Waiting and a meditation retreat

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.

The paper:

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.

About Monica Cassani

Author/Editor Beyond Meds: Everything Matters

17 Responses

  1. thememoryartist

    “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.”

    It is.I think the frightening part is in sitting with the chaos and fear without allowing yourself to completely pull away.The acceptance needed to feel that emotion, observe your thoughts and let go of both can be so elusive.I have found this process helpful, and yet,extremely difficult.

    Many of the mindfulness meditation exercises create a strong sense of panic for me. I haven’t stayed with it enough to benefit from it as much as I probably could.

    I did come to realize that the resistance to embracing and accepting what is happening in the moment,is the real basis for the panic,and the source of much of the pain.This occurred to me one day during a subzero freezing winter day where the wind was just stinging me like a knife cut. I noticed how hard I was trying to NOT be cold, despite that fact that it was impossible to do so at that moment.I decided to take a deep breath and allow myself to be cold, and it was an amazing experience. The cold was there, and yet, it became a part of me and was no longer painful.Being able to apply that practice to emotional pain has been much more difficult for me.

    There are mindfulness exercises that don’t involve formal meditations practice- like doing certain activities in a mindful way- washing dishes, walking, eating, stretching, etc. Have you tried any of these?

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  2. thememoryartist

    “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.”

    It is.I think the frightening part is in sitting with the chaos and fear without allowing yourself to completely pull away.The acceptance needed to feel that emotion, observe your thoughts and let go of both can be so elusive.I have found this process helpful, and yet,extremely difficult.

    Many of the mindfulness meditation exercises create a strong sense of panic for me. I haven’t stayed with it enough to benefit from it as much as I probably could.

    I did come to realize that the resistance to embracing and accepting what is happening in the moment,is the real basis for the panic,and the source of much of the pain.This occurred to me one day during a subzero freezing winter day where the wind was just stinging me like a knife cut. I noticed how hard I was trying to NOT be cold, despite that fact that it was impossible to do so at that moment.I decided to take a deep breath and allow myself to be cold, and it was an amazing experience. The cold was there, and yet, it became a part of me and was no longer painful.Being able to apply that practice to emotional pain has been much more difficult for me.

    There are mindfulness exercises that don’t involve formal meditations practice- like doing certain activities in a mindful way- washing dishes, walking, eating, stretching, etc. Have you tried any of these?

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  3. Gianna

    thememoryartist said:

    “I did come to realize that the resistance to embracing and accepting what is happening in the moment,is the real basis for the panic,and the source of much of the pain.”

    Yes, yes, yes. I resist. I refuse to accept that this is it, baby…this is my life!!

    No I haven’t really tried other methods…short of once or twice. But like I said the ideas are constant companions and maybe one day I will again give mindfulness a real go.

    Thanks for your input. I had to read it about three times it was so densely full of things to think about.

    And! I too feel panic with a lot of the exercises–the biggest thing keeping me from starting up again.

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  4. Gianna

    thememoryartist said:

    “I did come to realize that the resistance to embracing and accepting what is happening in the moment,is the real basis for the panic,and the source of much of the pain.”

    Yes, yes, yes. I resist. I refuse to accept that this is it, baby…this is my life!!

    No I haven’t really tried other methods…short of once or twice. But like I said the ideas are constant companions and maybe one day I will again give mindfulness a real go.

    Thanks for your input. I had to read it about three times it was so densely full of things to think about.

    And! I too feel panic with a lot of the exercises–the biggest thing keeping me from starting up again.

    Like

  5. thememoryartist

    “Always we hope someone else has the answer.
    Some other place will be better,
    some other time it will all turn out
    This is it.
    No one else has the answer.
    No other place will be better,
    and it has already turned out.”

    ~Lao Tzu

    Like

  6. thememoryartist

    “Always we hope someone else has the answer.
    Some other place will be better,
    some other time it will all turn out
    This is it.
    No one else has the answer.
    No other place will be better,
    and it has already turned out.”

    ~Lao Tzu

    Like

  7. thememoryartist

    Maybe this is even more appropriate:

    “For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”

    ~Fr. Alfred D’Souza

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  8. thememoryartist

    Maybe this is even more appropriate:

    “For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”

    ~Fr. Alfred D’Souza

    Like

  9. ariadneK, Ph.D.

    You have so much on your plate at the moment, Gianna, and I am truly in awe of your strength and clarity in how you approach dealing with it all. I sincerely don’t think I would be nearly as calm as you appear to be at the moment in your writing.

    My best wishes are with you!

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  10. ariadneK, Ph.D.

    You have so much on your plate at the moment, Gianna, and I am truly in awe of your strength and clarity in how you approach dealing with it all. I sincerely don’t think I would be nearly as calm as you appear to be at the moment in your writing.

    My best wishes are with you!

    Like

  11. Gianna

    tma,
    your two quotes were deeply moving. I have always love Lao Tzu. And D’Souza’s quote is right on too. I am actually in the process of really getting those ideas, mindfulness practice or not.

    Just a couple of months ago I was still thinking about dying all the time. Sometimes suicidal thinking, but more often just a huge desire to die, to escape the pain.

    Watching my brother fight to live just recently when I visited him has changed this. I don’t want to die. I don’t believe I’ll ever cop out with that again. My pain is no less than it ever has been when the habit was to always fly into suicidal thinking, and now I do have some sense of this being it, and that somewhere in my experience is the point to living.

