Go to Recovery Paradigm Notes:
by Sally Clay
Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household. A person keeps this anxiety at a distance by looking at the many round about who are related to him as kin and friends, but the anxiety is still there, nevertheless, and he hardly dares think of how he would feel if all this were taken away".
-- Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Dread
(from the Journals, VIII 1 A 363)
The Thomas Todd Company was an old fashioned print shop in the Beacon Hill area of Boston. I was hired there shortly after I came to Boston after two years in a mental hospital. The business was on the fifth floor of an old building with marbled floors and lofty ceilings, and my desk was at the front of a cluttered and somewhat shabby office. Behind me were the salesmen's desks, and beside me were the production manager and the assistant director. I was hired as a kind of Gal Friday, to answer the phones and to greet customers and type their bills.
I was starting all over again.Tabula rasa. During the second year of my stay at the Institute of Living, my husband had announced that he wanted a divorce. He also wanted custody of our two children, and he wanted to keep for himself the house in the Boston suburbs, with most of its contents. A few weeks later, when I was discharged from the hospital, I could not go home to Sudbury. I was obliged to move into a small room at a YWCA residence for women in downtown Boston.
It was the late Sixties, with revolution all around, but I had struggled to be a good housewife and mother. In the affluent suburbs, the Woodstock Festival was only a news bite over the radio. I was never able to rhapsodize over appliances and recipes, as did the other housewives in my town, and as was the culture promoted by all of the magazines and TV shows of the time. I did not feel like one of them. I envied the beatniks and flower children that I heard about on the news, but I always knew that I was not one of them, either. I had tried the bohemian route when I was in college, and that had only led to a massive nervous breakdown.
Starting from scratch was not new to me. After my manic breakdown in college, and six months in a mental hospital, I found that my college would not take me back. Without a college degree, and with no hope of pursuing a career as a writer, my best strategy for survival was to learn how to type and to find a husband.
I had thought that marriage would give me the belonging that had eluded me in my school days. Although my husband knew of my previous hospitalization, we both pretended that it had not happened. But it was always there. I still held onto the broken dreams of a writing career, and I still remained perpetually on my guard with friends and neighbors, afraid that they would discover that I was a mental patient. I felt that I was only going through the motions as stepmother to my husband's son, and then mother to a daughter of my own. I could not believe that I was really a mother, much less a worthy one. I spent hours beside the radio, listening to the music of revolution and news of the Woodstock generation. I managed to fill up my days with trivial tasks, and stayed in the house most of the day, with no close friends and no inspiring projects. A couple of years after my daughter was born, I was desperate for some meaning in my life. I began again to fall into extreme mental states, creating my own inner revolutions. This led to numerous hospitalizations in a local sanitorium, and finally to a long stay at the Institute of Living in Connecticut. The first part of each hospitalization involved crashing from my manic high and finding myself locked into what was euphemistically called a "seclusion" room. A better term would be "isolation."
A manic episode is essentially a reach for meaning. The energy, colors, and images of such an episode are often joyful, but they may also be terrifying, and they may be a danger to oneself and others. But the energy of mania is the energy of life, and the intent of mania is to make some connection with cause and effect in the world. By contrast, a mental hospital is an institution with the intent of extinguishing that energy. A seclusion room, with its locked door and blank walls, is not a padded cell; it is a tomb for the spirit.
I was locked into such rooms for hours, and sometimes for days and even weeks, with no human contact. It is hard to describe the sharpness of despair that I felt as I lay alone in those rooms. To realize the depth of my rejection and isolation from other human beings was frightening, and it was beyond weeping.
Once my mania had been extinguished, I spent the rest of my stay at the Institute of Living - almost two years - in a state of suspended animation. Technically, I was depressed. But there was no feeling, and no energy, to this depression. In the clinical notes that I obtained a few years later, my doctor referred to my condition as an "almost terrifying emptiness within her."
This terrifying emptiness followed me upon every release from a mental hospital. When I first came to Boston, just walking into the corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes filled me with the fear that I would again be rejected and treated like a freak. At the YWCA residence, I dreaded leaving my room even to go to the cafeteria downstairs. Again I spent hours glued to my little clock radio, listening to the music that I loved from afar, as an outsider. I remember listening at that time to "American Pie." Bye, bye Miss American Pie.
Motherhood and Courage
Heed thy private dream: thou wilt not be missed in the scorning and skepticism: there are enough of them: stay there in thy closet, and toil, until the rest are agreed what to do about it. Thy sickness, they say, and thy puny habit, require that thou do this or avoid that, but know that thy life is a flitting state, a tent for the night, and do thou, sick or well, finish that stint. Thou art sick, but shalt not be worse, and the universe which holds thee dear, shall be the better.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Experience," p. 58
What finally brought me back to life was the love of my daughter. During most of the time that I worked at Thomas Todd, I fought with every ounce of my strength to be with Meg. When I first moved into the YWCA, it was a battle just to be allowed to see her. I was not allowed to see my stepson at all. But my husband's pulling the rug out from me when he asked for a divorce, jarred something in me. I realized that being away from my children for two years had done terrible damage both to them and to me. I wanted to make it up to Meg, and I wanted to make sure that she knew that she had a mother who loved her and who wanted to take care of her.
My father, who was a lawyer himself, referred me to an old classmate, one of the top lawyers in Boston, at Hale & Dorr, the most respected law firm in the city. But I did not receive much help from the legal system. From the start, my attorney informed me that my chances of regaining custody were slim because of my history of mental illness. He generally would not answer the telephone when I called him, and my case was allowed to drag on for over two years. I constantly had the feeling that he, too, considered me hopelessly mentally ill and therefore incompetent.
In the meantime, I once again began to feel useful, and halfway human. I was lucky to have found the job at the print shop. The Thomas Todd Company was a respected organization, one that had been founded in Maine by Thomas Todd the elder, and now was run by Thomas Todd, his son. Mr. Todd was a big, gray-haired man with hair growing out of his ears and a wry smile in all circumstances. He created a family feeling among all of us, and I soon felt at home there. I became good friends with Marie, the production manager at the desk next to mine, and in the course of our work she taught me all aspects of the business, and the fine points of printing composition and production.
I never did develop the confidence in my skills to allow me to handle a printing job on my own. I was able to answer the telephone politely and inform customers of the status of their orders. But even in this work that I enjoyed, I struggled with an invisible barrier between myself and other people. Even with Marie and Mr. Todd, I was constantly on my guard, afraid that I would reveal my inherent defectiveness.
