One of the elements of Buddhist Psychology that intrigues me the most is the concept of dependent origination. Everything in our lives can seemingly be traced back to a beginning that is relative to what we are experiencing now. Much of the time origins can be found but sometimes they remain a mystery. The Buddhist solution for unknown origins is karma. When we do not know why something is the way it is karma steps in as a placeholder. There must still be some origin even if we do not know what it is. But is karma a satisfactory answer or can it also be a proverbial cop out? I thought the best way to examine dependent origination would be to investigate my own experiences and see if I can find better answers than I have so far using Buddhist Psychology. Furthermore I decided to challenge myself and look at a couple of my greatest struggles in life. If the concept of dependent origination can hold up to what has caused me the most suffering then it stands the best chance in my mind to passing the test. First I will tell some of my personal story, then I will attempt to analyze myself by looking for possible origins to these struggles. Ultimately I hope to bring the whole picture together and in doing so ideally arrive at some conventional answers and attempt to reconcile with the lack of an ultimate meaning or answer when necessary.
I am aware that my story is just a story but from my own personal experience I have learned a lot and I am still learning. Expressing this based on my current state of mind may be difficult but I will do my best. The real start of my deeper struggles began at the age of seventeen. I was a senior in high school and had been experiencing very classic teen angst for a couple of years. Although I did well in certain aspects of teenage life such as sports and having good friends I also was very self conscious and shy. My twin brother and I were always very close but I felt that he fit in better in high school and I was more on the fringes socially. I struggled to have my own identity. Pouring myself into my pursuit of playing baseball I found much solace. Soon the positive feeling turned into pressure however when my coach told me in front of my dad in my freshman year that I should be drafted professionally by the time I graduated. This passing comment became a hard truth in my mind. I had always succeeded athletically by not thinking about things and just being very in the moment physically. It was like being in a natural flow state. Now I was suddenly in my head. Praise and success turned me into a prison of my own personal little hell. It became my only self perceived identity that I happened to be athletically gifted. I felt that I could find an accepted identity of my own if I became what people wanted me to be: a professional athlete. Winding it back even further when I was younger, around the age of nine, I took gymnastics and was strongly encouraged to compete. I did not like standing out though, probably because of being a twin who liked to blend in and had an expanded sense of identity rather than an individual one because of it. So I had quit gymnastics and pursued tumbling and doing acrobatic tricks instead on my own just for fun. I became interested in martial arts as well in relation to that. Later I was pressured by my uncle to be a competitive diver. I rejected the notion stubbornly. After that my brother and I both were told we were very good wrestlers at a young age and told we could go far with it. We both felt a bit indifferent even though we did well. I felt bad when I pinned another kid who cried because his dad looked disappointed in him, meanwhile I did not really care if I pinned him or not. My brother beat a classmate of ours in summer camp after 8th grade who would later become a high school state champion. But neither of us really cared about winning and getting attention for it. Somehow when I was told I should be drafted I interpreted it in my teenage brain as “I should be because if I am not I will fail.” I also was scared of the idea of becoming an adult and thought in a daydream type way that this could be my ticket for somehow being just as good of an adult as I was a kid. I was very good at being a kid but I had no idea how to become an adult.
By the time I started my senior year it was obvious that baseball would not be my ticket but I held onto the concept anyhow. I went to a small private high school and no one paid much attention to baseball since other sports were more popular. I played seriously in the Summers and trained indoors in the Fall but it became like a tedious chore and was not fun anymore. The fun dream of baseball had been what made me good at it. It was like work eventually and I was literally just going through the motions, pantomiming what I thought looked and worked best. I felt so much pressure to still get drafted or at least get a college scholarship that I was starting to lose my mind. I was also very socially isolated at this point. The close friends I had prior grew into different friend groups and even though my twin brother was very popular I felt left out. It seemed as though I had sacrificed a lot for my pursuit of a sport that seemed to now be slipping away from me. I had not even asked a girl to a dance even once (until the end of my senior year) because I felt like an outsider devoted to my singular interest. Everything was coming to a point, including the looming terror of graduating high school and being expected to be a grown up instead of a boy who was only good at playing games and imagining himself to be a professional athlete.
