Sept. 24, 2022

Is Mental Illness a Problem To Be Solved Or An Opportunity To Discover Our Inner World? - Li-Anne Tang

Is Mental Illness a Problem To Be Solved Or An Opportunity To Discover Our Inner World? - Li-Anne Tang

In this episode of Sage Advice we have as our guest, Li-Anne Tang from Perth, Western Australia.
Li-Anne Tang, Ph.D., is an experienced spiritual life coach, guide and mentor. Li-Anne’s life changed dramatically when she found herself in the midst of a d...

In this episode of Sage Advice we have as our guest, Li-Anne Tang from Perth, Western Australia.

Li-Anne Tang, Ph.D., is an experienced spiritual life coach, guide and mentor. Li-Anne’s life changed dramatically when she found herself in the midst of a dark night of the soul whilst raising her two young children. She searched the world and was fortunate to find wise and compassionate Buddhist meditation masters to guide her on her journey. At that time, she had already explored the depths of Western understanding through a Bachelor of Psychology, Master of Science, Ph.D. in neuropsychiatry and postgraduate training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Her subsequent practice under the tutelage of great meditation masters led her to the first of her spiritual awakenings. Since then, she has studied closely under numerous other masters, who have encouraged her to share her insights through her unique way of connecting with her students.

I hope that this episode of Sage Advice gets listeners to take a fresh look at mental illness from the point of view of spiritual practice, and I hope that this interview with Li-Anne Tang will help some people to stop asking “What’s wrong with me?”, and to start thinking “This difficult mind state I have at this time may be the opportunity I need to learn and to grow”.


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May you be happy!



 Welcome to Treasure Mountain, the podcast that inspires and guides people to find the treasure within human experience. I'm your host, Sol Hanna. In this episode of Sage Advice, we have as our guest, Lianne Tang from Perth, Western Australia. Leanne Tang, PhD. Is an experienced spiritual life coach, guide and mentor. Leanne's life changed dramatically when she found herself in the midst of a dark night of the soul. Whilst raising her two young children, she searched the world and was fortunate to find wise and compassionate Buddhist meditation masters to guide her on her journey. At that time, she had already explored the depths of Western understanding through a bachelor of psychology, a master of science, a PhD in neuropsychiatry, and postgraduate training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Her subsequent practice under the tutelage of great meditation masters led her to the first of her spiritual awakenings. Since then, she's studied closely under numerous other masters who have encouraged her to share her insights through her unique way of connecting with her students. 1s I hope that this episode of Sage Advice gets listeners to take a fresh look at mental illness from the point of view of spiritual practice. And I hope that this interview with Leanne Tang will help some people to stop asking the question, what's wrong with me? And start thinking this difficult mind state that I have at this time may be the opportunity I need to learn and grow. So join us as we seek for the treasure within. 4s 


