A Post About Nothing

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By yours truly. Don’t worry, I take cheques too.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about progress, and what it means to be moving forward. When I’m in a particularly low mood I have a habit of believing I haven’t made any progress at all, which saddens me deeply. However, I see some of my close friends and they all tell me I have, as do the mental health team I work with. They tell me they can see the change in me, as if my wellbeing was a dim light they suddenly noticed trying to break through again. But this leads me to wonder: how is it then that I’m congratulated for all the great progress I’ve apparently made, when I still feel quite low most of the time? I keep being told of how strong I am, when in reality I don’t feel very strong at all. I recently watched Frances Ha (2012), a film that follows the story of a 27 year-old in New York. Despite many pressures, the title character, Frances, doesn’t really ‘do’ anything, often leading to judgements from those around her. Instead, she seems to focus her efforts on taking her time to figure things out and ensuring she’s enjoying herself along the way, which I really appreciated. Since graduating, I’ve often felt like I’m in a weird young-adult-meets-mental-health limbo. It’s been suggested that I’m not really stable enough to enter work just yet, but with no exams to prepare for anymore, where is my purpose in the world? Well, quite frankly, the answer is probably nowhere – and I’m OK with being there.

I feel as though we’re often made to feel like we constantly must be doing something, usually working or studying (or both). Therefore when you’re not doing either of these things, it can be difficult to explain why without going into too many personal or upsetting details. Conversely, even if you were to explain you may worry that they’ll suddenly start feeling sorry for you, which in some cases may just feel worse. But even still – why do we need to justify it in the first place? In the spirit of Frances, I want to feel like I can take pride in just being alive in the first place. Don’t ask me what I do. I do nothing. I’ve been through a terrible time recently so I’m having me-time and I’m doing nothing. In fact, the next time somebody asks me what I do I’m going to say nothing and throw confetti at them as I smile and run away.

Quite frustratingly though, people often assume that if you’re technically doing nothing, then you have nothing to occupy your days. I can confirm that this is categorically false, as I have many things I like to do that fill my day. I like exhibitions and board games and walks and discovering new places that I can hide away in and/or declare as part of my kingdom. I like to ride bikes and sometimes I do this with giant bows in my hair. I like to spend my evenings watching movies or scribbling while I have my dinner. On many occasions, this dinner is replaced with cake and pringles. Sometimes I like to read books. A lot of the time I do not, because I’m too easily distracted. But I enjoy articles and probably read too many of them on any given day. I like to paint and sometimes I don’t like to paint. Some days I feel better about myself and many days I don’t want to wake up at all. But whatever I’m doing I’m still trying. I’m always still trying.

The other weekend, after an unfortunate overdose, I had to speak with a psychiatrist about my current mental state. I told him I didn’t feel as though I’d made any progress with my mood, and he explained to me that progress, much like recovery in general, is never a straight line. Infact, it looks a lot more like the picture I’ve drawn at the beginning of this post (minus the wailing). I’m sure many people may have heard progress described to them in such a way before. But for me, it was a very welcome first.

I don’t know exactly what I am or who I am or what I want to be or what I want to do. And I do not care that I don’t know. This is my current philosophy. It may change within the next few days or the next few weeks or right now or not ever but it’s mine and I’m sticking to it. That is all.

A Memento: It’s Not Your Fault

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‘The Pain’ by Seema Chauby, painting by Isha Trivedi

A reminder for anyone who needed to hear it today.

I feel as though I’ve been carrying the burden of all of the anger, blame, guilt, violence and bullying directed towards me in recent months. After all, it’s difficult enough trying to navigate yourself through a mental health relapse without someone actively blaming you for all of their own shortcomings. In an absurd example, it was even suggested I was now damaged and consequently no good anymore – all a result of the experiences they’d put me through, mind you. Abuse such as this can be particularly devastating if, for example, you’re someone like me who tends to gravitate towards (often erroneous) self-blaming ideations when you aren’t feeling your best. Sadly, it can be hard to see this all in the moment it’s happening. Worse still, it can be even harder to unlearn those bad judgments and rid yourself of the negativity you unwillingly absorbed.

I’ve found myself asking a lot of existential questions recently. Most notably, I’ve questioned the workings of the universe and why it always seems to go out of its way – outside the realms of chance and statistics – to create scenarios and experiences in our lives that we would otherwise be much better off without. Though highly irrational, when in very low moods the world to me seems to exist only as a field of obstacles and hardships placed in my way so that regardless of whatever progress I may have made, eventually I’m pulled back into the suffocating abyss of depressive thoughts and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

I find it very hard to wrap my head around the whys, whats and hows. Why did this have to happen, what did I do to deserve it, how is everyone else seemingly OK. When a key figure in your life goes from treating you very badly, to seemingly not acknowledging that you and your experiences ever existed in the first place, it can be very invalidating. In fact, when I cross over to this train of thinking, I often find myself questioning if I’m even real at all.