In the midst of this inner turmoil all of a sudden one night in the Winter of my senior year I had a full on panic attack. I could not sleep and my heart was beating very fast. I could feel it pounding. I went downstairs to find my parents who were still awake. My mom was a nurse and my dad had run on the ambulance as an EMT so they were able to assess that it seemed like heavy anxiety. I thought I might be dying though and they had to convince me that I did not need to go to the ER. What followed was almost two full weeks of complete insomnia. I did not sleep at all in that stretch of time and also lost all sense of time. I felt as though I was in more of a dream world and even the physicality of reality did not seem solid or real. I experienced paranoia, dread, anxious pacing, and viciously ruminating thoughts. In short I had a psychological break.
Once I pulled out of it with the help of the right medication I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 2. No one told me my diagnosis and I had to figure it out on my own years later. The stigma of mental health problems hit me right in the face. My own doctors, psychiatrist, and therapist at the time did not seem to understand me at all and even looked at me funny when I tried to explain it. I was already deeply spiritual having been raised in Christian mysticism but I was told this was all completely physical and any spiritual outlook or explanation from me of everything being an illusion was simply scoffed at. Because of this lack of support I took myself off of medication after a year and and seemed to stabilize. Little did I know this affliction would keep coming back to haunt me over and over again.
It has indeed affected my adult life a great deal. I had very bad sleep problems, anxiety, depression, and mood swings. After I had experienced the intense prolonged episode of insomnia it was followed by a manic episode. I felt like I was living in a video game and was completely blissed out for a full week. Suddenly I was very extroverted and able to talk to anyone. Then I crashed down from the high and it turned into frustration and agitation. I read a lot in order to figure myself out since no one was really able to help me and eventually came across the term “Spiritual Emergency” coined by the humanistic psychiatrist Stanislov Grof. This is what spoke to me. I did not have a disorder. What I had was a spiritual call. A crisis of faith. I was not Christian anymore. I felt that I went all the way through the mythology of Christianity, understood it, and was ready to move on. Rather than faith I needed to be guided by doubt, by total questioning of everything and anything. Ironically this questioning started in my teenage years at the same time as my budding anxiety so the seed was set and there was no turning back. I became a seeker.
I struggled and still struggle a great deal because of Bipolar, whatever that may be. I do not like the term “disorder” but I also cannot deny that I suffer from experiencing a huge range of emotions, a wildly creative side, and an obsession with abstract and esoteric philosophy that lives on the borders of conventional sanity by its very nature. There are many things that have helped me however. For instance I had already started practicing meditation in my mid teens which spawned from my interest in martial arts and reading the works of Hong Kong action star and philosopher and one of the original “East meets West” philosophers, Bruce Lee. Now I had a renewed interest in meditation in my early 20’s and all things to do with consciousness studies stemming from there. Interestingly I discovered that Bruce Lee was heavily influenced by Zen and Taoism and also by the nondual teacher Krishnamurti. These all resonated with me as well not surprisingly. It was also around this time that I became very interested in studying dreams both first hand and philosophically. I was able to leverage my many sleeping problems into powerful dream experiences and started a journal practice that I keep up to this day.
