Cat resonates with light.

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IMG_1510 - 2010-12-03 at 13-25-16

[Image description:  A painting with a dark background that’s mostly blue and blue-purple with a bit of green swirled into each other. There is a stylized cat sitting and gazing up at a circle of light resembling the moon with a glow around it. Inside the cat is a similar white circle without the glow around it.]

From Rolling Around in My Head:

Rolling Around in My Head will be hosting the December issue of the Disability Blog Carnival. I’ve tossed around various ideas for the blog and have decided to post it on December 21st which is the winter solstace and the longest night of the year. Therefore I’ve chosen the theme to be ‘long nights and what we need to get through them’ … I’ve sure we’ve all had seasons of darkness and despair, hours of bleak desperation, I’m hopeful that people may have stories of what it took to get them through those times. Hope? Strength? Courage? Whatever it was, there’s a story there to tell.

There’s a lot of things I’ve done to get through hard times. A large amount of little things, and one big thing. The little things are various ways I remind myself about what matters. Objects that evoke specific ideas or feelings or experiences, written notes (by myself or my friends) reminding me of certain things about how the world works, or about my own life. Those things have their place in making sure that neither my thoughts nor my feelings run away with me in destructive ways.

But there is one thing that has worked better than anything else. It sounds simple but our reactions to it are at the root of more terror, denial, and avoidance in the world than anything else.  (But also more change, growth, love, and joy if it’s done right and often enough.) I’m going to describe it in specific terms of how it works, rather than in terms of the abstract words most commonly used to describe it, because those words unfortunately end up being used both to describe the thing I mean and its total opposite.  

For some reason I’ve written this in the second person as “you”, but be aware this is about how it works in my life not necessarily anyone else’s. Just imagine that this is what I would write to my younger self. These are NOT meant as instructions for the reader or anybody else unless for some reason they want to do this sort of thing:

Stop thinking (*). No, not even a little. Not the thought-that-pretends-not-to-be-thought. All of it. Stop. Now. Submit to the world. Not in a flashy showy way. Just completely let go, but in a somewhat focused way, so that you’re submitting to reality rather than confusion.  If you’re afraid, ride out the fear rather than running away. Just lay down anything you’re thinking or feeling, throw yourself down on existence, and let it happen for once without trying to bend it to your will.  Don’t get distracted by whether you notice anything different, feel anything different, or not.  Just stay silent and empty and let things happen. 

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Warning:  Do this enough, correctly enough, and your life will change. Not always in ways you think you want. But in the ways you need the most and don’t know it. This isn’t a strategy that will always make you feel good in the short term. As such, this is not a choice to make lightly: while it can sometimes make you feel better, it can also take you through times that can feel infinitely worse than where you started.  

But it will also make you strong, or maybe a better term is, able to rely on a deep strength that exists whether you are strong or not.  It will make you rooted and deepened in the most important ways that matter.  And that will be worth the rest, especially if you come into this with a sincere desire to do the right thing, to make the world better for others, not just yourself. 

You may also have little choice in the matter. Often, life pushes us towards learning to do this whether we think we like it or not (and often, deep down we want this more than anything even though consciously we may not agree). I would be dead if not for this but sometimes in the short term the resulting intensity and shutdown seemed to aggravate my already suicidal thoughts when I was already depressed. 

Either way, things like this are some of the most deep and lasting ways to deal with situations that would otherwise lead to despair.  There is a resiliency that comes from learning to surrender to a part of the world that is pure existence, that cannot be truly destroyed.

I’m someone whose life has pushed me into learning this whether I want to or not.  Which is another way of saying I’ve been to hell and back.  When people  think of me as resilient in the face of adversity, what they are really seeing is that I’ve learned to surrender to a deeper strength and protection than my own. That I have learned to simultaneously try my best to survive, but not be afraid of either life or death.  

Which means I am doing something quite different from the “trusting that things will work out” (and then surrendering to their emotions or their own thoughts, or worse to another person’s will and ego, having a warped and distorted parody of the experiences I’ve described, and thinking they’re doing what I’m talking about) that a lot of highly privileged people do. Their privilege lets them sail through adversity that could kill someone like me, and then claim that this is because the universe likes them a lot. Just, no. That’s an insult to everyone who doesn’t survive.  This is nothing like that. Danger for me is danger:  I could live or die, come out unscathed or heavily damaged, anything in between. What I trust is not that I will come out of everything squeaky clean, alive, and happy.  It’s rather that there’s a deep level of reality where even if I end up dead or damaged, my existence is connected to everything else and will always have happened.  It’s hard (impossible) to explain in words, but it comes down to a connection to a kind of goodness that is lending its strength to you even if the worst happens. 

