There are two distinct and very different approaches to mental health and the existence and nature of this difference is something that is very rarely – if ever – emphasized. The most familiar approach is the doing one – the idea being that good mental health can be brought about by what we do, by steps that we can take. This approach necessarily involves models (or theories) so that on the one hand we have the steps or the methods, and on the other hand we have the rationale, which is the ‘justification’ for the methodology. This whole idea of having a model of the world (or some aspect of the world) and then having some definite course of action that is based on this model is so very familiar to us that we hardly need to say any more about it, other than perhaps to make the point that it is essentially a rational, goal-orientated approach. In other words, it always comes down to a sequence of steps or actions which make sense to us, and which are carried out in order to obtain a known and specified outcome.
We are so comfortable with this way of operating in the world that it tends to be hard for us to even imagine that there might be some other approach to life. In the technologically based culture that we live in we are so steeped in the rational-purposeful way of doing things that anything else seems ridiculously airy-fairy. What other approach to mental health could there be? The other – less familiar – approach to mental health is not based on doing, but on seeing. The initial reaction to the seeing approach is to wonder what good seeing my mental distress or our unhappiness can do. After all, aren’t I seeing it anyway and isn’t that how I know I am distressed or unhappy in the first place? What I really want is for you to tell me how to do something about it. I definitely don’t want to be told that all I need to do is to see how unhappy or distressed I am.
That is the initial reaction. With a bit time spent in reflection however the second approach starts to make more sense. I automatically assume that I am seeing what is going on but if I were to take more notice of what is actually going on with me what I will inevitably discover is that I am not so much seeing what is happening as I am reacting to it. This is where the first bit of insight comes in – when something difficult happens to me I react to it, I object to it, I struggle against it one way or another. I straightaway label whatever is going on as being a ‘bad thing’ and having labelled it I don’t spend any more time paying attention to it – why would I, when I already know everything I need to know about it. Evaluating my situation takes a fraction of a second and having evaluated it I immediately put all my energy into either fixing it or fleeing it. This is what I would like to do but the whole point of mental distress is that I can’t simply fix or flee it – if I could then I would straightaway feel better and so there wouldn’t be any distress. The whole problem – as far as I am concerned – is that there is no way to ‘do’ something about whatever it is that is proving difficult for me.
ANXIETY AS ‘UNREFLECTIVE DOING’
But just because I cannot change whatever is going on with me that doesn’t mean that I stop reacting – on the contrary, I carry on reacting, but in a perfectly futile way. Furthermore, my reacting is not simply futile but also counterproductive and thus my futile ‘automatic counterproductive reacting’ becomes the problem itself, rather than whatever trigger it was that caused the reacting in the first place. For example, in a panic attack it is the frantic desperate doing that causes all the trouble, not the fear that triggered this activity. This frantic activity is itself highly distressing, it is itself a great cause of suffering because in a panic attack I am ‘reacting to my reacting’ and then reacting in turn to this reacting-to-my-reacting, and the whole thing is spiralling out of control. The same principle applies to all other forms of anxiety. When I am suffering from general anxiety, it is the constant ongoing worrying that is the problem, and this worrying or fretting is the reacting. It is my ongoing automatic attempt to do something about my underlying insecurity that causes all the upset. If I simply allow myself to see that I am feeling this deep-down insecurity (without immediately labelling it as unacceptable and then reacting automatically on the basis of this unnecessary evaluation) then there is no anxiety, no worrying.
‘PUSHING IT AWAY’ OR ‘PUSHING IT DOWN’
In anger also it is the reaction that causes all the problems. If I just allow myself to see that I am hurt (without immediately saying to myself that it is totally unacceptable that I should be hurt, and then automatically reacting on this basis) then there is no anger. What we call anger is only the reacting. In anorexia it is the doing, the controlling, that is the problem, just as in obsessive compulsive disorder it is the doing that causes the harm. In addictions in general we feel a certain sort of inner pain, and the addictive behaviour – whatever it is – is simply the ongoing attempt to fix or flee this pain. This makes sense when talking about the more ‘actively’ distressed states of mind like anxiety, where there is some kind of overt behaviour involved, but how does it apply to the more passive manifestations of unhappiness? It is not so easy to see for example how depression could be the result of some sort of ‘doing’, but we can argue the case in a very straightforward way by thinking in terms of acting out versus repression, which are the two basic forms of ‘reaction’ (i.e. psychological avoidance) that are available to us. If I am trying to avoid my own mental pain I have two options, two roads to go down: I can attempt to displace the pain outside of me via some kind behaviour or I can leave it where it is and ignore it, bury it, blank it out somehow. In the first case I am pushing the pain away from me and sending it somewhere else, like an unwanted parcel that I am returning to the postman or handing over to some random passer-by, and in the second case I am pushing it down inside myself, hiding it away where I can’t see it. These two methods are very different in how they manifest but they both come down to the very same thing – avoiding mental or emotional pain.
