This is not then. This is now.

I started reading about meditation and mindfulness when I was about 18. I had pervasive feelings of sadness, as well as anxiety, which had lasted most of my life, and I had an inkling that if I could just learn to dwell in the present moment, without ruminating on the past and future, it would help me to overcome my “difficulties”, and perhaps learn how to be happy, or at least, not miserable.

One of the first things I remember reading on the subject of mindfulness was Wherever You Go, There You Are by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. I was interested in learning to practice meditation, but I never quite caught on to Buddhist-style meditation. Simply sitting, trying to calm myself and pretend I’m a mountain or something does noooot work for me. My attention span just can’t handle it. Much more recently, I’ve learned to use mantra and have finally opened the door to a meditation practice that I can stick with.

However, I haven’t completely thrown mindfulness out the window. It just took me a really, really long time to get the hang of it. Jon Kabat-Zinn participated in the writing of another book, The Mindful Way Through Depression. I read this one when I was a little older. I distinctly remember, it was back when I started working for the TEA in 2007 and I was going through a bad episode, and I was desperately trying to learn how to concentrate on staying in the present moment as a way to alleviate depression. It simply would not click at the time. Honestly, I think I was too depressed. As Mindful points out, it is difficult to undertake the hard work of reworking your thought patterns when you are caught in the death spiral of depression: you are sad, you are exhausted, you stop taking pleasure in anything, you stop engaging in activities that keep you connected…and thoughts of worthlessness and cynicism take over.

From The Mindful Way Through Depression: “When depression starts to pull us down, we often react, for very understandable reasons, by trying to get rid of our feelings by suppressing them or by trying to think our way out of them. In the process we dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. In our heads, we try out this solution and that solution, and it doesn’t take long for us to start feeling bad for failing to come up with a way to alleviate the painful emotions we’re feeling. We get lost in comparisons of where we are versus where we want to be, soon living almost entirely in our heads. We become preoccupied. We lose touch with the world, with the people around us, even with those we most love and those who most love us. We deny ourselves the rich input of the full experience of living.”

This perfectly describes my experience. One example of a typical depressive thought pattern, for me: I get depressed when it is summer, or when it’s endlessly sunny. The only thing I can come up with as a reason for this is that I feel that I am supposed to be happy that it’s sunny, and everyone else is happy about it, and yet I feel as crappy as usual. I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember. Often such thoughts will come to me when I’m driving, or some other time when I’m alone with my thoughts. When these thoughts strike, what I am feeling is not only the emotion of that moment, but the weight of all the previous moments when I had such awful feelings. Therefore, I am experiencing the misery of not just the present moment, but of all the miserable moments. I then start to feel bad about feeling bad. I try to think my way out of depression, and tell myself reasons why I should not be depressed.

I don’t know when, exactly, I came up with my own little personal mantra to get around this shitty spiral, but here it is: “This is not then. This is now.” When I have a moment of depression, and I feel the weight of the years trying to bear down on my brain, like I have allowed them to do for so long, I just say my little mantra to myself. It helps my brain to understand that I am not required to feel all the ugly feelings of sadness from childhood onward all at once. It also helps me understand that the feeling will not last forever. Even if the feeling you have in the present moment is not good, you can handle it…as long as you are not experiencing ALL of your bad moments, ever.

People who are not depressed must already know the trick of getting around this. I don’t know why some people are capable of learning this so much earlier on. Probably something to do with the personalities we are born with, the environments we grow up in, etc…I don’t know. It doesn’t matter now. The old thought patterns are there. You can’t change the past. But you can change your reaction to them. In the present moment. Let thoughts come up, don’t run from them. Avoidance is repression. But just remind yourself…this is not any other time. This is not then. This is now.

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Burning Inner Anger

Friday marked the 40th and final day of the “burning inner anger” practice I’ve been participating in, which most of you have probably heard me talk about.  What does that entail, you ask?  Why, I’d be delighted to tell you!

