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What it Means to be a Person

Mental health can be thought of as a way of talking about how much autonomy we have in our relationship with the world. This is a fairly obvious statement, once we come to reflect on it. We’re basically saying that ‘good mental health is when we are true to ourselves’ – which is so obviously true as to be hardly worth coming out with. “This above all: to thine own self be true…” says Shakespeare. But even though this approach to what constitutes good mental health makes such abundant sense, we don’t actually follow it when it comes right down to it. We might pay lip service to Shakespeare’s dictum but that’s as far as it goes. Our default approach to the matter goes completely contrary to this – we almost always think of mental health in normative terms. It’s as if we can’t help thinking of mental health in normative terms…


‘Normative’ means that we define mental health in relation to some sort of external standard. We can do this in a more or less ‘instinctive’ way by noticing whether the person in question is different to everyone around them (i.e. the rest of us) and then evaluate them as being ‘not right’, or we can do it more ‘scientifically’ by having a set of agreed-upon criteria and then seeing how the person being assessed scores. An example of this would be the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used in psychiatry. In the past health has been explicitly defined by relating the person’s behaviour and capacities to the societal norm / social expectations; thus we have one such definition of health given as ‘the capacity of the individual to carry out his or her socialized tasks’ (Galli, 1976, Foundations of Health Promotion). If you can do what society wants you to do, then you are by definition healthy! Such a definition of health is of course hopelessly arbitrary since whatever the society in questions regards as normal automatically becomes ‘the right way to be’.  Definitions of mental health have not changed that much in modern times; the World Health Organization’s (2005) definition of mental health is given by Wikipedia as –


a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.


This is a more refined type of a definition to be sure but it is still normative in nature with regard to the last two points; it is also still arguably normative with regard to the last point since the only type of abilities the individual does or does not manage to realize are undoubtedly going to be abilities that are valued or recognized by society as a whole. The point is of course that it is not very easy to say what a ‘non-normatively defined’ way of talking about mental health might be since terms like ‘well-being’ are synonyms for ‘mental health’ rather than actual definitions. One obvious source of confusion – we might say – is the way that physical medicine has been expanded to cover disturbances mental health – the very fact that we still  speak about ‘mental illness’ (as if it were something like influenza or herpes or appendicitis) shows that we are making assumptions in this way. Just because parameters of physical health such as body temperature, blood pressure or blood glucose levels can be normatively defined we can’t seem to help assuming that the same must be true for mental health, i.e. that there are standard values that we can refer to in order to assess the presence or absence of health. That only works for machines. The body – being a physical kind of thing which needs to run within very strict operating parameters, can of course be treated (at least to some degree) as ‘a machine’ (this is what medicine does) – but it does not follow that we can do this with the more essential aspect of ourselves, which is emphatically not machine-like in nature (no matter what the behaviourists may have told us to the contrary). Having a normatively defined view of mental health assumes that we already know ‘the way that we should be’, and we don’t. We have plenty of ideas on this subject to be sure, but that’s all they are – ideas



What we are looking at here is the question of ‘what it means to be a human being’, ‘what it means to be a person’. This is a very straightforward-sounding question to be sure but it turns out to be one that we just can’t answer. If we do try to answer it by coming out with some formula or other what we invariably discover is that all we have done is to bring our unexamined prejudices into play. Anything we say on the subject of ‘what it means to be a person’ is inevitably going to reflect our conditioning, our unconscious cultural programming. After all, the process of socialization is all about telling us (in a fashion that is both implicit and explicit) exactly what it means to be a person.  “Give me the child and I will give you the man” as the Jesuits (following St Francis Xavier) have said. As far as the process of conditioning goes this is of course a closed loop since the reason we see the right way to be a person as being this way or that way is only because we ourselves have been taught to unreflectively accept this blueprint.



Anything we might say about what it means to be a person is therefore no more than a reflection (which we are faithfully parroting back) of the limiting assumptions that we have been programmed with since early childhood. Even if we do our level best to get out of this trap by being as unbiased as we can there’s still nothing we can do improve matters. Words and concepts are themselves unexamined biases and so how are we to escape the prison of our language, the prison of our thought processes? All definite statements or suppositions are misleading assumptions when it comes to describing what it means to be a person. This doesn’t mean that being a person isn’t anything (in the sense of being very vague and nebulous) – it just means that to be a person is not to be ‘a thing’. We aren’t things, so how can we be talked about as things? How can science possibly provide us with a language that will enable us not to talk about ourselves as though we were mere things? Poetry might be able to go some way to undoing the violence that has been done to us, but no ‘technical’ language ever can. What’s ‘technical’ about being a person, after all? A technical language works by relating everything to an assumed mechanical context or framework, to ‘a set of rules’, and what has any mechanical context or set of rules have to do with what it means for us to be true to who we really are?



