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Lions Roar : May 2014
in something larger and greater than the excruciating emotional pain at hand. It was this deeply ingrained instinct, how- ever faint, that kept me safe from even myself. I did not lose my mind that sum- mer. I found it. It took six weeks for me to sleep long enough to dream again. The first night I did, I dreamed I was walking up a steep mountain road with hundreds of fellow refugees. The earth was gray and dark, but we were all dressed in bright colors and carried our few belongings on our backs. The dream was vivid, and I woke the next morning with a strong sense of hope. The second night I dreamed that I was walking along a forest path. The trees were tall and green all around me. I began to run faster and faster, leaping higher and higher until I lifted right off and flew. Slowly, each day, the world returned to me. My sister took me whale watching off the coast of Provincetown. We had been on many whale watches in our lives, but this one was extraordinary. Three whales came right up to the side of the boat and began to breach and splash backward into the water. They danced and played, stay- ing beside us for a long time. I stood at the rail, holding my sister’s arm, laughing and laughing with her in the salt air. As the sun went down, the sky turned the most amazing purple and gold, and I felt the beauty reach me. I thought about that Roethke poem again: in a dark time, the eye begins to see. I was seeing the world in a way I never had before. This is not a miracle story. I survived because I got help. My brain stabilized because I already had a solid foundation of health and a good support network, I took medication diligently, went to ther- apy, and changed my lifestyle. I healed because I walked through that door the illness opened for me. I no longer think of that summer as my “breakdown” but as the year of my “break- through.” At age twenty-eight, I was given a wake-up call, which will inform the rest of my life. I was given a profound teaching on the truth of suffering, on the nature of reality, and on the preciousness of human life. Without that pain, I may not have woken up until I was a very old woman. Or not at all. I have always had an interest in Bud- dhism, yet it was my experience that summer that prepared me to meet my teacher and take refuge. For many years I’d been walking past a Buddhist monk on a path near my house. I’d always felt a strong connection to him but hadn’t felt bold enough to say hello. After returning to Boston, a friend invited me to dinner with a Tibetan lama. It turned out to be that same monk I’d been walking past all those years. I was ready now to become a student. In these seven years of recovery, I have found a middle way between Buddhism and Western medicine. In order for me to practice meditation, I’ve finally accepted that medication must play a role in keep- ing my brain healthy. But it’s the spiri- tual work that has allowed me the most profound healing, both physically and emotionally. I think we’ve made a grave mistake in calling psychiatric illnesses “mental ill- ness.” This implies that at our core, we are essentially diseased. Many illnesses of the brain are severe enough to cloud our mental consciousness, but my experience confirmed for me that the mind and brain are not the same thing. It took an illness of the brain for me to discover the inherent sanity of my own mind. Now I meditate every day to strengthen that clarity. I meditate to give it more and more space in my life, to ensure that this inner witness is even stronger the next time I have to go through something difficult. Having lived through a small death, I recognize the importance of prac- ticing for the bigger death of this physical body. There is no greater incentive in recov- ery than the realization that we have always been well. We come into the world with the “nobility of soul” that Roethke talks about. No matter what the circum- stances are, that purity remains and we can find our way back to it. Illness can break our hearts, but it can also break our hearts open. ♦ SHAMBHALA SUN MAy 2014 74