Democratizing Mental Health

“The next Buddha is community”
– Thich Nhat Hahn

I was first exposed to meditation as a young university student in Montreal. A friend invited me to a meeting in the basement of the Student Union building on McTavish. For thirty excruciating minutes, I squirmed in my chair while a dozen or so other attendees sat with their eyes closed, seemingly quite peaceful. 

“The world won’t be changed by people who can’t see it,” I told a friend afterwards. I thought that was a real zinger. Then I got drunk at the bar upstairs and barfed on my shoes. Exemplar!

What are we doing when we take up meditation?

My view on this has changed since those early days. The world is riven with strife and inequity. Intentional practice, and this includes meditation, is one of the solutions. I’d argue that despite its passive optics, meditation is actually a kind of activism, one that, right now, is sweeping the culture. If you’re reading this, you are part of that movement, a movement of sanity and empowerment and increased mental health transparency. It is also a movement of caring for others.

These practices change our internal conditions so we can better address our external conditions. Ask my wife who the prime beneficiary of my meditation practice is. Sitting helps both of us show up to our work and our marriage; it’s an infusion of clarity and understanding into our otherwise crazy days. 

This gets amplified when people sit in community, because all of a sudden all this normalization happens. You mean it’s okay to have a hard time in life, to seek support, to share our struggles and our breakthroughs? Yes. Being human takes practice. I’m not sure anyone gets to be born and just coast. 

Why “democratization”? Because good instruction is becoming more accessible. Because there are fewer barriers to finding and creating dependable support structures. Because there’s a practice for each of us, and we’re the ones who get to choose and build and direct it.

This doesn’t need to look like formal sitting meditation, and for many it won’t. Talking and sharing about mental health – with friends, with community – is itself a deeply helpful practice. So is talking and sharing about the range of other practices out there, including what’s worked for us and what hasn’t. This happens from the bottom up, not the top down.

At our Consciousness Explorers Club retreats, we also learn to guide each other

I happen to think this ethic of empowerment and accessibility and community support can and should extend to teaching itself. We need more guides; informed amateurs can help.

So. Close your eyes, and watch your breath. Talk to someone about your experience, and listen to them talk about their own. If you feel inspired, you can even start your own local practice group with a few friends (or maybe a few grandmothers — see below). 

This is how sanity becomes a social movement.

Pass it on.

What I’ve Been Reading:

When Zimbabwe couldn’t support the mental health needs of its citizens, they empowered 400 grandmothers to step up – check out this article on the democratizing of mental health in Africa. Also see this Economist piece, about how counselling by amateurs costs little and can make a real impact.

Zimbabwean “Friendship Bench,” where regular folks help each other with mental health


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