Depression may generally be said to be an example of repression rather than acting out. Depression is often confused with sadness but there is a key difference. If I am sad then I am alive to my own inner pain, I am open to it rather than running away from it. In depression however it is clear that I am dead or ‘closed down’ to my own sadness, and this closing down is a reaction of the type we have called repression. The difference to being alive to one’s sadness as opposed to being dead to it is very clear indeed – if I am depressed then everything about me resonates with being shut down, closed, uninterested in my own pain. If on the other hand I am very sad then I have given myself to this sadness completely, without reservation – I have abandoned myself to the emotion.
Depression may be said to be a last ditch attempt to repress sadness, to deny any knowledge of it, to turn our backs on it, to disown it. The act of ‘shutting down’ in this way is not a visible behaviour but it is an act all the same – it is a desperate, last-ditch strategy which I enact in order to protect myself from pain. It may be the case that I have shut down, closed off, withdrawn from life, a good while before anyone, including myself, notice that I am showing any signs of depression and this may be described as the ‘successful’ phase of the repression – I have repressed my sadness without realizing that I have repressed anything and so the strategy is working. This type of ‘success’ comes at a terrible price however – not only is it the case that the original sadness is still there and will one day burst out, but in addition to this the strategy of disconnecting myself from life so thoroughly brings its own pain. Most of the pain in depression comes from feeling alienated from life – I feel heavy, inert, hollow, disconnected from everything that ought to matter to me. I have protected myself from my own sadness at a cost and the cost is that I have also ‘protected’ myself from everything else – I am cut off from life itself.
DOING SOMETHING ABOUT DEPRESSION
It is significant that in depression the option of ‘doing’ seems to have been effectively taken away from me. No longer do I have the option of acting out or distracting myself, far less getting involved in pursuing goals that seem valuable or interesting to me. It is as if the sense of automatic self-validation that has never let me down up to this point finally leaves me, and I no longer see the point in pursuing activities for my own benefit – I simply don’t feel justified in self-assertive or self-seeking behaviour. I ‘haven’t the heart for it’. This state of affairs is met with particular horror in our doing-based culture – it is as if we are fundamentally insecure with regard to our own process of ‘automatic self-validation’, that automatic mechanism by which we never have to question ourselves. And it is only natural that we are insecure because that mechanism is a mere gimmick, a trick that only works when we don’t look at it too closely. We do not wish to risk contagion therefore because we unconsciously know only too well that we are walking on very thin ice indeed in this regard.
When confronted with depression in others therefore our reaction is to go very much into doing mode – we offer positive advice, we exhort the sufferer to make every effort to fight the depression, to not ‘give in’ to it, and so on. We aggressively tackle it with a regime of symptom-suppressing medication, or a strict course of thought-modifying cognitive therapy. The one thing we don’t – as a culture – do is to show any interest at all in the learning the lesson that depression brings. As always, we exalt doing over seeing, even if the doing in question doesn’t really make much sense if we were to actually sit down and think about it.
SEEING IS IRRATIONAL AND POINTLESS
This general way of looking at mental distress applies across the board – if we took the time to think about it we would see that it is always the reacting that constitutes the problem, and so the idea of ‘doing something about this reacting’ – which would in itself only be another level of reacting – doesn’t seem like such a great idea. Trying to do something about our doing just adds another level of confusion and counter-productivity on top of everything else. ‘Seeing’ on the other hand means going right back to the very beginning of the process and refraining from evaluating, refraining from reacting, so the whole business never gets started in the first place. There is no need to ‘do’ anything because it is in the doing that we go astray.
Whilst doing is rational and purposeful, seeing is necessarily neither. If seeing came out of a particular picture or map of reality, as purposeful doing does, then it would not be seeing at all (in the sense of open receptivity) but simply a projection or extension of the map. One way of talking about this difference is in terms of seeing versus looking. We can say that ‘seeing’ is an open-ended sort of thing, that it is an essentially unbiased or unprejudiced way of apprehending the world, whereas ‘looking’ is where we already know what kind of action we are going to encounter, and we already know what format we are going to encounter it in.
Looking is therefore just another way of talking about purposeful doing – not only do we already know the format in which the information is going to be appearing in, we also have a purpose in mind for this information. Looking yields information that understandable to us within the terms of reference that we already possess, and the whole point is that this information will help us to obtain the over-all goal that we are striving towards. Looking is rational and purposeful, in other words.
