TRIGGER WARNING: Depression, anxiety and suicide related content
This is written to share experience of dis-ease of the mindbody and to support others in their own journeys of self-discovery, transformation, and manifestation. I have suffered chronic depression, anxiety, intrusive and sometimes suicidal thoughts and, in hindsight, quite an abusive relationship with substances throughout my twenties.
Now that I have developed a constellation of soothing practices to deal with depression and a sense of hopelessness, I can say that my experience of depression all started because I hadn’t dealt with any of the issues – self-esteem, sexuality, family, anger, destructive behaviours, trauma, pressure, an unhealthy relationship with porn, what is the meaning of life, why am I here – from my childhood and adolescence by the time I was in my early twenties. At all. Rather I had buried them deep and bottled up the emotions, or drowned the emotions with a bottle of something. Rather than dealing with the issues, I became a master of distracting myself from what would eventually have to be done. So all of a sudden in my early twenties, these issues joined forces, stopped me dead in my tracks, made it very clear my life was certainly not on track, and promised to stick around until I sorted myself out (I write light-heartedly now, but the truth is that this realisation that my life was in a really bad place was the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing a life-and-death situation. Sometimes it felt like I’d never escape the rising tide of panic).
Knowing I had to get better and knowing that I had to rely on my own energy to do it, life became a slow struggle to sort out the mess that, deep down in my gut or higher in my consciousness, I knew I was responsible for creating. I was afflicted with traumatic memories which caused me to suffer. I was full of guilt and anger and envy. I hated myself. The world was terrifyingly bleak some mornings. I was drinking and smoking heavily to numb the pain and this in turn led me to perpetuate the same habitual cycles that had led me to feel depressed in the first place, compounding the rut I found myself in. I wanted out of the negative cycles, but it wasn’t working. I was at war with ‘myself’. This is how I understood it at the time. But the more we look into the nature of Self and selves, the more we find it is unfixed, fluid like a river flowing from source, malleable. The things that happened are gone thus there is nothing we can do about them. The things that are to come haven’t happened yet, so all we can do is act skilfully now.
Since that first year or eighteen months of dealing with depression – the hardest by far – I have spent seven years understanding my own experience of dis-ease in the mindbody, mental health, and my present relationship to the past. I have nothing to offer but honest reflections of my own experience. I’m not a Buddhist, but I have discovered in learning from certain schools of Buddhism that it is far from a religion, but rather a way of liberation from mental anguish, deluded patterns of thought, and psycho-physical disturbance or imbalance. Buddhism is a study in waking up to the truth of how we are. Through meditation, we make time to closely study – to familiarise ourselves with – our minds, our bodies, how they interact, how they are, how they inter-are, and how we all are part of an interconnected cosmic mystery.
In September 2017, I spent ten days in a monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was there for an introductory course in Tibetan Buddhism. It is called the Lam Rim, which translates as ‘the graduated path to enlightenment’. Let’s not confuse enlightenment for something it is not, either. Enlightenment is not only about clairvoyance, psychic powers, and the ability to recall all our past, present, and future lives simultaneously. Enlightenment, or the path to it, is also about freeing ourselves from any kind of misery, pain, or suffering. It is a process, and a gradual one.
One morning, a nun called Wong Mo led us in a past life regression meditation. This meditation practice involves the person travelling reverse-chronologically back in time, from the moment they are sitting in to their birth. Masters meditators go further. This continuity of memory is what Buddhists call the stream of consciousness. My experience of meditating in this way for forty minutes was a vivid carousel of memories, like photographs running in a line behind me, all the way back through the streets of Kathmandu, to the airport, to my old job, to university, to secondary school, to several family homes, and then – shouting, darkness, shadow. Pain arose in my gut, my heart began to ache slightly, I was acutely aware of my bodily sensations, and I couldn’t travel any further in the meditation. I opened my eyes and breathed. Many of the other meditators there reported uncovering similarly difficult experiences that they had not reckoned with rediscovering in their meditation practice. Wong Mo said that she would sit in the pagoda during the breaks for the next four days and anyone who wanted to speak to her about their experience could.
So I did and one sunny cloudless Himalayan afternoon, I told her about my experience. “The memories stopped around the age of six or seven. This is when my parents got divorced. There was a lot of shouting. Lots of arguments. I heard a lot of them. I remember them, loosely. I love my Mum and Dad, really. But when I reached them in the meditation, the house we lived in, something stopped me from carrying on, as if there was too much pain there.” Wong Mo smiled, hands clasped inside red robes stretched between knees in lotus posture, and looked me in the eye. “Let the child grow up.” And I smiled and I laughed, because she was so right and there was nothing left to say. We were silent for some time, then spoke for a little longer about my experience of depression and mental dis-ease, before Wong Mo left me with some advice, which I’ll paraphrase. If it wasn’t for the divorce and its reverberations or other equally painful memories, I wouldn’t have made the decision to change my lifestyle, to get out of my rut, to focus on getting better. If it wasn’t for the difficult experiences I went through, I might never have decided to visit a Buddhist monastery to find out about enlightenment.
I left my short conversation with Wong Mo feeling as though I had just been given the magic key to skilfully navigate every moment in which I felt a dis-ease with my childhood, with my parents, with my family, or with my past experience. Let the child grow up. So, how easy is it to let the child grow up? Well, after being in the monastery, I went into the Himalayas on my own to integrate my time in the monastery. For four days I climbed up and for two days I climbed down. On the way up, I felt enlightened. On the way down, I cursed and cried and caterwauled against my parents and all their unenlightened indiscretions, for all the pain they’d caused me. I thought of Philip Larkin. They fuck you up your Mum and Dad. And, I thought angrily, I deserve to feel hard done by for all those times they let their anger get on top of them and shouted at me or smacked me. By the time I left the Himalayas, I knew how far off enlightenment I was.
In the past three years, I have patiently explored my attachment to certain memories, emotional reactions, or fixed perceptions of my family, my childhood, my upbringing. I have learned, with difficulty and a lot of adjustments and a hell of a lot of what felt like mistakes, to sit with these braying, torrential emotions and quell them, observe them, untangle them. To find myself in each of them, so that I can understand how I have reacted in the past and how I can react more skilfully now. To find myself in painful memories and learn to say, I’m sorry and I love you. To find where these painful memories and knots lie in the physical body, to connect to them, to observe the emotions that arise, to express these emotions – laughter, tears, shouting – if necessary, and to let go of what cannot be changed. The practice of letting go comes with time. We should let go only of what we can, bit by bit, in small increments, until everything that needed to be let go of has been.
How has this practice of letting go to let the child grow been? Liberating, in every way. Funnily, the more I let the child grow up, the more I find that I act more childishly. The more I let the child grow up, the more I remember earlier childhood memories and integrate these. The more the child grows up, the more I understand some of the symbolism in my dreams. The more the child grows up, the more space I have for others in the present, and the more space I have in my heart for compassion, love, and forgiveness.
So, whatever it is about family, friends, first dates, or first loves that still irks us on a level we would really rather it didn’t, whatever it is about the past that still causes us to suffer, remember the kindly nun Wong Mo’s advice – Let the child grow up.