After being ignored and scoffed at for generations, there is now growing awareness of the legitimacy and seriousness of mental health illness; of the debilitating, often suffocating, impact conditions such as depression and anxiety have on individuals, as well as the broader societal impact.
Mental health illness is a modern-day tragedy of global proportions; while individual patterns and circumstances vary, widespread interwoven causes within contemporary society function as major trigger of unhappiness, low self-esteem and discontent. Values, so-called, socio-economic and educational methodologies, including competition, comparison and conformity, the relentless agitation of desire, the importance of ‘success’ and focus on pleasure, all create insecurity, discontent and division; and where there is division of any kind, within the individual or society, conflict inevitably follows.
In June 2022 the World Health Organization (WHO) published its most detailed report on the topic: ‘The World mental health report: Transforming mental health for all’, designed, “To inspire and inform better mental health for everyone everywhere.” The data shows that around one billion people suffer from some form of mental health illness, or one in eight of us; “a staggering figure” [rising annually] which the UN agency rightly illustrates, “is even more worrying, if you consider that it includes around one in seven teenagers.”
Shocking as they are, these figures serve as little more than pointers to the scale of the problem. Most people do not live in developed countries with relatively well-resourced health services, but in poor or desperately poor nations, where little research is carried out and where there is often no mental health support. WHO report that, “around half the world’s population lives in countries where there is just one psychiatrist to serve 200,000 or more people.”
Where treatment is available, it is often unaffordable or inaccessible; consequentially “most people with diagnosed mental health conditions go completely untreated,” and so they suffer, often agonizingly, and in many cases for decades. Mental health illness destroys lives, feeding employment, education and relationship issues or failures; alcohol and drug addiction, and in extreme cases self-harm and suicide. According to WHO (2019 figure), every 40 seconds, of every day, someone somewhere in the world dies of suicide, many more attempt it; among under 25 year olds it’s one of the leading causes of death.
A perpetual state of agitation
Parallel with growing awareness of mental health, there is a good deal of talk in western nations now (commonplace in the Orient for eons) about meditation; and the Buddhist inspired discipline of mindfulness; of focusing completely on the task or activity at hand.
Meditation (from the Sanskrit dhyana) is, strictly speaking, not an activity: it is a direct experience of reality, in which the division between experiencer and experience has ceased to be. However, what is commonly regarded as mediation is more often than not some form of concentration or visualization exercise. Concentration on the breath, on an imagined form or a particular word/form of words – a mantra of some kind. All of which, whilst perhaps not qualifying as ‘meditation’, is extremely positive for mental fitness.
In the same way that physical health requires our active engagement (exercise, diet, sleep etc.), if we are to create a healthy mind, particularly given the enormous stresses and demands of life, we need to take responsibility for it. To pay attention to the activity of the mind, to learn to focus. This means becoming aware of the movement of thoughts, which much of the time takes place unconsciously and is saturated in conditioning. Psychological/sociological conditioning is ubiquitous; beginning from birth – before in fact – and continuing relentlessly until, or unless we wake up and realize that what we take to be ‘I’ or ‘me’, is nothing more than a conditioned structure, an image, built around a set of accumulated ideas; opinions and views – about the world, other people and ourselves, poured into the mind and unconsciously absorbed.
Such constructs are inherently inhibiting and divisive, adding to the belief that we are separate, from one another, from the natural environment, and from that which we call God. The socio-economic ideology of the age strengthens this sense of separation; cruel, violent and unjust it denies compassion, promoting values based on selfishness, personal ambition/achievement at the expense of the collective good, and the health of the natural world. Economic insecurity is, for the majority, the daily reality, how to pay the rent/mortgage, for instance, and avoid destitution; separation and isolation creates an environment in which fear, most commonly experienced as anxiety or stress, can and does flourish.
Consumerism, which constitutes the life blood of the economic system, is offered as a way to alleviate the inflicted pain. Poisonous on numerous levels it requires discontent and desire to be constantly maintained, ensuring that the mind is kept in a perpetual state of agitation; driven by longing, moving from one feeling induced thought to another, never settled. In order to move beyond the endless buffeting of fluctuating, often painful feelings and transient thoughts, we need to create mental fitness and strengthen the mind. A powerful way of doing this is through meditation and mindfulness.
The impact of meditation on stress
Over the years various studies have been conducted investigating the impact of meditation. In October 2022 Practical Psychology discussed research showing “that meditation can help thicken the prefrontal cortex of the brain,……[which], not only increases our ability to complete tasks…but also reduces aging in the brain.” In addition, “Meditation reduces chatter in the monkey mind. We stop focusing on our problems and start observing what is happening around us,” thus reducing mental agitation; a 2020 study undertaken by the Center for Healthy Minds (CHM) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a Buddhist monk, found that his brain was ‘eight years younger’ than his 41 years; adding “to a growing pile of evidence that meditative practice may be associated with slowed biological ageing…….[which] makes sense biologically, because stress is a thing that causes ageing,” and meditation helps to reduce stress.
New research, reported in The British Medical Journal (BMJ), which looked at the impact of meditation on the gut health of 37 Tibetan Buddhist monks, and 19 secular residents, revealed that gut bacteria associated with the alleviation of mental illness “in the monks differed substantially from those of their secular neighbors……suggesting that meditation can influence certain bacteria that may have a role in mental health.”
Becoming mentally aware, learning to consciously work with the mind, to focus on the task at hand, and not allowing the mind to wander off; strengthening and expanding one’s ability to concentrate, facilities mental fitness, reduces the impact of daily stress and worry, and, as the Buddha taught, creates joy: “ it is a great good to control the mind; a mind self-controlled [focused] is a source of great joy.” The simple act of sitting quietly for 15 minutes or so, once or twice a day, shifting our focus away from the external chaos and turning within, has been demonstrated (by CHM and others) to aid this process.
Like all exercise regimes, discipline and consistency is needed, but once a rhythm of reflection is established, it quickly becomes part of the daily routine. In choiceless observation, the great Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti maintained, “every form of conditioning is dissolved,” allowing transformation within the brain to take place; healing, in which, as the study on the 41 year old monk demonstrated, the brain cells themselves are rejuvenated, allowing peace of mind to spontaneously come about.
The world we are living in, with its constant noise, demands and pressures; the destructive ideologies, divisions and unjust systems, works against such inner quiet and mental well-being. Indeed, contentment and unconditional happiness is the enemy of the dominant corrupt economic paradigm, founded and reliant as it is on consumerism and desire. Constant longing (through dishonest advertising and relentless marketing) is its aim and is the guarantee for misery, depression and anxiety/stress. Within such a mentally and physically unhealthy environment, it is crucial that individually we recognize the dangers, which are real and potent, and, where possible and within our own limitations, act to safeguard our own well-being, mental and physical, and of course, the two are inextricably connected.