The Awakened Brain: the Ultimate Resilience for Healthy & Whole Life
In May, 2 days before my birthday, I wasn’t feeling well — not physically but mentally and emotionally. This has been going on for a week already. The discursive thoughts in my head pointed everything to the narrative that I wasn’t worthy. Even mundane comments from my loving husband felt like a sharp criticism internally. Things I would have regarded good in life otherwise didn’t mean anything to me all of a sudden.
This felt all too familiar — these patterns of thoughts and emotions were what I experienced in severe depression in the past. As soon as I realized that, I got scared. I didn’t want to experience it again — but I knew it was a futile effort to avoid it or get away from it. I felt helpless and angry. After all the efforts I made to feel better, here I was again, about to get sucked into the nebulous swamp of depression.
About 11 years ago, I suffered from the first episode of depression. Looking back, I was suffering from dysthymia for a long time prior to that episode, but I had no idea until I discovered myself at the bottom of severe depression. It’s hard for me to convey how I felt during that time to others. The best way I could explain is that it felt like a slow death of a soul. It felt mercilessly painful, dark, and lonely inside. When it was so bad, all I could think of was how to end my life so that I didn’t need to feel that pain anymore. Whenever I hear about those who attempt suicide, my heart aches so much not only because of the loss of their life but because I understand viscerally how utterly lonely they must have felt in that moment, right before they ended their life.
Unlike that first episode of depression 11 years ago, now I wasn’t alone; I had my family — my loving husband and precious stepdaughter. I told my husband I needed to stay alone in the bedroom so that I wouldn’t snap at him or be unkind to my stepdaughter. I sat on the meditation cushion for hours, suffering in full scale, in tears. ‘What am I going to do with my family? I don’t want to make them suffer from my depression. I need to leave them so that I don’t hurt them. I should go away…” I saw myself ruminating like a broken tape recorder. Accepting that it isn’t in my control, I started planning my life in depression; disappear to a monastery in the far away mountain to isolate myself from everyone. With that plan in mind, I felt asleep.
The next day, I woke up to a complete shock; I didn’t feel what I was feeling the night before anymore. It was gone. I remembered how I felt the night before clearly but I was remembering it as if I watched a movie of a woman with depression. All that heavy feeling that dragged me down to the bottom of my soul simply disappeared. I couldn’t believe it. In awe, I came out of the bedroom and held my husband and stepdaughter tightly. I carried on with the day as usual; making breakfast and enjoying the lazy Saturday morning. I welcomed the new year of my life on birthday with joy, surrounded by the people who love me. And I kept wondering what happened to that woman who was suffering from another episode of depression couple of nights ago. It was clearly me; yet I felt like a different person, as if I was reborn that night.
What surprised me most about this recent bout of depression was how quickly the change happened. When I suffered from depression 11 years ago for the first time, it took nearly 2 years to feel relatively ok. I know I will never be “cured” from depression; it’ll be always there, as a long-term guest in my house of awareness, showing up unannounced. But I wondered if there were any significant changes in my brain, which helped me to restore the balance so quickly this time.
The Awakened Brain
In the book, <The Awakened Brain>, Dr. Lisa J. Miller, describes two roles our brains play and she calls it “Achieving Brain” and “Awakened Brain”. “Achieving brain” helps us chase down sensible goals of advancement and protection. It is necessary to get things done, but it alone cannot make us feel fulfilled. If only the achieving brain is in control, it would “cultivate stress and fear and disconnection, because outward goals are no substitute for larger meaning and purpose.” This is where the “awakened brain” comes in. She explains:
“The awakened brain is the neural circuitry that allows us to see the world more fully and thus enhance our individual, societal, and global well-being.
When we awaken, we feel more fulfilled and at home in the world, and we build relationships and make decisions from a wider view. We move from loneliness and isolation to connection; from competition and division to compassion and altruism; from an entrenched focus on our wounds, problems, and losses to a fascination with the journey of life. We begin to live beyond a “pieces and parts” model of identity and a splintered, fragmented view of who we are to one another, and to cultivate a way of being built on a core awareness of love, interconnection, and the guidance and surprise of life.”
Through her lifelong research as a clinical psychologist at Columbia University and insights from her own life experiences, she discovered that “the awakened brain is both inherent to our physiology and invaluable to our health and functioning. The awakened brain includes a set of innate perceptual capacities that exist in every person through which we experience love and connection, unity, and a sense of guidance from and dialogue with life. And when we engage these perceptual capacities — when we make full use of how we’re built — our brains become structurally healthier and better connected, and we access unsurpassed psychological benefits: less depression, anxiety, and substance abuse; and more positive psychological traits such as grit, resilience, optimism, tenacity, and creativity.”
