Unpacking “Mental Health”

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The term “mental health” is inherently misleading. And since it’s Bell Let’s Talk day, you’ve probably heard it a zillion times already. Although I fully support raising awareness on this topic, it’s important to unpack the keyword we use to steer attention to this matter. I do believe within it lays some fundamental fallacies we all must be aware of.

The term “mental” has a certain connotation in our culture. It basically means “in your head.” When we say something is “all mental,” it roughly translates to “you just have to want it bad enough.” So when you consider somebody with poor “mental health,” you might be tempted to equate them to somebody with poor discipline, resolve or general awareness of themselves.

The reality is, people suffering under this umbrella of disorders must exercise these higher cognitive skills to an even greater degree, as well as uphold a greater state of mindfulness as they go through day-to-day life. They must be aware of the changing climates of their mood, triggers that may spark an episode and environments that lend themselves to undue suffering. The stakes are high, so attention must be paid.

But beyond the basic connotation, and frankly more importantly, the term “mental health” also perpetuates a false dichotomy. It’s not like there’s physical health on one hand and mental health on the other. Mental health is nothing more than brain health. And brain health is physical health–or, to be generally accurate, health.

Packaging our cognitive and emotional well-being as “mental health” creates unnecessary confusion. It suggests there may be a component of control–that a person may will themselves out of their illness as if there’s some sort of choice involved. And maybe you believe there is a choice involved. But in here lies a basic–yet crucial–misunderstanding.

It’s like this: We all have a brain. And our brain’s state of functioning provides us with our first-person experience of the world–moment to moment. Some things are conscious, like lifting your cup of coffee, or deciding which Netflix show to watch. Other things are unconscious, like digesting food or recognizing somebody’s face. But whether an action is conscious or unconscious, it is still absolutely, undeniably, the product of a physical brain at work. Our awareness of our mind happens after the fact, as a matter of physiology. Choice never enters the equation.

Sure, it really does feel like we have the gift of choice. The experience of free-will is a powerful one, and it’s a concept that underpins our social, political and criminal institutions. But the reality is, your “choice” to grab your coffee was determined by the neurons in your head moments before you were aware of making a decision.

By extrapolating this fact, one can understand why someone with illness in their brain cannot “think better thoughts,” or “pull themselves out of it.” Chances are they have tried all that and more and remain prisoner to dysfunction. They simply cannot account for why, upon previous attempts, they were able to will themselves to salvation, but currently, their efforts work in vain.

Neuropathology and free will are incompatible concepts. And in order to address the former, the latter must go. It sounds ironic, but viewing each other as unraveling biology over time is actually the only way to feel true compassion for one another. We understand that everything happens in a context of factors we cannot control. We realize we are the subjects of our environment–inside and out. We see sickness as sickness, not as choice.

So next time you hear the term “mental health,” remember, no part of it is really mental. Our experience of free will cannot undermine the temporal march of physics and the mechanisms of biology. We have a script and an ever changing environment and an awareness of the interplay. If yours leaves you feeling happy and fulfilled, be grateful. For too many, such a state of being is too seldom realized–regardless of their efforts.

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Deflating Balloons

 

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When was the last time your thoughts held you prisoner? Maybe you had a tough decision to make and struggled to choose a direction. Or perhaps you were trying to reconcile a string of poor behaviours with the larger concept of who you are. Or maybe–like is the case for so many falling victim to the captivation of rumination–there was hardly a reason at all.

The fact of the matter is: we all spend time lost in thought. It’s simply the degree to which we do this that sets the poles of function and dysfunction. After all, it is perfectly natural for the mind to spin itself into a rut through over analysis and the belief that the solution is just one good thought away. It’s what minds do.

Failing to recognize the shift from curious thinking to obsessive thinking, however, is the mechanism by which suffering is born.

I like to think of thoughts as balloons. They appear in one form, and by directing your attention to them, they get larger and larger, taking up more and more space until your whole mental arena is crowded by a single mass. With such little space to maneuver, your thinking becomes less and less flexible until you’re paralyzed by a single mental concept.

