Making Fundamentals in Focus:
This is further riffing off the previous post on the emotional you and what to do about it.
When I say I investigated all angles to mental health problems I mean I investigated all angles; within myself and within the population at large. There are, as I've said many, many times (and will say many times more), numerous factors involved in any one case of mental health difficulties. I've also hammered away at the psychiatric and medical community's stubborn adherence to the chemical imbalance theory (and resultant drug therapy strategies) as being way too overly simplistic (ludicrously simplistic but that's an ax I'll grind in future columns).
It is my position (though I am far from alone in this position) that our thoughts are one of our worst enemies. The human mind is a powerful generator of thoughts (by some counts up to 70,000 per day) and there is an enormous amount of evidence that it is our thoughts that are going to drive our mental states. This is of course a bit of a chicken or the egg question, however. In a chapter coming up very soon I'll get into the neuroscience of thought and a bit about what creates our thoughts.
Briefly, however, it works something like this; maladaptive brain loops and regions create negative and distorted thoughts, these create worsening mental states further creating more negative and distorted thoughts, these become embedded in our memories creating a massive negative inner thought process which creates massive amounts of negative inner energy and on and on it goes. You know the drill. I'll demonstrate in future chapters how this is all created by how are brains developed and environmental conditions (AKA: "life" conditions).
It is also my position that any given “mental illness” is, at its core, a brain that is producing unusually difficult distorted thoughts and mental perceptions and furthermore that those distorted thoughts create further poor mental states in what becomes a self-perpetuating loop.
There's a large scale as to the severity of both the thoughts and mental illness outcomes, of course. Schizophrenia and bipolar rank at the top. Somewhere just below those, but no less unpleasant, is major depressive disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (which, by the way, is NOT what most people erroneously assume it is) ranks quite high and down the list we have the various forms of everyday depression and anxieties that plague many people.
Distorted thoughts are nothing new of course. Distorted thoughts have plagued humankind since probably not long after we evolved both the capacity for thoughts and the language to give them form in our minds.
In ancient times – and to this day in many cultures – it was believed that distorted or unhealthy thoughts were caused by “evil spirits”. Thousands of cultures throughout history observed that members of their tribe or group could be “possessed” by “evil spirits” and thus developed all manner of rituals for “casting them out” (or maybe just all manner of ritualistic deaths).
As … ahem … “modern” religions (yes, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, I'm looking at you) developed, the seers (prophets, whatever you want to call them) that were involved in writing their scriptures also observed the danger of thoughts (which they tied into their early ideas on “morality”, a subject for an essay that will have to wait for another day) and they came up with various ideas for controlling “bad thoughts”, “evil spirits” and so on. These amounted to admitting that the “flesh is weak”, the “devil” is strong and full of tempting powers and the best way to deal with the “flawed” human spirit (1) was to turn control over it to higher powers. These are themes that run through countless belief systems in cultures all over the world and throughout history (with only the individualized incarnations of the “god” or “devil or evil spirits” changing). And thus ritualistic forms of thought control were developed, almost all of which involve some sort of prayer, the following of some list of basic tenets (the Ten Commandments, et al, the basics of which are remarkably similar throughout hundreds of religions all over the globe and history), regular gatherings in “holy” places (churches, mosques, synagogues and what have you) and so on.
And the whole basis for all of this was at its core to control thoughts (particularly those deemed to to be evil, which in most religions implies “immoral”).
While many modern secularists and atheists scoff at the idea of ritualistic prayer to “higher beings”, the truth is that this form of thought control works – more or less – for a very large percentage of the population (I get into the psychology of prayer in an essay in one of my other blogs if you're so interested).
Another truth that's hard to avoid when one actually studies all this business of spirituality, beliefs and religions (as I do) is that the human brain is pretty wired for some form of all of these things and this is part of what I was referring to at the end of Evolution, Life and Why Our Brains Developed the Way They Are when I said that I strongly believe that many of our mental health woes are on account of our modern and radically changed society having gotten so far away from things our brains evolved over hundreds of millennia to need.
Which brings us to our point today – the need for spirituality in the human mind.
I am not arguing that spirituality is the “cure” for all “mental illnesses” but in reading hundreds of case studies and observing cases first hand myself (I'll get to another time how I have gone about this) as well with examining my own difficult case, it is hard to ignore that the human mind can severely veer off the rails without some sort of guidance system and without sticking to certain routines that will keep our pernicious human thoughts at least somewhat under control.
