Mental Health, The Mind, Conditioning, Addiction, Awakening

Addiction and the Conditioned Mind

Usually when I tell someone new that I’m sober, they ask if I go to meetings. My answer is no, I do not. This opens up a new line of questioning, or I feel compelled to explain myself further. For many people there is an unspoken understanding that getting sober “on your own” isn’t really possible, and that those who think this is an option are doomed to fail. I’m not here to argue that it should be done alone, and agree that it’s probably easier when there are a lot of other people supporting your choice. But it is possible; all it takes is a bit more consciousness.

“I just use a basic awareness approach,” I explain, “I watch my mind lie to me all day long, and simply do not buy into its lies.” That really is it. It’s that simple—and that hard.

In recovery from anything, we learn to watch the habit-ridden mind spin out its familiar patterns. Here’s the key: We just keep watching it and remaining aware of the crazy things it says without being moved to action. We realize that just because a thought or impulse is arising, that doesn’t mean we have to follow it. Craving? So what? We’re cravey for a minute, and then we’re not. This is the nature of the common mind: It pulls us in different directions all the time. It is not a safe place.

Using awareness becomes very difficult with severe addictions because, over time, addiction systematically lowers our ability to exercise choice. Still it is true that if we make the commitment to change a habit that no longer serves us, all we must do is strengthen a new way of being: Every time we stay aware of the mind rather than acting out the entrenched impulse to drink or smoke or use (or do anything), we become a bit more free. This is the basic internal process of all recovery from addiction, no matter what the modality is called.

It feels important to note that nowhere in my line of thinking is this idea that “I can’t drink.” Why remove my agency like that? To say this is inherently disempowering; it carries a subtext of “but I would if I could.” Therein lies immediate suffering. It shows that we view giving up alcohol to be a sad consequence of our mistakes, but this really isn’t true. Stripped of its allure, we can clearly see: Drinking alcohol actually isn’t that awesome. Surprisingly enough, ingesting poison isn’t super beneficial for a happy life. This is true especially when we experience certain levels of freshness and clarity that we just can’t feel while drinking regularly. Experiencing consciousness in its fullness makes getting drunk laughable.

Every day—dozens of times a day, even—we know we actually can drink. We can do and say many things that are harmful. We can… but we don’t. We are humans with some amount of will, and this will becomes stronger the more we use it.

We rewrite the mind’s patterns in this way, transforming ourselves little by little. When we are very near to freedom from the mind, it even begins to feel like a fun game. When it comes down to it, we—being pure, unconditioned consciousness—are just playing with our conditioned human minds. We are entertaining the mind through many lifetimes, and its every move is a requirement for our eventual liberation. We come to see that in the end, the mind was really an opponent we created for ourselves.

And why did we do this? Just for fun, just to do it. It is beautiful and hilarious when we win the game, and necessarily a surprise. It’s kind of like hide and seek, except that instead of opening the closet to find freedom hiding there, freedom appears magically before us when we least expect it.

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I’ve read a lot of popular blogs and stories on addiction, and I see what makes them popular: The drama. We love this juicy notion of “battling addiction,” “me vs. alcoholism,” “how my demons almost won,” etc. We feed on a Hollywoodesque creation of good vs. evil in the storyline of the whole world, unconsciously sustaining a war of cosmic forces that ultimately doesn’t even exist!

We actually energize the mechanisms of evil by giving evil our strongest attention. Similarly, we give addiction power and strength by treating it like an “enemy” we must “defeat.” Psychologically turning oneself (and the world) into a battleground ensures casualties, and we should also watch our propensity to do this. It makes life more difficult than it needs to be, plus we can even become addicted to this kind of drama. The unconscious ego loves drama because it results in an intense story to affix itself to.

But it is not “my addiction” or “my disease” that dresses alcohol up to appear as a fun choice. The simpler fact is that it is really the conditioned mind—the mind I practice observing as often as possible, and the same kind of mind most humans occupy—that does this. This  conditioned mind (and the various ways such minds influence each other in the collective) is the root of all behavioral/mental disorders, as well as many physical diseases. This makes our solution to such problems actually quite easy to see: Get everybody unconditioned!

It may sound simple, but once we start on the path, we see that there’s actually way more unconsciousness we must bring to light than we ever bargained for. No one can make this journey but us, on our own. And like any journey, it has its perils. Usually the mind convinces us to go back to normal mode, because shit just gets too scary. The mind will pull out all the stops to prevent us from escaping it, and fear is one of its most seductive ploys.

And the fact is that most of us are still so unconscious that we don’t even care to look deeply at what’s going on. We feel the process is unnecessary, having zero understanding of what it could mean for the entire world if we were to each take the journey and not turn around on the path.

Something very strange has happened with the concept of mind in the West: We identify with it almost totally, worship it, and live in it, often to our own detriment… and yet we continually diminish its power. “It’s all in your head,” we say, as if that’s no big deal. Psychosomatic illnesses are often treated as “less real” than those we can find an organic basis for, and we say things like “mind over matter.”

But what if we acknowledge that this mind has also created the matter and the very challenges that lie before us?

This is our true situation, though I don’t want anyone to take my word for it.

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We are very often under the mistaken belief that “we use our minds.” In the vast majority of people, this is not the case, for as our minds remain conditioned, they are using us. There really is no reason for happiness to be a struggle. There is no reason to feel bored, stuck, or trapped. There is not even any real reason to seek if you can feel utterly full of peace and joy right where you are (until we are even done experiencing joy and peace, but that’s for another post).

If you were, in fact, using your mind, would you use it to be miserable, negative, addicted, confused? Would you use it to be full of peace or full of discomfort and neuroses? Would you choose to experience life as a strange yet interesting adventure, or a series of difficulties to “get through”?

Everything we are discussing here is at the root of the spiritual path. Buddhism, at its heart, is about discovering the natural mind, the buddha-nature which is everything (as well as an infinite, perfect nothingness which also creates every thing), which we may also refer to as pure consciousness or God. Buddha-nature is always here. Consciousness is always here. Christ is always here. Allah is always here. The Holy Spirit is always here. God is always here. We are always here. There are many ways of saying this same thing, and all prophets have seen this same thing. You can fully experience this thing when your mind becomes completely unconditioned.

Our conditioning goes much deeper than we tend to appreciate in our ordinary dialogues. Often, people on the fringes of the political spectrum are under the impression that they have seen through their conditioning. In reality, questioning the status quo barely scratches the surface. It’s very common to question the easier things and stop looking when we start to feel uncomfortable or frustrated. If we continue to suffer from anger and walk around feeling judgmental, prideful, and caught up in the past, we are still very much under the spell of conditioning. We cannot help our fellow beings if this is our situation.

Things we take for “basic facts” must also be taken into consideration. Our “rational conclusions” should be turned and considered anew. That doesn’t mean we reject everything that has been presented to us, just that we have a genuine willingness to take it all into question. Some of the most seemingly “open-minded” people will never do this because it is so threatening to the identity.

However, if we do this honestly and sincerely—and do it until the bitter, sometimes-terrifying end—we will find that something miraculous awaits us.

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It is not just drinking that my mind tries to lure me in with: All thoughts and feelings which keep my being small are things I watch. For example, in meditation, the mind often says things like “What’s next?” “This is boring.” “I should be writing.” “My heart is beating too fast.” “I don’t need to be doing this.”