This kind of submission can sound passive, but it’s an active process. And it can change how you relate to the world and to people in it.  I used to make the common mistake that if I felt unloved then I needed to find people who would love me (in a non-romantic sense).  This kind of thing showed me that love is less an emotion than a property of the world, or a way of living.  I had to do my best to live my life in accordance with the love-that-is-not-an-emotion and then love would be there whether I had friends or not. Not that friends are bad or unnecessary.  But that you can’t truly experience love without enacting love and living as part of it.  This is one of many valuable things I have learned by throwing myself at the mercy of the deeper levels of existence. There is hardship involved in this process but you also become increasingly aware of things like love and joy in ways that the usual versions are just hollow echoes of. 

The suggested hope, strength, and courage of the carnival theme are things I have only truly experienced by letting go of my own feeble imitations, and leaning heavily on the versions that are woven deeply into the world around me. And these things exist anywhere and anytime you look for them, if you’re looking in the right way. Times of despair aren’t times when they go away, they’re times when you can’t perceive them. You always have access to perfect love, perfect clarity, perfect hope, perfect strength, perfect courage, perfect wisdom, and perfect joy.

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[NOTE: I will not publish comments that ascribe to me or any single person qualities that I only truly experience by getting out of the way of the world around me, so don’t try to “compliment” me or anyone else about having these various positive qualities. It’s exceedingly important to remember that they are only part of me or anyone else by virtue of being part of the world in general. Too often compliments like that serve only to puff up a part of oneself that a person has to be able to get rid of in order to experience the real thing. I take this very seriously.]


(*) By “stop thinking”, I don’t mean let someone else do your thinking for you. This is a good example of how a phrase can mean both a thing and its opposite, making communication difficult. The bad kind of stop thinking means letting go of your capacity to intercept and get rid of crappy and dangerous ideas. The good kind means to learn how to avoid when necessary the kind of mental activity that normally goes on unceasingly and separates you from the world around you. The bad kind is actually just another form of the same mental activity. Unscrupulous people blur the distinction between the good and bad interpretation of any of the words I’m using, to take advantage of anyone who can’t tell the difference. This makes it hard to even discuss these things, which is doubtless part of the intent.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

22 responses »

  1. I don’t think that it is possible for me to stop thinking except while I am asleep. I have tried, hundreds of times, to stop thinking, and it has just left me frustrated and crying and self-injuring. I don’t know how it’s possible to be awake and not think, even for a second. This is the way my ind works. It is like you are asking me to be fully conscious and have my eyes open, and yet stop seeing. What you want from me is impossible. I’m sorry if you think I am hurting you by thinking, but I can’t stop, I really can’t.

  2. Hurting me? No, I tried to be really clear. These are instructions for myself, the point is how I got through really dark times and that’s how I’ve done it, so I described it. That’s what “For some reason I’ve written this in the second person, but be aware this is about how it works in my life not necessarily anyone else’s. Just imagine that this is what I would write to my younger self” is about. Maybe I will put that part in bold so nobody will get confused about it like that. It’s not meant to be a demand of anybody else.

  3. Looks like exactly what Eckhart Tolle calls “The Power of Now”. Maybe anyone wanting to understand it more could get hold of a copy. There’s a bit of odd new agey stuff in it, but the main point is being in the now, being present, rather than being caught up in the constant thought stream that goes on in our heads and that we usually identify with as “me”.

    It’s similar to things I learned in Buddhist meditation, and it all comes from the same place: learning to step out of the thought stream, to “yield” as the Taoist way puts it. It brings a great relief, but it’s not an easy way, I agree.

  4. For some reason, the new “bold” text does not seem to jump out to my eyes that much (maybe it’s just me). It also is a lot of text bolded, which means the intended effect of trying to emphasize that text gets a little lost. I would be personally inclined to either

    1. Only emphasize or highlight this phrase “these are NOT meant as instructions for the reader or anybody else”

    Or,

    2. Retain some sort of emphasis for the passage you have selected as a whole, then add an extra layer of emphasis, such as a larger font or underlining or something, for the phrase suggested in #1.

