I thought it was about time I shed some light on what has driven me to begin writing these blogs. Here I speak candidly about my struggles with poor mental health, and how an unexpected journey into spirituality helped me overcome my turmoil in enabling me to become a more healthy and compassionate human being. If you have ever been stuck in vicious cycles of mental ill health, or simply view life as one big battle, then you may find this of interest…
Contains some strong language.
“Suffering is necessary until you realise it is not necessary.”Eckhart Tolle
When it comes to experiencing poor mental health, we know there are numerous types of treatments available. Despite the variety of available treatments on offer, there doesn’t seem to be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ method of control or cure. Each individual is more receptive to certain types of therapy than others depending on their state of mind at the time. Over the years I have been down numerous avenues of treatment with varying degrees of success, for acute bouts of depression and anxiety. But surprisingly, the one avenue that has aided my recovery more than any other is something that came into my life totally out of the blue. Something I would never have considered left to my own devices, and something which despite being unfamiliar to many, is in fact the very essence underpinning much of the traditional and clinical modes of mental health treatment we are familiar with…
Spirituality. Years ago I would never have thought that my life could be transformed by what I frankly deemed a load of old hog-wash! Yet here I am now, writing blogs on Spirituality. So what changed?
… I suffered.
‘What – wait a minute,‘ I hear you cry. ‘What do you – a white, male, employed, home-owning father know about suffering!?’
Yes, alright I get it – but please, hear me out.
Firstly, I think it’s important to clarify what I mean by suffering in this particular context. By suffering I don’t necessarily mean famine or extreme poverty, I mean the dysfunction which arises through deriving a sense of self entirely from our mind’s interpretation of the world through its limited sense perceptions – and believing ourselves to ‘be’ the contents of our mind. This is a common but profoundly fundamental human flaw.
I know it seems a bit heavy, but please stick with me.
When we live in this state of believing in a ‘false self’ and perceiving the world through this filter, we gradually become disconnected from our inner being of love and compassion and we begin to get frustrated and outraged over trivial events – when driving, in the supermarket, in the office, or down the pub. We suffer each day – life becomes a drag; the traffic, work, and the weather… It is the culmination of all the little day-to-day irritations which will, if left unchecked, bring us down and cause us to suffer. Life will soon overwhelm us, and before we know it, we are on the slippery slope to mental illness.
Inevitably, being disconnected from our inner being for long enough soon brings about the familiar signs of mental malfunction. So when we see signs of depression and anxiety, what we are seeing are the symptoms of a deeper, underlying spiritual disconnection. The only remedy to truly re-connect with our inner being on a day-to-day level – as I have discovered, is through the practices of spirituality.
Now I realise that the word ‘spirituality’ may cause people to run a mile – and that’s fine, but I insist that you stick around to consider how it has helped me. Spirituality tends to suffer a bad press. Many people tend to hold a cynical view and so take the piss, which is why I decided to name my blog page, Take The ‘Peace‘ – as a play on words, and to show that I still have a sense of humour! Spirituality does not have to be dour or prissy.
I have lived for decades in the grip of mental ill health, which I now know to be a direct result of my own limited perspectives and misperceptions of myself and the world. That’s nothing to be ashamed of – it is simply a fact. Denying it would just prolong the suffering – I know this to be true because I did deny it at first as we shall see later. If you have ever suffered any form mental illness, or get overwhelmed or frustrated with the seemingly cruel and unjust world around you every time you walk through town, switch on the news or scroll down your social media feed, then I implore you to read on and let me at least show you, through my own personal experience, how life can actually be completely different to how you currently see it – that there is infinitely more to this life than meets the eye if only you are willing change your perspective on it. One thing is certain – we are all unquestionably able to change our perspective – or as is it is often referred to in spirituality; our consciousness. I feel I have a sense of duty to try and help others who may well be in the throes of mental ill health, or have a history of it, or may even be living in fear of its return. I want to show you that there is hope, and that there is another perspective on life other than the one that is ascribed to you at birth.
