mental illness

Buddha Under the Big Top

How Meditation Changed my Life, One Circus Act at a Time

My dad was a psychiatrist—an old school one who believed equally in the power of medicine and talking things out.  When I was a teen and started showing signs of anxiety and depression the natural course of action as prescribed by my parents was drugs and psychotherapy. These methods helped a great deal early on, but as an adult I found myself overly dependent on tools that no longer empowered me. So, four years ago, seeking something different I found a therapist who introduced me to meditation.

I began a practice as she directed, meditating for ten minutes a day, but it didn’t go as I hoped. I was fidgety and distracted, wanting anything but to sit in that chair. On day two I declared to my husband, “I suck at mediation.”

I returned to my therapist frustrated, and embarrassed.

“Hmm…” she said, thinking for a moment. “Why not try just meditating for a minute a day instead?”

Well this should be easy, I thought.

But about a week into my one minute practice, I still felt itchy and dissatisfied. There was no bliss, no joy, just total frusteration. It had become clear in my mind that I would never be a candidate for Buddhahood. So I quit.

However two years later, still plagued with discontent, I decided to try it again.  I ordered a book from Amazon: Journey of Awakening: A Meditator’s Guidebook by Ram Dass.

The instructions for sitting meditation were simple: Set aside time each day to be alone in the quiet, keeping the length of time and location where you meditate consistent. Then sit yourself in a comfortable position, close your eyes and breathe. There wasn’t much more to it than that. Ram Dass suggested at first focusing solely on the air going in and out of your nostrils and nothing else. Every time your mind wandered, bring it back to your breath.

This time I started a practice in a different mindset. I went in to it knowing that a wandering mind was part of the game.  I understood now that there was no such thing as a good or bad mediator. Knowing this completely changed my experience.

So, for the past two years, every morning, I have sat cross legged in my special chair, eyes closed, timer set for twenty minutes, simply breathing.

Usually the first few moments of mediation are quite lovely.  I’m fresh and ready. I’ve got my mind focused on my breath. Life is good.  But then inevitably, a thought wanders in. If I’m going through something rough, this will be the time that that murky, uncomfortable feelings rear their ugly heads and I notice negative thoughts come to the foreground.

But I’ve learned to not give these thoughts or emotions any energy. Like Ram Dass instructed, I simply bring my awareness back to my breath. My thoughts inevitably wander again, so I do the work, bringing them back again, gently, with love. This back and forth may happen ten, twenty times in a sitting, but I’m learning that it’s not the “sparkly” movements  that are important, it’s the returning. I see meditation sort of like going to the gym. Every time you lift that weight, or do another sit up, you’re making yourself stronger.

On some days as I sit, I’ll admit, I feel really good, connected to everything, but lots of times it’s just me with my monkey mind in high maintenance mode. On those days I become convinced that there is in fact a three ring circus residing in my head. Not a real one of course—but some days I wonder.

The trick with my inner circus however is in the awareness. I remind myself that I am in the stands, not part of the show.  On these days, the key is in knowing that the fate of the world is not dependent on whether the tight rope walker makes it to the other side or how many clowns that day will get sprayed with seltzer. It’s all just a show. So, as I breathe I remind myself (no matter how hard those clowns are working to bring me into their antics) that I’m just the observer.

The tigers of my mind may be jumping through flaming hoops and a multitude of mental clowns may be trying to fit into a tiny car, but I gently, through my breath remind myself that what happens down there does not need my immediate attention.

During meditation this morning, in the center ring of my mind was a doozy of a performance. Right there (dressed in a sparkly leotard) balancing on a high wire was a looming thought:

How am I ever going to survive summer break with the kids home?

In my primary reality where I see myself as a writer and a mother, thoughts like this hold a hell of a lot of weight. In this realm, not only do I have a book to write, but I also need to make sure the kids don’t drown each other in the pool or spend the next three months eating nothing but Hot Pockets.

Important stuff, right?

But the truth of the matter is, in the realm of meditation, as I breathe slowly, the identities and jobs I subscribe to are not even real. In the moment I am nothing but my breath, a quiet observer in the stands of an otherwise chaotic big top. How liberating it is to be able to let go of all my worries, even if sometimes it’s only for a moment.

