Sunday, May 10, 2009

An evening meditation, mental illness, and emptiness

A recent Friday was busier than most days are for me. On Thursday, we’d had a heavy snowstorm that carried into the evening before tapering off. Since morning commutes are often ugly in the snow, I decided to forego a morning meditation and was on the road before six. Once I got to work, I managed a variety of matters, including a court hearing in the afternoon. I got in a yoga practice with a favorite teacher before getting home in the evening in time to run errands of various kinds. It wasn't until about 9:00 p.m. that I finally got around to meditation.

I sat peacefully for twenty minutes, watching breath, seeing thoughts, watching breath, seeing thoughts, focusing concentration, seeing thoughts, watching breath. The thoughts were random conjurations of links between memories and ideas and fantasies. As often happens, the meditative state crept in quietly, so quietly that I didn’t even notice it until I was drawn out of it by our dog coming to see if this oddly-timed sitting practice might yield food. Seeing no likely snack options, he went off to prod more likely providers. And I was left to finish my sitting slightly more aware of my own mind than I had been before the dog showed up. An evening meditation practice tends to end on an open, quiet note, while morning meditations end by launching me into my day.

So I went up to the bedroom and found my wife watching the second hour of A Beautiful Mind.

She asked whether I was willing to watch with her. If I’d not wanted to join her, she’d have ceded the bedroom to me and gone to watch the rest of the movie elsewhere. But there was more than a degree of courtesy in her question.

You see, mental illness runs in my blood. My sister was institutionalized for a time. She was, so far as I can tell, schizophrenic, though the shrinks she saw didn’t diagnose her that way. I think they hesitated in part because and she was, herself, a Ph.D. in clinical psych., and during the 1990s, a diagnosis of schizophrenia was a declaration of hopelessness for a debilitating, dimly understood, and largely untreatable condition. And that diagnosis didn’t really match Suzanne’s life. Did she hear voices of people who weren’t there? Yes. As she’d drive down the road, they’d scream in her ears to drive into the oncoming traffic on the other side of the road. But she also had an iron will. Did she show wild personality fluctuations, ranging from introspective and quiet to abrasive and antagonistic to unfocused and angry? Yes. But she also wrenched control of those personalities to impose on them her professional mask that allowed her to counsel and diagnose her own patients. And, as she acknowledged, sometimes it’s a bit easier to understand the mentally ill if you aren’t really mentally well yourself. So she Jekyll and Jekyll and Jekyll and Hyded her way through grad school in three years and into a professional counseling practice outside of Boston. Then, taking a break from practice, she spent several weeks in Utah, riding horses. One day she left to hike in a canyon, and didn’t return. Several days later, one of the several search parties found her cold body twisted and broken at the base of a cliff.

But it wasn’t only Suzanne who didn’t see only the things that were there.

* * *

I asked my wife whether the movie was past the scene where Nash is institutionalized, bound to a gurney, and overdosed on insulin to induce coma. She said, “yes,” so I figured I could deal with the rest ok. That had been the part of the movie that had made a mess of me when we saw it in the movie theater.

* * *

So the scene is Alicia, Nash’s wife, walking through the woods behind their house. She sees the door to an old standalone garage swinging open in the wind of a gathering storm. She goes to shut it, then glances inside. But instead of dusty old garage contents, she finds a paranoid’s collage of newspaper articles clipped and stuck to bulletin boards, bits and pieces underscored with markers, strings connecting one to another to another – an external representation of the bizarre, chaotic, pattern-making inside of a paranoid schizophrenic’s mind.

I see not only the movie’s story of Nash, and not only Alicia’s story-line realization that Nash is off his meds and can’t be trusted to bathe their infant daughter. What I see is the a visual depiction of a maelstrom of thoughts and ideas and concepts and assemblages that is troublingly like what I saw ten minutes earlier on the meditation cushion.

I turn away from the TV and see amassed in the bookcase at my bedside an ever-increasing collection of dharma books, philosophy, psychology. I see in my meditation practice, my yoga, a slightly frantic grasping. A bit of frightened aversion from depression. From the strange outside perspective of that moment, it all seems a little pathetic – even the grandiose notion that I’m pursuing enlightenment, rather than hiding in plain sight from imagined demons of the mind.

