When I was 14, I was a lonely person. My parents had divorced, I had one friend, no real social life. So when I was welcomed by the Wednesday night Bible study at my church one day, I fell into Christianity with the desperate need for something that we all feel and that I felt in particular because of my loneliness.
That loneliness and all the accompanying feelings were, of course, depression at work on me. Instead of healing my mind, I placed bandaids over my hurts and pretended – was convinced – God would make me whole. That is the Christian message of salvation: we go from death to life.
It didn’t work. It couldn’t work, not without me continuing to believe in the myth of God, something I was increasingly unable to do. I tried to believe in a nicer, more humane God (thanks, Quakers) but, in the end, only atheism – a life and world where no god exists and none is needed – was my only honest option.
That fixed nothing. I continued to have loads of problems with life, and they got worse over time. Of course they did: an untreated, or wrongly treated, illness will always get worse. Mental illness is no different than arthritis or heart disease or a busted leg or whatever; the brain is nothing more than another part of the machinery of the body.
And my brain was not healthy.
Fast forward to today. I am much easier with the fact that I will die and my consciousness will cease. It’s more sad than frightening; I like being alive and would prefer to stay so for many centuries. That is probably not going to happen, but I’ll keep my eye open for an opportunity.
My brain is healthier today but I still have a long ways to go to be at a place where I can live my life in a fulfilling way. I’m getting there, step by step. Mindfulness is the key, but not just any generic mindfulness. My practice begins with the Buddha’s four main teachings about life, the Four Noble Truths. This leads to the Eightfold Path, and that leads to me, through my meditation practice, trying to live according to these concepts and principles.
It’s working, too. This is not a religious path; it’s the path of the dharma, and that means, for me, based on the Buddha’s teachings but without all the religious stuff added over the centuries following his death. The Buddha did not form a religion or religious order; he had those who followed his teachings, but he didn’t even bother to set up some kind of succession to follow his death.
That wasn’t his problem. Once he was dead, it was the problem of those left alive.
Today, it’s my problem, and that has also made it my opportunity to heal and grow.
For a person dealing with depression and anxiety, the basics of life are an unfathomable problem. For this person dealing with depression and anxiety, I think it’s safe to say that my challenge with the basics begins with getting over myself: hating myself, afraid of doing what I dream of doing, letting shame block me from acting on what I know is right.
I’m a mess, but less so with every day that passes. A meditation practice grounded in the dharma, from which mindfulness flows, is a mental practice that is the functional equivalent of hitting the gym every day: stronger and more capable with every passing session, every passing day. Right now, instead of working on core or legs (which is not a way I focus on gym work but whatever), I am focusing on wholeness.
I didn’t intend to focus on wholeness, but the concept has caught my attention through the books I’ve been reading. Here’s what Jon Kabatt-Zinn writes in “Full Catastrophe Living”–
Healing always involves an attitudinal and emotional transformation.
That transformation, he writes, “is brought about by the encounter with one’s own wholeness, catalyzed by the meditation practice itself.” Several of the guided meditations I use (based on Kabatt-Zinn’s work and best stated in “Mindfulness - An 8-Week Plan” by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, include phrases such as “You are already whole and complete, just as you are”.
This would sound ridiculous to me without my understanding of the dharma. Mindfulness meditation works when we approach our thoughts, our feelings, and our physical sensations without judgment. The more I am able to look at myself and see myself without judging myself, the less broken I feel. I began with physical discomforts: rather than “my thumb hurts” (arthritis), I try to describe it: a burning sensation, throbbing, a pulling feeling, etc.
Just the way I should have spoken with my ex-wife about our problems: descriptions without judgments. “A burning sensation” is a value-free description; “oh god it hurts” tells me nothing of value.
Today, a few pieces have started coming together. The concept of wholeness is becoming more clear and more real, more personal. In contrast to the religious ideas I adopted as a teenager, I am able to be myself, as I am, whole and complete. Not perfect and not healthy, but not broken in pieces. I am me, and I am fully me, depression and anxiety and all.
I have a mental illness, and I am just fine as I am. Tomorrow, this will still be true, except I’ll be just a bit healthier.