On Friday, along with around 500 others, I attended the funeral celebrations of an old friend. Although we hadn’t been really close, over fifteen years we had woven in and out of each others’ lives between Melbourne and Alice Springs, shared dance floors and good food, campfires and stories, theatre performances and communities of friends and loved ones. Trish was one of the most vivacious, loving and brave women I knew. She lit up hearts, dance floors, and a deep love of life in each person she touched. What I didn’t know was that she had been suffering a deep depression, and in the end it overwhelmed her. Despite being surrounded by love. Despite reaching out to close friends and family.
Over the last week, I’ve had many conversations about suicide, loss, and the challenges of mental illness. Working especially with asylum seekers and victims of family violence, it’s hard to comprehend such deep suffering in someone whose outer life seemed so wonderful, rich, free and full of love. But it’s more common than we think. Dark periods can come like a mystery – and they may or may not be triggered by external circumstances. Some of us seem just to be sensitive souls who feel things too keenly, who search deeply for the meaning of this unfathomable life, and who sometimes become overrun by the tyranny of a wild mind. It may be biology, chemistry, spirit or soul, I don’t really know… but death, darkness and suffering are some of the mysteries that are as inherent a part of life as creation, beauty and delight.
I consider myself fortunate to have known a few of these dark periods.
They taught me deep humility and compassion, and they guided me towards a deeper search for meaning, strength and wholeness. I feel even more fortunate to have made it through.
In my early twenties, following a period of intense meditation and Tibetan practices, I had an immense ‘breakdown’ – a complete crisis of meaning that took me years to recover from. Though deep down, I knew also it was a spiritual breakthrough. Had I sought ‘professional’ help, though so necessary for some, I’m quite sure I would have ended up with a ‘diagnosis’ that I might have attached myself to for a lifetime. What I had instead was a wise friend with a kind ear, an overwhelming lack of judgement, and a soothing pot of vanilla green tea whenever I arrived at his door. It was his unerring support that initially got me through.
At the time, I punished myself so severely for not being able to live up to the spiritual ideals in my head, all the Buddhist teachings of righteousness and equanimity, that I completely shattered. Until finally I had to realise that whilst my mind might be lightning quick and so clever, and my moral high horse so high, my emotions and my heart needed time to catch up. They needed to be heard, they needed to be accepted, and they needed to be loved. I needed to become human – in all of its mess, its beauty, its confusing paradoxes, and its pain. I discovered that ‘spirituality’ isn’t a set of ideals and practices to be followed. It’s the process of becoming fully human. And it’s a journey that is unique to each of us.
It was in this first years-long recovery period that I discovered yoga. It was the practice I needed to get me out of my head and into my body. It was the practice I needed to strengthen my sensitive nervous system and to find ground. I was also fortunate for extended periods of vipassana meditation, that gave me the mental strength and insight to let go. To trust that I could let go of a thought rather than clinging onto it and riding it like a wild horse in a frenzy for days. And when I did that, I discovered nothing bad would happen. And even better, it would eventually pass. Letting go was actually the sweetest blessing. A challenging practice at first, but with the practice of coming back to the moment, to the breath, to simply observing and accepting what was happening within my body, I eventually found a freedom and a strength that I would not have believed possible.
When later breakthroughs (read: ‘breakdowns’) happened, I could knowingly sit in the immensity of pain, grief and inner torment, and surrender to the destructive force of life that clears the way for new growth and beauty. With patience and practice, it can come. Yet even in the trust and surrender, it was terrifying and exquisite at the same time.
It’s a terrible thing to be so sensitive, to be so inquisitive about life and so questioning of the ‘reality’ and the measures of ‘success’ that are presented to us. But it can also be a gift. Through our lack of satisfaction, through our darkness, and through the tender experience of our own deep suffering, we can learn great compassion and we can shine great light. We can plumb the depths of what it is to be human, and hopefully rise again to the surface with jewels that shine a brilliant light for others to follow.
For those who have done this, we must reach out to those who are still struggling in the depths, with love, compassion and the tools that might begin to weave a web of wholeness again. And hope that this is enough.
But ultimately, life is a mystery. Without judging, accept. Even in the midst of the deepest pain, seek grace. Go sweetly in the not-knowing, with love and with compassion. And as my beautiful friend Trish would say, be kind to others, for you don’t know what pain they may be suffering.