All of these are various forms of resistance to being present; they are just ways we cover up simply Being. Please note that there can be no peace within ourselves or in the world until we are at least okay with just being. The glory of consciousness is that we can even become superbly blissful just being. We are contented and joyful and clear-seeing, just sitting still. There is nothing to “entertain” or even “relax” us. We can just be here.

If we see the conditioned mind for what it is—a small game we’re playing within an unlimited consciousness—freedom is soon ours, because we become that unlimited consciousness. That goes for addiction, and for many more psychological afflictions.

– Lish

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Mania, Mental Health, The Mind, Well-being

The Blessing of Mental Illness

We can think of the untranscended mind as a jail cell that we mistake for the entire world. When we see reality (i.e. “wake up”), it results in the equivalent of departing from this cell and into the wide open world. It’s like we march instinctively to the door of the cell—a door we never knew existed before that very moment—and step out into a vast field, experiencing sunlight for the first time. In many cases, we don’t know why we’ve been moved to this action.

Many people take steps towards the door. They become “spiritual” and challenge a few of their old beliefs, yet ultimately remain in the cell. Sometimes they’re right at the door with their hand on the knob, and they turn around to go hang out in jail for a while longer. The person always has a logical explanation for this action: “It’s not the right time,” “I have more important things to do,” “I’m fine the way I am,” “This doesn’t make any sense,” and “I just can’t accept this,” to name a few. When we get really close, the mind becomes even more preposterous, desperately trying to keep us in its grip. It might even say “Stop! I’m dying!” even though our bodies are perfectly healthy.

The cell of the mind can be very compelling. It has many tricks to keep us trapped within it. Nonetheless, it is the destiny of all beings to exit our cells. We will all discover true freedom and know the Absolute; it is only a matter of when.

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While beautiful, this departure from the old mode of thinking can be very overwhelming: A lasting shift means you can’t walk back into the cell. You turn around and the door to your cell is locked, or, more accurately, the entire structure has disappeared.

This is why awakening can feel so chaotic, especially for those of us who do not (consciously) seek to awaken. All our lives, at the encouragement of the world, we sincerely take our minds to be who and what we are. We believe the things the mind says about us, no matter how contradictory. We believe the things it says about others, no matter how cruel or simplistic. We cherish the mind and build it into something that seems strong. We stock it with stories and information and world-based knowledge; we use it to reinforce itself and our egos by finding all the “right” things to think. We become entranced by our personal histories, continuing to regale ourselves and others at every opportunity. And yet, for all this effort, identification with the mind and the past is always a misstep.

On the quest for fulfillment and Truth, we often make this misstep over and over and over again.

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Those of us who experience mental illness can feel like we’ve been born into awful jail cells: They are tight and cold and perhaps the only food we get is stale bread and butter. What I am describing would be the equivalent to a depressive and/or anxious mind; it affords little comfort and is incredibly limiting. (This notion stands apart from one’s intellect, which can still be extremely sharp. A strong intellect isn’t of much use if the mind itself keeps the person in tremendous pain.)

In terms of thought, such a mind can convince us we are worthless, that life is not worth living, and that there is something dramatically wrong with us. It will show us only what is evil and sick in the world; it may even unconsciously invite evil and sickness in order to affirm itself. I remember this mode of life now as a distant memory or an absurd dream.

The most important factor for this jail cell to go unexamined is not that it be an enjoyable place, but that it be stable. Most of us feel perfectly okay with our small cells because they feel consistent enough. We can even observe that many people in this world are not comfortable in their minds at all. We can see on the contorted faces of “important people” that they are miserable, taking everything seriously, constantly having to maintain their egos. They lead ridiculous lives, and the people around them help build their distorted realities. The minds they occupy and identify with are not cozy, but they are reliable, and this reliability is enough to prevent one from seeking true freedom.

Someone who might do well in this world (materially speaking) would be someone with a nice jail cell, a comfortable-enough mind. Here they are given various foods, room to stretch out, and a lot of things to read and look at. They take themselves as “fine”—maybe even “happy.” And as far as their reality goes, this is true. The dream of thought in which they operate is a nice enough dream that waking up is no concern of theirs. Such is their course in life, and you cannot wake up someone who sincerely wants to stay asleep. However, as life on Earth becomes increasingly tense for humans, I expect there will be fewer and fewer of us who have the luxury of remaining unconscious in such a way.

Those who are comfortable and/or stable within their minds have very little motivation to leave. This is the blessing of mental illness: The level of discomfort that the mind can bring is the very factor that compels us to get out of it.  Self-hatred, chronic anxiety, fear, neurosis—these things are like the jail cell shrinking in size, perhaps becoming unlivable. When the mind becomes unlivable for extended periods of time, we might call this severe depression, which our culture explains in various ways. The primary causes of depression are very simple.

Mainstream psychiatry overcomplicates this simplicity and misses the point that human beings don’t really exist in a vacuum separate from the rest of the world. We only act like we do, and this great pretending act is actually one of the main causes of widespread depression. All through life we bullshit ourselves about who we are, usually without the luxury of even knowing we’re doing it.

Sometimes we see suicide as a way out of this unlivable jail cell. Here, we see just how hopelessly entangled we are with our minds: We believe that only way to escape the mind is to escape life itself. It doesn’t need to be this way. You can be free of a choking mind without ending your physical life—so free, in fact, that you will regard your depression as strange in retrospect. You do not have to live in your mind. You do not have to allow your thoughts to dictate your entire existence.

What you are is so much more vast and perfect than your jail cell. Discovering this vast perfection is only a matter of distancing yourself from those thoughts that pull you in, inviting you to live in them. It is in this way that we find who and what we really are. In this discovery, our prior suffering is small and faraway. It cannot touch the Truth.

We must learn to reject the mind’s tricks over and over and over again, to simply stay right here.

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The mind I took myself to be—the mind that was called “bipolar”—was like a shifting jail cell. There were times when this cell was filled with many beautiful things. It was enormous. It had a cozy bed and art on the walls and all the books I ever wanted. It had music and jewels and Indian food and gelato. Then, immediately and without warning, this cell would transform into a stark, tiny dungeon with nothing in it but the dirty floor. The height of my cell’s ever-changing nature occurred during a major manic episode and in the year that followed it.

What was once called “an illness” has revealed itself to be a great teacher. The whole time, as a deeper consciousness was germinating within my being, I experienced this mind as a terrible burden. It felt dense and heavy, like I just couldn’t go on within it (and I didn’t.).

Today, I couldn’t be more grateful for the levels of instability my mind has reached. What these experiences have taught me is that the personal mind simply cannot be a stable place, even for those who externally seem very stable. Its desires change from day to day, hour to hour. It will claim it wants one thing and then compel us to do the complete opposite. It can convince us to harm our bodies and environments in various ways. It will cling to events that occurred many many years ago. Being powered by the mind, these events will hold our beings hostage, destroying our opportunity for joy. The mind is certainly capable of clinging to stable depression rather than accepting the challenge for freedom, which would require that it lose its power. It will judge. It will make Heaven and Hell for us, perhaps in the same day.

Its instability is ultimately revealed in death: The personal mind will end when the physical body is no longer sustained. Only in our discovery of the timeless Self (that which is outside of the personal self) do we know life in its fullness. The jail cell of a conditioned mind represents both impermanence and smallness, both of which create suffering. 

Getting out of the cell and coming to know your true mind—this is where everything is.

