This series supports the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference I’m hosting from February 23 – 27, 2015. Please get your free ticket to the conference now by visiting https://www.entheos.com/The-Future-of-Mental-Health/Eric-Maisel. And plan to attend!
Each day in this series of 30 days to better mental health I want to propose one simple idea and one simple strategy in support of that idea. If you’d like to view other posts in this series, please visit here:
You might like to ask a friend to join you for these 30 days. The two of you can chat about the ideas I’m presenting and support each other in your efforts to try out some new strategies. You might even want to get a whole group involved!
Today we look at the following.
Chronic sadness is one of our most significant emotional challenges. We get sad in part because we have consciousness of many things, including our own sadness. We have consciousness of pain, our pain and the pain of others. We have consciousness of the fragility of life. We have consciousness of evil, consciousness of the unfair distribution of wealth, consciousness of the misery people make for each other.
The amount of consciousness that we possess is a defining feature of our species. Other species are no doubt aware of many things, including the loss of loved ones and imminent death; we are aware of a million things, from the extra weight we’re carrying to the inexorable crawl of time.
Some of the things that we are aware of make us happy. But many make us sad. We try to stifle a lot of that awareness by defending ourselves with all sorts of tricky human tactics, from denying that we just downed that whole bottle of Scotch to asserting that all those childhood beatings were good for us.
If our consciousness of many things defines our species, a second defining attribute is our defensiveness in the face of all that awareness. We just can’t seem to tolerate looking that much truth in the eye. It is simply too much to bear—or so it feels. Worse, our brain creates “default” neuronal paths to deal with all that consciousness, providing us with simple ways to avoid the truth. Our trickiness becomes wired into our system.
A third defining feature of our species is the complexity of our wants. We want many simple things, like carrots and potatoes; and we also want far more complicated things, like happiness and success for our children; and equally complicated things like “manifesting our potential” and “taking pride in our actions.” We want sex (but we can’t just take it); we want good health (but it is so easy to get addicted); we want inner peace (but our mind is roiling and the world seems to be built for chaos).
It would be pretty to think that we are simple creatures—but we really aren’t. We have many complex wants and also many conflicting wants and the way we hold all that complexity and conflict can quite befuddle us, making us wonder why we did that odd thing and that even odder thing.
These are existential matters about who we are as a species, about what we want, about how we operate, and about how we live and how we die. In this sense much of our sadness is existential in nature, having to do with our built-in awareness, our attempts to be less aware, and the complicated nature of our wants.
Every day we are making subtle existential calculations regarding how our life is going—and, very often, about how our life is falling short. We start with a core personality—we are already very much ourselves at birth, already a unique exemplar of the species—and then we accrete a lifetime of calculations about how we are faring and how life is treating us. Very often the results of those calculations are a negative number and sadness.
Therefore the powerful first step in reducing your experience of sadness is making explicit the relationship you intend to have with life. Do you want to think thoughts that don’t serve you in order to preserve your illusions or do you want to think thoughts that support your intentions? Do you want to experience life as if you were a puppet on a cosmic string, being driven by unseen forces to hold meaningless jobs and to renounce what you love in favor of rat race dynamics, or do you want to manifest your values and principles in the service of the most self-directing, instrumental life you can construct?
How do you want to deal with life? The instant you decide to deal with life a certain way, as the hero of your own story, and reframe the facts of existence as a supreme challenge but not as a life sentence, you release a significant portion of your sadness and “depression.” How you face life determines how sad you will feel, which makes existential self-help a top priority.
Existential self-help consists of grounding yourself in a pair of realities, that life is exactly as it is and that you are obliged to keep your head up and make yourself proud. Many people make the mistake of supposing that if they don’t look life squarely in the eye they can avoid noticing what is making them unhappy. Instead of this dodge proving successful, they simply increase their unhappiness.
By accepting the realities of life, by announcing that you intend to direct life as best you can, and by asserting that what matters to you is what you decide matters to you, you stand up straighter—and that gesture opens the window for sadness to leave.
Today, try the following simple thing. Open the window and let a little of your chronic sadness about the nature of existence escape right out. If possible, let a lot out!
Today’s goal: To begin to practice existential self-help.
Today’s key principle: Much of our sadness is existential in nature, having to do with our consciousness of the facts of existence, including how hard life can be, and the reality of our mortality.
Today’s key strategy: Opening the window and letting some chronic existential sadness escape.
Good luck today!
Dr. Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books including Life Purpose Boot Camp, Rethinking Depression, and Coaching the Artist Within. In 2015 he will be launching a Future of Mental Health initiative. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at http://ericmaisel.com. Contact Dr. Maisel at firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget to attend the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference in February: https://www.entheos.com/The-Future-of-Mental-Health/Eric-Maisel