In 2014 I had something like a breakdown. I don’t really find a lot of the terms used for mental-health problems entirely helpful and breakdown feels quite clunky to me. Basically, I overworked and, combined with being a big overthinker, I was beyond exhausted. I stopped sleeping, ended up with really deep and persistent anxiety and because at that time I didn’t understand what was happening – or why – I ended up with depression too. I felt was stuck in “fright and flight” mode, adrenaline rushing all day, hard to switch off at night, really persistent negative and “what if” thoughts. With these hanging around I started to doubt they would ever pass and I ended up pretty sad about it. That, for me, was anxiety and depression.
It wasn’t pleasant but I learned a lot from it and it changed who I am for the better. I was off work for a couple of months (something in retrospect I’m not sure was entirely helpful) and a combination of CBT, mindfulness and anti-depressants helped me get better.
In the years since, I’ve not experienced those depths again; perhaps it’s hard to because they came with that first initial shock of not knowing what they were. But a few things have really helped me – medication, meditation and discovering Buddhism.
I won’t be presumptuous enough to say what Buddhism has taught me, these are my personal takes about what I’ve learned from Buddhism.
Live in the present
The present moment is all we have. It’s the place we can find contentment. It’s also all we have to work with. Some days are definitely hard but when I focus just on being with my actual experience right now, without adding secondary suffering about why I’m feeling that way and “what if” thoughts, which are really rarely unbearable. On a bad day I try to come into my physical sensations, come out of automatic thinking and try to remember everything I am working with and the need to embrace the moment, over and over again.
I really have so little control over so much of my life. I have realised that personally a lot of things society says we can find ultimate security and meaning in don’t hold that capability in truth. My spiritual practice has given me meaning but also focused my attention on the one thing we do have control over – our intentions and our actions. We can save a big debate on karma for another day but I truly believe we shape our future experience through our thoughts and actions now. The founder of my Buddhist order once said that there is so so much to Buddhism, the more you dig the more you find. It can be complex and sometimes hard to work out what to prioritise working on. So, he said: “if in doubt, be kind”. I really embrace that wholeheartedly for my spiritual practice, particularly on a bad day. If I’m feeling low or anxious I try to think of something kind I can do for others and turn the petals of my “flower of attention” outwards to the world and not inwards on myself – introspection can be great but it’s not always helpful.
Being kind looks different on different days and to different people. It can mean saying no to something, not doing something, being brave and doing something, and so on. I try to rest in the present moment and trust my intuition about what’s best for me.
Do good stuff!
A good life is a result of doing good things, consistently. I guess this links a bit to karma but when I think it might help me I bring to mind what I will feel like towards the end of my life. I did a meditation on this once and imagined being a much older version of me, sitting in a lovely armchair looking out of a window into autumn sunlight. In that moment I felt absolutely content because I felt I’d just been kind during my life. I find it really helps focus what it is I want to spend my energy doing and what I find fulfilment from. For me, being kind every day is the building block for a contented life.
Contentment is better than happiness? Personally I try to avoid the word “happy” as a goal. Happiness feels too conditional and fragile to ask to be a permanent goal. Contentment for me doesn’t. Bad things happen in life. Not everything makes sense. But if you can work with what is happening with equanimity you can find lasting contentment.
If your mental-health problems are giving you suicidal thoughts, please don’t suffer in silence. Visit our friends at SOS Silence of Suicide today.