Cole Coaching | Chris Cole | Life coaching for bipolar disorder
Welcome to the blog of Chris Cole, life coach at Cole Coaching, where life coaching is offered to individuals in recovery from any number of addiction, mood, or behavioral issues. Chris himself lives with bipolar disorder and enjoys years of substance-free living.
I've racked my brain around issues of etiology regarding madness, psychosis, and psychiatric criteria in general for about 15 years now. Being effected by the stigma, confusion, and marginalization of altered and extreme states can do that to a person. In recent years, particularly since I've started making more connections online following the publication of my book, topics of social justice have greatly influenced my conceptualization of this material.
Mad thinkers, movers, and shakers, as well as neurodivergent and marginalized folks of numerous locations, have shown me that what we think of as pathology exists in relationship—with ourselves, each other, and our environments. Ideas that psychopathology exists in the vacuum of one's isolated experience only serves to silence discourse and marginalize divergent experiences. If nothing else, it reveals a rudimentary comprehension of human development. Because I can't quite come up with the perfect name for such a conglomeration of radical thought, I am calling my holistic model the Mad Triangle until further notice. I particular felt the need to publish a blog post about this, to document much of what I have been presenting lately in group settings, workshops, and dialogue.
The Mad Triangle Overview
The Mad Triangle is extremely expansive, and so it cannot possibly be given justice in a blog post. My hope here is simply to provide a few basics, leading someone into self-identified healing and social locations that may be further explored as desired. By self-selecting psychological and neurological discomfort, folks are empowered to self-determine which aspects of their experiences are problematic, which are special and/or gifts, which are simply divergent experiences, and which experiences are the result of violence, marginalization, and/or systemic oppression.
Many of us understand that trauma precedes much, if not all, psychopathology. This can be acute trauma, as in the case of experiencing violence and abuse, but it can also take the form of developmental trauma, when the natural, unimpeded progression of development was interrupted. I would also add the term Microtrauma to describe the insidious traumas of inauthentic living; the many negotiations in which we trade authenticity for safety. Issues of oppression, marginalization, and internalized cultural pathologies (think "-isms") are included in this domain. One's identified diversity, or divergent experience, sets up a potential for greater degrees of trauma, as well as insight into unconscious dynamics unknown to dominant locations and neurotypical experiences.
"Post-traumatic growth," a term from the field of positive psychology, is the most empowering model for understanding the growth and change potential for madness. I have grown fond of referring to madness as a subtype of post-traumatic growth, calling it Post-Psychotic Growth, to acknowledge that trauma precedes psychosis, and that psychosis is inherently traumatic. "Double the trouble, double the fun," anyone? While psychosis is painful for many reasons, it is my conviction that there is greater growth potential where there might not have been prior to such an experience.
Many of us are aware that there is a diversity of human experience available to us, to varying degrees depending on the domain of myriad criteria. Diversity may apply to genetics, appearance, race, ethnicity, religion, intelligence, gender, sex, education, creativity, finances, geography, age, and on and on and on. Diversity is not just about civil rights. Diversity is a fact of life, providing the ability for humans to adapt and evolve up to, and beyond, this point in time.
One such marker for diversity is "neurodiversity," a term that has come out of autism, which is particularly relevant to the Mad Triangle. One's "neurodivergence" may dictate their experience to such a degree that a greater potentiality for trauma occurs, as loved ones, educators, peers, and society at large are less able to meet their needs and more likely to act violently toward them. Additionally, neurodivergence may provide more insight into unconscious material because privilege, dominance, and conformity push divergent views outside of one's consciousness. By having a different neurological experience, one is forced to examine diverse views of subjective phenomena others might inaccurately assume to be objectively fixed.
The nature of insight is revelation of unconscious material; that is, insight is the product of unconscious material made conscious. Unconscious material of our minds has been a hallmark of Western psychiatry and Eastern wisdom traditions alike. What we think we know, but don't really know, and all the aspects of consciousness that lie outside our comprehension, is still a field of study that is underway with great mystery and excitement. Trillions of cells in our bodies are constantly fulfilling processes outside of our conscious awareness. Mysterious connections exist between form and space, which plague the greatest minds of science. Humanity ponders questions regarding origination of consciousness and the seed of life. We theorize what came before the Big Bang. All of these and more require what I call Consciousness Humility, the ability to recognize all that we don't and can't possibly know, particularly when it comes to our own limitation to comprehend the subjective experience of another person.
The unconscious domain lends itself to identity development, existential crisis, religious experiences, and of course, "spiritual emergence and spiritual emergencies." When unconscious material in our worlds, or within our own psyches, is suddenly made conscious, there is the potential for a psychological crisis as one attempts to integrate these insights. With regards to spiritual emergence, one gains insight into the spiritual wisdom of mystics, what I call the Cosmic Unconscious, requiring a certain amount of psychic integration or psychic dissociation. It's important to note however, that spiritual material is not the only unconscious material that can produce painful insight. Struggling with any aspect of identity can create a rupture in the congruence of psychological structures.
