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The Continuum of Mental Health – Where do you fall?

My time spent in France has been very simple and enjoyable. Most of my time this past week or so has been at Karma Ling, a Tibetan Dharma center in the Alps, which is housed in a 1,000 year old formerly Catholic monastery. It is always so nice to spend time among people whose focus is on “waking up.” There is an ease and welcomingness there, and always a “bonjour” or smile shared when meeting another.

In my life recently, and especially since leaving California, I seem to be encountering people who have apparent mental health issues. I’m not sure entirely why I’m running across this sort of thing more lately. Perhaps I’m more capable of compassionate listening so people volunteer more personal things in their lives when we speak. Perhaps they just find me because of an energy I put out. Unfortunately, though, I think I’m discovering that mental health issues are more common than I had previously thought. It’s can be a terrible affliction, for joy can be but a distant concept when one’s mind actually betrays, becoming subsumed with paranoiac or delusional thinking. If we are physically disabled, not withstanding intense pain, we still have potential for joy and aliveness, but when our minds betray us, a full enjoyable life can be difficult to enjoy. I am far from an expert on this topic, but I think it is only very rarely that people just wake up one day and find themselves in mental disarray. From the best that I can see, it seems that mental health disruptions are often caused by an intense trauma or perhaps a deep and pervasive developmental neglect of the goodness and deservingness of our being. Thus, I don’t know that there are easy solutions to these situations, other than to venture step by step into the land of healing and awareness, hopefully, and often necessarily with true loving support. In the past, it had been easy for me in my life to perhaps joke about others with mental health issues, but now that I have intimately conversed with people with conditions such as these, my heart can’t help but bleed for them. Again, I preface this writing with an acknowledgment of my lack of formal knowledge on this topic.

Since virtually all of us are identified with our egoic self rather than a deeper or truer self, I think perhaps we all have mental anguish (if not illness) to a greater or lesser extent. Simple examples might be our yearnings for externally-based fulfillment through material comfort/accumulation, our disconnection from our hearts, our reactivity to anything less than perfect acceptance by others, our self-critical nature, our fears which are not necessarily based in reality (rejection, abandonment, survival), and a critical dissatisfaction with various situations in our lives.

In my life, I find that, while I touch on some of these (desire for material comfort, reactivity, and disconnection from heart), and have stronger engagement with others (unnecessary fears and self-criticism), I tend not to venture too far from the ground. When I say that, what I mean is that in more recent years, I tend to be able to remain aware of these disconnections as (or soon after) they are happening, so they don’t just take my life and run with it. I still have much more equanimity and awareness to develop around not letting my more egoic self dictate the world within which I exist, but my practices definitely seem to support more mental ease and less reactivity.

This is a tricky topic to write about, as we all have a place somewhere on the mental health continuum. Some situations are obviously difficult such as post traumatic stress disorder, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia, but for most of us, we function fairly effectively within a culture which has been forged within a “mentally ill” society. Most of us don’t really see the general dysfunction since we are so naturally enmeshed within it. Examples of what I would consider as symptoms/manifestations of a mentally ill society would include:

  • Focus on the external – images, material, standards of beauty, plastic surgery, homes, cars
  • Societal acceptance of compulsive behavior – smoking, gambling, alcohol, computer, television, shopping
  • Disregard for personal health and responsibility – obesity epidemic, terrible eating habits, lack of exercise, reliance on pharmaceuticals to fix our medical problems
  • Lack of compassion for life – hunting for sport, acceptance of (or turning a blind eye to) factory farming of animals for food, bug zappers in our backyards, strong emphasis on punishment for criminals rather than rehabilitation,
  • Widespread abuse of women, children, elderly
  • Lack of living in respect to our environment – use of toxic household chemicals, use and discard mentality, non-recognition of the finite nature of our planet, use of fuels/energy which cause pollution, eating decisions which deplete/harm our lands, oceans, creation of waste
  • Intense focus on needs/desires of the self rather than on unity/interconnection with others
  • Success commonly defined in terms of material wealth, accretion of power

To the extent that we ascribe to these societally sanctioned behaviors/beliefs, I believe that we slide down along the continuum of mental illness. Simply because a society sanctions behaviors and beliefs doesn’t mean that they are healthy, natural or even normal. Society has a tendency to move us in a direction which tends to disconnect us further and further from the truth of our beings. In my opinion, it is this disconnection from our true (non-egoic) self that underlies most mental illness, whether clinically or societally based.

Here’s a few quotations:

“All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusions is called a philosopher.”
Ambrose Bierce

“Insanity is relative. It depends on who has who locked in what cage.”
Ray Bradbury

“Insanity — a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”
R. D. Lang

“Years ago, it meant something to be crazy. Now everyone’s crazy.”
Charles Manson `

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