I’ll be the first to admit, lots of days my meditation doesn’t end in sublime moments of rainbows and bliss. Some days I’ll check my meditation timer three or four times, fighting the urge to get my day moving.  As with everything, some days are harder than others, but I am learning that the effort itself is what is key.

In spite of the “work” required for mediation,  good things have come from my practice.  I’m not sure outsiders would even notice, but it seems that I don’t linger on negative thoughts quite so long. I forgive quicker, love stronger. And more often now, when I’m on my morning walk and the light hits the leaves just right, I find myself pausing, quietly watching, wrapped in an effervescent sense of joy.

Don’t get me wrong, I can still be cranky, obsessive, jealous, and moody, but somehow these circus acts don’t last quite so long. Problems arise, but now I’m not as frequently a victim of my own circus mind.

The number one thing I’ve learned with meditation is compassion for the self. For those of us who tend to be self-critical, perfectionists, or fixated on deadlines and time, mediation provides an absolute freedom, as it trains you to forgive and let go. Like a mother gently guiding her child away from trouble, when we wander, we gently bring ourselves back to a place of safety, over and over. In the moment of the breath, there are no standards, no anger, no judgement, just a loving, subtle sense of calm.

I used to take all that noise in my head very, very seriously, but now, during meditation I often find myself smiling at thoughts and ideas that used to be seem like a really big deal. Believe it or not, the pageantry of my own mind is quite amusing. These days, when I see an image of Buddha smiling, I can’t help but wonder if he grins, not because he has reached the pinnacle of self-awareness but because he is also a witnessed of the “Greatest Show on Earth”–I don’t know, maybe these are one in the same.

Many of us put this notion of spirituality on a pedestal. Enlightenment is a serious thing, right? I used to think in order to find inner peace I needed to be solemn and only the right books, the right mediation cushion, and the proper string of mala beads, blessed by the Dalai Lama himself would bring me salvation.  I believed that whatever this ‘bliss and oneness thing’ was, it was far from my reach. But it’s not.

Happiness is always just a breath away. It resides in all of us, in that precious moment of finding our center time and time again. I now mediate when I’m peeling carrots, sweeping the floors, listening to music, kissing my kids goodnight.  All it takes is the awareness that you are not the circus of your mind…just a happy observer, finding joy in the moment of being you. All you have to do is breathe.

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I’ve Been Thinking Too Much

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Hello. My name is Becky Pourchot and I’m an over thinker.

If there was such a thing as Over Thinker’s Anonymous I’d be the president. I’m a pro. Some days I think (and think some more) about all the energy I wasted in my life brooding over things that didn’t deserve any brooding.

Tonight, fed up with the overthinking I’ve been doing lately, I walked down to the beach (two blocks away), sat down, closed my eyes and breathed slowly in and out. I relaxed and let my heart open. Within moments all of my frustrations and fears seemed to fly off into the air, dissipating with the clouds.

Over thinking is an interesting thing. I may at first feel all mellow when a thought will pops in my head. Alone, a single thought can be beautiful and simple, but when worry and the need for reassurance kick in that problems start happening. When left unchecked, pretty soon a tower of fear and noise populate my once peaceful head. My mind has been known to travel from tranquil to end-of-the-world status in mere minutes.

When I was a kid these weighty thought clouds were all encompassing. In fact it got to the point at the age of fourteen that my parents took me to a psychiatrist. Pretty soon my clouds of overthinking were no longer just mental weather patterns but illness with all kinds of dire names: depression, anxiety, OCD.

Because I came from a medically focused family, medications were quickly prescribed and in time my thought clouds lifted-slightly. However as well intentioned as my parents and the doctor were, what they failed to tell me was that the drugs couldn’t “cure” me, in fact it was ME and me alone that had the power to change the climate of my own mind.

Forty years later I’m finally getting it. In the past few years I’ve learned what Glinda told Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz “You’ve had the power all along”. I’ve learned to manipulate my moods and the weight of thoughts with simple actions. All it takes is a faith in myself and a lot of practice.

