Category Archives: meditation

My Story: Chapter 3 – Prednisone-induced visions

Prednisone-induced visions

Prednisone

[Read the whole story, to date, here.]

No, you have not missed the first 2 chapters. I’ve decided to not start at the beginning but with the beginning of my depression. I will probably go back to the beginning in later posts and fill in my history as it pertains to my story.

This is the first time that I’ve put these experiences “out there.” Only a few close friends know the full extent of what I am about to describe. A few other friends know some parts but not everything.

As I was looking over my journals the other day, it struck me that I’ve never “done” anything with these experiences. I’ve never really tried to understand them and integrate them and they need to be, they are begging to be understood (at least to some extent) and integrated (again, as best I can). I am now 7 years removed from them but their impact is still fresh in my body and mind and soul. As I make the decision to write about my depression and my life, I am compelled to start here, with these experiences, for they were the catalyst for everything that has happened since. I also get the feeling that by not working with these experiences, by ignoring them and keeping them hidden, I am doing myself not only a disservice but real harm.

With that brief introduction and your understanding that I’m not sure where this is leading, here is what happened:

In late 2007,  I was 43, married, with an 18 month old daughter. I had already been through a very mild depression due to, as I thought then, my unhappiness with my job. I was in the process of attempting a reconnection with religion which was, to say the least, a surprise because of my very strict Fundamentalist Christian upbringing and my subsequent disavowal of all things religious. It was in this mindset that I found myself reading Huston Smith, among others, and stumbling over Carl Jung whose “Answer to Job” made an immediate impact on me for here was a rational approach to religion, something I had not seen in all my 40+ years.

I started meditating. I tried several different ways: focusing on my breath, chanting, Holosync (binaural beats). Over the next 6 months, I had some interesting experiences with bodily sensations—mostly in my stomach—while meditating. I interpreted these sensations as something from the unconscious working its way into my consciousness and trying to be “born.” I was never fearful of what was happening and was content letting things run their course. It was a slow and gentle process, like something was seeping out from under the basement door.

Around this time, I was getting sick frequently. Nothing serious; the illnesses amounted to not much more than a drain on my physical and emotional energy accompanied by the not unexpected feelings of blah-ness. I was also preparing for my first ever program for the KC Friends of Jung—an introductory class on Jungian psychology.

I had been recording and working with my dreams (from a Jungian point of view) for almost 5 years at this point but in February and March 2008 I had 2 dreams that were “unusual” compared to my “normal” sort of dream.

[I’m not going to relate the dreams in much detail because a) I don’t think the details are that important and I want to keep the focus on the story as a whole and b) I don’t feel that I’ve worked with them enough to air them publicly. But they are important to mention because they foreshadow what is to come.]

In the February dream a physical object becomes invisible and then disappears, but only for me; everyone else in the room still sees the object. In the dream, I am convinced that the object’s not being there is reality and everyone else who sees the object is caught in an illusion.

The March dream occurred while I had bronchitis and was taking an antibiotic which was not working at all. In this dream, I am unable to fall asleep and “I” (my dream ego) start looking for the “I” that cannot fall asleep. After a very thorough, very deliberate, very directed search all “I” can find is energy. There is no “I” who wants to sleep. Essentially, in this dream, I have the realization of “no-self.”

I believe that the bronchitis was my father complex in full swing. It, with the full support of my other complexes, brought about the illness in an attempt to sabotage the class and give me a reason to cancel without losing face. After all, who was I to put myself out there as someone who knows anything about Jung?! I might make a mistake! I might get asked a question I cannot answer! I’m not qualified!

When the antibiotic didn’t cure the bronchitis, I started a second, different antibiotic but my complexes were too strong and I remained sick. So, my doctor pulled out the heavy artillery and, a week after the March dream, put me on Prednisone. To continue the analogy from above, the Prednisone proceeded to rip the basement door off its hinges and allow whatever was behind it to hit me like a tsunami. I was completely unnerved; I starting having the body sensations all the time and felt forced to meditate. I obeyed and experienced some incredibly deep meditations accompanied by … by what I can only call visions.

