Clear Lens Moments

volcanoclouds

It was one of those days when the air was washed and polished like a lens. Everything was crisp and clear. Springtime in California.

I could see each individual leaf shimmering on the tree and was simultaneously taking in the whole tree in its magnificent glory. The colors were more vivid, the wind more meaningful, each breath poignant.

As I drove away from Green Gulch Farm, I felt a natural high like none other. Each moment, whatever it contained, was perfect, abundant, simple and miraculous. It wasn’t until leaving the Zen center grounds after my five-day personal retreat that I realized how much more mindful I had become. I was ultra-sensitive to my surroundings, noticing the details, savoring the natural beauty all around me, more embodied in my body than maybe ever before.

This blissful state of heightened awareness lasted for a good week or two. That was April, 2004. Now, with the gift of retrospect, I can pinpoint a few other moments in the 13+ subsequent years in which my formal practice seeped silently, secretively into my everyday life. Tiny moments of illumination. That time in my bedroom in Guate when I was doing a standing backbend and the epiphany hit me. A voice that spoke from deep within said, “Move to the lake.” I cried tears of sudden joy, because I knew then that Lake Atitlan was where I was meant to be.

Another clear lens moment occurred January 6, 2013, as I was sitting on a hospital bed, listening to Across the Universe on repeat on my headphones, having taken the doctor’s orders to calm down so that he could perform the unexpected c-section. Jai Guru Deva, Aum…. nothing’s gonna change my world/nothing’s gonna change my world. Limitless undying love that shines around me like a million suns… I shifted from fear-fueled sobs to a quiet, tranquil state. When I saw my daughter’s little face and perfect head full of dark brown hair, my mind was empty of anything but love (and morphine of course; thank you, epidural!).

The air was washed and polished like a lens, too, one midsummer’s day in 2001. I was sailing on Lake Travis with my family. I could see the water and sky, could perceive the spectacular sunset and feel that I should be appreciating its beauty and the gift of my life, but depression absolutely blocked any absorption of gratitude, happiness or even okay-ness. Depression distorted the lens, making everything blurry and hopeless.

My most recent clear-lens experiences have been less monumental, more everyday. The little moments, the frequent pauses when I can sit still, take a sip of tea, look around and soak in the beauty. The gorgeousness of the lake and volcanoes never fails to astound me. I can even (sometimes) see the beauty in the disarray in which our household is often found. The stuffed animals lined up in the hammock, the pile of storybooks by Jade’s bed, the muddy paw prints our dog leaves on the wooden planks of the patio.

I am eternally grateful to Guatemala, every human and animal, stone and flower, fire and body of water that has crossed my path in my time here. The breeze has cleansed the air and polished my lens in such wonderfully unexpected ways.

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The Forest Cure

Why I’m Anti Antidepressants

Many years ago, I sat on the couch of a stern psychiatrist who informed me that I needed to take prescription psychotropic pills every day for the rest of my life.

That didn’t sit well with me.

But, I was 21, and facing the moment-to-moment reality of horrible depression during every waking moment of my “real” adult life.

I learned that depression is anger turned inward. Self-blame exacerbates a mentality in despair. For me, depression was like endless fields of gray. I only wanted to sleep or die. I was unable to hope and had zero desire to do anything but lie in bed. It was like being stuck in a huge, ugly glob of what’s-the-point! 

Life was drained of all color, fun, and love.

I chose to take the pills. I was told they would take a couple of weeks to kick in, and they did—like clockwork. My ability to function in the world was restored. Once I felt better, I’d stop taking the meds. Then, of course, I’d feel bad again, dragged down into the quicksand of darkness.

So, I’d start back up again with my prescription refills and they’d take longer to take effect, since my brain was building up a resistance. This carried on for about four years, until one day, all the fireworks exploded in my mind and I was catapulted from the lows of cyclical depression to the rapid fire “high-high-high” of mania.

That’s when I was committed for 10 days to the state psychiatric hospital and was prescribed lithium for life.