This alienation did not continue at home, however. I found a pleasant apartment in Brookline, one that was in a neighborhood with lots of children and good schools. The apartment had a second small bedroom that would be suitable for Meg when she came to live with me. Meg, now 5, began spending almost every weekend with me, and for the first time I felt proud and confident to be a mother. With Meg, too, I felt that I was starting with a clean slate. On her side, she hardly knew me as her mother, since I had entered the IOL when she was only three years old. On my side, I could hardly remember being a mother, because at the IOL I had received 30 electroshock treatments, with the result that a full two years' of memory were completely erased from my consciousness.
Meg and I spent some happy hours getting to know each other. At the age of five, she was a bright and friendly little girl, with curly brown hair and sparkling blue eyes. In the daytime we explored the sights of Boston, visiting museums and riding through parks with Meg on the back of my bicycle. At night we snuggled together in front of the TV, and watched the Partridge Family and the Jackson 5.
When at last the divorce case came to court, I felt that I had established my credentials as a mother, and I no longer doubted my desire or my capability to provide a good home for my daughter. I had listened to the warnings of my attorney, however, and I was prepared to lose. At least, I told myself, I had never abandoned Meg, and in the future she would be able to look back and know that I had fought for her.
I was not so prepared for the degrading treatment that I received in the courtroom. Although I had assembled a number of friends and colleagues to attest to my character, it turned out that I was the first and only witness called to testify. My husband's attorney called me to the stand, which was a box with no chair and no glass of water. I had to stand during my entire testimony, which lasted all day, during which I had to withstand the insults and accusations of a lawyer who behaved as if I were the prime suspect in a criminal case. Somehow, although I had not yet been able to obtain a copy of my own hospital records from the Institute of Living, my husband had obtained them with no difficulty, and he gave them to his lawyer to use against me. In the courtroom, the attorney proceeded to read from these records in great detail, illustrating how sick I was and how I had failed to be a good wife to my husband and mother to my children.
This went on for an entire day, with only a short break for lunch. When we returned to the courtroom the following morning, the judge called the attorneys to the bench. He informed them that he saw no point in continuing this painful process, and was prepared to reach his decision. The decision, of course, was that I would not be granted custody of my daughter. As the judge put it, "I don't believe that a woman who has received electro-convulsive treatments should have custody of a child."
It was a relief to be done with the divorce, even though I was not allowed to be a fulltime mother to my daughter. The outcome was no surprise to me, and I took pride in the fact that I had put up a good fight. I recognized that my husband's lawyer had deliberately adopted the tactic of prolonged interrogation, no doubt hoping that I would collapse under the pressure and reveal my mental illness. But I had kept my dignity, and, according to my attorney, had handled myself well. Although I lost custody, I was still granted the privilege of having Meg with me over the weekends and summer. Over the next weeks and months, she and I continued to get to know each other and to enjoy our visits. My hope now was that, as she got older, Meg would decide to come live with me on her own. At the least, I felt that she would always understand that I wanted to be her fulltime mother, and had fought for that.
The day I came back to work after the trial, Mr. Todd called me into his office, and closed the door. After admitting that it was none of his business, he asked me what had happened at the trial and why I had not been given custody. As he noted, at that time (1972), mothers almost always received custody of their children unless they were prostitutes or murderers. Mr. Todd grinned wryly, and asked me whether I was either of these.
When I applied for the job at Thomas Todd, I had not revealed my mental illness, or the fact that I had been hospitalized for two years before coming to Boston. As far as Mr. Todd knew, I had come to work straight from the suburbs, where I had been a full time housewife. Now I hesitated before answering his question. I had just received a taste, in court, of the kind of stigma that operated against people diagnosed with mental illness.
Thomas Todd was a kindly man, and he waited patiently for my answer. I had just about decided to tell him the truth, when he spoke again, saying, "I know it's none of my business. You don't have to say anything. I just wanted to let you know that I respect the way you have handled all of this, and I want to support you any way that I can. We all value the work you are doing here."
With that, I blurted out my whole story. Mr. Todd listened silently, with tears in his eyes, and when I was finished he gave me a big bear hug. "Well, you could have fooled me," he said. "Personally, I think you are probably the sanest person in this office."
I could think of nothing to reply except, "Thank you." We both sat silently for a few moments. Then, as I was leaving his office, Mr. Todd announced, "Do you know what you are, Sally?"
I said I did not, realizing that Mr. Todd was about to confer upon me his version of a diagnosis: "You are a real character," he said, "That's what you are--a character."
Stigma: Marking the Soul
If a precious jewel, which all desired, lay out on a frozen lake, where the ice was perilously thin, where death threatened one who went out too far while the ice near the shore was safe, in a passionate age the crowds would cheer the courage of the man who went out on the ice; they would fear for him and with him in his resolute action; they would sorrow over him if he went under; they would consider him divine if he returned with the jewel. In this passionless, reflective age, things would be different. People would think themselves very intelligent in figuring out the foolishness and worthlessness of going out on the ice, indeed, that it would be incomprehensible and laughable.
-- Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age***
I continued to enjoy my job at Thomas Todd, especially now that Mr. Todd and most of the other people that I worked with were aware of my situation. I felt less on my guard with my colleagues and with customers, and I was learning for the first time the satisfaction of doing meaningful work. It was a good feeling to do the paperwork for printing jobs and then to see the results of that work in the stationery, pamphlets, and posters that were produced for our customers.
In the evenings I returned to the creative writing that had always been my vocation. One of my first attempts-- a satirical piece called "Confessions of a Gay Divorcee"-- was actually accepted and published by the Boston Phoenix. My early success did not continue, however. Manuscripts that I sent to Redbook, The Atlantic Monthly, and other publications were all returned, and soon I had accumulated so many rejection slips that I threatened to paper the bathroom with them.
I joined the National Organization for Women and volunteered to help out with their newsletter. The Women's Movement was, at that time, in its infancy, and Ms. Magazine was both Bible and revolutionary handbook. I submitted my best literary effort to Ms., an essay about mental illness which I hoped would contribute to the other women's issues that were being introduced in the magazine. In the essay, I wrote not just the fashionable complaints of being a housewife in the suburbs, but also the description of madness that landed me in the hospitals. In particular, I wrote about the spiritual nature of my experiences--how spirituality both contributed to my madness and enabled me to recover from it.
I described how my first manic episode, when I was in college ten years before, was an ecstatic ride through a psychedelic landscape, in which I followed a recording of T.S. Eliot reading from his own Four Quartets:
"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable."
