Mental Health and the Spiritual Path: Are they different?
There’s been alot in the news recently about how mindfulness practice can help what we call mental health issues. I know this is a big topic…and I wanted to explore some possibilities.
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 the path of healing?
What is the difference between the spiritual path and healing our emotional wounds?
When you practice a contemplative discipline such as yoga or meditation, you train the mind to rest undistracted instead of getting caught up in the story of our emotional world. But comprehending it intellectually doesn’t necessarily translate into emotional understanding or direct experience.
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.
The choice is to stop believing what 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. Aspects of mental health include:
- emotional balance
Could we say that mental health is being fully aware, awake and balanced in the present moment?
What is spiritual path?
I might say that the spiritual path is the path of healing our disconnect with the whole, with our inner wisdom, with our intuition, and with our emotional balance. Aspects of the spiritual path include embracing:
Could we say that the spiritual path is being fully aware, awake and balanced in the present moment?
Are they the same?
On the first meditation retreat I ever did, there was a young man who, after a couple of days of sitting still, um, lost it. He started acting in a way that was disturbing and frankly, bizarre. The retreat leaders asked him to leave. So, no. They are not necessarily the same. One can embark on a spiritual path and be imbalanced mentally.
And I know people who are logically clear, grounded in the present, 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 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, mental health is learning to clean up our own act, and the spiritual path 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 the spiritual path are about learning to experience ourselves as radiantly present and connected to each other.
Embarking on the spiritual path means taking back the reins to steer toward a reality based in the present moment. So we learn to recognize whatever happens to be a reflection of our particular style of neurosis. That is the spiritual path. 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 writing a new script.