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🎧Finding Your Religion
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The synagogue’s main sanctuary seats over a thousand people. The walls are dark wood, the doors gilded. Four stained glass windows let in the afternoon light. Onstage is the ark that holds the Torah scrolls. Beside it, our family friend’s two children sit in regal chairs onstage. The daughter swings her legs excitedly or nervously or maybe triumphantly. The son leans back in his chair, almost impassive or just playing it cool.
The sanctuary is about an eighth full, which is still a lot of people for a B’nai Mitzvah. The men wear yarmulkas and suits. Most of the women wear dresses. A low murmur of voices accompanies the organ music. My mother, sister, brother-in-law, niece, nephew, and I sit in the middle row.
The thought of my niece and nephew’s B’nai Mitzvah makes my chest tighten. They had it here five years ago. My brother-in-law is Jewish, and my sister converted; she’s very involved with the temple. At their B’nai Mitzvah, I was there but not there. It was during one of my worst episodes of serious mental illness. Unable to function on my own, I lived with my mother, existing so inside myself as to be completely outside what was happening around me.
Now that I’m recovering, I’m just a person sitting in the temple with other people watching a service. No panic or mania or crushing depression. No crisis.
The children read from the Torah. When they finish, they smile and look to their mom for approval. When others stand, I do too. I repeat and read from the Hebrew Bible.
At the end, everyone sings and claps while the children and family walk in a procession around the hall. It’s exhilarating to watch.
My parents essentially raised my sister and me agnostic with just a hint of atheism on my dad’s side. They sent us to Sunday school mainly, they later told me, to get us out of the house for a few hours. It puzzled me, all that talk of Jesus, and the activities we did like making the animals on Noah’s Ark from toilet paper tubes and the construction-paper crosses on which we wrote God never leaves me.
My sister eventually found solace in Judaism, but religion has never spoken to me. Until now.
The first time I saw the Wellness Wheel, a mental health tool that’s meant to help us define “wellness,” I was in a stuffy room in a partial hospitalization program. The Wellness Wheel is made up of eight overlapping circles in hushed tones of pink, blue, yellow, and green, each representing our needs: emotional, financial, social, spiritual, occupational, physical, intellectual, and environmental.
The circle marked intellectual made sense to me; I can do intellect and creativity, but the others seemed impossible. Coping effectively with life? Being satisfied with how little money I have in the bank? Connecting with others? Loving my job? Recognizing when I need to eat and sleep? Being in pleasant environments?
The spiritual circle was particularly troublesome. Spirituality isn’t limited to organized religion, and we can “expand our sense of purpose and meaning in life” in myriad ways, but my life’s purpose had always been writing and that clearly wasn’t enough to keep me out of a partial hospitalization program.
I’d been down other spiritual paths. I washed dishes painfully slowly with Jon Kabat-Zinn and lay on the floor feeling my “inner body” with Eckhart Tolle. I even went to Plum Village, the late Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in Southern France, to study with the Zen Master and interview him for a magazine.
Hanh didn’t believe in mental illness. To him, it wasn’t a medical condition; it resulted from an overgrown “seed” of resentment or fear. A psychiatric crisis arose when the mind lacked “circulation.” Anxiety, depression, even psychosis—which he called “mental formations”—resulted when emotions like anger and sorrow weren’t embraced. Mindfulness, being present, allowed us to notice the seed but not water it.
My time at Plum Village didn’t go well. Like many people with mental illnesses, meditation had adverse effects on me. During the nightly meditation (we meditated all the time), I sat with the nuns and experienced the worst of what meditation has to offer. I closed my eyes and focused on my breath. In and out. In and out. No sense of ease passed through me. Instead of deepening, my breath grew shallower. It felt as if I wasn’t getting any air. A weight settled on my chest. Soon, it seemed to extinguish me. My heart beat in my ears. Then there was no beat. Then a scream that wasn’t a scream. Scream was a thought.
Negative experiences while meditating are thought to be a sign of spiritual transformation. A serious practitioner invites darkness, hopelessness, and despair. She awakens to impermanence, the absurdity and unreality in all things, even the self. It can be a positive, life-changing experience. But such experiences are meant for monks and nuns or those with specific training, not lay people like me. (The Buddha actually said this; meditation was strictly monks only.)
Even mindfulness—often doled out as the panacea to all our mental and emotional ills—can produce a mental and emotional breakdown. Focusing on the present moment may seem like a harmless realignment of the relationship between the self and the world, but if one follows it to its natural conclusion, “presentness” ends in the dissolution of selfhood. The effects of mindfulness meditation can include confusion, disorientation, anxiety, psychosis, physical pain, sensorial dysfunction, exacerbation of neuromuscular and joint diseases, insomnia, delirium, and hallucinations.
The Wellness Wheel didn’t require me to go down a spiritual path to achieve spiritual health. But in mental health recovery, organized religion and what we typically think of as spirituality play a key role.
Rob Whitley, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University, cites the growing body of research that substantiates the positive associations between and beneficial effects of religiosity and mental health. A religious worldview has been found to create in people a “sense of coherence” and provide them with a support network.
This is particularly true of those in marginalized groups. Whitley has called on psychiatry to pay more attention to how religion facilitates the treatment and healing of mental illness in marginalized and underserved patients. For instance, religion is an integral part of the lives of 95 percent of African Americans—including belief in a transcendent deity, going to church, and engaging in prayer.
When a psychiatrist fails to take a patient’s spiritual inventory and integrate treatment and goals for recovery into the patient’s belief system, that clinician sets up the patient for suffering. Phyllis Vine, the author of Fighting for Recovery: A People’s History of Mental Health Reform, tells the story of a woman accused of being non-compliant with her medication because she refused to take it. Finally, her clinical team discovered that she wanted her priest to bless it. He did, and she took her medication, which was beneficial for her.
Many people reject organized religion because of the crimes committed in the name of it; others embrace it regardless of the damage it’s done. Some people seek spirituality like it’s a drug or the answer; others find spiritual movements and groups insincere and insufferable. There’s no right or wrong, only personal choice.
In the synagogue, the procession moves down the aisle closest to us. My sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew sing. I don’t know the words.
The longing in my chest comes less from a need to understand God than to trust myself, to know that although no one talks about recovery from psychiatric disorders, it does happen and is possible. There is no perfect or happy, no way not to feel painful emotions, and no heaven on earth, but there is the absence of serious mental and emotional dysfunction, which we might as well call health. And I’m moving toward it.
Go to Chapter 17.