Spirituality and My Recovery

I often talk about meditation on this blog. It is one of the five pillars of my recovery.

What I have not talked about yet is spirituality. Meditation, after all, is a spiritual practice.

I get an enormous amount of good from my daily meditation. It has enabled me to develop a calm center that I can return to when my world is chaotic. (For my most recent post about mediation, click here.)

It’s easy for me to have faith that there is something more to my existence than the things I can see with my eyes. I grew up in a church and continued going for a long time. The idea of faith in a spiritual realm is not foreign to me.

My beliefs have altered greatly over my life. I no longer go to church, but I feel closer to something I call Spirit than I ever have. I get that from meditation. I have many friends in recovery from mental illness, and many of them tell me that spirituality is important to them.

Spirituality is a very personal part of each individual’s recovery. We each get to decide for ourselves what we want to include in our recovery. I find that meditation is very helpful. If you want to know more about my meditative practice, search “meditation” on the blog.

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Where to Next?

Today is Tuesday, October 10, 2017, and it is World Mental Health Day. I can’t write about mental health as it exists all over the world, but I can write about my experiences with challenging mental health.

Much of this year, I’ve been wondering about my story. I really can’t explain it. I recovered, and I don’t know why. I have a slight grasp on how, but why eludes me completely.

I like to sum up the how in just five little words:

  1. medication
  2. meditation
  3. therapy
  4. exercise
  5. sleep

I think WRAP has something to do with it too, but I’ve pretty much internalized that and rarely actually look at the written document. (You can search for WRAP on this blog in the tags on the right side of the screen of your computer. I’m not sure where the tags are, if you’re on a mobile device. There’s also a little place where you can enter search items. Just type in WRAP.)

But, why?

Why did I recover?

I work in mental health now. I talk on the phone to my peers as part of my job, and it’s quite eye-opening. I hear about the difficulties others are having with many different types of situations. Each caller is doing their best to overcome whatever may be happening that is disagreeable. Sometimes, reaching out to me is one of the ways they’re trying to overcome problems. Other times, they just want someone to listen. It’s usually very clear right from the very beginning what the caller wants from the conversation.

What’s unclear to me is myself. My own story baffles me. You can search the archives of this blog going back more than 7.5 years. I came through some dark times. When I remember those times, I’m amazed I made it through and got to where I am today.

I think I’m spending so much time thinking about the why, because it has something to do with healing. I want to share healing with my peers.

But that’s off. The healing is what happened. Does it matter why it happened, or is the how it happened more vital?

There’s one more point about how that may hold the key: one. I kept it to one step. I concentrated on just the one step I was taking. I never thought ahead to a second step. I thought only of the one. Then, I would take one more step. Then one more. It was always just one.

When I was bedridden with depression, I would do one nice thing for myself for one day. Some days that one nice thing was brushing my teeth. It was one little reminder that I was worth just that tiny bit of self-care. Some days, it was making one healthy thing to eat, or just eating one piece of healthy food like an apple.

Taking only one step. Doing one nice thing for myself. One.

Life is complex. When you add mental illness to it, it can be chaotic. There is so much to think about that it’s overwhelming. Concentrating on only one thing relieves the chaos.

One.

By concentrating on one step, I made many steps. I got from there to here. It took years. I had a lot of help along the way, but I was the one doing the walking. I was the one taking just one step. I want to share that with others.

And now I ask where to next?

Healing the Wound

When I remember my drinking days, the pain is what comes up first. There was tremendous pain. It was pervasive. It seeped into every corner of my being, and it oozed out of me in all my relationships. I was capable of happiness, but it was always fleeting. It was never enduring.

I drank for one simple reason: it gave me relief from the pain. What I did not understand was that the relief was fleeting. The drinking did not do anything to help heal the pain. The wound remained. The drinking was a kind of Band Aid on my wound.

