Five years ago my father fell into a deep bout of depression. Twelve months later his depression culminated in suicide. I’m careful not to say he “committed” suicide, because it was clear to me, having spent his final year on this earth close by his side, that he was no longer in the driver’s seat. His mind had been hijacked by a disease that ultimately drove him to that fatal decision.
Those twelve months were the greatest education I have received in my entire life. Dad and I were best friends. I knew him. His motivations, tendencies, dreams, desires. He was a simple man. A joyful man. From my vantage point, there was a stark contrast between the man and the disease.
I watched as his thoughts spiraled downward, twisting & turning his perpetually optimistic worldview into a pigeon hole perspective forecasting financial ruin and the loss of a family that loved him so dearly. No matter that that very same family stood by his side, assuring him we weren’t going anywhere and that his finances would be just fine. At first we thoughtfully and lovingly pleaded a case grounded in love and reason. After a while though, we begged and pleaded for him to hear our words.
Towards the end, there were times when in my desperation I literally shook him, hoping to jar some sanity loose. But we didn’t know what we were dealing with. We had never encountered mental illness, not like this anyway. The doctors we dealt with didn’t have any answers and truthfully didn’t offer much support either. The pills gave fleeting relief, but ultimately didn’t work and often times exacerbated his condition. We were hopeless. We were helpless. Over the course of 12 months his hair turned gray, he lost well over 100 pounds and his generous spirit and joyful nature became completely obstructed by the obsessive thinking patterns fueled by years of repressed negative emotions. My dad literally worried himself to death.
And this was the great wake up call of my life.
I myself had battled with depression and anxiety. From high school into my 30’s, my life was defined by my mental illness, though I didn’t know it at the time. Social anxiety kept me boxed in, fearful and far away from living out any of my hopes and dreams, isolated from just about everyone. And this anxious prison, this stifled life, manifested a depression of its own. I self-medicated perpetually. I participated in any distraction I could find, most of which were part of the social norm… and as such all along I never really considered myself mentally ill. I didn’t really know what that was. No one had ever really talked about it openly. But then Dad got sick and I witnessed mental illness up close and personal for an entire year.
I saw my dad’s brain churn out incessant thought cycles that would start with some small root in reality and spiral downward to a place devoid of all reason. I watched these thoughts illicit dark emotional responses, that would then in turn feed more negative thought. I watched the man, the soul, the love and the light fade away underneath the weight and darkness of this interplay between thought and emotion. I saw it in him and following his suicide, I was able to recognize it in myself. My thinking patterns were less obsessive and a bit more grounded, and my emotional responses weren’t as all-encompassing, but at the root their nature was identical.
In the aftermath of his suicide, I understood that given a certain confluence of events in my own life, my brain could easily follow the same downward trajectory that his brain had taken.
Something miraculous happened at my Dad’s funeral… a beautiful bit of serendipity introduced me to the practice of meditation. With the tragic lesson that my father afforded me as my fuel, I began to meditate twice daily. I had horrible posture and a brain that worked overtime firing in all directions; I had an emotional undercurrent that could only be described as anxious or depressive or masked, depending upon the hour of the day; I had no mentors, nor an understanding of what I was doing; but I meditated nonetheless. Sitting upright was a lost cause, so I laid flat on my back on the ground with headphones on, listening to a form of meditation music called brainwave entrainment. Nothing about my approach was traditional or “right”, but my intention was earnest – I wanted to heal.
For the first few months meditation was a truly frustrating process, but over the course of the first year my meditations became the best part of my day. During the second year, the mindfulness I cultivated during my meditation sessions began to creep into my everyday life. Previously I could only gain “perspective” on things with the passing of time… so for example I’d get angry, I’d think angry thoughts, I’d scream angry screams, and then a few hours or even a few days would pass and I’d notice how I had been angry. I’d recognize how some things I said or did while in the midst of anger weren’t really “me”, they weren’t what I was about. I had simply gotten lost somewhere in the anger.