– Lish

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"Levels", Mental Health, Reality, Spirituality, The Ego

The “Unplanned” Awakening

An uncontrollable pull towards higher consciousness is the defining feature of a spiritual awakening. (Actually, the defining moment is the “click,” the actual “moment of waking up” that occurs for reasons I can’t explain. There isn’t much more I have to say about the “click,” at least not right now.)

I’d like to address why I have chosen to use the phrase “higher consciousness.” I’m not a huge fan of a hierarchical concept of consciousness because it immediately invites the ego to compare “its level” to that of those around us. We often want to know where we are on the scale, affirming that we are above some, like our parents and/or annoying co-workers maybe, but below others, like saints and realized mystics. Unless we remain vigilant, visualizing a hierarchy of consciousness tends to reinforce the mindset that we are better or worse than others. The conditioning that goes into imagining ourselves as better/worse than others is very deep-seated, and requires diligence to overcome. There is a lot of habit energy bound up in this way of thinking, so it takes a lot of fresh awareness to alter.

And when we get down to it, pure consciousness is not rooted in ideas of “higher” and “lower;” it cannot be “thought to,” and it cannot be defined. It simply is. All attempts to define consciousness fail immediately and always will, because definitions serve to create something static, and consciousness is not static… except it is, in a way, but also always moving. This thing is beyond both chaos and order; beyond movement and stillness. The experience of it does feel supremely still compared to the frequent inner chatter that often reigns in the mind, but it is also ever-flowing, not inert.

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From Basic Teachings of the Buddha, by Glenn Wallis.

And yet it still feels important to say that awakening pulls one towards “higher” consciousness, simply because that is my lived experience of awakening. When I am really here, I feel unquestionably higher than when I am bound up in habits (higher than before, not “superior to others.”). It feels undeniably better to rise each morning without a hangover, sit down, light some incense, and come back to the home in my heart than to repeatedly harm myself. Speaking of higher/lower in this way is not a moral judgment call, but a statement on how differently we can feel and live. It is about the experience of life becoming richer, more free, and more joyful, versus more trapped, more isolated, and more cravey.

There is suffering and not suffering. There is the feeling of being mired in past events, allowing old events/interactions to haunt us, and there is having personal power right now. If you try both of these experiences on, it becomes very clear which is more preferable, AKA “higher.”

Additionally: without the understanding that expanding our consciousness can result in a better direct experience of life, what would our motivation to do it be? This thing will not get us money. It will not get us fame, power, popularity, or any other tangible reward. It will not even “save the world.” In the beginning, we trust our intuition that there’s something greater than these things to attain to (or else we would never let go of our desires for such things), and there is.

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Awakening can happen whether the unconscious ego likes it or not, and whether or not we went looking for it. The unconscious ego may really, really not like it. The difficulties that can arise when the ego is resistant to its illusory nature, of course, may all be part of what you need to grow, but man, they can also be really rough. You can make things easier on yourself by not denying or resisting that you’ve woken up. This can only happen if we are aware that it has happened to us.

This was one of the main reasons why “my” awakening (which I put in quotes because it is not really “mine” to take credit for) was so incredibly fraught with chaos, confusion, and humiliation. At the time of the “click,” I didn’t even know things like ego deaths were possible. Throughout my education, I don’t believe we ever discussed the possibility of psychosis being thought of as a “spiritual emergency.” The message here is loud and clear: Smart, educated people understand that brain chemicals and genetics are “real,” and all that spiritual stuff is “not real,” or, at best, it’s still “less real” than science. (One of the most amazing and frustrating things about waking up is that you find literally the exact opposite to be true, but, I digress.)

I had meditated only a handful of times, and then stopped, because I wasn’t ready. There were times when I felt heavily bombarded with the reality of death as an abstract idea sometime in “the future,” and this bombardment gave me intense hits of anxiety, usually when I was trying to get to sleep. Still, I somehow always managed to sidestep this thought, get out of bed in the morning, and continue on in life as usual (“as usual” was with great suffering and anger, btw.) Part of this, again, occurred because that’s what I chose for myself, albeit unconsciously: This was what I needed to end up in this exact place right now.

But on a worldly level, it’s been difficult because spiritual/existential matters are are pushed very var away from the collective mind. We don’t sincerely talk about these things. We tend to dismiss them as unimportant and/or avoid them completely. These are uncomfortable conversations most of us shy away from, the result of being repeatedly conditioned to believe that engaging with such thoughts is “heavy,” “morbid,” or simply unnecessary. This is because a lot of us do not understand our own existences, and it feels more important that we take care of our material needs (for many, this is a real concern), and/or more pleasurable to remain caught up in whatever-else we talk and think about. I definitely still fall prey to this temptation, just like I do to the temptation of pumpkin cupcakes.

However, in many parts of the world, material needs are not really a concern anymore. Humans are so far beyond needing to worry about their survival needs, and therefore it follows that our energy should be expended to consider other matters. Why do we not turn towards life’s ultimate concerns once shelter, food, and safety are obtained?

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From Thich Nhat Hanh’s Silence.

The answer lies in that conditioned discomfort with matters of life and death, along with a persistent feeling that there must be “more” we have to get and achieve before we’re ready to pursue things of the existential nature. Our culture is very good at engendering this kind of insecurity and providing us with distractions even if we do feel “secure enough.” It can feel as if we are living in one tremendous practice ground, trying to stave off mindless entertainment and other indulgences left and right.

Many of us do not really feel safe, even if we have plenty of material comforts. We are often on guard about losing our jobs, our spouses, our friends, our money. The truth is that losing these things is certainly possible, and that nothing is guaranteed to us in life. Rather than face this fact and find solid ground within, we usually try to just keep everything on the outside “under control.” On some level, we’re  aware of the futility of these attempts to control life. “We” will not always exist, our jobs may become obsolete, we may get in a terrible accident or contract an irreversible illness, our relationships may become strained and distant, and there really isn’t anything we can do about these things.

And still, because these can be very uncomfortable realities to think about, we avoid them. Or, if we do acknowledge these truths, it’s fleeting and panicky. I’m not suggesting we sit around and ruminate on how we could lose everything anytime, nor that we sit around wishfully imagining how everything could “get better” in life. Both lines of thinking are out of touch with reality, even if the latter temporarily makes us feel better.

We must simply accept the impermanence of everything “out there.” Doing so makes a huge step towards inner stability, which is the only lasting stability we’ll ever find.

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If you (like me) have/had an ego that was/is bound up in being overly-thinky, judgmental, and somewhat damaged, the process of awakening will probably be extremely intense. You’re trying to heal, make intellectual sense of the whole thing (you can’t), and perform daily obligations that suddenly feel ludicrous. It’s overwhelming, to say the least, but that is the nature of an unplanned awakening.

And it should be mentioned that all awakenings are “unplanned.” You cannot sit down with a calendar, plan on meditating for two years and then say “and then, on September 21st, 2019, I wake up.” The mind likes these kinds of “plans,” because then it feels like it’s “doing” something. It is much more unsettling (and exciting) to know that you could awaken at any moment, triggered by almost anything. We may not even experience it in this life, and that’s okay too, because we can still ameliorate our suffering by taking up certain practices. Turning awakening into a planned goal is understandable; the potential for it often gets us “on the path” in the first place. And yet, it is never something we can guarantee.

At best, we can prepare for it, so that the resulting changes are handled with skill and deep awareness.

