I’m doing a lot of waiting. Waiting to go to CA, waiting to for my brother to die, waiting to hear there has been a miracle and my brother is not going to die, waiting for this seemingly never ending withdrawal process to end. Waiting to begin my life once that process is over. Waiting.
So am I living? Am I being? Only within the context of waiting. That is not the way to live.
I am thinking about mindfulness. About being in the present. What does that really mean? I am drawn to the idea of practicing mindfulness and thus learning to be in the present, but I haven’t made the move to meditate. Not lately anyway. I’ve gone through periods when I practice meditation–even gone to several meditation retreats ranging from one day to a whole week. I’ve never found it helpful, but have I ever stuck with it long enough?
It makes so much sense this “being present.” But it’s also so damn nebulous. We are, in fact, always in the present. The concept of it as stated within the framework of a meditation practice is a metaphysical one. How does one get there? Is it possible for everyone? I’ve read dozens of books some how related to this concept. It is always a theme in my consciousness, “Be present.” Accept. This moment is all there is. These feelings are your reality now. Accept. This waiting is your present. Accept. Live. Be. Let go.
Anyway, in this spirit I am reading yet another book about mindfulness, “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” by John Kabat-Zinn. It’s another good one. There are so many good ones.
I actually just thought of a paper I wrote for a Zen teacher I had when I did a meditation retreat. I’m going to post it here.
I was for a short time involved in a Zen community. This paper was written for the teacher there after my experience. This was years ago. I am in a different place now and I’ve given up on Buddhism as a vehicle for myself, even though even then I did not consider myself Buddhist, I valued the community and the teachers was all.
The paper is written from the perspective of my believing I had a bona fide psychiatric disorder which I now question, but other than that it is a good record of my experience. Having just read it again now, it is no wonder I loathe to begin meditating again. I had an extremely rough ride.
Sesshin (retreat in Japanese–I will translate some of the language throughout)Sesshin was a difficult struggle for me. As I went through it all my experiences were so immediate I could not look at them from an objective viewpoint. Indeed we were to be in the moment and so I was. In retrospect after a couple of days out of sesshin I was able to interpret what happened to me as a full cycle episode of my bipolar disorder. What is remarkable is that the mania and depression never got into full swing. By experiencing it fully up close and immediately I believe I moved through the process without getting truly sick. The experience however was very traumatic, and I was sick as it was happening. I did however recover quickly once sesshin was over.
Here is a chronicle as best as I can recall from start to finish. I began with anxiety; a state I often experience apart from my bipolar disorder. This was on Sunday. By Monday I was not experiencing anxiety any more and I went through Tuesday without anxiety and no need to take any medication for anxiety. This clear and symptom free time was remarkable in its own way, as I had had constant anxiety for a couple of months beforehand.
On Tuesday I had an opening experiencing. I experienced the oneness of human kind recognizing what can be called the Buddha nature of all human beings. This triggered a memory of knowing something similar to this in a manic episode. This time the initial understanding was clear without mania. The experience however quickly followed with thoughts of excitement. My faith was renewed! I could realize all I had known when manic without the mania I thought. How wonderful. I went on like this until I was in a state of excitement. By the time I got home that night I was hypo-manic. (low grade mania) I talked a mile a minute to my husband. (yes, I was supposed to be maintaining silence, but mania takes on a life of its own) I slept poorly that night as mania disturbs sleep profoundly. I woke up again manic and excited. I did not question it too much right away. I was excited, like the night before at the prospect of perhaps having the knowledge I had when manic without mania. The fact that I was manic as I thought this did not disturb me. I had had a pure moment during zazen (meditation) in which I was not manic.
I got to sesshin and began to meditate. I immediately felt something was wrong. My excitement was without containment. I counted my breaths with all the energy I could muster hoping that the excitement would pass. It did. My mania disappeared as quickly as it had come. This is an unusual occurrence it the nature of mania. I had some moments of relative peace and then was struck with anxiety in the middle of the day. I had the opportunity to power walk at lunch time and the anxiety went away.
That afternoon and evening I slipped into a depression–the usual turn of affairs after a manic episode. I lost my faith. I believed that there was no way I could be enlightened or have kensho (enlightenment even if for only a moment) experiences without becoming manic. Without personalizing the experience and hence attaching ego to it. For I came to the conclusion that what makes me manic is associating ego with the realization of truth as if I was a special container for it and that it is not something accessible to everyone. Intellectually of course I know that this is not true, but that is how my mind responds to the experience. Mania is a type of megalomania. The counterpart, depression is instead a state of deep insecurity and pessimism. That ended Wednesday.
