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May 03
Opinion Pieces
A Call for Mental Illness Support Group

An editorial by Ineke de Wit

Some time ago in an interview with Sakyong Mipham that I had about my bipolar condition, the suggestion came up to see what could be done for people suffering from mental illness. I always felt that mental illness is still a vast taboo topic not only in our western society, but also–and more so–in our sangha, both in terms of people suffering from it and with those who relate to those people. Because mental illness is a mental phenomenon it is tempting to relate it to meditation practice. In terms of the famous “obstacles and antidotes” in meditation, when is depression just slothfulness and mania just elation that is just part of our meditation practice? And when is it a mental illness that needs psychiatric or other help?

What to think of the comment that my meditation instructor once gave, when I told her I suffered from a strong phobia: “That’s your basic ego” and left it at that. When later in my life it became clear that I was bipolar, people around me said that I probably had not meditated all these years in the right way. After working as a meditation instructor and teacher for many years, a some point I was excluded from any further teaching. My former colleagues looked at me as if I was a ticking time bomb that could explode when teaching a class, instead of asking me what kind of support I needed and what I felt I could still do for our sangha. And these personal examples are not just personal; I have heard many, many comparable stories in forty years of my involvement. They all happened in the same way things happen in our society at large. Come on, we can do better!

What can we do?

Training. Fortunately, from now on our future guides and meditation instructors will at least be trained to relate to mental illness in a less naïve way. Our acharyas are all aware of the need of such training. And our kasung is aware of this need as they sometimes have to act in cases of emergency. Is it scary to have to deal with people in deep depression, mania or psychosis? Yes, it is. But does our warrior practice stop at this? That would be very sad.

Support group. Another thing we can do is this: we as sangha people who suffer from mental illness have something very precious to offer to our fellow-sufferers. We can alleviate at least to some extent the feeling of loneliness and isolation by expressing our understanding and offering our support to each other. I know we have on the Shambhala network a support group for people with Aspergers, but as yet none for people suffering from mental illness. I have very positive experience with such a support group outside our sangha. The advantage of having such support group in our Shambhala sangha, however, is that we can exchange how our practice and our our illness interact, and often limit our ability to practice or take part in programs. We can discuss, support and help each other on our Shambhala path. In that way we can be very valuable to each other. And isn’t that what we want?

So, if you as fellow-sufferer want, or know somebody who might want, to participate in an on-line support group for mental illness, we could start an on-line support group in Shambhala. Please let me know at [email protected].

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4 responses to “ A Call for Mental Illness Support Group ”
  1. Ineke de Wit
    May 11, 2015

    Dear Tim, Elizabeth and Claire,
    Thank you so much for your responses. By now I have started in Shambhala a support group where people who suffer from mental illness can meet each other and talk about the kind of things you mention. People can request access to this group through:
    If you know people who might benefit from this, please let them know!

  2. Gabriel Clare
    May 5, 2015

    Over four years ago, Sangyum Agness Au and myself started a weekly group, Journey of Fearlessness, at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York. It’s for practitioners working with complex or developmental trauma, PTSD, or other related trauma conditioning. Before every meeting I send out readings from the dharma, neuroscience and psychology which we discuss in terms of our lives.
    Few people in the sangha know we exist. Most of those who have made inquires come from outside the community and found us on at the bottom of the community group webpage, currently our only source of advertising. In a couple of months, I’ll establish a website that I hope in time will encourage other groups to develop in other centers, possibly beyond Shambhala.
    The silent unease and even aggression around mental or emotional challenges is a manifestation of the shadow side of the Shambhala community psyche. It’s amazing how fast the notion that what you are working with is not who you are can go out the window. The community that talks up a storm about ‘sanity’ might remember Carl Jung’s, “show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.”
    Indeed an excellent reflection of a broad sangha view was published by Shambhala Times exactly one year ago to the day: The “Technology” of Flexibility – A Study of Trauma and Flexibility in a Tibetan Exile Town. As editor, you might remember, this sangha well-received article unequivocally clarifies that trauma is brought about by poor skillful means, the absence of humility and the desire to tell a big story.
    The true value of this sangha reflection may be as a yardstick of change down the road looking back.
    One can but hope.

  3. Hello Ineke. Thank you for your observations. I agree. As a psychotherapist, I witness the benefit of support groups for people who are suffering periods of psychological distress. It hope that you receive a good response from the Shambhala sangha and that group members can thus be a great blessing to each other.

  4. Tim Fletcher
    May 4, 2015

    This is a fine call to support, and I wholeheartedly stand by you and all others who suffer from mental illness. As someone who suffers from depression, when it gets more intense, I have found myself extremely confused about the teachings and how they relate to deep depression, to the point where meditation even became impossible. I can’t imagine what it must be like for those who’s afflictions are worse than mine. I stand by you, with you, with love, support, and the aspiration to be brave with you.

    Love from Montreal

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