Bearing in mind that I suffer from the worst form of one of the two worst forms of mental illness (schizophrenia and bipolar), I do not propose these things lightly. I am extremely aware of the powers of these disorders to take over our minds (all too aware). But in searching for ways to gain control over my mind without relying on the soul and mind destroying drugs that psychiatrists rely on, I left absolutely no stone unturned. I also realized I needed to approach the problem from many different angles.
All of which led to compiling my Positive Difference Making Fundamentals. (2)
I've long wanted to get into those in more detail and as I work closer with people who want to follow the ways of Taming the Polar Bears and I observed their difficulties in following my fundamentals, I realized that I'd better get my butt in gear on getting into them in more detail. I've also been greatly observing my own ongoing struggles and difficulties with practicing them and in doing so I realized that each time I start to go off the rails, it's because I'm not practicing my fundamentals enough.
Now, I said in my original post on my Fundamentals that they work on the basis of neuroplasticity; the ability of the brain to change in response to its environment and – more importantly – its behavioural environment.
So we're going to look at that in a bit more detail today and examine more how practicing spirituality can not only help control your thoughts, but help in small ways reshape your brain for more optimal use and consistently better mental states.
I'm not going to get into today in any great detail how to define spirituality (that's a larger philosophical question I'll have to tackle another time. It is, however, one that I think is very important). I think for now it's just important to know that spirituality is a connection to something bigger than oneself (briefly, I'll say that my own thoughts on those connections is that they are to humanity at large and the world of nature). I think what's more important today is to just look at a few simple ways to practice spirituality and what it'll do for us and – briefly for today – why.
There are many, many ways to practice spirituality but today we'll just look at two; gratitude and compassion, both self-compassion and compassion towards others.
Of the two, gratitude is the easier to practice daily so we'll start with that.
Gratitude is basically expressing thanks for things we have in our lives and is the basis for many, many forms of prayer and religious thought (think Christians saying grace before dinner, as just one example. Muslims are constantly thinking “thanks be to God” for all kinds of things they believe are going right).
The thing about expressing gratitude is that we don't need to believe in a god to express gratitude. We don't really need to thank a specific being at all. Without question it helps most people to do this but for those of us who do not believe in a god what is important to understand here, what we need to practice regularly to change how our brains produce thoughts, is that we only need to practice forming thoughts of gratitude in our heads and express them inwardly or to others in order for the habit to form and thus change how our brains habitually form thoughts.
How to practice it:
There are many ways, both public and private. For those who enjoy using social media, it's been at times popular to post a gratitude list or a do a seven days of gratitude challenge and so on. I think this is a terrific way to start. It works well because not only are we gaining practice in thinking about the things to be grateful for in life but it also connects us to a greater whole which, as mentioned, is a huge part of spirituality (many people like to refer to the greater whole as “the universe”).
So right here, right now, I'd like you to start your own social media seven day gratitude challenge, listing each day three things that you are grateful for with each day being three different things. That's twenty-one things over the next week that you're going to publicly express gratitude for.
Ha-ha! I know what you're thinking! I know you're right now in a panic! You're (quite probably) thinking, “oh my effing god, my life is an effing gong show. What in the hell is one thing I am going to express gratitude for, let alone twenty-one things?!”
You're thinking this because if you have the kind mental health problems I've seen and dealt with, there's a good chance your life does feel like a huge effing gong show, it feels like nothing is going right and you hate the whole bloody shebang.
Yes, yes, I quite understand the feeling. As I was going through years of severe bipolar mental states, losing everything I owned, losing or badly damaging all social connections (permanently or at various times) with all my friends and family (and the quality of the relationships of virtually all of them remains damaged or changed to this day), losing the ability to work and earn a living, losing everything that had ever brought me pleasure and – to top it all off – losing my very mind itself (in a much more literal sense than the vast majority of people understand), and was locked up in psychiatric hospitals several times at various points, I sort of had the same feelings myself. To the point of being driven to end my life.
Not to mention that my condition and resultant consequences led to me being essentially homeless and living in the wilderness through a Canadian fall and winter in an unheated old run down van (albeit a camperized one with at least some basic amenities like stove and fridge).
So yes, I do understand how challenging it is to come up with things to be grateful for.
And - and! - I have seen and observed that many people have adapted the "victim role" and the curse of self-pity (and it is not only I who have observed this, the psychology of learned helplessness, the victim role and self-pity are all well studied and documented). There's a thought - probably not voiced but heavily influential nonetheless - that "oh my god, if I express gratitude for things that will mean people will look at me and think that my life is not that bad after all!"