I want to make clear that these ideas represent an integration of entire movements and fields of study, combining psychology, spirituality, and social justice. I find that the Mad Triangle is a simple way of having common language and markers for dialogue that can be challenging to conceptualize. How one effectively works with trauma, diversity, and insight—and how these domains overlap and influence each other—is subject to a variety of factors, as well as growing bodies of research and theory. Ongoing discussion and discourse, in interdisciplinary fields of study, is needed to continue progressing toward cognitive liberty and social justice for all.
Lastly, I want to encourage great compassion for oneself and others as we explore these issues. Just because we conceptually understand freedom, does not mean we are presently able to enjoy freedom. Social justice, mental health reform, and widespread movements of inclusivity and empowerment are needed to put theory into practice.
Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe “meaningful coincidences,” the coming together of inner and outer events that are not themselves causally connected. For Jung, the meaning attributed to these events—the connection of one’s mind to material reality—is a function of the unconscious psyche, which is inextricably united with the phenomenal world. Jung saw these connections present in dreams, symbols, and universal archetypes across all cultures.
When the mind forms an abnormal relationship with the material world, the connection can be ascribed to both mysticism and madness. What is obviously a spiritual experience to one may be an apparent psychotic feature to another. The Bible, for instance, depicts numerous accounts of powerful synchronicities and altered states of perception. Moses saw a burning bush and was overwhelmed with the presence of God. To automatically say Moses was mad is to dismiss the spiritual significance of his vision and the meaning made from such an experience.
For me, synchronicity hits close to home. When I was eighteen, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and much of my experiences were along the lines of synchronicity. I didn’t hallucinate, and there were no angels or voices of God. However, I felt a distinct shift in consciousness, like I was tapping into a spiritual plane of existence I had never known before. Over the years, it was very difficult to accept my diagnosis, because I was so certain that my condition was spiritual.
It just so happens that one major characteristic of madness is also a prominent feature of mystical experience: the ability to make connections between inner thoughts and outer circumstances that the rest of the world finds irrelevant. As someone who has had experiences with mystical psychosis, I can say very confidently that this is a point of both great liberation and complete confusion. It took me many years to allow enough space for both spiritual insight and psychological disorder.
Many of us grow up our whole lives believing that God or Spirit or enlightenment may include some supernatural comprehension. We have to be clear which is present in order to pursue true health. Am I tapping into a higher consciousness, or am I losing my mind? The answers are not always clear. Joseph Campbell famously said, “The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.” This could be a reference to synchronicity in some cases.
Synchronicity could be one of the psychological constructs that help us connect what we think is a difference between the soul and the psyche. Maybe people aren’t totally sick or completely spiritual. There could be a common ground, a middle path—space for both. The mystic could simply be higher functioning and adapting to more subtle nuances of similar phenomena as someone enduring unmanageable delusions.
I believe both have been true for me. I have been delusional, and I have experienced synchronicities, and the two need not be mutually exclusive. In our current clinical models, there is hardly any room for spiritual truth. What some know to be greater spiritual comprehension is being belittled and even rejected in those who are enduring sudden and incomprehensible insight. Our ability to "wake up" spiritually requires fewer dichotomies, less this-or-that, and more complexity. Hopefully, we are given the chance to recognize health as a spectrum, one in which we are all in the dynamic process of coming home to ourselves, mental illness or not.
I wrote the following letter to the Shades of Awakening community, which supports folks identifying with spiritual emergency. I particularly wanted to address the language around mental illness and spiritual emergency. Check out their work and continued offerings at shadesofawakening.com.
Dear SOA Community,
On the path toward liberation, we start to see more clearly the complexity of our lives. We realize that we have been neither evil nor saintly, that ideas of good and bad are measures of behavior, not people, and that absolutes are not meant for human consumption. Our mental health, or lack thereof, does not exist independent of a body, a family, a society, a world, a cosmos.
I find it important to note that all disease is a mixture of sickness and health. Even terminal cancer exists within a still-living organism, some combination of illness and vitality. To imagine that all organs in our bodies are subject to illness, while the brain is not, is to be fundamentally dogmatic in our views. I can't help but think of this dogmatism through the lens of internalized oppression in a society that brands us, brutalizes us, and leaves most of us for dead.
I hear a lot about how "mental illness doesn't exist." Let's recognize the absurdity of such a statement, while simultaneously owning the reality of spiritual emergence. Because healing is possible, and because sickness goes beyond individual bodies (brains included), does not mean sickness doesn't exist. To subscribe to such a fantasy is to further entrench the sort of dichotomous, absolutist, fundamentalism which births the compensatory crises so many of us experience.
This is not to dismiss that the epidemiology and the prognosis of mental illness is severely lacking. But we are committing an act of violence on ourselves and our world when we deny the very existence of pathology. Our collective spiritual unfolding will not come through ignorance, but through courageous willingness and honest dialogue between all parts within the whole. If we are are too weak to participate in society, we cannot effect the change so many of us are dying for. Be in choice. Don’t trade in the inherited cultural delusions of our times for upgraded versions of the same ancient samsaric propensities in new clothing.