-- T.S. Eliot , Four Quartets***
Like others who have entered the world of an altered state via madness or hallucinogens or spiritual practice, I came away from the experience with a new consciousness. I would never again see the world or my life in the same way. Psychiatry calls this state "elation," a term that they have made into a dirty word. In Tibetan scriptures, however, this intense joy is described as a high meditative state. They call it mahamudra, which means great symbol, great sign, great gesture. This was the single gold nugget of sacred joy that glittered before me in all the years afterwards. This was my madness and a madness common to other friends I had met and then lost in hospital after hospital.
Even though the end result of my spiritual vision was a descent into despair and chaos, and a long stay in a mental hospital, I nevertheless cherished what I had learned. I had learned that all of life and all matter is essentially sacred and beautiful, and everything in the world and in the mind is interconnected. I think that once anyone has this realization, there is no going back, and no longer any possibility of denying the spirit, whatever one might call it.
In the essay that I sent to Ms. Magazine, I introduced the concept of spirituality within madness, and briefly described my first journey into vision and darkness. I then described my failed struggle to be a housewife, and how it led again to madness. I described the day in the hospital when my husband first told me that he wanted a divorce -- how I collapsed and tried to plan a suicide, but was caught at it by my psychiatrist. I was demoted to the lowest level of the mental wards, the place where women are made to eat with spoons and to use the bathroom in open stalls. In that place, women are locked in 24 hours a day, and they are routinely shut into solitary confinement, or wrapped in icy sheets to calm them down, or injected with powerful psychiatric drugs that reduce them to zombies.
In that awful place, I had one last conversation with my husband, in which I begged him desperately to take me back. The only phone on that lowest of the wards was a small wall phone across the hall from the seclusion room where I had recently spent another several hours in isolation and misery. There was no chair by the telephone, so I had to sit on the dirty floor as I pleaded with Bill.
He would not listen to me, or change his mind about the divorce. He emphasized that he intended to have full custody of the children, and that I no longer had any right to see them. I hung up the phone, and sat numbly, looking into the desolation of the seclusion room. The emptiness that I felt at that moment was indeed frightening. It seemed the end of everything, a blank wall at the end of the tunnel. I had nothing in my life, and nowhere to go.
But after I had sat silently for some minutes, with my mind blank and chillingly empty, a change crept over me. The emptiness of my mind, which had been cold and horrific, suddenly became clear and clean, and a warmth pervaded my body. For no apparent reason, my entire outlook changed. Suddenly I realized that I would be able to make it on my own, and that I was a worthwhile person. I attributed this to a direct message from God.
In the space of only a few minutes -- perhaps it was only a few seconds -- I resolved to pull myself together and make a life for myself. I resolved as well to do everything in my power to be with my daughter, and to make up to Meg for the two years that I had been away in the hospital. My doctor was skeptical of my sudden recovery, and even suspected that I was pretending it just to get out of the lower ward and carry out the suicide I had originally planned.
But the transformation was real. After that night, I began attending double church services in the hospital -- both the Catholic and the Protestant versions. One of the first things that I did when I got out of the hospital was to join the Episcopal church near the YWCA residence. My experience at the Institute of Living restored in me the conviction of a spiritual force in my life, along with the sense that it was my obligation to use this spiritual knowledge for the good of myself and others. I had no doubt that it was the spiritual transformations that I had experienced, in my first episode and now at the IOL, that gave me the inner strength to negotiate the perilous terrain of life as a woman alone and as a person labeled "mentally ill." I would never have survived the interrogation of that day in court without the deep confidence that had been given me that night at the hospital.
I wrote down all of these thoughts in the essay that I submitted to Ms. Magazine. Confident in the value of what I had written, I waited to hear from the editors. Several weeks went by, with no response. Finally, an envelope came. It was, at least, a letter and not a form. But it was another rejection. The editor wrote that she found my essay "touching," but not something that they could use in Ms.
Touching! To me, that evaluation was almost as insulting as the verdict given by the judge, who did not think I was worthy to be a mother. "Touching" did not even come close to the monstrousness of the way I had been treated, or the courage that it took to connect with the spirituality that was denied by my treaters.
My doctor at the IOL never did acknowledge that my recovery was the direct result of a spiritual experience. My previous doctors had refused to even discuss the content of the spiritual vision I had experienced and reported after my first, and most profound, altered state. Although it was the most powerful experience that I had ever had, and although its impact on me was indelible, and now informed my every waking moment, I was pressured, both overtly and subtly, to keep my mouth shut about my spiritual experiences, and to block them out of my own consciousness.
This I had successfully done during the eight years of my marriage, right up until the dam broke on my imprisoned dreams, and I began breaking down. All of the images and energies of my first madness came flooding back -- and I allowed myself to drown in them. Experiencing this mahamudra again after all those years, and then once again losing it through the drugs and degradation of psychiatric treatment, almost meant the end of me. The despair that my psychiatrist described as a "frightening emptiness" was really a grief beyond words at losing the spiritual contact that was most precious to me, and that I felt was now forbidden to me. If that indeed were true, then life was not worth living, and suicide was my only choice.
But the quiet insights that I experienced as I sat on the dirty floor of the mental ward restored my hope and confidence. The warmth and the clarity of this kind of emptiness were not as dramatic as the manic ecstasy had been, and it was a mental event that could easily have been ignored or even gone unnoticed altogether. But I recognized that the insights I had gained from that state, too, were part of the whole "message" that was coming to me as a teaching from I knew not where. I quietly embraced this new and secret knowledge.
Mahamudra.If my madness was real, if the great sign was true, then life was sacred and everything had meaning. If the psychiatrists were right, then nothing was sacred and only convention mattered. But now I knew that the clinicians were wrong -- and I would never again doubt my own inner knowledge of what was right. This inner knowledge once again became my consolation, and my ultimate refuge. It was only later that I came to understand that I had traversed only one half of the spiritual journey.
Myself and Others
Most people are subjective toward themselves and objective toward all others, frightfully objective sometimes--but the task is precisely to be objective toward oneself and subjective toward all others...
... Not to be conscious of oneself as spirit--is despair, which is spiritlessness...
-- Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love***
It was a shock to discover that the devaluation of madness extended beyond the mental health system and the conventional world -- it apparently pervaded all areas of society, including the women's movement and the literary world. When my essay on recovery from madness was patronized by the editor from Ms., I again became depressed and dispirited. That had been my best effort to explain what had happened to me -- in terms that were spiritual rather than clinical. If I could not even convince enlightened women of the truth that had happened to me, I could scarcely hope to succeed at any other honest attempt at writing, since who I was and what I believed were inextricably tied up in my experience of madness.