Yes, yes, I understand that well. I am not unfamiliar myself with feelings of being the victim. If you have suffered mental health problems for some time and have suffered the life impacts and stigmatization of that, this is going to be a very real feeling. And feelings of self-pity are a very natural and almost inevitable byproduct of severe and prolonged mental health problems. And in a very real and practical sense we do need people to understand that a great deal of our lives is not going well and that our mental health - and even our physical health - is not what it should be.
But if we're going to achieve better and healthier mental states, these are the challenges we have to overcome (and my brain training games help build our ability to overcome challenges). And if we are to improve ourselves and our minds and mental states - and thus hopefully the quality of our lives - we really must grow past feeling the victim and feelings of self-pity. We mustn't blame ourselves for feeling these things - they are real - but we do have to grow past it. And grow stronger from it.
Learning to see things in our lives - however small and seemingly insignificant, or even fleeting - to be grateful for is a very powerful way of not only growing as a person but growing past the difficulties of our past, of rising above them and - with time, patience and regular practice - overcoming them (in each our own relative way)
The whole idea, and the part that "exercises" your brain, is to wrack your brain coming up with things to be grateful for! If you start to think harder on it, you'll find that there are tons of things to be grateful for; having a roof over your head at night, a warm bed to sleep in, food in your kitchen, some form of good health, some sort of people in your life, something.
And even if it's not ideal - like my old van being my "home", for example - you express gratitude for it anyway.
There is no shortage of things to feel grateful for if one puts their mind to it. When homeless out in the harsh winter conditions, I would express gratitude for sunny days, days that weren't too cold, for all the people who'd helped me attain what I did have, for the company of Mrs Bean, my companion cat and so on and so on. Once we get the hang of it, it's not as hard as one might at first fear.
How and Why it Works to Change Your Brain:
I will get to this in more detail later when I more closely examine thoughts and what creates them but all of our thoughts are created by specific brain regions and the networks they're wired into. When our brains are generating too many negative or distorted thoughts, there are specific brain regions that are doing this and furthermore, the more these regions dominate your thoughts and mental states, the more powerful they get (this is the dark side of neuroplasticity - the more a "negative" brain region and network is activated, the more powerful and dominant it/they become).
Practicing gratitude daily in deliberate and directed ways exercises the "neuronal muscles" that recognize and acknowledge good things in our lives. When our brains become too dominated by negative thoughts and focusing on all the bad things that our lives are creating, we sort of literally lose the capacity to recognize the good things that are in our lives. So when we practice gratitude, we are working to reverse the decline in these regions, starting to "build neuronal muscle" in the brain areas that recognize and acknowledge good things in our lives and making these regions a more dominant part of our inner mental landscapes.
When we are only "seeing" and feeling the negative things in our lives or in the world, this is what is meant by the psychology term distorted thoughts - it's literally a distortion of the overall "reality" in our lives and how we perceive ourselves and the world. It's a great part of what a good therapist would try to change in a patient.
So when we practice gratitude, we are beginning to change our perceptions and bring more balance to our realities. This is not to say that the negatives in our lives do not exist. These "negatives" are often very real aspects of our daily challenges and lives. But what we want to do is to not let those have too much dominance over our selves and individual realities and to balance them with some of the good in life and in our selves.
The other thing practicing gratitude does is that it changes our focus. Changing our mental focus is critical in turning around negative mental states and mental processing. When we make deliberate efforts to remind ourselves of the good things we have in life and express genuine gratitude for those, we are changing our focus from the negatives in our lives to the positives in our lives. It also develops within us (by the process I described first two paragraphs of this section) the ability to create more positive circumstances in our lives.
It also helps changing our distorted inner perspectives of ourselves. It helps focus on what we do have rather than all the things we imagine that we don't have (these are distortions that plague many of us - too much focus on the "not have", "can't do" and so on).
Regularly practicing gratitude has played a huge role in getting my mental states into good enough shape to handle my challenging living conditions and getting me through very, very difficult weather conditions.
For a brief look at the neuroscience of gratitude, please see this 90 second video from Scientific American - Gratitude and the Brain
See also this list of the benefits of practicing gratitude
Practicing compassion is a huge mental state changer and for many of the same reasons practicing gratitude is; it shifts our mental focus and it exercises some very key neuronal muscle that, again, if "exercised" and "built up" is going to greatly contribute to improved mental functioning along with more positive and balanced states.
So many people needlessly beat themselves up for what's going on in their lives for what are really quite normal and universal human frailties. Once more, there are specific brain regions that are responsible for doing this and there are even good reasons why we have brain regions that create these "inner critics" and perceptions of the negatives of life. But again, because these regions are allowed too much free reign they become too dominant and thus dominate - and distort - our overall thoughts, perceptions and mental states.
