Our attempts to work in a helpful way with mental health issues are – because of cultural biases in the way we understand ‘mental health’ in the first place – jinxed from the very onset. In essence, the state of being that we implicitly see as being ‘mentally healthy’ is not healthy at all, but merely a state of ‘successful social adaptation’. From a purely normative standpoint, being socially adapted is of course a text-book definition of mental health; from the point of view of each individual person however (i.e. from the point of view of considering, as psychotherapists do, what is true or authentic for the actual person in question), being maximally socially adapted is the definition of impaired mental health. After all, how on earth can I be mentally healthy if I am not authentically myself?
There are lots of ways that we could try to define what being mentally healthy is, aside from the normative way – which is actually no more than a way of defining a collectively validated ideal or (or, from a thermodynamic viewpoint, what we might call the attractor state or equilibrium value). We could for example say that it is when we are spontaneous in ourselves, and not ruled by dogmatic ideas or beliefs. Or we could say that it is when we have a sense of humour and do not therefore take ourselves and life too seriously (which is completely at odds with how adults are traditionally supposed to be in our culture). We could also say that it is when we are playful instead of being driven and purposeful (i.e. ‘goal-orientated’) the whole time (which is again how we as ‘responsible adults’ are supposed to be in Western culture).
We could say that to be mentally healthy is to be genuinely curious about the world, rather than looking for advantage all the time, looking for ways in which we can benefit ourselves. This type of innocent curiosity tends very much to be something that we leave behind with childhood, since we implicitly understand life as being something that we already understand, which means that all there is left to do is act purposefully or deliberately in the way that this so-called ‘understanding’ (which is really no more than our social conditioning or social programming) dictates to us. We could say that being mentally healthy means that we have compassion for everyone around us, and that our actions are based on love rather than some dry mechanical understanding or formula instructing us with regard to what is ‘the right thing to do’ (which is a thing that we call morality). This too is clearly very far from being the case – instead of being compassionate we are ‘polite’, instead of loving we ‘obey the game rules’, we go ‘through the motions’. This generally involves simulating concern for other people (or perhaps imagining that we are concerned) rather than actually feeling it.
We could also try to define the state of mental health by saying that it is the state of being in which we are not afraid to take risks. This is a deceptively simple approach to the matter – the notion of ‘risk taking’ underpins in an elegant way everything we have said in the previous two paragraphs. In the general run of things, how we are see the world is determined either by rules or by precedent (i.e. sheer force of habit) both of which of course come down to exactly the same thing. Social conditioning governs all the important stuff – how we are to think about life, how we are to think of ourselves, what our role is, what our major goals and ideals should be, and so forth. All the less important type of stuff – such as what brand of toothpaste we use, what programs we want to watch on TV, what we want to have for dinner, what colour top we want to wear, what football club we want to support, what political or religious viewpoint we want to take, and so on, we can work out for ourselves. That’s pretty much up to us.
Every ‘choice’ we make in life can be considered a ‘risk’ – anything that’s up to us (and not decided for us) is a risk. Being autonomous (or independent) is a risk. The point is however that we are always a good deal less autonomous than we think we are: we have already argued that social conditioning determines the bigger picture of how we see the world, how we see ourselves and how we understand our role or purpose in the world, but it is also the case that even when we think we are making choices the chances are that there is a hell of a lot less freedom in this process than we might naively imagine there to be. Whenever I make a choice it is almost certainly going to be the case that there are prejudicing factors at work behind the scenes – random invisible biases that I have picked up somewhere along the way. So even in the realm of ‘trivial choice’ (which is where I get to choose what brand of toothpaste I want to buy, what colour pants I want to wear, what political party or ideology I want to follow, etc) the chances are that I have been secretly ‘set up’ to make whatever choice I do make by my randomly-acquired unconscious biasing factors. This therefore is just another form of precedence, albeit a subtler manifestation of it. So because it’s precedence there’s no risk involved, and because there’s no risk involved I am not being autonomous or independent. Because there is no risk involved I am not being ‘who I really am’.
