Before continuing the discussion from the last post a few comments are in order. The first is hopefully obvious and that is there are people in modern life who suffer tremendously. Their pain, anguish and torment is real. What people refer to as mental illness is genuinely a source of sorrow and pain. Taking nothing away from these genuine struggles of the modern age, the self help and psychiatric help arenas have immensely poor outcomes. The stranglehold of medical approaches along with the movement of society to quick fixes and coercive institutions generally covers up the depth of this pain. This has always been true and with every passing year is sadly more true.
Secondly, some would say the modern world is a thousand fold better than our history. Instead of the “bedlam” of asylums, hiding people away in shame, drilling holes in their skulls and casting them away as infected by demons, now we provide the comfort and symptom abatement of modern pharmacology. But, as said, the scope of pharmacology and psychiatry has extended into the lives of everyone.
The idea of normal has lost all sensibility. Teenagers and schooling is one arena that may open your eyes to the vast reach of pharmaceuticals. Here we have a set curriculum, sets of expectations by both parents and teachers and we have boring agendas and teachers not allowed to exercise any creativity. While this is a sad statement concerning the educational system, the stated and implied social orders to the child is to fit in or be ostracized. Conform or you will amount to being a loser living in your parents basement and working in a warehouse. If the child withdraws either through anger and resentment or boredom and apathy the trap is now set. If the teenager takes the bait and worries that their future is in jeopardy then there are a host of antidepressants and anxiety meds to fit the bill. If the teenager throws up their extension of the ring finger to the world then there are a host of other medications that can address the borderline personality and the oppositional defiant disordered child (ODD is now getting to be as common as ADHD).
In the near past, say during my lifetime many aspects of this ‘self’ illusion have changed. While the illusion itself hasn’t changed, It was easier to feel belongingness. We were a part of a community. Church and family played a value role in the lives of more people. Work was a chore still but its demands had much clearer start and stop boundaries. There were normal defiant teenagers who didn’t want to conform but they weren’t a disease in the making. In short, there was greater room for belonging with a coexisting expression of individuality. Today, that which does not fit the stated path is broken and diseased.
We come into this world and are quickly informed, usually long before we can comprehend, that we need to be a “some-body”. Our body has to count for being present. Our educational systems, parenting protocols and of course our productivity is a socially induced force of conformity with an out of control energy hurling down life’s highway to absolutely nowhere. Society has many myths and lies about the journey which usually is some nonsense about the good life, untold pleasures, power, riches and if we work at it hard enough a longer life. The self help industry plays up these myths to great advantage.
When the concept normal covered a wider statistical average of thoughts and behaviours then you could still be you so to speak and still feel belonging. With the race to excel, make more money and be more pleasured, the self importance illusion is more present because fewer and fewer people fit the bill. The stress of being a “somebody” creates the new normal which includes poor relationships and dysfunctional families. In effect the new normal is to be diseased. What follows is passivity to the diseased states of our mind and since everyone suffers we call it normal. Now everyone is on pharmaceuticals and we are all the same because we are just like everyone else.
The experiential truth mentioned by the buddha 2500 years earlier is now right in our face. What was called the Four Noble Truths starts with a simple and powerful statement of truth and that is life is suffering. How is this suffering playing out in a modern context? By 2020, count less than five years, statistics indicate that the number one disorder will be depression accompanied by some label (with mania, with suicidal ideation, without life motivation). At the root of depression you will also hear the phrase, “The economic cost to society is, blank.” The way to get attention is to talk of economics but that is a different path for another day.
Let’s use depression and the often accompanying experiences of anxiety as the symptom framework. In fact, lets greatly simplify symptoms by looking at the “flight-fight” response at the underlying core. The simplest questions are, “What is everyone running from that they can never escape? What is the unseen enemy that is the cause of inner turmoil and angst that you desire to wrestle into submission?” The answer to both questions is simply this - Self - I - Individuality - the illusion of our separateness.
I am writing this post during mental health awareness week. The advertised message is consistent and reinforces the fact that you aren’t alone in your suffering, that you should not stigmatize those who suffer from mental disorders and that these problems are indeed real and not ‘in our heads’ so to speak. What is not talked about anywhere near enough is anything past symptom relief. What about cause? What about the immense dis-ease of the social order at the root of our unique expression of being?
