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Minor Mind Mending
An outgoing, uplifting stage personality killed herself recently. Who would have suspected such a powerhouse of positivity would have such a dark side as to tragically die too early because of it? Everyone was shocked. Towards six hundred people attended her memorial service at our university in Ashland.
I wanted to put her loss to the community’s gain and so joined an ad-hoc group. We wanted somehow to help prevent suicides. Quickly, we entered the difficult and overwhelming world of mental dis-eases and the woeful lack of resources to treat them.
It reminded me how pervasive and endemic various disorders are, and how the people who suffer them are not alien others, but ours and us. One beautiful woman reminded us of the difficulties we avoid yet share. Her secret anguish is a magnified version of ours. What little things might we have done, what little changes of mind might she have enjoyed, that would have averted this tragedy?
The tragic act of suicide is not easily reduced to an exact cause. The bio-psychology of our brains and bodies is enmeshed in mental habits born of genes, shaped by upbringing, maintained by cultural assumptions, churned by moods, and steered by will. New drugs and old diets help, and professionals can too, but what of the little mental habits that make up our identity? What about our part in our own well-being in minor and major ways? In the midst of it all we have responsibility and opportunity.
Little changes of mind can lead to major outcomes in life. Little thoughts gently veer vast momentums. Little thoughts lead to larger karmas
Like “a stitch in time saves nine,” and doing the tune-up on the car to prevent major damage, what minor mind mending might we do to “keep it all together” and go on running smoothly?
Let’s start with the most elusive, invisible, and important element in ourselves: our intension or will. Do we want to have mental, emotional, and bodily well-being? Do we want to live with a genuine and spontaneous sense of truth, beauty, and goodness? Do we want to live authentically, with a sure sense of a unique self we like and are proud of? To some extent, this is in our ability. We choose to live well or not. What we intend creates itself.
(J. Krishnamurti has a difficult but useful caveat to this approach. He reminds us that all of what we think we are is really just the conditioned past re-presenting itself. Who are we to think, “I know what I need,” when that “I” isn’t the real I we each are? The troubled mind goes on recreating itself with the illusion of trying. The unconditioned mind, known inwardly as both new yet quietly persistent, rarely gets a notice or a nod. He challenges us to awaken to our self even while being a victim of our self.)
This is where the meditative or rational mind comes in to help. Some rightly say the rational mind is the problem. But it can also be the solution, such as trying on the thought: “I don’t have to think as I have; I can try on new thoughts and behaviors.” (This might be missing Krishnamurti’s warning, though.)
The meditative mind just watches. It extricates itself from having to continue or to react. It looks without judgment, without dislike or like, at what is, and so it opens to an unexpected “could be.” At least it lets the mind unleash, to let go of habitual ruminations and get a glimpse of the bright silence never noticed in the midst of a jangling but familiar rut.
This ability to just watch is practiced in sitting meditation, but applied during life’s insignificant and demanding moments. You don’t have to react. You don’t have to be led by fear or desire. The unattached freedom you practice in meditation can be known in the midst of crisis or despair. It can also make crisis or despair less likely. We don’t need suicide or any of its lesser variants. Intervention isn’t the dramatic gesture at the last moment, it is the attention and alteration we apply as we go in ordinary moments.
An ancient spiritual psychology applies in a modern scientific sense. The old Hindu theory of sanskaras holds that energetic momentum is established in life. The habits we cultivate tend to run us. They’re like gyroscopes in our mind and emotions. We put energy into these notions and motions by repeating them. We give little pushes to the habitual thought by thinking it, more by speaking it, and most by doing it. Such thoughts will likely return for more energy, sometimes with nagging insistence.
The unaware and reactive mind might never notice how much energy these habitual sanskaric thoughts take, or how much of one’s lifetime is spent involved with them. The observant non-reactive mind might notice its own rut and say, “Hmm, I don’t have to be this way.” The Blind Saint of Vrindivan says all we have to do is to notice without reactive judgment that which is not us and give it up. The real I shines light on the imposter I and says, “Not me, and no more.” By relinquishing what you are not, you allow what you are. You die to the rut and come alive to the relief.
We can then either quit cold turkey, or at least stop doing some of the actions, words, or thoughts that we no longer want to run us. Because habits are habits, they’ll come back many times seeking involvement, but you, by your intension, don’t have to cooperate. You can say, “No,” and be new. You can say, “No, you’re from a former era, so goodbye,” and then relish in reunion to newness.
Synaptic patterns in our brains and a plush array of mood chemicals in our blood sway us to do what we’ve done and resist change. Add to this personal situation the context of family upbringing, religious teachings, cultural assumptions, and socially persistent patterns and we see many forces for unconscious continuation and few resources for altering it. Yet, we can. Because thoughts are not wholly in our control we must take our opportunity to responsibly address that aspect which is.
Deep in the central functions of our brain, the amygdala of the old limbic (mammalian) brain reacts instantly to stimuli, even before the rest of the brain knows it. It is also the site of stored emotional trauma, tending to defensive reactions. Finally, it is influenced by belief and training. How we react, judge, and believe is built of neuron pathways and connections, wired to keep being the same.
Soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder have had their amygdala shocked into explosive wariness. By repeated sessions of loving nurture they gradually regain control of hyper-reaction. Angry judgmental-ness, fear, and hate rouse the mind towards interior moods leading to social cycles of attack and revenge. War-torn societies, and those hyped on a stern and wrathful God, will have a hard time turning the other cheek or cultivating compassion. They make defensive reactivity a must.
