The Dark Dog: What the Body Wants by Melanie Ida Chopko

This is a part of an ongoing series I'm writing regarding my experience with bipolar depression, and practicing with a constellation of wellness. You can read more on two other elements here, vast nature and aikido. May it be of service.

Today I want to write about touch and connection, empty space and outbreath.

As I wrestled with the state of my mind and spirit this summer, trying to both honor grief and loss and also stay above water, I went back to re-read my own writings on my experience of depression and anxiety. I went searching for what levers I needed to pull to care for myself this time around. In my last serious depression three years ago, I remember my godfather Dennis Rivers sitting with me and suggesting I view it in an entirely different way. Since pain is a living system's way of communicating, what is this depression wanting to tell me? Even under the waves of anxiety and flatness, there is a center of light and wisdom that is truly me. Buddhists call this rigpa - the innermost essence [1].

So I centered myself one night, wrote a love note to my brain and body, the system that has carried my soul for 33 years, and asked. And it answered: I need more touch, more connection and empty space.

I think when I'm experiencing depression, my tendency can be to lean on one side of what I've learned to be three elements that create thriving mental health - wellness (read: diet and exercise), purpose and meaning, intimacy and personal relationships [2] It's pretty easy for me to be obsessive about the wellness side - that's the stuff I can most easily control. How many hours of Aikido am I doing? Am I eating enough of the foods I know are good for my airy/"vata" body type - heavy foods like meat, sweet potatoes, black beans, kale. Am I treating sugar like poison and staying away with a 10 foot pole?

But prioritizing touch, connection and friendship - these take vulnerability and empty space, slowness and emergence. Sometimes that is the absolute last thing my yacking brain thinks I need. I remember one colleague reflecting, "Geesh, Melanie, you're the most productive depressed person I've ever met." 

But that's just it. I've learned that busyness, flying from one place to another and overworking is a safety shape for my system - and in my opinion, for western culture as a whole. It's a desperate attempt to avoid pain by avoiding the empty, grief, the dark and the unknown. But these "yin" concepts are profoundly vital to every living system, and experiencing interconnection. And pushing past the inevitable need for empty and presence just dials up my panic. 

So I'm back to expanding my ecology of touch and deep respect for it, above and beyond sexuality. Babies that receive everything but touch DIE, and we adults are probably no different. In the absence of a partner, I'm back to gifting my body a short massage every week. I'm back to giving and vulnerably asking for long hugs and foot rubs. I'm back to prioritizing the fine art of hanging out with my kindred spirits, flopping around watching movies on the couch with them.

It's important to note - I'm not entirely sure this will work, and I'm not opposed to returning to the rocket blast method of anti-depressants that, for a short time, to make a bridge between one really hard patch of life and another, maybe supporting me to shift out of a season of grief. They've probably saved my life and the lives of other artists I love. And, it feels powerful to not to just ask - do I need to be on medication again - but also, what does my body need today? How can I give it the touch, connection, joy and empty space it's asking for?

And, on the more metta level, what happens when we as a culture make empty space together? What do we hear there about grief, anger and confusion as we see what is happening to our world? As eco-philosopher Joanna Macy suggests, that profoundly changes what choices we make, the very world we create, the Great Turning back to a life sustaining society.


[1] Rigpa and the Nature of Mind, excerpted from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sungyol Rinpoche.

[2] So You're Depressed, Now What? with Nurse Rona on KPFA

[3] Joanna Macy

Holy moly, I did it! by Melanie Ida Chopko


I have so many thoughts about my experience recording for the first time. Yesterday went so incredibly well, and I'm beyond proud of the road of arriving there. 

My focus of the past two months preparing for this day few months reminded me alot of getting for my first belt test in Aikido. I remember being shocked when the Sensei, the instructor, said - "You're ready to test. So we'll schedule it for three months from now." After spending much of my life improvising things and getting along just fine, it was a completely new idea to prepare enough so that something was internalized in my body. It also turns on it's head my understanding of what and how long preparation is. Was it really just the last two months when I committed to playing my songs 75 more times, coloring in boxes on my practice log? Or did it actually start when I made a set of demos, or even 2 years ago when I decided I wanted to record my songs at all? Or actually, the seed was inside the first time I sat in front of any one of my teachers, Steve Baughman, Rachel Efron or Diana Gameros, my ability to play incomplete, but with a clear hunger to grow the technical skill I needed to express what was inside of me.

I feel overwhelmed with grace that I somehow, through all of those times, I kept coming back. With the support of people around me, I turned down the volume on my "goodness, let's hurry this up" monkey brain, and kept preparing. I kept played over and over, carved over and over with curiosity, and commitment. "Melanie," Steve would say, "Play the passage everyday like the monk washing the rice bowl, with attention and reverence." This is so incredibly outside of my nature, to stay as something unfolds, but I was willing to do it. And, yesterday, sitting in front of the Steinway piano, I understood this idea of reverence. All along it was reverence for my material, for the room I was sitting in, for the people I hired to play with me and record me.

When I first visited the studio, JJ the owner said, "This Steinway is the result of hundreds of years of evolution and learning." And I love that - the beauty and power of instrument's tone lies not just in the piano, but in the hundreds of minds and hands that lovingly created it. 

Just like my road.



17 Days Left! EP Family, Aikido by Melanie Ida Chopko

Today I thought I'd write more about another bright spot in my EP family, or, in this case, my creative process in general. I've been training in Aikido for 2 years now, and lately I've been taken with it on a whole new level. This week I've been thinking about the practice of bowing, and reverence.

We bow alot in Aikido, which was a totally new practice for me in the beginning. We bow to enter the dojo, the practice space, we bow when we step on and off the mat, and each time we begin or end with a training partner. At first I did this in a sort of automatic, automaton way, but in the past six months I was invited to view it as an act of mindful reverence - I bow to the mystery of this spiritual practice that anchors my beloved bipolar mind (more on that, here). I bow to the courage and dedication of the person in front of me who has show up to train with me, to support me in finding my edges and learn beyond them. 

But what is wild is that now, I've noticed that my body prepares to bow in places that are unrelated to Aikido. It's like my body is wanting to bow to the sacred everywhere: When I enter the home of my mentor, Shilpa, or enter the circle of changemakers at a YES! Jam. When I stand in front of a friend and listen to them share their questions, their commitments and confusions. When I enter my money class each week and sit with people dedicated to using the energy of money with grace and mindfulness.

I remember reading once about one of my musical heroes bowing to the piano after he was on a meditation retreat, and I want to start bringing even more reverence there as well. I want to bring this physical expression of reverence to the great mystery of music, the voice of transformation, grief, joy and beauty.

You can learn more about my project, here, and give to make it possible. . In the 10 days since I started this fundraiser, we've reached 30% of the total project goal, exactly on track to bring it across the finish line.