I was asked recently to write briefly on mental illness, specifically depression, bipolar and BPD. I was asked if these things are real or whether they are the product of a society that does not understand it’s people. I was the intention of this friend of mind to get to the bottom of this subject, I feel, in such a way that encourages those who join me in this exploration to reach a sense of acceptance and peace regarding the subject matter. As such, I’m a more than happy to outline the situation we have with what we call mental illness.
What Is Mental Illness?
The first point to make, most sensibly and logically, would be that of definition. What is this phenomenon we call “mental illness” really? To begin with we can look at the definition of illness. When you type “Define illness” into Google, you’ll see that the definition is offers is the following: “a disease or period of sickness affecting the body or mind.” So, now we must define “disease”. Disease, split into syllables is “Dis” (the latin prefix meaning “apart from” or “away from”) and “ease” (meaning without difficulty or effort). Adding this to the definition of “mental” as “of or relating to the mind”, when we say “mental illness”, what it seems we mean is “a period of difficulty during which one is unable to experience ease of mind.”
Following the definition above, mental illness is much more widely spread that we might assume. If we look at the average life situation of a working family man or woman, or of a student at university or college or even that of a school child we can see that there is a significant lack of ease of mind pervading most days. Naturally, there are short periods of relief which may come during breaks or in the evenings. It must be said though, that the preferred life situation for most humans is to have the bulk of each day consisting of ease of mind, with the occasional circumstances arising which may demand a more assertive attitude play their role as a variation upon a general sense of stability and joy. Honestly though, for those of us in positions of employment or education, this is not the case. For those of us in employment or education, stress pervades. So much so that it becomes the norm. It is safe to say that the average man or woman of any age experiences some degree of mental illness from time to time, if not daily.
So then, if everybody is experiencing mental illness in varying degree, who are these people who have be given the medical label of “mentally ill”? It seems that those of us who we call “mentally ill” are simply those who either seem more prone to mental illness or are experiencing mental illness on an almost consistent basis – to the degree that mental wellness is virtually non-existent. But it must be said that even the most depressed of us experience happiness some days, even if it is just for five minutes. In fact, BPD and Bi-Polar are characterised by the notable emotional extremes that occur within the individual. Sadness is equally as present as happiness on the roster of possible emotions for even those of us who are deemed “mentally ill” by medical professionals. It just seems that those of us who are quote-unquote “mentally ill” find ourselves more on the side of sadness more often.
All forms of emotionally-related mental illness (not just those previously mentioned here) are characterised by one thing: levels of suffering which are above that of the average person in their social demographic. To understand a little more about mental illness then, we must explore suffering and its causes.
What Is Suffering?
From the Latin “sufferre” which essentially means “to carry” or “to bear”, broken down to it’s core meaning, suffering means “to hold pain.”For this definition to even exist, there must be some discernible difference between pain and suffering. So what is this difference? We can simply observe the difference between pain and suffering in the image of a hand model getting a paper-cut. The pain occurs as a result of the skin being cut. The suffering is in the mind of the hand model who then spends days until the cut heals worrying about the implications that the paper-cut may or may not have on his or her career. From this we can see that the primary ingredient of suffering is pain. However, not all pain leads to suffering. So what then are the other ingredients?
As well as pain, there is one other essential ingredient required for high quality suffering: Attachment. Or what we can call “the clinging of mind”. When, in Buddhism, we speak about attachment being the cause of suffering, we don’t mean that having a nice house, a nice car and a beautiful wife will lead to suffering. What we mean is that having nice things is more than okay, but being the “possessor” of them will lead to suffering. In simple terms, when who you think you are is all tangled up with what you own and what you’ve done, you will suffer. When you are attached to your nice car, somebody keying it (which in this instance would be pain) becomes the worst thing to happen all year (suffering). When you are attached to your beautiful wife and she decides to leave you, you will suffer. This is not to say “don’t be attached to things”, it is simply to be aware that one thing leads to the other. If you are suffering, now you know why. There is no great mystery to it. Attachment leads to suffering. Suffering comes from the clinging of mind.
Of the many apparent prerequisites for the seemingly infinite types of conditional suffering we experience, two are most significant. We understand that the two ingredients of suffering are pain and attachment. But we can reduce this further because the prerequisite for attachment is mind. Without mind, we cannot be attached… As such, the two key prerequisites for suffering are: mind and pain. Following this to its absolute root, the prerequisite for pain is what we call “a life”, or “being alive”. The prerequisite of which is consciousness.
Instead of just saying “Life is suffering”, however (which is a bad translation of the first of the four noble truths offered by the Buddha) it’s beneficial to look at which of these elements are unavoidable, which are inevitable and which are necessary. Taking it from the seed, we can look at consciousness. Consciousness is not something that we cannot avoid or change. In order for us to be where, consciousness must exist. Unlike our personal identity – which is dependant on us being here in order to exist itself – consciousness is not dependant on us “being alive.” If it did, the death of one person would be the death of every person along with the every other sentient creature, plant and so on.
Now that it is clear that consciousness is unchangeable from our human standpoint, we can move onto questioning whether or not “being alive” is unavoidable, inevitable or necessary. It is certainly not avoidable at this point. Even if we were to commit suicide right now, that would not unlive our lives. Even when we die, we had to be alive in the first place in order to die. Plus, if you were to top yourself, you’d just reincarnate again anyway. So, we can see that from this moment right now, being what we call “life” is unchangeable from our human standpoint. Even if we were to be done with our current life, there would still be other lives transpiring. Even if that all ended due to some nuclear fallout, there are lifeforms which can survive in total darkness in what was once thought to be uninhabitable high level of radiation. The crux here is, life as we know it is unavoidable.
