Welcome Home, Old Friend

Rage

Rage seems to be intrinsic to my flavor of bipolar disorder.  In a mixed state, where symptoms of both depression and mania manifest, my “manic” is some form of agitation—anxiety, compulsive behavior, or rage.

I made the journal spread above in the midst of anger so black and sharp I could barely breathe.  I painted over the picture on the right—mini-me with my dog, Rebel—then slashed at it with a steak knife.  The violence stunned me, violence aimed at myself, at the innocent and vulnerable part of me.  I painted in the gouges, then echoed the savagery on the opposite page.

I left it that way for several days, coming back to take in the images and process the layers of Truth I’d uncovered.

I used to believe there must be a reason I got so mad.  I used to sort through all the old betrayals, snubs, and layers of unfairness in my cheesecloth memory.  But, there’s no reason for my rage other than funky brain chemistry.  Trying to justify it only throws napalm on the fire.

Rage is just another part of me, like the creeping hopelessness that sits on the other end of the spectrum, like my blue eyes, like the way I put words or colors together.  And like everything else, the only thing to do with it is welcome it home.  That’s when I pulled Thich Nhat Hahn’s Anger off my bookshelf and found the words my Rage needed.

Today, this moment, contains no rage.  This morning I wrote in my journal next to The Dalai Lama:

Dalai Lama

“When the symptoms are big, there’s always this base undercurrent of failure, a deep Mariana Trench of wrongness, that awful and vague sense that I should be doing something else/more, that I should be something else/more.  It negates all that I do and all that I am.  It robs me of any satisfaction or sufficiency.  Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to these journals now.  They are so immediate.  The rush of rightness washes over me without any censor.  Pictures together tell an immediate story.  Color bypasses thought.  The soft texture of the Pan Pastels signals instant comfort, and I feel masterful… I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for this tool.”

Yes, I do.

The Adventure Continues.

Primatives

Don’t Worry

handmade greeting cards, collage art, Thich Nhat Hanh

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Don’t Worry

handmade greeting card, collage are

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Listen

handmade greeting card, collage art

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Failure, Seeds & Tidal Waves

collage art, hand-made greeting cardsI woke up this morning contemplating failure.

I knew last week would be rough.  When the Y closes for cleaning each summer, my whole schedule gets disrupted, but I planned around it the best I could.  However, I couldn’t foresee the bolus of anger that ignited my stress like tinder.  I didn’t anticipate the sudden plunge into a mixed state or the overwhelming return of my compulsions.  And I certainly wasn’t prepared to gain back six pounds.  This morning Failure glared like a jittery neon sign in my head.

But, if living with bipolar disorder has taught me anything, it’s that life is rarely that simple or black and white.  I needed to look at my week again, and again, and again, if necessary, to see the whole picture.

In my reading about anger this week, Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about the seeds of anger that are in all of us.  Some have more seeds than others, or their seeds are strongly rooted.  I see that anger and resentment are deeply rooted in me. I keep old hurts precious.  I rail against Life and The Illness.  At times, I practice mindfulness and breathe into these seeds until they become transparent.  But, they remain.  Bipolar disorder, in me, shares a deep affinity with anger.  So, when my illness manifests, my seeds of anger sprout and grow strong.  It is part of the illness, and part of my practice.  Neither success nor failure, but an ebb and flow.

After my attempted suicide, my teacher said to me, “The illness got away from you.”  It does that sometimes, even after careful practice and planning.  I think of myself on a beach with my little buckets and sand shovels, diligently digging trenches and building sand castles.  Sooner or later, a big wave crashes in.  It blasts the castles and erases the trenches I’ve worked so hard to make.

Storms are part of the deal when you live on the edge of the sea.  It’s important to clean up the damage, but just as important to take inventory of what survived.  While my rage was huge and consuming this week, I didn’t aim it at anyone.  And I may have eaten non-stop to deaden the pain, but I still ate nearly-vegan.  I still have my buckets and shovels.

Tidal WaveThis life is so tenuous.  I make plans and set goals to try to keep the sand from constantly shifting under my feet.  Plans and goals are sticks I jab in the sand to find solid ground.  When the storm comes and washes the sticks away, I wail over my lost place-holders.  I forget that this is a Game, and harder yet, I forget how to play it.

The game is to Find the Sticks—those unique and beautiful tools we create to manage the illness—then Plant them.  We notice everything—the resistance of the wet sand, the strength in our arms, the sun on our necks, the pleasant rhythm of the Work.  We stand back to see the pattern and progression of our creation.  And when the Storm hits, we run for shelter, come back when the waters recede, and start again.

There is no failure in this game.  No winners or losers.  There is just the slow, steady Work and the inevitability of the Sea.

