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The Willow and the Western Gal

The Willow and the Western Gal 

I am not an eastern gal. I am a western gal with a thing for shoes. Okay, I’m a western gal with a thing for shoes who lives with bipolar disorder. I have a lot of shoes.

Many years ago I got interested in eastern thought. I found it useful. Newly diagnosed and struggling to make sense of the experience, I found solace in the metaphor of the willow. In a storm, the strong oak will break because it is rigid and can not bend. In that same storm, the willow will survive because it is flexible and can adapt itself to the winds and other forces. For a long time, I reminded myself to “be as the willow” in living with bipolar disorder; to flex with the symptoms with which the illness presented me and to not grow rigid in my response to its challenges. This was a big step, but there was more to come.

“Attachment is the root of all suffering,” is Buddha’s Second Noble Truth. It has taken years to begin to understand what that means, so I hope I won’t be judged too severely for my elementary understanding. In my mind, “attachment” means many things. It can mean material things. It can mean things like resentment which we don’t let go of. Or fear, guilt, shame: that whole panoply of emotions that stay with us long after the incident or incidents that evoked them. We get attached to these feelings and can’t let go and they rule our current thinking and emotion and we suffer because of that. That is one kind of attachment.

Another kind of attachment is to experience. Let’s say I am having some unusual thinking. For instance, this morning I may believe that the National Guard is looking for me. Long ago, this sort of thinking would be cause for a full on emergency intervention, maybe a hospitalization, probably a medication adjustment. The suffering because of this thought would be great: I would have a lot of fear stemming from possibly believing the thought or suffering from the awareness that a thought like this is not “normal”. Nowadays I simply notice that I am having this thought. There is a part of my mind that is not thinking it, that witnesses me thinking it, and remains detached from—not attached to—the unusual thought. I do not suffer with this thought when I am not attached to it. It is just a thought; one of many. It will pass and if it doesn’t I will call my doctor.

This sort of detachment from the immediacy of my mind’s work, works for many different kinds of thoughts and feelings. I have cultivated detachment for a long time, through meditation and mindfulness: two positions of awareness consisting of a rather quiet mind. It is this quiet place and the development of my “noticing” abilities that have led to the development of the witness part of my mind which notices where my mind is going. I am sure there are other ways to get there too. This was my way.

A few years ago, Jim—my husband—and I were fascinated by the concept of “mental jujitsu”. Actual jujitsu is a martial art developed around the principle of using an attacker's energy against him, rather than directly opposing it. We began to realize that much of how we were coping well with bipolar disorder was by applying the same concept to symptoms. If we could just get out of the way or wait through the storm of energy (too much or too little) with which the disorder presented us, we could cut down that amount of time these episodes took. We could learn to “turn sideways” and watch bipolar disorder run right through, instead of digging in and standing against it, spending energy we didn’t have and effort that was hard and, often, not fruitful.

The journey from west to east and back has been long and it is not over. I have been fortunate to have great companions along the way, and a support group that has given me ideas and inspiration to make the journey. I highly recommend getting acquainted with some eastern thought. It has a lot to offer, especially for those of us who live with mental illness. I’ve focused on the benefits to bipolar disorder because that is what I have, but I have met others along the way, from other backgrounds, who have reached the same conclusion. Eastern thought has a place in the western world.