Teaching yoga at a fitness center the following year, I struck up a conversation with a woman after class about mental health and prescription drugs. She urged me to read up on lithium and its detrimental effects, and gave me a book on the topic. My mom and brother had both been diagnosed with bipolar prior to me, at age 40 and 14, respectively. I was 24 when my manic side emerged, although, in retrospect, it was more like popping topless out of a cake than a gradual emergence of symptoms.

There is the reality that everyone’s brain chemistry is different and influenced by genetic factors outside of our control, and yet our brain chemistry is also affected by our lifestyle and behavior choices. After a few years of taking lithium religiously, I felt ready to phase it out of my system and did so under the care of a qualified psychiatrist—a doctor not much older than me—also named Michelle. She helped me phase it out, and it’s been eight years now with no relapses.

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The Relaxation Response

During my last trip to see Dr. Tim Brown, N.D, I asked him for other relaxation techniques that I could share within a community of learners.

The staff at Ocean Park Natural Therapies regard their patients as more than just patients. In fact, it is the only public place where I have been treated as the whole (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) being that I am. (I’m not getting paid to write this. I’m mentioning this because I wish more places, particularly schools, took a truly holistic/integrated approach.)

While I was there, I also decided to pick the brain of one of the other professionals in the office.

Janise O’Leandros, CEO of Brain Body Solutions, is concerned with the number of young children, particularly boys that have been labelled with learning disabilities, who are coming to see her.

The neurofeedback equipment allows her to see “which part of the brain is acting as the bully on the playground, preventing the other parts from freely expressing themselves.” In many cases, she is seeing bombarded prefrontal cortexes, the part of the brain that is responsible for taking in data and houses working memory. A healthy prefrontal cortex allows us to pay attention, delay gratification, and focus on our thoughts and decision making.

… causing me to wonder if some of the practices used in schools are not only not beneficial for some learners but are actually counterproductive and even harmful for brain development and the overall well-being of children. Of course school alone cannot be blamed; balance begins with nutrition and spending ample time in nature… making it that much more important to give learners a balanced, not a data-driven, educational experience.

Merritt, B.C., Canada
Merritt, B.C., Canada

Fortunately, our brains never stop growing and can form new connections in order to restore their balance. Neurofeedback training is one way to facilitate this process. Neurofeedback training is “a learning process for the brain” that can treat ADHD, reading disabilities, anxiety, stress, depression, and addictive disorders. What I find most interesting is that its “primary use has been to improve brain relaxation through increasing alpha waves or related rhythms.”

It is actually the ability to relax that allows people to concentrate and live balanced lives.

So, let’s give our prefrontal cortexes a break:

1. Sit comfortably. 

2. Close your eyes. 

3. Relax, from feet to face. 

4. Breath, easily and naturally, in through your nose. As you breath out, say “One.”

5. Continue for 10-20 minutes. 

6. When distracted thoughts occur, rather than worrying about how relaxed you are (or aren’t), simply repeat “One” to access the anchored state of relaxation.  

As with anything, the more you practice, the easier it will become, resulting in deeper and deeper states of relaxation.

Herbert Benson, M.D. developed this simple practice that combines and simplifies various relaxation techniques (which I have further simplified here). Here are the full steps to elicit The Relaxation Response.

The Gift of Shattering

“Once in a while, if you are lucky, the Universe will ask you to shatter… shatter your preconceived ideas, fears, identities, imaginations… all things not rooted in Truth.” ~ Lila Lolling

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Shattering happens when our current frequency needs adjusting for our highest spiritual evolution.

Shattering is a forced shifting and a forced change in frequency.

On the spiritual path, it seems that if you want to experience the peace within, you must be willing to shatter, shatter the ego, shatter the veils of self-identity, and shatter all beliefs.

The beauty of the shatter is that once you relinquish your old identity and story, what remains in the core of who you are… that part of yourself that is your authentic being. All the negativity that surrounded you goes back into existence. This process of dissolution allows for rebirth and spiritual transformation.