Which is why we must take care to teach and practice those little changes in our mind, talk, and behavior that gently lead us to new patterns of healthy wholeness, peace, love, and joy. We can work with each other and our body/minds to promote our goodness. It is not a bad thing to have contentment and joy in our lives. Our religious culture hypes blame and shame for our so-called fallen-ness, our consumer culture pushes slick but shallow identities and pleasures, and our political culture hawks fear, belligerence, and cynicism. We can see all these as not us, not part of our inherent goodness, and renouncing them, allow our real self to live.
After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, God places a cherub with a flaming sword turning in all directions to bar their return. This is a union of opposites symbol. Having been tricked into divisive opposites, we must turn the concepts inside out, look at them with objective awareness. Though shamed into belief that our sexuality is bad, we walk innocently naked through the flaming sword unscathed. Though believing we’re depressed or addicted, we step right through the damning thoughts to relief from them.
This need not be a grand and dramatic act. It is more likely to work if it is a simple, subtle one. The thought arises: “I’m depressed.” Instead of wilting under it, or trying to fight it off, we simply observe it. “Be in it,” Vasavada used to say. A slight relief comes from not fleeing or fighting. A slight opportunity opens to new thoughts: “I’m depressed, but I don’t have to be,” or, “I’m tired of it,” or, “I can grow out of this.”
By observing and allowing the “I am depressed” thought, but as a witness in the act of relinquishing it, space for a new emerging self opens. Instead of “it’s always like this,” or, “it’s all my fault” or, “I’ll never get out of this,” perhaps the thoughts “it’s often like this, but not always,” or, “it’s partly my fault, if fault has to be laid at all,” or, “I just got out of this a bit” might arise. We admit the depression but resolve to exercise vigorously anyway, to burn it off with adamant intent.
Daring to have the intent to say “no” to the old and “yes” to the new – sets magic in motion. Be it by angels in the invisible ethers or micro chemicals in our blood, a slight shift happens. We haven’t stopped a momentum, or drastically changed it, but we have veered it off a little, off towards an accumulating change. Paths open. New vistas gradually come into view and reach. We step into the agony to walk through to the other side of it.
Consider addictions. Addictions are habits grown round some activity or substance that makes it the center of life, taking too much from other aspects of life. It could be the obvious ones like heroin, meth, or alcohol, or it could be behavioral ruts like gambling, anger, or whining. TV can become addictive, or even just having to see the news. In all these there is a payoff, some pleasure, a sort of high. The problem isn’t that we want to be high or have pleasure; the problem is all it costs us to have it. Does our entire life revolve around brief spurts of pleasure, as with a sex addict? Rats working levers wired to their pleasure centers will pump themselves to starvation. Do we do our counterparts?
Any habit you can’t break is an addiction. Again, it isn’t the reactive or judgmental mind that we need here, but the simply honest meditative one. Recovery starts when one is honest and brave enough to say, “I’m too far into this.” This thought isn’t fought off, run from, glorified, or ignored; it is just admitted. Self shines on non-self. Then comes the possibility of renouncement and newness.
The cigarette smoker might say, “Yeah, over a pack a day… Costs a lot now… Could be worse later… Makes me stink… Hardens my arteries… Hampers my sex life…” She might also admit she likes it, that it makes her feel what she has come to feel is normal, that it’s hard to quit, et cetera. Admitting it, she can renounce even in bits: often avoiding instead of always indulging, smoking only the first inch, picking a non-smoking restaurant. Or one day, she just realizes she has quit. Yearning becomes learning and mastery.
Admitting the truth is made easier by cultures that don’t blame and shame, that value humility, and like humor. Saying what is the case is the first step in possibly renouncing what isn’t you and discovering what is. Weed from your minds those little thoughts that you don’t want taking over your real you.
Minor mind mending is the ongoing maintenance we exercise to keep us from descending into depleting sickness or ultimate tragedy and points us towards healthy balance. We might also want to avail ourselves of help from friends or family, or from professionals, or from attention to diet, exercise, and rest, or from the herbs or medicines that might help. A supportive culture like our fellowship or even the understanding and activities of some aspects of the larger culture – from Dr. Dwyer to cowboy poetry – also can help. I’m not saying this is an either/or situation. We need each other and we sometimes need help.
But whatever the external information, attention, or intervention we might use or not, we have some key access inside ourselves, some simple truth-knowing that knows a rut and how to climb out of it. Every day can be known as a blessing when we tend to the little movements in our mind, gently erasing those thoughts and moods we don’t want, and gladly nourishing those we do
Try it. When you notice yourself thinking, feeling, saying, or doing something you just know isn’t really you, simply notice it. Calmly, without fear or judgment, admit what you see. Know whether you want to live with that and watch it grow, or not. If not, be glad to have realized that, for the next step is easier: say good bye. Renounce it, if only by a bit in that moment, resolving to drop it again when it returns, which it likely will. But when it does, and you know you don’t have to go along, that you’re relegating it to a part of your past, you will feel a bit of the mastery and newness you really are. In minor and major ways, drop despondency or dependency and go for the joy you really and rightly are.
Reverend Brad Carrier
for the Umpqua Unitarian Universalists, Roseburg, Oregon,
C May 22, 2005