The Advaita Approach to Mental Health

 advaita approach to mental health

Mental health, or illness, is based primarily on a philosophy, a collection of beliefs, about who I am, what I am, where I am. Everybody has answers to these questions, even if the answer is ‘I don’t know.’ And, even if we don’t know, for sure, we can give some semblance of an answer to those questions. We often give answers to questions without knowing, for sure. How we think about not knowing, how it reflects on us, is part of our philosophy of life in this world. What does it mean for you to not know?

For those who do know, that philosophy of life, or world view, whether conscious or not, informs just about everything on a macro scale such as society, family, work, money, moods, actions, conditions. All of that informs our micro life, our personal life with our specific family and our particular work, our own individual ups and downs, circumstances, situations. We interpret all of this through the lens of our beliefs about our life in this world. What if a lot of these beliefs, our philosophy of life in this world, is petty, narrow, short-sighted? What if it is not aligned with reality? What if it is based on ignorance?

Advaita is a philosophy of life in this world based on long established knowledge. In most traditional mental health therapies today, there is a ‘psycho-educational’ component. A lot of this psych-education is about how to think rationally instead of emotionally, realistically instead of erroneously. Advaita not only questions and challenges current thinking, it introduces specific philosophical concepts very conducive to mental health. Applying these concepts as a filter through which to interpret experience can change one’s moods and behaviors, relationships and sense of self.

Advaita is an old language word that means ‘non-dual.’ Non-dual is non-duality. That translates into no battle, no attack, no conflict. So many mental health disorders and dysfunctions are based on internal battles, and attacks, and conflicts. The Advaita approach closely examines duality and weaves a way of understanding it as integrated and unified. The ‘self’ of which we are often so concerned with its many stresses and pressures, goals and duties, responsibilities and obligations, dreams and hopes, strivings and achievements, is entirely based on a dualistic philosophy of life in this world. That philosophy is to transportation as Advaita is to teleportation. Advaita is very advanced. It also extends far into the human past.

At the very least, Advaita offers a way of thinking about things which may be to most rather novel, big, comprehensive and wholistic, which does no harm, and may do good. At the most, it can be very helpful along the journey towards that supreme level of human consciousness we all seek. This supreme consciousness which incorporates, integrates and unifies duality, is beyond happiness and pain. It is more than the pair of opposites which make up our dualistic universe. It is a consciousness which like the sun shines equally on the land and on the sea. It is a consciousness which like the ocean receives all rivers from every continent. It is a consciousness of real love and bliss, the supreme state of mind for any human being.

Mental health is a lot more than coping well. A philosophy of life in this world which requires coping, may be a philosophy worth relinquishing. A world view in which war is for peace and violence is for safety may be worth relinquishing. A belief in oneself as independent may be getting in the way of that supreme state of mind. Our current philosophy of life in this world, our complicated, partial, conflicted and dualistic view of the way things are, can be relinquished, and replaced with a wholistic view of all life, which is Advaita.


Advice for Parents: The Ping Pong Strategy

ping pong strategy

Communication between parents and children can often be a power and control dynamic. Parents especially get caught in this kind of situation where the child or adolescent is saying things to which any response by the parent is not effective. For example, the parent might tell the child to clean up her room and she might respond with “no, I don’t have to, you can’t make me.” Any response, even a firm threat of punishment, would only escalate the conflict; the child might respond “go ahead, I don’t care.” And even if the parent does enforce the punishment, it has been a no win situation. The room was not cleaned up, the child forced the hand of the parent into the punishment and nothing was really accomplished.

There is another approach to these verbal sparring matches which can yield a more positive result. I call it the Ping Pong Analogy or the Ping Pong Strategy. It works like this: first you need to understand how the game of ping pong is played, which you probably do. I hit a ball to you, you hit the ball back to me, I then hit it back to you, then you back to me and we try to keep this back and forth volley going.

In the analogy, the ping pong ball represents the spoken word – and the spoken word is the power. So, when a parent says to a child or a teenager “clean your room” or even it it’s stated nicely like “please clean your room” – that is the ping pong ball being served. It represents the parent’s power. When the child responds “no, I don’t have to, you can’t make me” – that is the ping pong ball being hit back and it represents the child’s power. The child fully expects the parent to hit the ping pong ball back to them with a statement like “if you don’t you’ll be punished” or “you’d better or else” or “did you hear what I said!” It doesn’t really matter what is being said as long as something is being said because by saying something the ping pong ball, which represents power, has been sent back to the child who is now in a position to say something else, to hit the ball back again, which feels good because it is using power.

So, what would happen if the parent rather than hitting the ping pong ball back yet again held it? For example, after the child or adolescent says “no, I don’t have to, you can’t make me” the parent says nothing, does nothing. This is not as easy as it sounds because there is tremendous momentum and pressure to respond. But, if the parent does remain silent and shows no visual signs of response, that is, no smiling, frowning, smirking, but just looks at the child without saying anything, the game is all of a sudden changed. The parent is now holding a ping-pong ball that should be sent back. Remember, the ping-pong ball represents words which represent power. So, the parent is now holding the power. And the child wants it back!

