Throughout my long journey of healing from depression, I have been learning about the things I need to change within myself. It’s been a challenging, immeasurably rewarding and highly educational experience. It has been a process that has taught me more about myself and about humanity than I could have learned in any other way. I have always been drawn to and moved by Philosophy (the love of wisdom) so this process is feeding a very deep need in me and I’m always wanting to learn more. I know without a doubt that this is where I was meant to be, on this path of learning, and it took depression to ultimately lead me here.
One of the reasons why it’s so challenging to learn about the things that I need to change is that I, like many others, have to contend with an inner (and sometimes outer) kneejerk defensive reaction that wants to protect myself from any kind of accusation of wrong doing. If something needs to change, there needs to be an understanding of what that is and why it needs to change. This is often where the defense mechanism kicks in and this defensive reaction has everything to do with having been immersed in a punishment oriented world for so long – one that breeds this defensiveness in so many of us. The defense is a means of avoiding punishment (a sort of survival instinct). Whether it’s physical, disciplinary punishment (my parents were big softies when it came to this actually) or more of a constant series of responses that indicate how underserving a person is who has ‘done wrong’, it’s a pattern underlying typical social behaviour in our world beginning from early childhood. It is both formal in some instances (reprimands/discipline of children or legal action/jail for adults) and informal in others (social shaming, exclusion and an endless nuanced form of passive aggression). It’s a pervasive pattern that becomes internalized. The continued internal self-punishment and admonishment supports the ongoing external version – that which we apply to others – often in the form of judgement.
On a personal level, when you disparage someone else in your own mind for doing something that is considered to be wrong, you are reinforcing that tendency to punish. This strengthens the punishment reaction so that it becomes alive and well in the mind. Unfortunately, this inner tendency towards punishment is most often directed at yourself because you are the person you live with 24hrs a day. This is really what’s behind the old standing piece of wisdom: ‘When you hurt others, you’re only hurting yourself’. As it turns out, this has merit.
Punishment is a deterrent to personal growth and most importantly to unconditional self-love, which is an imperative for well-being. Because of the anticipation of punishment, defensiveness is justified as ‘self-protection’. This act of self-protection can be mistaken for an act of self-love. It is not. The defense itself is actually based on a false assumption that we can only be loved or be worthy of love if/when we don’t ‘do wrong’ or that if we ‘do wrong things’, we’re not entitled to or deserving of love – even if temporarily. It’s such an old, familiar and damaging paradigm and tearing this down can be extremely liberating. It can be both a beginning and an end: the beginning of compassion and an end to suffering.
It has been a mandatory part of my healing and growth to exercise compassion with myself and with others. Compassion is something that I have learned to nurture within. At times it’s utterly inspired and I am at peace. At others, it takes a supreme effort and I have to remind myself of the wisdom of this approach and of its constant rewards. The rewards of compassion are very clear. If I create an atmosphere in my mind of compassion, I give myself more opportunities to grow and change for the better. In an atmosphere of compassion, I have every incentive to do this because I’m no longer wasting energy defending myself and living in fear of punishment. If I’m treating myself and others with compassion and benefiting from it, I am cultivating an atmosphere of compassion all around me. This is the real revolution. Moving away from punishment and towards compassion is a revolutionary act. In fact, it might be more appropriate to term it an evolutionary act. I believe that we are growing out of this punishment phase of humanity.
Despite popular belief, punishment doesn’t work – not even formally. There have been numerous studies to support this fact and overwhelming evidence. Incarceration and corporal punishment have not reduced crime. In fact crime has only increased steadily and incarceration facilities are growing. Punishment is not effective in bringing about positive change because it only motivates people to avoid punishment rather than to consider for themselves why deep personal change might be necessary and how it might benefit them.
My path of intentional, personal growth began with Shamanism, an ancient practice of healing which for me has involved using many tools & medicines including Ayahuasca and always guided by a higher form of consciousness. There are many ways to access a higher form of consciousness. Some do this through meditation. For me, Shamanism has involved a form of meditation that we call journeying. Whatever name we put on it, this experience can be very liberating. I needed to be liberated from my way of thinking and this liberation has been an instrumental part of my healing. One of the main concepts introduced early in my Shamanic practice was the idea of ‘self service’. If I was to heal and grow, I needed to make changes. This meant dropping behaviour that ‘no longer served me’. In this phrase you may detect a distinct lack of judgement. There’s not the heaviness of ‘wrong doing’ associated with behaviour. It’s quite simply not in my best interest to do these things and therefore it makes sense that I stop doing them. Our judgemental attachment to so-called ‘wrong doing’ is what leads to so much more ‘wrong doing’, which is really just illness – hence the constant reference in Shamanism to ‘healing’ and ‘medicine’.
My experience of healing has helped me to see myself and to approach my life and the world in different ways. I continue to learn about what it means to be ill by learning and experiencing what it means to be well. When I have had difficulties of my own or with others, it helps to see that these difficulties are part of an illness that can be treated rather than an evil or bad behaviour. Once there is judgement, a heaviness is attached, and it becomes much more difficult for me to extricate myself from it. If I’m able to see it as illness, compassion is my response rather than judgement and this changes everything. Would we punish someone for being ill? Even formally, we have laws to protect the mentally ill from punishment. However, I think it’s time that we change the way that we define and perceive mental illness. A favourite quote comes to mind:
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”
The wellness and mindfulness movement is an indicator of this need for change and our desire to move forward in a different way. Those of us who have been forced to focus on wellness have discovered that this is not a quick fix. True wellness requires big changes in the ways that we think about and act towards ourselves and towards others. It requires effort and it requires compassion.
Once you begin to see the results of compassion, a form of love, you marvel at the power of it and how freeing it is. Mostly, you marvel at how good it feels and then you understand that there is an alternative to suffering. We have a choice in this and moving from punishment to compassion is a choice and a powerful step towards ending suffering.