Mental Health Is Not A Goal

The only type of ‘therapy’ that is worthy of the name is therapy that has no agenda, therapy that does not involve expectations or goals. The only type of therapy that is worthy of the name is therapy that is completely ‘non-coercive’, in other words. This is such an alien concept to us however – it’s far more alien to us than we imagine it to be because we simply don’t realize how coercive we are in our relationships both with other people and ourselves. We all function on the basis of the logical mind (whether we acknowledge this or not) and the logical mind is always coercive, always aggressive. It operates on the basis of the order which it takes for granted, and which on this it account projects or imposes upon the outside world and this is of course the very essence of aggression! How can imposing your own brand of order (a brand of order which doesn’t actually exist anywhere in the world other than in your own head) on the world not be aggressive?


This inherent coerciveness shows itself in our notions of what mental health consists of – mental health is inevitably seen as an ideal state and an idea state is something that we have to work towards. It’s something we have to define, make a goal of, and then take the appropriate steps to obtain. This tends to sound reasonable enough to us (since this is how it works with everything else, just about) but the point is that all of this business of ‘deciding where we want to be and then working towards it’ is aggression – we’re actually trying to coerce ourselves to be mentally healthy (because it’s an ideal that needs to be accorded with) and yet ‘coercing or manipulating ourselves to be mentally healthy’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s flatly self-contradictory in the very same way the phrases ‘fighting for peace’ and ‘legislating for freedom from bureaucracy’ are…


The state of mental health isn’t an ‘ideal state’ because ideal states are projections of the mind; they are pictures of ‘how things should be’ that the thinking mind has come up with. If we go down this road then we are trying to inhabit our own mental maps and our own mental maps are essentially uninhabitable, just an ideology is uninhabitable. The attempt to attain what we consider to be an ‘ideal state’ – which is something that we do all the time – is anything but conducive to good mental health. It’s conducive to a lot of things, but none of them are healthy. What it is conducive of are various socially-prescribed styles or fashions of unhappiness and frustration…


Mental health has nothing to do with obtaining goals or ‘being the way we (or other people) think that we should be’ – it has to do with the honesty that we can bring to bear on our actual situation and this is a completely different type of thing. Honesty is never aggressive or violent – it doesn’t need to be because it’s not about trying to change anything. Honesty accepts rather than rejecting; it comes with no agenda – it comes with no expectations or judgements with regard to the vexed question of ‘how things should be’. And the point is of course that we can never – in the normal run of things – separate ourselves from our thoughts or preconceptions regarding ‘the way things should’; we live out our whole lives within this matrix of expectations and how well reality accords (or seems to accord) with this artificial template determines whether we feel good or whether we feel bad, whether we say that life is going well or badly…


Of course honesty has nothing to do with expectations or agendas or goals or judgements or control or anything like that. All of this stuff is the business of the thinking mind and the thinking mind is all about projecting its ideals or assumptions out into the world. It never does anything else – it always measures the world in accordance with its expectations and then tries to change or manipulate things on this basis. That’s its job. Thought has its role and stating that all it ever does is ‘measure things against it expectations’ (or ‘chase ideal states’) does not diminish or invalidate that role. If I’m thirsty and I need a drink of water then the projected situation where I actually receive this glass of water is ‘the idea state’. If I’m cold and tired then being all warm and snug somewhere where I am able to rest is an ideal state, and so on. Practical goals and our consideration of how we might attain them is the very stuff of life, we might say, but this type of goal-orientation does not apply to mental health.


As we have already said, mental health is not a goal to be obtained, it is on the contrary purely a matter of relating honestly and clearly to the way that we actually are. Another way to put this is to say that mental health is when we are able to be ‘present’ with ourselves, instead of being ‘somewhere else’. It doesn’t matter what it is that we are to be present with, it just matters that we be present! This is – needless to say – no small matter. It’s no small matter because we’re all experts at not being present in our lives – we’re expert at not being present in our lives to the very same extent that we live in our dreams, in our goals, in our expectations, and this is a very considerable extent. Far from being a ‘small’ matter being present in our lives is the biggest challenge there is. This is what really matters, no matter what anyone else might tell us, not matter what society as a whole might tell us. How after all can ‘being present in our lives’ be outranked by something else? Suppose I have everything ‘right’ in my life – according to societal values – but I didn’t happen to be present in it, what good would this do? And yet we’re already being prevailed upon by the forces that act upon us to postpone ‘being present’ until X, Y and Z are taken care of; in practice there’s actually always something more important!


Being present is not something that is encouraged or promoted by our social milieu, by the humdrum everyday forces that are in operation all around us. It is not something that is ever promoted by the everyday mind, which is the mind that finds expression in society. On the contrary, we are constantly being told that achieving this task is the important thing, or that achieving that task is the important thing. Anything else is more important, when it comes down to it! There is always a task needing to be attended to and this is always ‘the important thing’. There is always a goal waiting to be achieved and this is seen as being where our well-being lies – in the successful accomplishment of our goals. The achievement of our goals (which is a spectacularly jaded formula which we nevertheless never seem to get tired of hearing) might well be seen as being where our wellbeing lies but this has nothing to do with being present.


