I was asked on the slack, about bipolar and what might help from a meditation standpoint. I have my own experiences to share. (standard non-medical advice disclaimer applies here, i’m not qualified to give professional advice and you should probably confirm with a professional if you have doubts about trying any of this.)
Here’s a list of things that might help with the subjective mood swinging of bipolar experience.
1. A broadening of awareness and contexts.
For about 6 months of time when I was really focused on moods (and 10 years before that), I felt like I didn’t have moods, moods had me (moods distinct from emotions which can be had from moment to moment, moods are more like background, the colour of the day). I would wake up and find out today was “miserable” or “excited”.
I worked on a specific type of meditation practice that is called broadening of awareness (there are 2 different instructions for methods). I got lucky that this helped me and I wasn’t expecting it. When moods had me, it felt like things “just are” miserable. Now my awareness is broader than the moods and “I”* contain them. (*meditative “I” and “self” are a rabbit hole)
Instructions: Most people have their sense of their self boundary in line with their skin barrier. “I” end at my skin. But it’s possible to expand that boundary, and shift it to larger. Particularly the “kinetic sphere”, the area where one might be able to reach outside the body, and then further to the whole room size. Holding this “barrier” thing at the size of the room means that I’m “anchored” metaphorically to more solid things than my own body. Obviously “I’m” still the same but my ground is the actual stationary room. Which does not feel moods like my body does. (*explanation of why it helps may be entirely irrelevant, fact is, anecdata: it helped me)
There’s space in my new expanded “me” to find the body being a certain mood but also to find stillness out there in the room which doesn’t get dragged around like the moods do. I felt the pull of daily moods dry up. Obviously my body is still in grump but “I’m not” mentally trapped in that experience. From there, there’s a new, deeper breathing pattern that supports the broader awareness practice and that’s to be discovered and also hinted at. I would encourage trying it for a few minutes a day and then going for a permanent shift into what is sometimes described as “spaciousness”.
Instructions 2: awareness specifically in the visual field can be expanded out the peripheral. Start by picking an object straight ahead to look at and focus on. Now expand the awareness to the peripheral of the visual field. Hold there for 30 seconds, then push on towards expanding the peripheral. this works well looking up at the sky, or the ocean because of the broadness of the visual object in the visual field. push the “awareness” beyond the visual field until there’s a sense of spidey-sense tingling to what’s outside the visual field. Hold a broadness of awareness to the visual area and the spidey sense. Try to engage this broad sense regularly and through the day, try to live in this broad-sense of the world around you. Notice that a “mood” is within this sense, not fully covering the whole space. If you work at the broadness, that sense comes.
2. Stages of insight
At the same time as trying that practice, I was cycling through (technical meditation term – can be read about in MCTB2 book) “the stages of insight“. As I would cycle I would hit sensation like fear, and it would call up involuntary intrusive memories about things I feared, then I would the next day have a “when will it end” feeling and wrestle with that one.
For 2, what became important is forming a relationship with the memories that I didn’t like. Due to lots of meditation, I was pretty clear what was normal and what was an intrusive visit from my past. I started asking the question, “why is this here?” and that question eventually turned into, “how is this here to help?” or “what do I need to still learn from this memory?” and that was a huge shift.
After those questions were hard ingrained into my attitude, within a week, shitty memories stopped showing up. Possibly because I got so good at relating to them that I was never calling them, “shitty memories”, and possibly because I never felt shit again about them, I’d just appreciate the lesson that I was to learn. And from that I stopped cycling nearly as hard. I still notice bits of cycling but I’m above the cycle, not in it.
3 Greater bodily awareness.
a few days ago I wanted a photo of myself, so I put on a fancy shirt and got out of bed to take the photo. 3 minutes later I found myself eating things. When I asked myself what’s going on, because I wasn’t hungry, I noticed that I was cold and I was using food to stop feeling cold. An interesting discovery. I made my way back to warm things.
It’s bodily awareness that helps with the moods and actions. I can feel where in my body (or not) I’m feeling depressed or angry and I can alleviate it via movement or internal sensation and not by outwardly being moody or suffering mood swings.
For this I’ve done a lot of meditation and body scan attention work. Any sensation is relevant, itching the head, the knot in the stomach, the tingle in the toes. It’s all relevant to the way I think.
It’s a rat rationality thing to assume that these sensation experiences are noise but they are not. All sensation is relevant.
Some combination of the 3 have helped me to the point where I doubt I have bipolar any more. I was fairly confident at one point and now it seems unlikely to be a useful diagnosis.
And if there’s a 4 and 5 it’s, watch sleep and social life and make sure to get enough of both, as well as being aware of instability in both which can start a cycle of instability. This is from Interpersonal Social Rhythm Therapy IPSRT – the only therapy designed for bipolar. Fixing my sleep made a big difference, and fixing my mood first thing in the morning did too.
Shoutout to Bipolar Awakenings for being more on the odd-strange-spiritual side of meditative practice towards progress on alleviating bipolar.