Mood is best understood, I think, when we look to its Old English origin, mod, meaning ‘frame of mind’. It is about perspective, balance, harmony, presence, and so on. Today, I’d like to introduce the topic of vigilance of vulnerable moods, which I believe is an essential matter if we are to live well, with ourselves and with others. Over the coming weeks, I will look to five frames of mind which cover a range of mental health experiences: depression, low mood, dysphoria (intense unease and agitation), hypomania (elation and overactivity) and mania. I will also write about these in creative terms: being vigilant of the ultimate gloom, the shadow, intolerance, the speed limit and total disconnect.
Vigilance, also referred to as wakefulness or watchfulness, can be examined from two contemplative traditions: Buddhism and Christianity. In Buddhism, vigilance is part of the mindfulness practice of attending to the present moment without judgement, and it is helpful to think of it as a reordering of the mind. For example, if I experience a destructive state such as fury, jealousy or lust, I can skillfully counteract my mind with a constructive state such as calm, humility or positive detachment. As I shall examine in future blogposts, we can do the same when we experience vulnerable moods. In Christianity, vigilance is more associated with the heart. We can ask ourselves questions such as: Where is our heart now? What feeling is governing our heart now? What is robbing us of the peace of God now? Then, if necessary, we can reconcile our hearts by turning back toward beauty and light, thus experiencing a deep sense of peace. Together, vigilance of mind and heart bring about balance and harmony, each tradition enhancing each other. It is also thought that this healthy state may be manifested in the body.
Two images may serve a purpose here. First is one of a dog who is tied up, barking and growling, even foaming from the mouth. His eyes are intense with viciousness and ferocity. And if we go too close, he will bite! This is a bit like the power that vulnerable moods can have over us. They can consume and dominate us if we let them take over. Anxiety and depressive symptoms, which are incredibly common in the general public, can become part of our life experience if we are not attentive to their bites! The second image is of the owner of the dog. This person is the most dangerous of all. He is the source of the dog’s deadly behaviour: tying him up, starving him and beating him. The source of our vulnerable moods is also most dangerous – an evil that wants us to be unbalanced so that we can be dominated by mindless distractions. Sometimes we have to fight tooth and nail to return to the light. We have to make a commitment each day to be the best version of ourselves.
A key element in maintaining a balanced mood is to accept and embrace ordinary life. What comes our way everyday in the form of people, circumstances and events is actually more than sufficient for our contentment. Having a cup of tea and a good conversation is a real gift for the soul, noticing the daffodils and a fresh breeze on our face is the world’s way of saying “I love you”, and doing a task well at work is a way of sharing our talents. When we stop clinging to the extraordinary and start living the ordinary, we discover the hidden beauty in the world. There is a beauty in speaking from one heart to another, there is a beauty in the stillness and oneness of nature, and there is a beauty in a life of service. Furthermore, there is a mystical element in holding together the tensions of the world. We can say: “On the one hand, we are living life well… On the other hand, we are in a bit of pain!” Perfection is not necessary for us to operate out of a deeper level of experiencing. We are encouraged to smile like a mindful mystic the next time we become aware of a vulnerable mood, to see through the lens of love and compassion.
I hope that my reflections on vigilance of vulnerable moods in the coming weeks will point toward a wisdom of mind, heart and body. I am mindful of the Zen saying, “Her nature is wise: she has an elegant heart like an orchid”. I ponder that the heart of a wise person is continuously blossoming, and that they are waiting patiently in expectation of the good things that will flow from their fruitfulness. There is much goodness that flows from maintaining a balanced mood. When we are in peaceful harmony, not only are we fully alive within ourselves, we also inspire others to be the same. Personally, I hope that my positive mental health and well-being enable me to be a ‘good adult’ for younger people, to help calm and steady them when they need it most.