All my life, I’ve struggled with the limitations of my mind. As a child, it was a painful shyness. As a teenager, depression and anxiety. As an adult, bipolar disorder, a ruthless master that arbitrarily seemed to decide how I was going to feel from one day to the next. My mind would shift from feeling fine for a few weeks or months to feeling like a failure for an extended period of time.
Buddhist teachings say we need to change our minds to change our experiences. If you have bipolar disorder, you may struggle with your mind more than others, but you also have the privilege of truly understanding this Buddhist view of the mind. Think about it: oftentimes people think to themselves, if only I had more money or fame or wealth or whatever, then I would be happy. If you live with bipolar disorder, you understand that these factors that exist outside of you have no true impact on your mood. You know that your happiness doesn’t reside in obtaining some misguided goal. Your happiness resides within you.
Take yesterday morning. I went to my nephew’s birthday party where twenty two-year-old children stuffed cake in their mouths and danced in circles to songs played by a jovial musician my sister hired for the occasion. Two of the mothers at the party, women I went to high school with, were either pregnant or holding babies. I made small talk with them. And I smiled to hide my sadness.
The self that I normally indulge and listen to throbbed with intense jealousy of these women who are younger than me and have husbands and babies. My feelings of inadequacy and depression were only exacerbated by news I’d inadvertently stumbled upon on Facebook earlier this week: my boyfriend, who told me he didn’t want children and who left me two years ago for a younger woman, is now having a baby.
During my nephew’s party, mantras I’ve listened to my whole adult life—no one will ever love you—you’ve failed at your life—pulsed through my mind.
Then I remembered the Buddhist lesson I learned last week. The teacher Kadam Morten talked in class about shifting from the perceived to the perceiver. In other words, we don’t helplessly succumb to our negative thoughts. Imagine you are looking in a mirror, he explained. Instead of getting lost in the reflected image of ourselves, we can notice the mirror—maybe a dot of toothpaste—and shift from being the reflected to the reflector. We step back and understanding that our truest self is the person who is able to examine our thoughts from a comfortable distance. The jealousy, the pain, the hurt: these are all parts of the mind we can accept and acknowledge rather than succumb completely.
I love this concept of accepting our suffering and living with it. We’re so pressured by society to believe that if we become happy there will be no suffering. But we can find beauty and connection in our suffering if we are able to accept it.
Thich Nhat Hanh explains in No Mud, No Lotus:
With mindful breathing, you can recognize the presence of a painful feeling, just like an older sibling greets a younger sibling. You can say, “Hello, my suffering. I know you are there.” In this way, the energy of mindfulness keeps us from being overwhelmed by painful feelings. We can even smile to our suffering and say, “Good morning, my pain, my sorrow, my fear. I see you. I am here. Don’t worry.”
Here’s how Pema Chödrön conveys a similar message it in Taking the Leap
The sad part is that all we’re all trying to do is to not feeling that underlying uneasiness. The sadder part is that we proceed in such a way that the uneasiness only gets worse. The message here is that the only way to ease our pain is to experience it fully. Learn to stay. Learn to stay with uneasiness, learn to stay with the tightening … so that the habitual chain reaction doesn’t continue to rule our lives, and the patterns that we consider unhelpful don’t keep getting stronger as the days and months and years go by.
Both of these books are worth reading in their entirety. Consider keeping them by your bedside, as I do, to remind yourself in dark times that you are not alone.
*Important note: None of this is to suggest we can “think our way out” of depression. I am a strong believer in medication paired with therapy to treat mental illness because it’s been so integral in my staying healthy. When I say that happiness resides within us, I mean that we can train ourselves to influence the workings of our minds.