I continued writing, but again was discouraged with the possibility of making a career as a writer. I continued to enjoy my work at Thomas Todd, but I now began to wonder where I might go from there. Thomas Todd was a small company with little opportunity for advancement, and although I knew that I did my job there well, I also knew that I did not have the skills to make a career of the printing business.
Despite my growing confidence in myself as a person, and my feeling of acceptance within the company, I still felt like a stranger in a hostile world. Except for a handful of friends where I worked and at church, in the presence of other people I felt like a perpetual outsider, an outcast. This feeling came not so much from my fear of exposure as a mental health consumer as from a sense that other people were a breed apart from me. It was not just that other people treated me differently -- it was, also, that I separated myself from others.
Somehow I felt that my thoughts and feelings would not make the grade if I expressed them to other people. Somehow I always gave credit to other people, total strangers, with the assumption that they were more sure of themselves than I was, and they (whoever they were) were part of a "conspiracy of rightness" that I did not belong to. I was always afraid of a misstep, of doing something wrong that everybody else in the world knew how to do. I always seemed to be tongue-tied when another person tried to talk with me, and in groups I was completely unable to make small talk.
This was nothing new. It was the same alienation that I had felt since I was a small child, and that intensified when I got to high school. Both by choice and by necessity, I had spent a lot of time alone while I was growing up. I learned to enjoy my own company and to work independently of others. I was at ease in solitude, but isolated in the company of others.
Hospitalization for mental illness only intensified my alienation from the rest of the human race. The stigma of madness was just another secret that I had to keep from others, as was the personal consolation of my inner spiritual world and its visions. The reality of stigma is that it is a judgement stamped on the soul. Diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and even AIDS can be identified as invasions to the human body. Mental illness, on the other hand, although it may be linked to physical sources, has always been -- and will always be -- identified by thoughts and beliefs that are not acceptable to the persons experiencing them or to the society in which they live. It is impossible to extricate the thought from the person, or to exorcise the belief from the soul.
I was beginning to recognize that the source of my health, and my ultimate recovery, was enclosed in and fueled by the fundamental spirit that was at the same time the source of my madness. This inexpressible consciousness, which Buddhism has identified as the wisdom aspect of the mind, was all that I had ever wanted of meaning in life, and was, in fact, my definition of God. This mad mind, this spiritual sensibility, was as much a part of me as was my rational mind. To acknowledge the legitimacy of this polarity lifted a great burden from me. If I could accept the madness in my heart, I could love and respect myself in a way that would not again be threatened when someone told that I must cut out a part of my heart, snuff out a part of my identity.
According to my Anglican upbringing, the only belief required to be a good Christian was to accept the core teaching of Jesus:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.***
I was beginning to understand that loving and yearning for God was a very real aspect of my mind, and that it referred not to words or platitudes but to the experiential relationship that I tasted during madness. I recognized that this mental aspect was precious, and was the essence of wisdom. I did not formulate these realizations in words, but continued to muse upon them.
But the love of God was only half of the equation. The second half of the Great Commandment, known as the "Golden Rule," required that I love others in the same way that I loved myself. This, I knew, I had never done. First of all, I could not love others "as myself" because I had never really loved myself. I had been fascinated by the insights and visions of madness, but they had seemed to be information coming from outside of myself. Now at last I was beginning to understand that my motivation in pursuing these visions was really the love of God. I passionately loved the spirit that brought the visions to me. Now I began to understand that this same spirit was within me, and within other people as well.
Only recently, by reclaiming my identity as a mother and by accepting that my spiritual perceptions were real, had I found that my "self" was worthy of respect at all. It was a subtle shift from self-doubt and self-criticism to self confidence and acceptance. I had always known, of course, that I had "points" in my favor -- intelligence, good manners, writing talent, and so forth. But having good points is not the same thing as being a good person. I had in the past been so imprisoned in my own doubts and uncertainties that I was unable to look beyond myself to relate in a genuine way with other people.
Taking care of my daughter on my own on weekends and holidays during those first couple of years after my discharge was for me a joyful adventure. As an unhappy housewife trying to "stuff" my identity as a madwoman, I had actually been afraid of my own children. I had tried very hard to do all the right things for them--the proper instruction, the proper discipline, the proper attention--but I had never felt that I had the right to be their mother. When Meg came to visit me in Brookline, I reclaimed that right. For the first time I took pride in who I was as a person, and I took pride in becoming a good role model for my daughter. Those two years, learning to be useful at work and competent as a mother, were among the happiest times of my life. Despite all of the obstacles to setting up an independent life, I felt that I had met the challenge, and I was proud of who I was.
Perhaps my greatest lesson during that time, however, was that I began to relate to other people--that, having found my identity, I began to identify with others. I remember exactly how it first happened. I was sitting at my desk near the entrance to the printing office. Marie and some of the other staff had been griping about a job that we were working on. They complained that the customers, owners of a small art gallery, kept changing their minds about what they wanted in the brochure we were printing. The staff laughed among themselves about the demands of these customers, and complained that so much effort had to be put into what was a small job that would be billed at very low rates.
Up until this point, I had enjoyed answering the phone and talking with customers, glad to be able to provide the information necessary to get the job done. Although I tried to be helpful and courteous, the truth was that I cared more about my own job than the customers I was serving. On the day that Marie was complaining about the art gallery job, I was sitting at my desk when the owners came in, and asked to see Mr. Todd. As they waited to see him in the small entranceway, I overheard them talking. The woman, a thin, middle-aged person with rather stooped shoulders, was whispering to her husband, a man much older than her and wearing an ill-fitting gray suit. They were at first trying to resolve some kind of domestic difficulty involving their teen-aged son. Both seemed worried and sad over something the boy had done. After that, they turned their conversation to the brochure they were having printed. Apparently, they felt that it was critically important for the brochure to appeal to a wide range of people. In fact, they seemed to feel that the success of their business itself depended on the outcome of this printing job. Their art gallery was a project that the two of them had started five years ago as a labor of love, and in which they had invested all of their lives and resources. I could hear the worry and anxiety in their voices, tinged with a panic carried over from the problems with their son.
As I sat at my desk pretending to look through papers, my viewpoint toward other people suddenly shifted. It was as if an invisible flash camera had focussed on the two worried people, and illuminated them as human beings. Suddenly I cared. Suddenly I recognized that the worry they felt over their child, and the anxiety they felt over their work, were the same emotions that I myself experienced, and that they felt these emotions for the same reasons. They worried about their son because they loved him, and they were anxious about their work because they believed in it, and they wanted it to survive.