This path of spiritual emergence is not for the faint of heart. We are called to step out and be the lighthouse we could not find, when we ourselves were adrift at sea. We are called to move into empowerment, to testify to the grace and power of the human spirit. Our souls demand the release of egoic dominance, in favor of generosity and community. Arguing within subgroups, while all forms of mental illness and spiritual emergence alike are ostracized, marginalized, and oppressed, weakens the necessary wave of consciousness that will set us free. By joining hands and dropping petty differences, we allow ourselves to ride into the sort of cognitive liberty and social justice we demand.
Anything short of this radical unity in Love will leave many to the same fate we so strongly resist. Let's wake up, together.
Let's get a disclaimer out of the way: this piece is not going to feel pleasant for faux Christians who worship flags and Bibles instead of the principles and divinity they represent. This piece is for actual followers of Christ, who recognize in the Life of historical Jesus a potential Love that could save us all. This piece is for those who know a living Christ, within and throughout, and base their lives around coming into closer contact with this infinite grace.
I've been getting some heat for drawing a line between anti-racism and the radical Love of Christ, for pointing out how strongly inspired Jesus was by the plight of oppressed people. For many Christians in the United States, Black Lives Matter is anti-American, which is synonymously anti-Christian. Christianity and Patriotism have been forged into one egoic structure, where they are fixed representations of one's identity, rather than a living ideology which informs the expression of Love and Justice.
Most of us have seen for some time that "identity politics" is a problem. If we are invested in a political party the way we are invested in our own body, we are as terrified of political transformation as we are of our own spiritual awakening. Spirituality is some sense of dying to oneself, to see the inner and outer Life principle pulsating within and throughout the cosmos beyond one's illusion of control. The extent to which we know Life is the extent to which we know Love—the extent to which we know Christ.
Our inability to acknowledge the bodily and psychological oppression of another is the extent to which we ourselves are spiritually oppressed. Spiritual oppression here is the danger of living a spiritual life, for fear of losing safety and security. Going all the way back to Jesus's life, there is great trauma in spiritual persecution. Lord Jesus was publicly murdered by religious people and government officials. This is a trauma in every sense of the word, spiritually as well. Jesus's crucifixion sends the message to the psyche of Christians that in order to follow the life of Christ, one might not just need to die an egoic death, but one might need to physically die as well. In a literal sense, spiritual realization spells bodily persecution for the unexamined psyche. The internalized oppression of Christian people is an inability to pursue a conscious spiritual reality because of an unconscious fear of death.
The Christian-American spiritual complex, which marries spiritual awakening to bodily death, also marries white supremacy to religiosity. The white settlers who conquered these lands and kidnapped indigenous peoples to educate them and indoctrinate them into Christianity; the white slave masters who forced Christianity on their slaves; the white, male founders who spoke of freedom and justice and liberty and the pursuit of happiness while implicitly understanding that these virtues were only for white men—these are but a few examples of how Americanism and Christianity were inextricably tethered to white, patriarchal supremacy and spiritual persecution.
If we can see how Christian-identifying and white-identifying people have internalized spiritual oppression, we might be able to reach hearts and minds that have been so traumatized away from the natural expression of Christ-like Love in each of us. Christianity is not an identity. Christianity is a measurement of one's embodiment of Love. It is no surprise that psychotic patients across the United States are experiencing a simultaneous near-death experience and biblical revelation of Christ consciousness within. The terror faced upon the spiritual emergence of Christ-like Love is an intergenerational trauma response to spiritual realization, an expression of the great chasm of cognitive and spiritual dissonance between bodily safety and spiritual liberation.
Christianity's internalized oppression problem shows up in many ways, too many to list in a blog post. It's the mega church that is more interested in building a congregation than preaching the truth of Jesus. It's the belief that salvation is only available in death. It's the belief that Christ is to be worshiped rather than emulated. It's the inability to see that taking a knee in protest of injustice is to take a knee in honor of all that Christ lived and died for. It's taking on the Roman identity of the time of Jesus as the American identity of today. It's the love for country and family that trumps the confrontation of hate. It's the fixation on the Bible and total disregard for the New Commandment, which says to Love God, your neighbor, and yourself with your entire being of heart, soul, and mind.
In these times of fake news and alternative facts, never forget just how radical Jesus was. He was branded a heretic, a blasphemer, and a lunatic. He said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household."
Here, a sword is not about violence, but the sharp sword of prajna—clear-seeing, which can be greatly disturbing to the ego, disrupting the peace of ignorance. We know Love so clearly, that not even worldly allegiances (one's "household") could obstruct this divine comprehension. The sword of nonviolent discernment is the precision needed to dissect the body to recover original likeness, so only divinity remains. Only then could one pass through the infinite spaciousness of the eye of the needle. The eye becomes as vast and diverse as Life itself.
