Mindfulness and Mental Illness: A Little Dharma Goes a Long Way
A guy from Flagstaff, Arizona called me the other day out of the blue. He wanted to talk about some of my writings and we covered a lot of ground. A co-worker and I had a smorgasbord of a conversation yesterday – discussing parenting, quirky, brilliant friends and investigative journalism.
What struck me about both conversations is that the topic of mindfulness came up. Seems kind of weird because mindfulness isn’t a topic that gets dropped into conversations with strangers and co-workers. I’m taking it as a sign that I need to bone-up on my mindfulness practice.
I first learned about mindfulness when I got sober 14 years ago. As part of my 12-Step journey I decided to research some of the world’s great religions. I was brought up by a devout Irish-Catholic mother and attended a Catholic elementary school. I figured between mom and mother superior, I had the Catholic thing down. But I had never read the Bible. Parts of the Bible had been read TO me. But I had never read the whole thing.
I learned a few surprising things when I read the Bible, like there’s a lot of sex in the Bible. The nuns didn’t tell us that or I would have read it. Could have been my modern-day translation but I didn’t find a lot of mindfulness in the Bible. Of course, I may have overlooked it because of all the sex. But I didn’t learn mindfulness from the Bible.
Next, I decided to check out Buddhism. I knew very little about Buddhism beyond Free Tibet bumper stickers, multi-colored prayer flags and Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” which Mr. Brenner made us read in high school. I started with the “The Art of Happiness,” a discourse between psychiatrist Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama.
There I learned that mindfulness is one of the seven elements of enlightenment. I don’t remember the other six elements so I will probably never become a fully enlightened, sentient being. However, I will be one-eighth enlightened. After decades of drinking and drugging, I was looking for all the enlightenment I could get.
Here is one of the best definitions of mindfulness that I have found:
Mindfulness is a whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. To be mindful is to be fully present, not lost in daydreams, anticipation, indulgences, or worry. Mindfulness also means observing and releasing habits of mind that maintain the illusion of a separate self. This includes dropping the mental habit of judging everything according to whether we like it or not. Being fully mindful means being fully attentive to everything as-it-is, not filtering everything through our subjective opinions.
For me, mindfulness cannot exist when I am drinking, depressed or manic. When I drink, I forget that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Instead, I believe everyone is entitled to my opinion. When I am manic, I am in the future, consumed with grandiosity and the astounding things I will accomplish. As for depression, I am in the past and future, remorseful and regretful of the past. I rewind conversations in my head and plot excuses and justifications for the harms you have done me or I have done you. The future is a horizon-less vista of gloom, dread, monotony and meaninglessness.
In my quest for mindfulness I stopped wearing a watch. The past and future distract me even more when I wear a watch. When I don’t wear a watch the time is always now. When that doesn’t work and all hell breaks loose in my head, I get primal. I rely on my senses to ground me. I ask myself, “What do you hear? What do you taste? What do you feel? What is that smell? What do you see? RIGHT NOW.”
It works. I still spend vast swaths of my life in the past or future – fretting about how I am going to pay for my daughter’s wedding, even though she isn’t even engaged, or beating myself up over something I said instead of sincerely making amends and moving on. I am getting much better at recognizing when I am not being mindful. So, I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
Stapleton, C. (2012). Mindfulness and Mental Illness: A Little Dharma Goes a Long Way. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 22, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/depression/2012/08/depression-mania-drinking-and-mindfulness-a-little-dharma-goes-a-long-way/