On Meditation and Medication

by Jack Bragen

There is something to be said for not being afraid to get your hands dirty, for not being afraid to compete, including when things aren’t friendly, for being on the bottom and clawing your way to the top, and, to sum it up, living in the soup. And the soup might be distasteful, its meat could be foul, and its veggies and noodles could be overdone to the point of mushy. But you’re not just trying to eat it; you’re in it, in it up to your neck. 

If you lack income as I do, you don’t have the luxury of detaching yourself from the world and going on a meditation retreat. You don’t have the luxury of being excessively kind because people will take it as weakness and will treat you as a doormat. If you live in the modern world, it isn’t always workable to be kind.

When I was 18, I was jailed briefly because of actions taken while psychotic. I was psychotic while jailed. 

You can’t be a Zen Buddhist in jail preaching kindness. You are expected to be mean and tough: a deterrent. Everyone there knows it is just an act and everyone knows that most are scared and just don’t want to be raped or beaten. But this farce had better be put up—to do otherwise is bad form. 

To assert that Buddhism and kindness are applicable to all situations is simplistic and inaccurate. You use it where you can, and when you can’t use it, you use something else. Buddhism is a toolkit. And like any toolkit, it is applicable to some things, and for others you need other tools. An electrician’s toolkit won’t work for manicures. A manicure toolkit won’t work for intestinal surgery. 

At 19, I lived in unusual circumstances. I had a night janitor job, sweeping, mopping and polishing supermarket floors in the East Bay. The job entailed working alone for long hours, with no source of pressure to cause me any kind of intimidation. I could work and meditate while I worked; my body could do the job on autopilot with very little intervention from my thought processes. 

When I began the job, I was troubled. I had emotional pain, and I could feel it in my body—it was very physical. I was detoxing from antipsychotics. Additionally, I’d just had some very rough years. Yet I was reading books on Buddhism and on mindfulness. I wanted to cure my psychotic condition through meditation. It almost might have worked. 

In fact, it wouldn’t have worked—just almost. My brain wasn’t going for it. I was becoming symptomatic, and I needed to be medicated. 

It was a good thing that I took a year off medication. This is despite the relapse I had in 1984. I needed some time to let my developing brain get some exercise while not suppressed with antipsychotics. I was able to teach myself some very basic meditation that I never would have been able to learn while medicated. I was able to push my body to do physical work; medication would have prevented this. Medication isn’t perfect. I couldn’t permanently detox from antipsychotics, but the time I spent off of them made a big difference. On antipsychotics I couldn’t function. I could not work, I could not think, I could not meditate, and I could not write. At that young an age, antipsychotics were a huge impairment.

It took me a year to become ill once again after stopping medication. Since that time, “noncompliance” hasn’t helped me any longer. When I relapsed in 1990 and in 1996, I was worse off, not better off, from stopping medication. 

People must not take a simplistic view of psychiatric drugging, relapses, psychiatry and the human brain. There is no simple rule that states, “medication good; noncompliance bad.” Or vice-versa. Medication is needed for many people. Yet if you shut down the brain too much of a young adult with a developing brain, you could be harming that person with your edict that they will take meds. 

As a developed adult not too far from 60 with a psychiatric condition, I find myself scrambling to learn better survival skills. This could seem like an unusual thing for someone my age to be doing. Yet, I’m partly choosing this because if I had to live in a group home or institution, it would be beyond miserable; I would have no hope. My situation calls for being able to deal with things. Some of them are on very basic levels. 

You can’t reliably be enlightened before you have survival dealt with. You could open your crown chakra. But if a disturbance or a difficulty shuts it down, and you are pulled back into fear, anger or maybe drudgery, you’re not enlightened. You’ve become a person who can be attained so long as everything is good. And that isn’t good for much. In that case, you aren’t qualified to teach. And an insult or an intrusion to the ego-mind don’t qualify as a significant disturbance. Having your car break down and spending a couple days carless is more like it. The car breaking down in a rough area (in your perception), is closer to the mark of something hard to deal with. 

I have it easier now that I’m older and don’t take as many risks. And that’s just as well, because I can’t handle as much as I could. 

Mastering the body is not always done in yoga. Sometimes mastering the body involves making the body work while it is giving you intense physical pain. This is not an invitation to inflict pain on yourself.  Mastering the body can take many forms. Vegetarianism doesn’t make you better. It involves not slaughtering a living being in order to eat. If you feel that’s ethical, more power to you. But you aren’t better because of it. 

Mastering fear isn’t always fearlessness. But sometimes it is. Teaching oneself how to shut down fear is great. But there may still be some things that get you afraid. If you can function despite fear, or if fear becomes uncomfortable but doesn’t make you panic, that could be one level of mastering your fear. If you are not afraid to be afraid, that could be a form of mastering fear. 

Mastering power? I’m not there yet; I haven’t reached that level. Mastering sensations? Same thing. I like my ice cream, I like my money, and I like listening to music while spacing out and smoking cigarettes or vaping. Meanwhile, I’m dealing with the basic levels. I do not expect enlightenment to show up for a while, if at all. 

Jack Bragen lives in Martinez, California, is agoraphobic, and writes from home