Welcome to Treasure Mountain. Leanne, how are you today? I'm very well. How are you? I'm doing just fine. It's a beautiful day here in Wichcliffe. I hope it's just the same in Perth. It's beautiful here. Yeah. We are so blessed and fortunate to live where we do. Anyway, I think we might just get stuck straight into it. I think a good place for us to start this conversation would be to clarify what we mean by mental and illness, because you are a spiritual life coach, you're a longtime meditator, but you also have a Bachelor of Psychology and a PhD in neuropsychiatry. Could we start by trying to understand what we mean by mental illness in general and maybe some just broad types of mental illness? Okay. Now, mental illness is a phrase that's used that's sometimes useful and sometimes not. And so I think we need to sort of start off with that reality. It's useful in the sense of a diagnosis from a clinician to be able to ascertain perhaps what medication might need to be prescribed or what specific treatments might be needed for that. But it also comes with a stigma, and I think we need to be very mindful of that fact such that we don't cluster people into this. 4s This phrase mental illness and 1s have them inadvertently stuck in it. And by that I mean if someone is classified with for mental illness, they can often identify with that solely with that. 2s And that creates a huge problem because they become powerless in the face of their experiences. What we're really talking about is experiences of life. So if they're experiencing sadness, for example, let's just talk about that as it is in terms of the real life experience, as opposed to I am depressed, which puts you in the center of this thing that is called depression that you can't get out of that's, the formation of the ata itself within that, whereas you can acknowledge that's there is sadness right now. And immediately I'm. 2s Come from the space of mindfulness in terms of your experience, similarly with anxiety and sorry, go ahead. So you're saying that people kind of like they almost have to live up to the label, and that kind of creates a boundary in some ways, would you say? Yeah, it creates a place of stupness. Like every concept that we have, it can be useful or not useful. And so while it is useful, let's make use of those terms, but when they are no longer useful, 2s let's be conscious not to fixate on that. So as I said, people identify with being depressed as opposed to 1s recognize that there are times when they are feeling more down and other times when they're not feeling down. Even people who identify as being depressed are not always, always down. 1s Right now, one of the things I wanted to cover in this conversation is the idea that. 5s Mental illness could is not, like you say, it's not something which we're necessarily stuck in and that it is an experience, but there's a lot of different dimensions to that experience. And maybe also it's perhaps a pointer to how we could 1s move on to in a spiritual direction and find a lot of meaning and purpose. However, before I go there, I want to ask you, are there some types of mental illness that really need professional assistance, as opposed to, say, going straight on to a meditation retreat? 1s Yeah, absolutely. 2s Whenever people are overwhelmed, 1s let's talk about specific illnesses. I guess we can talk about depression. If they're in too deep a depression, going on a retreat is not necessarily a very, very good idea. If they are highly anxious and in a very fearful state 2s or suffering from PTSD or something like that, it's very useful to actually work with a clinician to support them through that process. If people are in the midst of a psychotic episode, that is not a suitable time to be sitting in retreat. But it doesn't mean that any of these people are not suitable for meditation. It just means in the strict, intense retreat setting, 2s it might not be the best idea. At least not the best starting spot, perhaps. Yes. And also different practices as well. So, for example, loving kindness practice is useful for everyone irrespective of 2s what they're experiencing, whereas a more Samatar based practice on the breath, let's say, may not be the most suitable at different times. Right. So would you say that people can get psychotherapy and or medication and still undertake spiritual practice or maybe even it's a support in some cases? Absolutely. 2s I think it's really important to be able to acknowledge when that healing human contact is. 1s Is more valuable or necessary 1s in meditation retreats. There are, of course, the teachers there, but they're not there in the same capacity as a therapist might be for the 50 minutes hours that people see them on a weekly basis. So the formation of the relationship is not quite the same when you're talking to your meditation teacher compared to when you're talking to your psychotherapist. And the two things can go together quite well. Complimentary runaway? Absolutely. 1s Okay, let's get on to the key question for this episode. Is mental illness a problem to be solved or an opportunity to discover our inner world? What do you think 4s the question for me sounds like? Is life a problem to be solved or is it an opportunity to explore our inner world? Everything in life is an opportunity to explore out in a world, from my perspective. 5s So if we want to use the phrase mental illness absolutely. But let's break it down a little bit more. What could it be? Is the fact that you're feeling really depressed at this moment an opportunity to explore your inner world? Absolutely. 2s Or is the fact that you are 1s hypomanic right now an opportunity to explore how your actions could affect you in a positive way or a detrimental way? That's another opportunity to explore your inner world and your actions and subsequent consequences of actions. 2s Right, right. I really like the way you rephrase the whole question is life a problem to be solved or is it an opportunity? But I do think that mental illness has a special quality and particularly it can be a hell of lot of suffering. It can seem like the very worst form of suffering. 3s Is that something which you think can spur us, like motivate us to search for a more spiritual way to live, or is it an impediment? What's your thoughts on the issue of the suffering that comes with some forms of mental illness? 