Anger and Compulsive Eating

Part of the pledge we say every week in TOPS is “I am an intelligent person.  I will control my emotions and not let my emotions control me.”  Emotional eating, compulsive eating, is an enormous problem for most people in our group.  It is an issue we all struggle with and support one another to address.  But, as someone with bipolar disorder, I knew I would be lying if I said the pledge as written.  My moods are uncontrollable.  Emotions often erupt out of thin air.  I edited my version of the pledge to say “I will observe my emotions and not let my thoughts control me.”  I felt this put the TOPS pledge in alignment with my practice.  If I could observe my thoughts and emotions, I could discern which pieces might be out of my control and which ones I might be able to work with.

I received an opportunity to Observe this week.  For the past few days, I have been enraged, and I watched myself eat everything in sight.  This sounds like I was conscious.  I was not.  I was given moments, flashes, where awareness occurred in spite of the boiling rage.  These were gifts borne of Practice.  In those moments, I could see I was suffering and making the suffering worse.  I tried to hold my anger gently.  Then, the anger would wash over me, and I would go back to sleep.

Anger is part of my illness.  It is also part of being Human.  Rage does not make me a monster or a lunatic, but it pulls me from the path I want to travel.  This morning I knew I must find a different way to work with this particular manifestation of anger if I was to continue on my chosen path.  I needed a practice.  Admitting that made me remember a book I’d not touched in a long time, a book by someone I consider my Teacher—Thich Nhat Hanh.

What a shock to open his book and find the first chapter devoted to consumption.

We all need to know how to handle and take care of our anger.  To do this, we must pay more attention to the biochemical aspect of anger, because anger has its roots in our body as well as our mind.  When we analyze our anger, we can see its physiological elements.  We have to look deeply at how we eat, how we drink, how we consume, and how we handle our body in our daily life.

I expected my Teacher to offer me a way to take care of my anger so I could stop compulsively eating.  How ironic, how very Buddhist, to discover that Mindful Eating is the way.  At least, the first step of the Way.  So, today I will start.  I will follow the Mindfulness Training on consumption…

…to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming.  I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society.  I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest food or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations…

Today I will slow down and try to stay conscious about what I take in, not feeding the anger, not building more energy for my anger to use.  I will breathe, and practice, and try to be open to what rises in me.  The path is before me.  This is the first step.

Excerpts from Anger—Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hahn.

Listen, Listen

 
  

Listen, Listen

This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.—Thich Nhat Hahn

Long ago and far away, I practiced sacred sound.  I led meditations using sound and chant.  I taught classes and workshops on vibrational metaphysics.  I used sound in hands-on healing.  I studied with respected sound researchers and practitioners.  Sound, toning, singing, chant, and music were a big part of my life.

When I got sick, that all went away.  Whether the ECT fried a connection, or the medications changed my brain chemistry, or some other shift occurred, the knowledge was still there, and a few of the memories, but the skills and spiritual connection disappeared.  Now I look back on that life (what I can remember of it) like Scooby Do—”Rrr?”  There’s no sadness or sense of loss, just wonder.  Was that really me?  Huh.

One thread from that old life travelled with me during the worst of my illness.  Music.  Some days all I could do was lie on my bed and listen to music.  But, my tastes changed.  I turned away from the chakra-balancing, chi-enhancing CDs in my little library.  I craved rock and roll.

It was as if my Music Brain tried to reboot and called up an old operating system.  I wanted James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, the musicians I listened to when I was in junior high school.  I wanted Three Dog Night and Neil Diamond.   But most of all, I wanted The Eagles.

I never paid much attention to the band as a teenager, but all of a sudden, their music soothed me like no other.  Don Henley’s gravelly poetry and Glenn Frey’s wavering tenor gave me a foundation to rest upon.  I felt stretched out like a lake on the boys’ close harmonies.  I played Hell Freezes Over and Long Road Out of Eden over and over and over…

Music is a powerful healing tool.  I’ve seen it perform miracles.  But, I never understood what a lifeline it can be.  Those dark days, lying on my bed, I could feel the rope music threw me.  It kept me attached to the earth, to life.  It included me when I felt isolated.  It gave me the extra link to take a breath and stay.

Like Don and Glenn sing:

Say goodbye to all your pain and sorrow • Say goodbye to all those lonely nights • Say goodbye to all your blue tomorrows • Now you’re standing in the light • I know sometimes you feel so helpless • Sometimes you feel like you can’t win • Sometimes you feel so isolated • You’ll never have to feel that way again ••• You are not alone.

A Case Against Kindness

I’m not a kind person.  I’m not all that thoughtful of others.  I don’t remember many birthdays, and never send Get Well cards.  I could make a long list of the thoughtful things I don’t do.  This isn’t to say I’m bad or mean, or that I don’t appreciate kindness in others.  I think kindness makes the world more gentle and civilized.  It’s just not an arrow in my personal quiver.

I’ve been accused of being kind.  Usually in reference to taking on other people’s worries, or jumping in to fix a problem.  Once, at a huge gathering, my friend Steven announced, “Sandy has shitty boundaries.”  Yikes!  And I thought I was being kind!  Over the years, I stopped fixing, stopped being so available, stopped thinking about other people before I thought about myself.  I just assumed I’d become a selfish bitch—but in a good way!

Instead of kindness, I try to practice compassion.  In his book, Teachings on Love, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talks about it this way.