I’ve never before called these experiences visions. I hesitate using that word  because of the connotations it evokes in today’s scientific, über-rational world. Many, I’m sure, will say it was “all in my head,” it was “just the Prednisone talking” and, therefore, I should pay them no mind. And I’ve struggled with that viewpoint, too, but the circumstances around these experiences—the fact that I’d taken Prednisone before without any affect at all; my life circumstances with finding Jung, returning to religion, and being dissatisfied with my work; the fact that I was at mid-life, a point where many people experience drastic changes; the dreams that I had before taking the steroid—all point toward something of meaning and something that must be handled, worked, taken in, digested.

There were 2 kinds of visions. The first had to do with the nature of reality along the lines of the 2 dreams I mention above. Things we see and interpret as “reality” are suddenly torn away exposing the illusion of our assumptions. Reality is “created” by how we see things but the physical objects are not really there. We live in a world we take for concrete and real but which is, in fact, nothing but facades.

One very powerful dream image was a wide open, empty, frightening space. I woke up terrified of the utter emptiness. I’m reminded of something Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil: “And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

The second kind were visions of people: a woman (who was a comforter, guide, and sage) and two men (who were mysterious and I never interacted with them). Some of these visions had a very corporeal aspect to them.

These experiences literally blew my mind. I was nervous, anxious, unsteady, totally out of it. I wasn’t interested in anything that I normally did. I felt compelled to sit and meditate. I was a total wreck. Just by looking at me, people knew something was going on. My entire demeanor, the very way I looked was different. At the time, I had no idea what was going on nor what to do with it, let alone how to deal with it. Not long after this, I started going to a therapist and in mid-May I started my first antidepressant.

[Read the whole story, to date, here.]

Mental Burning: Tibetan Buddhism and Jungian Psychology

Dakini’s Warm BreathThe August 26th Dharma Quote of the Week from Shambhala.com was from Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism by Judith Simmer-Brown (on shambhala.com or amazon.com):

Examining the understanding of heat in Vajrayana gives insight into tantra’s somewhat different embrace of classical Buddhist imagery. From this perspective, the experience of mental burning is indeed the central suffering of our lives. It is the experiential dimension of the intensity of our obscurations, whether emotional, conceptual, or habitual. But rather than attempting to put out the flames with meditation methods, it is important to allow the burning to occur during practice. Certainly in the foundational stages of the path we must learn not to become engulfed in the flames, to tame the wild mind and emotions, and to train ourselves to open further to experience. Finally, however, through Vajrayana practice under the guidance of a guru, the burning we experience becomes a great teacher and a great blessing.

In some respects, depression could be characterized as “mental burning.” The incessant and insidious rumination consumes our time, our energy, our mood, and threatens to literally destroy us. And, it is true that “the experience of mental burning is indeed the central suffering of our lives.” But is the answer to do whatever it takes to eliminate the rumination; extinguish the mental burning at all cost?

Both Tibetan dharma and Jungian psychology say no. “It is important to allow the burning to occur during practice” and Jung said, “depression should therefore be regarded as an unconscious compensation whose content must be made conscious if it is to be fully effective” 1. As with most things in life, eschewing the negative, the painful, the unwanted usually leads to more pain struggle, and sorrow. Ignoring the pain associated with a burst appendix has dire consequences. Treating headaches with pain relievers can result in the underlying cause getting worse and worse. The ultimate avoidance, I think, is that of death. We do the craziest shit to avoid even the appearance of death. But look at the results of too much cosmetic surgery, the toll on our minds and bodies from un-experienced grief, or the acts of a health-care system fostering and profiting from our outright detestation and absolute terror of death.

The key, of course, is to not “become engulfed in the flames” but to “train ourselves to open further to experience.” I think our main objection to this is that it just takes too damn long! It’s like work! I want a pill that I can take once a day which does it for me because I’m just too damn busy.

Now, I’m not criticizing, I’m empathizing. Since it takes me forever to get the simplest thing done, I often don’t feel that I have any time for self-work. This is not even in the same universe as easy. But if you’re in this for the self-knowledge and self-power and not for the painlessness of it all, there’s no other way. The promise is –from both Jung and the dharma–”the burning we experience becomes a great teacher and a great blessing.”

