Thursday, 8 December 2016

the search for self

The search for self is a funny thing:

Who am I?

A more appropriate question might be: who is the I that is asking the question? And why do we need, or at least think we need, to know?

What do I like?
What do I want to do with my life?
What do I like eating?
What kind of person do I want to be?

The list goes on and on. But why question? Why do we want to know the answers to these things? When you look at them in the cold light of day we see, at their core, that they are very selfish. They are self centred. They are all about that mysterious "I". And who is watching the "I"? For there must be a watcher in order to acknowledge that the "I" exists. 

Just like, in our society, there must be money (or the exchange of goods or service) for work to be necessary; like so there must be a watcher of the "I" in order for the "I" to exist.

So who is the watcher?

It could be argued that the watcher is conscious thought. It could be further argued that the "I" is the physical body. What we feed into the conscious thought directly correlates to the judgements passed on the physical body and therefore how we relate to and describe the "I" as being.

I am short
I am curvy
I have a high sex drive
I like food
I work hard, but I am often lazy

These judgements do not tell us who we are. They are merely statements of fact. So, who am I?

I am a woman
I am a sister
I am a daughter
I am a friend

Is who I am dependent on my physical and emotional attributes and how others relate to me and I to them? No. Certainly not. So, who am I?

I am kind but I have a terrible temper
I am a poet
I am a cook
I am a gardener of the mind

But surely these are things I do; not what I am!? So, who am I?

I am an animal
I am a collection of cells and neurons
I am cosmic matter
I came from star dust
When objects collided in space and time they forced new life into being, I am one of those beings
I am 4 billion years old

Ah. So now we see how small you are. How insignificant. And now we see why you search for who you are. You must be more than that. Because if you are star dust, that means everyone is star dust. If you are 4 billion years old: everyone must be 4 billion years old. In sentient beings there exists the ego. The ego is the "I" - the ego strives to be more than it is. It lays down laws and likes and dislikes, it questions our choices, it creates a false version of ourselves and of the people we are connected to. The ego shades everything in the tint of its own rosy glow.

See that man? He is my one true love. He is good and kind and sweet and I love him. Therefore he must love me. Therefore I must have him. Therefore if he does not behave in the way I have imagined him... he hurts me.

So you have hurt yourself.

NO! It was him. He did it. He was false, he was not his true self. I know his true self. His true self resides in my heart.

So you have hurt yourself. Hurt yourself with a construct of a man. A construct of a man. A man who does not exist.

But he does exist. See he is there, living, breathing, laughing.

The man exists yes. The physical body. But that body is inhabited by his ego. Not yours.

The man in my heart is not that man?

He is not that man. He is a construct of that man.

He is my construct. I made him. But he is not real. Only his shell is real. I filled him. Filled him with my hopes. My desires.

He has other hopes and desires.

So now we see how the ego destroys not only us but our friendships also. Constantly demanding. Judging. Claiming truth where there is none to claim. Making false statements based on whimsy.

All that from star dust!

From dust we came and to dust we shall return.

Let not the ego spoil you.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Mental Health in Britain

On Monday 10th October it was World Mental Health Day and many charities involved in mental health care and research took the opportunity to spread the word of taking mental health more seriously. Research charity MQ released figures showing a large discrepancy in research funding for mental health versus more "popular" medical campaigns like cancer research: mental health research receives 22% less funding than cancer. With funding and continued research cancer, HIV and AIDS are all no longer the life/death sentences that they once were: while people cannot shake the illnesses completely they can, with appropriate medication and support, continue to live their lives for many years. The mental health community is urging the public to invest in mental health research with a similar passion and enthusiasm in the hopes of seeing similar success.

As a society we have become more accepting of mental health conditions, we are becoming more understanding of them and more vocal about supporting people who have them. But who are the people who have them? Pretty much everyone!! Mental health conditions are becoming much more prevalent. Statistics suggest that 1 in 4 people have bi-polar, 1 in 5 people have depression, 1 in 100 people will experience schizophrenic episodes. Perhaps mental health problems are becoming more prevalent because as a society we are becoming more open and more accepting and it's actually just a case of more people seeking help and opening up about what goes on in their heads, rather than continuing to maintain the British "stiff upper lip" or perhaps mental health conditions are becoming more prevalent because the environments that are most conducive to mental breakdowns are becoming more wide spread.