This realization was only a small epiphany, perhaps, another one of those mini-revelations that could be easily overlooked or ignored. But from that point onward, my attitude towards all other customers shifted, and I could see the humanity in all of them. And from that point forward, my view of other people in general underwent a small, but radical, change. Having found and accepted the source of spirit within myself, I now was learning to find it in other people as well. I was developing the first seeds of compassion.
Hello Darkness: The Return of Madness
Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping, left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains
Within the sound of silence.
-- Paul Simon, The Sound of Silence
After the divorce was resolved, and after a little more than two years of doing clerical work at Thomas Todd, I decided that it was time to move on and to establish a career for myself. I began to follow classified ads for jobs in publishing or other areas related to writing. I did not yet consider going back to college because, to me, the experience of working for a living was so invigorating that I wanted to continue with the momentum I had so far enjoyed. Impatient to find a new career, and hopeful that I might yet succeed in freelance writing, I resigned from Thomas Todd, and said goodbye to the kind people I had met there.
On an impulse I applied for and got a job as taxicab driver. This seemed like a romantic thing to do, and a good way to earn some money while I devoted more time to my writing and kept my eye on the classified ads. As it turned out, driving the cab was some of the hardest work I would ever do. I had to work long hours with few breaks in order to make a decent income. I only stuck with it for six months, but in the process learned the importance of giving good tips to people in the service professions. I also learned that the most generous of my customers were not the wealthy women who lived in fancy mansions in South Brookline, but the African-American women whom I drove to those mansions in the morning from their homes in Roxbury, and picked up in the evening. One day, one of these women handed me a tip that was nearly half of the fare, and I tried to return it to her, saying that I did not need so much. "That's OK," she smiled. "We women have got to stick together."
While the writing that I submitted to magazines and newspapers collected more rejection slips, the ads that I followed led to one disappointment after another. I was not offered a single job. It always seemed that I was either under-educated or over-qualified. When I applied for editorial jobs that I could have handled easily, the employer would not hire me because I did not have a college degree or editorial experience. When I applied for jobs on the lower end of the ladder, such as proofreading, I was told that I was over-qualified.
The magical feeling of being in control of my life and succeeding in the workplace began to fade. I continued to follow the classifieds, but decided that I would have to accumulate more experience in the field that I hoped to enter. I quit the job with the taxi company, and signed up for work with a couple of technical temp agencies. Through them I began working just a few days or weeks at a time proofreading technical reports for some of the large companies around Route 128. I enjoyed this work, although I found that the writing in the manuscripts that I read was atrocious. These jobs did not seem to be leading anywhere, however.
Feeling lonely and frustrated, I often spent evenings alone playing music from the 60's on my stereo, and drinking a large glass of whiskey. I would allow myself to slip into a dreamlike state, in which I became engulfed by the music of revolution and rebirth, and filled with yearnings for a better world. Finally, one evening, I went mad again..
Entering an altered mental state was easy for me. I had found that rapid drinking relaxed mental barriers. Now again I used whiskey, music, and concentrated effort to turn my awareness inward. Sitting all alone in my apartment, I gave myself over to whatever would come. Lo and behold, as I sat there, the magical world unfolded, a domain of brilliant light and color. Just as in the other times when I became manic, I entered a world of several spiritual dimensions that included myth, magic, and psychic reality. I avidly explored this consciousness, because I was convinced that it was the key to truth. I believed that by seeking truth I would become closer to God.
I traveled back in time to ancient levels of meaning. The present became a moment of eternity. The room seemed to grow ever brighter, and my vision perceived everything around me as sharp and distinct. On this trip I looked through my books of poems and myths, and their words assumed multiple layers of meaning. I read the dictionary, and tracked down the origins and meanings of words. "Manic," I found, was derived from the Greek root "men-," meaning mind, spirit, or will. Looking further, I discover that the word "mana" was used in several cultures to describe a supernatural force dwelling in a person or sacred object, or, in the case of the Maori, power and authority.*** I tasted the different liquors in the kitchen cabinet to appreciate their unique characteristics -- the taste of juniper in gin, barley in scotch, fruits in wine.
I was at the still point that years before I had found in meditation, simultaneously at the center and the circumference of the universe, in a dance of perceptions that easily flowed to harmony. Each new sensation was beautiful and precious beyond description. Without a second thought, I again embraced this light whose quality was joy. It was luminosity, a radiance that contained its own silence.
Long into the night, I continued listening to records played at high volume. I allowed the music to bypass my ears altogether, to permeate my body as I remained for hours at the still point. I was utterly happy. This joy was clear and sharp, something not to be doubted. My body responded as if blood had been replaced by the empty vastness of space. Physically, I was transfigured -- although still the same in appearance -- and I felt weightless, yet imbued with power. Every cell of my body was an instant of truth, converging as one moment, and I embraced as truth everything that could be seen, heard, smelled, felt, or thought. By morning my body was beyond physical pain or discomfort of any kind. I found my mind peering into time future, while still balancing on the still point that was the essence of the universe. My body had learned magic, and my world had become myth.
Each new revelation was astounding. The wildest dualities became equally valid, and equally good. Truth encompassed all particulars, and each particular revealed Truth. Although I considered myself a Christian, I recognized that these revelations had little relevance to religion as I knew it in church. What I was experiencing had more to do with the nature of reality than it did to some cosmic personality called "God." Although I told myself that all of these phenomena were expressions of God, these were merely words to label the ineffable. What I actually perceived was a bright energy, like the light of the sun. It was not a white light, for it was clear and transparent. It was a light that illuminated all reality. All questions were answered, all polarities resolved.
That was the spiritual journey during the first couple of days, a repeat of the experience that I would later call Mahamudra. But, inevitably, my mind spun way out of control. My living room disintegrated into a chaos of naked phonograph records, open books thrown upon the floor, and dirty ashtrays overflowing onto the table. I did not sleep at all. I ate only scraps and leftovers from the kitchen, and did not wash any dishes. The dishes piled up, I ran out of food, and I stopped eating altogether. I continued playing the stereo at top volume, and my neighbors began to complain. At first I would dutifully turn down the volume when a neighbor called on the phone or appeared at the door, but soon I would turn it back up again. After awhile, the neighbors stopped calling, and no one knocked on the door.
Finally, one of my friends called my psychiatrist, who called me to ask if he could come to see me that evening. Offended that he obviously thought I was crazy, I told him that I would see him only if he brought with him a carton of cigarettes. Dr. Gair appeared in person at my door a short time later, without the cigarettes. I refused to let him in, and also informed him that I had no intention of turning down the stereo. "This is important music," I said. "I have to listen to it."