Christian Americans are like a mind and heart divorced from each other, with orphaned souls desperate for reconciliation. In the United States, we will be doomed to civil and spiritual unrest until so-called "Christians" realize Christ. There is simply too much systemic oppression to overcome without this radical Love. Self-understanding of the pain within one's psyche is where we need to begin. The reason we have such a hard time meeting the pain of another is because we have inhabited a white supremacist society for so long. We are conditioned to divorce our hearts by way of cognitive distortion and rational narcissism.
This is where we are called to awaken. Can we reunite our hearts and minds to save our souls, while staying aligned in heaven and earth? Can we become fully human? Perhaps faith is necessary to undertake such a transformation—real faith, which moves beyond empty sentiments and hollow prayers. We need a faith that can move the frozen mountains of white supremacy, in our own psyches and that of the collective. This is where Christian souls are married to Black lives. This is where pro-Love is married to anti-oppression. This is where we find our personal and collective salvation. Anything short is a sin, which is to miss the mark of Love, of Christ. Stay true, aiming for the center of the cross, where humanity and divinity intersect—where we come to know the Son of Man and the Son of God as one.
Some people get confused about why this mental health advocate is concerned with anti-racism, when there's so much work to be done for anti-stigma. I don't know for sure, but my general pulse is that people think of my story as a hopeful one of recovery with severe mental illness. There's been serious substance use, body dysmorphia, alcohol poisoning, car crashes, psychosis, mania, depression, narcissistic injury, unrequited love; the list goes on and on. When I tell my story, I try to make a point to mention all the opportunity and good fortune I have been privy to in my life and in this body. Up until recently though, I had been content to let privilege be a background item—important but not critical.
The current social climate in the Unites States, in addition to my own spiritual and existential explorations, has me reconsidering the significance of my social location with regards to my recovery. As a white man of profound privilege, I feel a strong conviction that the time has come for me to consistently name privilege, in order to provide greater context and nuance, leading to higher comprehension, understanding, and competency. The more we understand, the more compassion we have, and the better solutions may come out of such clarity.
One day I'll write a book focused exclusively on the intersection of my own whiteness and mental health recovery (tentative title, and yes, please recommend a literary agent: Diving Through the Eye of the Needle), but for now, I just would like to explain a little bit more about where I'm coming from in order to connect the dots for folks who don't yet see the intricate tapestry of power and privilege and freedom and liberty.
My entire life, before I ever was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, felt like a constant navigation of social constructs. Who I get to sit with at lunch, who I get to play with on the playground, who will bully me, where I will be safe to be myself, and to what extent I feel free—these were daily considerations and points of confusion. How much this impacted my mental health is somewhat mysterious, yet that it impacted my health is an absolute certainty.
There was no greater confusion than the eventual conditioning of fragmented love, which is my own false belief that I was not free to love certain people in certain contexts. This was a pain born of a culture which encourages me to compartmentalize my love for another, which in turn teaches me that the love available from another is also compartmentalized, is also less than full-hearted and open. Believing that I could not be free to love, and that I would not be able to get the love I wanted, was at the root of all psychological pain and confusion for me. Reclaiming that Love, that right to Love, is my recovery path today, which is also my spiritual path.
I don't experience bipolar as a high and low; perhaps at one time this is what it felt like to me, but that was years ago, and I wonder how much of that was just a story told to me by medical doctors, which I adopted without thorough self-examination. I experience bipolar as a kind of energetic aperture, an opening and closing of sensory experience, indicating what I'm capable of allowing in and out of my nervous system. My open heart today is what prevents wildly unpredictable compensatory swings. The more I can rest in the tenderness of my heart—the more I can make a home in the dwelling of self-Love—the greater is my capacity to cope with a nervous system far too sensitive for these chaotic times.
To shut off from Love within my body, is to eventually invite my body to rebel, forcing me into the homeodynamic compensations of an unbridled Love. This Love is a force which no treatment can contain. There is either acceptance of this Love, or there are various degrees of sedation. This is the desperation of Love from a crying infant. This is the plea to God from the roof of a home surrounded by the waters of a hurricane. This is the shaky tenderness of making Love for the first time, or the trembling lips speaking sweet words to another, without the certainty that feelings will be reciprocated. None of us can refuse this Love. This Love is built into the system, woven into our DNA. Only hatred, greed, and delusion is capable of distorting this innate intelligence.
Love does not exist in a vacuum. We come to know Love in relationship. We learn Love through nourishment, through touch, through play. Any lack of Love's expression in health and wellness is a disease, which must exist in relationship as well. There is no individual which deserves blame and punishment, without recognizing the relationship of the individual to the systems which provided, or withheld, Love.
This is where social justice becomes unmistakably crucial in our comprehension of Love in ourselves, in humanity, and in our world. I see bipolar bodies as oppressed. I see schizophrenic bodies as oppressed. I see all bodies with "mental illness" as oppressed in a culture that would have us believe sickness begins and ends with the individual, or that mental illness is objective outside of cultural expectations and social influences.