At this point, the intuition is to direct even more attention towards solving the problem. But of course doing this only further inflates the balloon, making us even less likely to appropriately deal with the (often times imagined) issue.

So how, then, does one deflate it?

Enter the concept of dis-identification. The reason why we are willing to invest so much energy into a single line of thinking is because we believe our identity is wrapped up in the problem. We see our thoughts as items we birth into the conscious space, instead of realizing that they are the felt experience of a brain at work. Ask yourself: do you know how a brain produces a thought? No? Me either.

This materialist view is paramount for deflating balloons before they obstruct your conscious peace. Saying you can think your way out of bad thinking is like saying you can sharpen a knife with another dull knife. You can’t use a problem to solve another problem; you need a solution. And the solution is to stop blowing into the damn balloon.

So next time you’re waste deep in a swamp of thought, remember, none of them are truly “yours.” You own a single thought no more than you own a meteor passing through the atmosphere. Ultimately, they’re both nothing more than momentary cosmic appearances.

 

 

The Empty Box

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I have so many goals and partial processes.

Like opulent monuments in my mind.

A cast of characters awaiting the script.

But in reality a bunch of stick figures.

 

I can plan a play but cannot act.

Colour a room yet fail to furnish it.

In the theatre of mind, the stage is set.

And the audience is screaming.

Don’t Be the Best You Can Be

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I saw this quote on Instagram today:

You need to ignore what everyone else is doing and achieving. Your life is about breaking your own limits and outgrowing yourself to live YOUR best life. You are not in competition with anyone else; plan to outdo your past, not other people.

Aside from being cliche and kind of wordy, this advice seems pretty solid. There’s certainly a lot of suffering to be had by stacking your accomplishments against the people you admire. After all, we admire people largely for having qualities we don’t have. So a certain feeling of incompetence is inevitable so long as you’re judging your ability against another’s.

But ultimately I see no difference whatsoever between comparing yourself to other people vs. comparing yourself to your former self. Both of these mental constructs, birthed into existence by your own thinking mind, are equally obscure to the present frame of consciousness you find yourself inhabiting.

That’s a bit of a mouth-full, so allow me to unpack that idea.

I often fall victim to this comparison fallacy while I’m putting up numbers in the gym. I used to deadlift a lot more than this, I think to myself. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to get twice as strong as I once was.

But human beings do not exist in a vacuum. There’s a multitude of forces acting on us at all times that can affect any conceivable outcome we have the intention to measure. Your external reality is a chaos of causal factors acting on you from the outside in, while the same is true about your brain, working from the inside out. 

I like to think I built a strong deadlift by being disciplined, focused and reflective about what works regarding strength training, and what doesn’t. But speaking honestly, I have absolutely no idea why I was able to get so strong then, yet I’m struggling to improve now. That former self was acting in a sea of variables, many of which are completely different from the ones I’m acting in now. How can I have any conviction about what absolutely works and what absolutely doesn’t?

So whether I’m looking at how many plates are on the bar compared to the former me, or compared to the guy deadlifting beside me makes no difference whatsoever. Both of these “selves” are not this immediate moment, and this immediate moment happens to be the only thing I can truly know exists. It’s also the only thing I can identify with.

So what’s the alternative then? Give up on trying to improve yourself?

That’s exactly what I’m saying.

Consider me in this moment. I find myself standing over the barbell. What possible use do I have for thinking about the former me that used to stand over the same barbell with more weight on it? That self does not exist. For that matter, this self does not exist. All that stuff about focus and discipline and intelligent reflection–these are just concepts I attach to. So what really matters in this moment then? Well, I see a loaded bar, and I know what I do with that. Deadlift it.

What I mean to say is, instead of creating all these objects of comparison, just do the thing. Whatever that thing is. Realistically, you’ll naturally get better at whatever you focus on. But when the universe presents a snag, don’t let your mind take over, dividing your self into two: the one you were and the one you are now. It’s no less damaging than comparing yourself to others.

 

 

Dependent Origination

Last night I listened to a podcast that stirred up the depths of me. It was a forty-minute teaching from Buddhist Monk Ajahn Viradhammo recorded at a monastery outside of Ottawa.

