Soul Dancing with Mental Illness

Rev. Linda Goonewardene
Skylands UU Fellowship, Hackettstown, New Jersey
May 2011


Thoughts for the Day:
“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.” Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche

“Rebellion against your handicaps gets you nowhere. Self-pity gets you nowhere. One must have the adventurous daring to accept oneself as a bundle of possibilities and undertake the most interesting game in the world – making the most of one’s best.” Harry Emerson Fosdick

“The world is full of suffering; it is also full of overcoming it.” Helen Keller

A story from the Talmud: A rabbi asks his students, :How do you know the first moment of dawn has arrived?” After a great silence, one pipes up,”When you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog.” The rabbi shakes his head no. Another offers, “When you can tell the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree.” Again the rabbi shakes his head no. There are no other answers. The rabbi circles their silence and walks between them, :You know the first moment of dawn has arrived, when you look into the eyes of another human being and see yourself.”

Benjamin Hoff The Tao of Pooh:

So to remove the Bounce from Tigger, Rabbit came up with another one of his famous plans: Rabbit, Pooh, and Piglet would take Tigger to someplace at the top of the Forest where he’d never been and lose him there. And from then on, he would be a Small and Sorry Tigger who bounced no more. Well so much for cleverness, as Eeyore might say, because as things turned out, Rabbit got everyone lost, including himself. Everyone but Tigger, that is. Tiggers don’t get lost, it so happens, not even in the mist at the top of the Forest. And that proved to be very useful….Pooh and Piglet found their way back after a while and went home with Christopher Robin…[meanwhile]

… Tigger was tearing around the Forest making loud yapping noises for Rabbit.

And at last a very Small and Sorry Rabbit heard him. And the Small and Sorry Rabbit rushed into the mist at the noise, and it suddenly turned into Tigger; a Friendly Tigger, a Grand Tigger, a Large and Helpful Tigger, a Tigger who bounced, if he bounced at all, in just the beautiful way a Tigger ought to bounce. “Oh, Tigger, I am glad to see you,” cried Rabbit.

Each of us has something Special hidden inside somewhere….The Wise are who They Are. They work with what they’ve got and do what they can do….We need to recognize and trust our own Inner Nature, and not lose sight of it. For within the Ugly Duckling is the Swan, inside the Bouncy Tigger is the Rescuer who knows the way, and in each of us is something Special…

Opening Hymn #318 “We Would Be One”

Closing Hymn #311 “Let It Be a Dance”

Responsive Reading:

ON BEING By Denise Levertov

I know this happiness
is provisional:
the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –
withdraw only
into peripheral vision:
but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:
this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:
this need to dance,
this need to kneel:
this mystery,
this mystery.

By Mary Oliver

Don’t call this world adorable, or useful, that’s not it.
It’s frisky, and a theater for more than fair winds.
The eyelash of lightning is neither good nor evil.
The struck tree burns like a pillar of gold.
But the blue rain sinks, straight to the white
feet of the trees
whose mouths open.
Doesn’t the wind, turning in circles, invent the dance?
Haven’t the flowers moved, slowly across Asia, then Europe,
until at last, now, they shine
in your own yard?
Don’t call this world an explanation, or even an education.
When the Sufi poet whirled, was he looking
outward, to the mountains so solidly there
in a white-capped ring, or was he looking
to the center of everything: the seed, the egg, the idea
that was also there,
beautiful as a thumb
curved and touching the finger, tenderly,
little love-ring,
as he whirled, oh jug of breath, in the garden of dust?


Let us go forth
to do the work of our lives, the work of living.
May our lives touch those
in need of love and healing.
May we bear witness to our faith
and our disbelief
Even when to do so seems
too great a risk.
In the end
it won’t matter
how much we have
but how much we have given.
It won’t matter how much we know
but rather how well we live
And it won’t matter
how much we believe
or what we believe
But it will matter
How we treat the ones we meet
and the difference we can make
In the world around us.


Do you remember the first time you learned to dance? Some of you may have begun dancing so young that you don’t remember not dancing. When my first child, Sarah was a baby, I loved to dance with her in my arms in the kitchen to the radio; it was a delightful break in our daily round of baby care and house-keeping.

When I was a young teenager in middle school, I remember a friend offering to teach me how to dance. It was the hitch hiker dance to this song:

A thumb goes up, a car goes by
It’s nearly one am and here am I
Hitchin’ a ride doo doo doo, Hitchin’ a ride
Gotta get me home by the morning light

Dancing is a natural way of expressing ourselves to music. Still there are steps and moves to learn, so that we can expand our repertoire and dance through out our lives. Dancing can be a form of meditation and spiritual expression, as illustrated by this part of a Mystical Poem by Rumi:

Bring into motion your amber-scattering trees;
bring into dancing the souls of the Sufis.
Sun, moon and stars dancing around the circle,
we dancing in the midst – set that midst a-dancing.

