Thursday, November 17, 2016

We are All Mentally Ill

"Mindfully Aware"
- in my meditation garden -

In a newly-published book, Siddartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment, science editor James Kingsland presents some of the most recent neuroscience research that explains why “meditation” is so effective in reducing stress.

At first, I was sort of taken back by the very first sentence in this book: “We are all mentally ill,” until I realized that this is probably quite true. While people may appear to be totally happy, perfectly “sane”  and always “well adjusted,” we all have a sense of how imperfect we are and how unsatisfactory life can be. We all fret over past mistakes and worry about things to come. We are afraid of getting sick and anxious about getting old. We all have our secret doubts about our own competence. So in a sense, “we are all mentally ill,” some people hide it better than others.

In his new book, Mr. Kingsland explains that Buddhism as well as most other spiritual traditions teach the daily practice of mindful meditation as a pathway for coping with and rising above the stress, anxiety and “suffering” of  everyday life. He explains “mindfulness” as:

Making a conscious effort to live nonjudgmentally
in the present moment,
acknowledging thought, feelings and sensations as they arise
and accepting them just as they are.

I can still remember my second grade teacher telling us that the job of Christian in this world is to “fight the good fight.” We were taught that our “souls” were a battleground between the forces of good and the forces of evil and that we must all join in that battle, always fighting against the forces of darkness in the world and inside ourselves as we strive for “spiritual perfection.”  I was taught to suppress any “evil” thoughts that may arise in me and push away any doubts—now I think this was probably some unfortunate spiritual teaching.

While I am a strong believer in fighting for the causes of justice and human dignity, I also recognize that it’s pretty exhausting to be continually engaged in some sort of battle or other especially if “doing battle” is at the very core of the spiritual journey.

It seems to me that the essence of the spiritual life is not to fight with my mind or my “soul”  but rather to focus my attention on what is happening in the present and then to “nonjudgmentally” acknowledge what is. In essence, this is what the discipline of mindfulness and meditation is all about. It’s interesting that when I accept myself as I am,  I suddenly discover a new sense of peace and I become more fully human.

I recently came across something one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, once wrote about the struggle people have when they meditate.  Many think of meditation as some sort of “spiritual warfare.” They believe that they lose the battle when they meditate and are unable to clear their mind of their worries or fears.  They are somehow a “bad soldier” in the spiritual fray if everyday restlessness creeps into their meditation time.

Master Hanh offers this wise advice: 

It is important that you do not consider awareness to be your ‘ally’
called on to suppress the ‘enemies’ that are your unruly thoughts.
Do not turn your mind into a battlefield.
Opposition between good and bad is often compared to light and dark,
but if we look at it in a different way,
we will see that when light shines darkness doesn’t disappear.
It doesn’t leave, it merges with the light.

Yes of course there is darkness in the world and a part of each and every one of us is governed by our lesser angels; but instead of constantly “doing battle” with it it all, maybe we simply need to embrace the darkness within us and let the warm light of compassion shine upon it. When we are able to do this, the darkness merges with the light. So it’s no wonder to me that modern-day scientists have discovered that stress is greatly reduced when people are mindful in this way.

Master Hanh has also wisely observed that maybe we all need to learn how to be a bit more gentle with ourselves. After all, we are all mentally ill:

When you are gentle with yourself, you are yourself,
 and there you find peace.
It’s this peace that makes a child want to sit near you


  1. I love that phrase...'After all, we are mentally ill'. I'm sitting here smiling. Thank you xx