BEING ATTACHED TO THE SYSTEM
Seeing is nothing like this. We have no end in mind in seeing, and because of this what we see is not readily understandable in terms of our framework of reference, our ideas and beliefs. The basic problem that lies behind all types and manifestations of mental distress is not that we can’t get reality to obediently match our arbitrary ideas and beliefs (which is very much how we tend to see it) but that these arbitrary ideas and beliefs of ours are always being valued over reality. It is our narrow and limited understanding of reality that is the problem, not the fact that reality itself consistently fails to conform to our understanding.
Looking can never help us here because looking always confirms the original assumption that we started off with, it always supports our original framework of reference, no matter how narrow that framework is. I am only ever looking for stuff that I know, after all, in the places that I expect to find it. I am simply trying to patch up or repair the system that has created all the problems in the first place, because I am so unreflectively attached to that system. My system, my way of understanding the world, comes first, it comes before everything else and this means that if I cannot be happy, or mentally well, with my system, in accordance with its narrow assumptions, then I will not be happy at all.
BEING UNATTACHED TO THE SYSTEM
Seeing has no allegiance to the system, to our established way of thinking, and for this reason it seems strange to us. Out of some kind of ‘unconscious loyalty,’ we automatically reject anything our established way of thinking doesn’t allow us to understand. We always look for the answer in the places that our assumptions lead us to look for them and if anyone suggests that there may be no useful answers here, in the realm of what we already know and understand, then we are scandalized, shocked, dismissive. The idea that we can only work towards our own mental health by not working towards it seems profoundly incomprehensible to us. We just don’t get it at all. Our whole emphasis is on finding an ‘answer’, a procedure or method, that is both understandable to us and directed towards an end, an end which is generally synonymous with me fixing or otherwise eradicating whatever mental distress I am in.
But when I work towards a known goal, using whatever rational procedures I am given, I am never going to widen my horizons. I am never going to go beyond my own limited understanding. Even if I say that I am working towards my own ‘mental health’, that concept itself is only a reflection of my unexamined assumptions, my own ignorance. When I try to ‘benefit myself’ what I am actually doing is trying to benefit my limited idea of myself, my narrow assumptions about who I am. Really what I am doing is unreflectively clinging onto my old way of looking at things, no matter what. I am continuing to cling to my illusions despite the fact that these illusions never did me any favours in the first place! All they ever did was restrict me, limit me, and thwart my growth. They only ever brought me pain.
INCREASING INTERNAL FREEDOM
When I look for an answer, with an idea of what that answer is going to be like, and with an idea of how that answer is going to help me or benefit me, then I am never going to get anywhere. Looking can never widen me, it can never broaden my understanding of myself and the world I live in. It can never genuinely help me any more than doing can. Looking only ever tells me what I already know and doing can only ever get me what I already know about. Seeing on the other hand takes me beyond all that, it takes me out of that stale old loop. Looking provides me at best with knowledge only, but knowledge has nothing whatsoever to do with metal health or mental well-being. Knowledge – which we make so much of in our technologically-orientated culture – is nothing more than filling in the gaps, filling in the details, within a scheme or system that has already been established. Knowledge always supports the established way of seeing things and so the more knowledge I have the more stuck I am. The more I know the more hopelessly mired I become in an over-all way of seeing the world that I just can’t question, not even if my life depended on it.
Mental health – in a nutshell – comes down to becoming unstuck. The less encumbered with invisible preconceptions and unquestionable rules I am the freer I am in myself, and this ‘internal freedom’ is the very essence of freedom. Gaining internal freedom means shedding false ideas about who we are and what we are doing in this world and it only happens when we reduce our ‘knowledge’ rather than increasing it and increasing it the whole time, in the thoroughly misguided belief that ‘the more knowledge we have the better it is for us’. What helps is not knowledge (facts and figures, theories and models, procedures and methods) but insight. Unlike knowledge, insight never agrees with a framework – it always takes us beyond the framework, it always takes us ‘outside of the box’, and this is precisely we do not feel safe with it. Insight is always a threat to the status quo!
We love the framework dearly and we don’t want to leave it – we don’t want to question the mechanism that validates our way of thinking and our way of living. Our established framework of understanding provides us with stability and security and validation for the way we are – all the things that it takes courage to leave behind, and all the things that we need to leave behind if we are to gain in internal freedom. Insight is another way of talking about seeing – which is as we have said all about being aware without a framework of interpretation, without the automatic process of evaluation and reaction that our rational mind always provides. Seeing is never provided or facilitated for us by the system of the known – it always comes from outside of our narrow habitual framework and it always takes us beyond it, into a world that is far bigger and far freer than we could ever have imagined.
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.