The topic was on dependent origination. It’s this idea that everything that emerges in our experience is causally dependent on that which precedes it.

Blind to us at any time is a multitude of causal factors that push reality precisely in a particular direction. As conscious agents, however, we have this felt sense that we choose what to think, how to feel, and what to do–thereby manufacturing reality as we experience it. When something embarrassing happens–like last week when I spent the duration of my workout with chalk dust on my ass– we regret that we didn’t act differently. As if we could have acted differently.

But the reality is, causality would have it the same way infinity times over.

And that’s the essence of the teaching. We are every bit a part of the universe as a rock, flower or ham sandwich. After all, we are made of the same basic building blocks. Yet for some reason, we feel above the laws of causality. We feel the push of absolute agency as the supposed curators of a reality we know almost nothing about. 

What we can know, however, is that everything is dependently originated. On the level of the cosmos and on the level of your felt experience of the world.

Ajahn Viradhammo offers the following thought experiment.Imagine you’re on a vast grass expanse and you spot two deer fawns in the distance. They chase each other up and down the treeline, jumping and darting in a natural show of play. Unless you’re a psychopath, this is likely to bring delight. But this experience you’re having of delight–this being that comes to be, you as a delighted person–is an objective occurrence. With this, there is that. A human perceiving fawns at play creates a moment of delight. Choice never enters into the equation.

You begin walking towards the fawns to get a closer view when a deerfly bites you on the neck. This being that comes to be–you as an agitated person–again is an objective state of affairs. With this (sting on the neck), there is that (abrupt agitation).

These reactions are a fundamental truth about reality. Just as the thoughts are that arise in our heads. What we do once the truth is delivered, however, makes all the difference. A theologian may think the fawns are a gift from God. This way of construing the events puts the self on centre stage. The fawns are indirectly a result of a string of good choices he has made. He deserves them.

But what happens when the deerfly strikes? Why does God punish him in this way? Why this sudden dose of misfortune?

You might think such a take on events is supremely self centred and out of touch with how things are. But void of religious attribution,  we still fall victim to the same fallacy of thought. We constantly put ourselves at the center of the universe.

Your friend says she’ll pick you up at 8:30. Be ready, she insists, by the door with your bags. So come 8:25, there you are, packed at the door. Five minutes pass, and there’s no sign of your friend. Another ten pass and you begin to feel aggravated. You’re thinking: how could she tell me to be ready, then be late herself? She’s done this to me so many times. Doesn’t she know I’m just standing here waiting?

These thoughts may sound totally pedestrian–justified even. But take a moment to consider what a selfish string of thought this is. Moment after moment, you taint the facts with this sense of selfWe have this unskillful tendency to translate emotion into a self-serving narrative
But what’s really going on here? Are you standing at the door or are you engaging in a self indulgent narrative about why your worth has been slighted? It’s safe to say you’re doing both yet thi Was resentment inevitable or was it a product of our thinking mind–continually self-aggrandizing as the moments went on? It’s important to remember that this being that comes to be–annoyance, resentment–is not a self. It is merely an emotion, a physical manifestation, cued up by universal causality.

Ajahn Viradhammo reminds us: with this, there is that. With lateness, there is annoyance. It’s objective. There’s no need to introduce “self view” and remanufacture negative feelings on a moment to moment basis. Instead, we’re encouraged to feel the negative emotion as it arises–this being that comes to be–and treat it like the objective microcosm it is. This way, the feeling will naturally pass away much sooner, and with far less effort, than if we engaged it with stories about what happened.

After listening to the teaching, I’ve begun observing my experience. How often do I experience reality as it is? How much of it is misconstrued? Can I really change the cosmic dance or is agency an illusion?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Messiah Complex

I’ve always had mixed feelings about missing school or work. I romanticize the idea of halting production for a day to unwind and regroup, but it never works out the way I imagine.

It will be so nice, I tell myself, to meander around the house, watch some Netflix, do some writing, stretch out the joints, meditate. I’ll slow the pace of life and bask in the perfect presence of reality–no imperatives, no responsibilities.

But it’s a pipe dream.

The truth is, this seemingly blissful retreat offers little more than biting anxiety followed by a creeping depression–both mental and physical. Why can’t I enjoy a little “me time” without regressing to a state of discontent more pronounced and spontaneous than anything my day-to-day life presents?

It’s the Messiah Complex.

Driving my behavior and model of the world is a core value of production. It’s always better to produce something rather than nothing, right? Isn’t that why we’re here? To make the world a little better than it was when we arrived?

Such a premise seems entirely employable on the surface. But dig in a little and some interesting questions begin to emerge. What drives this obsession with production? Is it the yearning to create change in the world? To provide the unique solutions only my mind can conjure? To be a savior to all those in need?

It seems this core value survives on some pretty grandiose pretenses. Where along the line did I become so special? Probably around the time I started alienating myself from others, thinking my perspective of the world is fundamentally different.

With the stakes so high, no wonder I’m complacent. People expect a lot from a God. That’s a full-time job with no holidays and added weekends. Any moment spent piddling around the house for nothing’s sake is a profound misuse of resources.

It’s interesting how something so admirable on the surface can be so damaging beneath it. Positive change is a great prerogative,  sure. But if it’s motivated by an inflated ego and a need for more, it will only serve to alienate, inhibit and depress.

It reminds me of this quote from the Bhagavad Gita:

“It’s better to be an honest street sweeper than a dishonest king.”

 

 

 

Act Like Someone’s Watching

I’ve been playing around with a new mindfulness technique lately and I think I might be onto something. At random points throughout the day, I pretend that someone suddenly assumed my perspective of the world. I picture it as if I’m the main character in a video game, and another player joins my team. But instead of spawning their own avatar, they piggyback on mine, in the first person, observing everything I’m experiencing in the moment with none of the context or personal back story.

Welcome, I say to this imaginary presence. This is what it’s like in my unique corner of the universe; thanks for tuning in. Here I am driving my ’93 Honda Prelude on country roads at sunset. This is what the engine sounds like while locked into cruise control at 100 km/h. Feel the bumps and shakes of a 23-year-old suspension as we rumble down the tarmac. Notice the view beyond the treeline–a hundred scattered bird silhouettes darting and weaving in densely shaped masses.

I introduce my passenger to my current sense of the world. What it’s like to be me in this moment. Not personally, but objectively. I state what’s happening to my senses. What the moment feels like on the most basic level. What I know to be true.

It’s meditation: taking inventory of what the present moment holds, stripped off all the emotional baggage. It’s a sober look at the current state of things.

I keep reporting until I’m carried away by other thoughts–which is a matter of minutes if I’m honest. But while I uphold this little charade, I feel present and connected to the true state of reality. I find my center. I tease out the thoughts from the experience and get closer to what is.

It’s an exercise in metacognition and I think it might have some value. The more I do it, the more things I’m able to catalog in any given moment. How many sounds can you hold in your awareness at any one time? It seems as this number grows, the amount of random thoughts in my head shrinks. Open your awareness to sharpen your focus. Seems kinda counterintuitive but it works for me.

So whenever you think about it this week, act like someone’s watching. It might just help you step out of your head for a minute and appreciate what’s going on around you.

And report back because I’d love to hear about your trials.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fallacy of Change

Self-transformation is a flawed idea. Not because sweeping change doesn’t occur in our experience of the world, but because we don’t consider transformation as an incremental climb up or down a continuum. It’s not how our brains work. We’re not exactly wired to perceive tiny changes in appearance, thought patterns and discrete skills in real time. It’s why most people’s fitness journey ends after the first two weeks of grunting and sweating to no apparent win.

When we consider developing ourselves, we seem to frame it in bianary terms. This is where I am now. That is where I want to be.  Invariably, we fail to consider what each point on that continuum may actually look like. Our brains think it’s just a matter of being that thing we want to be. For me, it’s not being depressed. Time and time again, when I reflect on my mood, I’m tempted to say: “I’m just not going to be depressed anymore.” I have thought. I have agency. I have the power to reject that dark presence that creeps over me again and again.