Back in 2013 Dr. Ed Mitchell, a clinical fellow to NHS England's Director for Long Term Conditions, wrote that "Mental illness causes almost a quarter of our burden of disease (22.8%), yet receives only 11% of NHS funding. (For comparison cancer causes 15.9% of that burden).  Whilst 92% of people with diabetes are in receipt of treatment, only 28% of people with mental illness get treatment for their problems. Yet we know that people with serious mental illness are at risk of dying 25 years earlier than those without such illness." - see the rest of his article here.

Those are some pretty big discrepancies! And not much has changed in the past three years; in 2014, Heidi Ledford wrote this for where she explains that "more than 350 million people are affected by depression, making it one of the most common disorders in the world." She goes on to say that "two thirds of people who commit suicide have the condition." Despite this there is a continued lack of funding. If this were a physical condition there would be, understandably, huge public outcry. Yet the silence surrounding the lack of facilities, care, services and research funding for mental health is deafening. For years in western society we have dismembered our minds from our bodies. Our medicine is reactive rather than preventative. We live in a state of exertion to the point of collapse both physically and mentally but when we collapse mentally we are told to "pull it together" and "carry on".

In 2015 the BBC reported that mentalhealth services had their budgets slashed by 8%: a reduction reportedly worth £600 million, while at the same time referrals to community mental health teams had increased by 20%. It's not hard to see, with figures and numbers like that, why so many people with mental health crisis's are falling through the cracks and not receiving the treatment and care that they need. If we, as a society, aren't taking mental health seriously then the doctors in our society aren't going to either. I spent Monday in the Accident & Emergency department of Whitechapel Hospital with a friend who has been depressed for almost two years and has been steadily falling into suicidal thoughts yet when she approached her GP months ago and cried in his office while telling him about how suicidal she was he merely handed her a leaflet and told her to refer herself. After a rejection like that it was weeks before she was able to pluck up the courage to call the people on the leaflet, only to be told that someone would call her back within 24 hours and no one did. Later we discovered that instead of calling her back they had called her GP as they had deemed that she needed more immediate help and they had told her GP to call her and provide that support. Her GP never called her. Once again faced with a rejection from the system she spent another few weeks battling suicidal thoughts and fighting with herself to prevent her from cutting herself (so that she could "prove" she needed help). Feeling that what she was dealing with wasn't "serious" enough to warrant a visit to A&E she instead went to her local walk-in clinic who had to tell her that they weren't equipped to deal with such things... At what point does it become "serious" enough to visit A&E? The minute you feel suicidal. That's it. There's no wiggle room or 'maybe I'll feel better in the morning.' If you're feeling suicidal you need to talk to someone about it and you need to talk to them about it then and there. That's why we have the emergency walk in services for mental health. And the more people who use them the better; because talking to someone there and then in that precise moment in time may prevent a suicide or a suicide attempt; because it may circumvent a full-blown mental health condition from occurring later down the line; because the more people who use them the more the need for them will be recognised and the more funding can be secured for them.

Throughout 2016 the BBC have been reporting on various aspects of mental health including diagnosis, care, facilities and underfunding:

We need to start changing the conversation around mental health. Yes, being in a depression is horrible, but it's not the end of the world and you do come out of them. The more you focus on how horrible it is and how much you'd like it to stop the less time you are spending on having a conversation with yourself about why it's happening in the first place. You and only you are responsible for your mental health, if you don't tell people you're struggling they're not going to have any idea and they can't help you. It's not like having a fever or a broken arm - people can't see into the mind and witness all the twisted things that are going on inside. They'll either think that you're having an off-day/week/year if it goes on longer they'll just assume that you're a moody person, that you're an introvert, that you like to keep yourself to yourself. The longer you leave matters of the brain undiagnosed and untreated the worse they become. Imagine you have a broken leg; you splash a bit of cold water on it, maybe go lie-down in a dark room for an hour, cover up the pain with some paracetamol and hope for the best. Eventually the wound is going to become infected, the bone is going to set in the wrong place, walking is impossible, you're in constant discomfort, pain, irritation. You stop going to work, you hide in your room, you don't want anyone to see the horrible mess that is your leg. Eventually you drag yourself to your GP's office and they make an appointment with a specialist and tell you to go home and wait for the letter, they don't know how long it's going to take. It takes 2 months to arrive. You see the specialist, they ask you to make notes about the changes in the colours of the bruising and the weeping of the wound and keep a diary of what your range of motion is with the leg on a daily/twice daily basis... You come back two months later with your diaries and notes and they tell you: you've broken your leg, it hasn't set properly, it's hideously infected because you didn't get it seen to sooner, they make an appointment with another specialist and you have to wait for three months to meet them just to find out if there's something they can do to help you, they say no they can't actually help you but they can send your file to another specialist whose remit you do fall under. You wait another three months to meet this next specialist, they say they can help you but they're very busy and they don't have any spaces available to fit you in at the moment and they'll send you a letter in nine months to one year with the details of your first treatment appointment. They promise that if an opening comes up sooner they'll be in touch. All this time your leg is growing worse and worse, it's a dead-weight latched onto your body that gets heavier and more grotesque with each passing day.