1s It's most definitely something that spurs a lot of people and certainly a lot of my students have been spurred through 1s very difficult mental states, 2s I think there's no doubt about that. Touching into the angst of existence 4s shakes one to the soul, if one uses that word. And 2s it can really lead to a serious search of the spiritual, which is I've spent over twelve years working with patients with cancer and their carers, and there's nothing quite like a life threatening diagnosis that reminds people of the finite nature of our precious existence. 3s Helps people reflect on what's most important for them and where they'd like to where they'd like to direct their energies from thereafter. And for a lot of patients, it is towards a spiritual. For a lot of people who aren't facing the reality of a very, very precious and finite existence, 3s our mortality is not close enough to our faces for us to appreciate the urgency involved in this whole process. 2s But certainly for most people I've come across, when it is in their faces, 1s it is the spiritual that people tend towards. And similarly, when people are in the depths of depression or in such a state of overwhelm or in such a state of confusion or have had an episode of immense confusion, 2s it certainly sort of shakes the system up to make them reflect on what they really would like to. 2s Understand 1s whilst living while still alive. 2s Yeah, I found that as a meditation teacher, the number of people who 1s had a heart attack or got cancer 2s or had difficulties with depression and so forth, it's such a common cause for them to get started with meditation. But moreover, if they practice for a while, and this is one of the interesting transformations, is they end up saying 1s that cancer or that heart attack or that depression. I'm so glad it happened. It was like it became that spur to get started, 1s to live life how I really want to live. Yeah, I've heard that all the time. So much. So much. And people say the same thing about their experience of depression haven't come out the other end, or the experience of enormous amounts of anxiety or panic attack and learning how to work with that. 2s They said the same thing, they wouldn't be the same person, they wouldn't be as compassionate a person had they not experienced that themselves. Yes, it's interesting and it's like the curse, what they thought was a curse ends up being perceived to the gift, which is quite interesting. I have a hypothesis that I want to put to you someone with more experience and training myself, but I have a little bit of experience. I'm a secondary school teacher and one of the things I've noticed. Apart from the fact that it seems that mental health issues like anxiety and depression are becoming more common. One of the other things I've noticed is that often those who are suffering from anxiety. Depression in particular. I find them to be spiritually sensitive young people and by that I mean they're more idealistic about how they should be and have maybe impossibly high standards or how the world should be. And often they have more empathy. Could it be that mental illness in some cases is a sign of a spiritually sensitive soul feeling a bit lost and alone in a chaotic human world? What do you think? 3s I'd rather rephrase that question. 2s Could it be that the experiencing of 2s poignant existence that attunement sensitivity to our poignant existence, could that be a spur to a spiritual 2s quest? Absolutely, 1s yes. I know we are talking about mental illness, but I'm just very cognizant of the fact that it can be a very 2s stigmatizing phrase. So I'm just cognizant of that. Could it be yes, there are certainly a lot of people who are very sensitive and 3s to the difficulties of our existence, to the reality of 2s our existence and that spurs them into that powerlessness that I mentioned before associated with that term. Whereas when they realize that it is possible for them to learn to recognize that that very sensitivity is going to be there. Yeah. 2s The vehicle for awakening, because that sensitivity means that they have high awareness and their introspective awareness. And that awareness is exactly what would spur them to seek answers, to seek the end of suffering, to seek the end of their stress. 1s And that very sensitivity that is the bane of the existence, perhaps as a teenager, is going to be the thing that carries them through to 1s this whole path. 3s Well, I think that's I really like the way you phrase that. And I was just thinking to myself, do you think that if young people were perhaps aware that the qualities that they have which appear to be causing them suffering and grief may actually be the same qualities that could lead them, as you say, to awakenings in life? Absolutely. 3s Well, I mean, I'll just change that statement just a little bit. 3s Rather than the qualities that are causing them suffering, because they are causing them suffering, they're not just appearing to they are causing them suffering. Those very qualities are. 1s Again, they can be good or bad. They can be beneficial or detrimental. At the moment, these young people are at the mercy of their sensitivities, and they don't know what to do with it. But with the right training, they can actually recognize and appreciate these qualities for what they are, which gives them the choice to actually move in a direction which is more beneficial to their lives. 1s Right. Okay, well, thank you for that. And also, now that we've talked about perhaps trying to think about the context, let's start to talk about what can be done to transform the situation in terms of spiritual practice. So what kind of advice could you offer people like listeners who may themselves be suffering from some forms of mental illness? What advice would you offer them to get started on their path of spiritual development? 2s I would start by going, 2s Encouraging them to acknowledge that whatever the experiencing, I think frequently on this path, there's a lot of spiritual bypassing where we kind of think, oh, yeah, that's not spiritual enough. This is just psychological, but this is the higher path. And I don't think that delineation is useful. I think whatever you're experiencing is real. Being aware of what you're experiencing is the first step. 1s And of course, immediately people say, I'm very aware of it. I want it to go away. I say great. Therefore you've noticed that this is what's happening, and the mind is going, I don't want I don't want there's a resistance to that. So now we've got two parts of the process that you've now told me you've reported, the awareness of the issue and the mind state of resistance to the issue, both very, very important in this path. But at the start, I would really encourage people to appreciate when they are aware of what's happening, because when they are aware of what's happening, they're they have a choice to direct their attention somewhere else. So, for example, if you're aware that they're incredibly anxious at the moment and going into overwhelm, they have a choice to actually. 