I can’t remember a Winter season in Silicon Valley with such sustained cold. 2/22 usually means Spring-like conditions; white plum blossoms dropping and pink cherry blossoms shyly peeking out. Yet, today plum blossoms cling tightly to branches and nary a pink flower can be found. I want warmth but my weather app shows only rain and cold for the next 10 days.
Each day I am reminded how much the engine of human internal experience runs on expectation and assumption. This now must mean that before. Incorrect. This now is merely what is occurring. And that occurrence often lacks connection to what has been or what will be. Yet, moment to moment the human brain is wired to habitually make probabilities certainties, unknowns knowns.
So much of human suffering can be boiled down to that basic misapprehension, its flawed mentation, and all the incessant efforting we do to make it so. Believing an internal illusion of knowing what can’t be known and predicting with an accuracy the human brain utterly lacks, is foolish and oh so human. And of course, we believe the mind’s limited, distorted narratives of certainty will be replicated in real life. Hardly ever is that borne out to be true.
When human functioning evolves to a point where producing heedless internal suffering become the default, alleviating that suffering becomes a necessity. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop says that the most powerful medicine we can offer for suffering of any kind is simply kindness. And I would add clear knowing. Recently, a patient who finally understood they had been lost in delusional thinking, was asking me how to calm a disturbed mind. I wrote the following equation on a sticky note: clarity + compassion = a calm mind.
That formula gives rise to what I call kind recognition. “Adding kindness to recognition helps us soften into and receive ‘this is hard.’ When life is truly distressing, relying solely on mindfulness may feel harsh or sterile or may activate existing habits of disassociating or disconnecting from experience. Kind recognition begins by recognizing what has arisen; for the fact of its arising cannot be altered. What comes next is the ‘ow!’ of it. The key becomes allowing ourselves to receive the ‘ow!’ with openheartedness and then remaining open to distressful thoughts and feelings that follow. Kind recognition builds our capacity to meet distressful feelings and difficult circumstances with less blame, shame and avoidance. It also promotes the cognitive-affective responsiveness needed to remain engaged, empowered and able to make skillful choices” (Miller, 2014)*.
Kind recognition is similar to distress tolerance but different. It is not an effort to escape, change or avoid distress, rather the capacity to welcome distress with openheartedness and wisdom. A good example is: all things come and go, including painful and pleasurable experience. That recognition can in and of itself lessen a reactive mind insisting distress will never end and needs to be ignored, avoided or ended. Such efforts most often lead only to harmful choices and behaviors.
I have posited that much of the diagnoses listed in the DSM could be viewed as outcomes of internally-driven efforts to end painful experience. And that would be very human. It is merely the severity of distortion and reactivity that morphs everyday human suffering into a mental health issue.
*Miller, Lisa Dale. Effortless Mindfulness: Genuine Mental Health Through Awakened Presence“. Routledge 2014.