“Did this actually happen, or did I imagine it all in my head? Does anyone else remember? Do my memories still exist if the person I shared them with behaves as if they didn’t?”

Usually, such thinking results in more negative thoughts and feelings of low self-worth. In some cases however, I’ve found it actually increases my sense of depersonalisation. Which, as you may recall from a previous post, can be very distressing. All in all, I often feel as though the entire world is conspiring against me. I am very much aware, of course, that this is unlikely. But if you’d had any of the experiences I’ve had in recent months, or any negative experiences for that matter, suddenly it becomes a very easy concept to understand and accept.

Nevertheless, I do try to remind myself that I’m not at fault – although this is a lot easier said than done. Even with the input from therapists, mental health workers and friends actively telling you that someone’s negative behaviour is a reflection of their own guilt and bad character, and not a reflection of you personally, it can be a difficult notion to come to terms with. Especially if the person, in their craven attempts of shifting the blame away from themselves, went out of their way to construct an image of you in their minds that enabled them to treat you in such a nasty manner in the first place.

Regardless, whatever the situation or issues you may be trying to recover from, please try to remind yourself daily, several times daily if you need to – it’s not your fault.

(Unless it actually is your fault, in that you’re one of the horrible, blame-shifters as described above. In which case: screw you).

Close Encounters of the Tibetan Kind

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Artwork depicting Machig Labdron (centre), an 11th century Tibetan tantric Buddhist practioner, teacher and yogini

Over the weekend, I quite impulsively decided to see an exhibition that was going on at The Wellcome Collection (one of my favourite places, just so you’re aware). The exhibition, called Tibet’s Secret Temple, has been plastered all over London tube stations in the last couple of weeks. It focuses on Tantric Buddhism and the role the practice has played in our modern understandings of yoga, meditation, wellbeing, and seemingly every therapist’s current favourite, mindfulness. Tantric Buddhism, also referred to as Vajrayāna or Tantrayāna (“diamond vehicle”), is the school most closely associated with Tibetan Buddhism. A profoundly complex and multifaceted system, it can be described as an alternative route to enlightenment through identity with the tantric deities.

According to Vajrayāna scriptures, the term Vajrayāna refers to one of the three vehicles, or routes, to enlightenment. The other two are the Śrāvakayāna (“small vehicle”, also known as the Hīnayāna) and the Mahāyāna (“great vehicle”), with tantra being the distinguishing feature of Vajrayāna. Though timings are debated, it is generally accepted that Tantrism developed out of Mahāyāna teachings in northeast India very early in the first millennia. Vajrayāna Buddhism involves esoteric visualisations, symbols and many complicated rituals that can only be learned by study with a tantric master (or mahāsiddha). Unlike some of the other schools of Buddhism, it is suggested that Vajrayāna enables a person to reach Nirvāṇa (salvation) in an accelerated time, perhaps even a single lifetime, through intense concentration and induction through special rites of initiation. It places great emphasis on mantras (incantations), mudras (hand gestures) and mandalas (diagrams of the deities and cosmic forces), as well as on magic. Meditation is considered key to reaching transcendent understanding and spiritual transformation, of which mandalas are the great vehicle.

The exhibition itself was exquisitely beautiful, featuring a diverse selection of scrolls, statues, artwork and quotes covering various periods in the grand history of the ancient practice. While looking around however, I couldn’t help but notice the many parallels between some of the Vajrayāna’s key elements, and the topics and schools of thought I had studied in Psychology. Therefore I decided to keep note of a few so I could expand on them later in more detail. So, as we wait for the Mirtazapine to kick in, let’s get started.

Consciousness 

To realise the essence of consciousness…
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help whoever you think you cannot help.
Let go of anything you are attached to.
Go to places that scare you, such as cemeteries…
Be mindful
Discover the Buddha within yourself
–  Mahasiddha Machig Labdrön, 11th Century

Within psychological and philosophical thought, consciousness has been defined as a state of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. This can take the form of an individual awareness of your unique thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations and environment. However the difficulties in defining, understanding and studying such an abstract concept has led to consciousness also being defined as: subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. In Psychology one of the main problems with understanding consciousness is our inability to determine why or how consciousness occurs, as we cannot simply point to some physical mechanism to solve it. Carl Jung (1875 – 1962) was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded the school of analytical psychology, a branch of psychology that emphasises the importance of the individual psyche (the totality of the human mind, both conscious and unconscious) and the personal quest for wholeness. Jung explored the psychological effects of mandalas while studying Eastern religions, and is often credited with introducing the concept of mandalas to Western thought. He referred to the mandala as “the psychological expression of the totality of the self”, and even used them in his psychotherapy by getting his patients – who had no prior knowledge of them or any other symbolistic expression – to create individual mandalas. He discovered there was a great deal of similarity in the images they created:

“In view of the fact that all the mandalas shown here were new and uninfluenced products, we are driven to the conclusion that there must be a transconscious disposition in every individual which is able to produce the same or very similar symbols at all times and in all places. Since this disposition is usually not a conscious possession of the individual I have called it the collective unconscious, and, as the basis of its symbolical products, I postulate the existence of primordial images, the archetypes.”

