It's Mental Health Awareness Week in NZ (Oct 9-15), and all this talk about it politically and on social media makes we wonder, what exactly is mental health? We may think we know what isn’t healthy on the one hand- chronic anxiety and suicidal tendencies for instance. But is anyone the picture of perfect mental health? Do you fit the bill when you're happy 100% of the time? Or when you seem to have it all sorted out and are humming along in life? What exactly does the picture of "good" mental health look like?
I meet a lot of people in my meditation work who, on the outside, might very well seem "the picture of perfection". But what I've learned, both as a meditation teacher and in my personal life dealing with depression, is that everyone is going through something. Just because they make you laugh, are the life of the party, or seem successful in all the right ways does not mean they are exempt from suffering.
Does mental health mean having no problems, living happily ever after, or finally mastering the art of positive thinking? Society and media may want us to believe that. I would say otherwise. The reality is that some stresses, anxieties and depressive thoughts may be with as as travelling companions throughout our lives. Although we all have habitual ways of relating to life that don't necessarily serve us - keep us mired in the mud of negative thinking or caught in spirals of thought and behaviour that limit us in some way - we can learn to see through them, to defuse from them without having to get rid of or control them.
It can be a comfort for us to think we’re at the helm controlling life, even our thoughts, but the reality is we are not. When’s the last time you planned a thought? Isn’t it more accurate to say that thinking is just happening? Try it for yourself if you’d like - spend some time watching your thoughts and see how they just arise without the asking, the planning. And isn’t it the case that we don’t get to choose our biology, our upbringing, whether we were bullied in the past or will get cancer in the future?
Life dishes out what it will whether we want this to be the case or not. In fact, the need to control life is often the dialogue running in the background of someone who has lost their ground. Worry and panic arise when we fail or think we might not be able to divert circumstance to our favour.
But there is a flip side: we can all re-negotiate our contract with life by acknowledging how we will live with what is given. We can make a vow with ourselves to stay open to what arises. And respond compassionately when we do not. This is where meditation can help.
Many of my students and clients have heard me say that iRest has changed my life. It has, profoundly. This doesn’t mean I live blissed out because I meditate. This is a false perception that only feeds into the idea that some people always have it figured out - living in paradise baby! (And by the way, there must be something wrong with you because you don’t.) “Yeah nah”, as the Kiwis say. Quite the opposite.
My life is actually exactly the same. All those negative thoughts, stresses and depressive episodes still make their way over to visit. But now I know I don’t have to make them go away or bury them in positivity. I don’t have to be happy all the time. There is a powerful freedom in knowing you’re perfect in your imperfection. The mind, this mind, tends toward depression. OK. These things are all still the case, but I don’t have to fuse with them. They are here, yes, but not what I am, who I am. And for me, this is what mental health looks like.