IS MEDITATION DANGEROUS FOR MANIC DEPRESSIVES?

Following an experience that took her to the edge, Lisa Luxx asks is meditation dangerous for the more sensitive minds among us?

Some of us are so highly connected to the rhythms of the Moon, that much like the tide we are dragged by some greater force into depth and darkness. One would have thought the way back toward the surface would be through meditation; the New Age answer to everything. I certainly thought so—surely it will balance me back out and return me to my moorings. Until one prolonged Samantha mediation class led me to the lip of suicide.

Silence is best taken in tiny sips when the mind has a tendency for self-destruction. I know this after I glugged on a big cup of the stuff and wound up choking. What happened was, the class leader was taking us through a guided meditation; only at a certain point, I was instructed to stop following their guidance and continue with my own practice for the remainder of the class.

So now there’s me, free-falling. Surrounded by all these people in woven clothes, with clear eyes and a softness about their jaw. And me, whimpering in pain, crying abundantly, unable to make eye contact or speak, playing out my own death forwards and backwards in my head until I now how to execute it perfectly.

I survived thanks to a very sensitive friend who was in the class too and saw it all happen. Once I’d come ’round I spoke to another friend, also bestowed the gift of ‘manic depression’—and she told me that her teacher at the East London Buddhist Centre advised she only take half hour classes because of the uncertainty that lay in opening up. My quasi-spiritual therapist wasn’t surprised either; “you have to be so careful with meditation,” she told me, explaining how dangerous it can be to create space for unwelcome thoughts to take hold.

My experience was overwhelming. Depression has been sucking on me ever since I remember, but I’ve never felt such a sudden rush of pain as I did that day. It was a tidal wave. A brute force. The most certain and determined I’ve ever felt about wanting to pass through to the other side of living. During the time it took for the episode to play out, I existed within the visions of death, rather than the visions of death existing within me.

Ever since the experience I’ve been wary about meditating again. I’ve got myself in a really good, balanced place now but I daren’t allow space for that darkness to re-enter and consume me again. My pal won’t always be on hand to pull me back in from the ledge. I see now that this resistance is my psyche trying to protect me. But when I speak to Sumaya Fenton, my friend who is a practitioner of Rinzai Zen, she tells me: “The psyche trying to protect you is based on fear and ego. Any emotion you had was only temporary.”

She goes on to explain that sometimes these knock backs happen before a great break through. But I haven’t felt safe blindly continuing with the same practices I felt had almost killed me. However, each person walks their own path to enlightenment (in as many life times as it takes), and perhaps my pathway is going to start to look a little different.

A walking meditation. Photo by Olivia Sykes

“Wherever you’re at you’re still on a path. In Zen they talk about the ten stages of insight—the road map to enlightenment—and around stage four people have this experience of a big fear, or something that really knocks them back, but you carry on and focus less on the significance and meaning of that experience and more on the physicality of meditation,” says Sumaya.

For me, meditation right now cannot be about sitting in silence—but it can be about movement, like walking meditation, or other physical manifestations. Paying attention to each part of my foot in turn as it makes contact with the earth. Focusing on my breath and other practices that put the awareness in my body: “[in these practices] your mind is still opening up and expanding but you’re not watching your mind so consciously and fearfully.”

I also sit across from the Yorkshire moors, where my house is nestled, and interpret the patterns of the Sun/Moon-light across the hills mirroring my emotions. Finding synchronicity between my internal process and the greater external process. Which also works to remind me that my ups and downs are simply localized versions of the master rhythms of this universe.

Yoga helps. And I’ve also taken up life-drawing. You learn something about yourself from the way you depict another body. These have become my ways of getting mindful and finding peace within the almighty Oneness. Though I still often feel like I’m free-falling.

Sumaya says that the pressure in the West to do everything ourselves is what’s making for unsafe meditation practices. “Having a teacher is paramount. Pretty much as important as daily practice. The problem is systemic, Western capitalism only provides this culture of sticking plasters rather than giving the proper context of how and why to tread this path—which often comes from a long-term relationship with a teacher.”

It feels to me like in our society, this ‘one size fits all’ take on meditation is proving to sit a little baggy or tight on many of us. For the more sensitive minds among us, giving time to developing a relationship with a trusted teacher would also mean rooting ourselves in connectivity, by allowing our journey to be directed by the wisdom of another.

East London Buddhist Centre run Breathing Space, a course developed for people with depression, anxiety or other imbalances (‘gifts,’ as I like to call them). The course involves more personal attention from the teacher, more support. But even within their standard classes they aim to relate to people on a personal basis.

“Faith in humankind is what we need the most” says Sumaya. And if our practice begins with trusting another human being then we starting off in the arms of safety, which is ultimately what saved me. And why I’m ready to continue on my path.

If you’re concerned about whether meditation is right for you, then please consult with a medical professional.