What is arguably the most effective recovery tool requires a highly disciplined mind.

by John McManamy


MINDFULNESS is essentially the mind watching the mind. The Buddha came up with mindfulness 2,600 years ago, but all modern talk therapy is derivative of the practice (though only dialectical behavioral therapy explicitly acknowledges its indebtedness).

For the last decade, mindfulness has been the recovery buzzword. There is even something called “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy” (which is something of a redundancy).

In 2005, Melbourne researcher Sarah Russell  published a study that surveyed 100 “successful” bipolar patients, asking what they did to stay well. What she discovered boiled down to mindfulness, though she didn’t use that term. Rather, she talked about “moving swiftly to intercept a mood swing.” This had to do with how patients “were responding to their mental, emotional, social, and physical environment.”

Dr Russell observed that these patients were adept at identifying their mood triggers. These needed to be picked up much earlier, they reported, than what their doctors recommended. Once depression or hypomania picked up a full head of steam, it was already way too late. Instead, these patients were microscopically attuned to such things as subtle changes in sleep, mood, thoughts, and energy levels.

By quickly responding, successful patients could often nip an episode in the bud. Sometimes it was as simple as getting a good night’s sleep or stopping to smell the roses. Other times, it was about making meds adjustments.

At around the same time, Monica Basco PhD of the University of Texas, Dallas came out with The Bipolar Workbook: Tools for Controlling Your Moodswings. "See It Coming," said the heading of the first section.

Dr Basco is a leading proponent of cognitive behavioral therapy. In her book, she gives the example of a person with a great idea who stays up all night following up on it. The problem is not the great idea, Dr Basco notes. The problem was staying up all night. Now, thanks to a lack of sleep, there is all hell to pay.

Dr Basco points out that emotions change our thinking, which affects behavior. We need to learn to take stock, spot patterns, and recognize triggers.

In other words, we need to be exceptionally mindful about how we conduct our lives.



Enter mindfulness

“Mind precedes its objects,” reads the first line of the Dhammapada, the best-known of the Buddhist scriptures. “They are mind-governed and mind-made. To speak or act with a defiled mind is to draw pain after oneself, like a wheel behind the feet of the animal drawing it.”

Further down, we read: “A disciplined mind leads to happiness.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn  of the University of Massachusetts is a molecular biologist and meditation teacher. In his book (with three co-authors), The Mindful Way Through Depression, Dr Kabat-Zinn urges cultivating awareness by not taking our thoughts so literally and by “disengaging the autopilot.”

Mindfulness, say the authors, “is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are,” rather than as we want them to be.

Thus ...

If I felt myself becoming unduly agitated, I would typically take a “time-out” from my routine. If I felt myself starting to feel sorry for myself or getting depressed, I would make it a point to get out of the house. On and on it went, all the little coping tricks. Things we do all the time.

Half the trick of mindfulness is being able to spot your mood episodes as they begin - or even before they begin - while you are still in control of your brain, while you still have choices. Most of the time, the solution is fairly simple - a time-out, a break, some quiet moments, a good night’s sleep.




The other half of mindfulness is detachment. Detachment is a key part of Buddhist teaching. When the mind watches the mind, the skillful person does so with practiced disinterest, as if observing the grass growing or the paint drying. Mind you, detachment is way easier said than done, especially when you sense your brain is in the process of rapid disintegration.

Mindfulness begins with the painful reminder that life is not safe. We are vulnerable. Nothing is fixed. Our situation is constantly changing around us. Psychologically speaking, we are always walking at midnight in a bad neighborhood. We need to be awake. We need to be vigilant.

Change of Pace

A thought-provoking Zen parable goes like this:

A man encountered a tiger in a field. He attempted to escape by lowering himself down a precipice. He looked down and, to his horror, saw more tigers looking up, anticipating their next meal. He looked up and spotted two mice above gnawing on the vine he was clinging to.

Oh, crap.

Then, looking to his right, he sighted a strawberry growing from the cliff face. Reaching over, he grabbed the morsel and popped it into his mouth.

"Mmmm!" he thought. "Delicious!"



Being in the Moment

I must admit that it took me more than one try to get the point. Kipling was right, I thought. East is east ... But the sentiment resonates in every culture:

"There is nothing under the sun better for man than to eat, drink, and be merry," reads Ecclesiastes, the most Buddhist book of the Bible. In 1 Corinthians, Paul counsels, "Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die."

