Mind Training and Mental Health

Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light -- Groucho Marx
Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light — Groucho Marx

Some of the sanest people I know also have the most disordered thinking underneath. We all do have plenty of that in reality. But those of us with a bonus dose of thought chaos — we are the ones who’ve had to learn to pause before we leap. To mind the gap between thought and action. To calm ourselves inwardly, somehow, first, before we jump to conclusions or react. No matter where you are in life, it’s those pauses that make us sane. Nothing else. One can have the most measured, efficient, rational thought processes in the world, and if you never pause from one thought to the next, you can still be a complete psychopath. Maybe that’s even a workable definition of a psychopath (I don’t know — IANAP).

Morality

We pause. We doubt our own minds — our own ego — our own so-called self. Most of us have learned to do that through toil and pain. Seeing how negatively our disordered thoughts affect others or our self. And so at this stage the pause is more like suppression — a squashing down of our own thoughts and feelings for long enough to consider the feelings of others. We have to or else the chaos takes over.

Squashing down is ok. It’s like morality — what Buddhists call the first training. (By the way I should mention that I don’t identify as Buddhist. I’m way too zig-zaggy for that. But I have done a lot of Buddhist meditation training, and naturally use their frameworks for talking about our minds).

The problem with just relying on morality for our sanity is that it becomes a habit of mistrust towards ourselves. We don’t give ourselves free rein, ever, even when our intentions are good. We have learned to never listen to ourselves. This is plain unpleasant.

Not only is suppression unpleasant, it’s also not enough in the long run — because, by not listening to ourselves, we learn to not look at ourselves, and then all sorts of shadow issues start coming out sideways without us being aware.

Moralising alone is necessary, and yet both painful and not sufficient. This is why we need mind training.

From Morality to Mind Training

What mind training teaches is a new way to pause. A new way to “mind the gap” between our thoughts / emotions and our actions; a way that doesn’t involve suppressing our feelings. The disordered thinking won’t go away. Although it may lessen somewhat, we’ll still need to pause. But we learn to use those pauses to let our feelings flow through us like rain (American Beauty, major spoiler alert). Instead of squashing them down anymore, we let ourselves feel them; radically, like never before. This takes some serious emotional-mental strength and insight. Which is most often called “mindfulness”.

Morality really shines, and ceases to be unpleasant or difficult or boring, when it’s combined with high levels of attention and awareness.

In short, while there may be good reasons why we suppress our knee jerk reactions, over time that’s harmful to ourselves, and even with all that hard work it’s not reliable.

That’s why we need mind training. We all need it — but especially the sanest, kindest-acting ones among us, who’ve learned not to trust ourselves.

There is a better way.

Afterthoughts

Since penning these words, I realized that of course sometimes we are so confused or baffled in our thinking that we cannot even learn to squash down our thoughts or mind the gap, even in a suppression sense, let alone take mind training practices into our lives. Although my post does intentionally edify emotional and thought disorders, which I think is a much needed and refreshing viewpoint from current attitudes of mental “illness” (I dislike this term), it was not my meaning to minimize the suffering of being in the full grip of our difficulties. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that, when we find ourselves gripped by chaos, we should just “try harder”. Internal suppression or transcendence are impossible for all of us at times — and some of us more than others. When this is the case long-term, I still recognize the need for conventional medicine in helping to find traction within thoughts / emotions / moods, as imperfect and riddled with side-effects as most of those treatments are.

I guess the times I’m talking about — when we are apparently sane but inwardly tortured — are those in which we are in active recovery. I define active recovery as putting into daily practice some system of morality to keep us from getting trapped by our own internal chaos. Whether we arrive at active recovery through medication (and I include herbal medications in that), through internal work, or a combination as in my case, it is an essential first step.

Vedana — Nothing is Neutral, or is it?

The Buddha placed the notion of “feeling tones” pretty high up in his teachings. Known in Sanskrit as vedana, these feeling-tones refer to the way sensations and thoughts get sorted by our minds into pleasant, unpleasant or neither.

When hearing this, my first thought was always “what about feelings that are both pleasant and unpleasant, like nostalgia?” But I’ve since come to think of a single hit of nostalgia as actually a constellation of many different sensations and vedana.

These vedana have been coming to the fore in my sitting meditation practice lately, usually with some kind of reminiscence woven in, and it got me thinking …

12b3gv

The pleasant / unpleasant feels often get the most attention from our conscious mind. You could say that a main function of having an attention span is to limit our exposure to the details by tuning out the neutral vedana as “inconsequential”. There is good reason for this: take a scene like sitting beside a stream in a forested glade with bird and insect life all around, the smells, the feeling of the sun’s warmth. There is simply too much sensory input to process through our focused attention span without overwhelming ourselves. Instead, most of it fades into the background, our peripheral awareness. Or else never even enters our field of experience at all. There are whole brain circuits in charge of keeping input out of our mind.

This is one reason why in meditation often we close our eyes. We tend to favour quieter locations. Because during meditation we are making a deliberate attempt to be as aware as possible. This has powerful effects on those input-dampening brain circuits. It requires, at least initially, that we create an environment with less input, so that we can focus more intently on noticing every sensation that is present.