As the words of the Buddha pointed out about our suffering reality so long ago, there are also remedies to these maladies and sufferings. The remaining Noble Truths discuss the cause of suffering, its cessation and the path to ending suffering. Lets examine the alleviation of symptoms that also cut out the roots of struggle. In order to accomplish this daring feat only one component is asked of the reader and that is simply personal responsibility for your world and this strange thing called your mind. That may not sound like a huge ask, but the reality is most people are not in charge of their minds. Their minds flit around like bees continuously moving from agitation to dullness.
To use the word normal again is only a reminder that normal does not imply health. Our normal minds are a mess. If you want to know how messy just stop and sit like I mentioned last week and see if your ability to focus in a singular way with one thought or one complete point of focus lasts longer than a few seconds. In order to develop directed attention you have to begin to realize the debilitating impacts of typical mental shifts from states of lethargy and dullness of focus to agitation, frustration and distracted being. As said, most minds including all those deemed normal are unbalanced. Our worlds of cell phones, email and the wider internet and televisions create continuous distraction. A distracted mind is a troubled mind.
There are many physical mishaps that take us to the hospital. Broken bones are just one example of the body healing itself. All the physician does is set it in the proper position but it is the body’s ability to naturally heal that strengthens the bones and brings them back together. Our immune system is another example of healing approaches to help strengthen the ability to look after yourself.
Many of the healing modalities from antiquity including Tibetan and Chinese medicine as well as ayurvedic healing is based on helping to integrate body, mind and spirit. Good nutrition is also a support to the body’s health. Yet, what about our psychological immune system? Our modern social systems clear message across the board is to want, desire, long for and become better and more powerful consumers. The end result of all the attraction and aversions to these desires is that our psychological immunity is damaged. The system breaks by pitting self against self in an endless battle of attainment. Society reinforces the illusion of our separateness. It wants the so-called cream rising to the top and it just foots the health bill for the majority of damaged minds and bodies that result from the churning.
The difficulty with change is that it completely goes against the social order. It attempts to stand up to the constant message bombardment of material attainment, seeking unrewarding pleasure and that you can have whatever you want if, “You just put your mind to it.” Not only do minds get put to it, they are coerced into it and lost to it. Our healing journey is to regain our minds.
What can be done to bring our minds back home. They belong with our inner world spirit. Regaining our minds is our only legacy that matters. Learning mindfulness has become big business in the coaching sphere. Unfortunately how mindfulness is taught is not what was intended in the historic teachings. Mindfulness is not just sitting and being at one with the flow of the moment; neither accepting or denying the senses experience. Proper mindfulness training is not a quick fix. It is dedicated work to regaining our mental balance through the natural undistracted quality of single-pointed focus. This takes time and effort but the reward of peace and balance is undeniable.
A balanced, focused mind is happy naturally. A balanced mind needs absolutely nothing. There is only one way to start that journey of learning focused attention and it is captured by a few simple questions to self. Does my life and happiness truly matter? Can I genuinely care for myself enough to realize the priority of addressing my need for mental balance? While the questions are simple the answers are not matter of fact. They require strong contemplation. In my practice over the decades one of the strongest forces that sabotage sustained effort is the experience of impatience. People are immensely hard on themselves. I have given up answering the question, “Hey doc, how many sessions do you think I will need?” Learning a loving and compassionate heart-felt core helps patience grow by leaps. Compassion helps a person realize that self is not limited to our singular being. Self is seen as only the energy of the connectedness to all of life. The no-self recognizes the difference between experience and ‘my experience’; no-self remains open and sees vulnerability as the moment to love and connect.
Remember all those self centred needs and expectations. They lead to more failure, a sense of incapacity and an unwillingness to keep the goal in mind. People want quick outcomes and immediate results. In Toronto, the Pan American Games just wrapped up. Can you imagine being as dedicated to mental balance as these athletes are to their physical accomplishments. You have spent a lifetime creating mental habits that are unhealthy. Spend the rest of your lifetime untying those mental knots.
The next post will focus on specific approaches and exercises for the development of focused attention.