All of this is just to say that whilst we think that we start off from a position of being ‘mentally healthy’ (i.e. that being mentally healthy is the normal or baseline way to be) this isn’t so at all. That’s only true if we buy into the normative definition and say that ‘being like everyone else’ (or ‘seeing the world like everyone else does’) is an indication of good mental health. With any degree of reflection at all however this assumption can be seen to be utterly ridiculous – it is an unconscious person’s way of thinking about things. A normative definition of mental health is just like saying “Anything goes” – it’s like saying “When I do what everyone else is doing then I must be mentally well in myself”. Mental health is thus being defined in a back-to-front kind of a way as the lack of autonomy or individuality.
And if it is true that being heteronomous rather than autonomous is the way to go, it follows that seeing things differently to everyone else (having a unique outlook) must be unhealthy, must be pathological, must be a problem to be fixed or ironed out. This statement might sound pretty pathological in itself but it is nevertheless the case that this is how human societies have always functioned – by rewarding conformity to the group norms and punishing non-conformity. That is how small social groups work, and it is also how the ‘big group’ which is society works, and has always worked. This fact does not make it ‘healthy’ however.
The key point here is that following the rules, sticking to the precedents, adhering to the established way of things, is easy. It’s super easy. Everything’s laid out for me, its all spelled out A,B,C fashion and all I have to do is follow the guidelines that I have been given, all I have to do is to faithfully repeat the pattern I’ve been taught to repeat. All I have to do is echo the lesson that has been drilled into me so many times. And because the pattern, the precedence, has been drilled into me so effectively (either by the external authority of the culture that I have been brought up in, or by the equally compelling authority of my own habits, my own habitual way of being in the world) I don’t have to think about what I have to do in any given situation. The pattern springs into action all by itself, it manifests as a fully-fledged automatic reflex and all I have to do is let myself get passively carried along with it. What could be easier than this?
And even putting it like this isn’t stating the matter correctly – I don’t actually ‘let’ myself get carried along by the reflex because I’m not given any choice in the matter. The reflex in question doesn’t consult with me or ask my permission, after all. I don’t have any choice in being swept along with the conditioned reflex and neither do I know that I don’t have any choice in being swept along, which means that we don’t have to confront the brutally uncompromising fact that I have zero freedom in all this. Instead of confronting the reality of what is going on therefore I simply enact the impulse, I enact the reflex reaction, whilst imagining the whole time that I am the author of my own activity, the instigator of my own behaviour. As David Bohm says in Thought as a System, the thinking process generates (as part of its operation) the convivial illusion that it is us who are thinking our thoughts, rather than allowing us to see the unpalatable truth of the situation, which is that the thoughts are thinking themselves.
The mild little word ‘easy’ hardly does justice to the situation that we are talking about here: I don’t even have to give my consent to what is going on; even this little bit of an autonomous input is not required of me, even this modest amount of participation is not needed. Instead, everything happens without me and whilst it happens I am furnished with the entirely spurious impression that “I am doing it”. So the only ‘work’ involved here is whatever work it takes to ‘believe in an illusion’. The only work involved here is the work it takes for me to ‘believe whatever it is that the conditioning wants me to believe’. And this – needless to say – isn’t any sort of work at all. I don’t have to put any effort into ‘believing the illusion’ – all that is taken care of for me by the conditioning, which can always be relied on to take care of everything all by itself.
What is happening here then is that the reflexes, the patterns, the precedents, the rules, etc are enacting themselves through me, without any volitional participation on my part. I am – in a word – redundant. Stuff might be done ‘in my name’, but that of course is just a cover story, a gimmick to conceal what is really going on. We can therefore say that not only is my role in the proceedings completely illusory, but also that (because my idea or concept of myself is entirely based on my unquestioning belief in the illusion which has been generated by the conditioning I am helplessly subject to) I myself – as I understand myself – must be an illusion produced by the thinking process, engineered by the system of thought.
This brings a whole new dimension to what is meant by the word ‘easy’ as applied to my existence as a ‘conditioned’ (rather than an ‘awake’) being. ‘Easy’ here entails nothing less than the complete and unreserved handing over of responsibility to some convenient external authority. Handing over all responsibility in this way means that I forthwith cease to exist in any real (or autonomous) sense of the word; I only exist in a virtual (or heteronomous) sense. Not to put too fine a point on it, taking the ‘easy option’ of going along with my conditioning means that I simply don’t have any genuine existence. I have no genuine ‘being’. I don’t really exist – I just think that I do…
Putting things this way allows us to come up with a radical new definition of what it means to be ‘mentally healthy’ – we can say that being mentally healthy is when we are actually present as who we really are, rather than existing as a mere concept or image generated by the system of thought.
