Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mindfulness, Mental Health, and the Modern Age

In light of the recent discussions on misguided and actively abusive approaches to mental health in the United States, I decided to look into some other avenues, specifically mindfulness, to see what has been written, if anything, about mental health. Ellen Langer has a wonderful book, Mindfulness, which just put out a 25th anniversary edition, and she has continued her work with a riveting new study, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. In the study, she finds that resetting the entire environment to a point in the past for a group of alzheimer’s patients actually diminishes their symptoms of alzheimer’s and in some cases the episodes of dementia disappear altogether.

This got me to thinking about mindfulness per se, and then taoism in general, given that it focuses primarily on the individual's relationship to the world. I read Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh and continued on to The Te of Piglet. The first volume is a delightful journey through what it means to be a Taoist, with its key principles of “Natural Simplicity, Effortless Action, Spontaneity, and Compassion” (pg. 19). It is a simple, approachable work that highlights the spiritual path and puts Taoism in context of other paths, making notes of how it differs from them, especially the Eastern traditions of earthly-rejecting Buddhism and law-bound Confucianism. To be simple, mindful and in balance is an easy thing to say but is not so easy to enact, and that’s where the Te of Piglet comes in. We are all of us, in our own ways, seeking to put virtue into action, moving from the heart, and that is how the Chinese character of Te is constructed, as a blend of the characters for virtue: “upright” and “heart” with the character for left foot, meaning stepping out (pg. 22-23).

Hoff finds that Piglet, like so many of us, "craves security” and “wants to be somebody” (pg. 26). But how to achieve that is something of a dilemma, which many of us, especially in the modern age, wrestle with to the point of depression and desperation. At a time when we are so able to choose our reality, we seem least able to find meaning. “Never before has the individual had so much power, and so many opportunities to effect change” (pg. 57-58), but we often feel powerless when we look around and see so many problems. That problems exist isn’t the problem, Hoff assures us; “what matters about problems is what one does with them (p. 58-59).

We often feel a bit left behind by our world, and Hoff finds that one of the great factors in this is the turn away from the feminine. He finds modern day feminism rife with what he calls Eeyore Amazons, women who promote and “imitate the lowest sort of masculine behavior and further the very energy they criticize” (p. 78). He finds that the goals of feminism in the early 90s was that the “New Woman wants to be like the Old Man. And maybe even worse.” (p. 78) But what Hoff sees as a solution to the many ills that abound in the world at the turn of the century, ills that have persisted, festered and flourished in the twenty years since he wrote, is a world “that’s practically screaming for relief from the Heavy Hand of Masculinity” (p.79), and in this world the Eeyore Amazons are not advancing the causes of the feminine, and in fact are making femininity “Remarkably Cheap” (p. 79).

What Hoff proposes is instead a “respect for the feminine” (p. 79), and I think that we can all agree that compassion and aims of healing and comfort have been lacking in the many approaches we have investigated into mental health care. Instead of healing, in mental health as elsewhere in the Western medical profession, we are not actually looking at healing so much as we are imposing our will, often through extreme measures and sometimes at the point of a scalpel blade, to excise, eradicate, remove and reverse that which doesn’t fit with our prescribed model of vigor and appropriateness. This chemical and surgical warfare against the need for rest, compassion and love is leaving us bereft spiritually, as individuals and as a nation. We moderns mistrust kindness more than ever, putting great stock and faith in sneering disregard and the mistrust which births it.

Perhaps it is too Simple a plan to say “act in compassion; be kind; be aware; care about your actions.” But that’s not going to stop me from trying.