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 finish destroying the planet, all we can honestly say is the social and political and environmental stakes keep ratcheting up.

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

The development my inner optimist is most excited about is this: in hundreds of different social and cultural niches, people seem to be taking more responsibility for themselves. I meet so many people today, in very different professions, who are suddenly open to exploring the connections between their minds and bodies and relationships. They are open to talking about their challenges and what they do to help themselves, and they seem to have more and more of a common sense appreciation for the link between the care we extend themselves and the work we do in the world.

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

This movement may be laying the groundwork for the democratization of mental health. Until now, we’ve largely depended on psychiatrists and psychotherapists 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. Yet at the same time, there is a growing recognition that an understanding of practice and self-regulation is too important and too fundamental to depend on specialists only. We also have to learn to depend on each other.

There’s a comparison to make with movement and diet. We don’t depend on professional physiotherapists and nutritionists and to teach us how to run and cook. If we waited for their go-ahead, we’d all be crawling around on our hands and knees eating grass. Instead, most of us learn the basics of movement and cooking from amateur guides we call parents and peers.

Could mental health be similar?

Enter “How to Guide Meditation: A Training for Everyone,” a weekend workshop I’m offering in Ottawa from October 26th to 28th, 2018. 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.

If you can’t make this training – or any future ones – The Consciousness Explorers Club has just completed a free online resource that covers some of the same territory: 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, among much else. The CEC’s non-profit 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).

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 mental health isn’t a static state of being, but something we actively and deliberately do.

No one gets 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 notice their breath, and face their lives by doing a thing that looks like no thing at all.

Keep exploring, my friends.

Jeff

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