Terminal Mental Illness

Some years ago, the daughter of an acquaintance of mine died by suicide. While her husband and children were out, she lit a hibachi in their living room and died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The obituary her parents wrote said, quite truthfully, that she had succumbed after a long illness.

The recent suicide death of Gregory Eells, head of the University of Pennsylvania’s mental health services, brought to mind my friend’s comparison of lifelong mental illness with a chronic and ultimately terminal disease. In suicide prevention work, we say that many suicides can be prevented. Many, not most or all.

For some people, the lifelong challenges of a mind that berates, undermines, and negates their value as a human being is ultimately unbearable. No matter their outward signs of success, love, or accomplishment, they “know” themselves to be inferior, undesirable, unlovable. No matter the support they have in the form of medication, talk therapy, and interventions, like the Safety Planning Intervention developed by Gregory Eells’ colleagues at U of P that is proving so useful to many people living with anxiety and depression, the illness thrives at the expense of their wellbeing and life force.

We’ve come a long way in our attitudes toward mental illness and its compatriot, addiction, but we have a long way to go.

Myself, I struggle to accept the choices of the terminally ill who seek self-selected euthanasia under plans like Death with Dignity. I’m inclined to a world view that says life is what it is and is ours to experience no matter what. But when I encounter deaths like Eells’, I understand the analogy to terminal disease, that the suffering of acute, unrelenting mental illness can become too great. The prognosis unfavorable and unchanging. The best option to “shake off the mortal coil.”

What is the counterpart, for those with unrelenting mental illness, to hospice and end of life care available to the physically terminally ill? I only know that its foundation is compassion. We can no more blame those who succumb to mental illness than we can those who succumb to terminal illness of the body. We need to start loving, listening, and accepting that we cannot know another’s suffering, nor can we fix it. Our good intentions, pep talks, and interventions may, in the long run, only add to the weight of depression and anxiety. Not only does our loved one feel that the world would be better without them, but they carry the extra weight of our implicit message that they should be able to do something to make things different. Instead, our responsibility is to stand in compassion and serve the best we can as witnesses of life’s various ways of being.

The metaphysical poet, John Donne wrote “No man is an island. . . Every man’s death diminishes me.” Each is a cause for grief and contemplation of our own fragile mortality. “To live in this world,” the late Mary Oliver wrote, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” For me, this is sage advice for those of us who bear witness to friends and family for whom life is an insurmountable struggle, to love each other’s mortality and to hold it as our own. Our lives depend upon it.

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Portents

Beetle, snake, apples. We walk single
file under willows, the dappled light
casting shadows. First the beetle, on its back,
and one side missing a few hairlike legs.
I flip it with the fine point of a pen revealing
its pale shell with elegant black stripes.
What to read in the moist spot it leaves
scuttling into the weeds? Immediately,
a slip of snake whips quickly into hedge,
slender tail a question mark, disappears.
Three small apples in a row far
from orchard. Four of us stepping
lightly on the concrete walk, stepping
lightly into the mystery of being
here together in this moment,
where everything is contained.

August Gift

Over the usual dry silence,

the million soft footsteps

of rain, exotic on this desert

summer Sunday. Awakening,

my mind reached out to cup

the din in the cistern of memory,

penetrated by recognition.

I unfurled from sleep,

from the deep fear of fire,

to the smokey grey sky

of cloud. Trees offset in limpid green,

their leaves bowed by the press

of wetness. The earth patters

beneath falling water, volume

increasing in sound and ground.

The generous eave built for snow,

where winter’s ice melts into spears,

this morning drips with summer’s

grateful tears. Runoff returns to river.

Reprieve from burn.

Tantra: A Teaching for Tough Times

No matter what your political bent, most of us can agree that we are going through some tough times. Ideology can’t fix global warming, drought, rising seas, poverty, alienation, isolation, or a bevy of other social ills that cause many of us pain. What it does do, all too well, is create riffs between ourselves and others, whether they be strangers or family members. If they see the world differently from us, we see them as “other,” and, typically, as wrong.

Today is the eighth anniversary of my awakening as embodied consciousness. It’s been a wild unfolding over the last eight years. One of the cornerstones of my awakening was the unshakeable realization that there’s nothing that’s not God. This statement invariably brings up questions and complaints. Poverty is God? War? Rape? Incest? Genocide?

Yes; it’s a hard truth to grasp. But for me, and for a little over a thousand years of nondual Tantra, it is the truth to which one ultimately awakens if one realizes the elegant non-separateness of this path. Writing in Tantra Illuminated, Christopher Wallis anticipates the questions of those who find this precept difficult or impossible to grasp.

