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Buddhadharma : Spring 2012
62 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SPRING 2 0 1 2 Between all that and an acupuncturist, I spent more money in those six months than I had in a decade of intensive therapy. And it would have been worth every penny, had I not fallen between the cracks of Buddhism and psychiatry to such a degree that I was not only depressed and racked with anxiety, but suicidal again. And every time I walked out my bedroom and into the sangha, I felt like a failure. “Personally, I don’t use medication, I use the dharma,” Sophia had said when I first told her of my decision to get off the drugs. She had assured me that it was working just fine for her. We were in the kitchen washing lettuce and making sure no little bugs got squashed in the process, and I had been slightly buoyed by her confidence; indeed when I was able to drag myself out of my room and participate in the practices with the sangha or listen to a teaching, I got a small charge, like a spiritual cup of coffee. Only it didn’t last. There were many reasons I had decided to go off all meds: I’d been taking psychotropic drugs for more than a decade, and while the reasons for using them were legitimate, I worried about their long-term effects on my health. I was unhappy with some of the side effects. As I identified more seriously with Buddhism, I wanted to physically and conceptually distance myself from my past as a mental patient, and to align myself with the natural, holistic lifestyle I craved and believed was most authentic. My greatest motivation was the hope that Buddhist practice would show me the core of my afflictive emotions and mental distortions. Taught by my teachers that all thoughts and emotions were transitory and without substance, it had only made sense that I take off the training wheels and experience my mind in all its raw, naked power. Yet now, with- out the medication, I was more hostage than self- liberator and I’d come to a grand impasse: how could I be free from suffering when my mind naturally reverted to a state of self-destruction when left to its own devices? This question haunted me as I sat in bed in the dark, forcing myself to eat cold stir-fry. And I wanted to know: Had I failed in practicing the dharma? Or had my Buddhist practice failed to help me? And if I returned to the drugs, would I ever discover my true buddhanature? I CAME TO BUDDHISM because I suffered and I wanted to stop suffering. Yet I didn’t initially seek out the dharma. One day in my early thir- ties, I found myself sitting in a quiet circle in a room while a woman at the front struck a metal bowl with a wooden dowel and told us to listen to the sound with our full attention. She had us follow our breath as we inhaled and exhaled, and gently reminded us to let go of any thoughts that arose. All these exercises were part of what she called “mindfulness,” and we did them dog- gedly week after week. In time I’d understand they were practices done daily in thousands of Buddhist communities, but my entranceway to the Buddhist path was not through a sangha. It happened when I was a patient at a mental hospi- tal and my teacher was a psychiatrist, not a lama. Some people are surprised to hear that psy- chiatric wards and therapy groups are breeding grounds for dharma practice, but when you think about it, what more logical place for the dharma KIERA VAN GELDER is an artist, educator, and mental health activist. She is the author of the recently published memoir The Buddha and the Borderline: My Recovery From Borderline Personality Disorder Through Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Buddhism, and Online Dating (New Harbinger Publications). DAVIDTUCKER