I was drawn to these holistic approaches because in total I went through several rounds of trying medications in my late teens and again in my mid twenties. Each time I eventually and literally threw out my pills. I needed another way. Besides the first time they helped me come out of the major depressive episode of insomnia they did nothing but cause bad side effects, including at one point causing me to gain over fifty pounds and feeling miserable from it. I always ended up throwing them right into the trash can with the intuition that I have to be able to cure my condition in a natural way. I knew it had to be within me somewhere. I go around pretending to be normal but this struggle is why it took me into my early thirties to go back to school and begin to finish the last two years of my bachelor’s degree. This struggle is why I could not hold down a job for very long and when I did I could not do much more than part time hours. This struggle is why I rushed into a marriage and thought I was with my one and only soul mate who turned out to be one of my greatest teachers instead through the pain she caused me. I was judged and abandoned because I was open minded to spiritual and philosophical concepts and she wanted me to be religious in the exact same way she was. It made no sense to me and only felt like the deepest pain imaginable. It is a relief that the Buddhist perspective of Psychology would say that we are all crazy. We are all delusional and that is a normal thing to overcome. It makes me feel like not so much of an alien. It makes me think that dealing with Bipolar is just the particular hand of delusion I was dealt. What about the narrative I tell myself that my divorce ruined my life though? I wonder if I can apply the same simplicity.
I thought I had found the answer to my suffering by being with a beautiful woman who I could call my partner in life. I was very, very wrong. She was like a dark angel who killed whatever was left of me. Even though it has been five years since the divorce it is still hard for me to analyze it objectively. I am still healing from it because I have not gotten any reconciliation or closure. My ex wife and her family have shunned me as if I am some sort of devil that threatens their entrance into heaven. It is all because they realized that I am not Christian but that was only ever their assumption since it was my background. The thing is that I should have known.
I was young and naive. I knew her family was ultra conservative and more Amish like than the brand of Christian I grew up with. Their church was part of the same larger church I grew up in as a minister’s son but it is known as being the “judgemental one.” It is literally right next to Amish country and has adopted many of the fundamentalist views such as shunning. Here I am now a shunned man and I should have seen it coming. That is such a bizarre thing that it seems like a delusion all on its own. The origination my current state of misery as a divorced man depends on is the simple fact that I married into the possibility of being judged and rejected for not being a fundamentalist Christian. It is laughably simple from this perspective, especially because I have spent so much time, effort, and spiritual seeking trying to figure out why I have suffered from being divorced. It seemed like madness only because I gave my ex wife and her family way too much benefit of the doubt. They ended up being exactly what people said they were like and I refused to see it. I refused to see it too because I was raised with huge idealism around marriage and that being one of the ultimate goals in life. The belief became an unconscious drive and expectation that would only set up magnificent heavenly heights from which to fall from.
I feel the need to explain some context of my studies and philosophical outlook before I attempt to tie this all together. Like I did in dealing with being Bipolar I again turned to multiple methods in order to attempt to get better from my divorce. Also, the divorce triggered the Bipolar again and it became a vicious cycle so I had to double down on my practices which is probably why I find myself now in a Buddhist Studies graduate program.
Besides Buddhist studies and research in relation to healing my maintenance of health has been from my study of practices such as meditation, working with dreams, emotional regulation techniques, talk therapy, integrative health, and learning from various nondual spiritually minded teachers and authors from their books as well as from their workshops in some cases which pertained to a direct experience approach to alleviating suffering. It was especially on retreats with teachers Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti and Mukti of Open Gate Sangha, and workshops in Tai Chi and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction that I gained first hand experience in contemplative practices. Those were highly influential to me and all of these things as a whole have been part of one big spectrum of how I have worked with and transformed my personal struggles. All of these were an attempt to deal with the very human condition I felt stuck in. But from the standpoint of basic observation of phenomena what is the human condition?
What is generally meant by that phrase and what can we possibly begin to do about it? This is one of my greatest concerns and so it is what I have decided to study academically and in relation to my own personal growth. From my experience and seeking so far the following is what I think about this theme, how I got here, and where I hope to go next. I feel that the human condition largely refers to an existence in which we undoubtedly experience hardships such as pain and suffering but also one in which we have opportunity to experience fulfillment and positive emotions. We appear in this world as if amnesiacs and have no tangible answers as to why. Whatever you believe or do not believe it can logically be agreed upon that the truth, ultimate truth, is transcendent of any one definition or proof of it.