Well, after two years of meditation I started to notice this kind of stuff in real time, in the moment, as opposed to hours or days later. Something would trigger my anger, and I’d be immediately mindful of the anger rising up in my system, I’d notice my heart beating faster, my cheeks getting red, my body getting tense, my thoughts, word and deeds becoming angrier. And the more and more I noticed this process, the less and less anger would control me. The less and less anger could convince me to unconsciously follow it around like a dog on a leash. And the same was true for all my emotions. With time, my experience of anger became less angry. My experience of depression became less depressive. And my experience of anxiety became less anxious.
As I entered my third year of meditation, I recognized that it not only had helped me helped me cope with my anxiety and depression, but I had sincerely begun to heal. I no longer self-medicated in any way, shape or form. I didn’t “quit” anything, my fear-based “needs” simply fell away. I’d been a singer-songwriter for nearly 10 years at this point. Performing with my band Big Infinite was the only thing I’d ever done in contrast to my social anxiety, but it was a painful process. I thought about quitting before and during every, single show and only made it through gigs with clonazepam and whiskey in my system. Even still, the experience of playing a show was, at its best, painfully uncomfortable. But no longer. After three years of meditation I didn’t need anything in my system. For the first time in my life I actually enjoyed what I loved to do. I played music for people with joy in my heart, rather than a paralyzing fear of judgement in my head.
Throughout my journey, meditation allowed for me the opportunity to face my darkest emotions head on. Countless times during meditations I would cry. Calming my mind allowed my darkest emotions to rise to the surface for release, before becoming entangled and mired in thought. And with each cry, I felt a little less heavy. And slowly, tear by tear, my depression fell from me.
It seems counterintuitive, but turning toward your fear and facing your darkness is so much less daunting than running from it. @TheBigInfinite (Click to Tweet!)
A mantra that I offer to my meditation students, and one that has served me tremendously over the years, is simply to “feel it all and let it go”. In meditation, put your thinking mind aside and feel your feelings, honor them, shine the light of your awareness upon them, and then allow them to fall away.
Meditation trains you to reside in the present moment. You learn to be here and now, rather than lost in any variety of destinations that your thoughts can carry you to. As you learn to reside in the present moment, the realization starts to set in that you are not your thoughts, nor are you your emotions, but rather you are the canvas on which those thoughts and emotions are painted. You are constant, your thoughts and emotions come and go, rise and fall. There is no need to follow them perpetually as if on a roller coaster. Meditation results in a peace that passes all intellectual understanding. You begin to realize that you are more than you think you are. You are more that your intellect can grasp.
As it stands now I have been meditating nearly four years. My headspace is a calm peaceful place to reside. My heart runs the show. Depression and anxiety, as I used to know them, are no longer a part of my life. If an unhealthy thought rises in my consciousness, I simply recognize it for what it is and let it fade away. If a negative emotion rises to the surface, I feel it and let it go. I experience sincere joy while playing music for people, I give guided meditations for groups, I do public speaking engagements about mental health & meditation, I even perform improv comedy…. I am free. Living a life that was forever foreign to me, a life that existed only on the other side of a wall built of fear, anxiety, and depression. All because I started meditating. It’s that simple. It’s a process and a daily practice, but the only requirement is your earnest intention to heal.
Thank you Dad for your love. In life and in death, you have taught me so much.
My dad’s passing was a tragedy, but it was not in vain. Through the Ed Lally Foundation, my family and I raise awareness for mental illness and promote mental health through meditation, yoga, artistic self-expression, even Improv comedy… anything that teaches you to be in the present moment, where true healing can occur.
Jordan Lally is a singer-songwriter, meditation teacher and mental health advocate. Through his music, teachings and community events, Jordan promotes mental health via meditation and creative expression. Following the tragic passing of his father, Jordan and his family started the Ed Lally Foundation to raise awareness for suicide & mental illness and to promote mental health through meditation, yoga, improv and anything that teaches you to be “present in the the moment where true healing can occur”.
Image courtesy of Tomas Anunziata.