Mindfulness for Bipolar Disorder by Dr. William R. Marchand lays out specific areas for mindfulness practices that be useful in managing bipolar disorder symptoms. Much of the book would also be applicable to other mood disorders. I believe mindfulness can be a really helpful thing to incorporate into one’s life; however, along with the good stuff in the book, I found a fair bit that bugged me as well.
A note on language: The author talks about things like “your everyday bipolar life”, “your bipolar self”, and “being bipolar”. If people who have bipolar disorder want to talk about “being bipolar” because that’s how they conceptualize their self and their illness, that’s totally fine; however, when people who don’t have a mental illness start talking about “being” bipolar/depressive/schizophrenic/anxious/personality disordered, it grates on me. It bugs me because it sounds like they’re telling us that we are our illnesses, even though it’s not up to them to define us, our identities, and where our illnesses fit in.
Ok, time to delve into the practices the book suggests.
Daily meditation practice
This meditation is focused on breathing, and bringing the focus back to the breath any time the mind wanders. This noticing and refocusing is an important part of the practice. The breath serves as an anchor for all of the other meditations described in the book.
Targeting bipolar depression
This chapter looks at recognizing and moving out of autopilot thinking patterns, which often serve the purpose of trying to avoid emotional discomfort. Instead, the aim is to accept the reality of the moment, unobscured by our own beliefs. By mindfully accepting depressive symptoms rather than fighting them, they are more likely to fade away on their own.
The mindful minute meditation is suggested as a regular practice three times a day plus more often as needed. It involves taking an inventory of the body, autopilot scripts that are playing, and mood, and then finding acknowledgement, acceptance, and presence.
Calming bipolar anxiety
The book talks about confronting one’s fears of impermanence. “Being present with impermanence is the toll-free expressway to freedom from suffering. This path leads to the solution to the bipolar puzzle and the solution to the puzzle of all our lives.” In my own experience, when I’m depressed, I’m not experiencing fear about impermanence. Quite the opposite, actually; ideas of permanence get me bogged down in hopelessness. Maybe there’s a freight train blocking my toll-free expressway.
Avoidance is described as a cause of suffering, and the suggested meditation practice involves sitting with an anxiety-provoking idea, which sounds similar to imaginal exposure work.
Observing your thinking pattern
This chapter focuses on autopilot, an idea that’s similar to negative automatic thoughts in cognitive behavioural therapy. Autopilot learns from our past experiences, and it tries to protect us from getting hurt. While this can be useful at times, it can prevent us from taking risks and lead to us getting stuck. It’s useful to recognize how much we’re driven by autopilot, and see autopilots as just thoughts that are neither good nor bad. Rather than suppressing them, we should try to be fully present.
Mania & desire
While desire is a major source of motivation, it can also underlie discontent and dissatisfaction. Autopilot scripts often involve a desire to be different, and satisfaction doesn’t last long after desires are fulfilled. Mindfulness allows you to see desire as empty of substance; satisfying, but it doesn’t lead to true happiness.
The recommended meditation involves the same first 2 steps as in the previous chapter. Then you bring a desire-provoking situation to mind, imagine an open space in your awareness where it can be present, and notice what arises in you.
Irritability & anger
This chapter describes anger and irritability, and thoughts related to them, as a major source of problems in bipolar disorder. It’s important to learn to be present with these emotions rather than try to suppress them, and recognize that thoughts and emotions don’t define who we are as people.
The author presents mindfulness as a way to find freedom from fear of your symptoms; it is this fear that tends to trigger autopilot. The author goes so far as to suggest welcoming your symptoms, since they’re present anyway, and this will make it more likely that they will move along. I’m uncomfortable with this choice of words, as I see a considerable difference between accepting what is and actively welcoming it to come and join the party.
Rethinking your bipolar self
Mindfulness gives distance from thoughts about self, which can fluctuate and often become more frequent with depression and mania; With this distance, these thoughts can simply run in the background. Mindfulness can allow you to be less attached to your own viewpoint, moving from an egocentric to a wider perspective.
The author explains that “The answer to suffering is to move into mindful awareness, where you can be fully present with reality without needing to fix or change it.” I think this is overly simplistic, and based on some of the other books I’ve read recently (A Fearless Heart and The Book of Joy), compassion is a major piece that’s missing here.
Furthermore, mindfulness “means experiencing at a deep level that, in each moment, the universe and everything in it – including you – is perfect as it is.” From where I stand this is a load of crap. It’s quite a large leap from acceptance to perfection. If you consider the Buddhist idea that compassion is a wish for others and the self to be free from suffering, to see everything as perfect in the moment appears to deny the suffering of others and thus is an uncompassionate stance.
Being bipolar and happy
In this chapter, Dr. Marchand writes that, “Mindfulness can teach you to view your illness as a gift.” While it seems that what he’s trying to say is that there are things we gain from our illness experience, in my mind calling it a gift makes light of the very real pain and suffering people with mental illness and their loved ones experience. Acceptance of the illness can be a powerful thing, but that is very different from framing it as a gift.
According to the book, happiness “is always available to you right here and now… From the viewpoint of mindful awareness you can be happy and joyful in this very moment… That is the gift of mindfulness.” I’ve ranted before that happiness is not a choice. I’m not saying that mindfulness can’t make it easier to find happiness, but I strongly disagree with the assertion that happiness is always available to everyone at any given moment if you only think in the right way. According to Dr. Marchand, this is as simple as doing a meditation that begins with the breath, then expands the awareness, and “now allow happiness and joy to arise”. The ad slogan “thanks, Captain Obvious” jumps to mind. How remarkably unhelpful.
So in the end, for me the irksome in this book tended to drown out the good, but I still believe in the benefits of mindfulness, and I’m going to continue to work on incorporating it into my life.
Mindfulness for Bipolar Disorder is available on Amazon.
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