    Maybe others have better ideas. Possibly some could involve slightly rephrasing those two sentences though I have no immediate inspiration for how to do that.

    sanabituranima, as a person with attention deficit disorder, I find it difficult to completely stop thinking too. I have not tried as hard as you to stop thinking altogether (though in my teens I did make efforts to stop thinking on certain specific topics on the assumption that if I could just stop thinking on those specific topics then I could stop distracting myself from focusing on the things I needed to focus on such as homework). But it would probably be enormously frustrating if I did.

    I don’t know for how long you’ve read this blog. From what I know of Amanda, she would not wish to impose her own solutions or her own approaches to things on other people. She recognizes that each person is very different and what helps her immensely may be hurtful or impossible for someone else, and vice versa. The “you” in this text is meant to refer to Amanda herself, and not actually you the reader–as she says, kind of like a letter from her older self to her younger self. I hope this helps a bit.

  5. There. I just raised the font size for that one sentence. Does that work better? I wrote this at a time when I wasn’t all that good at rephrasing anything (that’s pretty constant lately, and my writing skills are suffering).

    Sort of off-topic, but I honestly think that by starting to paint more often, something may be happening to my writing skills. It’s like my brain is shifting over into painting-mode, and then not shifting all the way back. Plus going to the art place is enough to fry my brain without the added difficulty of shifting into a much less verbal-oriented mode of expression a lot of the time.

  6. Amanda, the “mode” thing makes a lot of sense to me. Painting not being quite compatible with language is *not* the way my own brain works, but I’ve had issues with having a hard time switching between “math/music” mode and “language/visual arts” mode.

    And, having written that, that gives me a clue on how I can help myself with a particular sort of language problem I’ve been having frequently for a number of years.

    And back to the blog carnival, I’m glad to know about it in advance. I have a friend who might find it helpful, and I’ll know to point it out to her when it’s there.

  7. I think the bolding looks ridiculous this way, but I’m not sure why it wasn’t clear to begin with even though it obviously wasn’t clear to everyone. I wonder if cats feel ridiculous when they have to start yelling at humans just to get human attention for the most mundane things.

    I do have to admit I am having some trouble understanding blog post. I don’t know if it’s because of the brain not being in writing mode or something on my end instead. I’m having some trouble with writing too, although for different reasons, mostly the communication energy that it takes for me to get through the day is all I have so I’m communicating with people less and less on my own initiative, even online, so the result is that I’m more disorganized in how I present myself.

    Anyhow, I get the impression that by “stop thinking” you actually mean something very specific and aren’t talking about thought in general. If I were to try to guess something more particular, I get the impression that you’re talking about a particular kind of thought-pattern that you’ve been taught was necessary or have come up with on your own.

    I have had some experience with negative thought patterns and how they can be comforting in the short term even though they’re very harmful. My high levels of depression and anxiety when I was younger had a lot to do with that. I remember leaving an online group because I was starting to find ways to get new thought-patterns that didn’t ensnare me, but they were not only still using the old ones themselves but using them as a basis for community. So in other words, getting rid of those patterns would have destroyed their sense of community and pushed them into totally new territory in their own lives. If they had been willing to try to rebuild their sense of community around something more useful it could have worked out, but ultimately they weren’t willing so I had to go someplace else. I don’t know if this is the kind of thing you’re talking about or not. It seems to me to tie in with “outposts in our head” but to also be about more than that. Maybe I’m totally off the mark though.

  8. @Julia: I think it’s because writing requires a specific mode/way of dealing with the world that I practically never use except when I write. So almost anything other than writing is going to not be in that mode.

    @Pancho: I actually do mean all reflective thought (any thought that’s “loud” enough to be seen/heard/felt/experienced as thought at all, “positive” or “negative”, and this even includes some elements of my most familiar way of thinking, because it all blocks out other kinds of ways of understanding the world that have been necessary for me in order to deal with… well… most situations actually, but negative situations seem to have pushed me towards it more than other situations have.

    As far as understanding it goes, this is a difficult subject to write about and a difficult subject to understand, so it may be something on both sides that is making it difficult.

