Psychesclerosis: The Illness of the Ages
“Spontaneity, the hallmark of childhood, is well worth cultivating to counteract the rigidity that may otherwise set in as we grow older.” – Gail Sheehy
….hardening of the mind. It is a widespread dis-ease responsible for a host of personal, economic, political, environmental, financial, national and global ailments. Just as arteriosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, is dangerous for physical health and well being, so too psychesclerosis is a real problem.
The mind is by nature fluid, flexible, adaptable. Neuro-scientists refer to ‘plasticity’ as our capacity to learn and to adapt, which most anybody would agree is the basis of development, and survival. Children are the most natural example of how we develop, from a toddler without knowing much of anything, to a young adult skilled in various behaviors, able to socialize which itself can require a fair amount of flexibility, adaptations, accommodations, collaboration and cooperation. Ongoing neuro-plasticity allows one to question and update conclusions made, beliefs held, biases and prejudices learned, information and knowledge gained. Sclerosis in the psyche tends to prevent all that from happening.
Problems of Psychesclerosis
If the mind is hardened, which means the programs it runs are operative, but routinized, channeled, such that adaptations or novel responses to new situations are obstructed, sclerosis is happening. What ought to be pliable is rigid, as if what ought to be liquid is ice. A child learns to ride a bike, write, and type, to tie shoes and read, all of which requires rather sophisticated neurological calculations and adjustments. It happens with relative ease, and joy. Children are enthusiastic learning animals. If the learning environment is supportive of pliability, fluidity, flexibility, adaptability, and even spontaneity, creativity, innovation and having fun, the mind remains vibrant, engaged, involved, and soft. If not, learning is difficult, development is sluggish, and hardening of the mind sets in. Common symptoms of psychesclerosis include resistance to new ideas, repetitive patterns of dysfuntional cognition and behavior, an over attachment to personal beliefs, assumptions, conclusions, biases, prejudices, preferences and expectations. Compulsions, addictions, anger, confusion and the maintenance of long established conflicts are typical of psychesclerosis. It may appear that one is alive and well, and yet caught in a rut, like tire tracks in wet mud which have now hardened.
A soft mind is not a weak mind; in fact, a hardened mind is very much weaker. What breaks more easily, water or ice? Of course, water doesn’t break. That’s the point, a fluid mind doesn’t break. It adapts. Ice breaks, because it is solid and hard. It does not adapt. It does not flex. It can adapt, if it becomes liquid. Learning keeps the mind fluid. Learning is adaptation, and adaptation is one of the critical components of a species survival. Likewise, personal survival in a turbulent social world requires adaptation, flexibility, and softness, much more than abnegation, rigidity and hardness.
The mind becomes hard, rigid and sclerotic in the ways it runs it’s operating system because it’s overly shaped and molded by an imposing educational system which enforces strict and regulated standards. These standards are themselves sclerotic and make education at best boring, and at worst damaging. Modern education is based on an industrialized model of society. That model has become outdated, and yet fixed and rigid; it has not adapted to a technological model and is ill prepared to shift towards an autonomous model. Automation is the next massive cultural transition and if education does not adapt, students, who become adults, will not just be ill equipped, they will be ill; they will be hard, rigid, frozen and stuck in a sclerotic mind which can only crack and break. Of all the social systems in place, education is where one becomes sclerotic, or adaptable. Perhaps our greatest need is learning how to learn.
“When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder
I can think at all” – Paul Simon
Antidotes to psychesclerosis
There are several antidotes for psychesclerosis. One of the most basic is reading. Reading (and being read to) is the poor person’s travel. Reading is entrance into other worlds from the comfort of your couch. Reading is psychelogical travel which keeps psychelogical content fresh, vibrant, fluent, curious and inquisitive. Reading is a complex process and is not necessarily confined to the interpretation of visual symbols on a page or in a voice, ie, letters and words. One can read another person, read the weather, read the mood of a situation. When learned, reading opens up vistas unimaginable to the illiterate, and that is very conducive to psychefluidity.
In today’s world virtual travel via immersive television allows one to see, and hear, foreign places, different geology, geography, cultures, customs, language, clothing, food, and peoples. A wealth of scientific information can be presented visually in appealing and effective graphic representations. If reading is the poor person’s travel, immersive television, and motion pictures, is the middle class version. However, nothing quite compares to the real thing, the actual movement of the personal biological bones and muscles, organs and senses, through various different places, foreign lands and new ideas. The exploration, the quest, into new territory, is invigorating to the mind. It is a fundamental driving force. The most effective education is not just in hearing, or seeing as much as it is in doing, and generating an experience of exploration. Even within your own well known community, there are options to explore, and exploration is an antisclerotic.
Art is a very important antidote to psychesclerosis. Reading, radio, television, motion pictures, are all based on the most fundatmental of human art forms: story telling. Because art is so basic, it is not unreasonable to suggest that every single person has art to express. Certainly, every single person has a story to tell, a narrative of their experiences. Writing, poetry, painting, pottery, dancing, singing, sewing and myriad other activities easily fall into the category of self expression, which is art. In fact, living is art for, as the bard William Shakespeare has said, ‘all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.’ You are an actor on the stage of life. Everything you do is a form of self expression, which is art.
Philosophy can be an antidote to hardening of the mind. Philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge, the love of wisdom. It is an exploration into the nature of things, including one’s own self and place in the world. Unlike the hard sciences which tend toward concrete answers, philosophy, and art, are not so fixed. Contemplation on the larger themes of life is like chewing on a meaty bone. It not only provides some nourishment, it keeps the teeth healthy. Chewing on ideas keeps the mind in motion, fluid and pliable. It’s not about finding answers, it’s about gaining insight and understanding.
To that end, medication can be useful; not the western allopathic model, but, rather, the more shamanic model. Most every culture acknowledges, and uses, the properties of plants to induce altered states of waking consciousness. The proper uses of such known psyche-active agents such as mescaline, peyote, ayahuasca, and others less known, is effective in loosening up our sclerotic framework of perception. Once loosened, it does not go back to its original shape. There is an opening, an expansion. Biochemicals which alter the perceptual apparatus are, in that sense, altering and expanding; we see things, hear things, feel things, differently. That is very helpful in countering psychesclerosis.
Because the mind and body influence each other, various physical activities are also very conducive to psychelogical flexibility and countering the stagnation of psychesclerosis. Swimming, skipping, running, walking, bouncing can be both curative and preventative. Yoga postures and breathing practices, tai chi, qi gong and even martial arts can be a kind of physical meditation and also both curative and preventative. Perhaps one of the most fundamental, effective, enjoyable and healthy movement meditations, readily available and free, is walking. So, if you’re feeling a bit rigid, stuck, sclerotic, in the mind, go for a walk.
“Walking is man’s best medicine.” – Hippocrates