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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Mental Health Isn’t A Strategy

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…