By Jack Bragen I am a self-taught meditation practitioner and I also suffer from a disease called schizophrenia. The teachings of Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others have furnished me with the basic guidelines for my meditative effort.
The meditation techniques I use involve looking inward, seeing what is on the inside, and making changes. When the meditation stops working, I know it is time to “begin anew” and reset my thoughts—accomplished through deliberately thinking that I am resetting my thoughts.
When I go out on my porch, the pale overcast sky and the chill air make the loss of my father more dismal. He unexpectedly lost his body last spring. Yet the unbearable pain is made less through mental exercises, which include reinterpreting or accepting painful emotions, pinpointing thoughts that trigger painful emotions, and other methods. My grief is lessened also by my realization that my father didn’t really go away. My father’s imperfect example of being a good person made me who I am.
At fifteen, I spotted a book about meditation on his dresser, and I wanted to read it. At nineteen, I read The Miracle of Mindfulness, and it ultimately helped change the course of my life. At times, I have been an angrier person than I ought to be. Yet the example I read of Thay, taking a deep breath to halt an angry response, has stuck with me. And this helps me a lot in all of my relationships. Today when I dealt with a telephone salesman who would not stop talking, I remembered to have a kind response even while in the process of hanging up.
When people embark on the journey of intentional spiritual growth, they must begin at the level of development where they are at the time. If the aspirant has a psychiatric disability, the obstacles against achieving some amount of attainment are more formidable. It is relatively rare for the psychiatrically disabled to be able to meditate.
I discovered meditation and journaling following my first episode of psychosis in 1982. I believed that meditation would enable me to cure my psychiatric illness and would help me deal with life situations. Journaling was something I did because I needed it. I thought that, over time, I would combine the two.
As it turned out, meditation in the absence of medical treatment wasn’t enough to cure my psychiatric illness. However, from meditation practices I ultimately gained some things that are much more valuable than a cure for the illness. I gained the ability to cope with and get through the difficult situations that kept coming up for me. Admittedly, some of these situations happened due to my lack of foresight and poor judgment. Other difficult situations came up because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time or because someone believed I could be an easy victim.
Some of my situations were frightening. For instance, when I was at my cleaning job one night, I found myself face to face with an armed robber. I had been meditating on the job. When I saw the man, my first instinct was to be nice and kind. I pointed toward his revolver and said, “That’s a gun, isn’t it?” I was in shock. I credit this response with saving my life. Of the two armed robbers, one of them had some amount of empathy for me and knew that I was very frightened. The lesson of kindness, taught by Thay and others, is one reason why I am here and alive today.
I began my intentional spiritual growth from a place of despair and tremendous suffering. While my meditation hasn’t cured my schizophrenia, it has reduced the severity of some aspects of this disease. For example, I have learned to be gentler and more cooperative during a psychotic episode.
Furthermore, my meditation practice has given me valuable insight into the nature of my psychiatric illness and into “the human condition.” Various compartments in my consciousness seem to open and close at various times. When I am ignorant, I am unaware of that fact. When more light gets into my thoughts, I sometimes get frustrated that I have spent a period of time “unconscious.” Thay’s lesson of living in the now has helped me: I have learned to deal with the discomfort of the moment and to not try to “immunize” myself in advance of a difficult time.
Because I habitually look within and analyze the inside, I am more able to distinguish between delusional thoughts, which are created by a brain malfunction, and ordinary thoughts that may or may not be accurate. The technique that I use to deal with delusions has evolved to become very similar to the technique I use to deal with emotional pain. Both involve questioning the output of my mind.
Meditation, along with utilizing the painful energy of hardship as fuel for the meditative fire, has made me feel differently about life. I now look at my experience of life, despite it being the only thing I am aware of, as being a small part of a bigger picture.
Jack Bragen’s first attempts at meditation date back thirty years to a time shortly after he became mentally ill. He lives with his wife Joanna and writes a column for the Berkeley Daily Planet. His book, Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia: A Self-Help Manual, is available on Amazon.