How much easier would your life have been if you'd gone to A&E to begin with? How appalling was the service that you received? Would you stand for it?

Now imagine that instead of a broken leg, an illness has taken root in your mind. Now take yourself through the exact same stages laid out above. That's what using mental health services is like for too many people. This has been my experience of using mental health services over the past eighteen months. I'm still waiting for that last letter outling the details of my first therapy appointment. On average it takes 10 years from initial mental distress for a person to seek help, by the time they have sought help the problem is already deeply rooted. We need to make a change in the way we think about mental health, we need to stop side-lining it and saying "it's okay, it's just in my head, I'll be fine." The longer you leave it the bigger it grows, the deeper it sinks in its claws, the weaker your grasp on reality becomes, the longer it takes to find the right treatment for you, the longer your healing process takes, and, the more likely it is that you will harm yourself while waiting for help.

Seeing the world in a different way to other people is nothing to be ashamed of. I think that that is the biggest hurdle for people with burgeoning mental health problems. They don't want people to think they're 'crazy.' They're afraid they'll get locked up in an insane asylum and that their lives will be over. That they'll be injected with drugs and abused by staff and turned into zombies. So they keep quiet. A lot of us have been raised to believe that there are things that are polite to talk about and things that aren't. Financial and emotional crisis's fall into those categories. It's not 'nice' to ask how much someone makes, or what their turnover is, or if they can afford to feed themselves and their families tonight. It's not 'nice' to pry into people's minds and really and truly ask them how they are coping after the loss of a loved one, or their job, or their house. Being 'nice' basically equates to ignoring your fellow human beings and pretending like we're not all in the same boat, that we don't all have the same issues and struggles. Being 'nice' basically also means that we make everyone around us feel worse because while they're struggling to maintain a façade of wealth and happiness they believe that for you it's not a façade, they believe that you've got it all, that there's some kind of secret to success and that if they work hard enough and put in enough hours they'll find the secret too.

There is no secret.

Everyone is struggling with something. None of us have achieved total health, and by TOTAL health I mean:

1) Nutritional
2) Emotional
3) Mental
4) Sexual
5) Physical
6) Social
7) Spiritual
8) Medical

How healthy are you in these eight areas? What changes do you need to make to your life to make you as healthy as you want to be in the areas that you most want to be healthy in?

Are you currently depressed or do you ever gets bouts of depression? Think about why? What part of yourself are you ignoring or suppressing? Why are you doing that? Keep asking yourself why. And if asking yourself isn't enough, get other people to ask you why. Volunteer as a patient to psychology students, ask your GP to refer you for therapy. Do something about the way you feel. Don't buy into the "Keep Calm and Carry On" mantra.

It is your life and only you can be in control of it. Don't give that control away and don't wait till it's almost or too late. Do something about your mental health now.


Friday, 22 July 2016

Embrace Your Shadow Self

For over a century in western society anyone who displayed any level of consciousness or other worldly intelligence that wasn't socially acceptable was carted off to a mad house where they were locked up, drugged, experimented on and generally treated like second class citizens and abnormalities of the human race.

Yet, if you read world history and ancient myths you soon discover that people who were gifted with extra-ordinary mental abilities were generally hailed as seers, oracles, harbingers, prophets, fortune tellers, soothsayers, mediums, channellers, psychics, diviners, clairvoyants, augurs... The majority felt it better to live as hermits or, at the very least, as loners. Seekers would often have to go to remarkable lengths in order to find the desired oracle at their hide-out either atop a mountain, down a cavernous valley or in a distant wilderness. They were scary people; they moved and spoke in strange ways, did bizarre things, lived in unconventional fashions but they were as necessary to some societies as their judiciary systems and water works.