For me I’ve developed a series of tools, like a life-sized tool kit that I pull out when I’m getting stuck. We’ve all got our own set of tools, it’s just a matter of recognizing and cultivating them. For me it’s meditating, dancing (turning on the music real loud and dancing like mad), baking, listening to music in the car, working out at the gym, or riding my motorcycle. Sometimes the best thing I can do is just sit and pause, maybe eat a piece of fruit real slow, and savor every detail of it, the texture, the flavor, the snap of the skin in my mouth. Buddhists call this mindfulness. Slowing down to appreciate minute details always seems to help me.

Over time I’ve developed a pretty good awareness of my different mental states. When I’m all wrapped up in whatever life hands me, I pause and think: “Oh man, you’re really caught up in this, aren’t you?”

There’s no judgement, just recognition.

Then I find a quiet spot, close my eyes and breathe deep. All it takes is maybe five breaths now to settle back into a place of joy. The longer I sit the “lighter” I feel. The weight of my thoughts and worries is lifted and I feel more at ease. I often notice a little smile on my face as my heart opens up with joy.

What I’ve learned from this new found “power” is that the weightiness we give to life is not real. It’s just a heavy illusion, layers of thoughts that act like veils, covering all that simple joy that resides at the center of it all.

I will be honest, some days my tools have been less effective. Sometimes I’m out with friends and I’m so wrapped up in whatever is going on that I lose my center and some days, alone I dig myself in so deep in my mind that it takes several “tools” and some hearty distraction to get me out. The more I learn to recognize my states of being and the more I train myself towards this lightness of being, the easier it is to get there.

I was told back when I was a kid that the mental illnesses I was diagnosed with would be with me always, however I no longer identify myself as “sick”. In fact I’m healthier now than I even have been before. Sure, I may brood more than the people around me, but rather than allow myself to be a victim of my mind, I choose to use my weakness as a point of growth.

I look back to when I was a teenager, trapped in my fear, and I think, “Holy cow! Look how far I’ve come.” I struggle, yes, without a doubt, but I also, for the first time feel like I’m the one in charge as I learn to navigate this wonderful life.

Peace to you,

Becky

 

When Joy Slips In

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I walked down to the beach this morning.  We live just a few blocks away in a wonderful, small beach town in Florida called Flagler Beach.

As I walked I felt this welling of joy.  Absolute happiness.The conditions were right, the air the perfect temperature, the sun hanging low in its morning position…but this feeling wasn’t coming from the outside, this was welling up from inside, percolating like a bubbling spring.

As I stepped barefoot on the asphalt, it hit me, like it always does. The fear.  The caution. I have been taught for most of my life that ecstatic joy is in fact a bad thing–a symptom of a mental illness.  You know, the M word: Mania.  Up until this past year I’ve been the most dutiful of bipolar patients..constantly guarding against the “craziness” that might slip in.

But something happened when I went out on the beach this morning.  Out there with my toes in the sand I did my routine sun salutation, like a yoga prayer to the rising sun.  And as I brought my arms upward and gazed at the crystal blue sky I heard a voice.  Not a crazy voice…just me in my most open state.

The voice said simply, “Don’t be afraid of joy.”  And I smiled.

This was not a crazy feeling.  In fact, it was the exact opposite.  This was being truly alive.  Connected.

So please, tell me what you think.  Should us bipolar folk regulate joy, our connection with the divine in order to protect against a treacherous down swing? Do you “normal” people out there temper your happiness in order to protect yourself from hurt?

I’d love to hear your input on this one.  In the meantime I’m going to savor this joyous glow…..

Peace and joy to you,

Becky

http://www.beckypourchot.com

I Am Not Me

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I’ve always been skeptical of epiphanies…you know, those shining moments when the world finally makes sense? Frankly I’m not an epiphany sort of gal…I’m more a mull and worry until something vaguely resembles a solution, but here I’ve been this past year and something has changed—radically. I’m not me. I mean I’m very much me…but not quite the me who I was raised to be. This emerging self is comfortable with who she is. She’s forgiving and loving and sees her life as not a series of failures, but a series of triumphs. Shame, my greatest enemy is just an echo. For the first time I am not in the passenger seat, but behind the wheel, making choices. In control.