2s Choose to take a few deeper breaths, longer out breaths and take their anxiety down a notch. They have that choice just through a shift in attention towards a breath or they have a choice to they're noticing huge amount of overwhelm. Look out and notice it's sunny and I can smell that lovely spring air coming through. They have a choice to direct their attention to something that's more beneficial to them through that awareness, through that mindfulness awareness, they are able to orbit around the experience as opposed to being pulled into the gravitational pull off the experience and thereby being stuck in it. So every time they feel overwhelmed, that means they're in the experience. When they're aware that they're overwhelmed, then they are at the meta level where they can have that choice. And exercising that choice at that point is crucial. So it sounds to me like you're more starting with mindfulness practices, is that right? Yeah, I do very much start with mindfulness practice. 2s I sometimes use the word mindfulness but I usually use the word awareness just because in a lot of definitions of mindfulness they conflate awareness and attention and I very clearly differentiate the two. So yes, I very much encourage people too, because it's very natural. Everyone is aware because people say, oh, I'm not mindful enough. And then they report a whole bunch of different things to me. And I have to highlight to them that the fact that they could report all these things that are happening means they are aware and therefore they're sufficiently mindful. Now they need to know what to do with that mindfulness. Bye. 1s Yeah. Something I find with people who are starting practicing mindfulness is they often say, well, I can't do this, but actually, perhaps they've got a really narrow idea of what success of mindfulness is like and maybe they need to broaden their awareness or broaden their idea of what successful mindfulness is. Yeah. And then particularly with more experienced practitioners, they have a very narrow definition of what real mindfulness is when you are aware of awareness and it kind of just goes on to this tiny little thing that happened on day six of that retreat at that hour, and that's their definition. And thereafter nothing compares. Any form of comparison is going to lead them to morduka, more suffering. 1s So I have to remind people that 1s you're just aware. Awareness doesn't care what you're aware of, it's only you that cares. Yeah. 2s I really also like what you were saying by drawing their attention to all the things that they noticed because why would we exclude those things as being part of our mindfulness? 2s I noticed that the color of the sky and the clouds I came in, do you know what I mean? 1s Yeah. There's all sorts of things that count, including awareness of thoughts and feelings that arise. They may have been unpleasant feelings, but that doesn't mean it was bad mindfulness, it was still good. Exactly. Plus people often privileged their bad experiences that they notice and totally neglect at all the wonderful experiences that they have in life. 2s There's a lack of balance in what they notice because of their perceptions are inclined towards noticing. I often say to my students, 2s I mean, my scenes are fantastic. I just wish they could all see themselves the way I see them. They are absolutely wonderful and they're 99.99% perfect, 1s but some of them only see a tiny little percentage of things that need to be worked on, and I think that's a real shame. So awareness or mindfulness opens one to all the reality of life, good and bad, things to improve on, things to continue cultivating the four efforts. 4s I just think it'd be really, really lovely if people could start being aware of all the things that are not privileging, only certain things over others. 1s Right now, I'd like to take this one further step. We've talked about awareness and mindfulness. I want to talk about meditation, which often means sitting down, closing your eyes. And there are different things, of course, that we can meditate on. But should people who have mental health problems, should they meditate? Do you think you can qualify that? If you want, yeah. So let's just start with a bit of a definition, I guess, of meditation and the way I see meditation. Meditations, the training of the mind in awareness and attention, and really, ideally, the optimal interaction between awareness and attention in order to benefit you. 11s And so there are different ways of meditating. As I said before, meta lovingkindness meditation is good for all. There is no disadvantage whatsoever in cultivating more kindness in your life, life to yourself and to people around you. There is no harm whatsoever. So that is definitely a form of meditation that everyone can engage in on the cushion and off the cushion. 2s There are other forms of meditation that perhaps at different stages might not be quite suitable for different people. Are there any specific mental illnesses that you'd like me to talk about? Well, are there any that you think 1s well, let me first ask, is it more a case of intensity of the mental illness or are there specific illnesses that you think perhaps we should have approached with a bit of caution? Like, perhaps they need to make sure they're taking their medication first? What are your thoughts? Yeah, I mean, if people need to be on medication, they should always be taking their medication first and foremost, and then they can continue cultivating the mind. I mean, meditation is just a cultivation of mind, so they can continue cultivating the mind. And I named meta, but they're the whole ten baramis. They can be cultivating the brahma, vihara, lots of things, aspects of the mind that they can be cultivating and that I put in the category of meditation as well. So. 1s So there are lots of different ways of cultivating mind, but yes, definitely. If they are on medication, stay on medication. Don't just suddenly drop medication just because you think that meditation is not something that replaces something else. It's something that adds to life. 1s That's a good way to put it. Yeah. Well, maybe I should recom at that question in a slightly different way, because I'm trying to take the experience of mental illness seriously, not in the flippant manner. 