    I may be waiting and I may not be quite at acceptance, still fighting my reality, but on some level I do accept “this is it” I don’t go straight to “I want to die.” Maybe, just maybe, I do have some nascent experience of acceptance while still kicking and screaming a bit.

    I don’t know…I’m feeling mildly optimistic today. Your posts on therapy and the resulting comment thread and some of our communications have opened me up. I’m looking forward to seeing my therapist tomorrow and I’ve been avoiding her a lot lately.

    I want to grab life by the horns and live it–ugliness and all.

    K, thank you for your kind words. Your compassion gave me a glow of warmth last night when I read it. And maybe I am strong, but sometimes here at home where none of you can see me, I’m a bit of a mess. But your words let me see how I am strong too. And I can make it and I am determined to live through this and be the better for it.

    Like

  12. Gianna

    tma,
    your two quotes were deeply moving. I have always love Lao Tzu. And D’Souza’s quote is right on too. I am actually in the process of really getting those ideas, mindfulness practice or not.

    Just a couple of months ago I was still thinking about dying all the time. Sometimes suicidal thinking, but more often just a huge desire to die, to escape the pain.

    Watching my brother fight to live just recently when I visited him has changed this. I don’t want to die. I don’t believe I’ll ever cop out with that again. My pain is no less than it ever has been when the habit was to always fly into suicidal thinking, and now I do have some sense of this being it, and that somewhere in my experience is the point to living.

    I may be waiting and I may not be quite at acceptance, still fighting my reality, but on some level I do accept “this is it” I don’t go straight to “I want to die.” Maybe, just maybe, I do have some nascent experience of acceptance while still kicking and screaming a bit.

    I don’t know…I’m feeling mildly optimistic today. Your posts on therapy and the resulting comment thread and some of our communications have opened me up. I’m looking forward to seeing my therapist tomorrow and I’ve been avoiding her a lot lately.

    I want to grab life by the horns and live it–ugliness and all.

    K, thank you for your kind words. Your compassion gave me a glow of warmth last night when I read it. And maybe I am strong, but sometimes here at home where none of you can see me, I’m a bit of a mess. But your words let me see how I am strong too. And I can make it and I am determined to live through this and be the better for it.

    Like

  13. Liz

    And maybe I am strong, but sometimes here at home where none of you can see me, I’m a bit of a mess. But your words let me see how I am strong too. And I can make it and I am determined to live through this and be the better for it.

    ***…and you already are, and I am certain will continue to, in leaps and bounds. Have faith in this.

    Like

  14. Liz

    And maybe I am strong, but sometimes here at home where none of you can see me, I’m a bit of a mess. But your words let me see how I am strong too. And I can make it and I am determined to live through this and be the better for it.

    ***…and you already are, and I am certain will continue to, in leaps and bounds. Have faith in this.

    Like

  15. Mark

    Q: To be functional and practising dharma like you are in retreat (not too mention) is fantastic help—it taught me
    a lot about nearly spilling into mania but keeping my discipline. I know it hurts. I practise in a Tibetan tradition with biological bipolar manic prolems and while my samsara is too easily apparent…the good news is that highs and lows become transparent after working hard over years in short retreats.
    I am just one person with many positive years of being a
    Buddhist who believes that it counts to stay under doctor’s care and also continue to persevere with these teachings which really offer solace with a dharma community even
    through correspondence. Many centers if you call them will
    provide phone call interviews and send you classes on cd.
    I really feel the golden road is about perseverance with bipolar and buddhism. Everyone hurts with some form or another. So beyond just sitting and try counting your breath try to develop compassion and practising tonglen or taking and giving. A big heart is a big help to those other
    distant strangers. I really felt touched by reading your insights!

    Like

  16. Sharon

    What you wrote was very interesting.

    I have bipolar disorder, but I was only diagnosed a couple of years ago. I am finally, finally, finally stable.

    I did go to one 5 day sesshin, but it was a disaster. After that, until only recently (when I started taking medication), my spirtual teacher would not let me go to sesshins longer than 2 days. Even though I was never diagnosed with bipolar (at the time, though looking back I certainly had it!) he knew it was a bad idea for me to go to them. I am so grateful for his wisdom, right now.

    My teacher is of the stance that, if you have a severe mental illness (if your sucidal for example) you shouldn’t go to sesshins… at least not longer than 2 days I suppose. (that is, in the Zen tradition. It could be different in the TIbetan tradition I don’t know). If your really not stable, then lots and lots and lots of meditation could make things worse. (maybe a little is ok though). Looking back, I agree with him.

    I think one of the most helpful things for me, as far as practicing buddhism, is to be totally upfront with my spirtual teacher. I told him everything about what was going on… so it made him easier to help me out.

    Maybe you just need to get a little bit more stable before you can really meditate again. At least, for any long length of time. Maybe its not a bad thing that your not meditating now… maybe getting stable is your practice!! Then when you are better you have the choice of continuing your practice with “meditation” or not.

    Meditation doesn’t make your mental illness(es) go away. Thats the job of therapy and psychiatry. I made that mistake. I’m not really sure WHAT meditation is for… it’s just that I believe in it. I suppose it helps with understanding things like life and death…and living life better.

    I’m not really sure how sesshins are supposed to go, but from everyone else that I’ve spoken with on the topic, it’s been very helpful for them. They can look back and say that. So maybe your sesshins were a lot like my 5 day sesshin- in that it didnt go well or do what it’s supposed to do. Maybe you weren’t stable at the time and maybe that’s why it went so badly.

    Thats just a guess.

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