Mention my name and ask people what jumps to mind, and the words “spiritual” and “mental health” are sure to be mentioned right of the bat… right? What do you think? BS? Obviously.
I’m not known for being a giant of general spirituality. Nor am I the most indulgent when it comes to the mission creep of psychological abnormality as identity that seems to have taken pop culture by storm via the backdoor of postmodern academics who themselves tend to be overmedicated. I’m not the poster boy for empathy or kindness – and I know that.
Mind you, this isn’t necessarily because I lack either empathy or kindness, but because, in my view, there is a fashionable trend to over-diagnose and pathologize… more, to identify with pathology as if it was a personality trait or a permanent pre-ordained fate in every case, and to over-emphasize the accommodation of disorder, both by individuals suffering them directly and societies around them. rather than the defeat of it… of accepting syndromes as the status quo, rather than triumphing over them. This – I know – is a very controversial view.
Which is fine, and which makes you very lucky. Because Praise Be To All The Gods Of Mercy and Compassion – I’m not a shrink. You can go get your happy fix meds and lie on the couch talking about your mommy for the next 47 years to your hearts content, until you feel whichever appropriate bowel movements you feel are due to you, without ever having to consult me. Good luck and Godspeed.
There was a time in my life, however, where I was unhappy. Deeply and truly unhappy. It was a serious issue for me because I did not have the resources to seek professional help. I barely had enough money to eat, let alone splurge on abstract goods like ‘mental health’- I was a teenager looking after myself, putting myself through high school and working to afford a place to live and food to eat. At the time, I was also suffering from relatively serious panic, anxiety and flashbacks. I was barely hanging on, life had been very cruel to me up to that point (and surprise, surprise, it wasn’t nowhere near done either) – I was hopelessly and painfully in love with someone who didn’t love me back, lived in a culture that was actually violent towards homosexuals (not the nice genteel homophobia so oft reported and wallowed in) and emotionally, intellectually and physically, I was in trouble. Real trouble. I was also, for all practical purposes – alone. No safety net; no paid professionals; no shit.
Several factors converged to help me get through it all. Carrying industrial quantities of weapons-grade hatred and anger around with me was part of it. It may or may not be healthy, but those emotions sure do motivate – they provided the octane I needed to keep going instead of collapse in a heap.
A general sense of stoicism, partly from the dour Calvinism of my background that infected every pore of my being for such a long time during my formative years was another crutch. It allowed me to take several barrages on the chin and to move on despite and fake until – and it gave me a sense of achievement, accomplishment and self respect in carrying my own cross well, like a fucking adult, even if I wasn’t one – and it also made me respect others who did so, and I confess, made me look down slightly on those who didn’t.
Suck it up buttercup – healthy or not, fair or not, I personally had no option and no alternatives.
If I wanted to live I would have to figure out ways to build for myself durable mental toughness. Or I would die.
All discussions of anything else, given my circumstances at the time, is academic.
The fistfight I won meant my father was no longer a physical danger to me. The Chinese I worked for at the restaurant provided good chow and some spare cash through tips. I was ‘kinda’ smart, except in STEM subjects. I was young enough to be pretty but not skinny, so luckily not too many men were interested in me.
Yes, friends and neighbours, this is a harsh psychological landscape. One where – if you want to walk a few yards in my shoes with me – you’d have to cowboy the hell up to handle, like I had to.
I say all this because I can still feel the harshness of my life, and the whole world, back then – but also knowing full well that, even then, I refused to see myself as some kind of victim. Well aware that, even back then, no matter how crappy your life, how much you have suffered, how painful things are, how unfair, unjust – there was always some sonofabitch who had it worse. Everything I said about my situation is true – and my childhood was brutal, harsh and filled with injustice and sadness and fear. But if I grew up in one of the other ethnic groups at the time in that place, it might well have sucked more. Or if I had been one of those German girls in Joseph Fritzl’s house. Or a baby dying of starvation in Ethiopia. Or anyone of a million possible scenarios.
But we are not universal experiences, even though we sometimes think and feel we are.
We simply live our lives, in our own time and place, in our own heads, with our set of experiences and our own set of interpretations of those experiences, and we live with that as if it were truth and reality, and we do our best, or okay, or crap, and we get the reward or the bad consequences of our actions.
In short, if we choose to go on (some of us had to actively negotiate that, me less so, I was too freaking ANGRY to give up, luckily) – we have no option but to accept things as they are, and then do what we can, with what we have, wherever the hell we find ourselves.
An unlikely thinker on the topic of mental health, I’m sure you’ll agree… but then, not necessarily an irrelevant or inappropriate one.
Whether my thoughts and feelings on these topics were objectively correct, healthy to hold or useful to others was of absolutely no relevance.
I was a young gay kid living at the collapse of the Apartheid regime, there was no safety net, I had no money, no prospects, and the handful of angels sent my way with help and kindness hadn’t shown up yet.
I was very lucky to have discovered Buddhism at the time.
On top of all these things, I was searching for truth and meaning, given the gargantuan failings and blatantly, obscenely obvious shortcomings of my home religion.
By the age of fourteen, when the fertilizer started hitting the air-conditioner, I already considered myself a practicing Buddhist (and, to be fair to myself and faithful to the truth – at the time I was). And so when I picked up the book Zen Therapy, by David Brazier, I was already well-versed in the precepts of that religion.