On Thursday I began the day with an acute state of anxiety. I took my medicine for anxiety. This had the effect of diffusing my anxiety but not making it go away. It in fact made the anxiety much worse. When taking medicine in my daily life the diffusion makes the anxiety much more tolerable, but in zazen with my acute sensitivity to my mind states the diffusion of anxiety became a much worse state of anxiety than had I not treated it with the medicine. My counting of breaths became forced I could not concentrate on them though I mechanically did successfully count. It became excruciating however. Intolerable. I thought I would scream. I thought about running to the teachers and telling them I could not take it. I feared disrupting the sesshin however and I instead chose to change tactics in my meditation. I began to practice vispassinah (a different school of meditation then Zen, one I’m in fact much more comfortable with) instead of the counting of breaths. I had immediate relief. I got inside my anxiety and found calm in the middle of it. That round of sitting ended and I was left in utter confusion. Was vipassinah better suited for my needs? I felt threatened by this idea as I imagined that I would lose the sangha (Buddhist community) I felt so happy about finding. (I later found out that this was paranoid as (the teachers there) want the sangha to be a container for anyone practicing) I also feared I would not have teachers which again I had so long wanted. All my teachers up to this point I had simply listened to on tape or read their books. I now had people I could talk to about my experiences and I valued this very much. Was all this lost?
The next round I returned to counting the breaths. I entered a peaceful, calm, delicious experience of simply breathing. I had a bit of pain left in my chest. But the experience was an intense relief at least for awhile. I had two rounds of similar experiences. At the end of the second round one of the teachers spoke and said “calming down” was not the point of zazen. (I am not reporting this in its full context to be fair to the teacher I have to say I was not clear and I was being hard on myself) This made me doubt my experience and feel like I wasn’t getting it. In dokusan (private audience with the teacher) the teacher said that this comment was not meant for me, but I still found myself putting down my experience of calmness to some degree even though I had a keen memory of how nice it had felt. I got home that evening and felt traumatized by the episode of anxiety. The peaceful experience forgotten. I had had it. I was sick of it. It was pointless. I could not have a realization of truth without getting sick. My faith had disappeared.
I got up the next morning in a state of panic. I got to sesshin early and asked to speak to one of the teachers. I was too confused to remember accurately what I said but I know I told him I had experienced a delicious calmness but it had not erased the trauma of the anxiety attack. The teacher suggested I do my walking. (something I did several times throughout sesshin to calm me down without the use of medicine—I “power-walked” for 25 to 30 minutes, got nice and out of breath and sweaty and my anxiety would disappear) After walking I returned for teisho (closest translation for a western Christian audience would be “sermon”.) The next couple of rounds of meditation I returned to a calm always slightly different place. Pleasant and relaxing. While sitting at the dokusan bell (waiting for my turn for my private audience) I began crying feeling like calm and relaxing wasn’t good enough. I do have to say that I felt I got this message throughout the retreat from both teachers. Enlightenment was what it was all about. Sitting around enjoying peace was not the point. (I realize that this was a misunderstanding to some extent on my part—it’s true that Enlightenment is the point, but being with what is is part of that process) In any case after dokusan on Friday I decided that for the time being peace and calm was a good thing. The rest of sesshin went uneventfully.
When silence was broken on Saturday I immediately felt alienated from everyone else. I imagined that I was the only one who somehow got it wrong. I felt raw, exposed. I was ashamed in reference to my teachers. They had seen the worst of me. I hated that I could be so vulnerable and full of pain. I went home feeling this way and went to bed in the same state.
As often is the case, I felt different upon waking up. It struck me that I had lived through a full cycle of my disorder. This felt like it might have been instructive, but I still felt raw and not sure of the whole experience. I went to the breakfast at the zen center. I enjoyed myself with everyone there but had no conversation with either of the teachers. I still felt ashamed and awkward in their presence. I left the breakfast in good spirits however as I enjoyed everyone else.
Monday I decided I should talk to one of the teachers. I would be doing therapy with him and I wanted him to know how I now interpreted what I had gone through. My shame had begun to dissipate. In talking about my experience I regained my self-esteem. I was no longer a gelatinous mess. I had recovered from a full cycle of bipolar disorder.
I am still too close to this experience to know exactly what to make of it. I know I’m interested in doing another sesshin. I feel I have information about my mind. I can be aware of what to expect and therefore perhaps have an entirely different experience. My teachers have seen me through a difficult sesshin and also know how I am delicate. I argue too that I am strong. I persevered. It was hard.
I wrote this only days after the experience. Later on I realized how traumatic it was. It is no wonder I hesitate to meditate. But, the truth is, I don’t have to do a week long intensive–I can start slow and easy, but I realize it is this week long experience that keeps me from trying again. I don’t really believe I can stand to meditate. I have too much pain and it scares me.
I don’t know if any of this makes any sense to anyone. Much of what I talk about is anything but clear. I hope it’s clear enough to tell how scary and difficult the situation was. My mind was a chaotic mess and I imagine it still is.