So, I know if my old psychiatrist read this…or my dad for that matter (he was a psychiatrist as well) he would say “We better check your meds. You’re sounding a bit manic.”

I mean yeah, I suppose that diagnosis could fit. Tragically mania has been my go-to explanation for the times when life was going well.  Honestly, I find it hard to believe these feelings are caused by illness. This new mental state is grounded and steady…and in fact I feel healthier than I ever have before. I’m the one in control of my mood, not the other way around.

So, if it’s not a misfiring of a mentally ill brain, what is it?

Things started opening up when I picked up Neale Donald Walsch‘s Conversations with God. I won’t go into it all, but I will tell you two key tenants 1)There is no good or bad. Everything we are, everything we do is a part of “God”. 2) Everything in life is a choice. We have absolute control. Our decisions can be broken down into love or fear. Which you choose is entirely up to you.

Since then I met a woman who is a certified hypnotist. I must say I was skeptical, but when my friend with excruciating pain returned pain free I decided to give it a try.

I was scared, but somehow I also knew it was time to try.

The day after my first session with Sue, I felt strong. I was refreshed, relaxed and at ease. Now, for someone whose mind is like a grazing rabbit, always on the lookout for danger, this feeling was liberating—if not a little bit perplexing. But you know what? The feeling has stuck. I’ve since been practicing hypnotism on my own, resolving inner turmoil by visiting the dark parts of my mind and I realize I AM in control.

I see now there is no need for fear, nothing to be ashamed of because we are 100% beings of love. That’s it—just pure love and if we treat ourselves as such we can become powerful, compassionate beings without the baggage of fear and hate to weigh us down.

Now I must say, these revelations didn’t come by just picking up a book. These are ideas I’ve had with me my whole life. They are things people I love have shared with me, but it’s just now that it has clicked and ceased to be merely ideas. Now, I feel as if these concepts are embedded in my soul.

I’ll keep blogging about this wonderful journey I have found myself on. I’m expecting there to be snags along the way.  I’ll share those too.

In the meantime I’m going to keep up with the self-hypnosis and let go of the shame I was taught as a child. I am no longer afraid of my own power. I am not a helpless daughter, but a woman with the strength to do amazing things in her life. The power is in my hands, what I do with it is yet to be seen.

Have any of you out there experienced life revelations?  When is it mental illness and when is it personal growth?

Peace to you all!!

www.beckypourchot.com

Make it So!

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A year or two ago, some friends on Facebook were discussing with starry-eyed optimism how easy it is to make change in our lives.

“Just choose it! That’s all it takes,” my friend said.

“That’s right!” the other one replied.

This pissed me off. That’s NOT how things work. I grumbled to myself.

The two went on and on with this discussion and frankly I wanted to vomit.

Give me a f@*$&ing break, I thought. Maybe these two freaks of nature think they can make their lives better by twitching their nose like Samantha on Bewitched, but that certainly was not me. No one has that much control over their lives.

I thought about their comments for days. Mulled over them. Steeped in them. And at the end of it I knew for sure that “thought control” wasn’t for me. I had baggage. A world of noise in my head…not to mention a diagnosis: General Anxiety Disorder. OCD. Bipolar. According to the people in my world I was clinically helpless.

I was taught that we have little to no control of who we are, where we go and where we end up. To the people in my world, life was like a bumper car ride. We may have a little freedom of movement initially, but in the end we’ll always be blocked from going anywhere.

Fast forward to today.

I’m out with a group of friends and I’m feeling my anger and sadness build. I hadn’t slept well the night before and I had some left over resentment boiling in me from the previous day. I was cranky and miserable.

Two years back in that situation I would have perpetuated it all: You are an awful person for having these feelings.I’d say. You should have stayed home.

I would have sat with my friends with my negative filter on, taking everything they said as an attack, or a sign of disapproval. I would have gone home that night and grumbled.

But this time I did something different. I decided to make change.

I excused myself from the group. Alone in the bathroom I breathed deep and I asked myself, What do you want?

I responded to my own question: I want to have a good time. I want us all to have a good time!

And in my calm state I heard the answer: Then make it so!