As soon as we start talking about ‘anything that isn’t a thing’ we automatically make it into a thing. That’s what any literal language does, that’s what rational thought does – it commits violence. As soon as we apply a mechanical framework we coerce what we’re talking about into conforming to our unexamined assumptions; we’re slotting it into the crude box that we have made for it without ever acknowledging that this is what we are doing. This is true for everyday language and it is equally true for so-called ‘scientific language’ – by making what seems to us to be objectively true rational statements or measurements, we have of course turned human beings into mere ‘things’. By imagining that we ‘know how John’s mind works’ we have turned John into a thing; by making him into the object of scientific study, the object of our knowledge we have done just that – we have made him into ‘an object’. This isn’t in any way scientific really because a person can’t be made into the object of scientific study the same way that an electron or a methane molecule (to some extent, anyway) can. Actually – if there truth were to be known – we can’t even make electrons or methane molecules into the object of scientific study. We can’t make them into the object of scientific study because there are no such things as ‘electrons’ or ‘methane molecules’! To say that there is such a thing as an electron implies very much that there is some sort of sealed-off, ‘self-contained’ unit called an electron that we can diligently study and find out about but this is not the case – an electron isn’t a self-contained unit but a relationship. In the words of Christopher Alan Anderson (2013) –


There is another misunderstanding that has affected our understanding of nature. In looking for a material building block, we look for something that is singular as well. We have been looking for “a thing-in-itself”. Again, quantum mechanics throws confusion on this idea. On an everyday level, things seem discretely singular. But in the subatomic realm, nothing is singular. In fact, any effort to even study or study something on the infinitesimal level so affects the thing that it is no longer the same “something”. On the subatomic level, finding an electron requires running another electron into it. Well, imagine what a car would look like if we had to smash another car into it to find it. It would not look like the same car. So it would seem, then, we cannot capture a non-interfered particle, a “thing-in-itself”, to thereby decipher “real” reality. Philosophically speaking, it appears that we cannot even proceed into the forest to see if the tree makes a sound for we cannot tell what the “forest” really is. But it should be realized that the forest, or tree, or particle, only manifests itself through the relationship between itself and that which it interacts with. There isn’t any unobserved, non-interfered, or unaffected state that we may label as “true reality”.  …


There are, as Christopher Anderson points out in the passage reproduced above, no such things as self-contained units since things are what they are by virtue of their relationship with everything else! No ‘thing’ exists in isolation; there are – when it comes down to it – ‘no such thing as things’. As Bodhidharma says, ‘From the very beginning, not a thing was...’


No one knows what it means to be a person (just as no one knows what it means to be an electron since there isn’t – in reality – such a discrete entity as the name would suggest) and because no one knows what it means to be a person there can be no such thing as a ‘normatively-defined standard’ of the right or healthy way to be a person.  No guidelines exist, no conveniently standardized assessment tools exist. No one knows ‘how we should be’. Of course, we might say something like “the right way to be is to be happy or at peace or whatever” and try to use this as a criterion for mental health or well-being but aside from the fact that neither ‘happiness’ or ‘peace of mind’ can themselves be defined (apart from saying that they are consequences of us being true to ourselves, which is what we started off by saying) no one can actually say that “it isn’t right” that we should be unhappy, disturbed, anxious, lacking in confidence, self-blaming and so on. From a strictly rational point of view, it makes sense to say this (i.e. that I should be happy rather than sad) but wisdom says otherwise. It can’t after all be ‘wrong’ for us to be in the particular mind-state that we’re in – to say this is ridiculous! Where is this attitude going to get us?


Mental health isn’t an ideal state, it isn’t about being the way we want to be, or the way we think we ought to be, it is when we have the honesty or integrity to be the way that we actually are. As Neale Donald Walsh says in Conversations with God, we always insist on ‘making ourselves wrong’. In a narrow, rational sort of a way things can (and often are) wrong – in reality however, there can be no such thing as ‘wrong’. If it’s happening, if it’s the way you’re feeling at the moment, then it can’t be wrong. The present moment, as it unfolds in its never-to-be-repeated way, is the key to everything. If we ‘make it wrong’, then our suffering is magnified a hundredfold and we move further and further away from any possibility of peace of mind, and a return to true wellness. Stephan Hoeller (1982) expresses this very well when he talks of the Gnostic as being –


..a seeker of autonomy inasmuch as he strives for a state of consciousness wherein his own law is declared to him day by day and moment by moment by his indwelling divine intuition.


Autonomy is thus where we follow our own law rather than the law that is given to us by some external authority (the external authority being the thinking or judging mind). Just as long as we are orientated towards some ideal state of ‘mental health’ (i.e. just so long as we are comparing the present moment to some sort of mental yardstick which is telling us the way that we should be) we are actually in a state of conflict with ‘our own law’ – as Stephan Hoeller puts it; rather than accepting the unfolding present moment (which as Alan Watts says we have no choice about!) we are fighting as hard as we can against it. We’ve made a whole industry, a whole way of life of fighting against the unfolding present moment. We are very far indeed from being ‘true to ourselves’, therefore – we actually couldn’t be further from it!



Any type of normative (or equilibrium-based) definition of mental health is always going to result in us ‘fighting against ourselves’. There can’t be any ‘comparison-making’ form of wellness that doesn’t involve us turning our back ‘on our own law, as it is being declared to us, day by day, moment by moment, by our own indwelling divine intuition’. It is the case therefore that what we usually call ‘mental health’ is actually nothing of the sort; what we call good mental health – when we are speaking normatively, as we almost always are – is some kind of an unattainable ‘ideal’ that we are compelled to try to live up to. Inasmuch as this involves us struggling on a continuous basis against the way we actually are (which is necessarily does) what we call ‘mental health’ isn’t health at all but its actual antithesis. It’s an artificial state of being which is only ever going to result in suffering for as long as we adhere to it. And just so long as we place the thinking/judging mind on a pedestal, and value what the ‘rational output’ of this mind has to say over our deeper wisdom, we always are going to be adhering to ‘the suffering-producing ideal’…




Art: Black Eyes by Megamoto85





Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.

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  • Zach

    Hey Nick! I am LOVING all of your essays. So insightful and clear. Just wanted to say “Thank you!”.
    , Zach

    January 24, 2017 at 6:48 am