What Is Mental Health?
A healthy mind helps us move in life-enabling ways
Posted May 20, 2011
I am lying on the floor, knees held gently against my chest. My heart hurts. Thoughts flail and screech in ear-splitting rings around my head. Why did she say that? Doesn’t she understand? Who does she think I am? Why can’t she see me?
The pain sticks under my ribs, sucking vital energy in and down. I don’t want to move. I can’t. My stomach is locked shut. I just want to curl up in the palm of this gripping pain and dissolve into nothingness.
I breathe again (I can’t help it) and exhale sharply. I cling to my knees, drawing them in tight. I don’t want to let go. I don’t want to open my body, my self. I don’t want to be this vulnerable. I want to be safe, protected, enclosed like a small hard ball.
What is mental health?
I take my cue from the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. “Great health” is an ability to digest our experiences. To digest or metabolize experiences is to take whatever is given in any moment—any thought, feeling, or sensation, any cruel word, kind act, or humiliating fall—and transform it—by chewing, mashing, churning, breaking it down—into a sweet stream of energy capable of nourishing our ongoing bodily becoming.
We humans are essentially creative at a sensory level. Our bodily selves are always sensing, always moving, always creating the patterns of sensation and response that make us who we are. Some of that bodily movement—firing and wiring—gives rise to a thinking mind as an inward extension of our bodily self. Our minds are tools that our bodily selves create in order to help us live well. Minds look forward and back. They predict what will happen on the basis of what has been. They calculate options and risks, and all in the service of keeping our bodily selves moving, creating, thriving, becoming who we are.
A healthy mind, then, is one that helps us embrace our experiences as occasions to discover the range and reach of what our bodies know. A healthy mind is one that finds in whatever fear, anger, sadness, despair, irritation, confusion, or frustration we feel, a potential for pleasure that has yet to unfold—an energy and guidance impelling us to move in relation to ourselves and others in ways that align our well-being with the challenge at hand. A healthy mind helps us move in life-enabling, experience-metabolizing ways.
Sometimes, however, our minds get sick: they can’t help us move. Nearly half of all adults, at some point in our lives, will endure times of acute mental, physical, and emotional suffering, and find ourselves unable to work, play, eat, sleep, or open deeply to others—times when we are arrested by anxiety or depression, anger or fear, compulsions or addictions, and unable to digest our experiences.
Why sick? Why stuck? We live in a culture that teaches us to ignore the movement of our bodily selves. From the earliest age, we learn to think and feel and act as if we were minds living in bodies. We learn to identify our “self” with our mental power; we learn to perceive our “body” as material thing for which “we” are responsible. Then, when faced with the stress of a life-altering change, a critical decision, or draining fatigue, we tend to mobilize the resource we think is best: mind over body. We try to control our bodies: we impose diets, schedules, and plans, or rely on drugs and surgery to exact a will we lack. We distract and numb, starve and indulge our sensory selves. We rehearse a separation from our bodily selves that prevents us from feeling what we are feeling. Our emotions remain lodged in our throats and bellies and hearts and limbs, undigested, causing so much depression and despair.
As I breathe again, unable to help it, I feel it. In spite of myself, I feel something new—a sensation of the earth pushing up from below me. I am not falling into a black hole. I am resting on a presence that is larger than me that is pressing up through me and holding me up.
Instinctively, I let go. I can’t help it. I breathe again and drop into the earth, holding on to nothing. Emptying my mind. The plug in my heart releases and sensations of disappointment and despair run through me, along me, out of me, into the earth.
In spite of myself, impulses to move arise within me—I feel them—expressions of the irrepressible, undeniable flow of life that will not stop beating and breathing, growing and healing, searching for new ways to move through me. My mind resists, holding on to fear, but my bodily self knows more.
Our hungers are prophetic. The scope and kinds of mental illnesses that we as individuals and as a culture are suffering are calling us to reconnect the activity of our minds with the movement of our bodily selves. We need to cultivate a sensory awareness of the movements that are making us.
The truth is that at the heart of any and every pain is a desire—a desire to move, to love, to heal, to give, to receive. We would not even feel the pain of not caring if we did not care. And within every desire is in turn an impulse to connect—an impulse to create the relationships with whatever and whomever we need to support us in becoming who we are, and giving what we have to give.
When we move, we breathe. When we breathe, we feel. When we feel we open the floodgates to all of our searing sensations, past, present and future. But we also open ourselves to the possibility of sensing what is always true: that our bodily selves, in every moment of our lives, are providing us with vital information about how to move in ways that will not recreate the pain.
When we breathe to move and move to breathe we open to the possibility of sensing the wisdom in our desires. Whether we are wrestling with issues of food, intimacy, and purpose (see What a Body Knows) or with our parents, partners, and progeny (see Family Planting), how we move matters.
I breathe down again, along the stream of my spine, feeling the bed of earth cupping its flow. My experience shifts and I am suddenly aware of the desire at the heart of my pain.
I hurt. I hurt because I want. I want because I am alive. This desire, this life, is a power in me that is stronger than the fear. Stronger than the hurt. It is the point of the pain—to wake me up to the power of this desire. To my need to move.
A resolve appears. I take a small step. I can act out of my love and not my fear or anger. I can meet her where she too is hurt and coming toward me—in the heart of her desire for more. The knot of pain softens and unfolds in affirmation. I am OK. Healing happens.