We often suffer varying degrees of mental ill health as we struggle to adapt to, or rather to accept our life situation (employment, financial or marital status etc). Many peoples life situations are worse than others – worse I am sure, than mine has ever been, or may ever be. Many people suffer unimaginable hardship, and are seemingly forced by their circumstances into very dark periods, inevitably falling victim to mental illness as a result. When it comes to identifying the source of the suffering however, regardless of the relative nature of it, it is easier, and often more logical to conclude that it is the life situation causing the suffering. But is this actually the case? Is it really the life situation, or is it our perception of it? The truth requires a massive shift in consciousness which can be extremely hard to swallow.
Here’s the thing about mental illness: whilst it certainly can be circumstantial – that is to say the result of a series of unfortunate events – ultimately it doesn’t give a flying fig who it afflicts. It doesn’t carry out a quick bank balance check, or see how many Social Media followers you have before it descends. It is totally non-discriminatory, which is why as well as those people with seemingly dire life situations, who’ve clearly hit rock bottom in life, we also see relatively ‘normal’ folk, who seem to ‘have it all’ succumbing to mental difficulties – even the rich and famous aren’t immune. Sadly, when rich and famous people do suffer, we often bare witness to stigma and class prejudice such as, ‘What the hell do ‘they’ have to be depressed about?’
No amount of wealth or material gain can provide immunity or resistance to the mind’s susceptibility to dysfunction; only capitalism pedals the false claim that money and material gain can make you eternally happy, and sadly too many of us buy into that.
Thankfully we appear to be turning a corner with regard to mental illness, as many (I hesitate at saying most) people now seem to be much more aware of its ‘non-discriminatory’ nature. But the stigma still attached to mental ill health is not just confined to class prejudices; most of the stigma is gender specific and impacts mainly men, resulting in a high proportion of male suicides due to the perceived association with weakness. Men, it seems are more reluctant to seek the necessary help or admit to being unwell for fear of being seen as weak or unmanly. The statistics on this are brutally arresting, with 75% of all the suicides recorded in the UK being young men, between 20 and 49 years of age. In a past employment, I have seen first hand the fleetingness of life at the hands of depression – as two desperate souls, on separate occasions, jumped to their death off a multi-storey carpark before my very eyes. Both of them men… Believe me when I tell you there have been times when I have been too close for comfort in joining that tragic 75 per cent. So in spite of my own relatively generous life situation, I do have a past history of poor mental health which has burdened much of my adult life, despite being lucky enough to have had a loving and supportive family network around me.
And so if poor mental health can strike us down irrespective of our life situation, regardless of whether we have a penny or a million pounds in the bank, what is the one thing that we all have in common? What is it that we share that is pivotal to our degree of functioning in the world? What is our common weak spot?
The human mind…
But in order to understand ourselves at a more fundamental level, we need to look beyond the mind if we are to re-connect with our true nature – our inner being, and realise that who we truly are is not who we ‘think’ we are. This is essentially the heart of spirituality. My journey so far into spirituality, has enabled me to begin re-connecting with my own inner being – known in Buddhism as the ‘Buddha Nature’. This is something which I have only become aware of within myself over the past year or so. This so-called Buddha Nature is within all of us in the form of consciousness, and is the very life force which pervades the entire universe enabling life to exist. We often think of consciousness in medical terms, but in spirituality it refers to the underlying life source – it is the animator of all things living. It is an infinite joyful pool of life giving energy. To be aligned with this source is to be conscious, spiritually speaking – as opposed to being spiritually unconscious when we are disconnected from it. In ancient spirituality, this universal consciousness is often referred to as The Way, or God. But please do not confuse this with the version of God adopted and adapted by mainstream religions. Whilst the more familiar, religious model of God as an all-powerful interventionist entity or idol has is routes in the ancient, spiritual meaning, it has sadly been bastardised by centuries of scriptural misinterpretation and mis-translation. As a result, religion has succeeded in morphing God into a divisive monster as something separate from us, as opposed to the unifying being, present within each and every one of us.
If this so-called ‘Buddha nature’, is within us and has been all along, why do we not see or feel it? Why can’t we connect with it? Why do we suffer? The short answer is that our mind acts as a barrier. The mind is constantly grasping, wanting, comparing, longing – it is besieged with incessant thought and internal dialogue, which is why in Buddhism it is often referred to as the ‘chattering monkey mind’. The truth is that we probably have seen and felt glimpses of it, but we just didn’t realise, and so when we are ignorant to it, it simply alludes us. We naturally connect with our joyful Buddha Nature whenever our ‘chattering monkey mind’ ceases for a moment and we become present. Usually this happens to us when we are in awe of a breathtaking view, or in the throes of a passionate liaison – or simply admiring a beautiful tree, stone or flower. But we mistakingly attribute the feeling of deep joy to the event, scene or object because of our mind’s subjective interpretation.