– Lish

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Mania, Medication, Mental Health, Reality, Well-being

The Nature of Bipolar Mania

I’ve said before (here and here) that mania, in my experience, can occur during rapid, unplanned expansions in consciousness. Such expansions can happen if the ego takes enough hits to temporarily collapse, or when we do something like quit drinking after years of substance abuse (or both!). 

In response, the ego tries to keep up, resulting in delusions, and the pain attempting to be healed during this expansion sometimes expresses itself in rage and violence, especially if our movement/freedom is restricted. We desperately need to discharge this energy somehow, and being locked up in confined spaces is not helpful. The way to navigate life after a manic episode is to train in traversing these variations in consciousness skillfully, rather than allowing them to control you. If these pieces alone were to be understood by mainstream psychiatry, it would be revolutionary for all those suffering from mental illness.

The structure of the ego and the underlying consciousness must be incorporated into our psychological theories, or else we will do nothing but put a Band-Aid on the issue. We will fall prey to the mistaken belief that long-term medication is what’s necessary for these people, when truly, at some point, medication actually blocks the individual from further healing for the simple fact that it blunts emotion. (There are those whose instability is so debilitating and chronic that I understand the need for this, but in the majority of cases—especially for depression and anxiety—long-term meds are ultimately unhelpful.)

Emotions must be fully felt and released (mentally, physically, and energetically) for us to move forward on our paths. This is a process that, as of today, is generally only assisted by shamans, spiritual teachers, yogis, and/or other “alternative practitioners.” These healers can be hugely beneficial, but they’re not the ones we’re turned over to in the midst of extreme crisis. Instead, we’re locked up in hospitals and then shuffled around amongst people who, in all likelihood, have very little understanding of the relationship between consciousness and mental illness. When you’re extremely fragile (as one tends to be fresh out of the mental hospital), nothing feels worse than a blank, “yeah, right” stare from a caseworker when you say you’re not really ill. This needs to change.

One of the most concerning aspects of psychiatry is that the people who have written descriptions of the various psychological maladies have generally not suffered a psychotic break/spiritual emergency for themselves. In psychiatric interviews/assessments, what this amounts to is a game of telephone wherein the patient tries to describe what they are feeling (these experiences are beyond words and thought). The doctor, with his/her intellectual faculties, chops the whole thing up into that which they and their colleagues can digest. Usually, they are also looking for specific illness features, thereby ruling out and/or ignoring the parts that don’t fit.

All they can do is take notes from the outside and compile a list of symptoms they are capable of discerning. Most psychiatrists have no idea how real these experiences are, and I mean that literally: Whatever we perceive is what “makes” our individual realities. What one may call “a hallucination” is just as real as everything you can currently sense. And, just as the Buddha (and many other spiritual teachers have alluded to), dreams are just as “real” as waking life… but now I’m getting off track.

This is not meant as a slight against such professionals; it is simple human nature. The problem arises when the patient’s experience is extremely different than what the practitioner is capable of understanding, and then the practitioner goes on to believe they know what’s best. While hospitalized, I was acutely aware that none of the doctors or nurses had any true knowledge of where I was at or what I was going through. It was infuriating and wrong to have such people in control of my care at a time when I needed something very different.

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I’ve set out to explain a bit more about what the experience of mania like is from inside of it. It is my hope that this description might illuminate why a full-blown manic episode can be something far greater than a lapse into illness. Instead, when viewed through the right lens, it can be a catalyst towards growth, healing, and total potential.

The transition from a psychotic break/spiritual emergency to a balanced, higher state of consciousness can occur in two ways: 1. The patient is regarded with proper compassion towards their state of being, and gently guided to understand how a new path in life may be walked. This is not how the mentally ill are treated. As well-meaning as mental health practitioners are, they tend to be overworked, undercompensated, burnt out on empathy, and lacking the fundamental tools to care for their patients in the way they need. 2. After our episodes, we are thrust back into the “real world,” struggling to incorporate wtf just happened to us and left to fend for ourselves by way of research and alternative therapies (none of which are free or even covered by insurance in most cases.) I’m on route 2, because that’s the only route there is outside of the mainstream narrative.

What I’d like to see is all of our psychiatrists and psychologists sitting down at mandatory classes on consciousness so that we—the freshly released and deeply confused—at the very least come away with a modicum of hope for our futures. Instead we’re presented with statistics on what our “conditions” mean, encouraged to take medication we may not want to take, and surrounded by the fresh Hell we unconsciously created while in the throes of mania. This is at least part of why the fall back into depression occurs, and it’s so weird to me that this point tends to go ignored in the medical explanations of bipolar disorder.

If you lost control of your mind and behavior, making a fool of yourself and hurting people you loved, wouldn’t you get depressed? Wouldn’t you feel ashamed and lost? The depression that follows mania has much more to do with these factors than with a change in brain chemicals, or rather, the two accompany one another rather than the “misfiring brain” being the primary cause of suffering. Depression is a perfectly understandable emotion to follow such an episode, especially if the episode is seen as nothing but a sign of long-term illness. Labeling this depression another facet of the disease is straight-up dishonest.

A paradigm shift within psychiatry and psychology is the only way to improve this situation. It must take universal consciousness into account. Currently, we’re stuck at the levels of the brain (physiology and neurotransmitters, the science of which is not fully understood) and the mind (the thinking machine that only constitutes a small part of who we are.) Complete healing can only occur when deeper levels are included, including old energies that are frozen in the body, and particularly that timeless, limitless dimension we all have within us—the one I call “pure consciousness.”

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Without further ado, here are the symptoms of bipolar mania as listed in the DSM-V (the handbook of mental disorders):

  1. Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
  2. Decreased need for sleep (e.g., feels rested after only 3 hours of sleep)
  3. More talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
  4. Flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing
  5. Distractibility (i.e., attention too easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli)
  6. Increase in goal-directed activity (either socially, at work or school, or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
  7. Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments

This relatively short list does not even touch what it’s like for the person inside of it. Again, this is because the people who wrote the list are probably pretty underdeveloped spiritually (as our culture is overall), not to mention “illness-oriented.” In the West we do not view wellness and balance as a ladder we can climb to an incredible, all-seeing state. The best we can do is to lack any obvious illness and construct an effective ego. This is such a limited way to experience life. I wish I could share with you how much more amazing we could feel (and how this state would translate to the creation of a beautiful world), but alas, it’s a journey that must be walked by you and you alone.

Here are some of the additional components of mania that I experienced:

