Democratizing Mental Health

“The next Buddha is community”
– Thich Nhat Hahn

Can the world be saved?

I’m split. Half of me is a realist: this part sees the Good and the Bad racing neck-and-neck. Who can say who’s winning? The “data” at any one moment is infinite and infinitely subjective. Until we literally explode the planet, all we can really say is the stakes keep ratcheting up.

But I have another half too, an inner optimist. This optimist knows that hope galvanizes action more effectively than despair. It feels good to hope, and it feels even better to imagine we’re acting on the right side of a livable future.

The development my optimist is most excited about is this: all around the planet, in thousands of separate cultural and social niches, people are learning to take more responsibility for themselves. They are opening themselves to external feedback, they are examining their own biases, they are beginning to understand the intimate link between the care we extend ourselves, the care we offer others, and the work we do in the world.

This is a movement of sanity. And the explosion of research and interest in meditation and personal growth practices – contemplative as well as secular – lie at its heart.

There are people out there – myself among them – who believe we’re moving towards the democratization of mental health. Until now, the thinking goes, we’ve largely depended on psychiatrists and psychotherapists and counsellors and spiritual teachers for answers about how to manage our minds (at least, when things go off the rails). These authorities are still important; in fact, as we navigate specific challenges and techniques, we need them more than ever. And yet at the same time, there’s a growing recognition that an understanding of practice and self-regulation is too important and too fundamental to depend on specialists only.

There’s a useful comparison to make with diet and movement. We don’t depend on professional nutritionists and physiotherapists to teach us how to cook and walk. If we waited for the pros, we’d all be rolling around on our backs eating bugs.

It’s time for mental health to become something we all have at least a little expertise in.

Enter “How to Guide Meditation: A Training for Everyone,” a weekend workshop I’m offering in Ottawa from October 26th to 28th. The training is for anyone who wants to learn how to safely guide a meditation practice – as an act of caring, as an exercise in creativity, as a way to deepen their own understanding of what practice is and how it works. I encourage people to come – it’s affordable and accessible and the subject is important.

If you can’t make it, The Consciousness Explorers Club has just completed a free online resource that covers some of the same territory: version 1.0 of our “Community Activation Start-Up Kit”. The intention behind the kit is to help people kick-start their own community practice groups, and it includes tips on how to organize meetings and intelligently write and guide meditations.

We have no interest in creating more CECs; our non-profit’s mission is to support the emergence of groups uniquely responsive to their own local needs and context, whatever that looks like (hopefully it looks weird and surprising). Send feedback about what you’d like to see more of, so we can expand and refine this offering.

In the meantime, I’ll share my own Utopian vision: not of a world where everyone meditates (because I don’t think everyone needs to meditate, at least, not in a still and seated way), but in a world where everyone practices. Where everyone knows that you don’t get to be born and then just coast. Life is hard. There should be no shame in admitting that. In my experience, it gets harder when we stay unconscious, when we hold ourselves to some phoney ideal, when we never admit our struggles to ourselves or each other. It gets harder when we never bother to learn the fairly predictable rules of mental and physical habit formation, and the slightly less predictable rules of healing and connection and care.

I have no idea what a saved world looks like, but I can imagine a few features of a world that comes close. There will be people, and they will come together in small groups, and they will support each other. They will practice and learn and share. They will listen. They will know themselves as works in progress. And sometimes they will close their eyes, and follow their breath, and face their lives by doing a thing that looks like no thing at all.

Keep exploring, my friends.

Jeff