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Bipolar – A Transpersonal & Existential Perspective

Author: Tom Rhodes, MFT

Let me start by making it very clear that I see bipolar disorder on a continuum, holding the polarities of expansion and contraction. This is a ride we all go on, as a natural pendulum swing of being here, on Earth, with a body and a mind. It’s very important to me to normalize and point out the ubiquitous nature of the ebb and flow of life-energy in the context of mood. This is human condition stuff, just part of being a human being. Anyone diagnosed with or fulfilling criterion for bipolar disorder simply experiences an intensity of these swings past a line drawn in the sand, reflecting certain manic or expansive behaviors, and depressed or contracted ones. But if we’re all being honest, we all know some degree of this equal and opposite ride of highs and lows quite well. 

Is there an escape hatch out of this ride? In my sense, there are kind of two answers to that question. Yes and No. I would say that the short simple answer is that no, there’s not. As the Buddha realized and taught way back when with his 4 noble truths, in the broad sense of this, ‘To live is to suffer’. However, there are three more truths which follow, which can shine a more nuanced light on this first one, changing it from an absolute truth into a relative one. 2) The origin of suffering is attachment (or I would offer ‘the need to control’) 3) The cessation of suffering is attainable. 4) There is a path to the cessation of suffering. 

In short, the cessation of suffering has been called ‘nirvana’. However, I pretty much can’t think of a more bastardized, twisted, and misunderstood word than this one. I am thus moved to clear up, like many others in the past have, what seems to have happened with this misunderstanding. Basically, that cessation of suffering doesn’t come about by getting rid of or denying emotional pain, but rather, by diving into the heart of it. This diving in is anything but masochistic. It is, rather, what some have coined ‘the wisdom of no escape’. Quite simply put, when we truly get on a cellular level, usually after years or decades of trying to escape the lows to no avail, something pops/drops out/surrenders. From this shifted and blown out paradigm, escape is seen as futile, which changes the nature of the game of life entirely. From this place, we don’t need to escape. Game over. Death. But in a good way. 

I don’t mean death here in the context of actually dying physically. That is inevitable and will take care of itself when we’re ripe for the picking! The death here is ‘the death of playing the game of trying to get off the rollercoaster ride of ups and downs of life’. An inquiry that I’ve taken on in my own life, and which has transformed this life rather blessedly and powerfully, is “What doesn’t come and go, in the midst of this rollercoaster ride”? Or just the same, “What’s always here”? It’s often very inconspicuous, silent, background, patiently waiting you could say.. Yet it’s what’s looking out of our eyes in all moments, and it’s what all of this up and down, expansion and contraction, depression and mania appear and disappear in. What is that? What are we? What are you?

Tom Rhodes

Tom Rhodes

Tom Rhodes is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. He specializes in working with people who suffer from anxiety or whose very identity is being called into question by the current circumstances of their life.

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