The history of humankind is like a maze; a collection of pathways, designed to lead us from a beginning to an end goal, with the journey entailing much retracing of steps, the occasional dead end, and from time to time that sense that we’ve all been here before — after all, aren’t those who don’t know their history doomed to repeat it?
Fittingly, the word maze derives its roots from the 13th century Middle English word mæs, which refers to delirium or delusion.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world — disrupting capitalism’s hitherto ceaseless gears of production and laying waste to businesses, national economies and livelihoods — the great slowdown has brought into sharp focus the collective state of delirium we’ve all been caught up in.
As Within, So Without
So why write an article comparing a global pandemic to the experience we often refer to as a ‘mental health crisis’? Well there’s a remarkable similarity between the maze people find themselves navigating inside their bodies and their minds when they’re experiencing mental and emotional distress, and the collective labyrinth we are all now traversing as we try to find a way through the pandemic.
The Indian philosopher and poet Sri Aurobindo emphasised how first individuals needed to undergo a creative process of change or individuation, in order for society to then undergo the same process. Both the micro and the macro are reflections of one another.
The effects of The Great Slowdown are slowly changing all of us — and not just at an individual level. Society’s scaffolding is already up and major structural reworks are taking place across nations, transnational corporations, businesses and communities. The entire global economic system is undergoing a dramatic renovation, but not everybody’s onboard for change and many still mistakenly believe that a return to the way things were before the pandemic is still possible.
Not the Tomb, but the Womb
Humanity as a whole is slowly undergoing a collective process of metamorphosis. The pandemic represents a profound moment of reckoning and an opportunity for us to acknowledge and heal the collective traumas that have endured from generation to generation.
We carry the crimes of our forefathers within us; an inherited archetypal shadow that belongs to all of humankind. These ancestral wounds weep inside each of us until eventually a community of people take it upon themselves to do the healing work for the entire ancestral line, from the harrowing tales of the transatlantic slave trade crying out through the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, to Greta Thunberg’s appeal to the World Economic Forum that, ‘Our house is on fire!’ It is within the power of any generation to atone for the wounds of the past; to put an end to the flowing stream of blood and tears.
As the renowned author and trauma specialist, Dr Gabor Maté wrote:
“The teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg has been diagnosed with a number of mental health disorders, including Asperger’s….The people on both sides of the Atlantic who have dismissed her as mentally unstable have done so in the service of denying climate change, a stupendous dissociation from reality that will never be inscribed in the diagnostic compendium of mental illnesses, despite the fact that it threatens to destroy human habitats and much of the natural world.”
Dr Maté’s sobering observation brings into question the entire notion of so-called ‘mental illness’, a conversation many in the mental health fraternity have been grappling with for decades.
Who should we say is really more ill? A person who responds in a perfectly natural way to the trauma they experience at the hands of society? Or the indifferent society that continues to locate the so-called ‘disorders’ and ‘illnesses’ within the people that it harms, rather than in itself?
We have codified the symptoms in an ever-expanding manual of mental health disorders as though the symptoms — depression, anxiety, altered states, etc. — are the thing. But they are not the thing, they are the signposts pointing us to a deeper truth, the harbingers of the much needed wisdom being offered to us as we experience this period of collective suffering.
If we pay close enough attention, the purpose of these signposts becomes apparent. We suffer because we need to change. We suffer because Nature itself, of which we are an inextricable part, deeply wants us to heal, both individually, as a species and as a planet.
Our suffering lessens when we begin to understand that the pain we experience has both a meaning and a purpose. Healing takes place as we develop the capacity to move towards what at times can feel unbearable.
It’s a delicate process of unfolding, like the petals of a flower, and while it cannot be forced or rushed, certain conditions can allow it to take place. At an individual level we must first sense compassion present in another, before we allow ourselves to venture down that painful pathway that leads to truth.
