My stumbling upon Buddhism was a fortunate confluence of events during a time of tremendous hardship. I was in a wilderness rehab program, a young man spiritually confused after battling with bipolar disorder, addiction, and disordered eating. One of my favorite counselors there told me about a small liberal arts school called Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He said, “If I could go back to school, that’s where I would go.”
I didn’t think much of his statement at the time, but it just so happens that my therapist recommended a halfway house in Boulder for me to continue my journey of recovery, and so Naropa was naturally on my radar. When I arrived at the place I would call home for the next six months, it turns out that nearly every therapist there had graduated from Naropa themselves. I felt a stirring within, calling me to an education I knew so little about.
The halfway house required participants to either work or go to school for a certain amount of hours each week. I decided to apply to Naropa, and I was grateful to be accepted. Though I would be immersed in recovery meetings and psychotherapy groups, I quickly found my Buddhist-inspired education to be an equally integral component to my health and wellbeing.
Beyond maladaptive behaviors and emotional unrest was an existential struggle to reconcile my bipolar diagnosis with confusing spiritual experiences. Upon my first psychotic episode at the age of eighteen, I believed I was the Second Coming of Christ. After I was hospitalized and medicated, though I knew I wasn’t literally Jesus, I couldn’t shake some profound spiritual insights that came over me in my moments of madness.
I became convinced that Jesus had much more to offer than the sacrifice of his life. I could see that he was offering a way out of the suffering of this world, not just upon death, but right here and now. Before I was introduced to Buddhist psychology, I had no language to give to these fleeting experiences of transcendence and egolessness.
I know it might sound strange to leap from psychosis to ego transcendence, possibly even dangerous, but the two were so intimately related for me. I felt as if I had understood God for the first time in my life, not as an object, but as an experience. It was ineffable, a moment in which the little me no longer existed, my identity disintegrating into the vastness of the universe. And though my ego structures were breaking down without my consent, it didn’t change that I had encountered some sense of nirvana.
For many years, I struggled with the ambiguity of my spiritual insights and psychiatric condition. In my mind, I had to be either brilliant or mad, sane or crazy, wise or confused. It wasn’t until I studied the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche that I started to see there could be both, that there could be an underlying wisdom to neurosis. I could be fundamentally sane. Though recovery would require a long road of challenges, acceptance, and healing, I was forever set on a path toward truth, and for that, I am eternally grateful. I could keep my insights and pursue recovery, and there could be space for it all.
Chris Cole is the author of The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness, one man's experience of mental illness, spiritual awakening, and acceptance.