3s Are there some risks, perhaps, which might arise when meditating? And I'm just thinking here, people who may have had a traumatic experience, it can happen that some pretty powerful feelings can just spontaneously arise whilst meditating. If something like that were to occur, 1s or one that feels like one is about to have a panic attack, what would be a good next step at that time? If it happened when I was meditating in the midst of meditation? Yes. Okay. If something 1s very powerful emotion arises in the midst of meditation, I often encourage my students to make space for it. Make space for it rather than getting too up close and personal and getting consumed by it. So 2s I gave this analogy last week or a couple of weeks ago to some students. Can you hold your experience of 2s that traumatic memory or 2s strong emotion? 2s From a cauldron of loving kindness, from a cauldron of compassion. 2s My job when I was a psychotherapist was always to be that vessel to hold the pain of my clients. 2s And through that process, my clients learnt that it was possible to have the pain and have the experience held. And through that process, they learned to hold their own experiences in that same way. I would say that's the same thing in meditation. Sometimes you need to be able to learn to hold that space for yourself. Having said that, go seek help as well. 2s When you get off that cushion, go ask the teacher, 2s go find a therapist. Because 1s sometimes it's 1s useful and actually essential for other people to hold space for you so that you know that you're not alone. Frequently, particularly in meditation, people think that they are alone, that they are alone in that experience, that they are alone in that 2s depths of their sorrow, but they are not. And in fact, there's no human experience, no human emotion that's not been experienced by everyone else. 2s And there are people who know how to work with this and can teach you. And that's what people need to learn to be with. I think that's excellent advice. I mean, talk to your meditation teacher. They may have some good advice or experience, but also, as you say, if you feel it's a good idea, and it may be it's good to talk to a psychotherapist, they may be of great benefit. 1s Stepping away from meditation for a moment 1s are their spiritual practices, apart from meditation, that can be beneficial in the long run for those who have mental illness. 2s Spiritual practices, did you say, or any practice? 2s Spiritual practices are more than just meditation. 2s Are there any others that you think could be? As you said, it's all about developing the mind, but that doesn't just mean sitting on a cushion and closing rise. Is there anything else that you think would be beneficial? Yeah, I actually think community is one of the most important things, having a group of like minded people in terms of a spiritual seeker. We are a minority in the world, and frequently people feel like they are again alone in this whole process, but they are so not. 2s There are a lot of us in the world and it's always nice to be able to commune with other likeminded people. So I actually think community is really essential. And it doesn't really matter whether it's an online community or in person. I mean, personally, I do all my teaching online 2s and I've got really fantastic students who bond in a way that I'm not sure I don't think I'll actually physically a lot of my students because they're all over the world, but it's. 2s That communion is actually really, really beautiful, and it reminds us of how connected we really are. 1s As I frequently say, we are not the nodes of a network. We are are the connections. 2s Right? That's a really great answer. I'd like to kind of wrap things up, but with a particular kind of thought. 4s What was I thinking? 3s Based on your own experience, either personally or with 1s your students, 1s what are some of the benefits of spiritual practice? And I think this is a really important point. We've talked about 2s some of the challenges of dealing with mental illness, but 1s practicing it in a spiritual way can be incredibly fulfilling. 1s What's have you observed, either in yourself or in your students 1s in terms of the transformation that can occur over time? 4s I think it starts off with students being comfortable on their own skin, 1s really comfortable in their own skin, and then it deepens to 2s a profound connection with themselves and other people and all around them and in fact the universe. 2s But I think it really does start with that comfort in their own being comfortable in your own skin. A lot of people are trying to 2s escape their experiences and being able to again hold our experiences in each moment. And I'm cautious not to say in every moment, I'm saying in each moment, one moment at a time, can this experience be okay just the way it is? Being able to rest in that 1s total acceptance of this experience allows people to connect more deeply with themselves and others. And I think that's the most profound change that my students 1s experience. 2s Right. Thank you very much, Leanne. I really appreciate that you've taken the time to share your experience and wisdom with us on Treasure Mountain Podcast. 3s And thank you to all our listeners for joining us for this episode of Treasure Mountain with Leanne Tang. You can find out more about Leanne, including links to her website, which is, and other ways to get in touch with her by following the links in the description below this episode. Also, you can find out more about Treasure Mountain Podcasts by going to Treasuremountain Info, where you can also find previous episodes and information about all our guests. If you enjoyed this podcast, you can subscribe to Treasure Mountain Podcast using your favorite podcast app in order to get notified about future episodes zones. And don't forget, tell your friends about Treasure Mountain too. I have more inspiring guests and topics in the coming weeks, and until then, may you find the treasure within. 3s Bye. 