Jung would have the depressed individual let go of his conscious efforts and fall into the unconscious, where the exuberant power of imagination lies latent. Only the experience of soul. Only the discovery that I “have” a soul and can even “become” my soul offers any solution for the depressed condition. 2

In our modern culture we have forgotten–learned to ignore is perhaps more precise–the wisdom that our bodies and psyches possess. We try to stay awake longer and sleep less in order to be more productive. No wonder our bodies revolt and we get sick and overly fatigued and need more and more caffeine to keep going. Our bodies have a natural rhythm–the circadian rhythm–which governs the production and release of melatonin which is what makes us sleepy at night. The melatonin producer sits just above the optic nerve so a lessening of light triggers the release which means we get tired at night at not at mid-day. So, what do you think happens when you work at your computer until 2am or watch TV right before going to sleep or read in bed with a bright light? You are convincing your body that it’s not time to go to sleep.

Many years ago when I was living alone and working at home 95% of the time (I’d have one meeting a week in the office) I tried an experiment. I didn’t set an alarm clock. I didn’t pay much attention to the time. I went to bed when I was tired and got up when I woke up. The result was a pretty regular 8 hours of sleep at night and I felt the best I’d felt in years. I’ve always had trouble waking up in the morning (my parents would have to wake me up on Christmas Day!). The only downside was that my body wanted a 25-hour day, so my bedtime started getting later and later and soon I was gong to bed at 5am. This made it difficult to make my 11am meetings so I had to stop the experiment.

But the point is that the body does have a wisdom and does know what it needs and what it doesn’t. Our modern culture has all but eliminated our bodies’ having any input whatsoever into what we do. No wonder it revolts and breaks down! And, no wonder it often times refuses to respond to external stimuli “designed” to correct an imbalance. Of course I’m mainly referring to “drug cocktails” that some doctors give their patients–one drug trying to correct the harm resulting from another drug’s side effects and a third drug to correct the second and so on. Of course, science and medicine have made unimaginable progress in helping the body when the body alone isn’t enough. But we’ve moved too far to the side of science and medicine–we no longer give the body a chance. “My kid has a 100° temperature so I’ve got to give him Motrin to bring down the fever!” Well, no, you don’t. The body is fighting off something and raising the body temperature makes things move along more quickly. You are actually undermining the body’s efforts by medicating too quickly. Of course, if the temperature goes much higher then it is time to step in and help with medication.

This is the point that I take away from the dharma quote and the Jungian psychology quotes: we’ve become too one-sided; we want to circumvent anything we feel stands in our way of progress. But “rather than attempting to put out the flames with meditation methods” we need to allow the flames to do their work. A balance point needs to be sought at which the flames are allowed to teach but not consume; a point at which we can “let go of [our] conscious efforts and fall into the unconscious” without becoming overwhelmed by it.

I am seeking this balance point but it’s an incredible struggle. Without medication my mood goes so deep that it is impossible to even think about doing anything. With the medication I have a little more energy, a little more focus but I often don’t feel like I’m making any progress. It seems to take so long to get done the things that must be done now that there’s no time and energy for anything else. I keep waiting for the “lesson” my depression is trying to teach me but it hasn’t come yet … or I’ve completely missed it. This blog definitely helps by giving me something to focus on. As I write these posts, I’m reminded of the work I need to do–to make time for–and I’m encouraged because I am focusing. And this, what I’m writing right now, in a way, IS the work.

Thank you for reading. I hope this work that I’m doing here can help or inspire–even just a little–someone else.

Notes:

  1. C.G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, CW vol 5, par 625
  2. Haule, John Ryan, ”Depression and Soul-Loss,” www.jrhaule.net

As (not) seen on TV

Beating the Cloth DrumI recently subscribed to “Zen Quotes” from Shambhala.com. I’m leery of “quote services” because most of the time what I receive is banal and overly sanguine. However, I am very pleased with the quotes I have received so far. I was hoping that Shambhala would break out of the mold; they did.