As the parent remains silent simply looking at the child, the child will likely say something. The child (or adolescent – or anybody in this position) will send another ping-pong ball over to the parent by saying something like “well!?” or “WHAT!” or “What’s wrong with you” or “Cat got your tongue?” It doesn’t really matter what is said but, again, the parent again says nothing, does not send a ping-pong ball back. Now the parent is holding two ping pong balls! More power. And the child is even more frustrated because they are not getting the response they want, which is for the parent to send back some words, some power, so they can then exert their power by sending another few words back to the parent.

As the parent remains silent and simply observing, the child may say more, sending more words and more of their power over to the parent who again simply remains silent. Soon the child realizes that nothing is going to happen and there is an extended silence. During that period the entire exchange hangs in the air like a mist and it is not uncommon for the child to acquiesce to the original request and say something like “ok! I’ll go clean the room!” and storm off.

Even if the child does not acquiesce, the parent has not only avoided a power struggle but has maintained the upper hand by doing nothing. Following is a transcript segment for a real life scenario:

Parent: John, It’s time to turn off the TV and go finish your homework.

John: I’ll do it later

Parent: No, John, you’ll do it now. Turn off the TV.

John: Ah, come on…

Parent: No

John: You’re such an SOB!

Parent: (silence)

John: (after a moment turns away from the TV and looks at the parent)

Parent: (remains silent but watchful of John)

John: what?

Parent: (remains silent and looking at John)

John: I’ll do it later, I will

Parent: (remains silent and looking at John)

John: (an extended moment of silence – John looks back to the TV and watches for a few moments. He then turns the TV off and goes to his room)

Parent: (remains silent and observing until John is in his room and then returns to the kitchen to finish cleaning up from dinner.)

The issue of name calling is secondary in this scenario. If the parent addressed that issue, the conflict would have escalated and the homework would have been forgotten. Sometimes parents need to choose their battles.

This approach may appear simple but it is often quite difficult for the parent to simply remain silent and watchful without responding to what is being said to them. However, it is a very powerful method of holding the power and certainly worth some practice. Good luck.

Told What To Do

sonoran desert image for told what to do post

Children growing up in a family are often told what to do. You, as a child, and an adolescent, were told what to do, perhaps way more often than necessary. The alternative to be told what to do is being presented with choices. Instead of ‘go clean your room’ it becomes ‘you can choose to clean your room before you play video games for 1 hour, or after. If you choose before, you get 1/2 hour extra.

Being told what to do is very familiar, comfortable. Choices can be troubling, difficult. So, it makes a lot of sense that people, in general, have a tendency towards wanting to be told what to do. It’s what we grew up with. It’s normal. If nobody is around to tell us what to do, we’ll find somebody. Who’s the boss? Who’s the authority? Who’s the parent, the teacher, the bully, the friend, the spouse, the lover, who tells us what to do? Moreover, we internalize others telling us what to do so even if there is nobody around, we let others tell us what to do within our own mind.

A part of us, you know, is animal. We have an animal brain residing underneath our human brain. We have a body, that is animated, ie, animal. We are very socially animated; our sense of self is integrally woven with social interaction from birth to immediate family, to neighborhood, to community, to nation, to planet. The animal part of us does one thing really really well, much better than the human part of us, and that thing is ‘idle.’ Like being in a car, resting, gazing out at the scenery in front, while the engine is idle.

Being idle, animal idle, is often exactly what we have been told not to do. Instead, we are told to do something, anything, other than be animal idle. The upper most part of the human brain is referred to as the frontal neocortex. The activities that go on in this region of the brain are referred to as ‘executive functions.’ Underneath this frontal neocortex are a lot of systems around emotions and existence. Our animal brain is very aligned with existence, much more so than our executive functions.

Existence is not in a rush, and it has no goals; in a sense, it has nowhere to go, and nothing to do. It is existence; always has been present; always will be present. Animal idle is resting in that existence. Human idle is considered lazy; and, as humans, we typically look upon animals resting in the shade, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, as dumb. Of course, we know, intellectually, they are not dumb, they are just animals. Humans are animals, and the animal brain on which rests the executive functions, which are uniquely human, is operative, though atrophied. We’ve been told by the executive functions to do almost anything to avoid being animal idle; these executive functions in the frontal neocortex do have goals, agendas, something to do and somewhere to go. We’ve been told to do so much, so often, that the prospect of animal idle as a very comfortable and healthy state of mind and body would appear preposterous. And yet, perhaps it is that state of mind and body, this state of animal idle, that all humans yearn to reclaim. To be still, quiet, at ease and in comfort with existence.

Read the companion blog post The Bully in the Brain


Hurt People Hurt People

hurt people hurt peopole


People who are hurt, specifically in an emotional or psychological sense, tend to hurt other people. Hurt people hurt people; they do so with harsh words, biting comments, derogatory statements, ridicule, condescension, sarcasm, yelling and screaming, cussing and innuendo about family members or friends. It doesn’t really matter how a person came to be hurt, for there are hundreds of ways it can happen: childhood trauma such as physical abuse or rape, parental neglect, peer bullying, sibling conflict, to name a few. These painful experiences can be lodged in the psyche and seek outlets whenever possible. Hurt people are known to have ‘triggers,’ i.e., situations that can activate their hurt and cause them to lash out with vitriolic and vehement words and actions, often directed to the people closest to them. Because trauma and hurt are so very common in the world, it behooves anybody to have some understanding about how best to respond to such outpourings upon us, and avoid being hurt ourselves by such, should that occur.

