Thursday, August 28, 2008

Off to Cape Cod

Happy Labor Day weekend!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Response to Comments on Between Heaven and Hell

What I'm curious about, however, is the spiritual dimension to mania or even psychosis. What kind of link exists here?

Neuro-biologists are searching for this answer as well, from a scientific standpoint. They have pretty concrete explanations for how periods of mental illness occur, as well as explanations for the occurrence of religious experience. All are somatic in nature; that is, the brain is the seat of experiential reality. What goes on in the brain neurologically determines our reality. According to this view, all religious visions (visual, auditory, or otherwise) of a supernatural being are the result of physical manipulation of receptors, chemicals, etc., within the brain. What appears "real" to us is only a hologram created by the mind.

In this explanation human beings are 'closed systems'--all experience arises from the mind (as buddhists might say). Scientists study the physical vessel of the mind--the brain--and are able to chart neurological response through instrumentation.

Theistic explanations vary in the sense that they affirm the possibility of an external manipulation of the somatic mind. Science cannot explain why exactly mania, depression, and psychosis occur. For this reason it should be considered as a possibility that a God unbounded by limitation might manipulate our senses in order to communicate a reality that cannot be transmitted in our "normal" plane of existence. This does not deny that apparitions may be the result of brain chemistry. The question to be asked is how or why such a manipulation occurred in the first place. Nothing is random in spiritual thinking; nothing should be thrown out.

Are we better able to access a spiritual realm during mania/hypomania and/or psychosis?

I don't think periods of mental illness necessarily grant access to the spiritual realm. It is true, however, that the spiritual lies beyond the realm of our natural reasoning. Mental illness by nature takes one out of such "normalcy" and places a person in an absurd, non-rational world that can often times be quite frightening. In the sense that mental illness takes us out of our sternly rational way of thinking, it opens one up to the possibility of alternate realities, the spiritual being one of them.

Why do some feel a feeling of universal oneness during those periods?

Again, science can explain this one from a neurobiological perspective: "feelings of universal oneness" are just one of the many sensations the brain creates through its neurological processes. When we "feel" sad, it is our brain creating the chemistry that makes our conscious emotional self "feel." Bodily responses will often follow...tears, cries, emptiness. Without a brain we would have no feelings, so it is not uncommon (again, in Buddhism) to speak of the Mind and the Heart interchangeably.

Can we get there without mania?

Yes, and this is the purpose of spiritual practice and religious discipline. Mania is not dissimilar to a drug. You can use psychoactive substances to manipulate your own brain and induce spiritual experiences. Many religious cultures do this with herbs, plants, etc. But I like to think of our authentic Mind as existing beyond a finite substance. Drugs are often used as a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment, but I think that is erroneous thinking. People who attach too strongly to their mental illness run the same risk.

Is it real?

Not everything experienced in authentic or "real." I think it is safer to say that things experienced in states of mania are not necessarily un-real. They are certainly fantastic and extra-ordinary. But then again, so is God. And these periods do not last. Like feelings, they are transitory. So if you put too much stock in the "realness" of a manic episode, you will be left high and dry when it ends. Mania is not necessarily real, and not necessarily unreal. One should take it for what it is.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Words from the Ascetics: St. Antony the Great and St. John of Karpathos

On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts, attributed to St. Antony of Egypt, from The Philokalia, Volume 1:

"One should not say that it is impossible to reach a virtuous life; but one should say that it is not easy. Nor do those who have reached it find it easy to maintain. Those who are devout and whose intellect enjoys the love of God participate in the life of virtue; the ordinary intellect, however, is worldly and vacillating, producing both good and evil thoughts, because it is changeful by nature and directed towards material things. But the intellect that enjoys the love of God punishes the evil which arises spontaneously because of man's indolence." (7)


Texts for the Monks in India: One Hundred Texts, attributed to St. John of Karpathos, from The Philokalia, Volume 1:

