A Zen Take on Bipolar Disorder

Depressed… depressed… depressed… (Someone makes me laugh)… Hypomanic… hypomanic… hypomanic… manic… manic… Cue cough, anxiety, and the delusion that I’m dying of cancer… panic… panic… burnout… depressed… depressed… depressed… Haha! That’s a great meme… hypomanic…. hypomanic… hypomanic… 

That’s a basic glimpse of my daily reality. I have Bipolar Disorder III, aka, Cyclothymia. I don’t have episodes, really. I’m always rapid cycling between up and down without a noteworthy layover at “normal.” My mission this winter is to get a handle on it, so that it doesn’t mutate into I or II, and so that I can lead a somewhat normal life.

These cycles are usually soft and not extreme, but stress kicks them into overdrive. 2018 has probably been the most stressful year of my life. The highs ascended to the heavens, and the lows to the deepest pits.

In psychology, we focus a lot on the physiological and cognitive aspects of mental illness, but this trend has kind of shifted the view away from the environment. My cycles don’t just happen. My brain doesn’t just automatically decide to shoot me up with serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine to the point that I exhaust my reserves and crash.

All of my cycles are tied to experiences. The littlest things can influence my entire mental landscape—like a puff of breath toppling a house of cards or setting off a daisy chain of tumbling dominoes. Zen tells us that nothing exists in isolation. Each experience is the result of uncountable events interacting with each other.

But the foundation of all of this is the mind and mental processes. Because without the mind, there’s nothing to interact with. Without mental processes, these interactions can’t form into experiences. That’s why Zen focuses primarily on the mind.

The simple solution would be to just say, “Fuck it, then,” and blow our brains out, thus silencing the whole thing forever. Or we could turn to mind altering substances that bliss us out and distract us from our problems. Or we could seclude ourselves in dark bedrooms, gorge on onion rings and binge-watch Dexter until one day our bodies finally say, “Fine, you win,” and give up.

But suicide is overkill, and flooding ourselves with food, isolation, media, and intoxicants creates even more problems. 

Without Zen, I would’ve probably been dead, addicted to narcotics, or institutionalized by now. Right when I cracked open, “Taking the Path of Zen,” I knew I was home. I’ve doubted it here and there over the last five years, but once Buddhism gets its talons in you, well, you can’t really walk away from it. You can throw a tantrum and renounce all the views and methods, but practice brings about some subtle change in the mind that doesn’t go away.

There’s an active watchfulness that develops that, no matter what, remains intact. We’re no longer passive recipients of our experiences living on autopilot. Even in my darkest hours, that watchfulness was still there. When you’re aware of it, it’s a lifeline. You see a part of yourself that is untouched by experiences. Up, down, laughing, crying, loving, hating—it just watches. Like a mirror that’s unblemished by anything it reflects.

That watchfulness is what got me through the year. Sitting outside at work on break one night, weeping uncontrollably with my shattered heart—it was still there. And within it, there’s perspective. I saw my pain and sorrow, not as standalone happenings, but as patterns in a cloth much larger than myself. Each person is an image of humanity, a reflection of life in general. The things I was feeling weren’t mine, they were ours. It was common ground.

My swings aren’t my swings. They’re like the phases of the moon, as personal or impersonal as I choose to make them. The moon isn’t mine. Anyone can look up and see it. We’re all seeing it through different eyes, but it’s still just the one moon. When we drop this second moon that we form in our minds, this my moon or not my moon, then it’s just as it is; bright and clear.

And the truth of it is that the moon is always complete; its cycles are just appearances. Nothing but shadows. We’re like that too. 

The main difficulty for me is the wind blowing me around like a withered leaf. That stems from me wanting things to be different, wanting them to be less or more than they are. That’s like growing impatient with the waxing gibbons. “Just be full already, you fucking space egg!”

To rise with the waxing and fall with the waning is the curse of bipolar. But once again, that’s not the real moon; that’s the second moon, the one we take out of context and devour with obsessive thoughts. The real moon is just the moon, it doesn’t actually wax or wane. If I can put that understanding into practice, into day-to-day experiences, then I’ll no longer be at the mercy of my own inner tides.

What we’ve talked about here are called the, “Three Wisdoms,” in Buddhism: Great Mirror Wisdom (active watchfulness), the Wisdom of Equality (perspective), and All-Accomplishing Wisdom (balance and equanimity). These contrast with the “Three Transformations of Consciousness”: Alaya-vijnana (automatic, passive, habitual awareness), manas (grasping), and mano-vijnana (discriminating awareness).

Buddhists weren’t trying to craft an ontology here; these are helpful ways to view our minds and mental processes so as to untangle the writhing orgy called, “me.” Zen involves turning about and flipping over these processes at their roots. All of the methods are designed to halt our discrimination, loosen grasping, and switch off autopilot (preferably in that order). But that’s just how it appears. We’re not actually doing anything.

I kinda fucked up, ya see. I loosened grasping and switched off autopilot, but neglected the non-discrimination step. That’s why I still find myself moved by the moon. At times I find myself fully aware of what’s happening, but I’m unable to do anything about it. I don’t vibe well with tradition, so I kind of spit in the faces of thousands of years of people who’ve successfully used these views and methods to steady their minds.

Don’t be like me. Apply yourself, trust the process and you’ll be fine. And no matter what, always remember that—regardless of which phase the moon is in—it’s always complete.

Moon Mindfulness Exercise: 

Take a few moments to relax however it is you, uh, relax. Then, breathe in and ask yourself, “What phase is this?” Scan your mind, gauging your mood on a spectrum from totally depressed (new moon) to totally manic (full moon). Breathe in and out calling up an image of that lunar phase in your mind. Just rest with that for a few breaths.

Then ask, “Am I waxing or waning?” Scan your mind, gauging the direction of your mood, is it sliding up or down? Keep the moon in your mind a little longer. Whenever attention wavers, just gently bring it back to the breath and the moon.

Now, bring in some perspective: “The moon is just the moon; shadows are just shadows. The moon doesn’t belong to shadows. The moon isn’t changed by shadows. Shadows come and go, the moon is just the moon.” Then observe how this makes you feel, how it influences your mood.

I got up after writing this to make some coffee for my mom who’s getting up soon. I noticed I was feeling energetic, and my thoughts were racing (probably from the four cups I’d already had). As I was taking out the spent filter and soggy plant matter, I asked myself, “What phase? Which way?”

About 3/4ths full, waxing. I threw the used mush away and went about preparing the next brew with that 3/4ths full moon in mind. I breathed it in and out, not deeply, just normal—but gentle—breaths.

I thought, “The moon is just the moon,” and kept watching it. Then, gradually, I started to mellow out, and I pictured the moon waning in time with my mood. Now, I feel surprisingly even(ish). Half moon. That’s the sweet spot. Half moon, neither waxing nor waning.

2 thoughts on “A Zen Take on Bipolar Disorder

  1. Imperfect is how it must be.
    Isolation is where we are.
    Killing time instead of waning more.
    In the dark, aiming for numb.
    We like the moon meditation.
    Thanks for that and for opening up.
    We can see your light better tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

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