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Depression, Addiction, and Aikido: Contemplating the Death of Robin Williams

Robin WilliamsLike so many others last week, I was shocked and saddened, and also drawn into deep contemplation, on hearing that the beloved actor, comedian and social activist, Robin Williams, had taken his own life. As a hypnotherapist who has worked with many people suffering from depression, it reminded me of a shocking, and critical, teaching that I received many years ago, that has stayed close to my heart ever since.

I had been doing Transpersonal Hypnotherapy certification trainings for about a year when I met a group of Aikido enthusiasts who were interested in my work. I was a longtime Zen Buddhist practitioner and felt a strong affinity for the philosophy of Aikido and for its founder Morihei Ueshiba.

One day I was visiting the dojo where a few of my students were practicing Aikido. While waiting for my students to finish their practice session, I picked up a small Aikido publication.

My eyes fell on a letter to the editor in which the writer praised the great qualities of a dear friend and fellow Aikido practitioner. He described a truly wonderful man who was a master chef, an accomplished horse trainer, a Black Belt Aikido master, a master carpenter and homebuilder, and a longtime meditation student who radiated tremendous warmth and calm. He said, “There was no one who did not like him.”

And then he added, “I am talking about my friend in the past tense because on April 10th, he died by his own steady hand.” How could someone who had accomplished so much, who was so loved by others, commit suicide?

The title of his Letter to the Editor was “Aikido is not enough.” He went on to share that balance and self-love are crucial on the path – that these qualities cannot be replaced by any degree of excellence in any kind of endeavor. The love of others cannot make up for a lack of loving kindness and compassion for oneself.

Since 1990 I have opened the first day of every Finding True Magic certification training by reading this letter to my students.

On the first day of the course, students are typically excited to learn, but also fearful about not being good enough. My purpose is to impress upon them that the central point of the course is to love yourself and to use the techniques they will be learning, to help others love themselves.

Perfection is completely beside the point.

So here’s what I tell them on the first day of class:

“Do not worry about passing. Do your best to disconnect from your childhood experience of school where peer pressure and the terror of making mistakes reigned for so many.”

“You will pass this course by doing the same thing that allows you to feel genuine enjoyment of your life — by connecting with your heartfelt wisdom and compassion for all beings.

“And of course, ‘all beings’ naturally includes yourself.

This view of compassion and love for oneself and others is a core aspect of the transpersonal approach that informs my courses and trainings.

Woman-facing-sunset-goldenThe secret trap on the road to “mastery”

Many people hope to accomplish fantastic goals by using hypnosis to master their minds. And this is entirely possible. But it can be a golden path to destruction if you’re secretly hoping to leave behind any part of yourself out of a sense that it is somehow “flawed” or “not good enough.” You can’t enjoy your success if you throw out self love.

Many bright stars have taken their lives in the years since I first read that letter. These are often people whom we think “should” have been content – people who seemed to have it all. This week one of the world’s favorite entertainers made the same choice as the Aikido practitioner described in the letter.

Robin Williams had a lion’s share of talent and artistic mastery, as well as a huge heart of compassion . . . for others. One of the main things people shared about Robin Williams, beyond his work ethic, his outrageous lightning fast humor, and his generosity in supporting dozens of charities, was that he had the rare ability, when he was relating to you, to make you feel as though you were the most important person in the world.

There was no one who did not like him.

So why wasn’t that enough to make him want to stick around?

The thought that makes depression and addiction seem immovable

Many of my clients have struggled with depression and addiction, and many of them say one thing that I also heard Robin Williams say in an  interview. He said that the alcoholism, the addiction, “isn’t connected to anything, and doesn’t come from anything. It’s just there waiting. It lays in wait for the time when you think, “I’m fine now. I’m OK. And then all of a sudden it’s not OK.

This viewpoint, while common, shuts ourselves out of the very real possibility of healing. It treats the condition as a thief that can pounce on us and steal our happiness, even – or especially — when things are going well for us. It treats our suffering as a “thing” that is more powerful than we are, as a monster that can victimize us, rather than as a mutable condition we can actively work with and change. It seems to me that those who accept this view are more likely to take their own lives. I worry about them.

On the flip side, whenever I’m working with deeply troubled client and they begin to glimpse the possibility of freedom from their depression and addiction, I feel encouraged. I see people choosing to accept this challenge, along with the pain involved in meeting it.

When I see this happening for someone who’s been acutely depressed, I know they’ve had a glimpse of self love. It only takes a glimpse for us to begin to insist on self-compassion. And when you’re intent on dissolving your despair, this is the most powerful protection there is.

Neuroscience-brain-diagram-blue-whiteHow do we know it’s possible to overcome depression and suicidal thinking?

We live at a time in which science has revealed to us that the brain is not a fixed or hardwired organ. In fact,  the brain has amazing generative powers — its neuroplasticity. Our brain is constantly reshaping itself and generating new connections, in this way increasing its own power to learn and adapt. This new science renews my view that nothing is absolutely intransigent – not depression, not addiction.

This doesn’t mean that people who suffer from depression or addiction are “to blame” for not overcoming their problem. What it does mean is that there is always the possibility of finding a way in, of nudging the brain to literally learn its way out of a problem that we once believed were hardwired into our gray matter.

Now is the time to let go of our preconceived notions about what is possible and what is “impossible.” It is a time to explore and experiment with humility. As a therapist, and even as a friend, it can be like walking a tightrope to get the right balance between empathy and offering possible guidance when we’re seeking to help someone else.

Helping others: What’s self love got to do with it?

Sometimes, especially if you have no deep suffering of your own that helps you to understand the road the other person is walking, it may be best simply to be present with an open heart, and to bear witness. If you do have a basis to offer some guidance, it is best to do so in a way that will not be received as criticism.

This is a common mistake people make when they try to apply the proposition, “We create our reality.” Applying this incorrectly, people diagnosed with cancer often end up thinking that having cancer means they have failed somehow and have made themselves sick.

I often contemplate how to be skillful in this way. How to refute the notion that something cannot be changed – “It’s just there waiting” without offending the person who believes this? Without harming their sense of self-worth? Without giving them the impression that you don’t care about their suffering?

Along with millions of others, I wish, powerlessly, that Robin Williams had not taken his own life.

But in the grief that follows, so many have risen to the occasion, to celebrate Robin’s gift for bringing comedy and laughter to millions, as well as his kindness and generosity to those in need.

And to acknowledge that those around us who are suffering with depression and addiction need more from us. They need our awareness of their struggle, our compassion for their pain, and our listening ears.

Until we experience genuine compassion for ourselves and our own struggles, we are powerless to be of any real help to others.

So, if you’re someone who believes in dedicating your efforts to improving life for “all beings,” make sure you’re including yourself in the big picture.

For help understanding the dynamics of shame and addiction, consider this seminar: “Shame and the Addictive Personality.”  


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