"How can we overcome the sinfulness that is already firmly established within us? We must use force. A man labours and struggles, and so by the use of force he escapes from destruction, always striving to raise his thoughts to holiness. We are not forbidden to resist force with force. If in any ascetic task we exert force, however slight, then, 'remaining in Jerusalem', we can wait for the 'power from on high' which will come down upon us (cf. Luke 24:49). In other words, if we persevere in unceasing prayer and the other virtues, there will come upon us a mighty force, infinitely stronger than any we can exert. This force cannot be described in human language; in its great strength it overcomes our worst faults of character and the malice of the demons, conquering both the sinful inclinations of our soul and the disordered impulses of our body. 'There came a sound from heaven as of a rushing violent wind' (Acts 2:2); and this force from heaven drives out the evil that is always forcing us into sin." (50)

"The enemy lurks like a lion in his den; he lays in our path hidden traps and snares, in the form of impure and blasphemous thoughts. But if we continue wakeful, we can lay for him traps and snares and ambuscades that are far more effective and terrible. Prayer, the recitation of psalms and the keeping of vigils, humility, service to others and acts of compassion, thankfulness, attentive, listening to the words of Scripture--all these are a trap for the enemy, an ambuscade, a pitfall, a noose, a lash and a snare." (51)

warm up

12:20p [start]

from a cold sweat left standing in the room with no windows, no windows or doors! i couldn't believe the air, nor the doorman who told me, "there is nothing today." agape, my mouth, a dry film of silt coating my teeth. i walked out into the night air, the chill flush through my veins, and pulled tight my coat. the moon juice reflected dripped off the branches of oak trees stretching menacingly to the black blanket abyss of uncertainty. i called my carriage and when it came around i stepped into pitch, and a burning sensation filled the box. my driver turned, "where to, sir, on this night?" i pondered what these trees meant, these sighs, hoofmarks on the stone. "calvary rd. northwest," i offered. it didn't matter, really. the clop of hoofs on the cobblestones beneath.

12:24p [end]

* * *

12:25 [start]

there wasn't anything striking about her face, but she carried her lace-cloaked frame with an air strong enough to knock you into the wind.

"Sir," she said quietly, "please come in."

I took off my hat and transferred from stone to glazed wood and porcelin, oriental rugs, and heat. the butler came to take my coat.

"Please sit," she told me, and I folded my tired frame into a loveseat, and was soon enveloped in velvet.

"When you told me about my father, I had to stop and think, "what a curious thing to say! 'so and so does not exist any longer, is not breathing. has expired.' she was gently stoic, and i took tea to keep my breath from escaping me too rapidly.

"I am sorry. Your father was a good friend of mine and a great man."

"Yes," she said, narrowing her eyes and taking a sip from the delicate porcelin cup she held with two fingers. She sat back, and lit a cigarette. "It is curious, though, his death. how you found him? i was not close with my father. I imagine if I was I would much more horrified indeed."

"It was a terrible accident," I said. I felt a quiver in my voice but swallowed it with another taste of tea.

Madam Bogart leaned in. "Tell me," she said "tell me again how it happened. I figure I should know, if I should be forced to explain how my father..."

A loud slam interrupted her sentence, and looking behind me I could see the front door had swung open by a whipping wind. It made me nervous, the unpredictability of nature.

end [12:35p]

* * *

start [12:36p]

If the dead had an army, they would surely conquer us by their sheer numbers. Many would exact revenge for wrongful deaths, murders, executions. Others would fix themselves on reuniting with those they had been torn away from. The older generation in these parts say the wind follows on the heels of those spirits looking for a portal through to this world. I don't believe any of it. I cannot; I would never sleep again.

The butler came and closed the door and bolted the latch (which had been bolted in the first place). Mme. Bogart never moved, but followed the door closing with her eyes.