First, let me throw a few kundalini yoga terms out there.  In yoga, our daily spiritual practice is called “sadhana”.  Right now, I am participating in a global sadhana.  Over a thousand yogis around the world are practicing this sadhana, for the most part, for the same 40 days.

“Burning inner anger” is divided into two 11-minute sections.  The first half is a “pranayam”, or breathing exercise.  During this exercise, you put your left hand over your heart center, or heart chakra.  Your right arm is extended into the air at a 60-degree angle.  The pointer and middle finger of that hand are extended, with the thumb over the ring and pinky fingers, which are tucked under.  You breath in, then out, etc, for two seconds each time, with your mouth in an O-shape.  Pranayams have interesting physiological effects.  This breathing and posture does much to detoxify your body.  For this reason, it can make you feel sick.  When I started this practice, I was just getting over bronchitis, and I couldn’t tell whether I felt sick because of that, or some new illness.  I then realized that the mild fever, digestive upset, and general craziness were a result of much toxin-releasing.

Holding your right arm in the air as required for this practice is much more difficult than I could have known.  In the beginning, I ended up dropping my arm often.  This improved over time, and by day 30, I could keep my arm up for most of the time, which was gratifying.  When I did this pranayam, the results varied.  Some days it was a more peaceful experience.  On other days, often on days where I was already angry, I tapped into anger much more and experienced a really intense unloading of anger.  It was not pleasant, and made me feel icky.  Of course, this is how I knew it was working!  I know that I have a lot of repressed anger, and it felt awesome to know that I was ridding my body of old anger and other damaging emotion.

The second part of the practice is 11 minutes of meditating and chanting.  The chant is one that goes: “Guru guru wahe guru, guru ram das guru.”  Here’s some info about the mantra from SpiritVoyage.com:  “This is a mantra of humility, relaxation and self healing.  It projects the mind to infinity, then allows a finite guiding relationship to come into your life.The first part (Guru Guru Wahe Guru)  projects the mind to the source of knowledge and ecstacy.  The second part (Guru Ram Das Guru) means, the wisdom that comes as a servant of the Infinite.  This chant can carry you through the darkest times, answer the deepest prayers, and bring healing on many levels.  Guru [means] teacher or guide that brings one from the darkness to the light. Wahe [is an] exclamation of ecstacy like ”WOW!”  Ram Das literally translates as “God’s Servant”, but also refers to Guru Ram Das, the Fourth Guru of the Sikhs.”

Much of kundalini yoga is tied up with Sikhism.  I won’t go into detail here about the practices of the Sikhs.  Suffice to say, the Sikh religion has a lot of nice ideas, but it also has the rituals and requirements of any organized religion…and I have no intention of practicing a formal, organized religion…which is also a topic for another blog post!

Regardless, I have found a lot of peace with kundalini yoga.  It has helped me learn to meditate.  It also helps to strengthen the nervous system.  This particular practice, burning inner anger, has been transformative.  I find that I am better able to respond with equanimity and compassion.  In the past my reactions have been, shall we say…hot-headed.  My work has just begun.  I feel I could spend a much longer time “burning inner anger” before the work is complete.  However, yesterday, day 41, I did not do the meditation, because I was too busy.  The thing with these meditations is, that if you miss a day, you must start over!  So I will leave it at 40 days for now.  40 days is, apparently, the amount of time it takes many of your body’s cells to regenerate.  You are making a real change in your body in that time.  40 days is also supposedly the amount of time required to break a bad habit.  It takes 90 days to form a new, healthier habit, and 1000 days to reach mastery.

I do plan to revisit this burning inner anger practice someday.  For now, I think I will move on to a practice for compassion and trust.  I feel that this is most important for me in terms of growth.  The more I have compassion for others, and truly understand them, the more full of light and love I feel.