This is not entirely unlike how I see marginalized groups in our country, regarding racism especially. To use a historical example, In 1851, the physician Samuel A. Cartwright (1793–1863), coined a term "drapetomania," which he described as a treatable mental illness, saying, "With proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented." As a white man today, who has experienced my fair share of mania, I can only tell you that Dr. Cartwright was not entirely wrong: mania is an emergency mechanism in the psyche, telling us to run like hell, only I'm not running from oppression; I'm running from the delusions of a white supremacist culture which consistently and systematically indoctrinates me into empathetic dissociation disorder. I am running away from all the messages which convinced me that my heart is not welcome, that the Love of Christ is to be worshiped only, never emulated, and that forgiveness for this life was more critical than the Love already available to us now. I'm running away from Christianity as an identity, running toward Christ as a measurement.
So in an attempt to wrap this up, when I wear a Black Lives Matter hat or post about anti-racism, I'm making the point to draw a line between my liberty and another's freedom. I'm standing with the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, anti-oppression, queer theory, neurodiversity, ecopsychology, the pain in my psyche which attempts to convince me of my utter impotence to impact my world and to save my own life. I'm standing with native and indigenous peoples, committed to my own imperfect understanding of those who have been othered for so long. I'm standing in this imperfect body, devoted to imperfect understanding of a perfect Love in each of us. I stand with Dr. Cornell West, who says, "Justice is what Love looks like in public." I stand with Reverend angel Kyodo williams, who calls us to "[emerge] from behind the fog of the ego-mind of whiteness." I stand with Dr. King, when he says, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and I add, Love anywhere is a threat to ignorance everywhere.
I have suffered tremendously, but I do not see myself as suffering anymore. I am bipolar, but bipolar order has replaced bipolar disorder, for I am free to Love. If we can't make space for our own suffering, we won't be able to hold space for another. I think part of the reason anti-oppression movements are painful for so many, is because we know our own pain, but we haven't felt free to feel it. We have lived a life of microtrauma, where we married our safety to incongruent and inauthentic responses to life, in order to find a security that never came. We feel in ourselves how we had to be more masculine, more feminine, more white, more intelligent, more religious, more successful, more silent, and how all these ways of being were circumventing the liberty of Love in our unconditioned hearts and minds.
Please be gentle with yourself, and offer compassion to all of humanity, in any way you can. Sometimes this compassion is logging off Facebook for a few days, or taking a day off work, or finally breaking down and crying all those tears which we learned to hate, but which were Love all along. There is healing to be had in all of us. Let's stand together in Love, and come to know true power together. Let's stop looking for power in ignorance and begin seeing power in connection. Let's wake up.
The response is usually something like, "I believe religions are mythological, archetypal, symbolic reflections of the human psyche." Sometimes it's more like, "I believe people can believe whatever they want to believe so long as their beliefs are not causing harm to another." Other times, I just say, "I believe in Love."
The truth of the matter though, is that I don't believe anything. There's just some stuff I know, and there's other stuff I put in the category of "don't know" or "don't know yet."
In my coaching approach, I have three main goals: clarity, purpose, and action. It has been my experience that we need clarity to know what's wrong before we can start to work toward making things right.
I know that homing in on a sense of self-defined purpose can allow us to have a philosophical anchor when life throws challenges our way. If my purpose is to manifest Love and be Love, then when I find myself acting in hate, I know I am out of alignment with what is most important to me. Purpose is why we wake up in the morning, whether or not we feel like it.
Lastly, action, from a place of clear-mindedness and integrity, is what will put clarity and purpose to use. If I clearly know I'm in a location that prevents my ability to Love, and my purpose is to Love without condition, I have work to do. There are actionable items, and coaching can help us stay accountable to our own mission.
WTF is "sociopsychoneuroimmunospirituality"?
The reason I want to write this piece today on "sociopsychoneuroimmunospirituality" has more to do with the holistic approach to health and healing that informs these goals of clarity, purpose, and action. The five domains of wellness in my own coaching paradigm are:
Thoughts, perceptions, beliefs—conscious or unconscious—are what make up the mental wellness domain. We may think we are loving someone, or that another is not loving us, but that is clouded by the ability to see clearly the mind's operation.
For example, Mom tells me to clean my room. I think Mom is being ridiculous. I withhold love. But what I don't see is that Mom's desire for me to clean my room is rooted in her love for me. She wants me to grow up to be a capable, productive member of society. For her, a clean room reflects the cleanliness I might apply to myself and my environment in the future. I may not like it, but I can see love there. From a place of Love, I can communicate my own needs, and whether or not I want to clean my room.
What we feel, how we feel, why we feel, when we feel, and what it feels like to feel are all areas of emotional wellness. Our capacity to experience sadness, joy, heartache, longing, and the ways in which we allow emotion to move and flow or become blocked, stuck, and repressed, all impact the level of wellness we experience.
For example, if my boyfriend breaks up with me, I might feel sad. If my boyfriend was an asshole, maybe I'll feel happy! Regardless, how I feel that sadness (or happiness) will matter in how I think about myself, how I move through my day, how I treat others, whether or not I feel like taking care of myself. Maybe I eat a pint of ice cream in front of five hours of Netflix. This is all information. No judgment. The real question is, how do I want to show up? How could my emotions help or hinder me from showing up in Love for myself and others?
