Humans are creatures that benefit from homeostasis. Homeostasis is the ability to maintain a balance between extremes. For instance, when you are hungry you eat; when you are not, you don’t; this system keeps your weight healthy.
Your mental health, too, depends on homeostatic systems. Here are a few examples:
when you have had too much of people, you retreat from them
when you are too alone, you return into others’ company
when you are too busy, you seek out peaceful retreat
when you are ready for activity, you return to busy-ness
when you get bored, you seek motivation and interest
when you get too hyper-attentive, you seek less stimulating circumstances
The problem is, the above isn’t the whole story. it would be marvellous if we operated smoothly to manage the balance between social and antisocial, busy and at rest, stimulation and non-stimulation. Unfortunately, as you may have experienced, our systems are a bit corrupted.
Sometimes, when they have had too much of people, instead of simply retreating, we lecture them to get off our back. Sometimes, when we are too busy, instead of seeking out peaceful retreat, we erupt and shout at others with frustration. Sometimes, when we are hyper-stimulated, we seek out even more stimulation, until we ultimately collapse from spending too long in a hyper-state.
To manage our mental health, we need to learn to manage our corrupt systems intelligently. We need to learn to catch ourselves in the act of unnecessary aggression against others. We need to learn to catch ourselves getting addicted to hyper-alertness.
Some additional techniques are useful, much as add-ons are helpful when software does not do what we want. For example:
You can train yourself to watch your own behaviour, so that you can more easily catch yourself mouthing off against others. This is one of the fundamental tasks of meditation and mindfulness training.
You can train yourself to watch your ascending spiral of hyper-activity, so that you can more easily descend the staircase and rest. This is one of the fundamental tasks of retreat – it gives you time and space to re-set.
For mental health, we need balance. We can rely partly on our internal homeostatic systems – they’re not bad at maintaining inner balance. However, they are not foolproof. Sometimes we need to give our inner systems a helping hand, by being more conscious about our behaviour.
In particular, meditation, mindfulness and retreat perform specific mental health functions. They replace our more irritable, blame-y responses to life, with an ability to make ourselves more restful and self-accountable. If it makes us kinder to both ourselves and others, then that’s a win-win in my book.