Blog for World Mental Health Month – 1st May 2019
I’m willing to bet that we’ve all been there, we’ve all been exposed to that rainbow spectrum of mental health challenges. Some of us won’t admit that publicly of course and some of us wouldn’t even dream of exposing that truth to ourselves but that does not take the reality away. We’re all just as susceptible to mental health issues as we are to physical health issues, and yet there’s so much more understanding and acceptance about a ‘gammy hip’ or ‘dodgy shoulder’ than about a grief struck, anxious or depressed mind. The hip or the shoulder are more ‘common place’, more on show and recognised. The mind is hidden, veiled behind a face and body that has the power, or will, to disguise.
I wonder if it would help to draw parallels with mind and body to help understand what mental health might be, and so what mental ill-health could be too. We can all see a body and pretty quickly we deduce whether it’s a healthy one or not. How do we do this? It doesn’t take a medical degree, just an ability to look. Initially a healthy body is seen as one that is malleable. One that moves, bends, twists, circles, spirals and dances freely. A healthy body is light, nimble and quick. It can bounce and bound and embrace. A healthy body is not restricted or stuck. It can act as our vehicle in life and get us to where we want to go. A healthy body is plastic.
It’s not so easy to see a person’s mind, to look inside the brain and notice what’s going on. You’re just not sure what’s really happening in there. So, what if we assume that a healthy mind is going to be functioning along the same lines as a healthy body? Let’s, for argument sake think of the two as the same, so if a heathy body is plastic then so too is a healthy mind plastic. A mind that is moving, flowing, experiencing, enjoying, observing, creating and pondering. A healthy mind maybe is just like a body in full connection with its scale of expanding as well as contracting, just like an elastic band. But what happens if the mind, or body gets stuck, gets stuck in a rut? What if the two separate and function differently or disconnect, what if the wires get crossed and the system fails. What if the mind gets sick?
Of course, we all recognise that a healthy body can be host to an unwell mind and vice versa but often there are tell tell signs that the two are more closely linked than we might like to admit. To be honest, there was a time in my life when my mind and body were both so synchronised in their inability to move that I found myself sitting on the kitchen floor, almost paralysed but for a gentle primitive rocking. A frightening, exposing, embarrassing and very true expression of my grief at that time. So, what stopped me from staying there? What gave me a pathway off the floor and away from the deep dark of sorrow into the bright light of joy?
Have you heard of neuro plasticity? Most people have, so what do you think it actually means? There’s been lots of research lately around the subject of meditation and the plasticity of the mind, how springy your neurons can become when encouraged to seek out freedom. Our brains, just like the joints in our bodies, can become stiff, stuck and ridged, leading (as we have discussed) into a rut. This rut might just be set habits or ideas, stuck moralistic views or political opinions. Or the rut might be a seed of sadness, that just like a weed, has grown out of control or a whisper of anxiety turning into thunder and lightening, very very frightening in the minds eye. The rut might be quite shallow or extremely deep and seemingly impossible to crawl out of. In order to set our minds free to become light and fluid we need to help our neuros out of the rut and into the light. It seems even more important to consider this when we learn that we have over one billion neurons in our intellectual mind (not forgetting the millions of neurons in our gut brain and thousands in our emotional brain). We now know, through scientific research, that we can work on the plasticity of our neurons through meditation. Apparently just 5 minutes of meditation 5 times a week can support the elasticity of our neurons and keep our mind agile, lucid and healthy.
However, to get you started and moving again to you need to make things simpler. Even more simple than meditation. To get started you need to physically take yourself off the kitchen floor and get out and about. My advice, and the advice of most people that know or have experienced this first hand, is to take a walk in nature. It’s a super simple and super powerful force. For many there is nothing better than a walk through the forest or a trip to the sea side. This is not coincidental or accidental. It makes you feel better because you are freeing your glued neurons and enabling a new kind of movement in your mind. You are loosening off the mental dis-ease into mental ease. Getting into nature is also one of the best ways to gain perspective, look at the sky isn’t it vast, look at the flower, isn’t it delicate, the tree, so majestic, hear the birds, don’t they sound beautiful and how freeing is their flight, smell the soil, so earthy. I know it sounds obvious and trite but sometimes the most simple of things really are the best and our primitive brains recognise this, like putting up a mirror to ourselves and saying, yes I am part of this and not separate, I can be part of this world and I don’t need to feel alone.
It is in nature, and through nature that we begin to become grounded. To actually recognise that we are part of this ground, this earth, this land. We can literally get ‘out of our heads’ and into our bodies and feet, reconnecting with what is solid and real and earthed. That’s the very start of a good meditation practice – to become earthed, to root down in order to safely rise up into the head and intellect and find freedom in the mind, not restriction. How can we understand this in meditation if we’ve not experienced it in life, at the beach, through the fields or by the stream? Impossible. Maybe meditation is more about remembering and recalling than reducing or restricting as it is sometimes taught? And by this I don’t mean remembering by imagining what you saw but by remembering through recalling the feeling of what you felt within Natures embrace.
When you get home, see if you can take just a few moments to sit down. Take your shoes off, sit on a chair (or on the floor) and take your mind back to the sky, the flower, trees, birds and ground. Recall all the senses and the feeling of being part of, and not separated from, the land. Each time you do this you are encouraging your mind to take another step up the ladder of freedom towards emancipation from your personal rut.
And now for the safety bit. Some ruts are super deep, tangled and claustrophobic needing a very specialist map to navigate. In my darkest hour I did find myself contacting my GP, taking medication and seeking professional help from a psychologist. I needed to and they helped me. Other ruts I recognise more like grooves, little ridges that could go either way and send my mind either down or up. I can now see the difference and stop the decline in its path, through practice, choice and observation. However, if you feel in so deep you can’t come up enough to smell the roses please do seek out professional help. Call your GP or if you’re local to Flow in Tunbridge Wells you can contact Inner Space Counselling (https://www.innerspacecounselling.co.uk), where one of their wonderful psychotherapists will be very willing and able to offer you a helping hand and guiding light. When you feel better and ready to take on the many delights of a regular meditation practice then get in touch and we can see were we go next.
With love and faith in Mother Earth
Your grief for what you’ve lost holds a mirror
up to where you’re bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expand
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
(Rumi, 13th Century Persian Poet)