Li-Anne TangProfile Photo

Li-Anne Tang

Meditation Teacher

Li-Anne Tang, Ph.D., is an experienced spiritual life coach, meditation teacher and psychotherapist. Li-Anne’s life changed dramatically when she found herself in the midst of a dark night of the soul whilst raising her two young children. She searched the world and was fortunate to find wise and compassionate Buddhist meditation masters to guide her on
her journey.

At that time, she had already explored the depths of Western understanding through a Bachelor of Psychology, Master of Science, Ph.D. in neuropsychiatry and postgraduate
training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. She has over a decade of experience working as a psychotherapist and counsellor for patients with cancer and their carers.

Li-Anne’s meditation practice under the tutelage of Sayadaw U Thuzana in the Mahasi tradition led her to the first of her spiritual Awakenings. Other teachers in the Mahasi tradition who have influenced Li-Anne are Patrick Kearney, Guy Armstrong, Ariya Baumann, Venerable Dhammajiva and Bhante Sujiva. Li-Anne has also deeply explored other meditation practices with Sayadaw U Tejaniya (awareness+wisdom), Culadasa (The Mind Illuminated, or TMI), Ajahn Brahm and Shaila Catherine (jhana practices),
Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Zen) and Shundo Aoyama (Japanese Zen).

Li-Anne was encouraged by Sayadaw U Thuzana, Sayadaw U Tejaniya and Culadasa to share her insights through her unique way of connecting with her students. She now
directly impacts the lives of meditation teachers, experienced meditators and anyone interested in incorporating mindfulness into every aspect of their lives through online
teaching and mentoring programs. Whether you are new to mindfulness or an experienced practitioner, she will help you discover different facets of this practice to access true peace and wisdom, irrespective of what life dishes out to you.

Li-Anne can always be found meditating, whether in her role as a Mindfulness Guide, Spiritual Life Coach, Meditation Teacher, mother, friend, pianist, overland traveller, hiker
or rock climber.