Why not create a universe in which suffering is not a possibility? This form of the question presumes a dualism between creator and created . . . If we alter it to the question of why the universe is created in such a way as to allow for the full range of possibilities, from the most horrific to the most sublime, then we have the sort of question that was of greater interest to the Tantric thinkers . . . It is out of love for itself that Consciousness bodies itself forth as a universe, and it is out of love that it allows for the total range of possibilities in that universe (because to negate any possibility would be to reject that aspect of itself.)

For me, this gets to the crux of the beauty of the Tantric path. When we realize Consciousness, when we fully embody it as that which arises fully and freely as and through everything that is, we can come to a place where making others wrong is a fool’s errand. Wallis says “differentiating those we wish to call ‘evil’ from those we wish to call ‘good,’ [reflects a] relative degree of ignorance of the true nature of reality.”

Judging is an innately human, maybe even incarnate, function of survival. Is this being I encounter my friend, or my foe? Predator or prey? Poison or nourishment? And this is important to our wellness of Being. But when we shift that simple and important act of discernment of duality to a world view, we are lost to the truth that everything we encounter is Consciousness manifesting as itself in limited form. It cannot be “wrong,” or “bad,” or even “right,” or “good.” It is Consciousness painting itself onto the canvas of itself. It is a continual unfolding of life’s arising as life. We are passengers, not drivers.

It’s normal to find others’ repugnant ideas off putting. But beneath that limited, localized perception, we can lean into and find the love that is at the core of everything that arises. The Christian Bible says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son.” This is the nature of Consciousness “bodying forth.” If we find fault with that, we are missing the point of being here. We’re missing the heartbreaking beauty of our human life purpose, to see, feel, live, and speak our truth in the midst of uncertainty. To stand together in the recognition of life’s unending paradoxes: loss and gain, love and hate, birth and death, sickness and health. We are not powerless if we rest in the truth of nondualism: there is nothing that is not Consciousness/God/the Universe. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” We are “under heaven,” here in this human realm seeking our divine nature, which lies in the realization of the Truth.

Thanksgiving Morning

Window shades lighten
as dawn arrives
gray light, chill.
The house is quiet,
still, each of us
in our cocoons.
Soon, the fire must be laid
and lit. Shades lifted
for the short day’s light.
My heart is soft
with long life,
with all it knows
about love and loss.
My father, mother,
strangers and friends,
war and famine, disease
and disaster. Yet comes day
with its quiet joy
stirring the blood
and rousing me
to prayer: may all beings
be free from suffering.
My riches are safety,
warmth, shelter, food,
health, and love. And knowing
they are not free. They
are not free.

Benediction: A Consideration of the Novels of Ken Haruf

Sometimes you come upon a book, an author, by happenstance. My partner saw a book in a giveaway pile at the library, and the title caught her attention: Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. She brought it home with a pile of other books from the library, but the title caught my attention, so I picked it up and looked at it.

It’s a very slender volume and has a pleasant, somewhat benign cover. I started to read. How had I never heard of Kent Haruf before? Where had he been? Where had I? It turns out to be his last book, Ken Haruf, at 71 dying of cancer, writing about two elderly people who find each other in a small town in Colorado and in each other find solace and companionship.

There’s something about aging that tenderizes us, our hearts, and this novel about elderly people coming together in this way moved me deeply. A widowed woman approaches a neighbor, a man also widowed and asks him if he would like to sleep with her. Just sleep. To lie together in bed at night, side by side, maybe holding hands, and talk until they sleep. It takes him aback, not surprisingly, as it took me aback, but he agrees to give it a try. Slipping secretly through the back alley to her door, he is informed that he should come to the front door. The woman is not afraid of who sees or what they might think. The novel unfolds in ways that are surprising and at the same time, given the characters and their situations, predictable. But not predictable like the outcome of a poorly conceived thriller. Predictable in the way of life’s unfolding.

Discovering Ken Haruf has been a gift of deep proportions. On the basis of Our Souls at Night, I tracked him down online and discovered that he’d written a trilogy of novels all set in the same small, fictional town in Colorado, Holt. The series contains Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction, three books that follow a cast of characters across time in this small Colorado town. I started at the end, with Benediction, because it’s what the library had available. I will read my way back to the beginning, to Plainsong. It feels right, somehow, to start at the end, at the (impending) death of “Dad” Lewis, the return to town of his grown daughter, Lorraine; the Johnson women, mother, and daughter; Bertha May and her orphaned granddaughter Alice. To all the heartache of being human. Of loving and losing and continuing to love. Families, stray children, the night sky, life itself.

