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Ask A Buddhist: Living a good life with mental illness

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By Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

How can I live a good life with mental illness?”

There is a wide variety of mental illnesses, each with its own symptoms, causes and treatments. Having a mental illness shouldn’t bar you from developing greater happiness and living a good life. There is vast array of Dharma methods for working with the mind. However, if your mental illness—like any other illness—is not treated by appropriate mental health professionals, you could find it challenging to apply these techniques.

All human beings are basically the same—we all want happiness and to avoid suffering. We are alike in wanting to live a good life; and we all have the capacity to make steps towards living a good life.

Assuming that our basic needs for survival are met—food, clothing, and shelter— the happiness we experience is more dependent on what’s happening in our minds than on the external conditions, circumstances or events we encounter. Does that sound amazing to you? We can actually increase our happiness and also live a good life by training our hearts and minds to be less negative and more altruistic. This is a trainable skill, whether we have a mental illness or not.

First, we must learn to identify negative emotions and mental habits when they arise. What makes them negative? They disturb our minds. We also learn to identify positive mental states—states like love, compassion, generosity, and kindness, which bring a sense of wellbeing. Meditation helps us get familiar with how our mind works and develop more positive and realistic ways of thinking.

As we learn to observe our experience in meditation, we learn how negative emotions and behaviors are harmful to us and positive emotions are helpful. In addition to disturbing our mind, negative emotions disrupt our family and community. Emotions like anger, jealousy, resentment and aggression motivate us to act in harmful ways that damage the trust we have with others. Such emotions also impact our physical health by damaging our immune system. Understanding this helps encourage us to face and overcome them. We also need to understand how beneficial positive emotions and behaviors are so that we are determined to increase them, even if it’s difficult and takes effort. In this way, living a good life is in our own hands.

One of the most important things in life is affection. Without it, we are not very happy people. If we want a happier, meaningful life and better relationships with family and friends, then love, compassion and affection are some of the most important elements. The good news is that we all have the seed or potential for human affection already in our mind, and therefore affection can definitely be developed further. Compassion is not just about having sympathy for others. Compassion is cultivated by recognizing that every person who suffers or lacks happiness or prosperity wants happiness just like us. Genuine compassion is about developing a greater feeling of concern when we see another’s suffering and includes the wish to relieve that suffering. As our compassion increases, our actions become more kind, constructive and beneficial.

Living ethically is another aspect of our daily practice that increases our self-confidence, eliminates self-recrimination, and fosters respect for others’ view and rights. Keeping good ethical conduct naturally improves our relationship with others. From a Buddhist point of view, these are some of the most important ingredients for living a good life.

When we become aware of our own shortcomings or limitations, we don’t need to despair. Instead, we can make positive aspirations which can lead us to be able to do things or develop qualities that previously we weren’t able to do. For example, if we aren’t as courteous or thoughtful as we would like to be, we can pray to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas to inspire us to become thoughtful and conscientious, and so forth.

Buddhism makes no claim to cure mental illness. I hope you have the necessary help in finding good psychological support and managing any helpful medications. With a mind stabilized by treatment, you can apply yourself to the practices described here and train yourself toward a happier state of mind. Find a meditation group or teacher that can support you. There are several options in Spokane.

Wishing you well on your spiritual journey.


About Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Venerable Tenzin Tsepal met Venerable Thubten Chodron, founder of Sravasti Abbey, in Seattle and studied Buddhism with her from 1995 to 1999. During that time, Venerable Tsepal attended the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun conference in Bodhgaya, India in 1996 as a lay supporter. An interest in ordination surfaced after she completed a three-month meditation retreat in 1998. She lived in India for two years while continuing to explore monastic life. In 2001, she received sramanerika (novice) ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

While Venerable Tsepal was in India, some Australians friends introduced her to the 5 year Buddhist Studies Program at Chenrezig Institute (CI) north of Brisbane, Queensland, where she subsequently lived and engaged in intensive residential study from 2002-2015. As the Western Teacher at CI, she tutored weekend teachings and retreats, and taught the Discovering Buddhism courses.

Prior to ordaining, Venerable Tsepal completed a degree in Dental Hygiene, and then pursued graduate school in hospital administration at the University of Washington. Not finding happiness in 60 hour work weeks, she was self-employed for 10 years as a Reiki teacher and practitioner.

Now a member of the resident community at Sravasti Abbey, Venerable Tsepal is compiling and editing the many years of Venerable Chodron’s teachings on monastic training as well as leading a review on the Buddhist philosophical tenets for the residents.

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