Madness and Sanity

Lately, my mental health has been on the decline. My friends at the Portland Shambhala center have been supportive. I never hide my illness. As I write this, I am feeling mentally and emotionally unstable. I woke up early with less than 5 hours of sleep. There was no sunshine coming through the window this morning. It was dark and silent as the rest of the world was asleep. In the past when I felt so desperate for help, I would go to the hospital. However, a sign of mental health recovery is to stay out of the hospital. How would I do that this time?

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a skills based therapy. I had been through the program twice in the last 4 years. One of the modules is Mindfulness. My therapist said my mindfulness awareness practice can be part of that. During my last session with my meditation instructor (MI), I told her I have trouble doing sitting meditation when I am becoming symptomatic. One of my symptoms is pacing until my legs are sore. I started to use walking meditation as I paced. As I paced, I would place my mind on my feet walking. When I noticed my mind had wandered into the storyline (e.g.., obsessive worry or paranoid rumination), I would gently bring my mind back to my feet walking. I would keep coming back to the present moment. I would then jump back into the mental time machine again and wander off to new fantasy worlds that did not exist. These could be very scary or very sad. When I noticed my mind was no longer on my walking, I would come back. This has been grounding enough to keep me out of the hospital.

Sheshin (presently knowing) was another thing I talked to my MI about. In Chapter Twenty of Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham writes:


Our mind is always subject to being distracted by thoughts of what happened in the past and ideas of what could happen in the future, but the living experience is what is happening now. The mind comes in and out of existence on a momentary basis, and thus the ability to know also comes in and out of existence on a momentary basis, Now is a fleeting moment, but is knowable. It’s a moment of freshness, a full involvement in the immediate present. Meditation trains us in the awesome power of the mind to be completely present with what is happening now.


There are days I might not be able to do walking meditation while pacing very effectively. All I can do is to know presently that my mind is distorted and my emotions are intense and then radically accept that. Radical acceptance is another DBT skill. It is like surrendering to whatever is actually happening in the present moment, even if that something is extremely distressing. Even when labeling what I’m experiencing as “mental illness” is distressing.

The Shambhala Diversity policy states that people with different mental abilities can be part of Shambhala. In real life there are always challenges. In 2013, I was able to start a social support group at our center for people living with mental illness. There was a lot of fear from one council member. She told me mental illness is a very scary word and I should not use it. In 2016, my friend staffed Sacred World Assembly. He told me that there were people living with mental illness who were afraid they would not receive the teachings if they disclosed their mental health challenges on their application. He also told me that everyone who made it to the Assembly completed it, fundamentally through their own sanity but also with help from the immense kindness of the other participants and teachers. I hope one day we can be fearless and gentle bodhisattva warriors and have a conversation about mental health recovery in Shambhala. How do people like me fit in Shambhala? What can we offer? What can Shambhala offer us?


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