Coming to Grips with Mind

In my blog essay last week, I stipulated how important to our personal well-being it is be able to cultivate a sense of equanimity in our internal world, our theatre of mind. Our state of mind, rather than our external circumstances, is the prime determinant of our well-being. You and I both know people whose external circumstances are unfortunate but who are largely happy. We also know of those with wealth and privilege whose lives seem miserable and unsatisfying. It is important then that we might learn techniques to train our minds to find serenity and contentment.

The study of the mind and our mental wellness is a relatively recent body of knowledge in Western civilisation. The groundbreaking work in the emerging field which has come to be known as psychology or psychiatry is usually attributed to Freud.

The study of the mind has been pursued for a couple of millennia under Buddhism.

Freud was fixated on understanding how afflictions of the mind arose. He trawled through the early life experiences of his patients to try and find a cause for their mental dysfunction. And while no doubt this was of great academic interest, it often didn’t lead to an amelioration of the condition of the afflicted. It is the equivalent to going to your doctor with an infection and have him/her spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find how the infection was acquired rather than prescribing a course of antibiotics which would give relief.

Indeed there is a body of opinion which maintains that we can better understand behaviour by what happens after than what went before (the aberrant behaviour). This theory, quite convincingly argues that behaviour that is reinforced through some benefit, however strange it might seem to us, is the behaviour likely to be repeated and to become unconsciously added to the behavioural repertoire of the individual. (See for example the “get my way” behaviours described by Narciso and Burkett in “Relating Redefined.”)

And it certainly seems to me to be more profitable to seek to train the mind in ways that will help the well-being of the individual than to spend inordinate amounts of time in dissecting in detail the memories of individuals in the quest to find instances of abuse and trauma in our early lives. Even if such experiences are unearthed we can’t go back in time and change them. Mind you there is some value in contemplating how we might interpret them. Indeed our much vaunted “free-will” seems to me to be more a choice about how we interpret the world than anything else. And relying on our memories is fraught with its own difficulties because our memories are notoriously unreliable.

Many of us believe that our memories are lodged forever in some part of our mind and we can bring them to consciousness at will. Well this is incorrect. Our memories are a construct that our conscious mind manufactures from some vaguely remembered and often embellished facts.

If you don’t agree with this statement just visit what some unscrupulous psychologists did with the concept of “repressed memory.” Here they suggested that some of the undesirable mental symptoms of patients were due to trauma, such as sexual molestation in their youth. Susceptible patients confirmed such inappropriate behaviour even when it had never occurred. Again when you are confronted with a person of authority who offers an explanation for your unfortunate condition it is not hard to reconfigure your memories to console yourself that this indeed may have happened.

Or to further highlight the problem examine court transcripts of independent witnesses’ recollection of events in cases related to traffic accidents.

As I said earlier, our memories are constructs of the mind and are often biased to portray what we would like to have happened in the past, rather than what did happen.

What I am about to write might be controversial, so in order that I am not misunderstood I want to preface it with a few thoughts on the origin of mental illness. Most aberrations of the mind, apart from a few exceptions such as those caused by substance abuse (and even this is somewhat debatable), are not the responsibility of the individual. Freud was undoubtedly right that much mental illness is a result of trauma experienced in our young lives. Our minds are indeed moulded by our early socialisation over which we have no control. Much mental illness has a genetic component as well and because we did not choose our parents we have no culpability in this respect either. As my good friend Dr Phil would assert those who suffer mental illness do so “through no fault of their own.”

There is also a considerable body of sufferers of various mental afflictions where the problem is essentially organic. The therapies I am promoting here are not for them. They will probably benefit most from the judicious treatment of their disabilities by the use of drugs administered by skilled psychiatrists.

However many who are afflicted by mental ill-health can benefit from learning techniques which will help them gain a greater sense of well-being.

One of the worst aspects of modern Western society is that we have propagated a culture of blame, victimhood and entitlement. In such an environment it is easy to maintain that sufferers of mental illness are not to blame for their affliction, that they are merely victims of unfortunate circumstances. This is undoubtedly true. But if we go to the next step and argue that because they are victims it is up to others (the state, the medical fraternity, family etc) to put things right then we are mistaken.

Karuna Cayton, practicing therapist and Buddhist teacher, in “The misleading Mind” proposes that it is useful to distinguish between blame and accountability.

He makes this distinction:

• Blame is a destructive emotion that expresses our anger, hostility, and desire to move the problem off ourselves and onto anywhere else, even upon someone else. Blame is a form of punishment. No real positive learning can come from blame, which almost inevitably is either hurtful or polarising.
• Accountability is an objective acknowledgment of our (or another’s) actions. It is a non-emotional assessment of one’s role in an event, and it is the way we take responsibility for our actions.

Our society seems obsessed with blame because we want retribution and compensation. But this is not helpful for rehabilitation. Our society is prone to imply that our state of mind is the responsibility of others. For those with congenital disorders and chemical imbalances this is definitely not the case, but for most of us this is true. Buddhists have affirmed for millennia that our state of mind is our own responsibility and they have provided techniques proven over the centuries to help us achieve equanimity and serenity. That is not to say that our efforts need to be unaided. Much benefit can be derived by the guiding wisdom of a sage, a therapist or a mental health professional. But in the end we cannot avoid the fact that the prime responsibility for reordering our minds in a more helpful way, where it is possible to do so, is lodged in ourselves.

