One definition of mental health could be to say that what is healthy (what leads to our psychological well-being) is when there is a movement away from the self, away from who we think we are. This of course is counterintuitive in a big way; we would tend to see mental health as being a measure of the robustness of the self, the robustness of who we think we are. This is what almost every mental health worker would believe to be the case – this is what we are trained to believe, after all. There is (whether we know it or not) an unspoken or taken for granted description of reality that we all buy into and ‘who we are’ (or ‘what it means to be a person’) is an important part of this official description. This is the ‘equilibrium view’ and the equilibrium view is kept in place by everyone who subscribes to it. It is therefore inevitable that any collective or agreed-upon definition of mental health (whether explicit or implicit) will be normative with respect to the equilibrium values.
In current times – when the criteria we use to gauge what is mentally healthy and what is not is collectively decided upon by groups of ‘like-minded’ experts, who can essentially be seen as an elite club who are even more homogenous in their thinking than the wider social group – we are moving very strongly in the ‘equilibrium direction’. The question is, therefore, how can we allow a tightly-knit collective to be in charge of how we understand mental health when this situation of ‘operating as a collective’ is itself profoundly unhealthy (which it clearly is when we look at things in a ‘non-institutional’ way)? Imposing implicitly-accepted group-norms on individuals suffering from mental health conditions is of course an act of aggression that we can’t see as such – it is an act of aggression disguised as ‘helping’.
Any independent viewpoint on the matter is always going to take issue with how ‘the club’ agrees to see things. A ‘club’ is made up, after all, of people who have tacitly agreed to put their individuality to one side in favour of how everyone else sees things. In a purely practical way, it is very hard (if not impossible) for a person to further their career within a profession if they don’t take the party line. The greatest danger facing humankind – we could say – is the danger of mass-mindedness; as Jung says, mass-mindedness (far from being a good thing) is the breeding ground for psychic illnesses and pestilences. As a breeding ground for psychic malaises of all descriptions mass-mindedness can hardly be expected to come up with a helpful or enlightened way of dealing with the problem that it itself has (at least in part) created! The non-equilibrium way of looking at mental health is, as we have said, to see it as being the movement away from who we think we are, which is also the movement away from who the consensus mind (i.e. society) says we are. Once we put it like this it is of course very easy to see why, as Jung very clearly states, the process of individuation isn’t exactly encouraged by the people and institutions around us. The ‘consensus mind’ – so to speak – is incapable of appreciating or valuing anything other than itself and since the process of individuation is a process which leads away everything that the consensus viewpoint values this process (which is the process of growth) is going to be actively inhibited. As far as equilibrium thinking is concerned, any deviation from normative values equals ‘error’ and nothing more and errors only exist to be corrected.
All of us have two distinct tendencies at work within us – one (we might say) is the conservative tendency and the other is what we might call the exploratory one. In the first case the values of the past are what matters and all change is regarded with suspicion; in the second case ‘the old ways’ are seen as a trap precisely because of our attachment to them and our subsequent reluctance to outgrow them and what is of interest to us (instead of repeating the established pattern forever) is seeing what lies beyond the known and the familiar. Or, as we could also put it, conservative mode is where we value security above all else and exploratory mode is where we value the truth more than security. ‘Truth’ and ‘security’ are always opposed for the simple reason that, in truth, there is no such thing as ‘security’! And if we were to put this the other way around, we could say that the only way we can find this supposed thing we call ‘security’ is by firmly turning our backs on what is actually true. It’s either the one way or the other, in other words. We can’t play it safe and yet be interested in the truth at the same time.
We can reformulate our definition of mental health at this point simply by saying that what is beneficial for us is to move in the direction of becoming more aware. From a conventional point of view this statement doesn’t make any sense of course because we are convinced that we are perfectly conscious already. We’re not however, that’s just an idea that we have – the idea that we are actually aware when we are not. When we are in conservative mode then we have thoughts about the world rather than being aware of it. We judge the world and have beliefs about it rather than taking a genuine interest in it. It is often said that thinking is how we make sense of the world, but it would be more true to say that thinking is how we protect ourselves against the real, and insulate ourselves against change. Conservative mode is essentially where we live in our maps or models of reality in preference to ‘the thing itself’ (which doesn’t offer us the security that our systematic representations of it do). If we were to ask why reality doesn’t offer us any security – which is of course a perfectly reasonable question to ask – then the answer would be because the real cannot be defined or categorized or modelled, since it is always infinitely more than the boxes we attempt to squeeze it into. If we value our boxes (or our maps) more than the truth, then the truth (or ‘reality’, if we want to put it like that) is always going to appear as an enemy, as curious as this may sound.
We have defined mental health or mental well-being as being ‘a movement away from what we know’ – anything else simply takes us into a stagnant cul-de-sac. Conservative Mode takes us into a stagnant cul-de-sac. What helps us is to question what we think we know therefore; this is helpful because when we question what we thought we knew then it inevitably proves to be not as true as we thought it was after all and – when we see this ‘what we thought to be true’ can no longer imprison us in the way that it did when it was unquestioned. This is a simple enough principle to understand but a problem arises just as soon as we start using a model to work with difficulties in mental health, and insist therefore that all mental health workers subscribe to this model in order to ensure ‘best practice’, as we say. The problem is that – without appreciating it – we have fallen into Conservative Mode ourselves, as if this were somehow a helpful or appropriate thing to do…