  • Beauty everywhere: Things are not simply beautiful; they are beauty itself. Every act, from shaking cinnamon into my coffee to seeing two deer playing in a graveyard, was meaningful and glorious. You become attuned to the miraculous nature of life itself.
  • Fresh, awake, alive: Think of the most refreshing sleep you’ve ever woken up from in your life. Multiply that by a thousand, and you have a faint idea of how clean and clear we can feel when manic. Life feels deeply fresh and new and fun. Each moment is a joy. Every cup of coffee felt like my first. These elements particularly line up with states of mind that are often discussed in high spiritual states.
  • Extreme, near-crippling empathy: Everyone becomes transparent. Their emotions are obvious and clear, and most of them are suffering, even if they’re unaware of/in denial of said suffering.
  • Heightened senses: There becomes a strange ability to tune into and become conscious of things you weren’t before. In the hospital, I watched and listened to two doctors talking about me behind the glass enclosure where the staff sit (which, by the way, wtf? It makes you feel like a zoo animal.). They were unaware that I was listening. Smells seemed to hang around a lot longer than usual, music contained riffs and melodies I’d never heard before, and every color became more vibrant.
  • Faster metabolism and other bodily processes: My toenails and hair grew faster. I was always hungry. I felt like I could run for miles and miles. It feels almost like the body is receiving some kind of “upgrade.”
  • Oscillations of burning and coolness: I’m not going to pretend I understand the way all of the energy involved in this process works, but I know it’s intense, and that it gets expressed in these kinds of sensations. I read, I believe in The Untethered Soul, something about “the yogic burn:” Old, negative energies are burning away as we heal un- and subconscious energies trapped in the body.
  • Tingling sensations: Along the same lines as above, I often felt tingles on my skin, particularly when I felt I was conversing with “god.” This “god” was, of course, me trying to cope with other parts of me, yet still the tingling during these times was significant.
  • Moving through the Universe: I felt certain that a version of me was going into a black hole. Kay Redfield Jamison, author of the widely celebrated memoir on bipolar disorder, An Unquiet Mind, describes the sensation of traversing out to Saturn.
  • An urgent desire to help: This feature is rarely mentioned, but it’s so important. Issues that we can easily shutter away on a day to day basis—poverty, environmental degradation, and abuse of all kinds everywhere—spring forth as deeply troubling. We feel like the only people concerned with these issues. It feels desperate and immediate, like we can’t handle the fact that everyone else is just walking around “fine” while so many people are dying and in pain. It is maddening, and we just want to do something.
  • Extreme frustration with the state of the world/the lower levels of consciousness: It all just felt like it was happening too slow. I was ready for everyone to just drop their bullshit—all the stories they tell themselves about why we cannot live peaceably amongst one another and with the rest of nature, every lie they live that keeps them unwittingly enslaved. I wanted everyone to just “get it:” Life is beautiful and we are all each other! It felt like absolutely no one else really understood.
  • Complete understanding: You can’t explain it, because it’s beyond words. So you try, and you sound insane. For example, I told the designated mental health practitioner at the hospital that “I knew all the secrets of the Universe.”

These additional features of mania may help us understand that it goes much further than what the DSM-V shows. A manic episode—and/or a collapse of the ego—can be seen as an individual’s attempt towards growth and wholeness, not simply a manifestation of latent, underlying “illness.”

From Yoga & Psychotherapy, The Evolution of Consciousness:

“But an acute psychotic episode may represent an attempt—however misguided—to break free of one’s limitations and come to terms with aspects of himself that were repressed. From the point of view of the growth process, such a person should not be considered “sick” if he is actively reorganizing and evolving. This point has been dramatically made by R.D. Laing who has said: ‘… to be mad is not necessarily to be ill. If the ego is broken up or destroyed… then the person may be exposed to other worlds ‘real’ in different ways from the more familiar territory of dreams, imagination, perception…’”

Of course, many psychotic people are not actively “reorganizing and evolving,” and for them, radically different care should be given. It certainly did not appear that way when I was psychotic, and yet, I have since embraced the process of evolution and continue on the path towards higher consciousness today. There are several factors that can help everyone resume with growth, thereby letting go of depression, neuroses, anxiety, etc, and I encourage deep and honest inquiry into these various paths if you wish to be free of suffering.

Short of having a spiritual awakening, which isn’t something “we” can ever guarantee will happen in this life, accepting that our psychological maladies can be part of a much greater and more beautiful process would be an excellent start.

– Lish

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Addiction, Mental Health, Spirituality, Well-being

Why I Won’t Call Myself “an Alcoholic”

For as loaded as this topic is, it feels pretty simple: I don’t drink because drinking seriously harmed my life. If I hadn’t made the choice to stop, alcohol would have easily destroyed my chances for joy and well-being, if not outright killed me. And yet, I don’t use the word “alcoholic” or “addict” to describe myself, and I never will.

Here’s why:

1: The word is seriously stigmatized. Even as the recovery community has sought to be recognized as people with illnesses, addiction just isn’t viewed the same as other diseases. If you’re an “addict,” you aren’t just suffering from the disease of extreme attachment to a substance to the point of self-destruction, you’re also generally deemed a selfish and defective individual. This isn’t my personal assessment, by the way, but a general sentiment I’ve read in various forums and books. Addiction is largely seen as an illness of the soul that encompasses the entirety of one’s being, not simply an illness they “have.”

If you’re diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or cancer, people aren’t likely to think that means you’re a Shitty Person. And yet, this is what we do with addicts/alcoholics. Being labeled in such a way adds yet another layer of shame to the addicted person, who no doubt has become addicted precisely because they feel defective and shameful. Nobody starts numbing out unless they have something they need to numb (again, for some of us, this may “just” be the pain of growing up in a culture that constantly communicates to us that we’re worthless unless…).

While using, addicts can appear selfish because they are deeply isolated and in pain. They know what they’re doing sucks, they don’t want to face the people they love because they feel so self-loathing, and they’re so busy unconsciously trying to tend to their wounds that they cannot psychologically afford to reach out. For an addict, the entire orientation to the world is rooted in shame and pain, so reinforcing the idea that we are, simply by virtue of “being addicts,” defective and egotistical is probably the most harmful idea we can instill in someone seeking to recover.

I don’t accept the label because it comes with a lot of baggage I have no desire to wrestle with anymore. I won’t take on more shame. I won’t take on more pain. These are the exact things that drove me to medicate with alcohol in the first place, so, no thanks.

2: Internally I strive to hold to no label, even (maybe especially) that of “a spiritual person.” As soon as we cling to our identities, we unconsciously act in ways that uphold those identities, therefore becoming limited and less “ourselves.” Rigid identities keep us all, well, rigid. The more identifications we’re attached to (including ideologies, which the mind loves to get fundamentalist about), the more we will defend them, keeping ourselves closed off from others.

On some level, we tend to believe that others can’t understand us unless they share similar identities. This is just false false false. The soul in all of us is so much deeper than the labels we cling to for safety. The more I get caught up in thinking that I can best connect with “sober women writers with an interest in consciousness and collective healing,” the more I remove myself from the very basic connection I have to all human beings. For most of my life, I felt like “healthy,” “well-adjusted” people could never “get me.” This belief limited me and them, and I never want to fall into the trap of thinking “I have nothing in common” with anyone ever again. We are all humans, and therefore we must have a ton in common.

So I try not to think of myself as a writer, or spiritual, or even a woman if I can help it (though the world does a pretty good job of reminding me that I am one every day.) So, even though it feels important for me to acknowledge my body’s inborn tendencies to become attached (i.e. addicted) to All Things Pleasurable, I remember that I am a changeable being not enslaved by these tendencies. Claiming that one simply “is” an addict/alcoholic is a static label, when in reality we are all very fluid, flexible, and capable of becoming new.

Part of that newness is actually losing the desire for things like drugs and alcohol. Rejecting this label does not mean we are in “denial,” or that we are doomed to use again.

3: Our culture’s relationship to alcohol is what’s wrong, not me. This one’s a little paradoxical, because as we grow, we come to see how deeply responsible we (as individuals) are for shaping the surrounding culture. “Culture”—i.e. The Machine™—is not something “out there” to rage against. (As much as I love that band, they were missing this crucial piece.) You are it. You are creating it with every interaction and choice that you make. Every system is made up of parts, and if those parts transform themselves, the system follows.