Experience vs Behaviour
My colleagues and I went through an intense and transformative process during our training to become psychotherapists. For five years we sat in a circle one weekend a month and shared our deepest pain; expunging grief and trauma like water from a sponge.
SafelyHeldSpaces.org was founded on the principle that everybody should be supported to go through whatever it is they need to go through without somebody trying to tell them what that is, enabling them to journey through their own personal rites of passage in life.
In the field society calls ‘mental health’, far too much of the focus is on people’s behaviour — even when, as observers, we know very little — if anything at all — of people’s experiences.
To truly meet another person beyond the prosaic level of the behavioural, we must first find a way to move out of the rigidity of our own mind, our own fixed assumptions and beliefs. Crucially, we need to understand just how quickly our judgment of others takes us out of relationship with them.
As the renowned countercultural psychiatrist and author R.D. Laing wrote in the 1960s in his book The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, “experience is invisible to the other…natural science is concerned only with the observer’s experience of things. Never with the way things experience us.”
The antidote to judgement is curiosity and attention. And while judgment is often the bedfellow of fear, in a neurological quirk of the human species, our brains are incapable of experiencing fear and curiosity at the same time.
When we allow ourselves to bring a sense of curiosity to a person’s experience, all judgement begins to melt away. And almost magically, new layers of the person’s inner world begin to reveal themselves to us. What’s often being asked of us is to simply be with what is and to listen deeply.
The American Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow says, “if we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
As we find ourselves at a time in history where all too quickly friends are becoming enemies; where common ground is giving way to partisan divides, the 200-year-old poet’s words seem remarkably current.
Creating a Roadmap to Guide Us
In order for us to begin to expand our curiosity about a person’s inner experience, it’s useful to first have a map of the territory we might encounter. One of the first things Safely Held Spaces did was create a roadmap to help people begin to understand the various stages a person may experience on their journey.
From everyday life, into the realms of testing times and really extreme times, each stage of the roadmap helps us to navigate our way through a confusing, and at times frightening, experience.
The expanding circles on the diagram represent the concomitant worldviews, or the lenses through which we understand the world; the cultural baggage that we inherit, and the shared truths and assumptions we unquestioningly accept as a given.
A commonly held, albeit limited worldview (see innermost circle on roadmap) of mental and emotional distress is that it should not be happening; that it’s an aberration to be cured.
But as we begin to expand our worldview to include an understanding of how inner transformation takes place, an appreciation of the nutrition hidden in the chaos begins to unfold.
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” — Cynthia Occelli
The seed within us contains the plan. As the mythographer and author Robert Lawlor writes, “the seed disembodies itself to objectify its internal forms and forces. Germination is an explosion, the unified body of the seed vanishes into the duality of the root and stem. Somewhere inside itself an acorn knows how to become an oak.”
Tending to Our Garden
For seeds to grow to the fullest of their potential, they need to be tended to. Writing for the BuildBackBetter initiative by CompassOnline.org.uk, the co-chair and gardener, Sue Goss, suggests humanity needs to make a fundamental shift away from machine mind and towards something more akin to garden mind.
Goss suggests that like good gardeners, we might shift our focus to creating a state of equilibrium; tending to our communities — our gardens — as opposed to trying to control them.
She speaks of the need to “respond to people in vulnerable circumstances with love and kindness; to encourage creative expression; and to respond to people as individuals instead of ‘units of service’”.
She notes how an antiquated system means even the most well-intentioned projects may constitute wasted time and money, and ultimately merely be addressing symptoms instead of root causes.
In Greater Manchester a campaign has been launched opposing the redevelopment of Park House Psychiatric Hospital, which community groups say held no public consultation on the model of care it would be providing.
As Goss highlights, ‘machine mind’ assumes that we can build something to ‘fix’ the problems and continue as usual, build a hospital to warehouse the human collateral damage of our broken society, when what’s actually needed is root and branch systemic change — a paradigm shift.
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