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I stepped from the bathroom and settled in my seat with my friends. I felt resolved not necessarily to have a super, crazy good time, but to be okay with where I was. I was no longer passive to my mood. I chose to be content.

Sure I was still tired, and yeah, the irritability was there, but I sat back and stopped trying. I stopped feeling guilty and mad at myself for the feelings that were going through my head. Instead of letting the dark and dank emotions grow, I released them. I no longer fought. The battle within me was over.

It didn’t take any magic, no nose twitching, or anything of the sort. I just redefined the picture.

I will have a good time, I told myself. And I did!   By shifting my reality, my visit with friends went from being potentially miserable to wonderful—one of the best outings I’ve had in a very long time.

I’m not saying this makes change easy—not for me anyway. Some days are bad. Some are worth grumbling over, some even require tears, but recognizing that we can take control of how we filter those experiences will ultimately affect the course of our lives!

I’m seeing that life is not like a bumper car ride, nor is it a merry-go-round…or a roller coaster. We are not passive! We are absolutely 100% active. I say ax the carnival ride metaphor all together and imagine yourself flying out over an open field. You have all the choice in the world, to go up, down, fast, slow. Yeah, it might be windy some days, but how that wind affects you is entirely up to you.

It’s your reality! Make it yours!

Wishing you peace and love,

Becky

Hey! If you like the ideas you see here you might enjoy my new book that’s coming soon! It’s called Open Souls. Take a peek. Sign up for my newsletter. www.opensoulsbook.com.

There’s a Drug for That

pillsMy life is weird. I meet weird people, do weird things. I like it that way. In fact I thrive off of it.

Part of what makes me weird is this little thing called bipolar disorder. I’ve lived with it since I was fifteen. Unlike most people, I take medication to keep myself from being too miserable and from yes, having too good of a time.

I’ve got a type of manic depression that’s hard to peg. “Nonspecific bipolar” is what one psychiatrist called it, which means, I’m just a little tiny bit crazy. My illness is not severe and medication works great for me.

There’s this drug that I take—Olanzapine. I have a love hate relationship with it. Up until two months ago I was taking the smallest dose possible…a little white, sliver of a moon that a psychiatrist once said is “so small it’s almost homeopathic.” But this little drug—I’m telling you—has power.

Half a pill worked great for ten years when I lived up north in overcast, snow bound Wisconsin, but here in Florida with its eternal summertime, barrage of sunlight, and barefoot living, I am seduced into a playful freedom.

I walk on the beach and feel the life within the waves and am connected to it all. I feel as if I’m falling in love, not with a person but with existence itself. I’m funnier, smarter, and more wise. As a writer, ideas come to me as naturally as the wind blows on my face. I write sexy poems, stories of unity, wisdom and power. I plan all sorts of book themed events, I bring people together, make community work and I feel really great.

Thanks to my Florida induced hypomania I get to experience a mild cocaine buzz without any drugs.

But there’s a catch. (There always is, isn’t there?)

Things don’t stay good.

Think of it this way: A slice of rich chocolate cake is a wonderful thing, but devouring a whole flourless chocolate cake will make you feel like crap.

Being manic is exhausting.   Two weeks into my hypomanic fervor, my three kids beg for me to return…not just home, away from my activities, but to a place of groundedness. They want their mom back , not out on some soul searching adventure. What starts as an innocent escapade turns into too much obligation, too many ideas. I no longer felt attractive and strong, just tired and old.

And so rather than slicing my tiny pill in half, two months ago I increased my dose.

My husband says he likes me better. I’m more present. I’m more grounded, more reasonable.

But I’ll be honest with you, it’s not as fun. The world no longer sings to me. Its lacking the emotional intensity that I love . My beach walks feel more matter of fact and I no longer feel a connection to god.

I am happy with life, just not blown away.

And so I write, now solid and steady, no longer distracted with social engagements. I am the same me, just a little more present. It’s a good thing, living with my feet on the earth. So now in the days ahead I will work to find that happy medium, where I still feel creative, playful, adventuresome, but I do it from a place that is earthbound and content.

Becky Pourchot is the author of I Look Better in Binary, a book humorously recounting her most embarrassing moments of childhood. You can find Binary and Pourchot’s other books at www.beckypourchot.com.