When we’re born as humans, we have three tasks. The first is to learn to manage our mental health, much as we manage our physical health. The second is to empower ourselves individually – to use, effectively, this mind we have. And the third is to empower ourselves socially – to relate well to other minds.
In practice, they are interwoven skills. But it helps also to see them as a hierarchy: unless our mind is healthy, it cannot be effective; and unless it is effective, it cannot relate well.
MANAGING OUR MENTAL HEALTH
In managing our mental health, we need to learn to avoid two extremes of behaviour: anxiety and depression. Anxiety is the mind overworking itself, or trying too hard; and depression is the mind under-working itself, or giving up. When we are anxious, we are under pressure, racing against time, taxed beyond our felt ability to cope. When we are depressed, we are under-pressured, under-motivated; time feels unending, and we lose our hope that we can do anything to change our situation for the better.
In mechanistic terms, anxiety is like a pressure cooker out of control. Most of the seals are still working, but there is too much energy in the system for what is being cooked. Depression is like a pressure cooker broken and exhausted; the seals don’t hold pressure any more, and the insides have run dry.
We can manage our mental health through being mindful of these two tendencies. We can learn to detect when our minds are anxious or depressed. In response to anxiety, we can teach ourselves to reduce pressure and regain focus (so we are not overworked). In response to depression, we can teach ourselves to increase motivation and regain focus (so we are not under-worked).
We can use counselling or therapy to improve our self-awareness, and our mental balance. We can also use meditation, which is a fancy word for training our own minds to balance better between extremes.
Once we learn basic life balance, we can move on to becoming more personally effective. We can develop wise traits, including being happy, peaceful, patient, and present. We can learn skills such simplification, planning ahead, and being creative. We can build a constructive relationship with time and change. And we can enhance our use of language to develop clearer and more authentic narratives for ourselves.
Finally, if we choose, we can expand our circle and start to relate better with those around us. We can overcome our own self-centredness, and develop compassion for others. We can learn to be more helpful to others, smoothing the way with better negotiation skills. If we want to, we can expand our relationships to include more and more minds, and wider and wider worlds.
Living well starts with our own mental health. We need to watch that we don’t overwork our minds with anxiety; but we also need to make sure we don’t let our minds get demotivated and depressed.
Once we have a good mental balance, then we can work on developing our personal traits, skills, philosophy and language, to make us more effective as individuals.
Once we are more effective as individuals, we can work on helping others, and maintaining good relationships. We can expand the scope of those relationships as far as we like, until our compassion becomes more universal in nature.
Perhaps it helps to visualise ourselves as a tree: the roots and trunk are our basic mental health; the branches are our personal skills, and the leaves and flowers are our relationships.