It would be wrong to say that the mentally ill are undisciplined. Yes, I have been scattered, unkempt, flighty, undependable, and absent. But I have also, at times, been able to carry out with incredible focus to minute detail tasks that I could never stick with if not at least mildly manic. While the energy to work and the attention to detail did not always congeal on a reasonable or desirable task, the results were often impressive. But then, I’ve spent an awful amount of time lying around doing nothing. Not contemplating, not planning, not even daydreaming. Just depressed. Could there be a way to predict moods? A way to harness and apply a disciplined approach to managing symptoms?
Let’s first dispense with the negative connotations of discipline. Too often we equate discipline with punishment or control. But The American Heritage Dictionary offers the first definition of discipline as: Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement. Viewed in this way, discipline can be very positive. Self-discipline can lead to self-improvement. A regular meditation practice is a tremendous exercise in self-discipline. And this self-discipline can help one to manage and even predict difficult times with mental illness.
Mindfulness meditation, for most practitioners, is about cultivating an awareness of the present moment to stay present and to manage stress. But, for those suffering from a chronic illness, it can also be very diagnostic. Prior to becoming a meditator I all too often found myself in the midst of a hypomanic or manic episode, unaware how things had gotten so carried away. But while meditating I can sense the very small changes in mood that signal an oncoming episode.
Thoughts, emotions, and behavior patterns often become clear during meditation sessions. Fleeting, disorganized thoughts, looming grandiosity, and kinks in self-control can all pass unnoticed in a busy schedule. Before one knows it, the negative symptoms have grown so large that positive behavior is buried by irresponsibility and self-destruction. But if I take time to stay present each day, and to remove myself for a time from the onslaught of distractions in life, early clues of changing behavior become apparent.
Once a pending episode is revealed, one can adapt to and prevent further behavior changes by avoiding stressful situations, getting enough sleep, rallying friends and family, and calling the doctor, if necessary. A plan previously put in place to best handle oncoming episodes can be carried out, and a major episode can be avoided.
Used this way, meditation not only affords us a way to manage stress, but it gives us a tool to manage changes in mood and breaks in rational thinking. Meditation can help both diagnose and manage the symptoms of chronic illness.