For the next two weeks, it is the time of Shiva, the destroyer. This is an auspicious time to let go of the old and make way for the new. A beautiful time to recommit yourself to your spiritual evolution. To continue to turn over the leaves of life and investigate what lies under each one.

Remember, shattering gives you the ability to live freely in every moment. It allows you to redefine who you are in every single moment. It is the key for personal transformation and spiritual Truth.

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I loved Lucy.

[Read the abridged version on Elephant Journal.]

My heart is empty.

Lucy was with me for nearly nine years, since my parents gave her to me when I graduated from college in May 2002. I loved her so. My constant companion died Sunday in the early evening.

A surreal flurry of fleeting emotions pass through my dazed, grief-stricken consciousness, more noticeably than ever. Oftentimes, the pain is so powerful, sobs overtake me.

When I am fully in the present moment, I feel a sense of abiding peace. I suffer when I wish to change the past or worry over changing the future.

I had taken her to an afternoon potluck at my friends’ beautiful penthouse apartment not far from my house. She ran around and played with kids and made people smile like she always did. At some point, I realized I hadn’t seen Lucy in awhile. I started looking for her, and gradually, everyone remaining at the party did too. Was she hiding? Had she stowed away in someone’s purse? No, no, no. She would never do that.

Dusk was falling, and I was breathing deeply, reassuring myself that she would come scampering from some secret room unscathed. I started to freak out when we couldn’t find Lucy anywhere in the apartment. In a daze, I walked down the stairwell, futilely looking on every floor. Thanks to whatever higher power exists in this strange thing we call Life, my dear friend and yoga teaching partner, Ash, followed me down. She kept me calm, though I eventually started crying, overcome with fear. At that moment, my next-door neighbors and good friends, Phil and Deb, walked out of the elevator with sad faces.

“Did you find her?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Is she okay?”

“No. I’m so sorry, Michelle. She’s gone.”

Lucy the Chihuahua had fallen fourteen stories to her death. We didn’t realize there was a small area on the otherwise safe balcony where a piece of protective glass was missing. No one witnessed her fall, but Lucy didn’t intend to jump. She loved life too much. It had not once crossed my mind that she might have fallen. That was just not an option.

I could not accept it, but of course I had no choice. I was at one with despair. How silly to deny a fundamental truth of nature: impermanence.

I was hit with hysteria. “No!” I cried. “She can’t be.”

Of course, I never expected her death to be so sudden, or soon, or dramatic, or traumatic. Thankfully, I was able to express my most intense emotions in those first moments after discovering the tragedy. Deb and Ash hugged me tightly. I would have surely not been able to stand up without them.

This gorgeous penthouse apartment, the place where Lucy died, is also the place where I teach yoga on Thursday evenings. So I will go back there every week and face reliving the day of her death. While teaching yoga. It’s not going to be easy.

I could keep going over and over it in my head. I could dwell. I didn’t take her for a walk on her last day. I didn’t keep her with me. I didn’t prevent tragedy. But I won’t. I will prevail thanks to mindfulness and compassion for myself.

Thanks to mindfulness, you catch yourself early. You switch from feeling guilty to noticing a lot of feelings of guilt: a subtle but essential difference.

Lucy weighed only four pounds, but every ounce was feisty. She expressed the unconditional love only pets can offer, without the pesky judgments and grudges that come along with humanness.

Lucy loved yoga… of course she did the best downward dog. She especially loved it when people did yoga and would immediately jump on me (and anyone else who happened to be there) in any seated or lying down pose. Up to her last day, frolicked and played like a fresh puppy, so full of life.

Ash said, “Now Lucy is a legend. She’ll never grow old.” Like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. She left us in her prime. She went out in a flash.

As long as I’m in the present moment, I feel Lucy’s eternal devotion in my heart. But when I (oh so frequently) shift into the past or future, I buckle under the weight of loneliness and sorrow. I didn’t know I had this many tears.