"When I first met your father, we attended a lecture together given by the late Sir Edmund Hillary after he had made his first ascent of Mt. Everest. Your father was fascinated by the sport. He used to say, "A man who has conquered a mountain is no longer subject to the laws of men." He was a great admirirer of Sir Edmund, and when we had the chance to meet him after the lecture, your father wasted no time in asking Hillary how he might join the ranks of men such as himself. Sir Edmund revealed a queer smile and laughed to himself before answering him. "It's quite simple, really. You have to live!" Unfortunately, Madame, your father was unable to do so against the wretched forces of nature."

Mme. Bogart stared at me with fixed eyes for a time, with uncomfortably rapt attention. "Yes, nature is a bit of a freak thing, don't you think Sir Lawrence?" She stubbed out her cigarette and left the room.

12:51 [end]

Sunday, August 17, 2008


"If you only knew the vastness of God..."

I don't know how many days have past since sperm last left my body, but I know they are more than I care to count. Maintaining this discipline can be exhausting. You are forced to manage stress differently, since sex is no longer an option. And if you don't find a different way, you might literally explode, since sex acts as a natural release valve. In any case, it's hard to be celibate!

But I'm starting to feel there are major benefits of sexual discipline. When the body and the will are pitted against each other, it is no longer the will that bends to the body, but the body which bows to the will. Asceticism in this regard is a constant battle of wills between the flesh and the spirit. This dualism is at the core of Christian theology and morality and gives ample opportunity for exercising the will.

A lot of sperm has left my body since I was born. I don't know how much, but it's a lot. To think that those days are past history is like being told "you are going to die," or "you will never have children." Male celibacy is a kind of menopause, with sperm instead of eggs. The days of orgasms, of summer, of orgasm-filled summers, have finally come to a close. May it all be for the greater glory...or I'm through.

Captain Abstinence (right, Zeb Bartels) and his arch nemesis The Fornicator (Nathan Holmes) imbibe together in the spirit of All Hallows Eve, State College, 2000.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Christian Rock Hard

I've never been able to get into Christian music, mostly because I've never been able to get past how lame it is. Besides the cheezy lyrics, most Christian music is preaching to the choir. It's Christians (rather than non-Christians) who listen to Christian music as a way of reinforcing their existing faith. So much for evangelizing. The only exception I would make to this lameness would be Brother Cesare, the Italian Capuchin "heavy metal monk." "I do it to convert people to life, to understand life, to grab hold of life, to savour it and enjoy it. Full stop." Spoken like a true friar.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tequila Sunrise

I am in alcohol purgatory: quarter after five am, too hungover to fall asleep, not drunk enough to pass out. I will not miss heavy drinking when I give it up next month...not one bit.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Heioshi's Asceticism

Heioshi lived in a cave on the outskirts of town. He was often seen eating the lowliest of foods, often grain and berries, and wild roots. One day a man asked Heioshi, "Sir, it is surely not fit for a man to eat as birds do, nor to live in a cave. How do you maintain such asceticism?"

"It is not hard," Heioshi answered in reply. "When I eat, I imagine myself at a great banquet. My humble food of bread crusts and wild roots are transformed into the finest of delicacies. I imagine my cave, likewise, to be a great mansion overlooking the sea. I drink from the clear pools of rainwater and regard it as from the finest spring. How do I maintain such asceticism? Why, there is no such asceticism to maintain!" --RPM

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Time for a warmup stream...


i can't feel the clock moving, but i knew i wanted to get in between the minutes, the seconds, the nanoseconds; that eye of the hurricane that is complete calm, between engagements, room to breath. i watch the clock as if i were expecting the four horseman of the apocalypse to emerge on the horizon, galloping towards me, enveloped in death, and plague. in the world of time there is no refuge except no-time. it is not unlike standing in doorjambs during an earthquake, or bunkers during tornadoes, or bomb shelters during nuclear holocausts.

where do you go to stay safe? in the world of time, the cycle that repeats itself over and over but is never the same is like a current. when the pace of time is slow you notice everything; when it turns to a churning white torrent squeezing through narrow channels, increasing is enough for one to even try to hold something in sight for more than a second. if you blink, you may miss what you are looking for.

and so to try to nail a wedge in time in that exact moment of transition when the clock moves from 1:12 to 1:13, you cannot blink. you cannot move. the only sounds are one's breathing, and the steady, quip of blood beeting between one's temples. the bridegroom comes in the night; the virgins go out to meet him, with enough oil to stand watch. the infinitesimally small space of time between 1:12 and 1:13 finally collapses in on itself, as the change happens before my eyes. it is like trying to catch a fly between one's fingers.