  9. Oh. Well then I WAS off base unless I’m still as confused as I was.

    I think sometimes “loud” thought is necessary for specific kinds of things. However, I do have to admit that I have repeatedly disappointed myself in pursuing those things because I can’t keep the up. Really they’re things for other people, albeit ones that are important to me too, so then I end up having those people tell me how much they appreciate it (and being genuinely appreciated and accepted by a whole group of people is strange for me; I’m used to most people tolerating me at best), but then I can’t keep it up. It’s frustrating for me because there are all these things I want to do. However, if I can’t keep up with my own life (which less “loud thought” helps with) then I won’t be able to do those things anyway. The aforementioned people don’t really even seem to hold it against me, they encourage me and everyone to do more but they don’t lambaste individual people for doing less so I think they just want everyone to do as much as they can. I still end up feeling like I’m being left behind and not helping enough.

    I’m probably still missing some things because of the reasons you’ve mentioned but maybe as other people comment I will start to figure it out more.

  10. This part:

    I could live or die, come out unscathed or heavily damaged, anything in between. What I trust is not that I will come out of everything squeaky clean, alive, and happy. It’s rather that there’s a deep level of reality where even if I end up dead or damaged, my existence is connected to everything else and will always have happened.

    gave me goosebumps. I really dig that way of putting it. For me it’s connected with this belief I have in-my-bones that even suffering is inherently valuable in some ways. When I can remember that belief, it helps me feel more real and alive somehow. It’s easier to feel that way about some kinds of suffering than others, of course, and I wonder if the kinds of suffering we can appreciate differ from person to person? For me it’s easy to feel grateful for experiences of sadness and physical pain, and really hard to feel that it’s ok to be anxious or angry or restless.

    Anyway, thanks for this post.

    (This is the same Rachel H. that used to post with my full name (ends with ..ibberd) but I’m being more mindful about putting my name on the internet for work reasons these days)

  11. There are techniques for stopping thinking in words, which is why I recommended Tolle’s book. If you’re not used to doing it you need another focus. Tolle wrote about concentrating on feeling the “life force” in your body. That, according to him, is a sort of tingling that you feel when you become aware of the insides of your body. I can feel it, whether it’s actually life force or not doesn’t matter.

    A technique often used in meditation is to watch your breath without trying to control it (though inevitably you will try to control it at first). A therapist once taught me to focus on what my feet were doing. Don’t think about it, just feel your feet.

    You don’t need to sit still to try these things – my best time is walking by the canal.

    Part of it is acceptance of when it doesn’t work, rather than getting caught up in thoughts of frustration and “I’m so rubbish at this”. Tolle says just becoming aware of the busy-ness of your mind is a huge step, and every time you become aware of that it’s progress.

  12. I don’t think that it is possible for me to stop thinking except while I am asleep. I have tried, hundreds of times, to stop thinking, and it has just left me frustrated and crying and self-injuring. I don’t know how it’s possible to be awake and not think, even for a second. This is the way my ind works

    I can’t do the not-thinking thing either. I’ve tried, and while I haven’t had as much distress as you have, I’ve failed enough in unhelpful ways that I know it’s not a good thing to keep at. (Trying to shut down all of the conscious, active thinking leads to the “Stop thinking! You just had a thought! You’re doing it wrong! That was another thought! Stop having thoughts!” problem.) I also tend to have three tracks of thoughts running at once (one main one, one background one that processes verbal information, and one background run that covers non-words. So if I get some sort of focus-stimulus, like a mantra or a rhythm or a texture to focus on, I’ve still got at least one mental track actively producing thoughts. People’s brains are complicated and variable things.

    Different people have minds that work in different ways, and it’s okay that something that’s beneficial for Amanda to not work for you.

  13. j, it’s perfectly normal for people to have more than one track of thinking and to be able to stop on one level only to find another takes over. It doesn’t mean this is impossible for you. However I’m not saying you *should* do it either, only that if you wanted to there are people out there who can give advice and encouragement on this, and books if you (in the general sense) can’t find the people, or would prefer not to have to talk about it.

    Another method some peope use successfully, which might counter the failure thought of “Stop thinking! You just had a thought” etc is that when a thought comes up you gently label it “thought” and let it drift off. And the same with the next one and the next. If you’re trying to focus on something else you might think a gentle “thought, breath” to get you back to just feeling the breath.