Lately, I’ve been studying the Buddhist concept of emptiness. There’s an excellent explanation of it in An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama. His Holiness describes two levels of mind: 1) the clear experience of knowing, and 2) the “realization of the absence of the mind’s inherent existence,” which is emptiness.

In Lucy’s absence, my heart is full of sadness. But my heart is also empty, drained completely. The (not “my”) shock, angst, and depression are all being duly processed. This experience is bringing me a new, hard-earned, incredible understanding of the ultimate paradox of life — that everything is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless. Our emotions, thoughts, sensations and ideas and stubborn beliefs and attitudes color our every experience. Without those, the experience is empty.

I took Monday off work, did nothing but grieve. Got dozens of sweet condolences. Everyone was mourning with me, it seemed. Friends across Texas, California, and Guatemala were sending me love, and I truly felt it. It helped.

I can’t yet bring myself to meditate in my regular spot in my bedroom. It’s still too hard. Lucy had developed the habit of coming up to my fingers, outstretched in jnana mudra, to maneuver her way into a head scratch. Sometimes I would pick her up and hold her while meditating. She was pure, unconditional metta. So I’m finding other places to meditate, for now.

Lucy left her canine body last Sunday evening in Guatemala City. But with all the merit she earned in her lifetime of licks and love, I feel she must have earned a human rebirth, or perhaps as one friend suggested, she has skipped humanity altogether and attained full enlightenment as she fell from that great height. Perhaps she is, indeed, now a part of everything.

The manic episode: Part I

Manic depression is searchin’ my soul
I know what I want but I just don’t know how to go about gettin’ it
Feeling sweet feelings drops from my fingers
Manic depression is capturin’ my soul

~ Jimi Hendrix

Six years ago, I had a nervous breakdown. The incident, which culminated on April 16, 2005, was diagnosed a manic episode and I was diagnosed bipolar.

I was a textbook case, a psychiatrist later told me. Grandiose ideas, hypersexuality, too much makeup, crazy outfits. Over the top. Delusions of grandeur. Erratic behavior. Little need for sleep.

Some factors that may have led to the breakdown:

But what happened is really beyond explanation.

Mania felt like a dream. I didn’t want drama. I was completely absorbed in the present moment, recreating myself all the time. Here are 7 things I wrote during the height of the mania:

  1. This is fiction, by the way. Life is fiction. Maya, an illusion of reality. I need to meditate. Writing is my meditation this morning. I need to sleep. Why can’t I sleep? Dear God, please let me sleep.
  2. I am so scattered but I must write. It may be hard to follow. I feel like if it were not for yoga, meditation and a select few other secrets, I would at this moment be a bunch of particles floating in space with no center, no cohesion.
  3. I have been in constant contact with my closest friends, my true friends. They are telling me to get professional help. “Thanks for your advice. I’ll keep that in mind.” Whatever! I am pissed and offended. Get off your high horse. I will be FINE. I just have a lot going on right now. I can handle it.

I regret nothing about my time in California. It was amazing, i fell in love with the state, with a boy, with Jesus, with myself, with the world.

It all came crashing down but I picked myself back up again. I was floating in a pool of condensed time, face down, and I just didn’t want to swim any further.
  4. am i bipolar? it is a distinct possibility. i never knew that mental illness like this could happen to me again and again and again. i have real issues with authority. esp. authority telling me that i need to take medications for the rest of my life everyday. f that. i can handle this on my own.
  5. I have lost my ability to be anything but totally present. Spiritual awakening. Cultivating the power of now. Happy, joyous, productive, exciting. But I seriously think I’m manic depressive. Shudder to think where I’d be without my yoga. Dead or a mother of three, I bet. I need organization. I am in chaos. Things are in complete flux. Everything: Job, relationships, friendships, careers, stories, networks, art, life.
  6. My dueling gemini twins are at it again. One says, settle down, get grounded, get real. If you stay here, maybe you could settle without getting too down. Over there, you cannot afford to settle. You’ll want the spiritual life, the zen retreat, the study of divinity. You’ve already tried the yoga thing and it is too much of a struggle to do full time. You’ll want to write and meditate all the time, to eat raw foods, become a vegan. You may fall back into the same situation. Would you let your debts, your depressions, your confusion take hold of you again? That’s the real fear. Repetition of failure.
  7. I have one mission: to live life to the fullest, soaking up the sweet and dark emotions, figuring it out as I go. Never before have I felt this satisfied. I am done with being ruled by a suspicion that sorrow and trouble are lying around the next corner, just out of view. I am done with forcing myself into a shape.

