There's an old Kudzu cartoon by Doug Marlette I wish I'd framed. The pastor is on his knees, his hands clasped in fervent prayer as he pleads with God. "Smite mine enemy, Lord," he prays. "Smite mine own worst enemy!" There is a flash, a puff of smoke, and our hapless pastor, still on his knees, is burnt to a crisp.
Every day we are our own worst enemies, tricking ourselves with the deceit of our own minds. Like, that we are masters of the universe; or, conversely, that we are miserable sinners. A good portion of the spiritual journey is learning to put our mind in its place, with all its neurotic self-serving strategies.
All of us, at least some of the time, need to park our brains at the door, which is not what I used to say about churchgoing--the opposite, in fact. But we need to learn to listen to our hearts, to our spirits, to our souls, as well as to all those outer voices, those of friends and people whose intentions we trust, to guide us. Otherwise, on its own, our brain can trip us up with its own cleverness.
But for some--two or three out of every hundred North Americans--the brain is not just a spurious guide on the spiritual journey, diverting us from our path. It is a major stumbling block, tripping us up by confusing fact and fiction, at times supercharging our ideas with delusions of grandeur or, at others, draining the life blood from us, making it hard to get out of bed. I'm thinking of those who suffer from bipolar disorder.
Undiagnosed and untreated, bipolar disorder can lead to impulsive manic behaviour at one end of the spectrum and deep debilitating depression at the other. Bipolar episodes are sometimes described as 'psychotic' because they can be marked by a complete break with reality. Yet, treated with medication and bolstered by counselling and peer support, someone with bipolar disorder can live a normal life, albeit a "new" normal to which they must learn to adapt.
Allan Cooper is my guest in this week's episode of The Mystic Cave. His is a story of devastating loss, as his bipolar condition crushed his dreams and derailed his career. While Allan was laid low by what was happening to him, he fought to accept the reality that his condition forced upon him. He recalibrated his life, discovering for himself new dreams and a new career path that aligns with what he calls his "new brain."
The challenges Allan faces every day, to discern and manage the voices in his head and to temper the swing of his emotions, demand vigilance and attentiveness. It is different only by degree from the daily challenges we all face. Discernment is the secret weapon of all spiritual seekers. What to believe? What to follow? What to put in its place? Likewise, the consequence of believing everything our brain tells us, without "testing the spirits," is similar: we lose our way.
But Allan's story is filled with hope, and it could be our hope as well. Healthy or ill, our minds are not the only, nor the final, arbiters of what is real. Discernment along the Unknown Path requires more than the cleverness of our brains; it requires the assistance of all the facets of who we are—our body, our soul, our spirit—and then also, critically, the resilience to pick ourselves back up and carry on when our minds betray us.
This week's Mystic Cave episode: 'Brain Betrayal': A Story of Resilience. [Just press the Play button to listen to the episode ...]