We can say that being mentally healthy means not being defined by society, by other people, or by other people’s ideas which have somehow taken up residence in our own heads. Or we could say that being mentally healthy simply means not being defined at all – not by anyone, not even by ourselves. After all, if it is only thinking that defines things then it stands to reason that if we allow ourselves to be ‘defined by thinking’ it must inevitably be the case that we’re not being who we really are, but only who we think we are!
This is a curious reversal of our normal way of understanding things – normally we feel that we only exist if we can define ourselves (which is to say, if we can say who we definitely are). We’re not real unless we can define ourselves and so our search for what we are pleased to call an ‘identity’ really comes down to ‘the search for a handy definition’. Of course there are desirable definitions and there are undesirable ones (i.e. I can define myself either in a positive or a negative way) but even the most desirable or positive of definitions is still a definition, i.e. it is still no more than just another illusory ‘thought-created construct’.
The truth of the matter (as we have just argued) is that if I am defined then I don’t exist. Or we could say, ‘if I am defined then I only have a virtual existence’. Who I am is thus a mere shadow rather than a reality, and therefore this exclusive identification of oneself with a two-dimensional mental image is not in any way what we could describe as a ‘healthy’ state of affairs. If we consider that the root of the word ‘health’ is, as Alan Watts says somewhere, the Old English ‘hale’ (i.e. ‘whole’) then this becomes even more apparent since it is abundantly clear that there is a radical disparity between ‘the whole of who I am’ and ‘a mere two-dimensional mental image of who I am’!
So our normal way of seeing things is to say that I am only real (i.e. I only exist) if I am defined, whilst the more reflective (or psychologically insightful) way of seeing things is to say that I am only real (or only exist) if I am not defined. Since it is, as we have said, the thinking mind that defines, this translates as saying that we are only whole (or ‘mentally healthy’) when we are no longer trapped in our rational mind. In short, we are only mentally healthy when we are ‘out of our minds’.
So, just to summarize everything that we have been saying here – in our regular or default mode of being what happens (for the most part) is that the reflexes, the rules, the precedents, are acting themselves out through me without any permission, assent, or even genuine awareness on my part being needed. I’m just a puppet in other words – the puppet of my programming. I might appear (on the nominal level of things) to be my true self but this is no more than a convenient fiction. It is ‘convenient’ because it doesn’t rock the boat; because it covers up the highly inconvenient truth of the situation. In reality I am no more than ‘my conditioning’, and even saying this isn’t right since the conditioning in no sense belongs to me, but rather I belong to it.
This mode of being, this condition of not being a genuine unique and autonomous individual but only thinking that I am, can hardly be described as being ‘mentally healthy’ – no matter what any text-book normative definition might have us believe. In what way is ‘not being present as the autonomous being I am really am’ a mentally healthy state? In what way is ‘being the unwitting puppet of my randomly-acquired programming’ a healthy (or ‘wholesome’) way to be?
A very straightforward non-equilibrium definition of mental health would therefore be to say that being mentally healthy is to be actually here – to be actually present. From this way of looking at things to be mentally healthy is to exist as a genuinely autonomous (and therefore undeluded) being, rather than existing as an infinitely thin façade for a motley collection of randomly-acquired rules or precedents, as the inauthentic ‘front man’ for some ungainly mish-mash of conditioning…
Becoming mentally healthy (or ‘Whole’) thus means being born as the person we actually are beneath all the social programming. It entails making the arduous journey from the realm of latency (i.e. the realm of what could be) into the realm of actuality. This journey involves tremendous work – work that we have to do all on our own. This isn’t something that we can learn from a book, or learn on a course in university; what we generally understand as ‘learning’ invariably involves taking on yet more conditioning, or ‘swapping the conditioning we have for something different’. There is no way that ‘buying into a collectively validated viewpoint’ can help for this sort of thing since this is by definition going to involve moving into some equilibrium position rather than moving out of one.
Making the transition from the realm of potentiality into the realm of actuality involves a particular type of work – not the work of struggling to achieve a goal but the work of committing oneself to the risk of existence, the risk of actually being present as an autonomous or independent being.
This type of work involves, we might say, committing ourselves to the hugely difficult process of ‘learning not to run away’ – as we habitually do run away – from the tremendous and utterly terrifying risk of being who we really are…
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.