By now, despite not being a Buddhist today, I know that teachings as well as I do anything. I continue to have tremendous respect for the religion and the practice, and those people who practice it. I learned a lot from the Middle Way, and it helped me – it actually made survival possible and attractive, and then it made progress possible. It enabled me to consider my world, my self, my mind and my own experiences in a completely novel way – and that is an experience of such rare and singular value that it fundamentally transforms anyone lucky enough to have it.
Buddhism itself helps with healing.
The principles of ANATMAN helps ”one” to put self-obsession away. Observing that all phenomenon, including all those powerful and hormone ravaged emotions follow the exact same pattern of birth-growth-decay-death enables one to get some distance from the feelings, and to bring the head into a place dominated usually automatically by the heart. Meditation brings personal discipline and sober reflection. Ahimsa helps everyone around you escape the wrath of your immature emotional controls. Samsara teaches you that in all your ups and downs you just ain’t that special. Karma taches responsibility – personal, direct, immediate responsibility – in ways that heaven or hellfire simply can’t. The Middle Way discourages the easy totalism of extremism, the Noble Eightfold Path is as gratifying a personal code as chivalry, Nirvana is a promise that can possibly be kept (unlike all the broken ones at my feet).
There is a lot going for Buddhism – it is a generous gift giver and an exemplary teacher.
It would be a major part of my life for a very long time. And not only would I walk the way as a serious and real personal practice, but I formalized my training. It was where I first learned Chinese. I spent some time in monasteries and temples. I began studying the deeper mysteries, the intricate histories and the nuances and details of the religion. I could contrast Theravada with Mahayana, I understood how Pali and not Sanskrit was the original language, I learned how Bodhidharma took the faith from India to China and from there on to Japan.
Original Buddhist scripture can be divided into 3 groups – which is why it is called the Tripitaka or the Triple Basket. This, the Canon, includes the Dhammapada (which I still consider one of the most exalted religious texts ever recorded) or the Sutra Pitaka; and then the Vinaya, which kind of regulates the community, and then finally, Abhidharma – teachings of the mind.
Zen is Japanese Buddhism – and it is an elaboration of what was originally taught by the Buddha. Wherever Buddhism goes, it is transformed by local traditions and ideas. It functions differently to the Abrahamic faiths in that way, gaining a very unique local flavour wherever it goes rather than transplanting local traditions. It is not rare for local gods to themselves become Buddhist – as Kaun Yin did in the Chinese tradition.
So by the time we arrive at Zen, we are already several layers and levels away from the original Buddhism as taught by Gautama.
And then, Abhidharma is not widely read.
Many Buddhists may recite some mantras, know some of the stories, read Sutras… but few go on to study the details of the last basket.
So to read Zen Therapy, by David Brazier, as accessible as it may be, to get the most of it, requires some training in Buddhism first. I can heartily recommend the books “Buddhism”‘ by Christmas Humphreys, “The Gospel of Buddha” by Paul Carus and, of course, if you do nothing else, read the Dhammapada.
But then there is this remarkable book, written by a psychotherapist – unveiling the Abhidharma and specifically applying principles, practically, to life, thinking and the mind.
It was a game changing, life saving book for me – a read that moved mountains and shifted paradigms.
It gave me tools to work with, and a framework for understanding that enabled me to get my mind clear, get it calm, and then get it in shape.
Now, I would want to point out that this book and its author is much nicer than I am, and one should not take my callous contemporary attitudes as indicative of the substance of this book. Go read it for yourself, I do believe it has valuable skills and lessons for everyone.
But it was the last ”self help” book I ever read.
After it, I had no need for psychology books. I would read on finance, or mental toughness, or mental skills, or business, or being an entrepreneur, or improve myself with non-fiction, always.
But there was no more books about coping, or making peace with my mind, or being okay – after that. None were needed.
I am still convinced it is one of the best books on mental wellness ever written – and it is the last thing I think of when it comes to getting okay with what’s going on in my head.
There was quite a road ahead of me after I read it.
Somewhere along the line, I lost Buddhism – although its influence is still cherished. I became more cynical when it comes to discussions framing “Western”” thought, traditions, practices or history as somehow less evolved or inferior to Oriental ones (you just need casual observation and historical education to assure you the West does a lot of things right, comparatively).
I have less patience for perpetual victims even than I had back then. I am less likely to accept diagnoses offered left right and centre, given the trigger happy dispensing of all kinds of toxic uppers and downers as well as iffy, murky pseudo-scientific constructs punted around with a kind of careless superabundance.
I have no doubt that some serious mental disorders exist, and that some conditions are real, but I’d venture to say around 75% of the time they are used as crutches, tools or manipulation devices.
And in those events where they are real – the sufferer – if they have any agency – must take steps to reasonably mitigate the impact of their condition and live responsibly with it – or they must not have agency and they should be institutionalized.
I’m clearly not therapist material.
I’ve had a few bursts of therapy here and there in my time… to help me with specific things at specific times.
And I have no qualifications (not completed ones anyway) in the field. So you speak to all the professionals and make safe and informed decisions for yourself.
But I will say that I credit the resolution of most unhealthy patterns, any disorders and suffering I had – to this book and Buddhism. And I include in that a pretty serious case of PTSD – again, me not being one to throw DSM labels around like they are Gospel Candy.
If you are well, awesome, we can work together. If you aren’t well, get well, and then we can work together.
And if you don’t want to get well, fine by me, but not around me – go do it over there.
For those serious enough to try, and learn, and figure out, the best book on taming the mental beast is probably David Brazier’s Zen Therapy.