It’s no secret that my wound was my warped perceptions of what it meant to be gay. The ideas inculcated in me about homosexuality were not compatible with living a happy life. I grew up convinced that god hated gay people, and that gays were beyond god’s grace. I also had good reason to fear ostracism from my family if they knew I was gay. Finally, society allowed violence against gay people. Some portions of society even condoned it preaching that gays were beneath contempt and unworthy of safety and fulfilling lives.

I became an alcoholic, because I got relief from my pain when I drank. The pain was so great that I needed a lot of alcohol to relieve it, and I needed it daily.

The day came, however, when the pain became more than the alcohol could cover. That day I faced the fact that alcohol no longer worked. That day I also discovered that quitting drinking was not a simple matter. I am grateful that I found AA. With the help of the 12 Steps and with the love from a sponsor and other members of the program, I found a way to live without alcohol.

Sadly, the pain was still there. The wound went untreated. I lost the Band Aid that alcohol provided. My next course of action was to find a way to heal the real wound. I am grateful that I found therapy as a young adult. I continued it through the years, and it proved invaluable for healing my wound.

Meditation also helped me slowly change my perceptions of what being gay meant. I learned I am not an abomination. I learned god loves me. Most importantly, I learned to love myself.

Gradually, I healed.

And I discovered that when my wound healed, drinking became unnecessary. It’s not even the slightest issue. I go to gay bars these days and feel nothing. I have no compulsion to drink alcohol.

AA gave me the tools to stay away from alcohol, but the AA I was exposed to did not direct me to the tools I needed to heal the wound that caused me to drink. The AA that I was part of treated the drinking as if it was the wound. It taught me that not drinking was enough.

But it wasn’t enough. I needed to heal the wound. I had to find the ways to heal outside the rooms of AA.

I doubt I’m alone. I am confident when I say that alcoholics drink because it provides relief from a pain-causing wound. We need to stop drinking because it is a destructive way of treating the wound. It does not heal. It masks only.

We are doing a disservice by telling people that the pain will stop when the drinking stops. This wasn’t the case for me, and I know many people who agree. We need to do our part to help individuals stop drinking, but we also need to actively direct them to the places where they can heal their wounds.

After 18 years of sobriety, I’ve seen countless people return to drinking after a period of sobriety, and I am convinced it’s because they could not find a way to heal their wound. They return to using the only Band Aid they knew that gave them any amount of relief.

It’s not enough to stop drinking if we ignore the reason the drinking started. The drinking is only a Band Aid. It is not the wound.

Again, we need to actively help individuals find a way to heal their wounds.

[I have been thinking about this for a long time. I’m reluctant to share it, but I have experienced my words reaching others who feel the same but are unable to speak for various reasons, so I’ll share.]

Coming From a Place of Self-Love

I’ve had a reason to think about my love for myself the past couple of days. I was challenged in an online forum by another individual who was writing very mean-spirited things directed at me. Remarkably, I was unfazed. It did not register at all.

Suddenly, I realized I have come a long way. The reason I was unfazed is that the other person’s opinion of me truly did not matter. I read her insults, and they passed right through my consciousness without sticking to any particular place.

Two years ago, I would have been very hurt. Last year, I would have been angry. Right now, that person does not matter one iota. I am sitting in my chair actually enjoying my day.

This stranger’s opinion is meaningless, because I do not receive my sense of self-worth from any other human being breathing on the planet. I give my high sense of self-worth to myself, and no one can assail it.

I got here through meditation. Try it.

New Frontiers

A few days ago, I thought I’d finished with all the transforming I needed in one lifetime. I was done. I was going to live with the imperfections, and I was going to be happy.

That lasted until I got too tired of the discomfort. Pain actually.

This morning in meditation, I opened my belly, and I began to pull out something that hurt. It turned out to be attached to a chain that would not let go of its anchor, so I dove down to find out how deep it went.

It was deep. Very deep.