Here is the one from last week:

There is no getting around it: for achieving the initial entrance into satori [the experience of awakening], nothing can excel a direct and expeditious assault fired by intense, vigorous, urgent desire. People who engage in practice a little bit at a time when the thought occurs to them will not achieve kensho [self-realization] even if they continue doing it for thirty or forty years. As time passes, their efforts physically exhaust them, drain them of the necessary spirit and strength they need to subdue the illusory, passion-ridden thoughts that crowd into their minds. In the end, they are reduced to fingering rosaries and tearfully reciting Nembutsu, a pastime that brings them no more relief than one of those ready-made toothache medicines sold in the streets.

Life is hard work. We live in a society that wants a pill to fix everything. We want 10-minute Zen. We want to be mindful while at work getting things done so we don’t have to take time out to really meditate. We think that, for some reason, enlightenment should be easier for us because we are more … “something”–not sure what that “something” is. Even religion is less demanding. I went to church twice on Sundays and Wednesday night. Without fail. Every week. How many do that today?

Now, before you start lambasting me (FWIW, I prefer a mild sauce), I’m not suggesting that we must return to that “old time religion.” I realize that more is not always better. But is it reasonable –or even sane–to think that everything is easier now just because we can get email on our phones, travel to anywhere in the world in a matter of hours, and order pizza while playing video games?

The Buddha, the apostle Paul, Mohammed, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, the Zen masters, Rumi, and many others did not get where they got with 10-minute Zen and church once a quarter and 60 hour work weeks and month long vacations and summers in the Hamptons. No. They worked their asses off meditating and praying and giving up things and studying. But we’re led to believe today that there is a short cut.

Mindfulness at work is not enough. Reading Zen quotes once a week is not enough. Saying “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual” without a daily practice that takes more than 10 minutes IS NOT ENOUGH.

I’m yelling at myself as much as you, the reader. I want to be a writer but I don’t write for hours every day. I want to be an artist but I don’t paint/draw/sketch for hours every day. I want to be thinner/stronger/leaner but I watch TV instead of being active for hours every day.

Life requires strong desire and strong desire requires effort and effort requires time and time requires sacrifice. Read what Jesus (not Paul) says. Read what the Buddha says. Read The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Read The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich. Read I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj.

There is no magic pill, folks. No “as seen on TV” product that gets you where you want to be in 30 days or your money back. It’s discouraging in today’s fast paced, always going, take a pill and you’re fine world. But there are some things that technology and science and medicine just can’t change. We are human just like we’ve always been and the outside world isn’t as influential on the inside as we’d like to think.

I’ll leave you with the summary from the back cover of my copy of Bonhoeffer’s book:

This is the book by which the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German theologian who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945, became widely known in both Europe and America. In it he examines the serious implications of believing in Christ, the intensity of the struggle between the world and God in man’s deepest self whenever he takes upon himself true discipleship.

“This whole book is a powerful attack on ‘easy Christianity’ and a warning that in a world such as Bonhoeffer could see coming, faith was not easily attained. … Bonhoeffer is a teacher a thinker whose truths were tested in a time of trouble and whose life and death certified to the strength and depth of his desire to follow Christ.” – Samuel H. Miller, Dean, Harvard Divinity School.

Can anyone point me to the underworld?

St. John of the CrossI had a revelation today. I meditated using HeartMath’s Inner Balance Sensor and really focused on paced breathing for about 45 minutes. Then ended the session but continued sitting there, letting anything arise from the unconscious that wanted to arise, not directing my thoughts along any path. I began to repeat the question: “Where is my Soul?” Over and over and over like a mantra. A great heaviness came over me accompanied by great … was it sadness? sorrow? grief? I’m not sure. Maybe all three. Whatever it was, it was intense.

Then the thought arose: My Soul is depressed, too.

My Soul is deep in the unconscious, along with almost all of my energy. I’ve waited long enough for her to return on her own, bringing back my energy. It is now time for me to go and retrieve my Soul. It is (way past) time for me to act. So many parallels come to mind here. Orpheus going into the underworld to retrieve his love, Eurydice. Rafiki saying “It is time” and setting off into the desert to retrieve Simba. There are countless others, I’m sure, if I needed to go on.