to be continued.

my yoga school dropout story

“Serve. Love. Give. Purify. Meditate. Realize.” ~Swami Sivananda

Ten years ago, I was a devoted yogini, a confused college student and a privileged American consumer. Yoga had been my salvation (on and off) since middle school.

My parents had given me the book, Power Yoga, by Beryl Bender Birch the Christmas before. Sun salutations really threw me for a loop at first. Coordinating my breath with my body movement and jumping through vinyasa flows was complicated and awkward.

I was working part-time at an ad agency in Austin. A couple of coworkers invited me to attend a yoga class with them at the gym. It had never before crossed my mind to attend an actual class, I was so used to practicing on my own with the aid of a book. Immediately, I befriended and interrogated the instructor. Her name was Brenda, and she told me all about how much she’d loved her month-long teacher training at an ashram. I looked into organization online, got the brochure and applied. I didn’t think much about it. I certainly didn’t investigate any other teacher training options.

Throughout the spring and summer, I was slipping slowly into what I didn’t yet know was my first bout with clinical depression. I was nearing the end of my college career, feeling queasy about having chosen of advertising as my major, experiencing joyfear about how deepening my spiritual practice and beginning to teach yoga would affect me, wondering what my true life’s purpose was… all that quarterlife crisis nonsense. I became listless and lethargic. I figured a month of yoga and meditation in the woods would cure me of this funk.

I followed in Brenda’s footsteps. On July 1, 2001, Canada Day, I flew to Montreal and took a bus into the mountains outside Quebec. The great Indian yogi, Swami Sivananda, had built an ashram there with the vision of spreading yoga to the West, generations prior. The trip involved two planes, two buses and a whole lot of waiting. I was only 21. But I kept positive. Thanks be to Shiva, I met two people headed to the ashram at the Montreal bus station. One of them had been before, and when the bus dropped us off on the side of the road at midnight in the middle of nowhere in the rain, she surreally knew just enough French and just what we needed to do.

After sleeping in the lobby for a few hours, I woke up the next morning, enchanted by the beautiful mountains surrounding me. I pitched my tent, a slightly moldy, ocean blue teepee my parents had owned since the seventies.

I was impatient for enlightenment. Continue reading

death by dr. pepper

He was Christian; I was a budding Buddhist. Because of him, I had reopened the file on Jesus. I reconnected with my Catholic roots in a roundabout attempt to sink my hooks into him.

I boiled my spiritual belief system down to these eight bite-sized points:

  • awareness (all we have is now)
  • compassion (all we need is love)
  • peace (live and let live)
  • being (i am.)
  • spirit (the holy spirit is beyond us and within us.)
  • unity (many paths, one truth)
  • destiny (everything is meant to be. let it be.)
  • joy (neither cling to nor reject. no attachment, no aversion.)

Didn’t work. His scripture was set in stone. We broke up.

During my Christian summer romance, I stupidly allowed myself to lose control of my finances. God doesn’t pay the bills, unfortunately. I was sinking further and further into debt, which is not hard to do in the San Francisco Bay area. I had to surrender my fancy-free “entrepreneurial” lifestyle for a salaried post. I landed an advertising gig at a small media firm in Potrero Hill. I was commuting from the peninsula to the city for at least an hour each way each day on the 101. First week on the job, I’d leave the office midday and crawl into the backseat of my car. Unable to rest, I’d shift positions, angrily throwing my body against the seat back. Second day on the job, I got behind the wheel, turned the ignition and stared blankly ahead. Going back inside was unimaginable.