Although I rejected Dr. Gair's personal attempt to help me, his visit did inject a measure of reality into my wildly racing mind. A couple of hours after he left, I turned off the stereo for the first time in days, and went to bed, finally realizing that I had to get some sleep. I put on my nightgown, turned on the TV, and sat in bed to watch "The Prisoner" with Patrick MacGoohan.
After a few minutes, though, I heard a loud knocking on the door. I knew who it would be. It would be, as they say "the little men in white coats." I was aware enough of what had been happening to predict that Dr. Gair would have taken steps to have me committed to the hospital.
The knocking became louder, continued for some time, and then stopped. There was a loud crash, and the sound of splintering wood, and I heard the sounds of men breaking into my apartment. It was not the men in white coats, but the police, who deftly pulled me out of bed, handcuffed me, and pulled me downstairs into the squad car. They drove me to Mass Mental Center, a state-run facility a few miles from my apartment, and deposited me on the psych ward.
Welcoming me there was solitary confinement again, another "seclusion" room with blank yellow walls, a rubber maroon mattress on the floor, and an injection of haldol. That is where I spent the night, finally getting a couple of hours of sleep behind a locked door and in deadly silence.
An Unlikely Teacher
The definition of spiritual should be: that which is its own evidence.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Experience," p.48
When I was let out of seclusion a couple of days later, I joined the other patients shuffling, smoking, and listening to the radio in the day room. The day room was about the size of a small gym. It was furnished fairly comfortably, but with chairs and tables that were old and scratched, and did not match each other. Plenty of light, though, came in from the tall windows that faced the street. On the opposite side of the room, of course, was the nurse's station, where the staff, typically, stood and talked with each other and avoided the patients.
On the radio, Elton John was singing, "Don't let the sun go down on me," and, hearing that, I started to cry. Here I was, back in one of those awful places again, locked up and defeated. I had no friends and no family to rescue me. I stared desperately out the window, at the traffic and life going on out there without me. Inside, none of the patients were talking to each other -- they all seemed to be as stunned as I was.
There was only one patient who was moving around and showing signs of life. It was a slim but muscular man about my age. He had light brown skin, a long nose, and straight brown hair that fell against his shoulders. He was wearing polarized sunglasses that hid his eyes and reflected back whatever he was looking at. Oddly, in this place, he wore a slight smile on his face as he moved from one patient to another of the patients, speaking briefly to each of them. Occasionally someone would respond to him, and smile back.
I studied him for some minutes as he made his circuit around the room, until finally he arrived with his buoyant step to the window ledge where I sat. "And how are you today?" he asked. "I haven't seen you here before."
I introduced myself, and asked him his name. It was Robert. "What are you doing here?" I asked him. "Your spirits seem to be too high for you to have to be here."
Robert laughed. "Oh, they brought me here the other night," he said. "I was drunk. I was very drunk -- I drank about a carton of beer and two bottles of whiskey. This happens to me every once in a while. I'll just stay here a few days, then they'll let me out and I'll go back to work." He said that he worked for the railroad, making repairs on the engines and tracks.
Robert and I became friends immediately, and soon he had me smiling again, and even laughing. At one point he asked me what I was going to do when I got out of Mass Mental. I told him that I had my own apartment and that I would go back to that to and my temp work.
"That's good," he nodded. "That's good. Just get out and go back to work. Good."
Robert told me that he was an Apache Indian, originally from a town near the Grand Canyon in Arizona. He said that he had been expelled by his own people because of his drinking and womanizing. "I love women," he grinned. "Just love 'em." Oddly enough, I was not threatened by this admission. From the beginning, my relationship with Robert was simply on the level of friendship and camaraderie. Since my divorce, I had done a good bit of sexual experimentation, and had been involved in several short affairs. But the question of a sexual relationship never came up between Robert and me.
When I asked him to tell me his last name, Robert responded, as he did with just about everything, with a good-natured laugh, and said his name was Dimond. "I got my name from a soup can," he said. "I just looked at a bunch of cans in the window of a store, and took my name from that. I used to have an Indian name, but since I have been expelled I am no longer allowed to use that." I asked him to tell me his Indian name, but he said that he could not even speak it out loud.
I asked Robert why he went around the day room from patient to patient. "I want to make them feel better," he said. "I know a lot of things about healing; I am a healer, you know. Most of the people here are very discouraged, and they need to be cheered up." Robert then went on to describe his healing powers. I never knew whether or not to believe him about his powers, for the way he described himself always involved both bragging and nonchalance. In his soft, melodious voice, he said, "I once saved a man from burning to death. He poured gasoline on himself and lit it, and I put it out with my bare arms." He held out the insides of his arms, but I did not see any scars.
So as the days went by in the mental hospital, I followed behind Robert on his rounds. He had a light touch. He never said, "I am going to heal you," or "Listen to me, and you will get well." He just silently glided up to people and talked to them lightly and cheerfully. I don't know whether he actually healed people or not, but he certainly introduced a feeling of hope and calm and lightness to the dreary desperation of the psychiatric ward.
One day, as I sat in the day room listening to the radio, he beckoned me to come with him. As usual, I followed him, and he led me into one of the dormitory rooms off the hall adjacent to the day room. There he introduced me to a young woman, probably about 17 years old, who was sitting up in bed. Robert explained her situation: "She lives with her family, but her father rapes her all the time. This makes her crazy, and she tries to kill herself. Every time she does this she gets sent to Mass Mental, where she sits like this for a couple of weeks until they allow her to go back home again. When she goes home, her father starts raping her again, and she tries to kill herself. She has a social worker who is trying to find another place for her to live, but they haven't been able to find one so far. Her family does not have any money, so she can't afford to rent a good place."
I looked at the young woman, whose face was a mask of depression, and tried to smile. I did not know what to say to her. I had never been raped, and certainly not abused by my father the way she had been. I was also fortunate that my own father had established a trust fund for me, so that I had a small income that I could live on, even if I lost my job. "Why don't you come out into the day room?" I asked her. "We've got a radio out there, and you might enjoy the music."
She shook her hand. "My social worker is coming," she said. "They may find a place for me."
I took her hand, feeling powerless to help her. "I hope it works out for you," I said lamely. "I hope you feel better."
She just looked down, and held onto my hand. Robert stood at the side, saying nothing.
Robert and I were both released from the hospital within a week. I went home and began picking up the mess I had left in my apartment. I was surprised to find that I had gotten through the crisis in such a short amount of time. Other hospitalizations had lasted weeks, months, and even years, but this one was for less than two weeks. I remembered what Robert had said about just going home and going back to work. I supposed that I would be able to do that. I was still on the roster with the temp agencies, and there was always something available.