Self-compassion is really a form of self-forgiveness. This is another area that religions evolved to perform (the whole concept of a man dying for our sins, the Catholic confessionals, many forms of prayer, etc) and again it is something that many secularists and atheists may be lacking.
So in lieu of religion, we must learn to practice these things ourselves (or if you are religious, to practice them more). And it has to be with ourselves as well as with others. To remind all readers once more, a major theme of this blog is to create and nurture more compassion for those who suffer mental illnesses and indeed for all people who are "imperfect". This is why I go on at length about neuroscience and how and why our brains developed they way they are.
Not only does practicing compassion exercise our neuronal "forgiveness muscles", it is also another powerful way of shifting our mental focus away from the negative towards the positive (or at least neutral).
You see, our human minds can be very driven towards negative emotions such as hate, disappointment, anger, judgment and so on. We naturally jump to these feelings with others but for those of us plagued with negative mental states, we especially jump to these emotions with ourselves. And if you are suffering or have suffered from a mental illness and have experienced all the stigma and mistreatment, you'll have no shortage of reasons to be really pissed off at humanity and society and everyone in it.
But what I've found - as many, many life philosophers and now psychologists have - the only person you're going to hurt with negative feelings and emotions towards others is YOU. For the sad, and sometimes hurtful, truth is that nobody gives a fig about your (or my) emotional turmoil towards humanity. The boiling inner anger and inner negative emotions only serve to further your own considerable emotional pain, something observed (and now explainable by science) by Buddha several thousands years ago:
This is something yours truly can absolutely vouch for. For some years I carried nuclear grade anger towards certain people, society, the psychiatric profession and so on. And the only person I ultimately hurt was - ME. And the best way I found to deal with my anger was to practice compassion with others no matter how badly I felt they'd hurt me or were hurting me. Admittedly, studying neuroscience as I do helped me with this. As I outlined in Genetic and Environmental Factors in Brain Development, we can't "choose" (exactly) what we've become and if I can't help being bipolar and all that can come with that then I have to accept that others didn't choose to be what they are and act and think as they do either and perhaps there are all kinds of reasons they are the way they are. And if I expect compassion for who and what I am, then I have to practice compassion towards others. And as I did this what I found was the the more I practiced compassion - no matter how challenging it was at times - the more inner peace and calm I felt. Which, if I'm not mistaken, is the goal for us mental health difficulties peeps.
Compassion towards others and compassion with myself has been one of the biggest difference makers that keeps me going despite considerable mental health and life challenges.
I know - I KNOW - how tough it can be but look, I spent a decade and a half working my ass off to overcome the fallout from earlier manic depressive periods (early to mid nineties). I managed to buy and almost pay off a home, build up considerable retirement savings, a great credit rating and relationship with my bank along with savings to help pay for my daughter's college education.
And in the years of manic depressive episodes from mid 2007 to 2013 I pissed away every fucking penny of it (about $250,000 in equity, savings and assets in total) to the point that when I was hauled off to the psyche ward by the cops in the summer of 2013, all I had left of that quarter million dollars was about two bucks in change and NO home.
I would not have survived the immense and powerful suicidal drive that had possessed me along with the horrendously powerful negative thoughts and self-flagellation that would beat me to a pulp at times had I not begun to practice and master compassion and forgiveness - for myself and towards those that greased the skids of my decline.
I also would not have been able to escape the nuclear powered anger and fury I had within me.
Practicing compassion and forgiveness is a massive changer of one's mental states and thoughts.
Back to the topic of the post - spirituality - it is not necessary to belong to a religion or religious sect to be spiritual. Spirituality is merely a mindset and one that humans are deeply wired to need (for the vast majority of us at least). Practicing gratitude and compassion are just two ways to build the spirituality within us that I strongly believe many of us mental health peeps are desperately lacking.
And if you begin practicing these, you'll notice more good things "come your way" (there's a whole basis for this that I'll have to describe and outline another day). The more you practice them, the more your life will improve. The more your life improves, the more you'll have to be grateful for and on and on it goes until one day you look back and you realize that "hey, my life isn't has bad as it used to be!"
I'm not saying your life is going to become some sort of fantasy come true, but it will improve along with your improved mental states and better self-image.
- BGE, February 24th, 2015.
(1) There is not much doubt that our "flesh is weak" and given to temptation, that we were born "sinners" and that we are fundamentally "flawed" and all the other stuff that holy books purport to "observe" but modern science and especially neuroscience is revealing the real reasons for all of our human flaws and less than ideal behaviours.
(2) My Positive Difference Making Fundamentals has long needed updating as there are some key ones missing. I hope to get an updated version done before not too long