It’s the beginning of winter again. It is that time of the year when pollution levels in North India cross anything that is humanly acceptable. We breathe in up to ten times as much smoke as we should. We are all chain smokers, unless we have the financial resources to be cooped up in our rooms with air purifiers.
Imagine you sit out on the highway for six hours, breathing in all this man-made smoke, and end up with a throbbing headache, feeling tired and stiff.
Do you have a physical illness?
What do you do about it?
Go to a clean place if you can. Rest. Relax. Allow your body to remove the toxins from itself through its usual excretory passages. After resting deeply, you will feel better. Do not go back to the highway.
Animals, when ill, do the same. They sit in a corner, they fast, they allow their bodies to heal themselves.
It could be that your body has become so toxic over the decades of living in a toxic world that it no longer heals by itself. It doesn’t have the strength to do that.
So you go to a doctor. He gives your pain a label – chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, or simply, migraine. He gives you a pill to take away your pain. He also gives you some metaphorical pills to manage your pain – exercise more, eat whole foods, sleep well, do pranayama. As you get older, the number of pills you need to take keeps increasing.
Or, you may look up some of the ancient, alternative forms of healing. Instead of giving you pills, they may try to clean the toxins out of your body. Heat therapy through saunas may help you sweat the toxins out. Enemas clean your bowels. Herbs to make your kidneys filter better, herbs to make your liver break down undigested toxins and remove them better. Steam to clean out your lungs. The toxicity is cleansed, not managed.
The phenomenon called mental illness works the same way.
You have had experiences that have overwhelmed your psyche’s ability to process them. They remain trapped in your mind. You feel them oppressively – unending sadness, debilitating lethargy, permeating anxiety, hopeless confusion.
You need to rest. Relax. Allow these experiences to go through you, to be felt, experienced fully, and then let go.
Two thousand and five hundred years ago, the Buddha told this to us very simply – if you fight pain away and chase after pleasure, you will always remain in pain. If you learn to accept both pain and pleasure, slowly, you will find freedom and joy.
However, like the body, your psyche may have lived for decades in a toxic psychological space, and be too weak now to allow this purging of emotions held in it.
So you go to a ‘mental health professional’, the most popular and fast growing profession in town.
They give your pain a label – such as bipolar disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder, or more simply, moderate depression. They may give you a pill to take away the pain. They may give you other, metaphorical pills – strategies to manage your pain, thoughts to think and thoughts not to think, how to manage a stressful situation, and so on. Some of these can be very useful.
But alternatively, you may go to a person who allows you to feel your pain. When you feel your pain in a trusted, safe space, you see it evaporates away. This is the work of a lifetime, that we can do by ourselves, but we may need a therapist or another such person to help us begin. Help us begin to not avoid our pain, as we have been taught to since childhood. But to find that still, quiet space in ourselves, where we can feel the pain. There we see, the pain changes, and gives way to other emotions.
Every mother who loves her baby understands this. When the baby cries, she doesn’t simply stuff his mouth with a bottle of milk. She holds him, she feels his discomfort, she may make sounds similar to the ones he is making, she may rock him in her arms, and rock her own self along. The baby feels that he is no longer alone in his pain, but is feeling the pain together with the mother. The pain can be accepted. Then, if needed, the mother feeds the baby.
It is a simple lesson in life that our first experience of love tells us – pain, when felt together, and not in isolation, is easier on us. It also gives way to a sense of beauty – in this case, the beauty of human intimacy.
Most of us have had too little of this lesson, and we tend to forget it as we grow older.
Coming back to our question, do you have a mental illness?
Mental health professionals often use the Diagnostic Statistical Manual – DSM for short, to diagnose mental illness. The first edition of the DSM was published in 1952. It contained a description of 60 mental illnesses, with their symptoms, causes, treatments. In 2015, the 5th edition of the DSM was published. It contained a description of 157 mental illnesses.
Have human brains changed so much over 63 years, that now we have almost three times as many mental illnesses? Is there a new mental illness every year?
One fact is overshadowed in all our discussion of mental health and mental illness. Which is this –
The concept of ‘mental illness’ is simply that, a concept. A concept is not an experience. Bipolar personality disorder is not an experience, it is a concept, that is, a description of an experience. A concept is a description of a real human experience, meant to help us understand that experience better. The same experience can also be understood by other concepts.
One person may use the concept ‘migraine’ for your pain and treat it with pills. Another person may use the concept ‘toxicity’ for your pain and treat it by trying to remove that toxicity.
There are other ways to look at human suffering than the medical concepts of mental illness and mental health. Medicine is one organised body of concepts that describes human experience. There is no reason it should be the only such body of concepts. Here is another one, usually called humanistic and depth psychology –
There are ways to not label, but come in close experiential contact with what we experience. There are ways to learn to accept our pain rather than fight it. When we stop fighting it, when we accept the inevitability of pain if we are truly to live life, the pain slowly goes. Our efforts to fight the pain, which were causing further pain, also go.
The pain will come back, but it may come back to a different person, one who is not perpetually in flight mode from pain, but one who has come to a space of living with pain and the possibilities of transformation it brings.
When not fought, pain gives a sense of purpose. Sorrow inspires us to desire more deeply. Anxiety shows us that we are far more than the weak, little person we have identified ourselves with. Anger gives us courage to change ourselves and the situations we are stuck in. Anger has started revolutions. Sometimes the most quiet, non-violent ones.
In this way of looking at things, suffering is truly a flame. When touched, it sets us afire and transforms us. Usually, we never touch this flame, because it hurts. We only feel its heat and try to manage it.
So, do you have a mental illness?
You can choose to see it like that. You can choose to take a pill for depression. We are all drawn to those conceptual frameworks that resonate with our underlying philosophy of life. Sometimes a pill is the only thing that will get you immediately out of bed and go to work. Sometimes, perhaps, one needs to do that. Sometimes that seems to be the only way to stop a person from harming himself or others. Sometimes, and seemingly. And always because of the inability of our society to respond to human suffering and contain it.
You can also choose to step out of that framework, and simply see yourself as a human being in pain. As all human beings, for 2 million years, have been, to one degree or another.
An additional reason for suffering is that one is a human being maladjusted to a society that is profoundly distorted.
When a key doesn’t fit into a lock, it is not necessary that the key is bad. The lock may have gone bad too. When a human being doesn’t fit into society, or family, or workplace, it is not necessary that the human being is ill.
In the hands of an insensitive mental health professional, ‘mental illness’ and maladjustment may become synonymous. The first edition of the DSM considered homosexuality an illness. Many people still do. We should always be aware when health and moral judgement are mixed up. Even today, there are people who may say, “You need help” as a way of abusing someone they don’t like. Many of us know the painful and strange experience of being told, “You should see a psychiatrist”, as a way of putting you down.
The maladjustment might just be a gift – a way out into a calmer way of life, with deeper capacity to love.
Then you wouldn’t think of mental illness and mental health, like a fever to be given a Paracatemol, but of human experience, of pain and of freedom, and the unending, infinite, adventure that the inner life truly is.