What Is Mental Health? (Is It Different Than Spiritual Healing?)

There's been a fair amount in the news recently about how mindfulness practice can help what we call mental health issues. What is mental health if not a spiritual healing? The spiritual path according to the Buddhist view is essentially observing and then training the mind to rest undistracted in the present experience. It's about releasing whatever it is that distracts us from the present moment. If we consider that emotions are what usually distract us, isn't it safe to say that the spiritual path is intimately related to mental health?

What is the difference between the spiritual path and healing our emotional wounds?

When you practice a contemplative discipline such as ashtanga yoga or sitting meditation, you train the mind to rest undistracted instead of getting caught up in the story of your emotional world. But comprehending it intellectually doesn’t necessarily translate into emotional understanding or direct experience. It is entirely possible to release attachment to difficult mental states without addressing the underlying causes. This is known in certain circles as "spiritual bypassing." We can convince ourselves that everything is perfectly fine, by ignoring our neurotic or destructive habits.

The identity that we unconsciously create - and recreate moment by moment - is based on past experience.  We tell ourselves a story about who we are, and then because we believe it, the phenomenal world responds with proof to support our view. We so firmly believe in this identity, it becomes the driving force of our life, causing us to re-enact familiar stories over and over. Sitting on your meditation cushion or getting on your yoga mat each day provides an opportunity to observe this process, and start to decipher the storyline.

The choice is to stop believing everything we tell ourselves and look directly at what is. When we see how our misperception has led us astray, then automatically we see another possibility.

What is mental health?

We might say that mental health is the ability to adapt to new situations; to show up authentically and fully. We know when someone feels especially 'sane' by how grounded they are in the midst of chaos and confusion. A strong sense of mental health is unflappable. We can rely on someone to be steady when they are mentally sound.

What is mental health? Aspects of mental health include:

• emotional balance • wellbeing • adaptability

Could we say that mental health is being fully aware, awake and balanced in the present moment?

What is spiritual healing?

We might say that the spiritual path is the process of healing our disconnect with the whole, with our inner wisdom, with our intuition, and with our compassion. Through following a spiritual teaching, we learn to identify our place in the universe. We see how our lives reflect of our particular styles of ignorance and suffering. We learn to be kind to those aspects of ourselves and others.

What is spiritual healing? Aspects of the spiritual path include:

  • awareness

  • wisdom

  • compassion

Could we say that the spiritual path is being fully aware, awake and balanced in the present moment?

Are mental health and the spiritual path the same?

On the first meditation retreat I ever did, there was a young man who, after a couple of days of sitting still on his cushion, um, lost it. He started acting in a way that was disturbing to the group and frankly, bizarre. The retreat leaders asked him to leave. He was acting crazy.

So, they are not necessarily the same. One can embark on a spiritual path and be imbalanced mentally.

I also know people who are mentally clear, stable, grounded in the present, yet who are totally self-centered and have no idea what it means to help out a fellow human. So one can be "mentally healthy" and spiritually stuck.

But are they really different?

Couldn't we say that mental health is about healing our disconnect with our inner wisdom, with our intuition, and with our emotional balance?

And couldn't we say that the spiritual path is about learning to adapt to new situations without undue stress; to look at things clearly; show up authentically and fully?

So if we take one path to its end, wouldn't we naturally heal the full spectrum?

So what is the difference between mental health and the spiritual path?

Both are ultimately about healing the illusion of being disconnected. I'd say mental health is about reconnecting to self, whereas spiritual path is connecting that self to something larger.

Essentially, what is mental health if not simply learning to clean up our own act? Spiritual healing is then understanding the relationship between "our own act" the the rest of the world. It's learning to see that whatever we do to help ourselves will inevitably help others, and vice versa. Psychological healing is necessary to get to ground zero - to a healthy sense of self. But then, once we've established that ground, then the rest of the journey is what we call spiritual path. It's recognizing that the self with a small "s" is not all there is.

Ultimately both mental health and spiritual healing are about learning to be authentically present and kind. They both recognize the importance of acknowledging that we are intimately inter-connected with each other.

Once we can see this, then we have a choice about whether to believe the story we tell ourselves, or to re-create our reality by showing up each moment without expectations, ready to be there for whatever arises.

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