ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Buddhist-Style Mindfulness Applies

By Jack Bragen
Thursday April 04, 2013 - 08:26:00 PM

Buddhist ideas and some Buddhist practices are extremely applicable to people who have found themselves in the predicament of being mentally ill. Buddhist ideas of nonattachment and acceptance are potentially a lifesaver for people who experience numerous hardships. 

Buddhist acceptance can help someone come to terms with the limitations and difficulties involved in being mentally ill. Persons with mental illness may find that many of the good things in life that others enjoy are out of reach. It requires a lot of acceptance to be able to be happy in spite of not having much to look forward to. 

Meditative techniques can help someone deal with the suffering that comes with being ill and being medicated. Acceptance can help someone cope with the disdain received from bigoted people who don't understand mental illness. 

Many nondisabled meditation practitioners apparently are attracted to Buddhism because they have unusually painful emotions that they seek a way to resolve. A high level of painful emotions like this could be caused by an undiagnosed, low-level form of mental illness. 

On the other hand, when someone has a mental health diagnosis, they are likely to suffer from greater than average levels of painful emotions. This is attributable to the effects of the illness, of medication, and because our life circumstances tend to be much more challenging than those of average people. 

Many persons with mental illness have sought relief through use of either illicit drugs, or a numbing level of prescription drugs that they might ask for. A therapist once commented that it was amazing that I had not resorted to illegal drugs because of how badly my life up until then had gone. I have stayed off of street drugs because I have never given up hope, including when things weren't going well. 

Practicing meditation doesn't rule out taking a medication such as an antidepressant or an anti-anxiety agent. However, medication to feel better may sometimes not be enough. 

Every person is different, and each individual needs to do what works for him or her. I am only offering some ideas, and you don't have to listen to me-I don't know you. 

Many people believe that psychiatric drugs block a person's meditation faculty. However, this is only to an extent, and it can sometimes be overcome with extra focus. 

A person with mental illness who would like to meditate would be worse off in terms of achieving attainment if they were to go off medication-symptoms of mental illness are far more of a blockage to the meditation faculty than being medicated. Furthermore, a severe episode of mental illness (that can be brought about by going off medication) can obliterate a person's meditative and other progress, and this progress can be harder to rebuild on the second or third try-due to the damage to functioning caused by a severe episode of mental illness. 

Being stabilized and remaining so is a help to meditation. Someone on medication may have the same shot at "enlightenment" as anyone else. However, the enlightenment of a person with mental illness will be supported by psychiatric medication, and is put in jeopardy if the medicine is stopped. 

If someone with mental illness attempts to meditate and becomes disturbed, they should stop their attempt at meditation practices. Either improper meditation, or meditation when unready, can do more damage than good. 

If a meditation class gives you a strange feeling, or if they advise you to stop taking medication, these are red flags that you could be dealing with a "cult" group, and you should avoid such a group. Something with a reputation, such as most Zen centers, a Yoga class at the YMCA, a meditation class at your county's Adult Education, or something that has a reference you can check, would be a safer bet. When a meditative or religious practice has been around for thousands of years, you are less likely to get trouble from it. 

This instance of the column does not include meditation techniques. If interested, there are plenty of books available on the subject, there are classes, and there are meditation centers. 

Psychotherapy by a good therapist (and not all therapists are good) can also help a person feel emotionally better-and some psychotherapists will do a guided meditation. 

* * * My two books about mental illness, "Instructions for Dealing With Schizophrenia: A Self Help Manual," and "Jack Bragen's Essays on Mental Illness," as well as a short story collection, "Selected Short Fiction of Jack Bragen"-(containing several previously published short stories as well as some new ones) are available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.