All of the ‘humdrum forces’ that we have been speaking of operate by ensuring that we shall not be present. We won’t be present because we’re living in our goals, our agendas, our plans, our expectations, our ideas and this is not being present. This is ‘living at a distance from reality’, just as James Joyce says of one of his characters in his novel Dubliners that he ‘lived at a little distance from his body…’ This is also ‘living life on the never never’ because we’re always saying to ourselves that we’ll start living our lives when the ideal conditions that we’re controlling for come about, when they never will. Or if they do seem to come about, then before very long there will be another set of conditions that we need to bring about, another set of goals that we need to attain. The result of this is therefore that we’re always waiting to live but never living, as Alan Watts says, and there’s no way that this can be called ‘being mentally healthy’. How can always living at a distance from one’s life as it really is be mentally healthy?


There’s nothing wholesome or conducive to health about this business. There’s nothing wholesome about it because there’s nothing ‘whole’ about it – we’re living a fragmentary life, as Krishnamurti says – we’re living a life made out of fragments (or fractions) that never come together and this causes a malaise. More simply put, it causes chronic unhappiness, and then – because we’re unhappy all the time – we realize that we need therapy and because this therapy probably involves trying to achieve some kind of an ideal state we’re simply going around in circles. Mental health (or ‘being present’, if we want to call it that) doesn’t necessarily have to mean being happy but it does mean ‘being real’ and being real makes it possible for us to experience peace and happiness, which it is clearly not possible for us to ever experience if we aren’t being real. All we could ever know – at best – would be an unreal version of peace / happiness! What glitches us is that we are constantly straining for it; we are constantly aggressive, constantly striving, and even if we aren’t actively striving we’re possessed by the thought or belief that we should be striving, that striving is the right thing to do, and this too is striving, this too is aggression…


Aggression (in this sense of the word) ensures that we stay locked into a state of chronic unhappiness because there is no way that any genuinely wholesome states can ever come our way if we are constantly trying to feel better than the way we actually do. We want to be happy (or at least we think that we do) but that doesn’t mean that we want to be real and so because of our resistance to ‘being real’ (because being real or moving in the direction of being real doesn’t feel so good) we never get to feel ‘good’ in a profound or wholesome sense – at best we will occasionally feel ‘good’ in a superficial or image-based kind of a way, and this is really just a form of suffering. Anything superficial or ‘image-based’ is a form of suffering. Being ‘real’ means being present in the mess of what is actually going on, and who amongst us has the stomach for that?  It’s much nicer to live our idealized dreams and projections of who we would like to be, or think we ought to be; this is the sugar-coated version of reality that the thinking mind keeps presenting us with – the sugar-coating is only a tiny fraction of a millimeter thick, a couple microns perhaps, but it’s still the only version of reality we’re interested in. If it isn’t what the rational-conceptual mind is feeding us (or rather spoon-feeding us) then we don’t want to know. We will look the other way with all the stubbornness and obstinacy in the whole universe!


What we need isn’t more goals, more purposes, more methods to follow and more tasks to complete but the unconditional support to be the way that we actually are, and this is something that our mental health services are just not equipped to provide. Most of us can’t provide support for ourselves to be present in our lives, so how can we be supportive to others who are having such great difficulty being present with themselves? The crux of the matter is that our systems deny us our presence, which is the possibility of ‘us having an honest relationship with our own pain’. They are always pointing in the other direction, just as the thinking mind is always pointing in the other direction. All of the social systems that we have created have this characteristic – the characteristic of ‘denying us’, the characteristic of pointing us in the wrong direction, the direction that leads away from our own wellness, our own true mental health. This is always going to be the case with any system that we devise. That anti-health, anti-wholeness bias is inherent in all logical systems and this reason for this is very clear indeed, once we get around to letting ourselves see it – systems are of course all about organization (they could hardly be about anything else) and ‘mental health’ (or ‘wellness’) isn’t something that can be organized.


To organize something is to put it into the appropriate slots, the appropriate compartments, the appropriate boxes, etc. This seems in one way too obvious to be worth pointing out but at the same time we need to stress this point because we are so blind when it come to understanding that ‘organization’ or ‘regulation’ cannot be applied to people in the name of therapy, or in the name of promoting mental health.  ‘Managing’ ourselves with regard to stress or anxiety or anger or whatever emotional turmoil it is that we might be going through is a far cry from anything even remotely ‘mentally healthy’  – we shouldn’t even be allowed to use the word because we are so very far from understanding it! How can the thinking mind know what health is, what wholeness is? As a rational culture, we don’t actually know anything about mental health at all – we think that it has something to do with ‘according with certain standards or criteria’. We would like to devise an instrument or machine to determine it. We think that just about everything has to do with ‘according with standardized criteria’ – if it can’t be standardized (or regulated) we don’t take it seriously.


Mental health isn’t however about perceiving, feeling, thinking, or behaving in a particular way (which is what we think it is), it’s about being present in our own lives, as our lives actually are. It is as simple (and as difficult) as this. We don’t become present by according with criteria or rules (i.e. by ‘fitting into the prescribed framework that everyone else is trying to fit into’), we become present by honestly relating with what actually is not by trying to measure and arrange everything in accordance with our unexamined expectations, which is all the thinking mind can ever do! Goals and methods and expectations have no part to play here! Coercion to ‘be the way that we or other people think we ought to be’ has no part to play here….







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