Mental and emotional wellness is intimately connected with how we feel in our bodies. The way we move our bodies, how we fuel our bodies, who we let our bodies come in contact with, even the thoughts we have about our bodies, are all ways in which we can cultivate wellness in our lives.
For example, in my own life, I like to lift weights. Resistance training has been very helpful for me as a way to be more in touch with my body, to feel strong, and to burn off nervous energy from the day or week. But if I get in my head that I need to lift weights in order to look like the Rock, then I'm setting myself up for a lack of wellness. I'll get fixated on my body and convince myself that I am not worthy except in conditional, cultural contexts that require my own self-loathing in order to make a profit. Physical wellness, for me, is moving to feel good, not to look different.
Our social lives, social locations, levels of privilege, experiences of violence and oppression, how much quality Love we experience on a daily basis—these are all social wellness areas. Many areas of social wellness are in our control, or at least how we respond are within our control. A lot of us don't realize though, how impacted we are by social locations. We don't see that our family system is depleting or assisting our capacity to heal. We don't recognize that an abusive partnership is wrecking our self-worth. We don't understand that how we vote or what we buy might be reinforcing an inability to find Love in our lives.
In my own life, I've had an uncomfortable time relating to my social location. As a white, heterosexual, cis-presenting man, I am mostly not a victim. I am merely ignorant to my power. The anxiety, this heart pounding, the cognitive confusion, the terror of discussing race, sex, gender, power, disability, and the white supremacist structures which have educated me into ignorance, conditioned me to speak of love with hollow prayers and empty sentiments—this is not an expression of my powerlessness. The truth is that I have power to speak, to act, to learn, to transform, right now.
From my bipolar location, I think a lot about oppression and discrimination regarding mental illness. Every visible feature of mine, other than perhaps body size, is a point of privilege. This white skin, male body, educated tongue, wedding ring, nice clothes, etc. all allow me to move with ease through society. But then there's this invisibility, which at times has threatened my life and my sanity, and has made Loving and being Loved very difficult. Were it not for my privilege, I might not be able to Love as I do today, or enjoy abundant opportunity in this bipolar body.
Spirituality is one of these terms that requires an operational definition every time we use it. When I use the term "spiritual" or "spirituality," I'm referring to a transpersonal domain within ones psyche that allows the individual to feel a sense of unity beyond their physical form. This could look like traditional religious views, or the growing "spiritual not religious" category, or agnostic and atheist orientations. Some of the most spiritual people I've ever met are atheists.
Spiritual wellness is not about telling you how to use spirituality. Rather, I encourage folks to think about the deep meaning and existential queries that are inherent to the human condition. I have my own beliefs about Goodness and Love, but they mean little unless those beliefs can translate into actionable ways in which I show up in my own body and how I express myself to others.
For example, from a Christian location, I might believe that suffering is inevitable until I die and am fortunate enough to go to Heaven. My beliefs might help me be a good person, to show up in ways that I know God would want me to. But my beliefs might hinder my ability to experience liberation while I'm still alive. I might think that only Jesus or saints or prophets get to really know God, which prevents me from sincerely pursuing spiritual realization that might enhance my quality of life and ability to Love right now.
Considering the Implications of Sociopsychoneuroimmunospirituality
The term sociopsychoneuroimmunospirituality is the result of my own study regarding the effects of social systems on the wellbeing of individuals, religious and spiritual interpretations of psychological crisis, as well as the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology. A holistic interpretation of the many intrapsychic, biological, ecological, and social systems we automatically inhabit as human beings allows for a greater freedom to choose health in whatever way is best for us. We don't have to buy into wellness that someone else is selling. We can be the wellness that we already are, provided we take honest, courageous steps toward befriending ourselves.
The seed of wellness, of enlightenment even, is already planted in every human being. It is our decision to cultivate growth, to till the soil, to provide the proper nutrients, to plant ourselves in the right location, climate, and proximity to Light. Transformation, the flowering of our own consciousness, is inevitable under proper conditions. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "No mud, no lotus."
Let us contemplate the complexity of our lives from the simplicity of Love in our hearts. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: You are Love, and the extent to which you are able to Love freely and receive Love will ultimately guide your total wellness.
“You are Jesus! You are Buddha!” Master repeatedly shouted into the microphone. His voice bounced around the small, dark room where I was being initiated, or brainwashed, or maybe even becoming enlightened. There were about twelve of us students, but I knew his words were for me. He was affirming something I had already intuitively understood, if only through psychosis.
I thought I was Jesus before, back during my first manic episode. My ego had suddenly evaporated. I felt infinitely expansive, incomprehensibly blissful, and somehow like myself for the first time in my life. It was like waking up from a bad dream, a dream where I believed that this mind and body was all that existed. Before, I would need to wait until death and travel to heaven in order to meet God. But in a matter of moments, I had instantly seen the light. God was inside me, and heaven was right here, and I didn’t have to die to know it either.