Just as much a part of this existence is the looming threat of not existing, of death and even of a time before existence when we were not what we know or think ourselves to be now as a human being. That non-existence is part of the transcending of existence and if we do not integrate and embrace it the fear of losing our sense of self is terrifying and all encompassing. We seem to suffer because we do not know what we are and so we believe that we are a sense of self separate from the whole, somehow separate from the rest of life and our experience of being alive. To alleviate this human beings are naturally creative and take to storytelling. We create things that seem to be bigger than our sense of selves, something that remains of us even after we are gone. I think living out a story is one way to describe life. The Sanksrit word “Leela” perfectly describes this sentiment. It means the cosmic dance that is simply playing and taking any form it wants to simply because it can. The origin of this dance is pure possibility, which could also be called emptiness before and even while something manifests as form.
For all that I have written about as my main struggles this could also be another explanation. It is a very simple one that is similar to the concept of karma in a way. I have had the struggles of Bipolar and divorce simply because that is an interesting story to play out. Perhaps it is part of a larger story and some version of me in a past life created a need for things to be balanced out. Maybe I treated people badly in some other incarnation or multiple ones. I cannot think of anything in this lifetime that would warrant a karmic punishment. I was a pure minded preacher’s kid and even when I turned rebellious I was always lawful and pacifistic. Karma is the wild card. Any good story is giving a perspective from a certain character or characters. Perhaps I am simply experiencing what this feels like and how one can grow into higher realization from it and the karmic balance will be that I oneday will experience not being Bipolar and not feeling rejected and lonely because of divorce and shunning. It could be as simple as that. The continuation of leela could be the cycling of karma. Stories keep being lived and played out because they want to be experienced from all different perspectives. And maybe that happens simply because the possibility for that to be true exists. Maybe concepts such as in Buddhist Psychology are excellent guideposts but cannot ultimately find the perfect path because the idea of a path is a made up story too. When I recently re-watched Ram Dass in the documentary “Fierce Grace” I could not help but to think of this conundrum.
Ram Dass said he had more spiritual work to do when he realized that he was not spiritually oriented while he was having a stroke and thought he was dying. All he did was stare at what was in his field of vision; pipes and the wall. He speaks to a search for meaning that so many are compelled to embark upon. Clearly I was compelled to as well. But what if he was wrong? What if I was wrong all along? Could it be that looking at the pipes is all there is to it? In other words, could it be that whatever is being experienced in the moment has no intrinsic meaning to it other than to simply be experienced on a whim or even just because it can? At the end of the documentary Ram Dass says that he is more at peace than ever before. The way he experiences that peace is settling deeply into the moment. He says, “this moment is alright… and now, this moment is alright.”
I had a similar feeling while on a retreat with Eckhart Tolle a few years ago. He kept telling everyone to just be in the moment. The mind wants to add layers to that but maybe there just are not any more layers except what we imagine there to be. He wanted us to consider not labeling everything, to let it subside, and then presence can just be. Perhaps existence is simply there to be. It just wants to be. In Buddhist Psychology terms it could be seen as phenomena that is just there in experience. The experience of the phenomena is linked to all sorts of associations but all of those layers only happen in the present moment. I am faced right now with trying to remain present as I salvage my life and look ahead to something stable through combining spirituality with academics. It is somewhat of a paradox to want to study the nature of existence when I feel the ultimate answer is no answer at all and that it all just exists because nothingness feels like playing as something. However the vast spectrum of that something is what is so intriguing to me.