Update

I’ve been through many emotional ups and downs since I wrote this blog.  Depression has a way of resurfacing when you stop working, daily, to keep yourself healthy.  I really have not been meditating, or practicing some of the other healthy habits that keep me in a good frame of mind.  In particular, I have been experiencing a lot of anger (as well as sadness).  I’ve worked on several blogs that I have not published yet, because I’ve been a little too overwhelmed to deal with it.  At the time I first did this practice, “Burning Inner Anger,” I sensed that 40 days would not be enough.  I was right.  Last Friday, February 16, 2012, I began this practice again.  My intention is to take this practice far beyond 40 days this time around.  As I mentioned above, many spiritual traditions consider 40 to be an important number.  In the kundalini yoga tradition, it’s said that it takes 40 days to change a habit, and 90 days to confirm the habit.  After 120 days, you are the new habit.  If you practice for 1,000 days, you master the new habit.  I do not know if 1,000 days is realistic for me, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to master the habit of not letting yourself get carried away with anger?  I have not yet made the 1,000 day decision, but, at this point, I am committed to 120 days.  As I get farther into this four-month period, I’ll decide if I can (and need to) commit to years of this practice. 

I’ve also, lately, been exploring mindfulness and meditation from a Buddhist perspective.  Hopefully, I’ll write more about that soon.

The Instinct to Heal

The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk TherapyThe Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy by David Servan-Schreiber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Very interesting introduction to alternative therapies for depression, anxiety, and stress. It covers EMDR and acupuncture, and a topic new to me: heart coherence. Basically your heart beat becomes coherent when you experience warm fuzzy feelings of love and affection. It has been used, for example, to help people with a history of cardiac incident to lower their stress level and regulate heart rate.

There was also extremely interesting info on nutrition-something I have really neglected in past depression treatment. Exercise is covered, too, and also, there are some chapters on improving your communication with others to decrease stress.

This has done a lot to improve my understanding of ways to treat depression and anxiety. Next, I want to read “The Anatomy of an Epidemic”, which is about the epidemic of mental illness in the U.S., and the damage that psychotropics are doing to us. Completely fascinating.

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Poetry Sunday: of Grief and Wild Geese

I really like sharing poetry, but have not always found a great forum for it.  Eventually, I’d like to have a poetry group where people get together and share poetry written by others, as well as stuff they’ve written themselves.  The first poem I’ve posted, by Emily Dickinson, is one I identified with very closely for a long time.  The second is one of my own, regarding my grandmother’s death from ovarian cancer in 2005.  It’s pretty heavy, as I was in such a dark place at the time.  The title is a play on my grandmother’s name, Alma, as well as the Dia de las Almas, or All Souls’ Day.  In Latin American cultures this time is often referred to as el Dia de los Muertos, and it is meant to celebrate the departed with crazy festivals and raucous partying.  I am thinking of writing a follow-up to my poem, that will be more celebratory in nature. Below that is a much more gentle and hopeful poem by Mary Oliver.  I have found very comforting her ability to transmute her own pain, including that of the loss of her partner, and continue to create beautiful observations of nature and God.  “Wild Geese” is just about perfect.

I realize I’ve been focusing more on the dark than on the light in the blog recently.  The funny thing is, I feel so much lighter now.  But, just as I’m cleansing myself of inner anger with a 40-day kundalini yoga meditation, I am also cleansing myself of old depression through catharsis.  Spring cleaning my brain, if you will!

I measure every Grief I meet

 
by Emily Dickinson

I measure every Grief I meet 

With narrow, probing, eyes-

I wonder if It weighs like Mine-

Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long-

Or did it just begin-

I could not tell the Date of Mine-

It feels so old a pain-

I wonder if it hurts to live-

And if They have to try-

And whether-could They choose between-

It would not be-to die-

I note that Some-gone patient long-

At length, renew their smile-

An imitation of a Light

That has so little Oil-

I wonder if when Years have piled-

Some Thousands-on the Harm-

That hurt them early-such a lapse

Could give them any Balm-

Or would they go on aching still

Through Centuries of Nerve-

Enlightened to a larger Pain-

In Contrast with the Love-

The Grieved-are many-I am told-

There is the various Cause-

Death-is but one-and comes but once-

And only nails the eyes-

There’s Grief of Want-and grief of Cold-

A sort they call “Despair”-

There’s Banishment from native Eyes-

In sight of Native Air-

And though I may not guess the kind-

Correctly-yet to me

A piercing Comfort it affords

In passing Calvary

To note the fashions-of the Cross-

And how they’re mostly worn-

Still fascinated to presume-

That Some-are like my own-

el Dia de la Alma

by Kate Curlee

Trussed up in pretty pajamas and diamond earrings,

Your carefully coiffed hair felt flat as your spirit left.