I got right down to where a little, snarling childlike version of myself was protecting the end of the chain. I thanked the snarling child for doing his job. He protected me for many years by getting me the things that I wanted. I then explained to him that his work was done. I soothed him. He was quite surprised, but he settled down and released the end of the chain.

I picked up the chain, I took the boy’s hand, and we went up to the surface. I gave him to an angel, and I was released from the pain.

It left a void, and I invited light to fill it.

What I have just described is a kind of guided visualization. I use it a great deal, and I get very good benefits from it. I’m able to help myself with very simple techniques. It’s really startling how much pain I’ve been able to release using guided visualization. I recommend meditation to anyone who thinks they can’t help themselves. I’ve been meditating for many years, decades actually. It works, and it does not have to be difficult.

I’m still going to revel in my humanity.

Meditation

I meditate every morning. It is without a doubt the single most important thing I do.

There is a lot of myth and misunderstanding surrounding meditation. I think the first myth is that to meditate correctly, you have to empty your mind. I don’t, but I have achieved remarkable effects with meditation even though I still have a series of thoughts flitting across my consciousness. Another myth is that one must sit cross legged. I sit on a stool. I think the most damaging myth may be that meditation is only for saints. We can all benefit from even short amounts of meditation done regularly.

I began meditating more than thirty years ago. It was never regular. I went for many months meditating daily, and then I took a break. I’m not sure how many years now it’s been a morning habit, but that’s what it has become. It is my morning start.

The first thing I would like to tell all is that meditation does not have to be long. Most mornings, I meditate for only ten or fifteen minutes. In that time, I gain great focus that gives me an unshakably calm center that I carry through the day.

I am going to take you through the steps I use in meditation. You can build your own steps. There are only a few things that are perhaps required. The necessities are first to sit with the back erect but the body is relaxed. Second, breathe evenly. The final necessity is something that comes with a bit of time. It is the ability to allow thoughts their space, observe them, but to remain detached from them. What I’m trying to say is that we give thoughts their space, but we do not invest our selves in those thoughts. Perhaps this third point will become easier to understand as we look at my steps of mediation.

I have a special stool that I use for meditation. My first step is to sit on it. I adjust myself, until I feel comfortable. My feet are firmly on the floor, and my back is erect. My head is erect, too.

I close my eyes. There are some meditation traditions that teach to keep the eyes open. I taught myself how to meditate, and closed came naturally. I’m also coming to this with a mental illness, so I need as little distraction as possible.

I relax. I have been meditating for many decades, so this is almost instantaneous now. If you’re new, you can start with your toes and relax your entire body as you go up to your head. Do it slowly, one area at a time. However, keep your back erect with your head firmly in line with your back. It will sound like a paradox, but it’s possible to do that and remain relaxed.

I breathe evenly. Sometimes, I begin by breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth. This is cleansing. Once I’m breathing evenly and it feels right, I take in a long breath counting to eight as I do. I also count to eight on the exhale.

I make a connection. This step works for me. It came naturally to me, but it is not part of any formal meditative tradition. I connect myself to the Earth by imagining a cord of red light from Earth’s center to me. I imagine a cord of white light connecting me to the Universe/Heaven. I am where those two meet.

I clear myself of any attachments I may have made. Again, this works for me. You get to decide what your meditation is going to be like. I imagine that I have layers of energy stuck on me. I make a cut from my head to my feet in these layers of energy, and I ask angels to peel them off. It’s slow, but I feel lighter when it’s done. I’m in the habit of doing this a second time very close to my body. I like to think I’m removing the layers of my own thoughts that I cling to.

Now, I breathe with focus. It is at this time that I really focus on my breathing. I try to concentrate on how the air is entering my nose. I also concentrate on how my belly and my chest may be moving. I continue breathing, and I continue focusing.

Thoughts come. I may remember a conversation I had on the phone, or I may think about a task I have to do that day. Here’s what I’ve learned about thoughts: I cannot turn them off. Here’s another thing I’ve learned: I no longer try to turn them off. I allow them to do their work. I allow them to have their space and time. But I do not attach myself to them.