Then how can we activate this “awakened brain” or how can we awaken our brain? She got a clue during her training as a resident at the psychiatric ward — it was the sense of being connected to something bigger than ourselves. What followed after was many decades of research, through which she proved how spirituality played a huge role in preventing or protecting against depression and other mental illnesses using longitudinal data of a large population with and without mental illnesses.
Spirituality in her research isn’t about religion. It’s about experiences we all can relate to very well, such as a moment of deep connection with another being or in nature. A feeling of awe when we appreciate amazing piece of art (music, painting, movies, etc). An experience of startling synchronicity or a time when a random person showed up and did something that changed the course of our life. A time you felt held or inspired by something greater than yourself — whatever that might be. In a nutshell, it’s an intuitive knowing of interconnectedness that we are not alone and separate from other beings. The word to underline here is the “connectedness”.
This spirituality that makes us feel connected is essential. Our life isn’t one dimensional; we all live in two realities. One — the everyday world where we go grocery shopping, work, laugh/bicker with our partners and watch children grow; the other — the world inside ourselves, in which we long to be accepted via deep connection. In Zen tradition, they describe these different dimensions of life as “Relative (Conventional) Reality” and “Absolute (Ultimate) Reality”. One is not better than the other. We need both; we live in the Relative Reality physically but we don’t feel fulfilled without the sense of connection and belonging (the Absolute Reality).
What Dr. Miller found was through research and data of many people over decades of time was that those who make conscious efforts to cultivate their life in the Absolute Reality through spirituality showed more resilience against depression and other mental health risks by 80%. Of course, they still had to get the professional help with serious mental health issues, but they were less susceptible to them to begin with and able to recover faster than those who don’t consider spirituality a part of their life. Moreover, she and her colleagues found that the “high-spiritual” brains had a healthier neural structure with cortical thickness in the outermost surface of the cerebral cortex of the brain. This was the region of brain that was much thinner in people at high risk for depression. The cortical thickness of the “high-spiritual” brains showed that the population with spirituality were able to determine how to see life and how to engage in every moment better.
The Ultimate Resilience to be Healthy, Whole, and Holy
One darkest night of my life 11 years ago, I felt the strongest urge to end my suffering. The rational part of the brain didn’t work in those moments. Of course, I knew how precious life was, but that didn’t mean anything that night. The loudest voice in my brain was screaming, “End this pain!” But there was another voice. It was so subtle and quiet that I almost didn’t hear. The voice didn’t have any words but just nudged me to put on my shoes and walked me to the nearest ER (luckily I lived 5 min away from a hospital). That night, I checked in myself and stayed there for the next 12 hours under the care of a psychiatrist and nurses. I don’t remember much details for the rest of that night. I just vaguely remember that I cried a lot and felt so numb.
I didn’t know back then but now I know that that more than I wanted to end the pain, I wanted to live. Not just live — but live well. I wondered what else I could do beyond therapy and I was desperate to find a sustainable way to keep my balance. This kicked of my journey to seek the life of wellbeing. In Dr. Miller’s words, the experience of depression prompted me to put spirituality at the center of my life. Since then, I’ve been practicing mindfulness, educating myself with various emotional intelligence and psychology training, and engaging in facilitating/teaching classes on these for various organizations.
Since I suffered from the first episode of depression, I always thought of the depression as an autoimmune disease for my mental health. It’s not going to be “cured” for good but it can be healed and managed with loving attention. Reading Dr. Miller’s extensive research and experience with the awakened brain, I wondered what kind of changes might have been made in my brain over the last 10 years. Reflecting on the surprising resilience from the recent bout of depression, I am guessing it was possible thanks to the conscious efforts with mindfulness for the last 10 years. Although I cannot claim that my brain is awakened yet, I hope it’s becoming awakened with the help of all kinds of spiritual practices I am doing.
The three words “Health”, “Whole”, and “Holy” originate from the same root in the old English, “hal”. They all meant the same thing, until the 14th century when people started using these three words separately in different contexts. Holiness wasn’t necessarily something about external beings such as God; we felt holy when our body and mind were healthy and whole. I hope we all can find some spiritual practices that work for each of us (e.g. being in the nature, running, meditating, or creating things) and start engaging with the awakened brain to feel healthy, whole, and holy.