However, in the beginning, it is extremely empowering to recognize that “your drinking problem” stems from something much bigger than you being diseased and made of faulty wiring. Not that I really give a shit about the economy, but alcohol dependence costs the economy something like $220 billion, not to mention tens of thousands of lives. Most people do not drink the “recommended” amount of alcohol, and to be real, no amount of alcohol is healthy. It’s poison. It lowers consciousness. It feels “fun” because it helps us get out of our minds. If we were capable of transcending our minds at any moment, alcohol would feel like child’s play. (I’m not trying to be a party pooper, but, that’s all true stuff.)

I refuse to give myself a label we collectively pity when all around me I see people suffering and self-medicating in a variety of ways. And that is the “normal” way to live, by the way: To continually distract ourselves from our inner worlds by way of chasing success, going on vacations, taking on projects, binge-watching, and otherwise “being busy.” If we were to drop these things and sit with ourselves, we would certainly feel a shift (I do not mean to imply this shift would feel good at first). We would have to face the insanity being acted out by our untrained minds and realize there’s a torrent of bullshit we need to work through in there. This kind of shift is exactly what we need.

It seems that a lot of people are experiencing such a shift now, which is pretty exciting. But, as evidenced by the state of the world, we can see that we’re still in the beginning phases of this step for our species. There is still time for us to fuck it up, or to get real with ourselves. We always have this choice.

4: Whether or not one is an “alcoholic” or a “normie”* means very little in terms of their overall wellness. When I was drinking heavily, I still exercised, ate relatively well (okay except when I was super hungover; then I became a bottomless pit of Mac n Cheese and ice cream), and by many social parameters, I seemed okay. Spoiler alert: I was totally not okay. I was emotionally fragile and hurt and confused and insecure. Oh, and I was angry at almost everything. I had no idea wtf life was all about or if it even mattered. I almost never felt connected to others. I was not well, but still, drinking was symptomatic of my underlying dis-ease, not the actual Problem. This overall dis-ease is a defining feature of Western culture. People cover up this dis-ease in a variety of ways (see above); becoming addicted to alcohol is just one of the easiest (and most humiliating) outlets for us since it’s legal and socially acceptable.

In this world, “normies” can easily get by being totally underdeveloped, spiritually and emotionally, and can even do pretty well for themselves (Exhibit A: The current presidential administration). “Alcoholics” can do this, too. A person by either label can also find themselves mired in depression, anxiety, and isolation. Out of two people, one of who is a “normie” and the other an “alcoholic,” we have no idea who is doing the inner work. It’s just not enough information to know what’s going on inside of someone, and given the state of humanity, it really doesn’t mean much.

Someone can be actively drinking while still working out their issues. (For at least a year, I drank even as I journaled, came to understand spirituality, and engaged in self-inquiry.) Someone can be sober and Way Fucked Up.

*I’d like to point out that this dichotomy—either you’re normal or you’re an alcoholic—is super crazy and Not Real.

5: There is no evidence that going by this name will help me stay sober. The jury is still out on how effective AA is, but here’s my evidence that it isn’t: My dad’s dead from addiction, and he went to meetings. Maybe that sounds irrational, but but I’m totally okay with being irrational on this issue. I often wonder ifhad addiction been understood and treated compassionately, outside of the “diseased individual” narrativehe might still be alive.

AA’s Big Book puts it’s success rate is at 50 percent. Even more worrisome is that through this lens, it’s the addict who is considered a “failure” if the program doesn’t work. Do we all see how insane this is? There is no other disease we do this with. If someone’s chronic illness flares up, we acknowledge that they may need a different treatment for it; we don’t blame the ill individual for their “failure.”

For something that affects us as hugely as addiction does, the most common treatment modality (AA, NA, CA, SLAA, etc.), should work more than half the time. So that’s a turn off, plus, that whole step where I’m supposed to go even further into how much of a defective character I am for relying on alcohol to ease my pain/social functioning has made it entirely unappealing. I assume that most addicts constantly think about how much of a defective character they are every day; this is why they continue to use! I’ve hated myself long enough, thankyouverymuch.

In spite of everything I just wrote, I’m really not here to tear down AA. My attitude, for myself and for the whole world, is to simply do what works. If AA works for you or someone you know, that’s great. But I’ve read some of the AA rhetoric, and it just isn’t for me, especially since there’s no conclusive body of evidence saying “this is your best bet.” The sad fact of AA is that it’s kind of our only bet, since insurance usually doesn’t pay for other forms of addiction treatment (for reasons of whatthefuckwhy?). Through such a view, my only hope for recovery is to admit to being an alcoholic, work the steps, and maybe recover, my odds being one in two(!). (This is the bipolar thing all over again, btw.)

Or I could just not take on the “alcoholic” label, grow in my own way, and really, actually recover because I know what’s best for me. I’m going with option two, and so far, I’m feeling better than ever.

6: If I ever choose to have a beer, I’m not going to fall into the “now I’m a relapsing failure” mindset. The glory of being sober for me now is this: I really don’t want to drink. It’s not a craving I’m constantly beating back, I’m not white-knuckling it through karaoke nights and parties, and it generally isn’t even something I think about very much anymore. I feel awesome about it.

Even though I’m happily sober, my identity isn’t wrapped up in being “a recovering alcoholic.” It’s more like “hey, drinking didn’t serve me in any way, so I finally decided to cut it out.” But when you have no particular identity or tribe caught up in your sobriety (which I don’t, except a small gang of social media peeps), I can see how one might just up and decide to have a beer one day. (The tribe element of AA is one that I really understand the appeal of.)

At this point, I feel like I’m only slightly more likely to drink a beer than I am to take a shot of gasoline. But for the sake of this reason, let’s suppose I do. Let’s suppose I step outside of the serious, sober mindset I live in now (a mindset I’m hoping to gradually expand out of into one that is less serious, btw), and for whatever reason, have an IPA. What now?

The narrative of alcoholism says I will be under the table and blacked out shortly after this first drink, and that I have to start back at day zero. The word “relapse” is assigned to my choice, which is a pretty loaded word. I’d have to tirelessly review what went wrong, and usually, I’d beat myself up for it. I cannot imagine a more harmful way to treat someone who has started using again.

If you’re conditioned to immediately feel like a diseased failure because you have a slip, you’re much more likely to spiral out of control. I won’t let my mind do that to me. Everything I do that isn’t in full alignment ought to be accepted for what it is (a blip on the radar of my overall growth), and moved forward from. New moment, new me, every single day. Having a slip wouldn’t undercut all the work I’ve done to explore and dispel my reasons for self-abuse, and it definitely wouldn’t mean I’m back to where I was before. Underneath the outward decision to have a drink, I’d still know so much more about myself than when I was drinking all the time. I definitely would want to look into whatever sneaky things my mind was doing that provoked the choice, but dwelling on it and/or feeling like shit for it would guarantee only more pain, and probably more drinking.

If we wish to heal—truly heal, not just accumulate x number of days sober—we must wake up to the reality that the word “alcoholic” (and everything we’re conditioned to think it means) actually serves us very little.

– Lish

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Conditioning, Mental Health, Spirituality, Well-being

On Healing and Awakening

Healing is a huge part of awakening. There’s just no way around it. And while it’s possible to heal without awakening, it is almost unheard of to awaken without undergoing an intensive healing process.