In our normal waking life, we experience events, and we assign emotions to accompany our experiences. Let’s think of driving in heavy traffic. There are many things to be aware of all at the same time, and there are many emotions that accompany all that awareness. There are the rude drivers around us, and there are the kind ones, too. Our reactions to those other drivers represent our attachments to our own feelings. We remind ourselves we are alive by living in the midst of a continuous stream of emotions.

In meditation, I have learned to allow my thoughts to have their space, but I do not choose to attach an emotion to any given thought. I am detached.

That lesson was not quick, and I must relearn it often. Many times when I meditate, a thought about an experience will arise that I have strong feelings about, and the emotions come.

Here again, I do not try to stop the emotions. I give them their space. I allow them to exist. I do not fight the discomfort. Instead, I pay very close attention to the place where the emotions are living. Is the discomfort about the difficult experience in my belly or my chest or my throat or my head? Is it somewhere outside me?

I picture the difficult discomfort. I give it shape or motion. Sometimes it’s a black sludge in my belly. Sometimes it’s a swirling column of air like a tornado in my torso. Sometimes it’s a heavy cube in my head. I let the discomfort tell me what shape it has. I allow it to come to me.

Now, I call on angels again to come remove the discomfort and fill the space it leaves with light. They do it every time. The discomfort may return, but I can ask for it to be removed each and every time. There is no limit on how many times I can ask for assistance. It is limitless. This helps me feel very light and clear.

After a bout of discomfort, I return to focusing on my breathing. I again focus on how the air enters my nose and my expanding belly and chest and then on the falling belly and chest and the air leaving my nose. There is no limit to how many times my focus wanders and returns. I am not failing when my focus wanders. I am not doing it wrong, if I have to return to my focus a thousand times during ten minutes of sitting.

If you are sitting with your back and head erect and if you are attempting to focus on your breathing, you cannot fail. With just those few necessities, you cannot fail.

I hope these words help.

Here, I go to My Happy Place. You can read about it here. That’s an old entry, and My Happy Place has evolved, but it’s still relevant. It’s important for me to mention that guided visualization is a type of meditation that I used for a very long time especially during periods when my mind simply would not be quiet in any meaningful way. My Happy Place gives me great comfort after all these years. If you want to create your own Happy Place, you get to decide what it looks like.

You are in charge of how you want your recovery to go. Meditation is a vital part of mine. Perhaps it could help you, too.

Using Tools

This morning, my anxiety has been high. I have hopes for a situation to work itself out in a certain way in the very near future, and I’m anxious about it. Because I’m in recovery, I have experience using tools to help me cope when I have difficult emotions rolling around inside.

The first tool I used this morning was meditation, and it helped enormously. I was very calm and centered for a few hours afterward. Sitting in a quiet place and breathing helps me when I’m anxious or otherwise unhappy.

I would normally go for a good powerwalk, but my knee doesn’t feel right. I have to stay off it for a while. I’m sad about this, because exercise is a very good way to work through unpleasant emotions.

I got to work fine, and I’ve been concentrating on some tasks. That helps a great deal, but it doesn’t take my whole mind off what I’m anxious about.

So I turned to another tool: friends in recovery. I’m a member of a small group on the internet of people in recovery from mental illness. I asked them what they did to cope with anxiety. One person reminded me to take breaks from the busy-ness. I just did that. I left my cubicle and went for a walk in the sun. I went down the street to the cathedral and sat there for five minutes. It worked. I feel calm again.

I have therapy tonight, and it couldn’t come at a better time. I will be able to talk to my psychologist about what’s going on. I have found in all my years in therapy that when I talk about a problem, it loses its power. Sometimes it disappears completely.  It really works.

I do not know if talking to my therapist will cause today’s anxiety to disappear completely, but I am positive it will help.

I am grateful today for the tools I have to aid me in my recovery.