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happiness

The future is already here

I think a lot of emotional problems arise from the fact we’re both subjects and objects.

We’re universes of subjective consciousness.

And we’re also material objects – a body. A jumble of atoms thrown together, skin, bones, muscle, blood. And out of this briefly emerges a Me.

Weird. 

We’re also an object in the eyes of others. An image. Jules Evans. He exists out there, beyond Me, in your minds and words. 

Babies are initially pure subjective consciousness.

They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know where they end and the world begins. It’s a massive trip.

And yet, before they attain language, before they learn their name, before they learn of themselves as a separate being in the world, they know they’re loved.

They feel held by their carers, stroked, and soothed. And they’re know they’re loved and OK.

That’s the basic source of our identity – the ground of our being – before language or self-identity. That basic feeling: ‘you’re OK, you’re loved’.

I was on the Tube this week, and this baby looked at me with its enormous wondering eyes. It was tripping out. And I smiled at it. And it looked at me for a bit, and then smiled back. It had received that response, that affirmation – ‘you’re OK, you’re loved’.

That’s an amazing thing. It’s the sunlight that enables the flower of our self to unfold into the world.

Then gradually children gain a sense of their body. They look at their hands in wonder, and realize they are ‘their’ hands, they can control them.

They learn their name, learn they are a thing in the world. My earliest memory, from when I was two or so, is spelling my name out in magnetic letters on our fridge, and being applauded by my parents. My first literary triumph!

Then we develop a sense of how others perceive us, how we are different to other children, how we stand in the order of things.

We might learn, for example, that our big sister is smarter than us, that our mother seems to prefer our brother. We might learn at school that we have a funny name, or a weird head, that our parents aren’t as rich as others. Some thing is wrong with us.

We embark on a lifelong struggle for love and acceptance, and a lifelong fear of rejection and failure. We rate ourselves against others and constantly try to get higher, to be more loved.

We start to ask ourselves: ‘Who am I? Why am I this self, this body? Why this hair colour, or skin colour, or gender, or sexuality?’

What’s the point of me?

Am I worthwhile? Am I loveable? Am I any good?

Seven and a half billion people on this planet, 7.5 billion universes of sparkling subjective consciousness, and every one of those points of light have asked themselves, at least once, ‘Who am I? What’s the point of me? Am I any good?’

When we feel we are, we can relax and feel ‘I’m OK, I’m alright’, like we’re in the arms of our mother and everything’s OK. Our body goes into a restful, relaxed and contended state.

But sometimes we feel ‘I’m not OK, I’m no good’, and we feel really alone and threatened. Our whole body reacts with stress, our immune system weakens, adrenalin floods our system, or our serotonin levels sink. Some people get stuck in that mode.

Things can go really wrong when we get caught in feedback loops between our subjective consciousness and ourselves as objects in others’ eyes.

Up to 18, I was a mild narcissist. I really enjoyed my reflection in others’ eyes, the feeling of being a pretty amazing human being, relatively speaking.

It led to a feedback loop – the more adulation I got, the more my self-esteem inflated, like an enormous orange balloon.

Then my pride got a knock, and my self-esteem rapidly deflated.

I started to get panic attacks. I would go to a party, and I would suddenly see myself as an imperfect object in others’ eyes.

I would wonder, what happens if I lose it now, if I fall apart mid-conversation. What would that do to my image? Then I would lose it. I was onto something genuine – our opportunities for love and success in this world depend on how others perceive us. That can be scary.

Our subjective consciousness and our body can go into spasms of fear and self-rejection. ‘I am me, and that’s not OK. That’s terrible!’ We close up and clench in fear and self-criticism.

We can be attacked by those dark twins, self-loathing and self-pity.

The sense that my self is basically unacceptable can lead to such a shitty experience of subjective consciousness, people choose to obliterate themselves with intoxicants, or kill themselves to take the pain away. 

Can we free ourselves of our egos and expand into that limitless sky of sparkling subjective consciousness?

Most religions say we can transcend our selves. We can shift beyond ‘me’ and find a Something More – God, Buddha-mind, the Logos, Atman, Gaia, cosmic consciousness, humanitarianism, the happiness of all sentient beings. Something More.

But here’s the rub. We can seek to transcend ourselves in ways that are self-hating and self-negating.

When I was at university, and fairly miserable, I attended meditation classes. But it did me no good. I was trying to meditate myself out of existence.

My ego-mind was so painful, like a floor scattered with broken glass, that I thought if I kept really really still, I would feel no pain, because ‘I’ would disappear.

It would work for a few minutes, then something would happen and I would step on broken glass again.

Any form of transcendence can really be an attempt to obliterate the hated self. You can throw yourself into humanitarianism, a good cause which you pursue in a desperate way, because you’re not OK, you’re not alright, you don’t deserve to exist. So you try to prove you’re worthwhile human being. 

This elderly Zen monk gave a talk in February, where he said if you want to open up to the limitless experience of consciousness, the way to do it is not to try to deny or obliterate yourself, but to open to the limitless experience of consciousness through self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Yes, even you, with all your flaws. Even crap old you, with your stained teeth, your fat bum, your flabby arms, your crappy clothes, your rubbish job, your disastrous romantic life. Even you mate. Even you!

