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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Faith and Values: How can I live a good life with mental illness?

For the Spokesman-Review

There are a wide variety of mental illnesses, each with their unique causes, symptoms and treatments. Having a mental illness shouldn’t prevent you from living a good life. Buddha’s teachings include a vast array of methods for working with our minds. However, if your mental illness – like any illness – is not treated by appropriate mental health professionals, it may be challenging to apply these techniques.

Human beings are basically the same – we all want happiness and not suffering. We are alike in wanting to live a good life, and have the capacity to make steps towards living a good life.

Assuming that our basic needs for survival are met – food, clothing, shelter – the happiness we experience is more dependent on what’s happening in our minds than on external conditions or circumstances we encounter. We can live a good life and increase our happiness by training our hearts and minds to be less negative and more altruistic – a learnable 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 mind. We also learn to identify positive emotions – like kindness, generosity, love, and compassion, which bring a sense of well being.

Meditation teaches us how our mind works and how to develop more positive, realistic ways of thinking. When meditating, we experience how negative emotions and behaviors are harmful to us and positive emotions are helpful. In addition to disturbing our mind, negative emotions like anger, jealousy, resentment and aggression, impact our health, damaging our immune system, and motivate us to harm others which damages their trust in us.

Understanding these disadvantages encourages us to face and overcome harmful emotions. Meditation also shows how beneficial positive emotions and behaviors are so that we are determined to increase them, even if difficult or takes effort.

If we want a meaningful, happier life and better relationships with others, then kindness, compassion and affection are some of the most important elements. We all value affection. Without it, we are not very happy. We already have the seed for human affection in our mind, therefore affection can definitely be increased.

Compassion is not just having sympathy for others. Compassion is cultivated by recognizing that every person who suffers or lacks happiness wants happiness just like us. Genuine compassion is about developing a greater feeling of concern when we see another’s suffering and wishes to relieve that suffering. As our compassion increases, our actions become kinder and more beneficial.

Living ethically is another aspect of our daily practice that eliminates guilt, increases our self-confidence, and fosters respect for others’ views and rights. Respectful ethical conduct naturally improves relationship with others. And if 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.

From a Buddhist point of view, these are some of the most important ingredients for living a good life. In this way, living a good life is in our own hands.

I hope you have the necessary help to find good psychological support and necessary 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. Buddhism makes no claim to cure mental illness, but finding a meditation group or teacher in Spokane can certainly help.

Venerable Tenzin Tsepal is a Buddhist nun at Sravasti Abbey. She received her novice ordination in 2001 from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Prior to monastic life, she worked in the medical field. Today she contributes to the SpokaneFāVS Ask A Buddhist feature. Readers can submit questions online at http://bit.ly/2owQW83.

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