* * *

Me? Yeah. I’ve heard voices. Still do at different stages of meditation. Sometimes chaotic cacophony. Sometimes a thousand different voices all calling my name, some gently, some insistently, some annoyedly. You get the picture. But none really vindictive or destructive.

Seen things? Yeah, that too. Though what I’ve seen have been more like glimpses of a images from different dimensions. They didn’t strike me as “three-dimensional-world real.” More like overlays on 3-D real, making it simultaneously itself and something more. As real as anything I can sense is real. But not conventionally so.

Unconventionally? Yes, that.

* * *

So what about meditation?

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is curiosity indulged.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is spacious awareness.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is superstitious genuflection.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is momentary rest.

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is desperation embodied. And

Sometimes sitting on a block alone
is quietly empty.

* * *

What about seeing reality as it really is? I don’t know much about that.

* * *

In Arches National Park, there’s a gigantic boulder dramatically balanced on a thin fin of rock beneath it.

I remember the day it dawned on me that Balanced Rock was simply a result of largely disinterested mechanical processes that sometimes yield things that strike conscious minds as extraordinary.

* * *

One view of sanity is like that, too. An unexpectedly stable sort of awareness. One that lasts only as long as the substance undergirding it holds steady.

But that’s a bit too glib, too reductionist, too outside. Sanity is indeed a balance, and a precarious one, at that. But it’s one that can also shift, and jump, and dance from one stem of rock to another.

And sometimes to the ground.

* * *

As Neal Stephenson wrote in a recent novel, human minds are not only perceivers of sensory information, we’re nets that separate out some of the sensory input, and we’re lenses that concentrate it, and we’re communicants who distribute it. Awareness and community shape a cosmos awash in random data into form and order and beauty and balance.

I started meditating with the hope that I’d gain some clarity – that I’d better distinguish the real from the unreal. But instead of more certainty of the real, what I can lay claim to is seeing more clearly what there is to see from the inside of whatever it is that I’m inside of.

Is that the ground?

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Wild Foods

A short thought about life and living on others’ lives:

In sixth grade, we got to do an overnight field trip to a camp on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. The days were programmed with various things that entailed us heading in groups from one set of outbuildings to another along trails through the woods. I loved it.

Uncharacteristically, though, as the co-cabined students I was a part of headed over to the dining hall one afternoon, I ducked out of the group and headed toward the wooded shore, down the hill and a couple of dozen yards away. The others faded from sight and sound, and I was alone on the shore of an estuary, at low tide. Sheets of tightly closed black mussel shells glistened iridescent blue in the sunlight. What possessed me, I have no idea, as I’d never eaten shellfish before, let alone a mussel, but I pulled three of them away from their bearded moorings, built a tiny campfire of twigs, and laid the mussels on the top. As the heat grew, the mussels opened to me, and I ate shellfish for the first time in my life. The mussels, unseasoned by anything other than their own liquor, were perfect.

In later school years, some of my favorite books were written by Euell Gibbons, generally on wild foods. It was from him, if I remember correctly, that I learned to identify what was for many years my favorite wild food: the Indian cucumber (Medeola virginiana). But that’s just an aside. I first discovered Euell Gibbons in a National Geographic article that tells of a couple of weeks he spent on an island off the coast of Maine. It was intended as a bit of an austere retreat, but I recall him describing it as a failure, as far as retreats go, since he spent so much time gathering and feasting on the bounty he found at the edge of the ocean.

For reasons I haven’t discerned, I’ve been thinking recently about visiting the coast of Maine. I’d like to spend a few days doing what I imagined Euell Gibbons doing there, though I’m not sure I’d ever be able to persuade my family to join me in such an endeavor. But even if I did, I wonder whether I can justify harvesting life from nature for my own benefit.

Have I become so hide-bound in a vegetarian lifestyle that I wouldn’t want to eat oysters and clams and mussels? I find seafood delicious, but I want to live in a world brimming with life. Is there an ethic for one of 6.7 billion persons other than vegetarianism? Is a world devoid of blue crabs any worse than one devoid of Indian cucumbers?

I have a lingering sense that I’m missing something as I think about this – that there’s a different way of being that would show this question in a different light. But I can’t seem to get to the right angle of light to see it.