Notice the Mirror

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.

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Letting Go

We tell ourselves stories about who we are, and then we believe them. You may think to yourself: I am feeling depressed. I am lonely. I am heartbroken.

But what would it feel like to let go of these thoughts? To not succumb to all of the voices in your head spewing out negativity?

In learning more about Buddhism, letting go is starting to feel possible for me. I’m not suggesting I’ve done this completely at all. But I am fascinated by the concept of the self as illusion. What this means to me is that the narrative we carry around with us, that voice inside our head that often tells us terrible things—that isn’t real. 

In other words, just because you think something doesn’t make it true or real or worthwhile.

You are separate from that voice.

This isn’t meant to simplify or play down what it’s like to suffer with a mood disorder or depression. Practicing Buddhism in this preliminary way as I learn more about it makes it clear to me that we need to be that much more vigilant about caring for ourselves through therapy and through medication. Then we will be ready and able to let go of that natural tether to our “self” and embark on this journey to understand and transform our minds.

Letting Go of Jealousy

Jealousy is an emotion I feel most profoundly when I am depressed. What makes this bitterness I often feel over others’ successes and joys particularly painful is that I’m embarrassed about this evil part of me. That embarrassment, in turn, fuels more feelings of depression.

Last Sunday, I wrote about my own suffering. I vowed to change Sunday for myself, and today, I am happy to say that I did just that by going to a meditation class at the Kadampa Meditation Center in Chelsea to listen to a talk about “Freedom from Jealousy.” I was a little wary of the whole thing because I’d never been to this meditation center; before I left home I envisioned a dozen sorry people like myself sitting around in a room resembling a Church basement with dim lighting and rusty metal chairs.

When I arrived, I was shocked and grateful to see at least 100 people—lovely, smart people—sitting in a semi-circle to hear the teachings of  Gen Kelsang Jampa, who delivered one of the most inspiring and thoughtful talks I’ve ever attended.  What made it particularly powerful to me was to watch this enlightened monk acknowledge and explain that jealousy is, simply, “when we see something good and feel something bad.” Why would that happen? he asked.

He went on to explain how jealousy makes us “see the good fortune of others and then perceive our own inadequacies.” It wasn’t that he had some kind of silver bullet solution for this problem, but he did explain that what we need is a change of mind to change our lives (yes, very Buddhist indeed) and let go of this evil feeling within ourselves.

Instead of caving into our jealousy, he asked us, what if we rejoiced in the joys we witness in others?

He acknowledged that this transformation within ourselves was a journey and would not happen over night. For starters, we just need to allow the good fortune we see outside ourselves bring us happiness. For me, it was truly remarkable to be somewhere on a Sunday morning where everyone nodded as a teacher talked about the ways we can all torture ourselves with evil thoughts that, once acknowledged, we can begin to release.

Somewhere towards the end of his talk he asked us: “How many people would look at our lives and say, ‘If only I had that life.’” I thought about so many people suffering pain, hunger, violence. And it was impossible to not realize, in that moment, and right now, how lucky I am for my life.