By Lynn Jericho
Issue: Winter 2005, Winter of the Soul; Issue #42
Each of us knows the heavenly highs and the hellish lows of living. At some point in our lives, the swings between the two will cause significant suffering in our soul. A number of us will know the madness of bipolar disorder.
Imagine your soul as a pendulum hanging by a radiant chain of light from your true self, your individual expression of the divine. The pendulum is weighted by the destiny of your earthly existence. While hanging between spirit and matter, this soul pendulum changes direction and position in perpetual motion pulled by the attracting forces of the seemingly infinite numbers of opposing poles.
This capacity to swing between two poles is one of the great gifts of the gods to human consciousness. Mastered by the soul, this endowment blesses us with a vast perspective and profound understanding as we come to know all that lives between universal polarities, such as feminine and masculine, birth and death, light and dark, good and evil, rest and activity, self and other, thought and action, order and chaos, etc. ... When conscious and graceful the swinging awakens the nobility of both freedom and love in our souls.
Consciousness and gracefulness are not given to us. We must develop them in the face of difficulties unknown to gods, the circumstances of our biology and biography. The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance.” Our souls transcend madness and rise to noble heights by discerning, penetrating and transforming our biological and biographical circumstances behind our swings.
The swings, whether ordinary and manageable or extreme and disruptive, take us away from earthly reality into the unreality of our personal versions of heaven and hell. The depressed soul is in hell. When we break free, we feel we are in heaven. The manic soul claims the energy of heavenly bliss. When the mania subsides, it feels like hell has opened up and swallowed us into the caverns of depression. Our inner lives experience constantly alternating heaven and hell.
Earthly existence is not meant to be either heaven or hell. Flying to immeasurable heights and falling into unfathomable pits leaves the soul without a sense of personal substance and reality. Freedom and love, the noble gestures of the soul, are only found grounded in the earth of our lives.
Manic souls know unbounded license, not freedom. Willful energy gets fired up beyond appropriate limits. With heady, agitated confidence there is no need to consider sobering consequences and any risk is worth the thrill and the glory. Others perceive manic individuals as attractive-but-scary go-getters, life-of-the-party players, seductive, funny, brilliant powerhouses capable of juggling many balls and maybe changing the world.
Freedom in the depressed soul is an unattainable dream. It is like a wet match, impossible to strike into flame. A prison of gloomy, dark repetitive thoughts, every part of the depressed soul is held hostage by a cold heaviness. Both thoughts and intentions are will-less, paralyzed and sinking slowly in a pit of quicksand.
Freedom is found in the middle. It is the center point that allows for a full range of active self-expression in harmonious and responsible relationship to all. Harmony and responsibility are rooted in love, but mania and depression squeeze love out of the soul.
In mania, the individual is wildly “in love” with the bodily feelings arising from grandiosity, agitation, risk, inflation and excessive engagement with racing thoughts and intense activity. Manic love disregards responsibility in its egotistical devotion to staying “high.” In depression, the individual is uninterested, lethargic, sad, pessimistic, unfocussed and feeling detached and unworthy of life. Love is lost in a flatland of despair. In their extremes both mania and depression entrap and isolate individuals in their own high and low moods, their personal poles of heaven and hell. The capacity for unselfish earthly deeds of giving and receiving love is profoundly crippled.
It is also very difficult to love a depressed or manic soul. Instead of love, others will feel sympathy for the depressed and fascination in the manic. And that is exactly what they want and crave. Manic souls want to be found fascinating and depressed souls want to attract sympathy. To truly love them, you must pierce the seductive veils of their behavior with compassionate interest. Learn to distinguish between the madness and their true humanity.
The only way out of heaven and hell and back to earth is the path of self-knowledge. We must discover what places body, soul and spirit at odds with each other and learn ways to restore harmony to our lives. The path begins in the biological and biographical circumstances of our lives. This is a very tough journey and it often feels like the most complicated labyrinth of infinite turns and repeats.
Our swinging rhythms are influenced by our genes, our hormones, our diet, our love life, our work environment, our physical and emotional traumas, our meditation practices and all the infinite events and forces of our lives. Study the influences of your rhythms and work to adjust and balance them.
Get into your body and into your thoughts in equal measure through physical and meditative exercises. Consider also the healing forces of homeopathic and anthroposophic remedies, flower essences and acupuncture. Research the psychopharmacological drugs, as well. Enrich and inspire your life with nature and the arts. Be careful with your escape and avoidance mechanisms like television, internet, wishful thinking, excessive exercise, spiritual inflation, etc. ...
You are a unique and complex configuration. Study your configuration with the devotion of a captivated researcher. Remember that above and within your complexity is the “I am,” this selfhood that can move from the subjectivity of the sufferer to the objectivity of the researcher. Use the many resources available for research: the web, books, therapists, doctors, educators, coaches, and others who live with mood swings. Determine actions to take to strengthen your connection to your center point, your radiant chain to the spirit and the grounding weight of earthly purpose when you feel yourself beginning to swing.
An important step on the biographical path is recognizing our breakdowns in daily living. We must face the effects of our swings on our personal, professional, social and financial lives. Very few people with anything beyond mild swings of mania and depression have any experience of lasting success in any of these basic areas. The onset of bipolar swings generally occurs during late adolescence, too early for sound and reasonable life goals and effective personal skills to be developed. Genetics plays a role as well; many of us with bipolar tendencies have grown up with parents who struggled with responsible living and were unable to provide effective models.
Part of the challenge for those who are able to stabilize their swinging moods later in their life is learning the skills and setting the goals for living “normal” lives. A successful, balanced life requires learning how to organize time, manage money, establish joyful, reciprocal relationships, work toward meaningful career goals, create nurturing living spaces, pursue a path of inner development and dedicate adequate time for play and rest.
Through commitment to a slow but effective process you will not only be stabilizing your moods, you will be shaping a good life. Love and freedom are worth the journey.
Never has living our lives been more difficult, but never in the history of human consciousness have there been greater resources for developing greater personal courage, courage to discern, penetrate and transform the circumstances of our lives and reveal the nobility of our souls.
Lynn Jericho is a counselor and an adult educator. Her article on The Inner Christmas appears in the 2006 edition of Cosmo Doogood’s Urban Almanac, edited by Eric Utne.