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.