Monday, April 10, 2017

Sculpting Our Own Consciousness

The other day I was teaching a neighbour how to make her own wine. A year ago, I got her into making wine at one of the "you brew" places, which made her realize that wine can be incredibly cheap if you go about it the right way. It was now time to show her how it can be even cheaper still if you do it in your kitchen. (We are trying a kit right now that cuts the cost of white wine to about $1.65/bottle.)

While the primary fermenter and fermentation lock were sanitizing, I made her some green tea and we had a visit. I mentioned an acquaintance from my youth who was recently hospitalized for malnutrition after decades of reclusive behaviour, which culminated in being found starving in an apartment so dirty it was declared a hazard. My friend commented that someone had once told her that he thought that people could "think themselves into mental illness", if they weren't careful.

This is a complex issue. First of all "mental illness" is a very broad range of things. It's like the word "cancer", which is more like a symptom (unregulated cell reproduction) than a specific disease. Lung cancer, which is usually created by inhaling a pollutant---like cigarette smoke---is different from cervical cancer which is usually caused by infection with a virus. In the same way, depression is different from PTSD, which is different from Schizophrenia, and so on. I seems obvious to me that these different types of problems arise from different causes---just like in the case of cancer.

Having said that, I suspect that there is some truth, in some cases, in what my neighbour said. One widely-used psychiatric treatment known as "cognitive behaviour therapy" (CBT) is based on the idea that one aspect of several forms of mental illness come down to people having faulty thinking
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy,
Urstadt, From Wiki Commons
processes that shape their way of experiencing the world around them. The therapy is to have people examine the key elements of their thinking, and get them into the habit of changing them to another, more functional way of doing so.

When I was trying to give up smoking I found that I would often relapse and begin again. This was frustrating, but after a while I noticed something. When I felt optimistic about the future it was easy to stop smoking. But when I was pessimistic, I would inevitably say to myself "oh, screw it---what's the point?" and relapse. My addictive behaviour was related to my mood. And I was "blue" or slightly depressed a lot of the time. When I figured this out, I tried to remind myself when "blue" that this was a time when I would be tempted to start smoking again, but which I would regret later on. This helped me avoid restarting.

A related issue came from a period of time when I went to a Roman Catholic hermit for spiritual direction. One of the things he did to support himself was teach the Ignation spiritual exercises at a local retreat centre. One the practical suggestions that come from this system is the idea that people often oscillate between periods of "desolation" and "consolation". Desolation is what modern people would recognize as "depression", and the exercises teach that this is a natural part of human self-transformation. When things are working well in our lives, we come out of this desolation and enter into consolation, which is a greater understanding and insight into how our psyche and the world around us operates.
Ignatius Loyola, From the Jesuit Institute, via Google Images

This was a tremendously important insight for me, as it changed the way I viewed my periods of feeling "blue". I stopped feeling that they were this horrible, totally worthless state of mind and instead saw them as part of a process who's end result was a growth in wisdom. This isn't to say that they were any better (knowing that the doctor is breaking your legs to straighten them out doesn't mean that it hurts any less), but the pain is bearable now because I often remind myself that I will probably come out of this experience with a better understanding of life.


I've pretty much built my life around this process of paying attention to my awareness and how what I do impacts it. For example, if I don't write a little bit every day I start getting progressively more and more "scattered" in my consciousness. This, in turn, stops me from being even-keeled in my emotions, which leads me to doing and saying things that I don't want to---and being more fearful of potential reactions from others. (To be perfectly honest, this is why I am writing this blog post. I've been doing a lot of research lately, which means that I haven't been writing and it has been catching up with me.)

This activity of "paying attention" to how your mind operates, and what it is in your life that affects it is actually part of the very earliest Daoist spiritual practice: "Holding onto the One". This is a practice referred to in the Taiping Jing and the Nei-Yeh, which involves paying attention to the world around you---both outside and inside of ourselves---and looking for the subtle rules (or "Daos") that govern it. In a way, this is very similar to cognitive behaviour therapy---which is hardly surprising, as I read somewhere that the people who developed this school were inspired by reading from ancient schools of Greek practical philosophy such as Stoicism and Cyncism.

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