1:23p [end]

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Between Heaven and Hell; Outline, Introduction notes 2

Between Heaven and Hell:
A Spiritual Handbook for Manic-Depression

Synopsis and Preliminary Chapter Outline

I look forward to the day when the spiritual and the psychological work together, consulting one another, drawing from each other's experience, for the benefit of psycho-spiritual wholeness. For too long, both parties have viewed each other with suspicion, accusing each other of creating many of the neurosis they themselves are working to redress.

The days of psycho-therapy alone, medication alone, faith alone, have come to a close. "Health" can be nothing but a systematic term, for all areas of the human person--mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, sexual--represent parts of a whole. When one is mentally ill, the body becomes like a car operating on three wheels, or with only three cylinders firing. Systematic performance is, at best, sub-par, and at worst, inherently dangerous.

I am a Christian. I write unapologetically from a Christian perspective. While I may make mention of other religious traditions and practices, I make no claims at being an authoritative voice. Nor do I speak with any authority save for my own experience on the subject of Christian (specifically Catholic) theology. I am a "junior theologian" at best. Nevertheless, I draw on my academic study and research in the field of theology for the benefit of expounding on traditions and practices I feel beneficial to those Christians living with manic-depression.


Part I: A Great Darkness
"If the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be." (Mt. 6:23)

Darkness--that which overshadows--has long held a place in religious and mythological lore. It is also the universally preferred image used for by the depressed to put a name on their feelings.

St. Augustine said that darkness is the absence of light--it is not a "thing" in and of itself.
The feeling of sin--and its accompanying guilt--is palpable. The absence of good can only mean the absence of God, and vice versa. In depression, and in times of spiritual barrenness, God is nowhere to be found. "The comforts of religion are there when they are not needed, and vanish when they are..." [A. Solomon, ref.] This is the "Dark Night" of St. John of the Cross, the dark hour of the soul.

Part II: A Great Light
"The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light." (Mt. 4:16)

When the days of darkness have become a forgotten memory and God becomes so close you can feel Him, the mind enters the company of the angels . Or does it? Since the mind's realities are not always shared by the spirit's, one enters into mania with borrowed wings which can be recalled at any moment. One is held aloft by a temperamental emotional wind. This may sometimes be directed towards spiritual ground, but such maneuvering is a thing of the saints. More often then not we soar according to our impulses. Differentiating the emotional from the spiritual when they seem so indistinguishable becomes a thing of practice. Many people have crashed and burned in the seat of such a vessel. How often does a pilot let his inexperienced passenger take a turn at the controls unassisted? The man who controls his mania is like a master of fire.

Part III: Ascent-Descent
"The sun rises and the sun goes down; then it presses on to the place where it rises." (Ecc. 1:5)

All things come to an end. Mania and depression, spiritual ecstasy and darkness, are no exceptions. It is part of the nature of cyclothemia and manic-depression. St. John Climacus fashioned the bridge between heaven and earth as a "ladder of divine ascent." One ascends upwards through virtue, which begins with humility; one is dragged down the rungs by vice, pride being the most dangerous temptation for those nearing the upper echelons of spiritual perfection.