The next level is that of identity and personality. This one is largely simple because we are all dying as one person and becoming another each and every day throughout out relative lifetimes. We are not the person today that we were when we were born, and before that we were nobody. Yet, at no point was there a conscious deliberate decision to being this process of becoming and unbecoming. So, it is unavoidable and inevitable. And it seems too that it is largely necessary.
Next then is pain. We know that whether we are a newborn child or an old man or woman (or anywhere in between) pain is inevitable. We all get colds or the flu. We’ve all slipped or tripped. We were all born with our mothers in pain. We all go through life with growing pains, aching pain, shaking pains and sometimes even faking pains. And no matter how much we try to control things, pain still occurs. Even if we were able to make it so that we never experienced pain on a physical level, the amount of emotional and intellectual pain necessary to facilitate that would be insane. As such, we can see that pain is unavoidable and inevitable.
And finally, suffering. If all suffering requires pain to exist then we must question whether or not suffering itself is required. This is the way to really get to the bottom of mental illness. Mental pain comes and goes. Mental illness, mental disease, comes and stays. So we must ask, is mental illness pain or suffering? Furthermore, we can notice that the same things cause pain for most of us – in varying degrees. A paper-cut hurts everybody, it just hurts some more than others. However, suffering is very subjective. One thing may cause suffering for one of us while another may be unaffected. The level of pain may be the same for some things but the level of suffering differs. It all comes down to the level of clinging which is taking place. Those of us who cling more to certain things will suffer more when disharmony occurs with whatever it is.
So then, the big question, “Are mental illnesses like depression, bi-polar and BPD real? Are they just the result of a society who doesn’t understand its people just labelling and medicating?”
It cannot be denied that there is something happening with those of us who are experiencing depression, bi-polar, BPD and other emotional mental illness but what is happening, it seems, is largely misunderstood. In conclusion, I’d like to outline exactly what I see happening with mental illness. With this, there are several factors. The first is that each individual has a unique set of environmental circumstances, these environment circumstances determine the conditioning of each individual. Some kids don’t behave well when other kids are around, some do. Some kids play up when their parents have friends over, some don’t. Some learn to swim, others don’t. Some kids learn and adapt much better than others. All of these things are the result of what the kids are exposed to and how that is integrated into what is already within the pre-existing conditioning (which itself must be integrated with the initial conditioning the kid picks up from birth until they are roughly 7/8 years old. Over time, environmental factors feed the development of particular neural patterns. It’s for this reason some people adapt and learn more quickly than others.This is the root of the myth that some people are naturally unintelligent. It’s not the case that some people are naturally unintelligent, it’s just that where some kids (the “intelligent” ones) learned adaptability, flexibility and open-mindedness, the “unintelligent” ones learn rigidity and closed-mindedness.
How this applies to mental illness is that some of us develop particular patterns which process data in a different way. This first occurs in how we handle our sensory inputs and how we interface with things. Over time, as these behavioural patterns become more deeply ingrained in our psyche, reactions (like depression, sadness or apathy with those who are “depressed”) become more natural. If you do something once – however hard it was to do it in the first place – it is easier the next time around, if only slightly. The more you do something, the easier it becomes. Applying what we explored about pain and suffering earlier, if we treat all emotional pain in a way which develops suffering then the next time we experience emotional pain then it will be a little easier to do so. Then, over time, as this continues this conditioning becomes so deeply ingrained that it becomes part of our personal identity. Then we become “a mentally ill person” rather than it just being a person who is experiencing mental illness. I make the distinction there because there is one last point I’d like to cover here today.
For as long as we have not discovered our essential nature (beyond personality, body, mind, personal history and so on) then we will likely continue to treat things that happen as though they are “happening to us”. Really though, the only thing that makes things seem like they are happening “to us” is the mind. In fact, things are happening and you are happening. It’s all just happening. It’s happening as it does and nothing we feel about it will change what already is. Those of us who have experienced mental illness, myself included, will know that the minds treatment of what it experiences is the beginning and end of mental illness. For year, I suffered from depression, all sorts of tests were bounded about about bi-polar and so on. In the end, I was prescribed medicine to suppress the symptoms. That wasn’t the solution because my symptoms were the problem. We call them symptoms for a reason. Depression is not the mental illness, it is as symptom of attachment. That is all. It’s the same with other mental illnesses which have become medical conditions. The brain is malleable and the more we unconsciously treat things in unhealthy detrimental ways then we will continue to suffer and this suffering will continue to feed the conditioning of the brain in this way.
It’s never too late to begin the journey of self-discovery. And, I’d like to be clear that any advice gleaned from this post though not be taken at face value. It must be coupled with self-enquiry and deliberate surrendering of illusions to truly know what is unchanging and eternal. For as long as we have the first attachment – the attachment to the false “I” – then we will suffer, if it’s only once in a while. Discover the true “I” beyond the false one and suffering vanishes forever. Any other course of action is fine but really, as you’re reading this now you will know that any other course of action is a distraction from the truth. The truth is unchanging – that is why it is called the truth. Discover this truth and mental illness is just another face of the faceless.
Let’s be clear, though, there is a stigma with most things which are consider to be “out of the ordinary”. Everybody who is not enlightened as to the nature of their true self is going through some sort of mental illness, in varying degrees. Everybody experiences life differently. Some of us experience lots of suffering, some of us not so much. Regardless, we all experience mental illness. I’m not saying this to enable anybody, nor to label or cast a veil of identification. Considering the definition we found of mental illness, we can say that everybody experiences pain; most experience suffering; everybody benefits from discovering the truth of themselves beyond form and identity and condition and illness. Discover that – if you haven’t already – and there are no problems.