“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” ~Pema Chödrön
Standing at the bathroom sink, I brought my gaze up to the mirror. I couldn’t avoid eye contact with the one person I had no desire to talk to. I had questions, and I knew the reflection looking back at me wasn’t capable of giving the answers I needed.
My solution was a handful of prescription pills to numb my anxiety and Type II Bipolar.
Every morning I popped a Wellbutrin, Cipralex, Valproic Acid, Lithium, and Adderall. It was the cocktail that got me through the day. It was about the only thing I could stay consistent with in my life. I knew something had to change, but where to start? How do you cultivate a deep and meaningful life?
My mind and body may as well have lived on different planets. Sure, they shared the same address, but they didn’t know how to communicate. They had no idea how to help each other, or even that they were on the same team.
At that point in my life, I didn’t understand how my thoughts and feelings could act as a poison to my physical self. Or that my poor habits with diet and drinking were extinguishing any will I had to live.
And my energy levels were like I had gone on vacation but forgot to turn off the dome light in the car. When I woke up each morning, I could turn the key, but all I’d hear is silence. There was no juice left to get me anywhere.
My cocktail of pills acted like a jump start to a car with a dead battery. I felt a surge of energy rush through me when it shot into the bloodstream. I’d guzzle a couple of coffees through the day to keep me humming.
I knew it wasn’t a long-term solution, but it was the first time I felt alive. And for someone who had lost the will to live, pills can often be the first stepping stone to get you back to yourself.
Imagine yourself walking in darkness without even the glow of the moon to guide you through an unfamiliar forest. Your next step is followed by a crack as the ground underneath you collapses.
You come to, rub your eyes, blink a couple of times, and find yourself in a blackness that swallows all sense of life. You put your arms out and realize you’ve fallen into a well no wider than a waterslide tunnel. Now imagine hearing a voice echo off the walls that asks you, “Why do you think you’re sad?”
That’s what depression feels like. Pills, for me, were a rope to help me climb up. But I still needed more to help me find the light once I emerged back into the darkness of night.
That second stepping stone to a deep and meaningful life is getting support. I had entered therapy before I was prescribed medication, but it wasn’t until I had medication that I could hear what my therapist was asking.
Therapy was like a first date for my mind and body. And like all great partnerships, they come together to create something more than they are separate.
During therapy I recognized that my life had felt numb and disconnected from reality for years. I also realized that I had been lying to myself, keeping myself stuck with negative thoughts and beliefs about who I was and what I was (or wasn’t) capable of doing with my life. My therapist helped me unpack what was keeping me stuck and empty. This helped me uncover what I was in search of—a mind-body connection, which reunited me with my soul.
When people talk about purpose, meaning, and fulfillment, this is language that can only come from deep within the fire of your soul. A person disconnected from their soul has no will to live, they simply exist. They’re carried in and out of shore like a piece of driftwood caught in a tide.
The third stepping stone is to begin cultivating a deep life. I borrowed this idea from author Cal Newport. He describes it like so: “The deep life is about focusing with energetic intention on things that really matter—in work, at home, and in your soul—and not wasting too much attention on things that don’t.”
Newport breaks it down into four areas. These areas feed your sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. They are foundational for living a deep life:
1. Community (family, friends, etc.)
We all need to feel a sense of belonging. We need to feel we’re valued, needed, included, and supported. And we need to feel comfortable showing our true selves so we can connect on a deep, intimate level.
To deepen my sense of community, I leaned into my family and friends. I stopped seeing my struggles as a secret and shared what I was going through so my loved ones could support me. I joined a mental-health community group which let me see that others were going through similar experiences.
2. Craft (work and quality leisure)
We need to commit ourselves to something bigger than ourselves—a career path or hobby that provides an outlet for self-expression and contribution to the world.
I started a daily writing habit. It allows me to make sense of the often-chaotic nature of my mind. And it’s given me the opportunity to share my experience with others.
3. Constitution (a person’s physical state with regard to vitality, health, and strength)
This is an area we often pass off as something we’ll do “if I have time.” But really, that’s like saying you don’t have time to stop for gas when you’re driving your car on empty. The further you go without filling up, the more likely you’ll feel stressed, burned out, and unable to cope with everything you’re juggling right now.
I have adopted a belief that nothing I want to accomplish with my life is possible without making health a priority. It has become one of my keystone habits in life. Every day I will move my body with yoga and exercise, as I’ve recognized this is my fuel for living.
4. Contemplation (matters of the soul)
This will likely involve doing more of something that enables you to connect with your soul, like sitting in nature or journaling, and also doing less of the things that disconnect you from yourself, like distracting yourself with screens.
I adopted a meditation practice, which has been an anchor to my sense of self and a connection to the world. I removed myself from social media and now, instead, fill my time reading books.
Many of us speak of how important these areas are to each of us but get swept away by the urgency of others’ needs and requests when it comes to making them a priority. I found this to be a daily battle that consumed me. Was I living the life I wanted, or was I living the life others expected of me? It made it clear that a deep life is not your default life. A shallow life is your default life.
I wasn’t happy or fulfilled because a majority of the things I was doing, I did for others. At the time, I didn’t understand that our sense of fulfillment comes from working on things that really matter to us, and that boils down to an intentional use of our time and energy.
My living room and dining room are adorned with plants. It’s a hell of a lot tougher than I thought to keep them alive. Some need daily watering, where others don’t want a drip until they’re bone dry.
I don’t want my plants to survive, I want them to thrive. I want the plants to flourish, and that requires daily intention. My only action might be to a put finger into the soil, but that check-in gives me feedback on how it’s doing.
Community, craft, constitution, and contemplation are living, breathing reflections of your life choices. They require a similar approach to caring for plants. They won’t tell you when they’re thirsty, you have to anticipate their needs and nurture their growth if you hope to enjoy the benefits of a deep life.
I sit down for a weekly check-in with myself so that I never go too long between waterings. I ask myself, what is the most neglected important area of my life? And what will I do about it? This gives me the power of awareness. A chance to understand why I feel the way I do and what I can do to improve it.
The deep life isn’t a snake oil solution to the challenges of mental illness. It’s what gives you unshakeable direction when your life feels like it’s falling apart. It’s what keeps you on the straight and narrow when life feels impossible. And it’s the reflection your soul needs because it gives you a why to stay alive and keep going.
As author Francis Chan said, “Our greatest fear should not be failure but succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”
You matter. Your life matters. And you deserve to have a rich and fulfilling life.