Robert appeared on my doorstep a few days later, still wearing his reflective sunglasses. He always looked slightly menacing in those glasses, until he started talking. Laughing nonchalantly, he announced that he had met another Sally who lived a few blocks down on the same street. He had moved in with her and even was considering getting married. I thought this was rather strange, but I did not pursue it further, other than to ask whether she knew he was coming to see me.
We spent the afternoon together drinking Cokes and listening to music. I asked Robert to tell me more about his life on the reservation in Arizona, and what it was like to be an Indian. He showed me on the map where his town was. He explained that, among his own people, he had trained to be a warrior, and had earned his eagle feather, his right to be a chief. "But they kicked me out," he said lightly. " I got drunk too much, and I made love to too many women. ." He grinned. "I love women."
He told me that it was right after he left the reservation that he had seen the soup cans in the store front, and chosen his new name. He described to me how his hair used to reach his hips, but that when he left the reservation, he had cut it.
He started hitchhiking East, and met up with two woman who promised to drive him all the way. But they soon ran out of money, and Robert had to sell some of his belongings to get money to buy gas. "I sold just about everything that I had," he said.
I asked him whether he still had his eagle feather, or any other Indian appurtenances. He only shrugged. "Nope," he said. "I sold it all, or gave it to the women. I love women."
"That's awful," I said. "That's a shame. You should hold on to your Indian heritage. You shouldn't just give it all away."
Robert told me that he often went to a bar in Boston where other Indians congregated. This was in 1973, at the height of the new Indian movement. I was curious about how Robert felt about all of this, and whether he was involved in political activities when he went to the Indian meeting place. I asked him about Russell Mean, and about how he felt about Indian activism and what had happened at Wounded Knee.
"I think they're going about it the wrong way," he said. "There's too much violence, too much anger. That's not the way to do it."
"Could I come with you to the bar sometime?" I asked. "I'd like to meet the other Indians."
But Robert did not think that would be a good idea. "I'll let you know when you can come sometime," he said vaguely.
I kept trying to figure Robert out. I sensed that behind his breezy language and his light approach was a wisdom that was deeper than it would seem from his appearance and his words. One day I asked him why he never took off his sunglasses
"Do you want me to take them off?" he asked.
"I just wondered why you wear them all the time. They make you look like something out of the Mafia."
Robert, who was sitting across the room on the couch, immediately took off the sunglasses and placed them on the coffee table. I was shocked. "I did not mean that you had to take them off," I said. "I just wondered."
But Robert sat quietly, and looked at me. In his eyes was an incredible calm -- almost a total absence of dangerousness. At the same time, his eyes did not show vulnerability -- only peace. I could think of nothing to say, and Robert said nothing. We just looked at each other for a while.
When Robert got up to leave later that afternoon, he left his sunglasses sitting on the coffee table. I picked them up and tried to hand them to him at the door, but he would not take them. I put them down on the table in the entrance way, hoping he would take them the next time he came. But they remained sitting there for week after week, and he never picked them up again.
Robert and I continued our afternoon visits, and often he would stay for dinner. I had returned to some temp work, but still had many days free. Besides visiting with Robert, I got together often with some friends who enjoyed playing bridge, and who sometimes came to my place to play. On one occasion before a scheduled game, when Robert and I were having dinner together, he told me about another friend of his from the mental hospital.
Brian, said Robert, was living not very far from me in a rented room on the top floor of a boarding house. He was living all alone, and very seldom went out of the house. He did not have much money left over from his rent, and had no stove or cooking equipment, so all that he had to eat was peanut butter and jelly. "That's all he eats," said Robert. "Peanut butter and jelly for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly for lunch, and peanut butter and jelly for dinner."
"That's horrible," I said. Despite my recent experience in the public psychiatric hospital, and Robert's attempt there to illustrate the plight of other patients, the magnitude of the problem had not registered with me. I had always had a place to live and enough money to live on. Until this year I had always been treated in private hospitals. But when Robert told me about Brian, I immediately recognized that other mental health consumers were not so fortunate.
"He's a friend of mine," said Robert. "Could you could invite him to have dinner with us sometime? He plays bridge, too. He could join one of your bridge games."
I agreed immediately, and told Robert to invite Brian for dinner the following week. On Tuesday, I picked Brian up at the ramshackle old house where he lived alone in one room. I immediately recognized him as another person who had been through the mental health system. He was a tall young man with dark hair, nice looking except for the slump of his shoulders and the heaviness of his eyelids. The gray dullness that enveloped his face, and his mask-like expression, were due in part to depression, but came mostly from the heavy psychiatric medication he was taking. I always threw away the psychiatric drugs when I left the hospital, but clearly Brian was still under their influence.
He sprinted out to the car with some energy, however, and thanked me profusely for inviting him to dinner. He announced that it had been 6 weeks and 2 days since he had had a home cooked meal.
For dinner I cooked my specialty, coq au vin, and this made Robert ecstatic. He presided over the table with a big grin as Brian polished off several pieces of chicken, with extra helpings of potatoes and vegetables. After dinner, my two other friends arrived for the bridge game, and Robert stayed around to observe and to keep the records going on the stereo. Brian had not said much over dinner, but he loosened up a bit when the game started, and we all had a good time. I learned that Brian had been a student at Boston University before he cracked up a couple of years ago. His parents lived in some other state, and apparently he did not have much contact with them, or much support.
The following weekend, Robert and Meg and I packed a picnic lunch and took off for our favorite beach in Quincy. Robert and Meg got along well, Robert being as friendly as he was, and gentle. On the way to the beach, we stopped at a convenience store, where he bought a six-pack of beer. I debated whether to comment on the wisdom of his drinking, but decided to say nothing.
When we arrived in Quincy, we found that, because it had been stormy the past few days, the water was filled with jellyfish. With a lot of "Icks!" and "Ughs!", Meg and I declined to go in the water. Robert laughed, and stayed with us at first. We devoured our picnic lunch and enjoyed the warmth of the late spring day. Suddenly Robert leapt up and preened himself. "Look at this!" he announced, and ran to the water.
With trepidation, Meg and I watched him glide into the water and swim slowly toward the jellyfish. When he was in their midst, he stopped and stood silently and solemnly, making sure we were watching him. Then he reached down with his bare hands, picked up a large jellyfish, and lifted it before him to shoulder level. Meg and I both gasped. In the moments that Robert stood there outlined against the sky and holding the jellyfish like an offering, time seemed seem to stop. The noonday light highlighted him like a halo.