It seeped out in doses, it ebbed away in waves.

My tender goodbyes and lame jokes ceased producing smiles

and left only twitches of slack muscle.

You spoke to us in sighs until there was no breath left.

In the holy church of the dying,

we prayed for the nearly-departed around an altar draped in vestments of hospital sheets.

It was your wake, and I knew the time had come to wish you on your way.

 

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

 

Such Dark Trails

Most of you know that I was quite seriously depressed for much of the last few years.  I struggled a lot to stay off medication, and then, once I decided to take it, served as my own guinea pig in the search for the right prescription.  I would equate that experience to being on a roller coaster car that you feel quite certain will fly off the track and catapult into space at any time.  The ups and downs took my breath away, they sped my heart rate up, made me very light-headed, and they made me feel batshit crazy.  Although I suffered from melancholy from a young age, I also scorned psychiatric medicine and talk therapy as crutches for the weak.  This was in the days before absolutely everyone began to talk  about mental illness.  Now, many people will share their issues with you, or perhaps even write articles or blogs about them, as I am doing here.  Certainly, these days, among my peers, there is no shame in talking to a counselor.  Use of psychotropic medication is far more accepted (this last is something I am more conflicted about).   Nevertheless, it was in law school, when stress and misery made it impossible for me to stop crying, that I first took an anti-depressant.  Since then, I have played the back-and-forth game, going on and off medication and therapy.

At one point, about a year ago, I believed I would never get better because nothing was working for me.  I accepted the idea of taking medication for the rest of my life because it seemed the only option.  Somehow I arrived at the conclusion that instead of trying to deny depression, I should accept it, and “own” it.

In the end, this only made things worse.  I was defining myself as a depressed person.  This horrible sickness became who I was.  And the truth is, I am so much more than that.  Depression is not me. It is not you.  Your beliefs about life create your life, essentially.  If you believe deeply in something, does it not make sense that your life would reflect this?

So, is depression something that can be cured?  If so, can it be done without medication?  I think the answer is very complex.  More than that, I think we each have our own answer.  It seems funny to talk about getting better without medication.  Trust me, when I was in the dark throes of it, it sounded like complete bullshit to hear people going on about how medication is bad and you shouldn’t need to depend on it.  Nevertheless, I hope that medication is not the final answer for-and let me emphasize this-ME.  Every case is unique.  Some people need it.  I needed it in the past, because I had no other real coping mechanism.  To some degree, I still need it.

I could go on for awhile about my views on depression, but that is not what I want to dwell on.  Not anymore.  In describing this history, I want only to share it with anyone who might want or need to hear it.  In the second part of this blog, I will talk about the much happier and lighter subject of getting better.  I also do not want to convey that I am completely “cured”.  I think it’s a struggle for all of us to keep up our spirits.  But, I have made strides toward happiness and contentment that I did not believe possible, and this gives me faith that it could be possible for anyone, given the right circumstances.

Praising Manners

I’ve decided to post poems that speak to me from time to time. Maybe I will eventually post one of my own, if i can get it into interwebz shape.

This poem is one I’ve loved for years. There is an obvious depression theme that captured my interest. Honestly, I used to think this poem was actually written by Robert Bly, rather than only translated by him. It is no surprise, though, to find that the actual poet was Rumi.

I particularly like the following line: “Inner gifts do not find their way to creatures without just respect.”

To me, this poem is about letting go of self-pity, which is something I have often had far too much of. When I was deep in depression, I simply did not have the wherewithal to praise. However, this poem, even in those dark times, was like a homing beacon, calling me to the present time, when the sun is so much more full of light.

