Dharma not pharma

By Leah Harris

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

Raymond Carver, “Last Fragment,” *All of Us: The Collected Poems*

Having spent my entire adolescence either medicated on psychotropic drugs or trying to kill myself (in large part due to the side effects of psychotropic drugs I was on), one could say that I never really developed any coping skills.

After I escaped the system, my habit was to get lost in activity. At first it was academic achievement – supposedly to prove to myself that I had value and something to contribute. But it never brought satisfaction. I always felt inferior to the other students, even if my grades were high. Below the surface, there was always a nagging sense of something being wrong. Often I would get pangs of panic and dread twisting my stomach, for reasons I could not fathom.

In my early – mid twenties I got involved in the antiwar movements and anti-psychiatry movements, and in signature style, fully immersed myself in activism. I tended to push myself to the brink of physical and emotional collapse. While I loved the work, I made myself sick with the thought that I was not doing enough to stop the war or to defeat psychiatric oppression. I coped with the stress by overeating and smoking cigarettes and weed. Self-medicating. I carried 75 excess pounds on my body. I was exhausted all the time.

For me it often takes a disaster to cause me to wake up. At 28, my lower back completely went out at the same time that I hit an emotional wall of burnout. I couldn’t go to work, couldn’t even sit up to respond to emails. Never in my life had I been in more physical pain, which ate away at what little emotional reserves I had left. Then, I had a terrible falling out with a fellow activist who had been staying at my house for a few days while in an suicidal state. It was obvious that I did not have the inner resources to help her, and I got some friends to intervene and send her home. This gave me pause: here I was, in theory, working for the rights and empowerment of people in emotional distress, yet I could not even get it together to support another activist in pain? I realized that I had to re-evaluate the way I had been doing things.

Several days later, I was about to get on the road to give a talk in Charlottesville, VA. It would be a long drive, and I went to the bookstore to pick out an audio book to accompany me. For some reason, I gravitated towards Thich Nhat Hahn’s Creating True Peace. I had never been drawn to Buddhism or anything I deemed “New Age bullshit,” but that day I was willing to be open to something new.

I cried all the way to Charlottesville as I listened to his words, about how we hurt one another out of our own pain, how we can learn to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. It hit me that I had gone through adulthood perpetuating upon myself the psychological abuse that began with psychiatrists and my family. If things were going “well,” I’d feel like a phony and tell myself that it was only a matter of time before they fell apart again, and if I was feeling emotional distress, I’d castigate myself for feeling that way. I’d find a way to anesthetize myself so that I didn’t have to deal with the ferocity of my self-hatred and self-judgment. That was pretty much the cycle. The worst part of it was that I believed the nasty critical inner voice within, and didn’t have a clue that I had some ability to control my own thoughts and emotions. With my discovery of mindfulness, that all changed.

Mindfulness can be defined simply as the non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. For me, non-judgmental was the key word. For the first time, sitting in meditation, I came to see that I did not equal my thoughts. I discovered that I could step back and observe the running commentary in my head. This is called “witness consciousness.” This insight that I was not my thoughts utterly transformed me. When you meditate for a while, focusing on the breath moving naturally in and out of your lungs, watching your thoughts come and go, you see how utterly impermanent they are, how without substance. I learned that I do not have to believe or obey my thoughts. Even a thought that seems highly charged like “kill yourself” really does not have to be listened to. Cheri Huber, an American Zen priest who is herself the survivor of a suicide attempt, talks about our thoughts as “voices,” and identifies the “voice of self hate” that is intensely active for so many of us. She says, simply and clearly: “If the voice is not loving, don’t listen to, don’t follow it, don’t believe it. No exceptions.

The insight that I actually had a measure of control over my thoughts and emotions was life-altering. I had always believed that happiness was purely a result of external conditions. Through meditation, I came to understand that happiness was a state of mind that I could actually cultivate if I practiced on a regular basis. These insights were staggering to me.

Yet insight in and of itself is not enough. As I learned from one of my teachers, Tara Brach, the spiritual path has two wings: wisdom and compassion. Wisdom without compassion can be cold and dry. So the second practice I learned was called metta, or lovingkindness meditation. Lovingkindness meditation was first taught by the Buddha as an antidote to fear. There were some monks meditating in the forest, but they were being terribly frightened by tree spirits. So the Buddha gave them these instructions to keep them safe. The practice involves silently repeating wishes of well-being to ourselves and others. We repeat to ourselves silently: “May I be safe and protected from harm, may I be happy and peaceful, may I be healthy and strong, may my life unfold smoothly” and then we extend those wishes out to the people in our lives, and eventually, to everyone in the world. One of the hot new research topics in neuroscience is the power of lovingkindness meditation as a remedy for chronic pain of all kinds, emotional and physical. I don’t really care about the science behind it: I have personally experienced the power of the practice. It has been a tremendous purification practice for me – burning away many layers of shame and trauma that I never imagined would leave me. Layers that all the psychotherapy and drugs in the world could not budge.

