In my last installment, I finished with the sentence,”What kind of life is this?” I thought this would be a good time to talk about how I bring meaning to my life.
In my blog post, Finding Meaning in Life, I discuss Viktor Frankl’s theories about meaning and the role it plays in our lives. He believed that it is up to the individual to make meaning in her or his own life. Meaning can be found in family, friends, organizations that support your values and in small actions. Meaning helps one to negotiate tough times in life. For Viktor Frankl, one of those tough times was being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.
One way I make meaning in my life is through my Buddhist practice. Solo retreats and daily meditation practice has helped me to become a calmer, more loving, more open, more peaceful person and has helped me to roll with the punches…when I am healthy.
All of that seems to go out of the window when I am in a phase of my bipolar. I said seems, because I believe I do have more resources while sick, because of the investment in my Buddhist practice I made while I was well.
What I find most interesting is how group retreats have triggered hypomania for me. My most intense reaction happened during a three day Son (Korean Zen) retreat. On the first day, during my interview with George, the head dharma teacher, he told me to put more effort into my meditation.
So on the second day, because I was a foolish twenty-something who read too much Philip Kapleau, I buckled down and exerted way too much effort. I was going to be enlightened, damn it.
I started hallucinating visually, auditorily and tactilely. I felt electric currents going up and down my arms. I remember seeing a lot of violet-blue webs. I was breathing very rapidly and snot was running down my face. I was clearly a distraction for the other meditators.
When I went in for my interview that day, George said, “I told you to try harder; not let Godzilla into your house.” I had my first lesson in finding the sweet spot between effort and ease.
I was probably temporarily psychotic. At this time, I only had the diagnosis of dysthymia, so psychosis was the furthest thing from my mind. Perhaps I entered a hellish state through meditation alone, but looking back I think it was my bipolar.
My next experience of my bipolar breaking through during a group retreat was at a five-day mindfulness retreat. For healthy people, emotions will come and go if you sit with them and just observe them rather than feeding them with thoughts about the emotions.
It started with backaches that turned into resentment. The resentment was like a boorish party guest who hasn’t realized that the party is over. Marty kept encouraging me to stick with it. He said that the resentment would wear itself down. It didn’t. I tried to be as mindful as possible of an excruciating resentment for five days.
From there, I went into a solo dark retreat where I chose to chant and sing gospel songs. Music helps me to let go unlike anything else I know. For a year afterward, I used chanting as my main practice.
I still hadn’t been diagnosed as bipolar. It is so clear to me now that I had been in a hypomanic irritable state.
Recently I developed an interest in Theravada Buddhism and samatha (tranquility) meditation. I unfortunately cannot find anyone who teaches samatha on Boston’s North Shore.
I did find a Theravada group though. They do a meditation called mahasati which is a moving meditation. I found it activating (energizing). Once again in a group retreat, I went hypomanic.
At least by this time I had the diagnosis bipolar and knew what was happening. I was having an anxiety attack and profound sadness simultaneously. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I got up and did walking meditation. I eventually did a sitting meditation in another room until that session was over.
After the session, we had a dharma talk. During the Q and A period, I described my experience and how I felt that I would benefit from tranquility practice. Unfortunately, one of the retreat leaders tried to engage me into a pissing contest. He said that samatha would not get me where I want to go (presumptuous on his part) and how their practice promotes insight (vipassana) and will lead to enlightenment. When I said that I would gladly give up enlightenment for a few moments of tranquility, he finally got how much I was suffering.
The stated goal of Buddhism is to end suffering–your own and other peoples, so I find my experience ironic. I posted a question on Quora (a question and answer website) asking what meditations were good for people with bipolar disorder . One of my favorite Theravada monks, Sujato Bhikkhu said he didn’t think bipolar people should meditate at all. I have identified as a Buddhist since I was 16, so not being able to perform the central practice of my religion sent me into a tailspin.
I wrote the Zen teacher at my friendly local neighborhood Zen center and told her my experience. We are now working together and finding meditations I can do for short periods with the intention of building up to longer group practices.
This is my longest post and it only covers Buddhism. I will have to cover more ways I find meaning in other installments. Oh yeah, the fact that people are reading these blog posts and finding them helpful also brings meaning to my life. Thanks everyone!
©2017 Stephen L. Martin
Statue: Buddha Statue at Thotlakonda Park