Balancing the Scales: Guanyin, Meditation, & Bipolar Disorder

Sometimes, I forget that I have bipolar disorder.

Sometimes the shifts and swings are so gradual and nuanced, so smoothed out by practice that I don’t even notice them. Other times, well, they’re front and center. They rampage, they grip me like a vice.

Monday night was great. I was up, I felt so energized and with it. I not only felt like myself, I felt like John 2.0. Ah, mania. Then Tuesday morning came, and that tiny crack appeared in my mind. By Wednesday morning, it was a gaping hole. I stayed in bed all day, watching Parks & Recreation and sleeping whenever I could.

Now it’s Thursday morning, and I’m slightly functional again, though I feel dissociated. Most people think that depression just involves feeling down, but depression is a lot of things including altered perception.

I like describing this perception as, “Living from the bottom of a well.” It’s like I’m here, but also not here; ditto for everything I’m experiencing. There’s a distance between oneself and sensations, and in that void, there’s the looming threat of letting the mind get carried away. It rubs elbows with psychosis, and it makes you feel like you’re one step away from the loony bin.

It’s a struggle to engage with reality, to tune in. But it’s possible to function even in this state; it’s possible to drag yourself back.

I recommend a banana, a multivitamin, and a long, hot shower in these situations. Mantras and visualizations can also be very helpful. When you feel out of it, focusing on the breath, the body, or the environment tends to just exacerbate the problem. They make the struggle stand out, they call attention to how our minds are short-circuiting.

This brings me to the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, or Guanyin. Guanyin is the Bodhisattva of compassion. The name means, “One who hears the cries of the world.” Guanyin’s mantra is: Om Mani Padme Hum.

When I’m trying to hold on to some tendril of basic sanity, I like to chant Guanyin’s mantra while picturing her meditating outside of a cave on Fragrant Mountain.

Here’s one of my favorite Guanyin fables:

She was the daughter of a wealthy, sadistic king. The king wanted her to marry a prince from a rival kingdom, thus creating an alliance between the two families. She agreed to be married off, but only if her father agreed to stop being such a dick and ease the suffering of the people. He didn’t. So, she left the palace and became a Buddhist nun.

Enraged, the king tracked her down, destroyed the monastery, and had her executed. She died without fear. She died with the wish that all beings—including her father—would be enlightened and free of suffering. In that moment, she became enlightened, but vowed to not enter Nibbana until all beings saw their True Nature as well.

As the ax was coming down, she forgave her father and the executioner, and took on their guilt as her own. So, she was reborn in hell, accepting the fate that was meant for them.

Moved by the suffering of the beings there, she used the mantra to transform it into a Pure Land. All the beings living in torment, started weeping tears of joy. The desolate landscape came alive with flowers, songs, and light.

From there, she returned to this realm and took up residence on Fragrant Mountain, where she meditates day and night, listening to the suffering of the world and providing ease and understanding to all who call upon her.

Neat, right? Of course I don’t take it as fact, and I think that clinging to it as real is beside the point. The point is that it shows Guanyin’s place in Zen and Chinese Buddhism. In the West, Guanyin is an archetype, an aspect of our own compassionate, wise, enlightened mental qualities. After typing out Guanyin’s story, I meditated in the shower, chanting her mantra and visualizing her perched on a mountain ledge.

Behind her, there’s a softly luminous cave. In front, there’s a small stone dish full of burning herbs. In front of that, there’s a little basin of water, as if the mountain had recently seen some rain. Guanyin sits there, with her eyes closed and little smile adorning her lips.

While picturing that, I’m chanting: Om Mani Padme Hum. I’m not trying to control the mantra though, but letting it kind of chant itself. Sometimes it’s quick, sometimes slow. After awhile, I stop chanting it aloud altogether and just think it instead.

I feel compelled to offer up my darkness. There it is, the grasping onto my visions of how I think life should be. There’s the suffering, the pain, the fear, self-doubt, and loneliness. There are my self-concepts, the views I have like, “I’m unlovable,” or, “I’m such a moron.” Through the mantra and the visualization, I give them all to her. She takes them from me without complaint, and without a perception of having taken anything at all.

Because she’s a Bodhisattva, and that’s what Bodhisattvas do.

In place of all that suffering, a natural joy, ease, and radiance starts to appear. The mantra and visualization begin to fade, and then there’s just spaciousness. My mind turns to the space inside the cosmic mudra that I’m forming with my hands. I put the mind in it, in that space, and let it rest.

Then… pervasiveness. Space is just space, after all. As the mudra begins to shine, all things shine as well. The Four Immeasurables (Loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity) come into season. I bow three times before ending the sit, and stand up feeling renewed.

The dissociation is still here, and I could slip at any moment, but I’m keeping Guanyin with me today. She’s got my back until the sun comes up. Her insight is that heaven and hell are both states of mind, and that the only difference between them is how much light we let in.

The trick of living with bipolar disorder is learning to apply the right tool for the right job. Most practitioners are told to find one method and then stick with it. That’s great advice, but it doesn’t work for us because we essentially have a split personality. But, unlike dissociative identity disorder, we’re aware of all of our moving parts—all our contradictions. So, we can’t stick with just one view or one method.

The rule of thumb is to examine our current thoughts, feelings, and mood and then introduce the opposite. When we’re up, we need views and methods that calm us and center us to bring us back down. When we’re down, we need methods that energize and vitalize us to bring us back up. When we’re up, we need pragmatic teachings that ground us; when we’re down, we need more mystical teachings that dig us out of the ground.

This is how we find balance, and it’s why it’s good to have a broad knowledge of different views and methods. To practice throughout our shifts, we’ve gotta be Jills and Jacks of all trades. Sometimes we’re gonna need a chisel, a hammer, a saw, or sandpaper. Sometimes we need to set down all the tools and just watch without doing anything, letting the clay cool.

The only hindrance is the views we have about ourselves like, “I’m this way and not that way,” because we’re always full of shit when we think that. When you have bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, those views are always wrong. At one point or another, we’re gonna drift in the opposite direction, from this to that. We have to be ready for that and mindful enough to know when it’s happening.

So, even if chanting a mantra and picturing a Bodhisattva might sound outrageous and unhelpful to you now, keep it in your back pocket—you might need it later. If you’re really into it now, don’t cling to it after it’s no longer working for you, after the shift back toward the center. As your moods change, your views and methods need to change as well.

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