Psychology, or; Keeping the Mind Alive
The Hard Swallow
I will not mince any words: things are bad. Objectively. They are probably worse than most of you know, or could bear to know. Every system that we rely upon to maintain a safe, ordered and livable world is in crisis. What’s more, nothing is being done about any of it, at anything like the scale needed to make any headway on these problems. The best you can ask for right now is that a few million hopeful gestures might add up to more than just hopeful gestures.
Does anyone think that the institutions of society, at any level, are going to somehow untangle their organizational failure enough to do what they are elected and appointed to do? No, I don’t think so either. Not until things get a lot worse than they are, and maybe not even then. The activist situation ‘on the ground’ is not appreciably better either. My close up experience with the occupy movement shows that while there are large numbers of people willing to become engaged with issues in a meaningful way, the well of social discourse has been so poisoned and polarized by decades of culture war that even there, the only things that can be agreed upon are nebulous affirmations of good feelings, and, perversely, that things are also really fucked up. This is as good as it gets right now, unless you happen to be a builder/hacker/innovator of some kind, and then you have the privilege of standing around with perfectly good ideas that cannot get any lasting traction in a toxic environment of meandering social dysfunction and calamity.
I do not say this to make you feel worse. Quite the opposite, I do this to point out the necessary condition for you to begin to feel better. It is a relatively recent historical phenomena for standards of living and social complexity, let alone moral progress and reason, to predictably increase for any length of time. Many of us grew up/are growing up in the tail end of a period where things were ‘getting better’, and so it was relatively easy to feel good about the world and yourself in it, just by looking around, even if that looking was rather selective in its scope.
That option of general optimism, however, is no longer on the table, and it is time to dust off some very old facts of life: sometimes shit happens. In fact, shit is usually what happens, and if you hitch your psychological well being to that, you might as well just check out now. Working ( and I mean ‘working’ in a way that is probably a bit foreign to most of you) to survive is going to be the new normal, and that’s just how it is. Being happy and healthy in your mind, is going to have to be a subjective matter, or it won’t be on the table at all. If you’re looking for the return of social optimism, ‘market growth’, political progress, reasoned discourse, accountability, safety and certainty, then my friend, I fear you are simply out of luck. Your ancestors knew that life was inherently precarious. They had to have, or they wouldn’t have survived. Now you need to know it, too.
The good news is, we now understand more about how to actually be happy than we ever have, even if we don’t apply this knowledge very well. Knowing how to do something is not the same as actually doing it, of course. It has generally been simpler to trust the clergy, buy some new shoes, watch tv, or smoke a fatty, than take responsibility for your psychological stability. You didn’t need to know how to do this, so you didn’t bother to learn and master it. Okay, fine. Now you do need to, so you better get on with it.
For simplicity’s sake, I will assume that you are not insane. If you are, or fear you might be, or you are simply so far down the road of neurosis and rampant social psychosis that you don’t feel able to engage your own psyche in a meaningful way, then you probably ought to contact a qualified professional to at least help you stabilize enough to do some of the things I am talking about. FYI, the success rate of freudian and jungian analysis, or psychiatric committal is pretty dismal, but that’s realistically the only way to access certain kinds of meds that will stabilize things like psychosis and schizophrenia. Better to go on your own terms than not. At the milder end, you’re better off with some manner of cognitive/behavioral therapy or some other variety of results-oriented treatment than will help you get yourself under control. At the mildest end, low grade depression and anxiety can be helped rather a lot through herbal remedies that won’t have potentially very bad side effects. Research carefully. If you can read my words without wildly hallucinating or going into psychotic rages, however, then chances are you can look at my recommendations and start to shift yourself in a more positive direction.
This perspective on psychological health is organized along three lines, in steps of increasing overall importance.
The fact is, you are a mind that is embodied in a network of nerve tissue, and that nerve tissue is there to receive signals from its environment. If the balance of those signals are painful, your mind will begin to withdraw from the environment, to escape pain. If, due to unremitting pain, fear or anxiety, your mind withdraws too far from the senate world, then you are no longer functional. Further, inability to escape or relieve negative sensations, without any other mitigating factors, will progressively lead to mental and physical breakdown. This phenomena is easy to observe amongst the chronically injured or ill, or even the advanced elderly to some degree. Yes, people cope with constant stress, pain and fear, but they need a powerful reason to do so. Absent a powerful reason, you will die, or lose your mind.