If you rifle through the annals of western history you will come across exceptional thinkers, painters, musicians, writers, all of whom (excerpts from their letters and diaries have told us) suffered heavily with mental strains - depressions, elations. Tchaikovsky said "Life is beautiful in spite of everything! ... There are many thorns, but there are roses too."

Rilke has said so many beautiful things on the subject of melancholia (which we so ineptly call clinical depression), two of my favourites:

1. "How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

2. "You mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?

Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better."

It is not hard then to come to a realisation that most of us, or at least most of those who have left their biggest mark - either on us or on history, have tumbled to the very depths of their souls and thrashed there in wild torment. How else can they have risen again, and with such words of wisdom and clarity?

Zen teaches us that until we have felt and experienced something ourselves we cannot know it. We can intellectualise, we can surmise and ruminate but we cannot truly understand till our hearts have melded with our minds though that most challenging of tasks; feeling. Feeling all the feels. Sitting with them patiently. Watching how each feeling expresses itself in each part of us, in our physical, astral and causal bodies. And how those feelings loop back again and come to us in words and thoughts that we can grasp and express. Not just to ourselves but in ways that we can vocalise and teach others of our experience.

If you see a mental breakdown you immediately attempt to file it in your brain in a way that you can make sense of it and understand it. That is the nature of humans. If you experience a mental breakdown yourself you do the same. Only it is much harder. Reality has slipped through your fingers, you can't tell what is truth and what is not. There are no signposts. There is no guide. You are all alone in a world you do not understand and have never heard of. There is no logical way to file what you are seeing and feeling, not least because you cannot be sure what you are seeing and feeling is real. And here's the kicker: it is real. All of it. Even the fantasy. Even the not real. It is all real. It is your experience. And all experiences are real. Let us say you have two heads, you know you don't really have two heads, so you refuse to acknowledge the existence of the other head. The other head grows bigger and more demanding it shouts at you and demands you pay attention, you steadfastly refuse to give in. You believe if you give in to the madness of admitting you have a second head then there will be no end to the insanities and non-realities you may start admitting to. So the head grows bigger still, and more twisted and grotesque and finally, you snap. You believe you have gone mad. You believe that is the end of it and you give up. It is never so conscious as all that, but that is the general gist of it. And then you are mad. But you have been mad from the moment you refused to acknowledge that you had a second head. Because it was there. Right in front of you. Talking to you, trying to get your attention. It was there and real the whole time. It was real because you saw it. You made yourself mad by pretending it wasn't there and that it wasn't real. You did not acknowledge it and it grew into a monster that you could no longer control. And then it consumed you. This is the society we live in. We are taught logic and reason and nothing else. If logic dictates that we all have one head then in order to maintain your standing in the society you live in you can't risk admitting even to yourself that you have another head. But if, at the very beginning, you said "Hello second head what do you want?" you might have ended up having rather a nice conversation and learning something about yourself or even the world and then perhaps the second head would have gone away because all it wanted was a chat.

The more we struggle and push against things that we don't like, the more stressful and overwhelming they become. Every human has the capacity to completely and utterly lose all sense of reality. Genetics plays a big part, as does environment. But even if you have no genetic predisposition to insanity, anxiety, depression it does not mean you are immune. Even if your environment is conducive of peaceful, loving and caring thoughts and feelings, again, you are not immune. I believe that the universe sends us challenges and obstacles to overcome only when it feels you are ready for them. Or, to put it another way, I believe that we ourselves do not see the next challenge or obstacle till we know we are ready to take it on. Sometimes we freak out, even if we are expecting the challenge, we think we're not ready, we're not strong enough, not prepared enough, whatever, but that negative cycle of thinking is what disables us from succeeding. As soon as we've got to the point where it is make or break most human beings will end up making. They will put aside, temporarily, all the doubts and feelings of inadequacy and take the challenge on, because there is no alternative. They have to. And they give it their best shot and 9 times out of 10 they pass. Which gives you a feeling which is a little like a power boost: I did it! I can do anything! Like a character levelling up in a video game - their health bar increases, their power bar increases, they have access to better and more powerful and more interesting items and areas of the game. Game makers take all that from life.