    These things are, for most people, practices, rather than instant successes, but practise, with the right support and guidance does work. Minds actually work very very similarly – you find this out if you go to, for example, classes where meditation is dicussed: lots of people having the same issues. And where meditation etc is taught teachers can tell you how to help yourself with these issues. Reading around can do it too, but it’s harder to select what you need to persevere at and what you’d be best to drop, at least for now.

    None of the issues raised here so far stands out from the ones I’ve heard raised by NTs without mental health issues.

    Again I’m not saying you *should* do this, just that if you wanted to I bet it wouldn’t be impossible! I’m autistic and have repetitive thought issues, and some of these techniques have worked wonders, even if at first I’ve thought, *I* can’t do that, I’m different to everyone else. Sometimes feeling different can become a sort of pride that needs to be got over in some situations! A Buddhist teacher I knew put it “so Buddha taught 84 000 different teachings for different problems of the mind, but left out specifically what *you* need?” You can generalise that beyond Buddhism to other mind practises, it can be an art of humility to realise that you’re not all that different at every single level! Believe me, I’ve been through it.

  14. I like looking at Cat resonates with light. The colors and shapes pull me into the scene and it evokes thought and emotion and a feeling of continuity. I really enjoy the varying blueness and how it even drenches cat.

    As for the subject you chose, Long nights and what you need to get through them,it brings up one unusual night for me when I truly knew despair. Somehow I ended up in a quiet space devoid of input and out of that grew a strength and calmness I took as a gift. Since then I have had a few encounters with dangerous conditions or what seemed like insurmountable circumstances and have been able at some point to let go and trust that whatever came next was just a part of life going on. It always seemed there was more given to me in that moment then I could possibly receive regardless of what I went through. It is a hard thing to talk about but I think good comes out of talking.

    As for your warning, I think it could just stand alone. No one can confuse it then. Boot it down a few lines so it stands by itself and see if that makes more sense to others. You could even box it in like a warning on a medicine bottle.

  15. It’s interesting too, that Eckhart Tolle, whose book “The Power of Now” I mentioned above, says that people who have experienced the most pain and suffering in our lives are often the ones who make the most progress with these techniques – because we are more encouraged to find something better, already knowing the worst life can give.

    Anyway, I seem to be taking over the discussion, so I’ll try to bow out now!

    I’ll just add that my own practice isn’t easy, often doesn’t go well, BUT has improved my life beyond measure, and everyone who knew the “before” me as well as the “after” sees it, many people have commented over the years. I’m nowhere at all near perfect, but in terms of quality of life there’s just no comparison.

  16. Thank you BSB.

    Tolle is a weird case. Certain things make obvious he doesn’t know the full meaning of the words he’s saying (otherwise he’d not say and do various other things). But he may or may not be repeating them from someone who does know what they mean. Unfortunately he’s part of a whole industry that causes a lot of confusion (although it’s always possible to take some of his words the right way even as he says them for the wrong reasons, hence the weird).

  17. This is a beautiful post. Thank you.

    As for the folks who think they can’t stop thinking – there’s an element implicit in the post above that seems to be missing from some of your own experiences – and that’s nonjudgment. This might not work for you, but non-judgment, or self-compassion, was missing from my earlier attempts at reaching a meditative state/flow state/temporary period of non-thinking/period of no verbal thinking/sense of spiritual connection. It can be a huge leap, in itself, for it requires deciding, at least for the space of a few thoughts, that you will neither judge yourself for thinking, nor for particular thoughts, nor even for judging yourself for thinking when you are meant to be “not thinking.”

    If you do try to explore this again, perhaps check out something like iRest yoga nidra guided meditations? It’s available online for pretty cheap and it helps with three things: returning focus to the body’s natural experiencing of sensation without encouraging the brain making a storyline, encouraging welcoming of experience and nonjudgment – and for people who find their inner experience intolerable in the silence, it also walks you through identifying an “inner resource” to mentally return to if the sensations that arise are not tolerable.

    I know this is long and I hope that this is in the spirit or vein of the types of posts that are welcome. I applaud your courage – not your uniqueness in this – for you’re right, it’s available to anyone – but still the essential, ordinary courage it takes to face life without our running storyline.

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