No one knew me. They couldn’t care.

On the way home, I bought an eighth of Sky Vodka, a Baby Ruth, a liter of Dr. Pepper, and a box of over-the-counter sleeping pills at Safeway. The cashier didn’t seem to think anything of these purchases.

I’d had problems with suicidal thoughts before, when I was working in Austin the summer after graduating from college. That melancholy July, I began to spend all my free time slumping from room to room, lying down on the nearest bed or couch. I’d watch TV without watching, pick up a book and glaze over on the second sentence, toss fitfully all night. When I could attain it, sleep was my favorite activity by far. I wanted so badly to experience every millisecond of the darkness. It was the only reprieve from my cyclical, cynical thinking. Like clockwork every morning, two minutes before the alarm was set to go off, my eyes would pop open and the heat of dread would creep into my shoulders and neck. I’d think of what an ungrateful piece of shit person I was.

I didn’t care if the glass was half empty or half full; I just wanted to throw it across the room and hear it shatter.

At one point, I stayed awake for four days in a row, consumed by worrying and wallowing. After ninety six hours without sleep, I was out of my mind. I visualized myself drowning peacefully in the hot tub. I was 22; I was afraid I’d never experience normalcy again. On my lunch break, I’d leave the ad agency, beeline it to my apartment, wrap a scarf or belt around my neck, and hang in my closet until I’d get panicky and lightheaded. No strangling. I’d turn on the oven and breathe in the fumes. But then I’d chicken out and take a stroll around Town Lake. No carbon monoxide poisoning. I realized later that my stove was electric anyway; I am such an idiot.

That day in California when I left my new media job unannounced, I drove from Safeway to Palo Alto. Stanford University. I parked in a vacant lot and walked around a soccer field. I sat down on the grass. I didn’t actually want to die; I just didn’t know what else to do. I was broke and broken. Professors and students emerged from distant buildings. Couples strolled arm-in-arm. Life went on all around me. I rose to my feet abruptly and drove home. Only it wasn’t my home. Since my lease had ended a month prior, I’d been couchsurfing. Unrooted. Now I was housesitting for a friend who was vacationing in Argentina. I deliberately left my phone and purse in my car. If I stopped too long to think about how my parents or friends would react, I would be overcome with guilt. I didn’t want to hurt them.

I did not relish in the fact that they would mourn me.

I turned on the bathtub faucet and stripped down to my bra and underwear. I swallowed twelve sleeping pills with big gulps of vodka and Dr. Pepper. I sunk into the steamy bath. Using my foot, I turned off the flow of water once it reached a sufficient depth. I ate the chocolate bar. My empty brown eyes did excrete some tear-like liquid, but my sobs were silent. I positioned myself facedown in the tub. I hoped death would happen painlessly, like drifting off to sleep.

I woke up, face up, in a pool of tepid bathwater, chunks of vomit floating around me. I was alive—and drunk. I staggered to my feet. It was four o’clock in the morning. I peeled my bra and underwear off, drained the tub, stepped back into the shower, rinsed myself with hot water, soap and shampoo, wrapped my body in a white towel and crawled into bed with my sopping hair. I fell back asleep, facedown, until 7:20 a.m. Still dazed and groggy from the pills, I somehow dressed myself and got in the car to go to work.

I fished my phone out of my purse. Seven missed calls, all from my mother. She’d uncharacteristically left three voicemails. I started the car but didn’t shift into gear. I called my mom and, between gasps and sobs, was able to form one sentence:

“I need to come home.”

That’s how I left California. That’s how I exited my lovely life on the West Coast. I then had the rare opportunity to recreate myself. To be born again. I didn’t think about my ex-boyfriend once when I was in the bathtub of doom. I thought of him incessantly upon my return to Texas. About us. About our perfect shattered future. And—Jesus Christ!—it was driving me mad.