What Is Mental Health?

Mental health is a ‘counterintuitive’ kind of thing, which is to say, it isn’t at all what we think it is. Mental health definitely isn’t ‘what we think it is’ because anything we think is bound to be ‘just another idea’ and mental health (or well-being) is not an idea! The intellectual approach to ‘wellness’ is always going to miss the point; it’s always going to be looking in the wrong direction.

 

This isn’t the easiest point to make because we always assume that our thoughts correspond to something real, which of course validates them and gives us reason to ‘take them seriously’. We can’t legitimately assume this in the case of mental health however. We can’t assume that our idea of mental health has any correspondence with the actual thing itself because mental health can be best described as ‘that state in which we are not being controlled or regulated by our own thoughts.’ This is a ‘negative definition’ – it’s not saying what the state of wellness or well-being is, it’s saying what it absolutely isn’t.

 

This is a somewhat subtle idea – it’s a ‘subtle’ idea because if we don’t know that we are being controlled (or determined) by our thoughts in the first place then of course we aren’t going to see mental health in the way that we have just described. We’re not going to see it as the state of being free from the controlling influence of our thoughts. The truth is however – as quantum physicist David Bohm says in his book Thought as a System – that thought controls everything about us –

But you don’t decide what to do with the info. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives false info that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought. Whereas actually thought is the one which controls each one of us.

We have unwittingly given thought the job of ‘telling us what is real and what is not real’ and so of course it’s going to ‘control everything about us’! How could it not? What freedom do we have left to us then? When an agency exists which tells us what is real or not, then this is the ultimate form of control…

 

The state of being in which we ‘automatically believe everything our thoughts tell us’ isn’t a healthy state at all, and yet this is the situation almost all of us are in. We would see that this is our situation straightaway if we actually took the trouble to look into it – our strings are being jerked this way and that by thought every minute (if not every second) of the day! ‘Don’t believe everything you think!’, as the internet meme says. But unless we have at least a bit of insight into the relationship between ourselves and our thoughts we won’t understand this at all. Our default setting – as we have said – is to automatically believe everything we think! When it comes down to it, we believe (or assume) that we actually are our thoughts, as Eckhart Tolle says. We don’t ‘separate ourselves from our thinking’ at all! Our thinking is at the very core of us, and it doesn’t actually belong in this position.

 

Our ‘relationship’ with the thinking mind is quite simply therefore that ‘it controls us’. The relationship here is that of the slave to the master and we are the slaves! We are all enslaved by the rational mind and yet no one you meet will believe this. There are times however when the truth of this statement becomes starkly obvious to anybody – when we are suffering from OCD for example this becomes very clear indeed. In this case whatever the thinking mind tells us to do we do, no matter how nonsensical or painfully time-consuming this is. We just can’t disobey it, as anyone who has ever suffered from OCD will be happy to tell you! The thinking mind is – at root – a machine and when it controls us we become a machine as well. This is probably most clear in the case of obsessive compulsive disorder, but it is also more or less obvious in all the neurotic conditions. Neurosis is the pain of being a machine.

 

It goes without saying that it’s not a good thing to be ruled by the machine which is the thinking mind and – as a consequence – become rigid and mechanical ourselves. It doesn’t feel good to be at a machine! It’s not a pleasant situation to be in, by any means. The more rigid and mechanical we become in our interactions with the world the more suffering we incur, and there is no limit to how much suffering we can incur. Neurotic suffering goes on and on forever and as long as we are identified with thought this is all we have to look forward to, so to speak. If we want to know what’s on the menu, it’s neurotic suffering…

 

Saying all this does throw light on what mental health is however. If the situation where thought is the master and I am the slave is mentally unhealthy (because it constantly pits me against myself and – as a consequence – generates unending unnecessary suffering) then the situation where the thinking mind doesn’t control or define my reality must be the mentally healthy situation. I’m not going to be put into a narrow little box the whole time then; I’m not going to be ‘suffering for its benefit’. The thinking mind is a tool, after all, and a tool is only useful when it is being used wisely. In the meditation traditions it is often said that thought is like fire in this respect – it makes a very good servant but an appallingly bad master! When the fire stays where we want it stay (in the fireplace or stove, for example) then it is of great use to us; when however it jumps out of the fireplace and takes root in the house we’re living in, in the curtains or in the furniture in the living room, then it becomes the most terrible tyrant imaginable. It’s not going to give us a break.