-Kate

Praising Manners

“We should ask God
To help us towards manners. Inner Gifts
Do not find their way
To creatures without just respect.

If a man or woman flails about, he not only
Smashes his house,
He burns the world down.

Your depression is connected to your insolence
And refusal to praise. If a man or woman is
On the path, and refuses to praise-that man or woman
Steals from others every day-in fact is a shoplifter!

The sun became full of light when it got hold of itself.
Angels began shining when they achieved discipline.

The sun goes out whenever the cloud of not-praising comes near.
The moment that foolish angel felt insolent, he heard the door close.”

-Rumi, as translated by poet Robert Bly

Apocalypse Now

N and I have watched a boatload of movies whilst sitting on the couch being miserable, these last few days (we got totally knocked out by bad colds). The one we saw that has really stayed with me, thought, is The 11th Hour.

The 11th Hour is a documentary brought about by, of all people, Leonardo DiCaprio.  He narrates the film.  Many well-known scientists (including Stephen Hawking) and environmental activists provide commentary.  The visual imagery is pretty stunning.  Some shots show the beauty of the natural world, but many show the absolutely disgusting and heartbreaking havoc we have wreaked on it.  It really is mind-boggling to see how many natural and man-made disasters are barely covered by the media, and just how many of those events there are that you never hear about.

The title makes obvious the point of the film.  We are running out of time to try and halt or reverse climate change.  One factoid I learned is that, while the global average temperature has increased only a fraction of a degree, this has increased hurricane rotation speed and duration by half.  Probably, a lot of  you have heard from documentaries on the History or Discovery Channels that it took only a couple degrees difference in global temperature to bring the planet out of its last ice age.

Here’s the point:  there is no longer room for debate as to whether human activity has brought about the changes in climate we are seeing around the world.  The energy and food available on this planet are being severely taxed.  The world population, according to Wikipedia, never hit one billion until 1804.  It did not hit two billion until 1927.  Since then, population has increased exponentially, at an ever faster rate, to the nearly seven billion people estimated to be on the earth today.  In the past, the earth simply couldn’t sustain that many people.  In The 11th Hour, author Thom Hartmann explains the following premise from his book, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight:  that in the past, humanity lived upon only the energy given to the earth by the sun in a year.  Thereafter, we started tapping into earth’s reserves of “ancient sunlight”:  oil, carbon, etc.  Everyone knows that these “fossil fuels” are short in supply, but does everyone think about what that means?  When they run out, things are going to fall apart.  We have built vast infrastructures based on oil-run cars and utilities, built up a totally insupportable system of food growing/processing, and badly damaged our clean water supply and forests (Another factoid I learned from the film:  just one tree can soak up 57, 000 gallons of water during a flood-who knew?).

I have experienced many changes in myself of late.  I am learning, finally, to love myself, and see the holiness within myself.  This is allowing me to see this same love and light in all the people that surround me-loved ones, friends, acquaintances and strangers.  But I have been leaving out a very important piece of the story.  The earth is our home, and it is an incredible one.  It is the reason we get to experience life.  And yet, we are treating it like garbage.  How can I claim to love myself, and everyone else, but not take steps (however small) to reduce the harm we are doing to the earth?  In my first kundalini yoga class, after going through the exercises, everyone laid down for deep relaxation.  Our teacher instructed us to relax, and to let Mother Earth cradle us.  In that moment I truly did feel like I was being held by Mother Earth, and it was an intensely moving, deeply profound experience.  I feel this now, my connection to the earth, with each yoga class.

I try to recycle and whatnot, buy small cars that get good gas mileage, and avoid unnecessary waste.  I have this feeling, though, that I want to do something bigger.  I’m not sure where to start, and I have a lot of doubts about our ability to heal the planet.  As The 11th Hour points out, and as we all knew anyway, corporate greed and political collaboration stand in the way of change with utter disregard for our fate.  They will not let us loosen our grip on oil dependence, or reduce the disgusting “farming” of animals for food.  One of my new projects, as part of my spiritual journey, will be to talk to the people around me about this issue.  What can we do to show we care?