But there’s a slight complication. My Soul is not sitting in the underworld waiting for me. No, she is affected by my depression, as well. Think about it this way: My Soul is inside a ball of clay and I am on the surface of the ball of clay. A giant thumb, a.k.a. my depression, is pressing down on me and pushing me into the clay. But the thumb is also pushing my Soul away from me! It’s going to take me longer to reach my Soul because I need to overtake her. This thought was disheartening, to say the least. It means that I am not yet fully into my nigredo, to borrow a term from alchemy. It is still not yet midnight during my “dark night of the soul.” I need to go deeper into my depression if I am to retrieve my Soul. God help me!

But then a hopeful thought arose amidst my anguish and self pity. This can be done psychologically! I don’t need to do this physically or physiologically or mentally. I have long been lamenting my lack of energy. I’ve been reading again and again that depression is the prelude to transformation, that our energy buried in the unconscious is undergoing a change, and every time I give a disgusted little snort and say, “If only! Doesn’t work that way for me!” I’ve been waiting for my energy, my Soul, to return to me as I sit and watch TV and lament my loss of energy, of Soul. True, I don’t have physical or mental energy but my meditation session today showed me that I do have enough psychological energy. I began this descent today and now I have an idea of what I need to do. Which is incredibly heartening and uplifting.

So, now I’m yelling up at that giant thumb saying, “Push harder, man! Push with all your might!” The faster I get to my true, psychological bottom, the faster I can see my Soul again and begin the journey back from the underworld.

Effects of meditation

effects of meditationMeditation comes in a lot of different flavors: guided, transcendental, zen, vipassana, insight, just to name a few. I’ve practiced off and on for about 7 years and I’ve tried several different methods. I’ve meditated alone and with others. I’ve focused on my breath, worked to control my breath, recited things like The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, and focused on solving visual math problems like how to construct polygons with just a compass and straightedge (I actually did figure it out, in my head, for a hexagon). But what does mediation do for you? What are the physical, psychological, and physiological effects of meditation?

The reason I recited the sutras of Patañjali is because these aphorisms are an ancient answer to our question — what does mediation do? According to the sutras, meditation:

  • allows us to attain habitual inward-mindedness and overcome sickness, languor, doubt, heedlessness, sloth, dissipation, false vision, pain, and depression
  • gives us a state of utmost lucidity and clarity of the inner-being
  • results in our acquisition of great vitality, gladness, unexcelled joy, perfection of the body, contact with the deity, the relaxation of tension, and the fitness of the mind for concentration

In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom Rick Hanson describes what meditation does in terms of brain structure and neuroscience. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the gateway into all the other major systems of your body — endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, gastrointestinal, and nervous. Mental activity can directly influence the ANS to a greater degree than any other system. And the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is a part of the ANS. Stimulating the PNS calms, soothes, and heals your body, brain, and mind. From a physiological and psychological point of view, meditation has the following affects on the body:

  • increases gray matter in the brain and improves attention, compassion, and empathy
  • lifts mood to offset depression
  • strengthens the immune system
  • helps physical ailments including cardiovascular disease, asthma, type II diabetes, PMS, and chronic pain
  • helps psychological conditions including insomnia, anxiety, phobias, and eating disorders

Of course, these benefits are not quickly realized. Meditation is by no means a “quick fix.” The sutras, themselves, state that the meditation practice must be “cultivated properly and for a long time uninterruptedly.” But you must agree that the benefits are worthy of our time and effort. Like eating right and exercising, I don’t know why I can’t always find the time to meditate. It’s not always easy to calm my mind but when I can, even a little, the feeling is amazing. Perhaps that’s part of the “problem.” I love being in the meditative state so much that I don’t want to come out of it and get back to the external world.

But, like exercise, meditation is one of those things that needs to be done even when nothing seems to be gained by it. It’s the long-term practice that pays. The benefits far outweigh the inconvenience and make up many times over the time spent. Let’s get some time “on the cushion” and reap the rewards, shall we?