I didn’t care what the doctors said. I met God that day, no matter how many times they told me my brain was broken. So what if I ended up being arrested in my college dormitory and stripped in my jail cell demanding that the officers come look at my naked body as proof that I was not of this world? I knew it seemed crazy. But couldn’t the same be said about Noah and his arc or Moses and his burning bush? Was my experience really that different? Only God knew the truth.
“You are Jesus! You are Buddha!” It felt good to hear those words over and over again. It never made much sense to me that God would send His only child and then make us all wait in agony for the day He’d come again. Maybe it wasn’t Jesus’s death that was so important. Maybe His life was the lesson. Maybe He came to show us how to live as God intended. Maybe He came to teach us that we were just like Him, if only we could realize it.
My short stint in the yoga cult marked just one of my bizarre encounters with divine insanity. Over the course of about a decade, I would travel in and out of lucidity as I wrestled with this overwhelming existential and spiritual quandary: “Am I crazy or enlightened?” You would think this question would be fairly straightforward, but the more I studied spirituality and various mystical encounters, the more muddled the question became.
Every story of God-realization, enlightenment, and transcendence was marked by some ineffable recognition of the vast expansiveness of self, one in which the illusory separation between the infinite universe and the finite ego fell away. I had no doubt about it; this was happening to me. The problem was I also fit every clinical criterion for the acute manic phase of bipolar disorder.
Spiritual self-help books and conversations with therapists only pointed me back to the same question: “Am I crazy or enlightened?” Eventually I would concede that I was indeed crazy. Stripping naked in my jail cell; believing policemen to be the Pharisees taking me to my crucifixion; trying to levitate and perform miracles; insisting to my father that God had impregnated my mother and that he should probably get a paternity test; these events were obviously not indicative of spiritual attainment.
But what about the fleeting, yet undeniable, spiritual revelations? For the first time in my life, I could see that religions were manmade. I understood that God was an actual experience, not some lofty theological idea. I could feel my own awakened heart, a total union with nature, and an overwhelming state of love that felt more real than anything I had ever known. Could this all be merely the result of swirling brain chemicals, glitches in a faulty neurological makeup?
It wasn’t until I enrolled at Naropa University, a small Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college in Boulder, Colorado, that I began to find some perspective. In Buddhism, there is the belief that all human beings have Buddha nature, that this basic goodness is not exclusive to the Buddha Himself. I started applying this wisdom to Christianity. Perhaps when I was so sure that I was Jesus, I was encountering my own Christ nature. It was the combination of grandiosity and religious confusion that deluded me into thinking I was the only one.
For years, I operated through a new and liberating interspiritual outlook. I practiced Buddhist meditation and continued praying to the God of my Christian faith. I believed Jesus Christ to be humanity’s supreme teacher, though not the only one, and I looked to Buddhist psychology as a way of illuminating religious distortion. My old wounds and buried trauma were slowly revealed as I learned to practice loving kindness toward myself. I could see that my ego was the prime culprit, both interfering with my health and my willingness to heal.
Now, I wish I could say that spiritual and psychological comprehension were enough to cure me of bipolar disorder. I wish I could say that grandiose delusions were merely the result of ignorance and confusion. Even though I had come a long way, I still had another manic episode. Without medicine, it seemed there would always be another episode. In mania, I still thought I was the chosen one. I was still paranoid that I would be assassinated. I was still certain that the government was about to promote me to some top-secret position overseeing global alliance. I still believed that I alone could save humanity from its history of suffering.
When it comes to mental illness and spirituality, the two appear to be intimately connected. Just visit any psychiatric hospital, and you’ll meet a handful of modern-day messiahs. It’s hard to admit, but when I feel most spiritual, chances are I am flirting with a bipolar relapse into mania. On the flipside, when I feel least spiritual, I am probably descending into the depths of another kind of bipolar relapse: depression. My mental health and spirituality go hand-in-hand. It has become nearly impossible for me to see where one ends and the other begins.
“Am I crazy or enlightened?” I’ve come to realize that the either-or debate of spirituality and psychology, of mysticism and madness, is a false dichotomy. Nearly all spiritual practices are a way of producing an altered state of consciousness, and many faithful are seeking a new relationship with reality. Mental illness does not negate spiritual experience any more than nature negates nurture. Today, I know there were times I was crazy, but I also suspect there were times I was relatively enlightened. Ultimately I’ve realized that insanity and spiritual awakening are not mutually exclusive phenomena. In some cases, they might even be the same.
If you’ve experienced genuine spiritual insight, whether during a bipolar episode or not, that insight will remain profound during periods of mood fluctuation. It won’t matter if you are sedated, sad, gleeful, manic, full of anxiety, or painfully agitated. The truth is the truth, no matter how it makes us feel.