Dealt with strictly on this lowest level then, psychological health is about creating and amplifying positive sensation, limiting negative sensation, and keeping the balance shifted as far in your favor as possible. When you feel good, purely on a sensate level, you can at least count on your body not to quit on you, and your mind not to retreat from reality, and sometimes that is as good as it gets. This is what drives a lot of drug use, for example, but the problem is drug use eventually takes on a life of its own, and isn’t helping you get by anymore. There are undoubtedly people who are reacting and will continue to react to social crisis by getting high, but this is not what I’m proposing as a long term solution, since anything that impairs your ability to engage the real world in a crisis is a non-starter.
From the outset, keep in mind that most of my earlier recommendations directed towards physical health also serve the dual purpose of warding off pain and thus warding off the erosion of mental stability that pain causes over time. Adopting a good strategy towards physical health is also much of the way towards a strategy for psychological health as well. We will build upon that.
The body is to a large degree a mechanism for accumulating and discharging tension. You experience the discharge of tension as pleasure, unless you are conditioned in a fairly unusual way, which some people in fact are, but this is not average. So, the best and most sustainable way to give yourself positive sensation is to afford yourself opportunity for discharge of tension, as often and as completely as possible. Things like hot baths and showers, physical idleness and relaxation, sexual activity, recreational physical exertion, massage, or, at the exotic end, bliss states from skill in meditation, all healthily serve this function to greater or lesser degree. We often categorize these things as luxuries, but I suggest you make a certain amount of positive physical sensation a priority both now, and in difficult times. Learning a bit of acupressure and therapeutic massage is a very sustainable and low maintenance way of going about this, and also will help keep you physically functional if you learn how to address sprains, bruises, and other low grade muscular-skeletal complaints. It is also a pleasurable social activity that doesn’t have all the possible gender connotations and emotional baggage of sexual intercourse, which is probably most people’s go-to form of discharge, but may not be workable in a number of different crisis scenarios.
The simplest way to express this is ‘not being bored’, which right off the bat tells you that most people are failing this a lot of the time. The same way the body atrophies from lack of activity, the mind deteriorates from not getting things to do that command your full attention.
The low end of mental engagement is simply being distracted. Any novel situations and information will function as that, so social interaction or surfing the internet are how most people manage the mental engagement issue. This is pretty weak nourishment, because mental engagement only really takes off when we are using our capacities at or near their full extent, and most people do not pick friends on the basis of being challenged and pushed to evolve their limits, nor do they surf the internet in anything other than the repetitive browsing fashion of an ungulate animal. In uncertain times, of course, one cannot even be sure of ‘hanging out’ with friends, let alone hitting boing boing for the latest tidbit. This is compounded by the likely prospect of having to do a lot of repetitive, arduous, yet necessary, tasks to maintain your existence, like intensive gardening, maintenance to home and household items, or just plain foraging around.
Boredom dilates the experience of time, and doing monotonous things in a boring way under conditions of dilated time will gradually erode your psychological condition in a similar way to outright negative sensations like pain and fear. Conversely, high levels of mental engagement can almost erase your awareness of time passing altogether, in addition to being inherently pleasant in and of itself, and psychologically salutary. This is what is often referred to as ‘flow’, and is nothing more than using your competencies at a high enough level to stay interested, but not so high you are at risk of catastrophic failure. It is in this narrow band or ‘zone’ that the mind operates in an optimum way.
The most consistent way of approaching this is to first of all have a good idea of what your skills and strengths actually are, the things in which you can operate at a fairly high level without undue effort, and then to shape your daily activities in such a way as to use your strengths as much as possible.
I suggest you take a loose view of what is a strength, in this sense, as to fit it to the greatest number of possible activities. One of the benefits of a large complex society is the division of labour which lets more people fit themselves to their strengths than they might otherwise, but you cannot count on being able to survive a social crisis by making ornamental candles or writing star trek fan fiction on a google adwords site. You might however apply the same skills to making ordinary candles, or other related practical craft items, or break the different steps into their applicable areas and afford yourself more mental engagement that way, or find ways to apply your imagination, creativity and writing skills to something that serves some survival purpose. Failing all that, which you may well, you can keep your hobbies in reserve for down time to get at least some of the psychological benefits of flow states.