I’ve found that even after meditation (so, off the cushion as it were) there is a lot to be gained from being a little more mindful of the full spectrum of feeling including the neutral. For one thing, the neutral tones are far more numerous than the rest, and so by becoming more aware of them we are coming closer to a complete experience of life. Also, there is something to be said for coming to see the world less as a source of entertainment and conflict.

A more comprehensive awareness of the plainness of reality promotes a kind of sensory moderation that in itself is liberating from the push and pull of striving and attainment. Think of how a flower grows on time-lapse through day and night, wind and sun and rain, with a total lack of vainglory and a simple impression of selfless expression. Total surrender to its own being with no regard for right or wrong, sun or rain, pleasant or unpleasant.

Thirdly, there is an important amount of insight in the very arbitrariness of these “neutral” experiences — the sound of the refrigerator kicking in. Bzzzzzzz… reality. Mundane reality. Not a psychodrama of wonder, delight and horror. Just … refrigerator turning on. Chains of cause and effect. Neighbour loads a trailer. A smell of smoke.

And then you have the Tantric viewpoint, which takes neutral beyond the mundane, with realizations that bring deep insight even from the neutral vedana. If we take the object of these neutral feeling tones into deeper awareness they have the same capacity to reveal the nature of mind as any other experience. Tantrikas place great weight on the insight that all phenomena are “intrinsically luminous” — even the mundane. Even the agonisingly painful. All can be taken skilfully as objects for deepening consciousness.

In Buddha’s original teachings, in fact there are no true categories of feeling, not to the Enlightened Ones. All is simply taken as “such”. This is the essence of equanimity — full comprehension of the entire input stream, without preference for any of the vedana. All simply are in possession of suchness — tathātā. That page is a highly worthwhile read. And another name for the Buddha? Tathāgāta: “one who goes such”.

A human. Transmuted, through the effortless effort to let things be just as they are, into a frictionless passage for cause and effect, in each moment synchronised with and manifesting of the beginningless and endless suchness of reality.

Let this be the goal and the actual attainment of all beings.

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle. — Thích Nhất Hạnh

Autumn peeps through

Rising early doesn’t come naturally to me. Traditionally I’d roll from bed with half an hour to spare, and head straight to work via the kettle and maybe breakfast.

But yoga’s morning benefits became too numerous to resist — a hidden blessing of an older body perhaps. I’d regret sleeping in whenever my discipline slipped (consider that a warning). Since then I added post-asana meditation. A penny more focus and a sliver of presence. Worth it.

These days I’ve swapped it around: meditation then asana. I’m interested in what my mind feels like, before I properly waken. I get up, ablute and then sit down, yawning, to notice what I’m noticing.

Mornings stay dark much longer in March. When I sat the other morning, all was dim, but after, as the timer chimed and I opened my eyes, light was all around. I went outside.

Autumn peeps through.
Autumn peeps through.

The new sun lit up the leaves like stained glass. Birds were all about it. The day had a plan, tickety-boo.

Breath lifted my inner body, my shoulders opened. I scanned the horizon. And I thought, why wait for the sun? Even if the world is grey, or dark, everyday moments (even wretched ones) are precious. Passing away. Never to come again.

How fortunate was that moment of early sunlight! But how just like a sunny morning it was that the universe later manifested me in the murky afternoon, foibled and confused, amidst smog filled traffic:

image

If we allow, the cold or the grey, just like sunlight in the trees, can draw a surgeon’s blade through our surface worries.

Our compassion for ourselves and others is weak, when all we choose is this single-masted yacht, a cocoon aboard which to sail the vast sea of human experience.

Leap from your craft, I said aloud. Immerse yourself in the waters of happenstance. Occupy love.

At dusk, the cock announces dawn.
At midnight, the bright sun.

Atta Yoganusasanam

“Here now begins the practice of yoga”. This is the first yoga teaching of Patanjali.

But before we go launching into that…

Seriously. Right now.
Seriously. Right now. I’ll wait.

For me, that first sutra always seemed like an introductory statement. Like, oh yeah here we go then. What’s next?
But later I learned that in the yoga tradition the highest teaching is always given first. This left me confused. How could this first sutra be the highest teaching that Patanjali has to give? It wasn’t until my teacher introduced pauses — I think it’s significant that the pauses gave it meaning — into the phrase that I understood why the first sutra is what it is: Here <pause>, now … begins the practice of yoga.
Patanjali was actually discussing meditation and not asana practice. But the truth is the same: what we can work with is right in front of us all the time.
The first and most important act we can undertake, in any practice, is the act of being present. Not just to our triumphs and bliss, the “good” stuff, but to all of it: our aches and challenges. To the whole messy, associative, finger-in-the-wall-socket process of life taking place in and around us. All else is a memory or a dream.
The true point of all this is not merely to stay present, but to do so even as we reach out to life and engage with that process. So that we are tuned in to the non-stop melody, with all its discordant chromatic scales and weird polymetrical time signatures. As any bass player will tell you, if we are not willing to listen to the music of the whole band, how can we hope to create harmony? The most we will get is the odd fortunate, almost accidental moment of synchrony.
Don’t let your life’s music be an accident.

Feel the immediacy of the moment. Lengthen your exhale.

Seriously. Right now.
Right here and now.

Now go be confused and awesome.