Do you remember the first time you became aware of mental illness? Maybe some one in your family lived with a mental illness; maybe someone in your neighborhood experienced mental illness; maybe someone famous acknowledged their mental illness; maybe you lived for quite a while before you encountered mental illness in someone or in yourself.

When I was around 14, my best friend, Ellen, who lived next door, came into my bedroom in tears. “I can’t take it anymore. I’m not allowed to tell anyone but Phillip screams so much at night and I don’t know what to do.” It turned out that her brother Phillip had developed a kind of mental illness and his family was trying to take care of him with the help of medical professionals. In attempting to keep Phillip’s problem a secret, Ellen’s family had perpetuated the socially approved response to a problem that is stigmatized: Don’t tell. Fortunately, my friend had realized that not being able to express her reality was hurting her and she broke that rule. In breaking the rule, Ellen got the support and acknowledgment she needed to get through her brother’s episodes, treatment, and eventual recovery.

I remember being 12 or 13 and reading the book, Sybil, which was the story of a women with Multiple Personalities. Later on, Sally Field played the role in a movie.

I was fascinated by what was going on with this woman, yet I did not have a real life context to put it in. As far as I knew, no one in my family or my community had a problem like this. Mental illness was a strange and exotic condition when I was young.

I think that many of us are unprepared for mental illness when we encounter it, in ourselves, in those we love, and/or in strangers we barely know. May is Mental Health Month and has been promoted by Mental Health America since 1949. This organization is committed to raising awareness of mental health conditions and to promoting mental wellness for all. This year the first theme is “Do More for One in Four: One in four American adult lives with a diagnosable, treatable mental health condition and they can go on to live full and productive lives.

When we look at the definition of mental illness in the dictionary we find this: mental illness is any of various conditions characterized by impairment of an individual’s normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by social, psychological, biochemical, genetic, or other factors, such as infection or head trauma. This is an adequate if, rather lifeless, summation of what can be generally understood as mental illness. Plato wrote that “the greatest mistake in the treatment of diseases is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated”. I think that dancing is a metaphor for the process of mental illness: there are steps along the way, some are taught, some are sensed; it is a part of the large dance of life in which we all engage.

As many of you know, I work in the field of substance addiction treatment. How does this qualify me to speak to you today about mental illness? Well, it turns out that a significant proportion [anywhere from 50 to80 percent] of the people with whom we work have co-occurring disorders. This means that people may have substance abuse problems as well as mental health disorders. Also, like any minister preparing a sermon, I have done some research. In addition, I have been diagnosed with a mental illness myself. About 15 years ago, I was diagnosed with depression and I spent a number of years before and after the diagnosis, going to therapy. So, from three different angles I approach the topic of mental health with you. If you remember the offering story, that had three angles too: the navy ship, the radio, and the lighthouse.

The late George Carlin had an amazing way with humor and language. He could track things in the human condition and make sense of them from new and provocative angles and make us laugh at the same time. Please note, I’ve managed to take the humor but not the insight out of this particular bit. One time, on the comedy channel he pointed out how language can remove and/or sanitize a difficult condition. Carlin explained that in the first World War soldiers who suffered from their war-time experiences were identified as having shell shock. This is a basic almost direct title for behaviors, thoughts and feelings that were the result of dealing with the carnage and destruction of war-time. During the second World War, this same condition was called battle fatigue. In downgrading shock to fatigue, somehow the mental and emotional symptoms were diluted. With the Korean and Viet Nam wars, this collection of behaviors was re-named operational exhaustion. By dressing up the words, we put a further distance between the actual cause and its result. Carlin pointed out that with the re-naming of this same condition for soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, which became PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, we have added another veil to cover the fear, anxiety, and nightmares which can accompany this mental illness. So in showing us this movement from shell shock to battle fatigue to operational exhaustion and finally PTSD, George Carlin illustrated how we indicate discomfort with the pain of living with mental illness.

A recent PBS documentary, “Brain Injury Dialogues” showed a sociologist, Dr. Mark Sherry talking about “the disability tragedy model…[and that it] has gone out the window”. It has been replaced by a disability pride movement. Where change, due to disability was once seen as a deficit, it has become an asset as people with disabilities express them selves more fully. As a Unitarian Universalist I cherish our ability to bring our whole selves to this community. We belong to a religious community which respects the right of everyone to dignity, self respect, the ongoing search for truth and meaning, and the interdependent web of all existence. Our spiritual dance is one of inclusion, even as we learn new steps and better moves.

My experiences at Integrity House and here at Montclair with the Mental Health Adventures group, have led me to a similar conclusion about tragedy changing to pride.. Let’s look at the five stages of the soul, as described by Harry R. Moody. With these stages, we can begin to see the connection that Plato was discussing with healing on both physical and spiritual dimensions. His stages are:
The Call; The Search; The Struggle; The Breakthrough; The Return.

In understanding the dance of mental illness as a spiritual dance with these steps, we can expand our awareness of mental wellness.