During an intensive loving-kindness meditation retreat early on in my practice, there was a moment when my suicidal past hit me with full force. All the ways in which I had tried to take myself out. I left the meditation hall, sat on a hill overlooking a grassy valley, and I howled with sadness and rage for my lost girlhood. Instead of shame, which had been my default reaction to the past, I felt nothing but compassion for the girl who hurt herself, who swallowed the pills, who inflicted the scars that were only now finally beginning to fade. For the first time in my life, I felt myself as beloved upon the earth. Even in my most desperate hours since, that feeling has stayed with me.

It’s not that I walk around in a pink cloud of bliss: I don’t. I still suffer and struggle enormously in my life. But the difference is that when I am in emotional distress, I can generally stay with the energy of it and not fall into the extremes of pushing it away or wallowing. I can recognize that I don’t need to heap suffering upon pain by judging myself for how I feel. When I just give a little bit of mindfulness and attention to what I am feeling in any given moment, I find that even the most extreme internal states tend to shift in an amazingly short time. This is a huge gift. The Dharma has been far more healing than Pharma ever was.

One thing that does irritate me is the way that Western psychology has gotten so intertwined with Buddhism here in the US. A lot of the popular meditation teachers are psychotherapists and thus there is an increasingly psychotherapeutic spin on the teachings. I guess this is not uncharacteristic of how Buddhist teachings have tended to take on the overlay of the societies in which they are being taught – America being no exception.

These days, I eschew this pop psychology trend and seek to cut right through to the teachings themselves. That is why Zen interests me these days. In Zen, you just sit. You sit with your breath, mind, and heart and you meet them with presence. No bullshit, no pretty overlay.

In this pop psychology vein, I’m also saddened by the practice of retreat centers asking for a psychological history when you apply to go on a retreat. Will Hall has written about this beautifully in Turning Wheel, so I don’t feel the need to say much more on it here.

When I went on meditation retreats, I simply put down nothing about my history. I didn’t like the idea of the teachers knowing my diagnoses and labels – it wasn’t a shame thing but more because I didn’t believe in those labels anyway. What Will points out in his article is that a psychiatric history is no predictor of how one will respond to the rigors of a meditation retreat. I came up against some of my most fearsome demons on retreat and I came through the other side transformed. With five psychiatric labels, by all predictors I should have been freaking out, but I was actually becoming more whole than I ever had before.

Another danger I see in some “New Agey” Western interpretations of Eastern philosophy is this idea that you have to change yourself before you can change the world. That you must be “enlightened” to do social justice work if you want to do it right.

I reject this interpretation – I think it’s both. We work simultaneously on overthrowing the dictators in our own heads, our own internalized oppressions, and we work to overcome oppression in the world.

As I see it, enlightenment is not a stage to achieve but a state we were all born with. It’s the traumas and the dramas of life, the conditioning of our culture, that has cut us off from this state. Spiritual practice for me is not about acquiring anything, but about letting go of all that closes off my heart from myself and others. The way I do that is to practice meditation, taking some time to step back from the frenetic pace of life and to be with my heart and mind. This is one of the ways that I have learned to truly take care of myself and as a result, I am much more able to give to others, and to “the cause” without burning out or becoming bitter and resentful.

I want to say something about anger here. For a while after beginning a spiritual practice I was afraid of my anger. I felt ashamed of it and thought it was somehow not “spiritual” to be angry. Now, five years since I have been practicing meditation and mindfulness, I have come to see the inherent value in all emotions, including anger. Behind anger is a powerful energy, a motivational force. It’s like the saying goes: “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Or as Malcolm X said, “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”

Over the last five years, I have transformed my relationship to anger. While I try not to immediately act or react out of anger, and I seek to be conscious of it at all times, I don’t at all see its presence in my life as a problem. Today, I try to practice compassion along with the anger – to live my life from the powerful place where love and rage meet.

Bio:

Leah Harris is a survivor of psychiatry who also lost both parents to forced psychiatric treatment. She has spoken and written widely to promote human rights, dignity, healing, and self-determination at conferences including NARPA, Alternatives, and the National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR), and has been a guest on Madness Radio and Mindfreedom Radio. Her writing has appeared in publications including Off Our Backs: A Women’s Newsjournal, Adbusters.org, CounterPunch, and Street Spirit. She is a co-founder of the DC Guerrilla Poetry Insurgency, which uses public poetry as a means to promote social justice and inspire people to get active on the issues they care about. Her book of poetry is entitled Poems of Mass Construction and she is currently at work on her first spoken word album. Leah is the proud single mama to one amazing little boy.

For her album that has recently been released go here to check it out and for purchase.

About Leah Harris

Storyteller, mother, dreamer, survivor.