This is not a matter of small moment. How empowering it is to know that with the appropriate tools most of us can train our own minds and have the potential to overcome some of the disadvantages of genetics and inappropriate socialisation to still lead worthwhile lives. We can turn to others to help us find the most appropriate tools, but applying them beneficially is certainly our personal responsibility.

Cayton asserts:

“..almost without fail, blame leads to ineffective action, while accountability leads to effective action. This is reassuring. It means mind training doesn’t just help us ‘feel better’, it’s a practical, pragmatic problem solving tool.”

You will detect some idealism here – and indeed there is. Some minds are so damaged that it is unlikely that they can be restored to well-being. I will, with great sadness, concede that. Some people also have pathology that can be best addressed with drugs and the benefits of modern psychiatry. Often treatment can successfully integrate different aspects of both psychiatry and psychology. But many of us can improve our sense of well-being by using the techniques of Buddhist practice. This is still not an easy road and I am not proposing some “silver bullet” or pop-psychology quick fix. We indeed have to learn new habits of mind and this will take some time, often years. It is not possible to remove the conditioning of decades in five minutes.

And again there is a matter of some serendipity regarding how we might encounter someone to offer the most appropriate tools. Many of us would never have the good fortune to come across someone with the skills to help us in this regard.

In my little book, “Froth and Goblets” the Buddhist sage, Augustus inveigled the princess Naomi into taking accountability for her own mental state. As a result he enabled her to train her mind through meditation, awareness and utilizing her signature strengths. It is a lesson many of us could all profit by.

I can only hope that if you are seeking to find serenity and equanimity you are prepared to accept the accountability for retraining your mind. And I fervently hope that from whatever quarter it comes you find appropriate tools to do so.

5 Replies to “Coming to Grips with Mind”

  1. I worry that the increasing recognition of mental illness can cause it to spread and perpetuate a culture of victimhood and entitlement. However I strongly believe that mental illness should be repressed. Society continues to struggle in how to deal with the disease. Having recent experience of losing a loved one to mental illness via suicide, and having experience (as I’m sure we all do) with slothful people who have an expectation of entitlement while reaching for the victim/blame card, I have not found a ‘middle way’ view on this.

    I’m deliberating whether or not the concept you presented Ted is a sleight of hand in regards to blame and accountability. Is it perhaps still just blaming: i.e blaming the individual (whether victim or perpetrator) for not accepting accountability? Under an incompatiblist determinist view, such individual did not choose that he/she is unable to accept accountability.

  2. Matt, as I mentioned in a response to my previous blog essay, we have to be very careful here. Mental illness can have various platforms. As Freud suggested ( and probably overstated it) it can come from early experiences that then distort our minds. It can come from a genetic history that predisposes the sufferer to aberrations of the mind. It can come from trauma of the brain and organic issues that impact brain chemistry.

    But no matter what its origin, the sufferer is not to blame.

    Some sufferers of mental illness (certainly not the last couple of categories above) will enhance their sense of well-being if they can assume some accountability for their own state of mind.

    And I agree with the implication in your statement above that we are often prone to diagnose mental illness when learned behavioural problems are the most likely source of the problem.

    But I also emphasise there is no profit and considerable injustice in making those who are mentally ill because of more organic issues feel guilty because they haven’t been able through their own internal processes to alleviate their illness.

  3. I received an e-mail from a friend (Barbara Jones Director, Executive Mandela) on this particular blog essay. She has agreed that I can share it with my readers. I have copied the text below.

    Hi Ted,

    I loved this particular piece. I’ve chosen not to write back to you in the Comments spot, as my comments are not likely to be of much interest to others. Hopefully, they might be to you. Perhaps over a nice meal and a glass of something or other one of these times when we are each in the same place at the same time?

    You didn’t make mention of her, so I might assume that you haven’t yet come across the work of Karen Horney? She developed a theory of neurosis, centred on the basic conflict among a range of attitudes (moving toward; moving against; moving away from). She challenged Freud’s assumption through her development of this more constructive theory, which allowed for the resolution of such conflict by “changing conditions within the personality that brought them into being”. (Horney, 1945) I think you’d enjoy her work, as it relates specifically to what you are proposing in your piece on Mind. The three “attitudes” referred to are descriptors of the ego/defence mechanisms (blame others etc, and either (a)come out fighting, (b) run away, or (c)acquiesce)

    I wrote a paper last year, as part of my doctoral studies, on what I saw to be the missing pieces in the work we do in the field of leadership development/coaching etc. You and I are on the same page with this I can see. I include a psycho-educational element in the work I do – a mindfulness practice – to help clients develop the psychological insight (consciousness) necessary to enable them to take the next steps, and move from their reactive (ego driven) stance to one of responding (being responsible). When they learn to be mindful – they can then be witness to their own egos doing the stuff that gets them into strife. (Alan Jones anyone??)

    I am also currently writing up a chapter on one element of my PhD research, wherein I very recently completed a 3 month mindfulness training project with a group of 17 senior executives. The results have been enormously encouraging, and as an interesting aside, the two most cynical executives, have become my strongest advocates!

    Happy to share these thoughts if you wish.



Comments are closed.