A Bipolar Look at Buddhism: It's Mainstream, It's Practical, and It May Save Your Life

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Yesterday, with a friend, I showed up at a Buddhist meditation group. This was the first such meeting I have attended in decades. I don’t engage in any regular Buddhist practice and I’m very much a failed meditator. Yet, I felt right at home.


    What gives?


    The short answer is a lot of the lessons I learned from way back have stuck and become a part of me. Later, after I was diagnosed, I applied these lessons as part of my recovery. Bipolar takes no prisoners. It was sink or swim.


    In this context, we are talking of Buddhism as a psychology and a guide to skillful living rather than a religion. Let’s focus on two key precepts:

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    Mindfulness forms the bedrock of both cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. These therapies are used extensively in the treatment of bipolar and related conditions. More recently, mindfulness has been embraced by mainstream psychology as a stand-alone practice in its own right.


    In a nutshell, our automatic (and mostly delusional) thoughts sabotage our best intentions. This is because “mind precedes its objects,” according to Buddhist scripture. An undisciplined mind takes the rest of you with it, wherever it wants to take you, “like a wheel behind the feet of the animal drawing it.”


    The antidote is to train the mind to watch itself - the mind watching the mind. Mindfulness, says Buddhist expert Jon Kabbat-Zinn, “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.


    With practice, we learn to attune ourselves to subtle shifts in our thoughts and feelings and energy levels, Often, we can act before events spin out of control. A key tool in the Buddhist toolkit involves cultivating a sense of detachment.


    Our thoughts tend to be an expression of our fears and desires. Our attachment to these fears and desires is the cause of our suffering, which we are spectacularly good at. Non-attachment involves not identifying with these thoughts. Learn to let go and you will be a lot happier, certainly a lot less stressed. This just about sums up The Four Noble Truths.




    About those runaway thoughts - they’re not real. Neither are your perceptions. Everything you sense, everything you think or feel, every conclusion you draw - it’s maya, an illusion.


    Of all things, the relatively new field of cognitive science - which incorporates psychology, philosophy, brain science, genetics, evolutionary biology, and other disciplines - fully validates the ancient principle of maya.


    A Wikipedia list of cognitive biases reels off 93 ways our brains can trick us. Perhaps you have heard of some of the terms: Bandwagon effect, confirmation bias, framing effect, gambler’s fallacy, post-purchase rationalization, on and on and on ... 


    Our brains are the random result of evolution. An intelligent designer, working from scratch, would have come up with a far more efficient and reliable operating system.


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    As for our conscious minds - we are talking about a favored selection of competing inputs - senses, thoughts, and emotions fused into imperfect perceptions. Our sense of self is the sum total of our present perceptions layered over selected memories.


    So - you are not real, either. Get over it. We have attached way too much importance to our illusory egos and to the cognitive fantasies we have spun. One way of looking at it is that we are nothing getting worked up over nothing.


    The good news is once we come to terms with this fundamental truth, we can take a breath, step back, and establish a sense of perspective in our lives. This may lead to less stress, better decision-making, improved relationships, and a higher comfort level with our own being. A long way from Nirvana, perhaps, but, all things considered, not a bad deal. 


    Just so there are no misunderstandings ...


    Once again, I am stressing Buddhism as a practical - and decidedly mainstream - psychology. Books by its two most celebrated practitioners, the Dalai Lama and Thích Nhất Hạnh, have a way of turning up on best-seller lists, under the heading of self-help.


    We have no shortage of beginner’s guides and more advanced reading. Do your own exploring. Come to your own conclusions. 




    Also check out my piece from 2008, Buddhism: A Practical Psychology.

Published On: August 04, 2014