The experience of that spectrum is why I strongly feel that it takes an interdisciplinary approach to attempt to study the human condition, how to transcend it, and how to then integrate that awareness into daily life. There are any number of ways in which one could do that but for myself it involves mostly a combination of trying to understand the mind, understand human nature, and understand my own creative drives. The other element for my purposes is in seeking to understand the nature of being while transcending any particular paradigm or viewpoint (as in Buddhist Studies and Meditation). I feel that it is the intersecting of many subjects that is rewarding to me and otherwise I would feel limited. I am just as interested in pursuing Psychological/Social Science areas like humanitarian efforts and non profit endeavors as I am in creating and collaborating on artistic projects. I have experience in these realms to some degree but have felt limited and want to be able to explore them through higher education. My main interest though is to work in personal and social transformation through academics and socially engaged work. I am currently getting into the field of literal social work and enjoying it. I at least want to pay forward what has helped me through my own expression of it philosophically and creatively. Basically my goal is to write a thesis and/or dissertation that can help people with healing suffering from a transdisciplinary approach. From there I hope to continue to write and possibly design workshops and other formats to get across the same concepts. Buddhist Psychology seems to be an integral piece to completing that puzzle. The reason I mention my future goals is that they tie into my current anxieties and unwinding them with dependent origination seems very relevant. As a seeker I am trying to be a former seeker since the only truth I have found is that there is no one truth.
Truth in Buddhism is generally viewed as falling into the two categories of the relative and absolute varieties. In relation to dependent origination I view relative (or conventional) truth as being those answers we can clearly trace back to. My coach telling me I should be drafted, perhaps combined with the fact that I had a great aunt who apparently suffered from the same psychological issues, and a dash or two of other reasons may have lead to the manifestation of being Bipolar. The mystery ingredient though is the absolute truth. That is the part that cannot be clearly 100% answered. Is it karma? Is it just a cosmic dance? Yeah sure I guess so, but also I do not really know for certain. Absolute truth by nature is transcendent of words and just is what it is whether we consciously know it or not. I think tracing back our struggles and unwinding them is extremely helpful but it also hits a certain dead end that forces us to say that we do not know everything. When the unwinding has been exhausted to the utmost it becomes easier to be okay with not knowing everything because we have tried our best to know the relative by the conventional means we have at our disposal.
In conclusion I feel that Buddhist Psychology is very useful but it is especially effective when it takes its own cue and holds itself lightly. In this sense it is like a metatheory. When a paradigm is aware that it is conventional by nature it can be an open ended and continually shifting paradigm. In this manner Buddhist Psychology and phenomenology can always adapt to what is the best language to use and what methods are most effective without abandoning the basic principles of simple observation of the mind and human experience. The dependent origination of Buddhist Psychology could be said to be the development of both Buddhism and Psychology as separate methodologies which eventually merged. Tracing it even farther back we could say that the true origins of it is simply that human beings developed spoken and written language. Without language there would be no need for us to try to put the nature of reality and our struggles with it into words. The dependent origination of Buddhist Psychology is human existence itself. The recognition of needing a coping method such as this simply because we happen to be human can allow us to fully engage in Buddhist Psychology but also hold it lightly because we only feel the need for it because we struggle with being human in the first place.
What gives me liberation in figuring out my own struggles is that the reason suffering exists is because it is possible for it to exist. Since that exists the possibility for suffering to not exist is also there. If that possibility is an origin then someday all of us could in complete liberation and enlightenment look back on the dependent origination of such a free state as being the suffering we are experiencing now. Buddhist Psychology not only gives us ways to unwind why we are how we are but it also gives us hope that our current state is the cause for the effect of our eventual freedom by the nature of the two depending on each other by comparison.
A clear example to me now is that the struggles of my adulthood feel that way because I was a very happy kid without a care in the world. Being an adult with a complex mind and obstacles in a competitive world is the origination of somehow being like a kid again, whether in this lifetime or not. The cause and effect is always a linked duality, When we can see that duality as one continuum in truth by simple observation then it can become nondualistic.
In that case the conventional use of dependent origination may not even need to be used anymore, but it can be used as long as we depend on it.