 

The same is manifestly true of thinking – when we have a problem that needs to be solved then thinking is the right man for the job, but when the thinking gets out of hand and starts telling us who we are and what we should be doing in the world and ‘what life is all about’ then it has become the very opposite of useful! What sort of situation is it anyway when the tool starts defining and controlling the so-called ‘user of the tool’ and creating all the parameters of his or her existence? This is called ‘being a prisoner of one’s own device,’ or ‘being hoisted by one’s own petard’. This situation might also be spoken of in terms of ‘booking into the Hotel California’, which – as we all know – is something that is very easy to do but very far from easy to undo…

 

Mental health – we might therefore say – is when we do begin to separate ourselves from our thoughts. It is the situation where we aren’t being constantly defined by the operational limitations of the mechanism of thought. We don’t have to ‘get rid’ of our unwanted thoughts or attempt to ‘control’ them or anything like that; there’s no ‘control’ involved, only awareness, which is incomparably more powerful. Only thought controls; only thought wants to control! What else does ‘control’ mean other than trying to get ourselves and the world to accord with our ideas, our mental pictures of ‘how things should be’? Through awareness we see that we are not our thinking (we see that ‘we are not our mind,’ as Eckhart Tolle puts it) and the separation then takes place all by itself. Thought doesn’t have to make it happen – thought CAN’T make it happen. Thought CAN’T free us from itself! ‘To see illusion is to depart from it,’ says the Buddha in The Sutra Of Complete Enlightenment.

 

The big problem that we have in understanding mental health – both collectively and individually – is that we think it is something that can be achieved via exercising the thinking mind, as if there is some kind of clever trick that thought can pull off for us. We’re asking our jailor for help in getting out of the prison! We want to hand over even more responsibility to the runaway train of the rational mind. “Please Mr Thought,’ we’re asking, “can you wave your magic wand over us and free us from the terrible affliction of our neurosis?” This belief, needless to say, simply exacerbates and prolongs our suffering – the runaway thinking mind is the cause of our troubles, not the cure! Putting on our white coats and becoming all ‘professional’ and ‘clinical’ about neurotic suffering, and attempting to treat it within the sterile confines of a psychiatric hospital, as if it were something we can ‘cut out’ of ourselves using the sharp instrument of rationality, is a prime manifestation of the underlying glitch, not the solution to it…

 

 

 

Mindfulness Myths

Mindfulness is packaged and sold as some kind of marvellous thing that can (in a scientifically provable way) reduce stress, increase resilience, immune response, concentration, clarity of mind and productivity, and plenty more besides. All of this hype is however selling mindfulness short in a very important way.  That mindfulness or meditation can result in all of these benefits are undoubtedly true but to focus on the benefits in this way is to miss the point. Worse than merely ‘missing the point’, we are going down the wrong road entirely. We are looking at mindfulness in terms of outcomes and this is putting the cart in front of the horse.

 

What we are doing here is promoting mindfulness as yet another tool in our arsenal of tools, and when we do this we get everything backwards. The reason we’re getting everything backwards when we do this is because we’re putting all the emphasis on the wrong place – we’re putting all the emphasis on ‘how we can work more effectively (or live less stressfully) within the given system’ and this isn’t what mindfulness is about. Mindfulness isn’t about becoming better adapted to the system that we happen to find ourselves in – it’s about being able to question that system, it’s about becoming independent from it. Mindfulness (or meditation) isn’t a tool that we can focus or direct narrowly where we want it – it’s not something we can control in that way at all. It’s more like a crate full of sweaty dynamite; we know that it’s liable to explode at some point, but we don’t know what the result of the explosion will be, and we certainly can’t direct it.

 

Another way of putting this is to say that mindfulness isn’t something that we can use to enhance the performance of ‘the self we think we are’. That’s what we are generally told – we’re told all the benefits and that – naturally enough – sounds very attractive to us, but this isn’t really the way it works at all. These ‘benefits’ come from ‘letting go of the self we think we are’, which means that the benefits we like the sound of so much can’t really be for that self. The benefits in question only come from relinquishing this shallow idea that we have of ourselves. As Ajahn Chah says,

 

If you let go a little you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot you will have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely you will be free.

 

It’s not just that we have to let go of various things that we are attached to, the things that we either love or hate, things that we might want for ourselves or are afraid of. Simultaneously, we also have to let go of ‘the one who has these attachments’. Letting go means letting go of our idea of ourselves. This is what ‘letting go’ is really all about – it’s not a question of giving up this or that bad habit in order to benefit ourselves; it’s a question of letting go of the illusion of who we think we are (which is actually our only reason for doing anything, including ‘trying to let go’). We let go of the notion that there is someone there who has to let go! In short – we let go of everything, including our scientifically-proven ideas of benefiting ourselves.