The fact that two people can be looking at the same object yet interpret it differently illustrates that it cannot be the object itself which causes the joy. The two minds have their own preconditions and preconceptions. The sensation of unbridled joy and abandonment that we feel in these moments is when our mind ‘shuts up’. It stops thinking. This temporary gap in thought gives rise to the space necessary for re-connecting to our inner being. It is because our mind quietens that we feel the joy that was there all along, and will always be there beyond the confines of our mind. This fleeting glimpse of inner peace and joy, or our Buddha Nature is something which I am sure we have all experienced – and it is known as Satori in Buddhism.
In the same way that a positively perceived object, scene or circumstance is not the source of our joy, neither is a negatively perceived circumstance the source of our pain and suffering. How can it be, when it is our mind’s preconditioned filter through which we perceive such circumstances? This is where things become harder to accept and our mind starts to resist. You see, whether something is considered good or bad, or right or wrong, is purely subject to our mind’s interpretation of it. I have touched on this in more detail in other blogs, but it is worth including here as this tends to be a sticking point for many – as it was for me. To help realise this truth, it is worth reflecting on the vastly differing cultural ‘norms’ and practices throughout this incredible planet, and contemplate on what actually determines whether something is culturally acceptable in one place, and unacceptable in another. Why is there such dichotomy around the globe? To simply accept that it is ‘just the way things are’ or ‘it’s their culture’ does not get anywhere near the reality of why things are perceived the way they are. When we do, we are simply allowing our conditioned mental barriers to prevent us from accessing deeper truths. We have to break through the barrier that is our conditioned mind to see the true picture.
Now I don’t intend to bore you with an extensive autobiographical account of my lifetime of mental ill health, so I will summarise. Following various therapeutic attempts to quell the nauseating cycles of depression, social anxiety and pursuits for an identity which had plagued my adult life, in 2011 I was referred to a psychiatrist. Eventually I was diagnosed as having a form of bipolar disorder (cyclothymia), and I spent the subsequent years in and out of various forms of therapy and counselling. To begin with, it was all a bit of a shock and something which I kept to myself. I’m not sure whether it was shame or embarrassment, but it felt right to keep it all low key and on a need to know basis. It wasn’t long however before something within me (I now recognise to be my ego) secretly relished in that diagnostic labelling. I suddenly felt defined and complete. It felt good being bipolar. I could name drop famous people who also had it: Stephen Fry, Carrie Fisher, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Sinéad O’Connor to name but a few. It really played into the hands of the egoic and narcissistic tendencies I have had since childhood. Years and years of drifting for an identity, always feeling a little lost, a little outside of the circle, and finally I had a definitive label which I could wear like a badge of honour.
Some years later, in the Summer of 2016, during a session with who would be my last psychiatrist, the bipolar diagnosis was dropped. Surprisingly I actually felt fine about it – even relieved, because despite the egoic, celebratory moonwalk I did shortly after being diagnosed, I began to sense deep down that the diagnosis wasn’t quite right – and I think many others close to me did too. This particular psychiatrist however, would go on to change my life forever.