  1. Don’t take it personally. Hurt people are a little on the blind side when it comes to discrimination. They don’t readily see that you are an innocent bystander, had no intention of triggering their pain, were only trying to help, etc. If you happen to inadvertently say something or behave in such a way as to trigger a painful memory in someone, recognize it as a healing process on his or her part. They were just allowed to express old hurt that needed an outlet; you just happened to be convenient at that time and in that place. Whereas the vitriol may be directed at you, and may appear to be about you, it is far more likely it is about something that happened in the past, and about someone other than you.
  2. Listen. Arguing and reacting against the onslaught of hurtful words can only serve to make the person serving them bolder and more aggressive. You can even employ ‘active listening skills’ by mirroring and paraphrasing what they are saying to you. This can be very effective in defusing the situation. Of course, by hurling back hurtful words to them helps nobody and only increases the hurt. So, say little, listen much.
  3. Have Compassion. There are some lovely Biblical sentiments that can help prevent us from getting upset, angry or hurt ourselves by the onslaught of hurtful energy that may come our way. Consider “forgive them for they know not what they do” or “judge not, lest ye be judged” or “forgive those who trespass against us…” and “ blessed are the merciful.” It can be an empowering experience to express these ideals in a situation where they can actually be quite helpful.
  4. Be your own authority. It is often said that nobody can hurt you without your permission. You need not give a hurtful person permission to hurt you with their words. You can recognize that they themselves are hurt, but that does not mean that you allow them to hurt you. It is almost as if you have a protective shield which disallows the acceptance of words that are untrue, inaccurate, invalid, false, fictitious, fallacious, faulty and, yes, hurtful.
  5. Walk away. If you cannot yourself take the hurtful venting from a hurtful person, then leave. You are not obligated to remain. You can even state to them that you are not in a position at this time to listen and then excuse yourself. If need be, go talk with a friend, or a professional, about the incident so you can debrief and defuse it within yourself so it does not become some trigger for you later on down the road.

Perhaps the most helpful piece of advice one can remember when interacting with a hurt person is to avoid being hurtful back. It may prove useless trying to be nice to them as they are not in need of niceties; they are in need of an avenue of venting, releasing and pouring out the hurt that is there within them, and has probably been there within them for a long, long time, festering over the years. It is sufficient that you simply not add to that pile of hurt either through leaving, or listening.

The Bully in the Brain

the bully in the brain

Let’s say, by way of analogy, that you, as the driver of the vehicle, reside in the heart of your body. The engine of the vehicle resides in the head of the body, in the brain. As the driver you can have the most beautiful ideals, goals, objectives, hopes, dreams, wishes and wants, and be stuck right where you are, if the engine is not working.

We need to understand a little about our brain engine so, as the heart-seated driver of the vehicle, we can go places, do things. In our heart, as the driver, we may be rather frustrated if those hopes and dreams, wants and wishes are obstructed, because the brain engine is not firing on all cylinders. It needs a tune-up. It needs its timing reset. Moving parts need to be lubricated. Our higher brain functions, referred to as our executive functions, are very active, lots of moving parts. Our emotional brain is older, deeper, more fixed; it has moving parts as well. The part with the fewest moving parts, and often at rest, in peace, at ease, is that region of the brain commonly referred to as ‘the reptilian brain’ herein referred to as ‘the biological brain.’ Of course, the emotional brain and the executive brain are biological. The biological brain is the basis, the root, the power.

The biological brain engine in the body vehicle, of which you are in the heart of the driver’s seat, is intelligent. Although we are more advanced in emotional and executive functionings, we have sacrificed integration of that reptile, that animal, at ease, at peace in the world, into our lives, in favor of executive functioning, which rule with iron-fisted realities. It’s like an engine being run constantly at the red line. It’s going to wear down the moving parts quickly. Turning off the executive functions, and the emotional functions, to reside in existential peace and ease, to be in that animal brain idle, is a tune up for the whole brain engine.

But, the executive functions have taken over, commandeered the brain engine, caged it and now makes it perform, incessantly. Attempts to drive the vehicle towards that calm, organic state of animal idle, is obstructed, blocked, prevented, by the demands of the executive functions. The executive functions are powerful and do take command. They can regulate, or dis-regulate, emotions. Certainly they are behind decisions and actions. They are often less in command of reactions; the emotional brain, can, and very often does, intercede and override executive functions. The vehicle can drive erratically, as if the spark plugs are misfiring. And, indeed, they may be. Time for a tune-up.

Drive the vehicle over towards the biological brain bay and rest a while. Be like a polar bear laying in the snow, a sea otter floating on its back; be like a simple animal, a mammal; be like that magnificient ape, sitting, quiet, at ease, surveying its domain, for hours, idle, without a bully badgering it.

Read the companion blog post Told What To Do