When we look at the story of Tigger and Rabbit in the reading from the Tao of Pooh, we can see these stages. The Call begins with Rabbit determining that Tigger is a danger to others and himself because his exuberant bouncing led to Eeyore falling into the river. Rabbit feels called to change Tigger, as a way to improve the world. The second stage, the Search, involves Rabbit making up a plan. Rabbit doesn’t spend a lot of time searching for guidance or teaching; he just wants to solve the problem of Tigger and his bounce so he devises his own strategy. Rabbit’s plan: to lose Tigger in the Forest so that his bounce would no longer trouble anyone; this turns into the third stage, The Struggle. Rabbit’s quest to lose Tigger turns into Rabbit getting seriously lost. The struggle leads to the fourth stage: the Breakthrough. The lostness of rabbit propels him to this brilliant insight: Tigger is Friendly, Grand, Large, Helpful, and Bouncing. “Oh Tigger, I am glad to see you”. And thus, Rabbit arrives at the fifth stage: The Return, when he goes back to his usual life with Pooh and Christopher Robin and all the others who live in and near the Hundred Acre Wood. Yet he returns with a new appreciation for Tigger and his bouncing, Rabbit is transformed.

There are a multiplicity of conditions that fall into the general category of mental illness such as Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Schizophrenia. Each has their own development, symptoms, and healing journeys. At times, they can be used to destroy or weed out and separate people. The critical spiritual crises of mental illness include despair, fear, lack of trust, alienation, and restlessness. Who here has experienced one or more of these spiritual crises? Rather than mental illness, I think of us all having a dimension of mental health within us, and each of us moves along the dimension in a positive or negative direction depending on many variables.

Now we can apply the Five Stages of the Soul to the dance of mental health. We begin to hear the call of our soul when we first have indications of things not going well with us. Feelings of despair, fear, loneliness, alienation, restlessness, and all our suffering give us reasons to answer the call of our soul for the Search. We’re not always clear for what we are searching; it may be comfort but we’ll be getting more uncomfortable before we begin to find healing. As May Sarton said, “Pain is the greatest teacher…joy [and] happiness are what we take and do not question…but pain forces us to think, and to make connections, to sort out what is what, to discover what has been happening to cause it.” People who are dancing with mental healthness go on a Search or quest; a mythical journey that like Odysseus involves time, dramatic situations, new characters, death-defying adventures, and the music keeps changing. Dealing with the medical system in this country adds layers to this questing dance, which becomes a part of the struggle. We wrestle with what our mental healthness means to our lives, our sense of ourselves, and the meaning of our existence.

In describing the Struggle, Dr. Moody wrote these words: “These challenges may not look to us like the devils and dragons depicted in myth. But they surely behave like them. They haunt us and appear as insensitive bosses, faithless lovers, ungrateful children, mounting bills, accidents, rejection slips, tax audits, all the large and small woes that beset the modern pilgrim”. One of the things we learn in the struggle, is that it might be easier to do this with company. I remember one of the Beatles saying that Elvis was alone and that made his success and fame harder to handle, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo had each other as companions along the crazy journey of music and notoriety. We can all use allies and amigos on our journeys no matter where we are going.

The breakthrough for many people who are on mental health adventures is that it is a spiritual transformation; a move from tragedy to pride; an understanding that what was once seen as a deficit is now an asset. Let’s go back to Pooh.

For a long time they looked at the river beneath them, saying nothing, and the river said nothing too, for it felt very quiet and peaceful on this summer afternoon.

“Tigger is all right really,” said Piglet lazily.
“Of course he is,” said Christopher Robin.
“Everybody is really,” said Pooh. “That’s what I think,” said Pooh. “But I don’t suppose I’m right,” he said.
“Of course you are,” said Christopher Robin.

Martha Graham, who was a great dancer and choreographer, wrote that “there is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost…” Whatever our struggles, we do end up on a journey, which can become a dance for our souls.

The second theme of Mental Health Month is “Live Well! It’s Essential for Your Potential!” This is how we reach the last and perhaps the next stage, the Return. Sarah Polley, an actor and director, said that “the ways in which people are damaged are the ways in which they’re strong. It’s what makes people interesting – what they’ve overcome and how, and what they haven’t and how that’s become a good thing. Almost everyone’s life is both a gorgeous story and a tragedy. I think being alive is really, really hard, and I’m constantly stunned and amazed by people who make it interesting and beautiful.” Every Sunday, we light our chalice to beauty, truth, and love. Every day we have the opportunity to dance the dance of mental wellness.

May we hear the music of our spirit and let our life lightly dance on the edges of time .
May we be able to look into the eyes of another and see ourselves.
May we feel suffering and despair, and know that transformation is possible.
May we understand that we are more than a diagnosis and we are not alone.
May we know that everyone is all right because of where they are on their dancing journey.

Shalom, Blessed Be, Amen, Salaam, Namaste…