I was talking to him about my recurring life-long feeling of despair; how I felt a bitter incompatibility with the world, and how I often felt pissed off that it wouldn’t give me what I wanted. I felt that I lacked an identity, and I had always zealously sought (but failed) to find something ‘epic’ or ‘grand’ which defined me through art or music projects, or indeed through my ‘rampant, teenage, drunken Catholicism’ (now there’s a potential blog)! Out of the blue, he asked me if I’d ever read ‘The Power of Now‘, by renowned spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle. Of course I had never heard of him, nor the book, but I bought it anyway as he seemed keen for me to read it. He described how the book addresses the concept of identity, and the sense of self, and how it draws on the spiritual notion of being the observer of your thoughts and developing a deeper sense of awareness. He said he wouldn’t usually recommend spiritual books in his official capacity, but I suspect he may have sensed there was a part of my nature which would be receptive to it. He must have been relatively spiritual himself, and sensed that a shift in spiritual consciousness was possible in me. At the time of buying the book, I wasn’t in the best of places mentally, and was probably not ready for its content. I gave it a try, but effectively rejected it. It just seemed too ‘out-there’ – which of course for anyone like me who was totally immersed in the limited confines of their mind, it was always bound to appear that way.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, a seed had been planted, and in retrospect, despite being unorthodox, recommending that book to me was perhaps the most transformative thing he could do – but it would still take me a couple of years before I would revisit the book. During that session he lowered the mask of his professional role and connected with me as a human being, and probably saved my soul. To him, I will be forever grateful – as I am to my wife and loving family for being steadfast in their love and support through such difficult times. Eventually he deemed me ‘well enough’ to be discharged from his care, but insisted I remain under the watchful eye of my (excellent) GP while some residual bouts of social anxiety lingered on.
To tackle my stubborn anxiety, the GP referred me for eight weeks of counselling which would see me delving once again, into personal egoic introspection. This time, for some reason it felt very different. There now seemed to be an emotional intensity within me, which built up over the ensuing weeks to a point where I essentially broke down (not as a blubbering wreck – strangely I’ve always reserved such emotional outpourings to within the safety of my home – I am a little emotionally constipated like that). It now felt as though the dense layers of historical emotional baggage that I had clung to throughout my life had finally come to a head. Something deep within me had begun to shift; I didn’t know it at the time, but I believe my body and mind were saying in no uncertain terms, ‘Fuck this! Enough is enough! All this pent up shit has to go!‘
And so it did.
The so-called ‘pent up shit’ left me via a surge of creativity – creativity is not new to me by any means, but this time it seemed more visceral and emotionally charged – and it was going to come out regardless.
The resulting outpour of energy manifested as a series of three intimate and deeply personal self portraits – the third of which heads this blog. Although I worked intensely on them, weirdly they seemed to create themselves from a place within; it was as though my physical body was being used as an instrument – as a means of simply allowing the creative energy to fulfil its needs. The three portraits I produced embodied as well as facilitated, the impending release of years of negative emotional energy. In a way, my body and mind had begun a kind of self-repair job after years of suffering.
Fortunately, for the sake of my health and ultimately for the benefit of my family, I had recently taken the (radical if you are male) decision to drop down to part-time working hours – so at least this surge of energy had sufficient time and space to come out.
Not long after completing the self portraits, I felt a compelling desire to return to The Power of Now. This time round, I was immediately mesmerised by the profound and visceral nature of the words which now seemed to resonate deep to my core. It was like reading it for the first time. I could honestly say that none of what I was reading bore any resemblance to what I had read a couple of years prior. It illuminated and made sense of the peace and aliveness I was now feeling inside – it articulated perfectly the transition of consciousness I had experienced through doing the self-portraits and releasing all that negative emotional energy.
Essentially, all thought and emotional pain is energy, which if suppressed in the body can manifest both as mental and physical ill health. Despite being self-evident for thousands of years, this connection has been scientifically out of reach, but there is now growing evidence for the correlation between psychological and physical illness. Like a dam straining to retain too much water, the mind can only take so much once cracks begin to appear in the facade. Negative emotional energy, if repressed has to go somewhere eventually, and so the body often bears the brunt if this energy is allowed to fester in the mind for too long.
We can learn from nature in this regard, if we observe certain animals. Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now, illustrates beautifully how he once observed two ducks engaged in a short territorial tussle on a pond. Immediately after the altercation, as both ducks floated off in separate directions, they both gave a short, sharp flap of their wings and proceeded to serenely go about their business. I have seen cats do this too – immediately after a fight they vigorously shudder, before calmly sauntering away for a restful nap. What we are seeing here, is how animals immediately release residual negative energy present in their bodies. One quick flap of the wings or shake of the body and the excess energy is spent. How completely and wonderfully natural. There is no human mind in them to keep the drama alive.
