Coming Clean About Our Mental Health Challenges

“Teaching is carrying on your education in public”
– unknown

This a companion piece to “The Battle to Win Ourselves” – a personal take on what I discuss in that article, which is about mindfulness’s ability to help resolve our inner conflicts. The theory is that if we can notice how we’re subtly fighting with ourselves, then we can often pop out to a broader, less divided perspective. This outward movement is known in some meditation circles as “the progress of insight.”

So that’s the theory. The practice … well, I got to live it this year.

The Year of the Fidgety Skeptic

A lot happened in 2017. I got married to my sweetie, Sarah. I handed over a lot of the administering of our non-profit, The Consciousness Explorers Club to my friends Caitlin, Erin, Avi and others. And finally – seemingly out of nowhere – my friend Dan Harris asked me to write a book with him and another coauthor, Carlye Adler. That book – Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics – went on sale December 26th.

I had no idea when I agreed that the project would expose a deeper layer of my own peculiar brand of mental struggle. Our narrative is a road trip across America, where we meet real people wanting to build a meditation practice. We help them with different stumbling blocks, from the worry that they’re not doing it right, or might lose their edge, or open a Pandora’s box, through to more structural obstacles like finding the time to meditate, building continuity in a practice, and so on. One by one, from cops to caregivers to celebrities, we share their stories and concerns, all while rolling out what we hope is a lively teaching curriculum. It’s both a journalistic adventure and a how-to-meditate book. 

The road trip went swimmingly (mostly). Our challenges began afterward. We had a crazy deadline and there was a lot of stress on everyone. Our little writing posse needed a fast turn-around from me on the teaching sections. What they got instead was … my attention deficit disorder (ADD). In other words, enthusiastic digressions on the nature of consciousness, broken down into hundreds of helpful bullet points, with cool meditation ideas pulled from every corner of reality. Because apparently my brain is spread across every corner of reality.

Progress floundered. Tempers flared.

All About ADD

ADD is a funny thing. To many, it can seem like an invented problem, or maybe some vague condition that everyone suffers from a bit in these techno-distracted times. The latter may be true, but not the former (although it is probably over-diagnosed). Full-blown ADD – which I have –  is sometimes called “executive function disorder.” It’s a real brain disorder that causes serious suffering in many who have it. In the words of fellow ADD-er Gabor Mate, “the mind is a perpetual motion machine,” going everywhere and arriving nowhere, never able to land, to settle, to follow through.

An ADD person’s frontal executive functions – organizing, prioritizing, mood and impulse control, stress tolerance – never come fully online. So you ping around in a lather of excitability, “distracted from distraction by distraction” (to quote T.S. Eliot), fun to be with at parties, but internally in an agony of failure and wasted potential and shame from disappointing everyone all the time.

The only tool you have to help yourself – your mind – is the very thing pulling you down. And down. And down.

When people make light of ADD, I tell them about the ADD support group I used to attend at CAMH (Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health). Dozens of super friendly, “creative,” well-meaning people completely unable to get their shit together. Many are despairing. Some are suicidal. It was very sobering.

How Much Can Meditation Really Help?

Meditation helped my ADD by teaching me to notice the downward spiral of catastrophism that makes my condition – and the condition of many with ADD – so much worse. But it hasn’t cured it. There’s an important book still to be written (not by me – I don’t have the attention span!) about which aspects of our mental challenges can realistically be addressed by meditation, and which aspects cannot. Not just ADD, but all the stuff at the outside edge of “normal,” where the interesting people live. The mood swings and the mania, the depression and the anxiety, the OCD and the dreamy dissociated hardly-there-at-all-ness.

The bottom line is we don’t know yet what meditation can and can’t do. What I can say is that when I think about mental health, I think about a much broader safety net of practice and support, one that includes community, nature, exercise, diet, psychotherapy, and – for most of us – a structured daily routine.

This note is getting on … blame my mental illness!

Hard to See, Hard to Talk About

Fortunately, this particular story has a happy ending. After a short period of tension and conflict, Dan and I began to realize that our problems were the very subject we were supposed to be writing about. In a deeply compassionate way, my friend began to draw me out about my struggles. I was reluctant, in part because I didn’t know how to talk about it. It’s hard to see your stuff when you’re inside it. It’s also embarrassing. You feel like a loser. A lot of people with mental health challenges feel like this. They feel like it’s their fault, like it’s a failure of character. Society can sympathize with external challenges – poverty, illness, discrimination – but it can’t see our internal struggles. Yet we all carry these around to different degrees.

Mindfulness really did help me; in fact, mindfulness was exactly the required skill. I started to see how, despite my years of practice, I still had all these judgments about my ADD. These judgments were actually preventing me from stepping fully into the role of meditation teacher. I mean: a meditation teacher with ADD, mood swings and impulse control problems? It’s a joke. Dan argued that rather than being a source of shame, this actually made me more relatable. I thought I knew this, but you know what it’s like – it turns out I only half-knew it. I hadn’t learned to live it. My progress of insight hadn’t progressed far enough.

We all have our secret struggles, tensions between the way we are and all the ridiculous ways we imagine we should be. These struggles make us interesting; they shape our complexity and our characters.

What else is there to say, really?

Much gratitude to all my friends and teachers in 2018 and beyond.


PS – For a candid discussion of both my challenges and Dan’s – as well as a plunge into how I understand the healing dynamics of meditation – check out the recent 10% Happier podcast episode with Dan and myself, on iTunes or Spotify.

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