It was therefore suggested that it is these archetypes that create the effects the mandala exhibits on the human psyche. Jung therefore helped to establish a relationship between the practices and ideas within Buddhism and wider psychological thought, including concepts such as the transformation in becoming more oneself; one’s true self.

Mental Wellbeing – Eastern vs Western Cultures

It Is with our emotions that we create demons and gods: those things which we don’t want in our lives and world are the demons; those things which we would draw to us are the gods and goddesses. The rest is just scenery.
– Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, 20th Century

Part of the exhibition featured a conversation on Tibetan Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness today, and included input from Lopon Ugyen Rinpoche, a Tibetan Lama (the title for a teacher of the Dharma). He began by discussing the Western and Eastern perspectives of wellbeing, and what each culture is said to prioritise. In general, Western nations tend to take more care of their physical attributes, such as ensuring they have a shower everyday or that they have nice clothes and possessions. Eastern nations however, were said to place greater importance on taking care of their mental attributes. In a profound statement, he highlighted how many people in the Tibetan area he is from will only take a bath once in their lives – that is, once they have died and their body is being prepared for whatever arrangements have been made. Rather than focusing on the physical, they were taught to take care of their mind above all else. To demonstrate this, he spoke about how as soon as a child is able to say their first words, they immediately begin learning the mantras.

His statements greatly reminded me of some of the differences I had studied as part of my cultural psychology module – an area of psychology that studies how psychological and behavioural tendencies are rooted in and embodied in culture. In particular, it reminded me of the differences between typically Western and Eastern nations in what they place individual emphasis on in their lives and desirable qualities. For example, culturally, Western nations such as the UK or USA are said to be individualist – that is, they tend to embody values such as freedom, liberty, individual rights, and independence. Eastern nations such as Japan or South Korea however are culturally more collectivist in nature; they tend to promote unity, brotherhood and selflessness, in addition to emphasising the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and wishes of each individual.

Therefore the pressures placed by individuals on themselves and their personal understanding of what it means to be ‘well’, may differ depending on the cultural environment one was raised in. In some cases, this may even result in mental health conditions that are only found in a particular region. For example, Hikikomori is a term used to describe a condition characterised by social withdrawal, extreme isolation and confinement for periods of six months or longer, that is strangely only thought to occur in Japan. Regardless, I thought it was an interesting observation that the emphasis placed on mental wellbeing within Tibetan Buddhism and wider Eastern nations contrasts so greatly with that of the West, which again ties in quite fittingly with cross-cultural examinations in Psychology.

Neuroplasticity

Right now you have the opportunity.
Look for the essence of mind–this is meaningful.
When you look at mind, there is nothing to be seen.
In this very not seeing, you see the definitive meaning.
–  Mahasiddha Machig Labdrön, 11th Century

Finally, another interesting topic highlighted in the discussion was that of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is an umbrella term that describes the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by creating new neural pathways throughout life, to adapt as it needs. A term featured within neuroscience and neuropsychology, during the exhibition it was also described within the framework of meditation. Dr Richard J. Davidson is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as the founder and chair of the Center of Investigating Healthy Minds (who just so happens to share my birthday). In recent years, Davidson has suggested that based on what is known about the plasticity of the brain, one can learn happiness and compassion as skills just as one learns to play a musical instrument. Happiness, he argues, like any skill requires practice and time, but it is just as possible to mentally ‘train’ a mind to be happy.

Davidson is noted for his longtime friendship with the 14th Dalai Lama, and in evidence that seemingly supports his perspective, some of his research has looked at the brain as it relates to meditation. When the framework of neuroplasticity is applied to meditation, it is suggested that the mental training involved in meditation is fundamentally no different to that of other forms of skill acquisition that can induce plastic changes in the brain. In the studies of Tibetan Buddhist monks for example, the findings have shown how over the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the practitioners had actually altered the structure and functions of their brains (Slagter et al., 2007; Lutz et al., 2004). Some of these structural changes implied an increased ability to reduce ‘neural noise’, as well as facilitating more rapid learning. The ideas within neuroplasticity, and the potential benefits of meditation, may therefore provide uses to those who practice it. Once again, this demonstrates the link between wider psychological thought and many of the vehicles used within Tibetan Buddhism.

For anyone else who might be interested, the exhibition, Tibet’s Secret Temple: Body, Mind and Meditation in Tantric Buddhism, is currently running until the 28th February. Catch it while it’s still around – it truly was a great experience.