Part IV: The Dead
"The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, 'He's dead.'" (Mk. 9:26)

Drugs dull the mind. Anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and mood-stabilizers are no exception. In their attempts to control the turbelent states of manic-depressive living, such medications can turn a vibrant emotional landscape into an aird wasteland. Being forced to move beyond emotions, one must learn how to navigate spiritually through this emotional void. When one begins to pray in the absence of emotion or preference, one's cup becomes empty. Emptiness preceeds enlightenment. The best medication regime is one which puts a cage around volatile emotions and allows them to roam, rather than tranquilizing them altogether. It makes psychotherapy and spiritual direction not only tenable, but effective. When one is able to harness and direct one's emotion towards spiritual actualization and healthy living, he approaches the foot of the Divine Ladder and prepares to ascend.

Part V: Earth
"And I saw that wisdom has the advantage over folly as much as light has the advantage over darkness." (Ecc 2:13)

After the thrills of mania and the dramas of depression, one returns to life on earth only to find it...unbearably ordinary. Mental and emotional drama is like a drug; when we don't have it, we manipulate Life in order to make it. Attachment to drama keeps one steeped in illusion, convinced that this or that feeling is permananet and defining. In actuality, they are more like furls of smoke from a stick of incense, thick and heavy, only to fade into nothingness a few seconds later. Learning to live in the moment and accept life as ordinary is a more grueling discipline than it appears. It is in this regard that the Masters of the East have much to offer in teaching the ways of living this life. Do you miss God? Do you look for him in the clouds where you have flown, or the depths where you have dwelled? You will never find Him, for He is right before your eyes.

Part VI: Union
"The Father and I are one." (Jn. 10:30)

One must be mentally healthy in order to be fully spiritually healthy, since the mind and the spirit are inextricably linked while we are in this body. With an effective medication regime, attentiveness to one's psychological state, a diligent prayer life, and a trusted psychotherapist and/or spiritual director, one possesses the tools necessary for a sound mind and a content spirit.

Mania is like a rare ore, or element: it is completely unprocessed, unfocused, raw. It bubbles up from tar vats in the mind, only to spill out onto shore, contaminating everything around it. It is pure energy, not unlike electricity. It streaks through the sky like lightening, possessing enough power to kill a man. And it often does.

In order to be harnessed, it must be directed. And that is precisely the role that religious practice can play for the manic-depressive. In the words of Abba Joseph to Abba Lot, "if you will, you can become all flame."


Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him,
'Abba as far as I can I say my little office,
I fast a little, I pray and meditate,
I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.
What else can I do?'
Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven.
His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him,
'If you will, you can become all flame.'

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Between Heaven and Hell: A Spiritual Journey Through Manic Depression, notes, Prologue, Introduction, 1;

There are many guides written today for people with manic-depression. Most are clinical, some are personal, but I have not found one that addresses the spiritual dimension of this “disease.” It is hard enough to live a spiritual or religious life in today’s post-modern world; when you mix it up with a mental illness, it can fly off the handle. Or not.

Manic-depression, like all mental illnesses, has the ability to manipulate a person's reality--that is, how they view the world. In depression, the mind slows and time seems to have slipped into an eternity. In mania, the world is sped up to a dizzying pace, the body frantically scrambling to catch up. Schizophrenics struggle to differentiate between real and imagined voices, while those with multiple-personality disorders try to keep themselves from splitting in two, or three, or four.

The mind, in term, interprets reality according to what it is given. The expression, “you become what you love” is fitting for this phenomenon, for all of life is interpreted through one lens or another. For those with strongly held religious beliefs, life is interpreted in a religious paradigm.

People who live with manic-depression have special challenges that most of the populace does not. They need to stay balanced. They need to stay rested. They need to learn to manage their responses to stress as if their life depended on it.

Religion and spirituality are like all things: they can be well-adjusted and properly integrated into one's functional life; or they can be created as an escape from reality. Spirituality at its essence is being comfortable with what is not known. Religion and religious practice can help to facilitate this integration of the known and the Unknown. Tragically, though, most of us succumb to the powerful temptation to trade in our uncertainties for a sure set of answers.