This old monk – I swear to you, he exists – this monk who had spent his whole life meditating and studying, summed up all he’d learnt with the words: ‘You’re OK. You’re alright. You’re loved.’

Loved by who or what?

Some people feel they are loved by God. The love of God is the ground of their being.

There are religious traditions and practices dedicated to developing this sense of love – Sufism, Methodism, metta meditation in Buddhism, bhakti traditions like Hari Krishna in Hinduism.

The essence of God is love, focus on that image, that experience, and let your soul be transformed in its warm light.

That’s pretty nice, I like those religions of the heart. But not everyone can believe in some higher loving power.

Your partner loves you. Your family loves you. The love of the family has become more and more important as belief in God has declined. We look for The One who will accept us and complete us. Finally! 

That’s what these recent match.com adverts promised us – self-acceptance through the other. 

(These adverts have been widely mocked and pastiched by the way – here are some examples)

It’s a pretty big ask to expect someone us to completely and unconditionally love you all through your life. You change, your partner changes, there will be times they don’t even like you, let alone love you. Your kids leave home. Your parents have their own stuff going on.

But it’s OK. Your therapist loves you. You can turn to your therapist for unconditional love.

But they don’t really, do they? Their love costs by the minute.

The most important thing, the one thing that will definitely be with you through your entire life, is your subjective consciousness. Your attitude to yourself.

If there is a God, you experience IT through your subjective consciousness. If the love of another person changes you, it is through your subjective consciousness. It’s all right there, in you, now.

We can practice being kind to ourselves. Right now, we can try to accept ourselves in our all rubbishness. 

I try and end my morning meditation saying to myself ‘I’m OK, I’m alright, even with all my flaws and imperfections. I’m fine as I am. I’ll continue to grow and hopefully become a better person, but I’m also fine as I am.’

I can be very self-critical and unkind to myself, so this is a good practice. In physical terms, it switches me from threat-mode to soothing-relaxing-mode. My consciousness doesn’t shut up in fear, it relaxes and opens up.

And I try to direct my compassion out too. ‘I vow to be kind to myself and to others. To help all beings be free from suffering and realize our true natures’.

There are other compassion practices one can do – I’ve put some links below.

We are imperfect, limited beings, and we are limitless universes of sparkling consciousness. That’s what Buddhism teaches – and other religions are not far off. We are imperfect wounded egos in imperfect mortal bodies. But we’re also enlightened and perfect already!

Isn’t that weird? You’re already divine! On some dimension of reality, you’re already there. We’re already there. This is a great day! Our higher future selves are up there looking down on us in compassion, applauding us, and cheering us on. Reach up and give the future enlightened you a high five. The future is already here.

*****

Here are some links about compassion-focused therapy.

Here is the website of the Compassionate Mind foundation, set up by the psychologist Paul Gilbert.

Here’s a good introductory article about compassion-focused therapy.

Here’s an interview with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, who’s made loving-kindness meditation the centre of her work.

Here’s a video about how compassion-focused therapy can help people hearing voices or experiencing psychosis.

Is self-compassion the same as self-esteem? And will compassion therapy make the same mistakes as the self-esteem movement in the 1990s? This piece in the Atlantic explores the differences. And this Guardian feature by Will Storr looks at the cult of self-esteem in the 1990s, and how it was oversold.

Mental illness: shedding the stigma around India’s big secret

From the 2016 movie Dear Zindagi, about a young woman seeking therapy for depression

Yesterday, I was at a panel on mental health in India, at a conference in Goa organized by UCL. One of the speakers – Ratnaboli Ray, who runs a mental health NGO called Anjali in West Bengal – asked for anyone in the audience who’d ever had mental illness or been on psychiatric drugs to raise their hands. For a few seconds, no one did. And then about 10 of us did, in a room of around 100.

It felt strange to me, raising my hand, in a way I’m not sure it would anymore in the UK – like I was risking my status, pushing against a wall of shame and secrecy. Like having had a mental illness was a big deal (which it isn’t). In fact, I only raised my hand because the lady next to me did first.

This is the paradox: that a culture with such a huge focus on health, well-being and spiritual wisdom should see mental illness as so taboo. If Prince Siddhartha hadn’t had a breakdown, India would have never given the world Buddhism, yet this is a country where mental illness is simply not discussed.

Why? My tentative initial answer is that India (like the UK) is a country obsessed with status and hierarchy. Mental illness is still seen as a terrible blot on one’s status, and therefore a risk to one’s career advancement, one’s marriage prospects, one’s place on the social scale, and to your family’s social prospects. India is the country that gave us Snakes and Ladders, and mental illness is seen as one big snake down to the bottom of the social hierarchy. (I might be wrong in this assessment – let me know in the comments!)

It’s also a threat to your rights. If you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, it can affect your ability to open a bank account, to get a driving license, to maintain custody of your children. Until 1976, it was accepted as grounds for divorce.