I do not know how long he stood there like that, with Meg and me gaping at him. After I got over my initial shock, I tried to figure out how he was doing what he was doing, and why. I did notice that what he had done was to turn the jellyfish upside down as he lifted it out of the water, so that its stingers were on the top, and his hand was holding the soft part that usually floated above the water. I also noticed that he felt perfectly comfortable with the jellyfish, and they, apparently, with him.
I was still speechless when Robert returned to the blanket. He was nonchalant and blasé as usual, and did not want to talk about the jellyfish. I knew that his gesture in the water was intended to teach me something, but for the life of me I could not figure out what. To this day I don't know what it meant.
Arriving Where I Started
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
-- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
That day was one of the last times that I saw Robert, and one of the last times that Meg stayed with me in Brookline. Soon after that, my life took a number of turns, including moving in with a lover in another town. I gave up the temp work, and took another fulltime clerical job at the University of Lowell. Meg continued to visit with me, but our relationship went through its own changes , and never again would have the magic and comfort, or the intimacy, that we enjoyed in Brookline.
During the years in Boston, building the relationship with my daughter and defending my motherhood had restored my pride as a woman. Entering the workplace had helped me to feel a part of the world that I lived in. I had successfully begun a life as an independent women, and was beginning to learn from my experiences how to live with and make use of my experiences with madness.
I began to reclaim the spiritual perceptions that had transformed my consciousness during my first psychosis. Only by allowing these insights instead of denying them, could I achieve my true identity. Only by affirming my mind instead of trying to shut it down could I recognize that I was, and always had been, a fundamentally good person. Only by listening to my own spirit could I open to the spirit in other people, and to feel a commonality with them instead of alienation. Over the next few years, my awareness of the basic goodness in myself and others grew slowly and silently, eventually blossoming in the ability to act with compassion and to help myself and others.
These lessons did not mature until nearly six years later. A couple of years after I had left Boston, my growing dissatisfaction with trying to express my spiritual views in a Christian context led me to take refuge in Tibetan Buddhism. There I found an explanation for my spiritual visions and perceptions, and met a teacher who guided me to the work of peer advocacy and support. My teacher, a Tibetan lama named Khenpo Kharthar Rinpoche, respected my experience with madness. His instruction to me was to take what I had learned and to use it to help other people, especially others who had also experienced madness. It was only after I had heard these instructions from a Tibetan lama, and taken them to heart, that I realized that this, too, was the same lesson that Robert Dimond, a man "of the world," had shown me.
Eventually I moved to Maine, where I lived for over ten years, and where in 1981 I finally found the career I had been looking for, organizing consumer-run programs for people, like me, who had experienced mental illness. I myself continued to experience manic episodes, sometimes as often as once a year. I was only able to bring these traumatic events under control by returning again to the Tibetan monastery in New York, where Khenpo Rinpoche instructed me in spiritual practices designed to stabilize the mind and ripen spiritual understanding. By following these practices diligently, I was able to remain free from manic episodes for nearly ten years.
I do not really consider that I have recovered, because I do not think there is anything fundamental to recover from. My basic goodness was there, I think, all along, and despite all the suffering that madness has brought to me and to those around me, it has also been a powerful teacher. The madness cannot be separated from the basic goodness--from the spirit. I did not need to recover from madness; rather, I needed to learn how to live with it, and how to use it.
I continue to be susceptible to manic episodes, and occasionally one gets out of control. When that happens, when the world falls down around me, and I stumble, I just get up again as quickly as I can and go back to work.
The Meaning of Life
And in the naked light I saw 10,000 people, maybe more,
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share -- no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence.
-- Paul Simon, The Sound of Silence
What were the lessons that Robert and Rinpoche showed me? What is the meaning of life, for that matter? Surely it is clear that madness is not meaningless. An extreme mental state opens realms of consciousness that are not usually accessible. This may be like opening Pandora's box -- all of the demons that we have locked up or hidden behind our backs spill out. The result is often a nightmare. Or perhaps it is a nightmare only because we fear it so much. Still, the experience contains treasure as well as trash.
Many people today are stuck in psychological materialism. To them, mind is a bodily function, and life itself has no meaning beyond physical existence. Madness confronts materialism head on, for there is a meaning within madness that we can no longer afford to ignore. Madness can teach us about the fundamental polarities of life, polarities that are sometimes called the Tao.
Zen teachers use a consciousness raising technique called a koan. The teacher gives the student a spiritual riddle, a paradoxical question that can only be answered by abandoning logic. The idea is that logic requires a black and white answer -- an answer that is only one-half of the Tao. The student's answer must somehow transcend both the black and the white, the hidden and the apparent, the left and the right. By reaching the essence beyond the paradox, one finds the truth of the Tao.
Personally, I have always found these koans frustrating. Perhaps that is because I have never had a Zen master to test my answers. The koan that particularly bugs me is the one that asks, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Like everybody else, I have heard that question umpteenth million times. If you say to anyone in any situation, "This is like the sound of one hand clapping," the person, whether a teenager or an aging hippie -- and regardless of the situation -- will smile and nod wisely. But do they know the answer? What is the sound of one hand clapping?
My response may be too concrete -- the psychiatrists always say that I am too concrete! At the same time, my analysis is probably too logical -- a quality frowned upon in Zen circles! Nevertheless, the answer seems obvious. In order to make a clapping sound, you must use two hands. There is always a right hand and a left hand. The sound occurs when the palm of your right hand hits the palm of your left hand in one brisk movement. If you use only your right hand, and hide your left hand behind your back, then clapping is impossible. Conventional thinking is like trying to clap your hands with one hand tied behind your back. The right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.
Going mad is the struggle of the spirit to be free, the struggle of the left hand to emerge from the shadows. The left hand is the one we never use, the one called sinister and dark, mystical and feminine. It is all that we fear and also all that we need to know. As long as the left hand is in restraints, all we will hear is the sound of the right hand clapping.
On the other hand (so to speak), madness might be compared with discovering one's second hand, the left one, the mystical one, and becoming fascinated with it. Madness goes too far, for it becomes enamoured with the left hand that it has found, and all too easily forgets to use the right hand as well. The right hand represents our relationship with other people.
In both cases, we wind up with the sound of one hand clapping. But there is no such thing as the sound of one hand clapping. It is the sound of silence.
If, perhaps, our mind is like a jellyfish, then perhaps the way to deal with it is not to fear it, or to reject its stinging side, but to hold by its soft side so that the stingers will not be a danger.
draft version 5/31/99
Go to Recovery Paradigm Notes:
*** Draft chapter for the edited book The Recovery Paradigm (in preparation) ***
Not to be reproduced without permission