Religion is the proposed answer to the questions which most vex us: "Who am I?", "Why am I here?", "Where am I going?" The desire to find the answers for oneself is the beginning of the spiritual path. It is my belief that religion and spirituality work hand in hand to try to help us to live better, more meaningful lives. When either fails to do this, it is no longer serving its function, and must either be abandoned or reevaluated in a different light. Mental "illness" can provide that different light.

I am grateful for my mental illness. I would not trade it anymore than I would trade my right arm or left foot. It is not "me," but it is a part of me that can never be separated from me, whether I want it to or not. It cannot be cut out like a tumor, or sewn up like a gaping wound, or annihilated with chemotherapy. It cannot be pointed to anymore than the wind can be pointed to. But one knows when the wind is blowing strongly or whispering softly, and in what direction, by what moves around it.

The question of whether I consider myself to be mentally "ill" demands a different consideration. There have been times in which my mental health was in a state of dis-ease. There have also been times when my body has been in a state of dis-ease. I do not consider my body to be in a constant state of illness, so why should my sometimes-sick mind brand me with the titled of being forever "mentally ill?"

The fact is that sometimes our mind does get sick, and things get out of whack. The brain is an unbelievably complicated and delicate thing (that is why it is surrounded by such a thick skull!). Just as a slight disruption in the beating of one's heart can be adjusted with a pacemaker to avoid catastrophic repercussions in the vital organs, so can medication help to stabilize and regulate the flow of chemicals. I am a proponent of medication therapy, despite all the horrors it has put me through. But I don't think medication alone will cure anyone.

There is a growing recognition in our society of the integrated structure of our being. That is, we are more than just a body--we are also mental, emotional, sexual, spiritual beings. Hollistic arts and metaphysical science hold this assumption as part of their core beliefs. With regards to mental health, neuroscience has the physical part of the mind covered. Psychotherapy handles the emotional, and Freud singlehandedly explained away the psycho-sexual. So who is taking care of our spiritual selves?

For many of us, we are. In a post-modern world, the institutions which provided traditional spiritual guidance have (supposedly) run their course. Where, then, do we turn for spiritual guidance? From here and there...really, wherever suits our fancy. There is nothing wrong with a spiritual medly per se. Such a technique does, however, resist a systematic approach to spiritual practice through a particular religious tradition which by its very nature has the potential to infuse order into already chaotic lives.

The mind predisposed to mental dis-ease is like an unstable isotope: it has the potential to shoot off in any direction at any moment. The resulting dis-order is a far cry from any place of peace or tranquility spoken about by the great spiritual teachers, who became masters of all their domains--body, mind, and soul--through systematic religious practice.

Spiritual health and mental health go hand in hand. The mind is enriched by spiritual practice, and the spirit, likewise, benefits from a stable mental state. That is why many of the great religious traditions warn against the use of intoxicants, because they induce a state of mental dis-ease. Scrambling one's mind with drugs or alcohol doesn't make much sense for someone with a mental illness in dire need of a balanced, unclouded mental state. I suppose that is why it is so fun, in a rebellious teenager kind of way.


I am running the store for Kate for the next few days. It is relaxing, but the street-rascal kitten Ruby keeps meowing for food and I don't know where any is! Having the next three days out of my house and put somewhere for eight hours a day will give me a chance to catch up on some reading and research, and to start reworking and re-outlining the book. I will post what I am working on as I go.

On a side note, I've been getting down the last couple days about where I am going to park the bus once it is done, a place where I will not be hassled. Talking with Jen last night made me realize that unless I move it each day (which I might do, change of scenery!), people really can call the police, citing a variety of valid and not-so-valid reasons why I can not park at so-and-so. There is a reason why noone really does this. But I will not be deterred! God made the Israelites dwell in tents so they didn't get too comfy in any one place. "My father was a wandering Aramean." I will be a wandering monk!

Not that I necessarily want to be. If anyone has a lawn or property near Phila they would let me park on, that would solve a lot of problems. Please spread the word! There will also be a plea in the story on the Urban Hermitage in the Philadelphia Weekly slated to run Aug. 27th. Stay tuned!