Living in Western culture, none of us make it to adulthood unscathed. It’s not just that many families unconsciously inflict harm upon one another (though this is true for a whole lot of people), it’s that we are programmed to believe certain things about our worth and our identities that are completely illusory. For lack of a better phrase, this programming really fucks us up. For children it can be as simple as not doing well in school (this is a very narrow definition for intelligence, btw) for them to receive negative messages about their “place” in society. We are also programmed to believe things about ourselves and others regarding skin color, “class,” appearance, nationality, religion—everything. As we grow up, rigid definitions about masculinity (i.e. “show no emotion”) and femininity (i.e. be thin and pleasant at all times) are also instilled.

When we “fail” to be the things our society expects of us, a tremendous amount of suffering can ensue. The need for a culture which allows children to grow and be, just as they are, is enormous. In such a case, we’d find that humans—when loved and supported by mindful adults—can become incredible, strong, and resilient individuals capable of far more than whatever our projected hopes are for them. Without millions of layers of delusion and conditioning, people are all wonderful.

When you wake up, you might find yourself not only healing from whatever you personally suffered, but from the entire dream of hurtful stories that have cut all of us up. Pair all that with the new dimensions of consciousness you’re blindly traversing, and we have a recipe for some really intense shit.

It’s important to realize that healing does not necessarily require that you’ve incurred any “serious” trauma (although that’s hideously common). Collectively we will all need to go through some kind of healing process in order to grow into more conscious beings. We can’t get around the fact that we’ve abused and killed this planet and one another for a very, very long time. The only thing left to do is face it. If you’re an empath, facing the enormity of the pain acted out unconsciously can seem like a bottomless pit of despair. There are things you can do to climb out of this, but it’s work. Lest any of you believe the spiritual path is one of bliss and joy, it is not always that way, especially in the beginning.

Because we’re so interconnected, we may also find ourselves heal from each other’s pain as well. For me, it was never just about me and my personal stories: I felt like I was quite literally having the experience of every human being who has ever been persecuted and tortured.

This isn’t true for everyone. Depending on how much inner work you’ve done prior to awakening, it may not be as lengthy or as deep of a process.  Every single person who awakens experiences it differently, and frustratingly, there’s not even a single path to “get there.” But, in general, you’re going to be having an astonishing amount of emotions you might have never knew existed and that you have no explanation for. Your pain (and every other dimension of consciousness within you) has been like a Jack pushed down in it’s box, and for mysterious reasons, the handle has been cranked just right so that it all pops out.

I don’t want to go so far into talking about the ways of healing and/or the amount of time it takes to heal. This is because I’m not on the other side yet, so for me to speak of complete healing without being completely healed would be sort of like the blind leading the blind. This brings me to a very important point: Not all practitioners of any kind (therapists, counselors, doctors, shamans, spiritual teachers) are healed and whole within themselves. In fact, most aren’t. A lot of people become doctors because it’s what their parents wanted for them, or because of the status doctors hold in society. A lot of people become psychotherapists out of a well-meaning yet naive desire to “help people” without ever going deeply into themselves. Their goals of healing aren’t necessarily motivated by an intuitive understanding of the human condition.

This creates a host of problems. If a healer isn’t aware of where they’re at on their journey, they can easily project issues onto you and/or seek to “fix” themselves by “treating” you. When this happens to you, it can be jarring, maddening, and sad. Even though I’ve seen some great people throughout my journey towards wellness, I can say that maybe only one of them has felt capable of deeply understanding the mechanisms of consciousness and the way the whole thing went down (he’s a spiritual teacher).

But this was also a gift. Each time I saw a professional and came away feeling misunderstood, or as if only the surface layer had been discussed, the message came in strong and clear: There’s nothing “out there.” The answers, wisdom, and understanding exist perfectly whole and indestructibly within.

It is a great gift when you realize that the answers cannot be found in the external world. It is an even greater gift when you become free of trying to answer everything. Questions and answers all exist on an intellectual level, and the sharpest of intellects can get you no closer to the Truth. Our academic intelligence doesn’t get us there. This is also a very hard truth for the Western ego to incorporate, since we are also taught that endless thinking (the kind that is rewarded in our super narrow educational system) can solve everything. Sadly, “being smart” won’t help you as you awaken, and can actually hurt you if you’re always trying to intellectualize the process.

Today, I can see exactly why I was drawn to the field of psychology, and particularly why I wanted to be a substance abuse counselor at first: I had tremendous pain that I hadn’t worked through, and a drinking problem I used to keep it at bay. What better way to deflect and be “okay” than to tirelessly try to help others? Luckily the lights came on before I had a chance to unwittingly harm any clients, and now I wouldn’t dream of considering such a career unless I was confident in my well-being and ability to replenish my energies as needed.

I want to end this post with a link to a series of videos I found extremely helpful. After I got out of the hospital, unwilling to believe my experiences were simply the result of misfiring neurotransmitters, I started looking for alternative explanations for bipolar disorder. These videos (along with dozens of books) gave me a new lens through which to understand my manic episodes, and ultimately, a new lens through which to see all of life:

Important: This isn’t a matter of whether or not mental illness “exists.” Of course it does, even though mental illness is still sorely misunderstood. Though I went through phases of being anti-psychiatry and anti-medication (largely as a reaction from the trauma of being forcibly hospitalized during the most fragile and horrific time of my life), I’ve come to embrace the “keep what works; let go of what doesn’t” mentality. When I was acutely manic and had to try to go to work, I took the medication and accepted the bipolar label. We really do have to let go of our egos when it comes to our health. (This lesson should be embraced by anyone who thinks they’re “too tough” or “fine enough” not to seek treatment for anything.)

Even though you know your experiences are part of something greater than a medical issue, “having a spiritual awakening” still doesn’t buy you a few years off of work to integrate and recalibrate (although I wish it would!). In short: Accept the label when it serves you on the path to wellness; drop it when it doesn’t.

Now, being unmedicated and taking more responsibility for my wellness, I can let go of the label unless I feel the desire to explain to someone (who doesn’t consider themselves “spiritual”) what happened. The point is that, internally, I keep in mind that none of these stories can touch the truth of my being or anyone else’s.

– Lish

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"Levels", Mental Health, The Ego, The Mind, Well-being, Yoga

The Relationship Between Growth and Suffering

This week’s picture-heavy post is partially inspired by the theory of Positive Disintegration. A Polish psychiatrist named Kazimierz Dąbrowski developed this theory over the course of his lifetime. I got pretty into it after my awakening moment, because everything started falling apart around me and nothing in my psychology BA could account for my experiences.

I Googled “existential crisis” and the Wikipedia page for Positive Disintegration came into my life. It deeply resonated with me and it still does, not that I agree with it entirely. Put most simply, the point is that if you are maladjusted to this society, that’s great. (This doesn’t apply to anyone who knowingly does harm.) The world is in a low place; so low, in fact, that we’re living in a mass extinction event being willfully carried out mostly by people who know exactly what they’re doing.

If you can’t figure out how to fit into this paradigm without losing your shit, god bless you. You are actually more sane than those who can do it with few worries.

I love this theory because it turns our ideas about suffering and mental health on its head: Neuroses, anxiety, and depression are prerequisites for growth, it says. The message is to stop pushing these feelings away and treating them as problematic. You need them, and in some way, they’re serving you. Learn to love them.

The fact that more and more people are suffering from these emotions all the time (as evidenced by rising rates of mental illness) is proof of the fact that widespread growth is desperately needed. People are feeling the pressure to grow on a larger scale. They always have been; it’s just that, more or less, “hating your life” has been normalized and covered up with various “totally normal” addictions. It’s still normalized today (and still covered up with various “totally normal” addictions), but there are now many of us willing to step up and say “that’s insane; this is all completely insane.”