To protect the family status, the mentally ill are often abandoned in over-crowded psychiatric care facilities, where they can be ‘treated worse than animals’, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Mental illness is also hiding in plain sight in India. According to two recent surveys, between 130 million and 150 million Indians are suffering from a mental illness, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse. I’ve met successful young Indians on my travels who are clearly stressed, over-worked, and in need of support. But mental illness is seen as a terrible curse, not something that pretty much happens to everyone in varying degrees of intensity.

As the Buddha put it, life is suffering – having a mind means you sometimes experience mental distress, and there are techniques we can learn to mitigate that, both psychological and pharmaceutical. India invented many of these techniques – indeed, Buddhism is one of the major influences on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which the NHS has put over one billion pounds into providing.

Yet in India, 90% of those with mental illness receive no treatment at all. India has 0.3 psychiatrists per 100,000, one of the lowest figures in the world. And they’re almost entirely in big cities.

Even among the urban affluent, very few seek therapy because of the stigma attached. I sat next to one lady on a plane and said I wrote about mental health. She told me of her ex-husband, who refused to admit he had depression. I didn’t like to ask if they had divorced or he was one of the 250,000 Indians who kill themselves each year.

Soumitra Pathare, an academic who drafted a new Mental Health Act, says: ‘There is institutionalized discrimination against the mentally ill. If they were a caste or women, we would be doing something for them, but we do nothing.’

Things are finally beginning to change. The new Mental Health Act is due to be made law this parliament, and will legally guarantee Indians’ right to treatment, and also to refuse treatment if they don’t want it (many inmates are in asylums and given Electro-Shock Therapy without consent). There are new initiatives to train community health workers to give brief psychological therapies.

There are several new apps and websites that offer counseling and therapy online. In Chennai, India’s third biggest city, I saw adverts for private counsellors and a wall painted with a big sign: Depression Is Treatable. There’s even a sex therapist in Bangalore (something so unusual it was written up in the media).

There are signs of a new openness around mental illness – last year, there was even a Bollywood film, Dear Zindagi, about a young woman seeking therapy for depression from a hot therapist. Imagine if one of India’s cricket superheroes opened up about mental illness – something several western sports stars have begun to do.

At the UCL conference, I spoke to Vikram Patel, a Wellcome-funded psychiatrist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has pioneered training rural community care workers in India and Africa in the delivery of brief psychological therapies. He was voted one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world (he points out the leader of Boko Haram is also on the list).

Why are there so few psychiatrists in India?

There’s a bottleneck problem in training – only accredited teachers can train new psychiatrists and there are very few accredited teachers. There’s also a stigma around being a psychiatrist, compared to say a neuroscientist. And there’s a huge distribution problem too – most psychiatrists work privately in big cities. In rural India, there could be a region with 10 million inhabitants and no psychiatrists.

Your approach is to train community ‘health visitors’ to give brief therapy?

Yes, we’ve trained health workers to give specific treatments for specific conditions. We found it worked very well when they were trained just for that, in controlled conditions. We now need to see how it works out in the field, in frontline primary care, where health workers treat not just mental but physical illness. The treatment of both in fact uses similar skills – lifestyle support, behavioural change support, the promotion of self-care.

And they give similar sorts of psychological therapies to western psychotherapy? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, interpersonal counseling etc?

Yes, similar therapies, but briefer and simpler. The most profound discovery for me is that the theory of psychological mechanisms is universal. Cultural factors play a role in the metaphors you might use. Say you train people to use meditation and yoga in the treatment of anxiety. You could train them to breathe in, and then breathe out saying ‘om’, or a prayer to Jesus if they’re Christian. Those cultural factors make a difference because you’re tapping into hope, which is a very powerful healer.

Is depression and anxiety treated here?

Hardly at all. I thought the ‘worried well’ was a Western phenomenon but it exists here too. The majority could recover with some form of self-care, but some need more clinical interventions. But depression and anxiety are not even seen as illnesses. It’s just your social situation. It gets somatized, as fatigue or insomnia for example. And doctors would also not recognize they’re actually treating depression, they would treat it with painkillers or sleeping pills. People criticize me for medicalizing people’s experience, but these people are already in clinics, they’re just not getting the right treatment.

So nothing like the NHS’ psychotherapy service exists here?

Nothing remotely like it. We recently published a trial of psychotherapy in the Lancet- that was the first ever trial of psychotherapy in India. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the NHS’ therapy service, which was too professionalized. We want more self-care and community care – my dream is to be able to train someone off the street to treat someone else for depression.

Do you think computerized-CBT apps could be a way of getting therapy to more people?

Yes, I’m bullish on technology, it will transform healthcare in general. But there are limits on access to the internet, particularly for the poor and women. But we’re beginning to see things like Facebook pages for people with schizophrenia.

Are there charities and NGOs lobbying for improved mental healthcare?

There are, but they’re small, very local, and not yet working effectively together in the way we’ve seen, for example, in the treatment of HIV.

Could online media – blogs etc – play a role in opening up the conversation and getting rid of stigma?

Definitely. In fact, we’re launching a website in April which will encourage people to share their experiences online through various social media.

You can watch Vikram’s TED talk here: