Collectively speaking, we have a very peculiar idea about what mental health entails, or should look like. What we see as good mental health isn’t healthy at all – it would be more accurately referred to as ‘a precarious illusion that we are obliged to spend our lives trying to prop up’. When we are able to successfully prop up this pain-producing illusion then we call this ‘being mentally healthy’ and when we can’t maintain the illusion any more then we say that this isn’t healthy and that we need help. Our idea of what constitutes mental health is completely back-to-front, therefore! We couldn’t get it more wrong if we tried…
We essentially think that good mental health comes about as a result of being in control of all the parameters, although we probably won’t see it quite as bluntly as this. Mental health isn’t having lots of coping strategies on hand however – it’s not about having a coping strategy for every occasion, or an answer for every problem. On the contrary, it’s about not having a need for any coping strategies, not needing a big bag full of answers. Whenever we hear any talk of ‘coping’ this means one thing and one thing only – it means propping up something that would otherwise be at threat of ‘going under’. This is like a country whose economy is going to pot and which needs a package of financial aid to keep it afloat. What we don’t ask ourselves is “What sort of ‘mental health’ is it that continually needs to be rescued, stabilized, or propped up?”
What we’re talking about when we use this model of mental health (even though it’s not really a ‘model’ as such because it’s not actually thought out through very thoroughly) is a nothing more than a state of dependency. By using strategies we’re creating a dependency on having to do X, Y or Z in order to feel better, in order to feel that we can ‘cope’. So perhaps I am anxious and you show me a way of deescalating the anxiety in some way – perhaps for example I am to take ten deep breathes or do ten minutes of progressive muscular relaxation. This sounds great to us, we never question this for a moment because it seems to us that we have found a way of dealing with the problem, which is exactly what we want. We now have ‘a strategy’ that we can use, we now have another effective tool to put in our ‘tool kit’, etc, etc.
It seems to our normal way of thinking that this is a good way of looking after our mental health. To have ways of managing our anxiety (or anger, or stress, or whatever) seems like the way to go. We’re very fond of this whole notion of ‘managing’ stuff – management’, like ‘regulation’, is a favourite word of ours. We use it all the time in the world of mental healthcare and we don’t see anything at all suspicious about it. We can’t see that the notion of ‘managing our own mental health’ is a very suspect one indeed – and yet we absolutely ought to be able to! We can’t be that lacking in psychological insight, surely?
The point we are making is this – if I have to engage in some kind of prescribed behaviour every time I feel anxious, or stressed, or angry, or whatever and if that behaviour affords me some sort of temporary relief from the anxiety (or whatever it is) then I have just made myself dependent upon this behaviour. With it, I get to feel OK; without it, I am definitely NOT OK! To say that I have to do X, Y or Z – whatever the strategy in question is – I order to bring the symptoms of anxiety (or whatever) under control is to affirm to me that ‘something needs to be done’ – I don’t feel OK and so something needs to be done in order to feel OK. To feel that one needs to do something specific in order to feel OK is to have a dependency therefore and there is no way we can equate being in a state of dependency with ‘mental health’. We’ve just given away our autonomy to a mechanical coping mechanism and what’s so healthy about that?
I ever I have to do something in order to feel OK then this straightaway tells me that I am not OK until I do it. So the message is that ‘I’m not OK’. The message is that I’m not OK until I do what I need to do in order to feel OK. But clearly it’s not OK to be dependent upon something in order to feel OK! So what then is this state of perceived well-being that I am striving after? It is a very obviously ‘conditional state of being’, which is to say, it is a state where I can say “I am feeling OK if….” I am OK if conditions X, Y or Z have been met, are in place, etc. My mental health now ‘equals’ these conditions, therefore – I have now successfully externalized my mental health so that it is dependent upon external mechanical factors. If the external factors are working well then I’m well too…
When so-called ‘mental health’ is dependent upon conditions being met (or upon the procedures that will bring about these conditions) then this makes it into a very precarious, very brittle sort of a thing. This supposed state of mental health is not robust – it is not autonomous, it is not ‘sufficient unto itself’. It’s only OK when something outside of it, some extrinsic factor, makes it be OK. And yet if we had to say that mental health is anything, we would have to say that it means being autonomous. Without autonomy, we have nothing! We might have the superficial appearance of well-being on the outside, but for sure there’s nothing on the inside to back it up because if there was then we wouldn’t need ‘help’ from the outside. We could also talk about autonomy in terms of being self-organizing – self-organizing systems (like the psyche) don’t need to be organized from outside, if they are then this compromises their own natural process and when we disrupt or compromise the psyche’s natural self-organizing (or spontaneous) nature by relying on clumsy external mechanisms then we have fostered profound ill-health.
Our sense of being ‘well in ourselves’ can never be made dependent upon a special set of conditions otherwise we are going to make ourselves the slave to the need to maintain these conditions, which is exactly the road we have collectively chosen to go down – even though ‘choice’ is of course always the wrong word to use in relation to collective matters. By getting better and better at controlling our own environment (both physical and mental) we have lost our ‘resilience’, we have lost the robustness that the human race undoubtedly did used to have. Even in our own life-time, we can notice the difference – we’re less self-sufficient, we complain and go running for help for the slightest bit of discomfort, and this tendency is encouraged and fed by a political/economic system that thrives on our passivity. Who can deny this?
It suits the system to define mental health in the way that it does, therefore. If we are slaves to the need to the need to maintain a very specialized environment then this suits the political/economic system that prevails at this time because that political/economic system is at root the same thing as that ‘special environment’. There’s no difference. Collectively speaking, we’ve gone down the road of getting better and better at controlling the external world and this has gone hand in hand with the loss of that ‘inner life’ which has nothing at all to do with control. This ‘inner life’ is what mental health is all about, if it is about anything. What we have obtained for ourselves as a result of all this control, all this manipulation, isn’t ‘well-being’ at all – it’s a state of conditioned well-being and conditioned well-being is a different kettle of fish entirely.
‘Conditioned well-being’ is a phantom that we have to keep chasing. We have to keep working at it because it’s going to run away from us otherwise and leave us in the lurch. We can only have the prize if we arrange everything correctly, if we correctly ‘do the thing that we are supposed to do’. What we’re essentially doing is making our sense (or perception) of well-being dependent upon our own successful controlling, our successful ‘strategizing’, and this is a million miles from anything that we might call ‘mental health’. What we’re talking about here is actually latent anxiety and latent depression – its anxiety and depression waiting to happen.
What we’re essentially talking about here is conditional happiness in another guise. It is conditional happiness in a supposedly therapeutic guise! It’s no wonder we can’t spot the flaw in the logic with regard to putting all our money on coping strategies (or ‘tools’) therefore – our whole way of life is based on the unexamined belief that that happiness is conditional type of thing. Our whole approach to life, in other words, is based on the assumption that “I can / will be happy if…”
A lot is hanging on this ‘if’, therefore. An ‘If’ is a terrible thing to have to base one’s happiness on. Our approach to life might be based on the supposition that conditional happiness is a viable proposition but this doesn’t mean that it is! If this is our bed-rock assumption then things are simply not going to work out for us – not ever, no matter how much effort and dedication we put into it. Instead of happiness we’re going to have to make do with fantasies about happiness instead – that’s the best we will ever be able to do. In the same way, if our key assumption is that the state of good mental health can be obtained via some successful set of strategies, some system or other of management, then well-being will always be a phantom for us – a phantom that we can chase but will never catch up with.
Our ‘problem’ – which we can’t see to be a problem – is that we imagine that a feeling of ‘wellness’ within us can be obtained on purpose, can be brought about via some sort of purposeful action. This is our supposition, this is our assumption. But there’s a glitch here that we never seem to spot. The glitch is this – any purposeful action, across the board, is always going to come about as a result of perceived deficit. If we’re thinking in terms of taking purposeful action in relation to mental health (or some notion that we might have about mental health) then this action is always going to originate in a perception that we have regarding a lack of health, a deficit in health. If I need to do something in order to feel well in myself then clearly I am coming from a place of not feeling well. What we don’t appreciate however is that any action arising out of a perception of ‘things not being right’ with regard to how we feel in ourselves, or about ourselves, is only ever going to perpetuate that same feeling. For example, as Krishnamurti says, any action that comes out of fear (action which is the attempt to either escape fear or combat it) is fear. Any action that occurs in relation to ‘negativity’ (if we want to call it that) is that negativity. What we react to we perpetuate. ‘What we resist persists‘, as Jung says. Problem-solving isn’t the answer when we’re talking about mental health because what we call ‘mental health’ is about being not doing. Problem-solving is a decoy, as Mark Nepo says.
If there’s no ‘wellness’ to start off with, in other words, then no amount of manoeuvring can bring it about! This might sound very pessimistic, very depressing, but it isn’t. The point is that wellness is always there. It never wasn’t there – we were just cut off from it. Because wellness (or Wholeness) was always there we don’t have to create it, we don’t have to bring it about by any sort of ‘skilful action’. Skilful action only confuses matters – it distances us even more from the peace of mind and the resources of strength and wisdom that are already inside us. If we are struggling to obtain something that we think we haven’t got then this only serves to reinforce the belief that we haven’t got it, that we have to do something to get it, that we have to search for it ‘on the outside’.
Western culture is all about searching for happiness or well-being on the outside. We don’t like to see it like this, but clearly it is true. Who can seriously argue that it isn’t the case that we always look for everything on the outside – like it or not, that’s the sort of culture we are. We have a fundamental belief that everything, including our own well-being, our own peace of mind, is to be found on the outside. We don’t trust our own spontaneous and wisdom either – we only believe what comes to us from outside of ourselves. This is what we call ‘education’ – absorbing stuff from the outside and then being examined to see if we have absorbed it correctly! And yet what an absurd belief this is – imagine thinking that our mental health, our wisdom and strength, our peace of mind, could be dependent upon things that we do, upon procedures and strategies that we have to enact correctly. Imagine thinking that our peace of mind ought to dependent upon external factors or conditions that we can supposedly control! What a terrible nightmare this would be if it were true; if it actually were true that we always had to be ‘managing our own mental health’. “Leave it alone and it will sort itself out” would be better advice. Let the muddy puddle alone and it will clear itself, as the Buddhist teachers say. ‘Let it settle itself’, says Tilopa. Don’t get stuck in the micro-managing, don’t get caught up in the nightmarish attempt to control the parameters of your own existence.
Our intrinsic well-being is something that can never be destroyed – it is not a conditioned reality that is dependent upon external factors. It is not something that I or society has ‘put together’ and which now has to be maintained. Anything that has been constructed needs to be maintained and once we start maintaining an illusion we are bound to keep at it forever, driven by the unconscious knowledge of what will happen if we stop maintaining, if we stop controlling. Feeling compelled to keep on maintaining and protecting an illusion, and feeling compelled at the same time to keep on validating what we’re doing, both to ourselves and everyone else, by (implicitly) saying that what we’re maintaining and protecting ISN’T an illusion isn’t mental health. It’s our Western version of ‘mental health’. It’s actually as far from mental health as it is possible to be…