Since I first began writing about my battles with depression and suicidal thoughts in my teenage years, I have met hundreds of people at my public talks and seminars who want to share their stories and compare notes on how and when things began to get better. In my TEDx talk, Why Aren't We Awesomer, I spoke about my discovery of "the suicide thought" -- my realization that thinking about suicide all the time didn't mean I wanted to actually die. What I haven't shared is how my experience of life went from not being scared of dying to falling in love with being alive.
More than a decade ago, I had an experience of inner quiet and profound well-being that was quite disconcerting, absolutely wonderful, and lasted fairly continually for nearly six weeks. It wasn't that I no longer had any dark thoughts passing through my head; it was that I had so little thinking of any kind going on relative to what I was used to that it was a bit of a shock, like hearing the sound of the quiet in the countryside on your first evening away from the city. I felt genuinely, consistently at peace for the first time in my adult life, and I was convinced I had discovered the secret of successfully navigating the universe -- to be happy and follow your wanting.
One of the things I remember most from that time was how ordinary it felt - like it was absolutely nothing special. This was despite the fact that as my head became much quieter, my life in general and decision making in particular became much simpler. When an opportunity presented itself that didn't appeal to me, even one that seemed to promise great things for my career, like a chance to work with one of the thought leaders in my field on a new research project, the only question in my head was "Why would I?" Consequently I didn't, and while the thought leader was nearly as startled as I was by my declining their offer, no harm was done to the relationship and my life continued to unfold with an effortless quality I had previously only imagined.
When an opportunity presented itself that sounded appealing to me, from moving to America to joining a startup company as their Chief Innovation Officer, the only question I heard in my head was "Why wouldn't I?" Consequently, I did. (The startup kept going just long enough to fund our move, and the rest has been a remarkably pleasant history.)
Looking back on it, there were only two problems with that magical albeit brief period of my life. The first was that while "be happy and follow your wanting" seemed like great advice when I was happy, it seemed an absolutely ridiculous idea when I went back to being miserable. The second was that like a frog slowly boiling to death in a pot of water turned up one degree at a time, I didn't really notice when the noise made its way back into my head and the background stress made it back into my body. In fact, I only really saw that I had lost my way a year and a half later, when I dropped back into that wonderful state of easy clarity only to realize that it had been about 18 months since I last experienced it.
Now my mind was filled with questions, but two were louder and more persistent than the rest:
1. Why did that relaxed, easy feeling of well-being seem like nothing special if I hardly ever got to feel it?
2. Why didn't I get to feel it more often?
The next seven years or so was a whirlwind filled with hundreds of books and dozens of ever more complex techniques, disciplines, and practices, each one designed, ironically, to take me back to the profound simplicity of just being happy and following my wanting. It was only when I stumbled across the inside-out understanding that I found the answers I had been searching for. The reason that state of mind I spent six weeks in had felt so delicious but so ordinary was because it was my natural state. The reason I had experienced it so rarely was because I thought it came from outside me, and spent so much time out looking for it I was never "at home" in the present moment to experience it.
Here's how I wrote about what I saw in my book Supercoach:
A quick look into a baby's eyes will reveal that we are born at peace - in tune with the infinite, in touch with our bliss, resting in the well of our being. But even as babies, our very human needs from time to time interfere with our connection with this innate well-being. We experience physical discomfort and because we do not yet understand the source of that discomfort we do the best we can - scream bloody murder! Then, to our delight and amazement, someone comes and 'makes it better' - they feed our hunger, dry our bottom, entertain our nascent brains with funny noises and rollercoaster type movements, and before we know it, we are nestled back into the bosom of our innate well-being.
Over time, it is the most natural thing in the world for us to begin to connect and even attribute that return to well-being to the people or activities that seem to be causing it - we are OK because Mummy loves us, we are OK because Daddy protects us, we are OK because the people around us, for the most part, appear to have our well-being at heart. And then one day we do something in our joy that Mummy or Daddy doesn't like - we splash colors on a wall, or cry when Daddy's tired, and suddenly the ocean of love we are used to swimming in is filled with sharks and other monsters. Before long, we have bought into the myth of love and well-being being outside us, and the need for a persona is born.
But well-being -- happiness, connection, love, peace, spirit -- is our essential nature. So all our attempts to capture these feelings from out in the world, no matter how well intended and practically followed, are doomed to fail. Not because happiness and well-being are unattainable, but simply because it is impossible to find what has never been lost.
This leads us to our second secret:
Well-being is not the fruit of something you do; it is the essence of who you are.
When I realized there was no longer anything I needed to change, do, or be in order to be happy, an extraordinary amount of thinking fell away, opening up even more space for me to feel my innate well-being -- the simple, ordinary feeling of being alive and well in the present moment. And while I've lost track of the number of times I've thought myself out of it or gone back out into the world looking for it, I always remember that I'm never more than one thought away from coming home.
With all my love,
For more by Michael Neill, click here.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.