My healing journey from depression has been a thorough education in emotional intelligence. It opened the door to self-discovery and change and has illustrated the kind of shift we need to make on a societal level to foster a genuinely healthy community.
These parallels between the personal and societal are essential, helping us understand the meaning behind the inspirational Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
I now understand the tremendous world impact personal growth can have if we are courageous enough to venture down this path of self-discovery and learning. The most important lesson we can learn from this pursuit is that change begins within ourselves. This practice will teach us more about ourselves and humanity than we can learn in any other way—it feeds something deep within us. I know I am meant to be on this path of learning, and sometimes it takes us coming to a dark place— for me, it was depression—to lead us to where we are meant to be in life.
One of the challenges we often face when learning about the things we need to change is resistance. We may experience an inner, or outer, kneejerk reaction to defend and protect ourselves from accusations of wrongdoing. However, we must acknowledge what is that needs to change and why, in order to grow.
This defensive reaction results from being immersed in a punishment-oriented society for most of our lives. Whether it’s physical, disciplinary punishment, or more of an ongoing series of responses that indicate how underserving a person is who has ‘done wrong,’ it is a pattern underlying typical social behavior in our world beginning from early childhood. For example, reprimands and discipline of children, legal action and incarceration for adults, social shaming, exclusion, and an endless nuanced form of passive aggression. It is a pervasive pattern that becomes internalized—creating a negative feedback loop of judging ourselves and others.
On a personal level, when you disparage someone else in your mind for doing something that is ‘wrong,’ you reinforce that tendency to punish. This strengthens the punishment reaction in the mind and creates an inner atmosphere of judgment that becomes normalized. There is much truth in the old saying: ‘When you hurt others, you’re only hurting yourself.’
Punishment is a deterrent to personal growth and, most importantly, to unconditional self-love, which is 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. However, it is not.
The defense itself is based on a false assumption that we can only be loved or worthy of love if or when we don’t do wrong, or we’re not entitled to love even if temporarily. It’s such an old, familiar, and damaging paradigm. Tearing it down can be extremely liberating. It is the beginning of compassion and an end to suffering.
Exercising compassion for ourselves and others is necessary for healing and growth. At times it’s easily inspired, and other times, it takes a supreme effort to remind ourselves of the wisdom of this approach and its constant rewards.
The rewards of compassion are clear. When we create an atmosphere of compassion in our minds, it gives us more opportunities to grow and change for the better. In an atmosphere of compassion, I have noticed 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. Moving away from punishment and towards compassion is a revolutionary act. It might be more appropriate to call it an evolutionary act because, I believe, we are growing out of this punishment phase of humanity.
Despite popular belief, punishment does not inspire positive change. There have been numerous studies to support this fact and overwhelming evidence. Incarceration and corporal punishment have not reduced crime. Crime has only increased. Punishment only motivates people to avoid punishment rather than offering them a safe space to consider for themselves why profound 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 that was once common practice in indigenous cultures around the world. Some cultures continue these practices. Although many have come to view Shamanism with suspicion and even ridicule—as are many things that are misunderstood—it is emerging again and gaining popularity worldwide.
There are many beliefs and practices that can help you on your journey of self-discovery. For me, practices like meditation were a means to access a higher form of consciousness. Specifically, the state of meditation called journeying. This experience can be very liberating. It allowed me to detach from unhealthy thinking and has been an instrumental part of my healing.
One of the main concepts introduced early in my practice was the idea of ‘self-service.’ If I was to heal and grow, I needed to make changes. This meant dropping behaviors that no longer served me. In this phase, you may detect a distinct lack of judgment. There’s not the heaviness of wrongdoing associated with behavior. It’s quite simply not in my best interest to do these things, and therefore it makes sense that I stop doing them.
Our judgmental attachment to so-called ‘wrongdoing’ is what leads to so much more wrongdoing, which is just a form of illness— hence the constant reference in Shamanism to ‘healing.’ However, it is up to everyone to find their own path and practice to create positive world change through self-discovery—shamanic practice happened to be mine.
My healing experience has helped me see myself and approach my life and the world around me in different ways. I continue to learn 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’ behavior.
When there is judgment, a heaviness is attached, and it becomes much more difficult for us to extricate ourselves from it. If we can see these behaviors as a curable illness and respond with compassion rather than judgment, we will witness incredible changes across humanity.
I think it’s time that we change how we define and perceive mental illness. As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
The groundswell of wellness and mindfulness movements reveals a need for change and our desire to evolve. Due to our illness, those of us who have been forced to focus on wellness have discovered that this is not a quick fix. True wellness requires significant changes in how we think about and act towards ourselves and 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 evolving from punishment to compassion is a choice and a powerful step towards ending suffering.