Looked at from the other end, the more you learn how to involve your mind and become interested in what you end up having to do, the less it will seem like a burden. There is a certain zen that can be found in austerity, simplicity, humbleness… chopping wood, carrying water, right? The more you can fit your mind to your circumstances, instead of rebelling, then the more engaged your mind will be, and the healthier and saner you will stay. Which is not to say that you should accept your circumstances, however benighted, but even working to improve your situation will involve a lot of things your aren’t used to doing or all that interested in, necessarily. The better you can absorb yourself in the grunt work of stabilizing your daily living, the less it will seem like grunt work at all.
Meaning and Purpose
Positive sensation and mental engagement are both beneficial to the mind, but there is really only one essential thing the mind actually needs in and of itself, and that is meaning. In the broadest sense, meaning is the ability to discern ordered patterns in the world, to make sense out of what is happening to you, to see a reason and purpose in what is going on, to feel like you understand what life is, and why it is what it is, not just in some abstract sense, but from day to day, moment to moment.
One mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that all meaning is good. It often is not, but the point is that it’s there. Even if your understanding of life and world is that it is all pain and suffering to be endured, you will endure it, if there’s a reason for you to. It is the reason that makes the difference. Imagine a life of pain and suffering that had no purpose, no escape, no reward, no redemption. Such a life would be extremely short, simply because the mind would reject purposeless meaningless pain, and would find a way to die. Simple as that. But as I’m sure you well know, people endure the most horrific circumstances on the strength of the thinnest threads of hope, and that is all a matter of finding something meaningful to hang onto.
The mechanism behind all this, if you care, is basically that not being able to understand your environment well enough to succeed, escape pain, make discernible progress, or assume even the most minimal control induces depression, progressive biological shutdown, and death. Perhaps you have heard of the ghastly experiments where lab animals were subjected to arbitrary punishments with no way to escape and no discernible pattern. Eventually they just lay down and take the punishment until they die, because their brains simply can’t figure a way out of it, or see that there even is one. You are not that different.
Meaning is a big deal, and what it comes down to is understanding what is going on, and seeing a point to going on with it. It is easy to lose track of what is really meaningful to us, in the blizzard of distraction, consumerism, superficial sensation and polished inauthenticity that passes for ‘culture’, but my whole point at the beginning was that culture is not your friend right now, and even at the best of times, it isn’t very good quality meaning. The best kind comes from within, is measured from within, and sustained from within. Relying on the world to explain itself to you, to reassure you of your success, to provide you with achievable goals and ways of meeting them, is setting yourself up for grave disappointment, especially in times like these.
There are literally as many ways to have a meaningful life as there are people, but the best ones are about something that transcends your own limited and selfish perspectives. The love for others is classic. Specific people is good, humanity in general is better. Unconditional love for the world is about as good as it gets, for three specific reasons:
-it is entirely self generated
-it is independent of changing external conditions
-it is concerned with giving, not taking, and so is not tied into the success or failure of your ego.
To whatever degree your meaning incorporates those three features, to that degree your meaning will be more durable, and to that degree you will find a way to keep going when things look bleak.
We don’t get to know how things will be, we just have to take the ride and see for ourselves. One thing is for sure; the world may not be going good places right now, but the only way it ever will is if enough people of good will remain to guide it there, which is why you need to take care of yourself. It is natural to look at things now and feel sad, sick, angry and overwhelmed. But our ancestors walked naked across the desert, huddled in glacial caves, struggled with millennia of the most abject ignorance and fear, threw off monarchy, slavery, human sacrifice, pharonic death cults, genocide, and plagues or disasters beyond number. They made it, so can you. I firmly believe that everyone, in their psychological growth, must sooner or later come to terms with the fact that living only for yourself is a doomed endeavor, and the shortest road to madness. Despair is just, at the end of the day, another kind of self destructive egotism. You have no right to give up on yourself, or anyone else, when the mind contains all possibilities. No one can ever open that door for you, but the door is there.