For a lot of us, getting a diagnosis automatically wipes away any spiritual insights, rolling them into a long list of painful symptoms. We had glimpses of spiritual realization perhaps, but we also couldn’t sleep or eat, or we dropped out of school, or we hurt a loved one, or we made some other horrible decisions with detrimental consequences. We sort of accept that any movement toward spiritual awakening belonged in the same heap of garbage as those unsavory symptoms. And this would work wonderfully, except that even when all those symptoms go away and we feel stable and functional, the spiritual piece may remain. Then what?
Typically, we stay silent and pursue spiritual material on our own in isolation, closeted about our affinity for mystical phenomena. These states of consciousness remain dormant, stagnant, and inaccessible without drastic perceptual shifts—something fairly automatic during a manic episode. If there wasn't so much shame and stigma and internalized oppression, we might be able to openly discuss our spiritual insights gleaned during times of madness without fear of being further pathologized. We suspect with a great deal of certainty that others don’t understand.
It is so important to remember that these perceptual shifts, which lead to expanded states of consciousness, are not exclusive to bipolar disorder. Mystics and masters of all traditions have approached this oneness, transcendence, and boundless love innate to the human psyche. Such perceptual shifts may be pursued through the incremental, systematic practice of undoing conditioned mind found in many wisdom traditions, but for those experiencing a mental health crisis, these states are often experienced amid uninvited psychological chaos and turmoil.
Integrating such profound insights, whether they come on a meditation cushion or during a psychotic episode, is a lifetime of practice. Spiritual insight and bipolar symptomatology are not the same. Spiritual insight can fuel and exacerbate grandiosity, which is often part of the confusion. Realizing you are God, and running around naked telling everyone about it, is drastically different from sitting in still contemplation and feeling into the truth that we are all God. Both realizations touch on insight, but one gives way to manic behavior while the other yields unitive consciousness and widening compassion.
This is all to say, “treat the symptoms, not the insight.” Spiritual insight during bipolar episodes must be honored alongside the need to manage symptoms. To dismiss spiritual insight invites hopelessness and despair—a kind of sin against oneself. But to dismiss symptoms as part of a singularly spiritual ideology might result in recapitulating the same psychological challenges over and over again. Find order in bipolar disorder by incorporated a holistic view, where all parts are welcome in an integrated whole. There is space for it all.
My stumbling upon Buddhism was a fortunate confluence of events during a time of tremendous hardship. I was in a wilderness rehab program, a young man spiritually confused after battling with bipolar disorder, addiction, and disordered eating. One of my favorite counselors there told me about a small liberal arts school called Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He said, “If I could go back to school, that’s where I would go.”
I didn’t think much of his statement at the time, but it just so happens that my therapist recommended a halfway house in Boulder for me to continue my journey of recovery, and so Naropa was naturally on my radar. When I arrived at the place I would call home for the next six months, it turns out that nearly every therapist there had graduated from Naropa themselves. I felt a stirring within, calling me to an education I knew so little about.
The halfway house required participants to either work or go to school for a certain amount of hours each week. I decided to apply to Naropa, and I was grateful to be accepted. Though I would be immersed in recovery meetings and psychotherapy groups, I quickly found my Buddhist-inspired education to be an equally integral component to my health and wellbeing.
Beyond maladaptive behaviors and emotional unrest was an existential struggle to reconcile my bipolar diagnosis with confusing spiritual experiences. Upon my first psychotic episode at the age of eighteen, I believed I was the Second Coming of Christ. After I was hospitalized and medicated, though I knew I wasn’t literally Jesus, I couldn’t shake some profound spiritual insights that came over me in my moments of madness.
I became convinced that Jesus had much more to offer than the sacrifice of his life. I could see that he was offering a way out of the suffering of this world, not just upon death, but right here and now. Before I was introduced to Buddhist psychology, I had no language to give to these fleeting experiences of transcendence and egolessness.
I know it might sound strange to leap from psychosis to ego transcendence, possibly even dangerous, but the two were so intimately related for me. I felt as if I had understood God for the first time in my life, not as an object, but as an experience. It was ineffable, a moment in which the little me no longer existed, my identity disintegrating into the vastness of the universe. And though my ego structures were breaking down without my consent, it didn’t change that I had encountered some sense of nirvana.
For many years, I struggled with the ambiguity of my spiritual insights and psychiatric condition. In my mind, I had to be either brilliant or mad, sane or crazy, wise or confused. It wasn’t until I studied the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche that I started to see there could be both, that there could be an underlying wisdom to neurosis. I could be fundamentally sane. Though recovery would require a long road of challenges, acceptance, and healing, I was forever set on a path toward truth, and for that, I am eternally grateful. I could keep my insights and pursue recovery, and there could be space for it all.
I had the opportunity to be interviewed for a new podcast, titled "My Secret Symptom," focused on spiritual experiences within bipolar disorder. It turns out I'm not the only Jesus out there!
We had an awesome conversation, and I'm getting more and more inspired to see how much spirituality is getting validated in the arenas of mental health. From twelve step recovery models to up and coming Buddhist and mindfulness-based treatment options to yoga and meditation booms, there seems to be a real shift in consciousness around how these issues overlap.