 

‘Letting go’ isn’t a tool. It isn’t something we do in order to obtain a particular result or get a particular benefit. If it were, then it wouldn’t be ‘letting go’! Obviously enough, tools are the very opposite of ‘letting go’. This is all alien to our Western rational/purposeful way of looking at things – tools are all we know, control is all we know. If something can’t be used as a tool then we just not interested – we call such things ‘useless’ and we have no time for them. Saying that we’re only interested in tools (or that we’re only interested in ‘control’) is of course just another way of saying that we’re interested in looking outwards, at results, rather than looking inwards at the question of ‘why we should want those results’. The more the emphasis there is on results (or control) the less the emphasis there is going to be on ‘reflecting upon our basic assumptions’. When all the emphasis is on control then there is no emphasis on ‘why we want to control’; when all the emphasis is on tools then there is no emphasis on thinking about why it is that we need them!

 

We are not a philosophical culture. There’s no way that anyone can say that we are – that would be ridiculous! All of our attention is directed outwards onto outcomes. It’s all about outcomes; it’s all about purposeful doing. Quite possibly, we are the least introspective people ever to walk the face of the earth – we’re all about the image that we have of ourselves, and the banal never-ending business of protecting / promoting this image. We are not all about questioning our basic assumptions about who we are and what life is all about. Such philosophical considerations are for fools as far as we are concerned! We see ourselves as being practical and ‘hard-headed’ – the truth is rather that we are obtuse and at the same time perversely proud of it. We are working hard to benefit ourselves – even if the ‘self’ we are working to benefit doesn’t actually exist…

 

Our immensely conservative, control-based attitude is nothing to boast about, nothing to feel good about. It’s only ‘fear turned into a virtue’. As Sogyal Rinpoche says, it’s not just possible, it’s nearly 100% certain that we will spend our entire lives hypnotized by the mass-produced images and ideas and never coming close to finding out who we really are. This is what our civilization is geared towards, after all – it’s geared towards protecting us from the terrifying challenge of having to question our basic assumptions. It’s because we are running away from looking at our assumptions about life that we are so focussed on control, so focussed on ‘looking outside of ourselves’, and our culture is fully supporting us in this endeavour. The world outside of us is only a reflection of our inner attitude, after all. If society not only supports but enforces our running away from ourselves it is because – deep-down –this is what we want it to do.

 

Genuinely looking within is a game-changer of the very highest order. There is no game-changer like it, and there never could be! Krishnamurti called this ‘the only revolution’ to distinguish it from all of our superficial political or social revolutions. Awareness of what’s really going on inside us comes as a total revolution and the reason it comes as a total revolution is because we’re questioning the bedrock of all our beliefs; we calling into question the lynchpin upon which the whole world turns – the idea we have of ‘who we are’. If this idea goes then everything goes – this is the biggest ‘paradigm shift’ there ever could be. There could be no stranger and more unexpected thing for us than seeing what the world looks like when it ISN’T seen from the POV of the control-loving, tool-using rational-purposeful self. This is like ‘the universe next door’ – it’s there all the time but we’ll never see it. We’ll never see it because we’re not at all interested in seeing it, and we’re not interested in seeing it because it’s not any ‘use’ to us!

 

We’d be going against all our conditioning to take an interest in life as it is when its not lived on behalf of the narcissistic compartmentalized self. As far as we’re concerned we’d be going against ourselves, since all we know of ourselves is our conditioning. Society – we might say – requires us to be narcissistic consumers. It wouldn’t hold together otherwise – society needs us to be narrowly self-interested and not-at-all interested in ‘the bigger picture’. It relies on that. What we call ‘society’ (or perhaps ‘the system’) is the game we play to protect ourselves from seeing that this superficial self-image that we have passively identified with isn’t who really we are. The function of the game is to distract us from seeing the truth, in other words. This is of course the function of the game – what else would it be, other than ‘distraction from the truth’?

 

Living on the basis of the narcissistic compartmentalized self (or self-image) isn’t a happy situation however – there’s no actual joy in it. There’s no joy or happiness possible in the game because it’s only a game – we need hardly say this! It’s all happening on a false basis, it’s all happening on the basis of ‘let’s pretend’ and so there’s never going to be any fulfilment for us here, only anxiety, depression and alienation. To imagine, therefore, as the purveyors of corporate mindfulness do, that the chronic unhappiness that afflicts the game-playing self (the ‘self-who-we’re-not’) can be ameliorated by the judicious application of standardized meditation techniques is ridiculous – the only cure for the unsatisfactoriness of our situation is for us to wake up and see that we aren’t at all who or what we think we are. The only ‘cure’ is the radical one. No one actually wants this, however. No one wants a radical paradigm shift. Who would benefit, after all? Who’s going to make a profit?