True growth—as measured by a distinct departure from ego interests—must occur, or we’ll just keep hurting and killing ourselves. I mean that in the short-term, i.e. suicide, as well as the long-term way that we kill ourselves by killing the Earth as well.

Yogic theory agrees: Within all human beings, there is the basic pull towards growth. The growth of an individual tends not to match the conventions of societies who are rigidly egoistic, as most are. I present a quote from one of my all-time most favorite books, Yoga & Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness:

“… In other words, there is social pressure to develop an effective ego. In many societies, experimentation with growth beyond this level is not encouraged. In fact, if it involves an investment of energy that detracts even temporarily from one’s material productivity, it may actually be discouraged. Investing time or energy into developing oneself beyond the ego level may be little understood or appreciated by a society where economic success and material possessions are a major criteria by one which is judged. Experimentation with higher states of consciousness may be regarded with suspicion or considered wasteful nonsense.”

Psst: It’s not wasteful nonsense. It is, in fact, the best thing you can do for yourself and everyone else, even when it looks like “doing nothing.”

There is an element ever-present in humans that wants to see through the false self. There is an element that wants the Truth. There is an element that wants to realize it’s potential, knowing that to do this will necessarily come with difficulty (most likely much more difficulty than the current “you” can imagine).

Obstacles to smooth growth are felt as psychological pain: Like a river being dammed or tree roots pushing up through concrete, there is bound to be pressure when we block ourselves. And why do we resist growth? Because change—especially with no guarantee of immediate, tangible rewards—represents a threat to the ego. The ego will always try to preserve itself, and yet the consciousness beyond the ego knows the illusory ego must be shattered in order for evolution to proceed.

So, part of you wants to grow, and another wants to stay safe. This creates cognitive dissonance (guilt, dissatisfaction, stuckness, dis-ease, etc.), because growth and safety are actually opposites.

Seen this way, we can learn to appreciate when we hurt. We can see how necessary it is for us to burn up, get psychotic, cry, destroy ourselves, lash out, and be fearful. Without all this, there is no movement out of the darkness.

And now, a series of pictures re: suffering and growth. Think of yourself as a seed…

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According to Dąbrowski’s theory, the first picture should be a perfectly happy seed who experiences no pain. They’re just fine in the ground, down there with millions of other seeds. Is the world a bizarre shitshow full of hatred and horror? Who cares! To these people, as long as their needs are met and they’re allowed to continue collecting things, people, and experiences, there are no serious problems. Such a person would be at Level 1. (I reject that this type of person is very common. Almost everyone is made uncomfortable by impermanence and the pain of others, no matter how well they can distract themselves from it.)

What this picture illustrates is the beginning of certain unceasing lines of questioning: “Is this all there is?” We look around for more, but it begins to feel all the same. Pressure is felt. “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with this world? What can I do? Does it even matter?”

This batshit dialogue will continue on as long as you allow it/as long as you need it. It can be an extremely difficult time, and that’s about the nicest way I can put it. This would correspond to Level 2 in Dąbrowski’s theory: Something needs to change but you can’t tell what it is. No choice seems preferable, and you are left in a limbo of bad habits (this includes bad thought habits by the way), constantly wondering what to do with yourself, and often in pain. This can go on for a very long time.

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The pressure to the seed casing (from inside and out) reaches a critical point. This is the first departure from a long-held ego. This is when you crack open. Because pressure is relieved, it feels very, very good, and you see how wrong you were about what you always thought you were. This whole time you imagined that you were a hardened little thing under the soil, but now you have upward movement, and you can actually feel it in your brain (it’s the best feeling ever.)

This was how my moment of awakening was experienced. It really does feel like light or like you’re being shaken from a nightmare. It’s pure relief and joy. Everything is beyond fine.

Warning: Your mind will quickly cobble together a new ego because you need an ego to survive. You blissfully and naively think, “Actually I’m a green chute coming out of a seed; now I’ve got it all figured out.” And you try to stay right there, because you’re so sick of suffering, and your ego needs you to just be static.

This is when I started writing. “Now I’m a writer,” I thought. I started building a whole new self out of this, like, immediately. In retrospect, I wish I would’ve just luxuriated in that new feeling for much much longer; maybe read some spiritual books to understand what had happened. This would’ve saved me a lot of spent energy and embarrassment, but alas, it’s not the way it went. (Also, I did desperately miss writing and needed it to navigate my experiences.)

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Every day, your ego tries to make sense of what it is now, and now, and now… but if you’re always growing, this doesn’t work. Every day you see more of what you are, which is ultimately limitless. Here your consciousness is expanding so fast that your ego can’t catch up. Delusions of grandeur are common. Hello, bipolar mania. (Again, this is just my personal experience. I’m sure others don’t have as many dysfunctions of the ego, depending on their upbringing and particular brain chemistry.)

Here, we’re between Levels 2 and 3. You’re growing, but the speed of it might be scary. You know what’s “higher” and what’s “lower” to you, but you do not always act accordingly. There hasn’t been a full commitment to growth or an understanding of what it all means. The ego is checked again and again and again. There may be one or several larger breaks, but the work of burning up the ego is actually very gradual.

At this point, you either make the choice to stay the course, or drop back into the safety of the seed casing. (I’m a big fan of Plato’s cave, though: Once you see the light, you can’t unsee it.)

The transition from Level 2 to Level 3 is huge, and there are no guidelines as to how long the process lasts. Cognitive dissonance can no longer be ignored. You’re clearly on the path of growth with the understanding that your emotions are the most reliable guide for how to live in this world. If you do or say something and it hurts, you actually stop.

This is how bad habits are relinquished and all forms of self-abuse begin to fall away. Your awareness of life (“the way it all works”) deepens, and “lower” actions become less and less tempting.

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Level 4 is an even more conscious and directed version of Level 3: You take charge of your development and there becomes little memory of the seed casing and the factors that once bound you to such a form. One of my teachers might refer to this as “the coming into your light” phase.

Level 5 (I’m not there, but I hope to be someday) is when things mellow out, and life no longer feels awful, confusing, and dangerous all the time. In fact, fear tends to significantly diminish, and you sleep soundly knowing you’ve done right by yourself.

I am a believer in complete freedom from suffering—but only if you’ve gone all the way. Stopping after you sprout or bud will immediately result in more suffering, because you haven’t reached your natural height. (I forget this almost every day, and halt my own growth with habitual actions. Don’t judge; I’m always working on it.)

Imagine if an oak tree decided to just quit growing once it became a sapling, and fought against the natural forces moving it upward. In this metaphor, the tree is fighting it because all of the other trees have decided to stop at sapling-status. This tree doesn’t want to stand out or risk going too far away from the other trees. So everyone’s holding themselves and one another back, not to mention fighting nature. This is what our culture does.

This is also essentially what we do when we decide we’re “good enough” because we don’t want to do all of the (highly inconvenient and somewhat terrifying) work of dismantling our false beliefs. In this case, boredom, doubt, and self-loathing will always return.

Once fully bloomed, the climate and the geography, no matter how harsh, are felt in a completely different way.

Furthermore, once you start losing your petals and drying out, so to speak, you do not resist it any more than an actual flower would: You’ve become what nature intended for you, and you accept that part of what nature intends is the end of individual forms, including yours.

– Lish

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