ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Painful Emotions; Don't Wallow, But Don't Fight Them

Jack Bragen
Saturday May 12, 2018 - 10:46:00 AM

Acceptance of painful emotions, and reinterpreting emotions as non-painful, are two of many variations on the same basic idea. This is a basic idea that comprises a large part of the "meditation" that I have practiced for more than the past three decades. The basic idea is a bit hard to put into words. Yet I'll venture this: emotions carry the weight that we voluntarily or involuntarily give them. 

You do not do yourself a favor if you allow negative or painful emotions to take over. However, if you fight against your emotions, this can also make an existing problem worse. 

Some painful emotions relate to the moment, and they may be triggered by something that happens, or even by something a person says. Other emotions are nagging ones, and may be accompanied by a recurring thought. In some instances, we may have chronic anxiety or depression, and we may be unable to find a reason why we feel this way. 

Some emotions could be symptoms of mental illness, while others are merely part of the "human condition," and should not be addressed as abnormalities. 

I do not ascribe to the idea that if you have painful emotions it is because you are "unenlightened." Certainly, some emotions can and should be changed through meditation. Others make us who we are. 

If a painful emotion is chronic, if it is debilitating, and if it is a nuisance to us, it could be addressed partly as a symptom. This doesn't always entail taking a pill for it. Meditation can sometimes resolve symptomatic emotions. 

Sometimes, distracting oneself is a very good strategy toward a better feeling. You should not underestimate the power of distraction to deal with painful thoughts and emotions. 

Some consumers who receive mental health treatment might seek to medicate away emotional pain. Asking one's psychiatrist for another or more medication is not what you should do, if you are experiencing emotions that most people would consider normal. In dealing with many uncomfortable emotions, regardless of the cause you attribute to them, you may be better off using cognitive techniques as a first option. Psychiatric medication isn't intended to make every problem go away. Their purpose is to get your thoughts and emotions within a range in which they are not overpowering. 

Some amount of emotional pain and even suffering are simply a part of the human condition. You do not have to be mentally ill to be angry, to have disagreements, to be afraid of certain things, etc. 

It requires work to develop a capacity for resolving emotional pain via meditation. It is not a faculty that you will automatically have, and people aren't born with it. While individuals may be blessed with more or less capacity for learning meditation, it is a skill that has to be learned if it is to work for us, and learning this valuable skill may require years of practice. 

Resolving emotional pain doesn't solve your problems. However, since it changes our perception about the world, fewer things are perceived as a problem. While it won't make a loaf of bread appear before you when you are hungry, it can make the trip to the store to buy the bread a happier experience than it would be otherwise. It won't fix a flat tire on your car, but it may make it easier and less frustrating to properly deal with that flat tire (including calling roadside assistance or changing it yourself). 

Meditation, as I see it, is not for the purpose of a grandiose "attainment." It is merely for the purpose of having more pleasure and less pain. This also translates into becoming more effective at what you do. Learning cognitive methods to feel better is worthwhile. If we can rely on some amount of internal resources, it can become less of a habit to keep asking your doctor for more prescriptions. 

While meditation does not cure mental illness, it can make life more tolerable while living with mental illness. Meditation can be utilized to create more acceptance of oneself, as a valid intelligence living in an imperfect body with an imperfect nervous system. 

There is no pill that can furnish self-acceptance and self-appreciation. The only way to achieve those things is through thinking better thoughts. Mental training, while it can require a lot of work, is a worthwhile pursuit. There are literally thousands of books out there about how we can create a better state of being. I recommend any book by Thich Nhat Hanh, and any book by the Dalai Lama. 

In embarking on mental training, the main thing for mentally ill people to remember is that "enlightenment" does not cure mental illness. 

Secondly, (and this applies to anyone, mentally ill or not) "enlightenment" is not the goal. The goal of meditation is to feel better right now, and any labels of being "enlightened" or "a novice" are irrelevant.