Editor's note: What does it mean to be ‘mentally ill’? In this weekly column, Sneha Rajaram writes about navigating through a ‘mentally ill’ life — encompassing aspects that are both everyday (medications, rights) and contemplative (the universality of suffering).
One of the most familiar mood pendulums in the life of the functional and dysfunctional swings between depression and anxiety – and back again. Functional people might experience the former as near-catatonia on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and the latter as the galvanisation of Mondays. A day’s rhythms are also made up of micro-swings between the two states. Like so many other processes, this oscillation creates a cyclical rather than a linear life, and this particular cycle seems to be a natural part of all lives. The terms “sympathetic nervous system” (excitation) and “parasympathetic nervous system” (relaxation) seem to confirm this, at least when interpreted by a layman.
This pendulum describes a much wider arc in the lives of the mentally ill. We can be stuck in depression and fatigue for weeks, months or years. Anxiety, which is biologically meant to last a few hours, becomes a semi-permanent state for those suffering from panic attacks, phobias, social anxiety, generalised anxiety and post-traumatic stress – all of which have biological, social and psychological aspects. The biological aspect is reiterated ad nauseam on today’s internet: In the primordial soup, the jungle, where it was supposed to be eat-or-be-eaten, we needed that flush of adrenaline for our temporary fight-or-flight response (add “freeze” here, especially for the socially vulnerable). Except, we are told, psychosocial stresses, traumas and anxiety disorders put us in that state permanently, causing adrenal fatigue, some say, and a host of other psychological and physiological problems.
Anxiety is a paradox for a couple of reasons: One, anxiety begets anxiety, because we learn to fear fear. It compulsively grows itself, like a crystal or a tumour. Two, anxiety is in fact a sign of life, of vitality, in the sense that “the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality”. I’ve heard people with bipolar type 1 say that at least they lead more interesting lives than a person with “unipolar” depression (though I have a feeling thousands would disagree). Depression contains despair and loss of interest in life, whereas anxiety, though extremely distressing, is lively and comes with an in-built drive. Even as agoraphobia erodes your external life, it grows your internal one, albeit in a horrible way.
When you have chronic palpitations from anxiety, you’re forced to know that your heart is beating and you’re alive. Ditto hyperventilation.
Also: Fear, like love, sits at the heart of being alive. In fact, fear and love are inseparable, as anyone who has children knows. This is where the “bodhichitta” aspect of (mainly) Mahayana Buddhism comes into play.
Bodhichitta means “awakened mind/ awakened heart”, and it is constantly realising itself (not “realised”, mind you) on the path of meditation and Buddhist practice. In meditation we are taught to balance awareness and equanimity. In reality, though, the two progress somewhat like the race between the hare and the tortoise. Some meditators tend to start off with more equanimity than awareness; those who suffer from anxiety are the opposite. But all meditators are sent on a journey towards tenderness, compassion, empathy, and many meditators take a while to get to the core of their hearts – the most disconcertingly vulnerable, tender, wounded place from which the most unconditional compassion can arise. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explains the process like this:
When you sit in the posture of meditation, you are exactly the naked man or woman that we described earlier, sitting between heaven and earth. When you slouch, you are trying to hide your heart, trying to protect it by slumping over. But when you sit upright but relaxed in the posture of meditation, your heart is naked. Your entire being is exposed — to yourself, first of all, but to others as well. So, through the practice of sitting still and following your breath as it goes out and dissolves, you are connecting with your heart.
This takes time for the functional among us because of the dysfunctional functionality of our socio-economy, where wearing armour is compulsory if we want to fulfil our basic needs. This type of meditator needs time to get to the place where the armour comes off and the work of true empathy can begin. People who suffer from chronic anxiety, however, are already there. When we’re “triggered”, as the millennial coinage puts it, we’re there. We may not have learned the fear-love alchemy yet, but we’re perfectly placed to learn it. Trauma and anxiety might just put us on the fast track to bodhichitta. Quoting Rumi is the best cliche of our times, so here goes: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you."
When American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön talks about insecurity and uncertainty, she often uses the word “groundlessness” (Buddhism works with the axiom that nothing is permanent, so all grounds are specious grounds). Anyone who has panic attacks knows exactly what this means. Panic attacks are characterised by the loss of the safe mental platform that one grew up with and always took for granted – on top of which we built our thoughts, assumptions, knowledge and personality. This unnerving feeling is precisely what meditators must work towards uncovering. Once found, how do we work with it? Or, as Chödrön asks, “How can we relax and have a genuine, passionate relationship with the fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human?” Which is a question that answers itself.
Being afraid or running from a dog is the surest way to aggravate it. Relaxing into anxiety without being overwhelmed by it is in fact the only way to stop the snowball effect. This counter-intuitive process is the most redeeming one I’ve come across in my journey with anxiety. It does involve courage, though, and is therefore again a cyclical process, or perhaps a helical one, as our courage pushes and then fails us in turn. And that’s perfectly all right, as long as our expectations of anxiety aren’t linear.
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Updated Date: Mar 25, 2019 10:26:00 IST