Lish is a writer living in Mt. Vernon, WA. Prior to her awakening, she got her bachelor's degree in psychology. More of her work can be found on her website.
At 25, like 16 million other Americans, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. I hated my job, frequently abused alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and didn’t always act in accordance with who I am. Two years ago, at age 28, I was psychiatrically hospitalized against my will for nine days. Upon release, I was given the following diagnosis: Bipolar Disorder, Type 1, Current Episode Manic with Psychotic Features. The medical and psychological communities largely regard this to be a permanent mental illness. At best it can be managed, but never recovered from.
Today I am free of depression, off of all meds, sober, and living a life of meaning and joy. I no longer consider myself bipolar or ill in any way. This transformation has inspired me to write about mental health in a different light than the ways it was presented to me, both as a student (my BA is in psychology) and as a patient.
For me, healing was made possible by an intense spiritual awakening I didn’t go looking for. But even without a full-on awakening, there are many lessons we can take from the spiritual path in order to lessen the grip that mental illness has over us. We can learn to put space between ourselves and our pain. We can learn to change our thought patterns. And in the end, we can even learn to appreciate our suffering as a catalyst towards growth and inner peace, no matter how much darkness we have endured.
Consciousness, Spirituality, and Neuroplasticity
In the West, our common concept of the mind goes like this: The brain interprets the outside world and shapes our experience of life with neurotransmitters that correspond to our moods and thoughts. In yogic spirituality, it is understood that the Self (a state of supreme consciousness that underlies both the mind and brain) is primary to all of our experiences. Whether or not we are aware of the Self, it is there under our various attachments, brain chemicals, and thought patterns.
As humans, we have the opportunity to find and live as the true Self, which is what we really are. All spiritual paths are aimed at realizing the Truth within, for seeing who and what we are directly. Along the way, we find that accessing this space of higher consciousness can profoundly alter our very experiences of life. This includes our emotions, thought patterns, and habits, which often get labeled “illnesses” when maladaptive to the modern world.
In this view, consciousness is not seen as a unique quality we’ve attained by virtue of our complex brains, but rather is present in all of life. That is to say that consciousness creates the brain rather than the other way around. When fully grasped, we find that this is a revolutionary way of seeing the mind. It gives us a real way to gain mastery over our minds, including our mental illnesses. Getting clear on this order of operations was one of my greatest tools for healing. It took all the pressure off of “Lish the person with the dysfunctional brain” to get her shit together, allowing for the deeper, truer me to do what it’s meant to do.
Due to its belief in our inherent resiliency, we can see how a yogic/spiritual approach to mental health is deeply empowering. It alone allows us to build a solid foundation for lasting wellness. This foundation is the belief that we can be well. From this approach, it is understood that when we sincerely believe that we’ll always experience depression and/or be unstable, we tend to unconsciously make this true.
Neuroscience regards the brain’s remarkable ability to change itself over time as neuroplasticity. But even this notion that “the brain changes itself” is limiting: It still assumes the brain is the thing in charge of your whole life experience, but this isn’t the full story. Remember: In this view, consciousness changes the brain, and ultimately, you are that consciousness.
This is how much power we are given through the spiritual lens. Therefore, internally questioning (and ultimately rejecting) my bipolar diagnosis was one of the most powerful acts I have ever taken.
Changing Your Brain Over Time
In our culture, the way we most commonly change our brains is through drugs—including psychotropic medication. When we access higher consciousness, we’re also altering our brains. We’re just doing it in a way that promotes lasting wellness, irrespective of external drugs and free of unpleasant side effects.
While medication can be helpful in emergencies, the long-term use of it actually prolongs the mind’s natural healing process. Depression and anxiety are often symptoms of past wounding, but they’re also signs of a mind that is attempting to heal. This pain says, “hey, something’s not right here. I need your help.” Rather than listening to ourselves and making changes, we tend shove our emotions away. We can be so reflexively spiteful of our negative emotions that we shut them up rather than ask what it is they need. In this situation, the depression/anxiety doesn’t really get addressed, and we develop a dependency on prescription drugs.
Doing this is the equivalent of taking painkillers for a broken leg and just continuing to walk on it... for years. What’s really necessary is a time of rest, a resetting of the bone, and a gentle weaning off process from the painkillers. Following this analogy to the spiritual/conscious awareness mode, what’s necessary is (also) a time of rest, a resetting of the mind with meditation and present-moment awareness, and a weaning off process from various intoxicants/medications. (This is honestly what I’d love to see possible for every member of Western culture, not just those who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder.)
At first, the mind tends to recoil at the thought of how arduous all of this sounds. But we’re talking real healing, not bandages. When we stick to it, the result is more beautiful and phenomenal than I can describe. Everything in your life can change on this path, not just your mood.
There are individuals whose illnesses are so severe that a practice of conscious awareness might not be the best starting point. Bringing more consciousness into our lives is a powerful strategy, but it requires an innate readiness that only we can gauge ourselves on. What I do know is that in my case, medication didn’t help much and therapy only helped a little. Becoming aware of my thought patterns and learning to sit and listen to my pain is what brought me to the contented place I sit today.
Healing with Conscious Awareness
Here’s an exercise that can, over time, amount to a new way of life: Every time you catch yourself spiraling into a negative thought pattern (as is common with depression and anxiety), simply notice that it is happening. The trick with conscious awareness is not to reflexively pull away from our thoughts and emotions, nor to energize them with judgment of their existence. See if you can just notice that they’re there and stay in this place of dispassionate noticing. This practice, when intentionally done in the seated position, is what we call meditation. Really, we don’t have to sit to do it. We can practice being awake anytime, anywhere. The more we do it, the easier it gets.
Doing this is probably going to feel very hard—maybe even impossible or exhausting—at first. But I’ve honestly melted all of my bad habits and core personal issues (serious abandonment fears, a lack of self-worth, and more) by doing this over the course of a few years. This work is necessarily a longer term commitment, but developing this deep sense of self-awareness will pay off for the rest of your life.
At times it may even feel like things are getting “worse” because we started doing this work. There have been many times on this journey that I wished I could just go back to life as I once knew it. Even though my old life was wrought with confusion, anger, self-abuse, and unconsciousness, at least I knew what I’d be waking up to every day.
On the other side, I couldn’t be more grateful. I encourage anyone on this path to keep going into themselves and never give up. Spiritual growth isn’t smooth and linear.
It Happens from the Inside
The reason why using awareness is such a potent, lasting form of healing is that, by definition, no one can do it but you. Along the way, we may receive outside help in terms of medication, therapy, bodywork, energy work, and nutrition changes. All of these are certainly advisable, depending on how deeply entrenched we are in our thought habits and how well we understand the mind and spirituality.
But the healing we’re discussing here ultimately involves a total transformation of the self. The more we aware we are, the less we rely on anything external to “give us” peace and wellness. In time, you will find that your stability and peace can be taken by nothing and no one. Your life experience will go beyond healing, beyond being depression-free, and even beyond peace in the way we normally conceptualize it.
In the end, you will simply and beautifully be you.
PIN IT & NEVER FORGET IT!!