Monday, August 17, 2009

Zen and the Art of Sanity Maintenance

Hello Friends:

I debated about the title, since I don't really feel like I'm maintaining my sanity; that would assume I had the sanity to start with. More like insanity maintenance.

Either way, I've taken up meditation. It's been about six weeks that I've been 'sitting' consistently. No doubt one question that comes to your mind is, 'why?' As in 'why did you start?' and 'why keep doing it?' and 'why on Earth?'.

My first psychologist introduced me to guided visualization as a tool to deal with anxiety attacks. This is the sort of thing where you imagine yourself someplace safe and pleasant. My favorite is a certain beach on the big island in Hawai'i. The key is to imagine it as fully and completely as possible, using all your senses. The feel of the sun, the sound of the waves, the smell of the sea air, and the taste of the Mai Tai you're drinking. Sometimes it's a Margarita. Or POG with rum. I digress. So you imagine yourself there so fully that in a sense you really are there, and not wherever it is you are having a panic attack. This tool has served well in some situations as a means to distance myself from the panic and anxiety long enough to put my cognitive techniques to work. It also helps in less acute situations, like dealing with crowds.

This is essentially what I thought meditation was. I had also heard about people staring at candles or chanting in order to achieve bliss, but didn't actually see myself doing that kind of thing, and certainly didn't think achieving bliss could be that easy or no one would ever leave home. In a sense, though, these are all in fact meditation. But there is a particular sort of meditation called 'mindfulness' or 'insight' meditation that is quite different in practice and theoretically leads to a different outcome.

I kept seeing 'mindfulness' come up again and again as I've done my research into PTSD (my main problem) and into BPD (which I'm quite certain was what my mother suffered from. Here's an example of the sort of thing I've been reading in the journal 'Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 2002') I don't have BPD myself, but have now seen 'mindfulness' brought up often in conjunction with treatment for that disorder, and more recently as a treatment for PTSD. It seems that at the present time the major sort of therapy used for BPD sufferers is DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), as developed by Linehan around 1993. DBT has as one of its aspects a mindfulness or 'Zen' component. It's crazy that that was fifteen years ago and I'm only now really beginning to see how this is a part of my own mental puzzle. But psychology has changed a lot in the last fifteen years, especially looking at PTSD and BPD. And I suppose I've changed a lot, too.

Anyway, I finally got curious enough to pick up a couple of books on mindfulness so I could see if there was something in it I could adapt to work for me. And in a nice co-incidence, my local Yoga Center was just starting a session on 'Foundations of Meditation'. So I signed up for the class, and read a bunch of books.

First of all there is a bunch that can be very confusing. Sort of teasing out what is Buddhist religion from the practice of Buddhist philosophy. There is a whole spectrum and Buddhism is as complicated as Protestantism, what with all the different churches/sects and what they emphasize. And I'm not looking for a new religion, I'm looking for this core of 'mindfulness'. But with help from a few good books (that I'll review in more detail) and from my class, I've found the very basic starting point. This is 'sitting' practice.

It is easy in principle and a real challenge when you try it. The Zen meditation aspect is one where you note as thoughts come into your mind, but then set them aside and come back to counting your breathing, over and over. It's a great way to see just how chattery your mind is. If yours is like mine, then you don't have an internal voice, you have a freaking internal committee that won't shut the hell up. There is a more 'content' oriented sort of meditation that is really more of the 'mindfulness' end of things, where you watch the thoughts come and go, and they themselves are sort of the focus of the meditation. You don't try to hang onto or cling to anything, even if it is a happy thought, and you don't try to run from anything, even if it is painful or guilty feeling. You just let them arise and move on, one after another. Or in my case you watch them pounce all over each other.

So I can't report on the real value of it yet, since it's only been six weeks total. But I will say that this, along with the progress I've had in my Integrated Therapy (the energy work I talked about in previous posts here and here) I'm still seeing things change and move. This is great. I no longer have that feeling I had when I started my medication - that feeling of 'I've tried everything and this is my last chance' and 'if this does not work I've no other recourse'. It seems there were still lots of things I haven't tried, and I'm feeling more encouraged.

If these don't work, I'll bet there are other ideas out there, too.

Your Hostess With Neuroses


matt said...

i liked reading this, i have generalized anxiety disorder, i liked reading this because i already had an interest in buddhism and meditation, and my internal dialogue feels very much like how you described yours, i also started medication and have been feeling out of options

The Blue Morpho said...

Hey Matt: Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog. I know what you mean about the 'out of options' feeling, but I'm still finding them in some surprising places. Like the meditation, which I hadn't even tried before. Also the somatic therapy I'm doing. Hopefully the meds will kick in soon and give you some relief, I know they help me a lot.

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