How naive, I know. But surely we all think like this in some area of our lives. As if salvation is just one proclamation away. “From now on I…”–How many times have you heard someone utter this misguided plea for peace? I know I’ve said it. Hell, I still say it, and I am accutely aware of how meaningless such a claim is certain to be.

The falacy is this: we’re always in the process of change. There is no start point, there is no end point. Our whole life is transformation in action. And when we die, mother nature recycles the atoms in our bodies and we become something else. It is one of the few absolute truths in this wacky place we call reality.

So consider this next time you start getting hard on yourself. Before you make that concrete claim of never doing this again, or always doing that, know that change will come regardless of your agency. Make peace with that change and you’ll find a satisfaction that transcends that self you’re trying to be.

This, I believe, is where true salvation lies.

 

via Daily Prompt: Transformation

Get Out of your Own Way

This is something I’ve heard on numerous occasions: if you could just get out of your own way.

I never really understood the concept. I guess it’s a problem to try real hard. To be disciplined. It seems to clog up the human reward systems leaving you slipping into an existential crisis at every turn.

But still, I don’t get it. Who am I? The person in the way or the person trying to get through? I suppose when I let this gentleman by, I get to assume his POV right? I get to be the person who is going somewhere while the other person gets out of the way? Because if not, then I am not down.

These consoling words of advice never stand up to my fierce reasoning. They don’t resonate with me. I always think too hard about them. I try too hard.

Try less to do better. Sounds tragically backward. But in a cruel twist of irony, it actually might not be. Or at least I’m hoping because I’m taking the idea on.

So here’s to that

Defining Moments

I was sitting at a library computer at the University of Toronto when it happened.

It was September of 2014 and I was high on academia. I felt keen and curious and ready to devour any scrap of media that came my way. Little did I know I was one click away from a complete restructuring of how I viewed reality.

The stimulus was a YouTube clip called The Self is an Illusion–a Big Think talk given by Sam Harris.

After six minutes of monotone utterances on a white backdrop, a radical shift in how I viewed myself had occurred. Or rather, I should say, on how I viewed my self.

 Consciousness is irreducibly subjective

~ Sam Harris

This line hooked me from the start. Irreducibly Subjective? How isolating. That means that despite the miracles of brain science and all the tools we have to monitor this magnificent organ, there is only one way to experience what it’s like to be me–and that’s by being me.

Put more concisely, there will always be two sides of the coin: the objective state of the brain, and the subjective experience of having one. And no matter how much we learn about the neural machinery, we get no closer to answering the question of why we get to experience the process in the first place. This is famously known in philosophy as the hard problem of consciousness

Somehow, this all registered with me in real time as I sat piercing the screen with wide eyes. I knew paying attention in Psychology would pay off sometime. And in this moment, it was delivering–plus interest.

The back half of the video is where things get really interesting. Harris explains a pivotal shift that can occur inside this subjectivity that is ours alone. It doesn’t have a scientific name yet, so self transcendence or ego death will have to do.

It’s the experience of no longer having a self to which all experience refers back to. “The center drops out,” as Harris puts it. This can happen during prayer, or during moments of incomprehensible beauty like being under a star peppered sky or beside a raging waterfall at dawn. It’s this sense of being everything instead of being a part of everything.

In that moment, sitting among a sea of quiet students in the library, I teleported back in time to my 3rd grade classroom. My teacher, Mrs. Jeffereys, instructed the class through moving meditation exercises she called “brain gym.” Every morning the sequence culminated in a few moments of silent focus as we sat with our eyes closed.

I remember experiencing deep tranquility during these fleeting moments, as if I could sit in that hard plastic chair forever. I listened to the extraneous sounds in the room while basking in a distinct sensation of aliveness–a feeling I only felt in this unique context, during a blaring lack of stimulation.

My brain is tempted to claim that what I was experiencing here was self-transcendence. I certainly remember feeling completely at ease in the moment, without any sense of me or I, but then again we’re talking about a memory that’s a decade and a half old.

At any rate, this throwback to childhood seemed to give this video instant validity. I teared up the way you do when you’re bearing witness to the deepest personal truth. It marked the start of my spiritual journey.

Do you remember a defining moment in your life that changed everything? I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!