The successful management of mental illness requires an attention to the mind and body that is directly opposed to the compulsions inherent in many mental illnesses. In mania we want to follow every desire. Our ideas are expansive, grandiose, and often wrong. In depression we doubt, dread, and sometimes even hate the very self we have cultivated throughout our lives. In psychosis we ultimately lose contact with reality. The build up to these states often passes unnoticed, and we find ourselves in episodes, reeling in symptoms, unable to find a center, or safety, or home.
The outcome of many episodes is confusion. “How did all of this happen without my awareness?” We’re stuck with bills, wrecked homes, scars, strained relationships, and damaged jobs, if any job is left at all. But episodes can be managed, if not completely controlled. What we can do is be in tune with our bodies and minds and predict when mood changes begin. Then we can act, adjust, and avoid bad outcomes.
A technique to achieve this is meditation. The word may bring up all sorts of preconceived ideas, but most of these are wrong. We’re not talking about robes or mantras, altered states or enlightenment. It will not make you lose your edge or turn you into a calm, centered, but boring person. All we seek is an awareness of the present moment. This can be both liberating and diagnostic.
Try this. Sit comfortably but with good posture. Let your hands fall comfortably onto your legs or into your lap. Close your eyes. Focus your mind on your breath, your natural breath, as it moves through your body. Thoughts will dance or stumble through your mind. Just acknowledge each one and let it go. You don’t need to complete each thought or add reason. Return to the breath. Begin counting. On each out breath count one, then two, and up to ten. Then count down from nine to zero. Your mind will certainly wander. You may lose your place. Just return to a number and continue. When you reach zero sit for a while longer, hearing the sounds around you, sensing every breath. Then open your eyes and observe.
In this exercise you have not escaped for a moment, you have experienced the moment. As a matter of fact, escape most often occurs when we are awake and think we are alert. Instead we are usually replaying the past, worrying about the future, or wishing ourselves somewhere else. But if we stay here, in this moment, we can fully experience life as it is. We can sense each mood and feel it taking us. Then we can intervene, if necessary, and return to a place of health.
This exercise may take three to five minutes. Practice it two to four times a day. Note where your mind tries to take you. Concentrate on your ability to bring it back to the present moment, back to the breath. This is the first step toward the awareness necessary to manage mental illness. Comment with your experiences and in future posts we will build from there.