June 26, 2023
SF Gate

Why Is Mental Health Such a Mess?.


When your mind and heart are truly open abundance will flow to you effortlessly and easily.

By Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, FRCP

The problem of how to be happy lies at the basis of mental health, and when no one has an answer to this most basic of human dilemmas, mental well-being remains unsolved. The average person tells pollsters that he or she is happy. What they mean, if you look beneath the surface, is that they fit into the social norm of happiness. This norm is taught, learned, and conditioned.

No one escapes the conditioning that equates happiness with money, success, youth, sexual attractiveness, status, possessions, power, and the most important element of all, conformity. When conformity fails, mental well-being is revealed as a profound problem. The billions of dollars spent on antidepressants and tranquilizers in this country, an outlay that relieves symptoms without curing the fundamental disorder, testifies to the situation, which frankly is a mess.

If you fall into the gap where social notions of happiness are unreachable, you will find yourself an outlier with little chance of finding a rational plan to recovery. Let me set aside the extreme end of the spectrum, where psychosis, and particularly schizophrenia, are encountered. The medical model for psychosis isn’t working. Neither genes, family background, or prior medical history explains severe mental disorders, and of course there is no germ that can be pointed to. The situation is tragic on all fronts except for medications to soften the worst symptoms.

There must be a better way, and it can only be found by totally rethinking happiness and unhappiness, mental distress and mental well-being. These are pairs of opposites that inevitably must be considered together. We can start with some observations outside medicine that trace their roots to the ancient sages, seers, and spiritual guides in every culture, but particularly in the East.

Without advocating any solutions, there are some consensus views about human awareness that are too fundamental to ignore.

  • Happiness and unhappiness are activities of the active mind attempting to deal with the challenges of life.
  • Because the mind is fickle, unpredictable, filled with conflict, and constantly exposed to social conditioning, it cannot serve as the basis of true well-being.
  • One can view the active mind as a shield that blocks the true nature of consciousness. This shield is like a dense cloud of vrittis, the Sanskrit word for habitual mental thoughts and desires
  • There is no cure at the level of vrittis, because we are constantly and dynamically adding to them, shuffling them around, and getting stuck in them.
  • Only transcendence works, meaning that awareness must be placed at a deeper level than the active mind.
  • This level is self-healing, because here is where everything we rely upon, such as the physical body is organized. At the same time, the values that humans most cherish—love, compassion, truth, beauty, creativity, and inner growth—spring from here.
  • The qualities of awareness in question were not invented by the mind; therefore, they have a purity, stability, and permanence that the active mind cannot harm, even though the screen of vrittis can disguise them.
  • Even deeper than this level of awareness, which has an individual flavor and is absorbed into each person differently, lies pure, universal consciousness. This is the ultimate source of every physical or mental attribute not just in humans but in every living thing.
  • Being connected to pure awareness unifies the divided mind, and in this wholeness, we exist as we truly are.

In various forms and transformations all of these principles have existed for millennia. They imply a path out of pain and suffering, but here is where spiritual cultures differ and diverge. The Middle Way of Buddhism diverges from Advaita Vedanta, and both diverge from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In modern secular society these distinctions have been lost or are ossified into rigid religious dogma. Either way, there is no path forward. That’s the root cause for the mess that mental health is in. When patients go for any form of therapy, the doctor or therapist is as conditioned as they are. Physicians don’t heal themselves, and they are as baffled by how to be happy as anyone else. The help they pass on—and I am not undercutting the fact that help is delivered, usually in the form of pharmaceuticals—falls far short of what is needed, not just by the mentally distressed but by everyone—namely, a vision of how to escape the conditioning that creates pain and suffering.

Mental health at this point is a feedback loop for instilling social norms where they are absent or fail to work. If you are caught up in the feedback loop, either as patient or therapist, you are reinforcing it. That’s why terms like waking up, seeing the light, finding grace, and transcending never go away. They point to the only solution, which is to go beyond the conditioned mind. The irony of modern secular society is that countless people are placed in prosperous circumstances that allow the time and freedom to pursue the principles outlined above. That they don’t is a measure of just how powerful mental conditioning, and the mind-made suffering it creates, actually is.

DEEPAK CHOPRA MD, FACP, FRCP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation.  Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His 91st book, Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life  explores and reinterprets the physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual benefits that the practice of meditation can bring.  For the last thirty years, Chopra has been at the forefront of the meditation revolution. His latest book,  Living in the Light co-authored with Sarah Platt-Finger. TIME magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.” www.deepakchopra.com

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