Obviously animals are not as cognitively evolved as humans, but as highly evolved beings ourselves, we do have the capacity and choice to shed the extraneous layers of mental conditioning. We can, with practice, learn to develop an awareness of our mind’s tendency to dominate us, and go beyond to realise the purity of our natural inner state of love, wisdom and compassion – our Buddha Nature. To realise this is the core of spirituality. Through simple spiritual practices like focusing on our breath and acknowledging the present moment, we can learn to use thought as opposed to thought using us. We are no longer a slave to our thoughts, for to be a slave to our thoughts is to be on a fast track to suffering mental ill health. It is immeasurably liberating to be free from the shallow shackles of the mind.
As well as creating the portraits, I had also taken up running and yoga, and I began to feel healthier and fitter than I had ever felt before in my life. There was a new found sense of peace within me. I had stopped eating meat – and although factors such as physical and environmental health played a part in that decision, ultimately it was down to a deeper, more fundamental shift in my consciousness which can only be truly understood if experienced personally. It simply felt wrong to consume something which had been killed for that sole purpose. I had always loved animals, and could now see with unfaltering clarity that eating certain animals while petting others was to be actively living out of alignment with my inner compassionate nature – I had been unwittingly living in my conditioned mind. I even managed to overcome the hatred I had often felt for my body, and I found work as a life-model at a local art group!
Eventually I became medication-free, after years of taking numerous psychiatric drugs. I started to feel at odds with them, like they were holding me back. So I carefully weaned off them over several months and have not taken any more since. (Important author’s note: always seek professional medical advice with regard to medication – I am in no way endorsing the stopping of medication which may well be vital for your health and cognitive functionality.)
For the most part of my adult life, nothing was ever good enough: where I lived, my house, my job, my body. I was always comparing me and my circumstances to others; soon becoming dissatisfied with my lot, frustrated at being a ‘nobody’. It was not a nice place to be.
I had been blaming the world for my incompatibility with it. Now I saw that the very ‘me’ that I thought was incompatible with the world, was only a superficial surface layer – a construct of my making; an misperception, an illusion. That is not to say that all the attributes of my life aren’t actually real – they just aren’t who I truly am. It is the identity we wrongly invest in the physical realm of form that is the illusion, not the form itself.
I could finally see that I was the one causing my own suffering! It’s a bit of an arse when you first realise that, as the ego automatically reacts with denial, with something like, ‘That’s bollocks! I don’t cause my own suffering!’ The ego loves to react like that, and does so whenever it feels threatened, as I wrote about in my previous blogs. The process of dismantling the ego takes much time, patience and diligence. I’m not sure it can be fully dissolved – having an awareness of the ego is more of an ongoing process of self-regulation, and is more about utilising the developed sense of awareness to keep oneself in check, than striving to be a perfectly enlightened being – and I certainly do not claim to be that!
The ego which had driven virtually all of my life’s twists and turns soon crept into some of my most recent pursuits – such as running, which began as a way of maintaining physical and mental well-being. It wasn’t long before I began to obsessively track my pace with apps, and post multiple social media posts (or boasts) in a vain search for recognition and validation. Then came my transition into veganism – again soon to become rife with egoic fervour as I grasped for a saintly sense of identity on social media – undoubtedly exasperating my modest cluster of Facebook friends by posting endless vegan themed posts. Thankfully I am now able to detect when my ego creeps in, and nip it in the bud.
You would be forgiven for asking, ‘Is all this spirituality not just another one of your ego driven projects and schemes? – another desperate grab for an identity?’ Don’t think for one minute that I haven’t already asked that question of myself. But the fact that I have actually asked that question is crucially important, and goes some way to answering the question itself.
There is a critical and fundamental difference between the nature of my past pursuits, and my recent journey into spirituality, and that is my level of ‘conscious awareness.’ Before, there was little or none of it – I was unaware of my own ego and the influence it was having over my behaviour. Spiritually speaking, in this sense I was ‘unconscious‘ like the majority of the human race, and so more susceptible to mental suffering. Allow me to briefly elaborate on this. To be ‘consciously aware‘ is to be the observer of your thoughts and is the key to transcending suffering. As we have already seen, deep inside of us all, at our core, is the universal consciousness which makes the very function of thought possible…
I know I touched on this earlier, but please just pause a moment to reflect on this…
The very consciousness within you is the fundamental essence of all life in the universe. It is infinite in depth and is the very thing which beats your heart and animates your body. It is the same essence which animates and breathes life into any life form you can imagine.