What then about mental health? Those of us who have mental health challenges are at a disadvantage in our society. Our society deems that there is something wrong with us. Something that needs to be fixed or taken away or stopped. We need to be made 'whole' again. And because this is the pervading thought process we ourselves begin to think it too. We have an episode and it debilitates us, we shout and curse and wish it would go away, we swallow their pills because they say it will make us 'better'. We live in shadow states, not quite mad, not quite sane. We feel like we are half a person. We are not. And it is shameful for society to make us think along those lines. We are whole people, we are just whole in a different way. We need guidance and acceptance for who we are as we are. Not as society thinks we should be. The more society teaches us to rail against our conditions and aberrations of mind the harder it is to sit with and converse with those episodes when they do occur. If we are told there is something wrong with us we are naturally going to push against it and wish it gone. If we are encouraged, on the other hand, to have a conversation with ourselves and sit with and explore those episodes, however hard it may be, we may see, as Rilke suggests and I know from personal experience to be true, 'that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.' It is very hard to be  both patient and doctor but that is what you must be in order to fully understand and learn from what is going on in your mind. No one knows you better than you and if you are feeling at a loss and like you don't know yourself at all then perhaps that is why you are being sent these mental challenges: so that you can get to know yourself and become all that you were meant to become.

Imagine then my horror when a well known mental health research group emailed me a short while ago to ask for feedback on their proposed new advertising campaign to be launched later this year:

"We swear to stop it, if you swear to help"

Mental health is not something that can be stopped. It can be supported, accepted, nurtured, alleviated, but it cannot be stopped. No amount of drugs or therapy or research can stop mental health. Each individual needs to find their own best preferred and effective method for them, but even then it does not mean they are 'cured' - it does however mean that they have come to an agreement within themselves that it is part of what makes them who they are and they have accepted that within themselves. All society needs to do is come to the same level of acceptance, and thus facilitate and help those who are struggling to accept themselves.

The above type of marketing lies at the core problem of society's attitude to mental health: that it is bad and that it needs to be got rid of. If you take away all the nasty bits of life then you cannot enjoy the roses. For without the endurance of misery there is no real appreciation for the beautiful. If life were entirely a bed of roses the roses would lose their beauty for lack of a contrast. It is the contrast that makes life beautiful and ugly. Both are necessary. Both must be embraced.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Touching Lives

It is quite amazing how deeply and despairingly we can fall into a "depression" - such an ineloquent and unexpressive word for so profound mind altering feelings. A far more apt word would be "melancholy" there is something graceful about it; and suggestive of more obscure and vastly tangled roots. Which is what it is like when you are in there. Thrashing wildly, desperate for release from the oppressive stifling darkness. Methodically ruminating over each root and trying to find, in the tangled web, some meaning, some logic, some reason, some escape either to the light - a lifting of the melancholy - or an escape to the darkest of the dark places; an everlasting escape by spilling blood or suffocating breath. Which to choose? What way to turn? It is not a choice. Not in that place. There are no choices there.

Life. It goes on around us endlessly in ever decreasing, repeating, increasing spirals. On and on and on. Relentlessly. Even in the quiet still of a desolate field there is a relentlessness about life. Standing on a bridge in a busy city centre watching the waves as they lap at the supports. Never ending, never ceasing. There is no end game. There's just is. It is what it is, we are what we are, they are what they are and, ultimately, we are all one. Passersby rushing to and fro trying to get somewhere, to do something: rarely if ever taking the time to simply breathe and notice. Notice. Not change. Not modify. Notice. See. See what there is to be seen, acknowledge and move on. And still the little waves smack, smack, smack on the bridges feet. The birds fly over the desolate field. There is quiet all around. There is noise all around. The hum of traffic burning in our ears. And still the little waves smack, smack, smack on the bridges feet.

" ... it cannot be communicated by words or mental concepts but by subtle insights, gradual glimpses of the wholeness and connectedness of life. There is a quiet grace under all this ..." ~ Carl Faure

Why do we exist? We know that life goes on around us regardless of our participation in it therefore what difference does it make if we are active, inactive or simply no longer exist?

We have no answer to that. Life is experiential. We exist to experience.

If we do not participate in life then the lives of others are poorer for not having been touched by us. If we actively participate then the lives of those around us are profoundly richer, as are ours, for the mutual exchange. To no longer exist? For some an unthinkable thought, for others a part of their daily lives - do I stay today or is today the day I leave? But to no longer exist makes us the poorest of all. We rob our future selves of future experience no matter if it is good or bad. Out of the bad comes the good out of the good comes the bad. There is no bad, no good. There is no free, no trapped. There is only experience and what we make of it. To no longer exist robs those whose lives we have touched of future exchanges. It robs from and impoverishes the lives of those we would have and were destined to touch had we not left.

To live is a burden indeed. To die a greater one.