Compassion contains deep concern.  You know the other person is suffering, so you sit close to her.  You look and listen deeply to her to be able to touch her pain.  You are in deep communication, deep communication with her, and that alone brings some relief.

One compassionate word, action or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring him joy.  One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation.  One action can save a person’s life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity.  One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to word and actions.  With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.

We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation.  The ocean of tears cannot drown us if [compassion] is there.  That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

Compassion has an edge.  It can be a kick in the butt as much as a soft word.  This appeals to me.

I started thinking about kindness at our last Stamp Club meeting.  We’re working on a Gratitude Journal, and our assignment for March is to keep track of the kindnesses we receive from others and the ones we give out.  I knew one list would be long and the other one short.  I was pondering this today at the grocery store, when the elderly woman in front of me didn’t have enough money to pay for her groceries.  She was a little confused, and her words flitted from the price of strawberries at another grocery store to why she liked the cookies she had to give back in order to afford what was left in her cart.  The man at the checkout was very patient.  No, it wasn’t even a question of patience.  He listened to her as if she were the only customer in the store.  Gently, he guided her attention back to the problem at hand—which items to put back in order to pay for what was left.  She seemed to get stuck when there was only a dollar’s difference left.  She peered into her billfold, not quite sure what to do next.  I gave her a dollar.

There was no thoughtfulness behind what I did.  The woman needed a dollar.  I had one.  Problem solved.  But, her reaction surprised me a little.  She said she was embarrassed, could never take a stranger’s money. She backed away from me as if I threatened her.   I told her she would be doing me a kindness if she took my dollar, and then gave a dollar to someone else down the road who needed one.  She agreed to that.  I watched how strange the encounter was for her, and how she slowly came to terms with it.

Then, when it was my turn at the checkout, the cashier smiled and handed me back the dollar.  “I’ll take care of it,” he said.

Right there, in the front of Aldi, the three of us created a bubble of expansive energy that took on a life of its own.

My friend, Cheryl, likes to drive through Starbuck’s and pay for the car behind her.  While she practices this wide-open act of generosity, we both get giggly.  Joy bubbles out of her.  It enters me, the barista at the window, and I’m guessing the car behind us.  To me, this is more than an act of kindness.  It’s an act of creation.  It’s an acknowledgment of our shared humanness.  It cracks open any shell of lack or restriction that might be hovering around and replaces it with plenty and ease.

Perhaps I need to adjust my definition of kindness.  I’m willing to accept that kindness can include small gifts of thoughtfulness as well as universe-expanding acts of creation.  There’s room in my reality for both.  Just as long as I get to kick butt once in a while.

Burning

I seem to be angry a lot lately.  When my family worries about me, my reaction is to get angry.  I feel boxed-in, judged, doomed to be saddled with my past mistakes and crazy behavior.  Under that, I’m angry that I’ve given my family so much to worry about, and that they have every right to expect the irrational behavior to cycle around again.  I’ve racked up thousands of dollars of debt, left my husband, attempted suicide.  While I like to think that my spiritual practice and my daily tools for living have moved me beyond insanity, the impulses are still there.  I’m still sneaky about money.  I still bolt when situations feel too stressful.  Hopelessness and despair can still swallow me whole.

And that really pisses me off.

There’s no cure for bipolar disorder, so there’s no point in the future when I can say to my family, “Look.  I’m okay now.  You don’t need to worry anymore.”  There’s no endpoint.  No goal to reach.  There’s only this endless process of riding the Wild Horse, falling off, and getting back on.  The whole situation really burns my butt.

Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about anger in practicing mindfulness.

Our practice is based on the insight of non-duality.  Both our negative feelings and positive feelings are organic and belong to the same reality.  So there is no need to fight; we only need to embrace and take care.  Therefore, in the Buddhist tradition, meditation does not mean you transform yourself into a battlefield, with the good fighting the evil.  This is very important.  You may think that you have to combat evil and chase it out of your heart and mind.  But this is wrong.  The practice is to transform yourself.  If you don’t have garbage, you have nothing to use in order to make compost.  And if you have no compost, you have nothing to nourish the flower in you.  You need the suffering, the afflictions in you.

Mindfulness does not fight anger or despair.  Mindfulness is there in order to recognize.  To be mindful of something is to recognize that something is there in the present moment.  Mindfulness is the capacity of being aware of what is going on in the present moment.  “Breathing in I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out I smile towards my anger.”  This is not an act of suppression or of fighting.  It is an act of recognizing.  Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.

Today, I breathe and feel the resistance in me.  I breathe and feel the wanting for a different life, a different burden.  I breathe and acknowledge that this is my life, my situation.  I breathe and visualize my anger as compost.  I breathe and visualize my anxiety as compost.  I breathe and visualize the delicate flowers of my creativity rising from the rich soil.  I breathe and visualize compassion sprouting.  I breathe and feel gratitude rise up from my belly—gratitude for my family and their endless love, gratitude for this illness and the opportunities it gives me to See.

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