Thursday, July 19, 2012

Zen and Bipolar: What to do When You're Going High, Part 1

This morning I'm having fun with a three-month-old list I made titled 100 Cool and Stupid Things to Do.  It is gratifying to see that though I closed that file and forgot about it, I got a lot of those things done.  (And am reminded to do others.)

One thing on that list was the suggestion to write this post, as part of a larger project about Zen for Bipolars.  I'm neither low nor high today, just in that nice balanced space between waves, so I'll take advantage of that and begin.

Starting up on a manic moodswing is similar to being pleasantly excited for a normie (I don't like that word, we're not abnormal, but what else can I call people-who-don't-have-moodswings?  Maybe "ordinary people"?)  But it includes the allure of a mental shapness and confidence.  And it will not naturally subside.  That's my experience, and I was just ordinary until I was 33, so I know the difference.  This difference highlights the crucial fact that bipolar is a neurochemical dis-order.  That's why chemicals are often useful in the treatment.

Science is telling us these days about brain plasticity, that is, how we can change our brains even into old age.  There's a lot of further research on the specific effects of meditation on the brain. My own experience is that nothing will calm you down better when you're too excited than meditation, which has been briefly described like this: 
Sit down.
Shut up.
Teachers of young children call this a time-out.  It works.  Even little ones can follow those directions for a few minutes.  For kids with temper or panic attacks, a one-minute meditation of three deep breaths, exhaling all the way, can work magic.

But the little ones have an advantage over us; someone is making them do it.  (Most elementary school is a formidable training in doing what an authority tells you to do.)  As a grown-up, you have to exert this control over yourself, unless a manic episode gets so bad that you are hospitalized.  Then you will be medicated.  If  you are really bothering people, you will sometimes be shut in a 'quiet room" for a time.  Interestingly, a quiet room is rather like a Zen meditation hall:  empty, clean, quiet.  No screens, no one to talk to, no stimulation, nothing but a mattress on the floor. But we can actually arrange our own quiet times.
They can have the same calming effect as contemplating nature.  That doesn't mean hiking, climbing, caving, making a big effort to accomplish something.  Contemplation is simply walking or wandering alone in a park or woods, just for the sake of experiencing nature.  I love doing that on retreat.  (Caution: it is  stimulating to be exposed to sun, heat, and light.)

To the left is a photo I took at Grailville in 2010, a month before my scheduled transplant, when I was very sick and very frightened.  It was a good retreat for me, given that. Perhaps you can see how calming it was.

I like the subtle colors and shadows in the photo, which is of the hedge that separates Grailville from a meadow; if you look, you might be able to make out the wire fence in the late-morning shadows.  I took photos that year for the first time; it became a contemplative activity for me, and neither the teacher nor anyone else chastised me.  Ama Samy's retreats are relaxed and kind in the way I understand retreats are at Springwater Center, founded by Toni Packer.

[If you know someone who is bipolar, or close to a bipolar, feel free to share this post on Facebook or elsewhere.  You can use the little icons below.]


  1. it is a beautiful picture. I'm glad you're having an in between moment...I savor those too, because I seem to have a lot of highs and lows myself.

  2. I grew up in a home where one parent was bipolar. At that time, in a small Midwestern town no one in the medical profession really seemed to know what to do and the help that was offered often made things worse. I'm so happy things have changed. It was a nightmare for us kids...and for the other parent. Not until years later, when we kids were grown and had families of our own, was there a proper diagnosis, after years of pain-finally some hope of relief...anyways..I just wanted to say...from having that experience-I understand.

  3. Thank you, Karen. It's not a POW! picture, and it's good to know someone else likes it.......I think bipolars are like ordinary emotional people, except somehow nobody has figured out, as far as I know, our moods get stuck. They persist. As I remember normality, mine would rise and fade away. So this points out to me another reason meditation is so good for me; it is practice in allowing thoughts, sensations, and feelings to rise and drift away.

  4. Mrs. N. - It sounds like you were able to understand your parents' pain, and not be blaming. I was the single parent of a difficult teenager when my bipolar broke out - what a mess for her. Like you, she's turned out to be a nice person and compassionate. I always hope that what I post might help some normal person understand the bipolar in their life.

  5. I had a few younger years of blaming-I can't lie about that. but that was during the years when, honestly, we had no clue as to what was happening while being beaten for not dusting or room one day and the next day coming home after school to polka music, and a festival atmosphere the next. After we all understood what the issues were...I chose compassion, it just seemed the best way to go. As I've aged - I've learned it IS the best way to go. Compassion-not feeling "sorry" but truly wanting that other person to be free from suffering. And letting go of "me" in the situation, that helped. It's not about me. I saw others in the family take things personally...that caused problems because it was not about them. And anyhow...what is "normal"? :)