It is the sacred within you.
If you can acknowledge this depth, this infinite space within, by stepping back and watching your thoughts without taking them seriously, you are consciously aware and far better equipped to resist being lead by your thoughts and emotions into suffering. This technique of being the observer of your thoughts is certainly not a new phenomenon. It is an ancient spiritual meditation practice and is used predominantly in Mindfulness Therapy.
Mastering conscious awareness is the key to recognising the ego primarily in yourself, not just in others. It is to realise that the ego in you is merely a bundle of conditioned thoughts and concepts which you have accumulated from your own limited perspective of life. It is not reality. How can it be? It is a story in your head. As we saw at the start of this blog, the problems start when your mind interprets this mental story as reality, through identifying with it. Once this happens, you mistakenly come to believe that who you really are is the little story in your head, and you suffer as a result. To believe in this illusory self is to deny your true self. Realising you are not your mind, and that there is more to this life than meets the eye is a truly transformative and liberating experience.
Discovering ones spiritual core, whilst being fundamentally essential, is deeply personal, and must be a natural process of realisation and not intellectualisation. You have to be ready, as the awakening process cannot be learned. It is more a process of ‘letting go‘ than ‘adding to‘. As I have said before, it is already within you.
I believe that anyone can benefit from bringing key elements of spirituality and mindfulness into their lives. Sometimes, as in my case we just need a nudge in the right direction – someone to give us a particular pointer for the awakening process to begin. I can now see the truth in the Eckhart Tolle quote I opened this blog with, that my suffering was necessary until I realised that it was unnecessary. I believe that once the seed has been planted, germination is inevitable – even if you have the stubbornest of egos. With a new-found level of awareness I can now recognise the unconscious person I once was and contrast that with the relatively conscious person I am now. This is such a saving grace, and it has helped me beyond what words can truly convey.
Essentially we are all spiritual beings. We have merely forgotten this and have become disconnected. We have been hoodwinked by the collective and dominant minds of the few who happen to be in power, and thus manipulate and condition our consciousness. We just need to step outside the box that is our conditioned mind in order to reconnect with our inner being to realise who we truly are. The modern world through capitalism, tricks us into believing we are robots or machines; it attempts to dehumanise us, and the sad thing is we have unwittingly started to allow it to succeed in doing so…
I must stress that to be ‘spiritual’ is to be by no means perfect. The ego will always try to muscle in through the back door. The essence of spirituality is simply to be aware of your mind and thoughts which so often attempt to sabotage your life and create drama and problems where otherwise there would be none. Lets be clear – shit still happens, but when it does, providing you are not a slave to your mind, it can be dealt with more efficiently with an underlying sense of peace. It is to put space around your problems where before you were in the thick of them. Instead of the problems and catastrophes knocking us down, we re-frame them as opportunities to grow stronger. The so-called ‘shit hands’ we get dealt in life soon become our spiritual practise.
As well as tapping into one’s natural state of love and compassion, to be connected with your inner being is also to have access to greater wisdom – which is not to be mistaken for knowledge (knowledge remember, is to know that an avocado is a fruit, and wisdom is not putting it in the fruit salad). Wisdom guides you beyond knowledge in navigating through life’s twists and turns, and gives you the mental clarity to identify when you can and must take action in order to make a change – but more importantly, to accept when something is beyond your control.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”Reinhold Niebuhr
Life has a knack of giving you exactly what you need when viewed from a wider, unconditioned perspective. We may not always like it, it may not be what we want, but it all has a deeper purpose which is of course, our destiny. So whether I like it or not, when viewed from a wider perspective, it was my destiny to suffer.
If after reading these words (congratulations if you’re still here!) you still find it all a load of old tosh, then that is fine – you are spiritually where you are meant to be, and I fully understand and respect that. Remember that only a few years ago, I too wouldn’t have entertained anything to do with spirituality – but I wouldn’t go back to that place now if you paid me! And I question whether I’d even be here to tell the tale if I hadn’t have found it…
Hopefully in reading this, a seed has been planted and will remain until you are ready for the water and the light necessary for it to grow and bloom.
Thank you for reading.