I’m only about one-third of the way into Benediction, and yet its benediction envelopes me. The plain truth about our human lives, our broken hearts, our mistakes, and our glories. Ken Haruf lived and died in Colorado under its expansive skies and soaring peaks. He wrote about the place he loved and lived. I’m so grateful for the way fate brought him to me at this time in my slowly aging life. I recommend him to you. Let him lead you into the territory of the heart with his golden prayer in your ears.

Surrendering to the Sweet Mystery of Being

Something miraculous happened yesterday. A confluence of realizations that encompassed my whole Being.

For the last six weeks, I’ve been in the throes of extreme nerve pain radiating down the left side of my leg as a result of two bulging discs in my low back. Despite the maximum dose of a nerve pain medication, Ibuprofen, and a muscle relaxer, I have found each day a trial, functioning just above my pain threshold. Waking in the morning felt as if a faucet of pain had been opened. I rose painful from bed wracked with discomfort, contracted, crunched, humped, and whimpering in an attempt to walk from one room to another, to get my pills, start a fire, make breakfast, slowly, slowly feeling the pills unraveling my muscles until I could crawl, then kneel, then walk haltingly from support to support. In this manner, I’ve taught my classes two days a week and done the various forms of work I do from home on the other days.

Yesterday, I had an appointment with the specialist in Wenatchee, two hours south of here. It was a bright, crisp morning, and the drive wends its way along the Methow River through the small towns of this Valley and the vast, open spaces in between. I drove in silence without music or audio book feeling my slightly drugged mind and aching body. I was praying, as I have been recently, to the Mother of Compassion, accepting my thimbleful of the ocean of the world’s suffering as my due, offering my compassion to those who suffer. As I drove, the shadow of a bird flashed across the windshield, and I looked up to see an eagle soaring over the road from the river. I passed a sign, one of those Adopt a Highway signs that are prevalent everywhere, and beneath it was one word, Zen. In an instant, I merged completely with consciousness. I felt my body as a sort of blade slicing through the emptiness; I was both the blade and the space. I was subject and object. This feeling was deeply reminiscent of my embodied awakening as consciousness in 2011. I had been driving that time, too, and saw a bird in the New Jersey sky and a jet plane, and suddenly, there was a merging, an emergence of knowing that I was That.

In the office of the specialist, wearing the well washed athletic shorts they give me to wear before the exam, I sat in meditation while I waited. Again, I spoke to my body, honoring its process, and acknowledging the presence of suffering. When the doctor came in, I described my debilitating pain, my frustration, reliance on drugs to find a manageable edge with which I could function. As we reviewed the options for treatment, I asked him, “so you’re telling me that this is normal?” And he said yes. “You’re somewhere in the middle of this process. It could get better tomorrow, or next week, or in three weeks.” At this point, I burst into tears. “You mean I might have to continue to carry this for another three weeks?” It felt unbearable to me.

We decided to schedule me for an epidural injection of corticosteroids sometime later this month. He said, “you can always cancel it.” I got into the car and texted my beloved. “The good news is my strength is good. The bad news how I’m feeling is totally normal.” When I got home, we talked about the appointment, and I sketched out the treatment options while she cleaned up the kitchen. At last, we sat together, and I spoke my disappointment in learning that what the deep pain I am living with is normal for the process of healing bulging discs. She asked me what I had been hoping for. I’m not really sure. I guess I wanted him to tell me that he was going to fix it, make it go away. She said that when she got my text, she thought it was good news that it’s normal and felt relieved that nothing bad was happening in my body requiring some drastic invasive procedure.

Once again, the tears came, and I felt so deeply how disappointed I’ve been with this unrelenting pain. By my limitation, the constant fog of the drugs. At the same time, I realized that I’m always aware that I am resting in consciousness and can be present with all the layers of my Being, the drug fog, the pain, and my essential Being.

This morning, I woke a full hour later than usual. I was able to stretch out my legs and pull my knees to my chest to carefully roll into a sitting position. I stood up from bed. I stood up. Straight. No crunching, crushing, crouching; no whimpering. Yes, there’s still some pain in my leg, but I walked upright into the bathroom to take my pills, and then to the living room where I lit the morning fire, assembled my breakfast to slow cook on the stove. I walked back here to sit and write.

Am I healed? No. But something deep inside me has relaxed. My body, my embodied Being, has heard the news. There is a deeper surrender.

This is normal. It is normal for the body to break down. It is normal to have pain. It is normal to want to feel better. This is healing. This is how it feels to be alive in a limited, temporary, fragile body. I’m continuing to drop into this experience and savoring the sweet mystery of Being.