Life is a bitch. No one gets off this planet alive. We have to savor our good moments while we can. But, of course, we will miss them completely if we keep getting stuck inside our own heads.

Very shortly following a move to southern California in the wake of an unexpected change in my personal circumstances late in 2006, I happened to look to my right. The valley below was bathed in shadow, as were the peaks that rimmed the valley. But the setting sun happened to magically catch one distant summit.


I was out of my head and into the moment. Tomorrow I could very well fall to pieces. But today was a gift.

Granted, the past and the future provide context, but life is all about the present. If you're not in it, you're not playing. To play, you have to pay attention,

Mindfulness incorporates the paradox of no-mind. "When you eat, just eat," Buddhist teachers advise. "When you sit, just sit." In a similar vein, "when having sex, just have sex." Tantric sex is basically mindful sex, fully-engaged and in the moment.

Fine, but what about life's many unpleasant moments? Who, for instance, wants to be mindful of a toothache? True, Buddhists teachers acknowledge. But consider the "non-toothache." Are you enjoying your non-toothache right now, or are you too busy thinking about what your boss may or may not say to you two days from now?

The practical benefit of mindfulness is that as our awareness becomes more heightened and our thinking more focused, we slowly acquire the ability to reel in our runaway thoughts, or at least slow them down a tad. Slowly, we gain skills in negotiating our way through the present. Slowly, we learn to manage our illness rather than our illness manage us.

We can all recall our exceptionally aware moments. Unfortunately, these moments tend to occur in highly-stressful and often life-threatening situations, such as skidding on glare ice at 60 MPH. This is when our fight or flight response takes over. The frontal lobes go off-line. We literally stop thinking as the faster-processing and more primitive regions of the brain assume executive control.

Fight or flight is normally associated with an over-reaction, but here we are talking about a rare mental state that can only be described as calm awareness. If we had time to think about the dire straights we were in, we would probably panic. Instead, barring bad luck, we successfully avoid wrapping our vehicle around a tree. On one hand, the crisis is over in a micro-second. On the other, it's as if time were slowed down.

Athletes refer this state as "the zone." Something seems to take over. Everything goes right. Nothing goes wrong.

A Meditation Perspective

My mind races way too fast and is far too wayward to achieve the full benefits of meditation, but my first attempt produced a mind-popping insight:

I was concentrating on following my breath in and out. I literally could not put two breaths together without losing my concentration. As if that were not bad enough, for the first time in my life I actually watched my thoughts. Without realizing it, I was engaging in a form of mindfulness meditation, of the mind watching the mind. I simply could not believe the crap I was thinking. It was like I had a hundred different radios turned on, all tuned into a hundred particularly bad talk show stations.

Where's all this coming from? I could only think. This isn't me.


With that realization, I think I grasped three out of four of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths. I may have prided myself in my ability to think, but dispassionate observation revealed that I was living in an illusion. My thoughts weren't real. It was a humbling - and ultimately liberating - exercise.

Over the next four or five years, I managed to stick to a regular meditation practice. When I caught myself "thinking," without judging, I would let go of the thought and resume my meditation. I never became enlightened, but, among other things, the discipline did teach me very vital skills in concentration and mindfulness, skills I would later apply in managing my illness.

Meditation may not be for everyone, but I do urge trying it at least once. In addition, I strongly encourage taking up a new hobby or resuming an old one, preferably a challenging one. Playing a musical instrument, for instance, even very badly, requires an enormous degree of concentration and awareness. Practice makes perfect.

Honing Mindfulness

Hobbies constantly place us in novel situations. We are not sufficiently proficient to be thinking on autopilot. We have to concentrate. We have to be aware. Without realizing it, our minds become disciplined. We learn mindfulness.

I'm the first to acknowledge that my thoughts and feelings often get the better of me. But I am in a far safer and more enjoyable space than I was even a year ago. Tomorrow, my world may collapse on me, but today I have the confidence to face tomorrow, not with trepidation, but with hope.

The tigers will always be lurking at the bottom of the cliff. Enjoy the strawberries, live well.

Reviewed July 9, 2016


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