ll pile into her van with the other folks from meditation and hit the road.  Ahh!  There’s nothing like getting the dust blown off!  I love to watch the landscape roll by.  This time of year, everything will be greening, farmers will be in the fields, calves and lambs will be scampering in the pastures.  When I used to travel on my own, I’d load up the CD player with my best singing tunes and yodel to my heart’s content.  We won’t be doing that in the van, but thoughtful, meandering conversations will stretch our voices and hearts in a different way.

Living the bipolar life can weigh a person down.  Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus, condemned to roll my own boulder up Hades’ hill for eternity.  But, today, the burden is lifted by the people I love and who love me, by their support and generosity, and by the chance to stretch and learn among other seekers.  I get to quit struggling for a while and just watch the road open out before me.  I get to exhale.

Training Checklist: Secure Back-Up

Every Bad-Ass, bipolar or otherwise, needs a crew.  These are the folks who guard her back, reach out a hand when she’s about to fall off the rock face, and raise an eyebrow in commiseration when the fire-fight goes south.  These are the people who understand The Mission and either commit to it or to supporting the Bad-Ass in her quest. A fierce kind of relationship develops under fire, an intimacy not found in normal life.  Emotions run high.  Fights ensue.  But a warrior trusts these people with her life.  She has to.

Casualties occur in every Bad-Ass crew, but more so with us bipolars.  I’ve hurt a lot of people close to me with my craziness, and many have hurt me with their fear and misunderstanding.  Some days, I think it’s easier to carry on alone.  But isolation only creates more problems.

In the book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, author John Cacioppo says that a sense of rejection or isolation disrupts not only abilities, will power and perseverance, but also key cellular processes deep within the human body.

Loneliness leads to higher rises in morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol, altered gene expression in immune cells, poorer immune function, higher blood pressure and an increased level of depression.  It is related to difficulty getting a deep sleep and a faster progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s important to note that all these effects come from perceived rejection or isolation.  Being solitary doesn’t create all the physical and mental results of loneliness.  It’s our perception of our aloneness that does it.

To combat my predilection for loneliness, I must use the time between episodes to tend to my relationships, to give back to those who have given so much to me, to reach out, to be an active member of my own crew.  My life revolves around my illness.  I am the center of my Universe.  This is the time I get to look up and out, to remember that not everything is about me.

I need to make specific plans, schedule play dates, talk to my friends on the phone, meet them for coffee.  I need to follow up on new relationships instead of letting them flounder.  I need to spend time with my family that doesn’t revolve around me needing money.  Every healthy relationship requires attention, communication and time.  This pause between episodes provides the time.  And with a Bad-Ass Training mentality, I’ll do the rest.

I also need to check in with my experts, the folks who’s technical savvy I depend on.  I thought I could go several months without seeing my therapist, but I honestly need to check in more often.  Michelle is my cheerleader, my biggest fan.  She lifts me up and smoothes me out like no-one else can.  My spiritual teacher, Melanie, is someone I only contact in emergencies.  I know she’s extremely busy, but I need to believe her when she says I can contact her anytime.  These two women keep my skills and tools sharp.  Call them my gun runners.

People are messy, complicated and unfathomable, but we are social creatures.  Building and maintaining relationships is the one, single act that keeps us from dying the minute we’re born.  For bipolars, isolation increases the chance and opportunity for suicide, so we really can’t afford to let our relationships slide.  As hard as it is, we have to make the effort.  The time between episodes provides more clarity, more energy, more breathing space to reach out to others.  And with a Bad-Ass attitude, I’m actively pursuing my peeps, shoring up connections I’ve neglected and mending the ones I’ve damaged.  The cold, hard truth is this Training Time is a lull in the storm, and I’ll need to gather the troops soon.  I want to be sure they hear the Call.

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