Tranquility is a necessary component for contentment. Tranquility is also the proximate cause of insight. This is generally why teaching concentration practices precede insight or vipassana practice. Only a calm mind can realize its true nature: radiant and pure.
Humans are blessed with breath; an ever-present biological function that acts as a conditioner for the body-mind system. Quality of breath directly influences quality of mind and body. When we are stressed or fearful, breath is fast, short, and shallow. Conversely, slow, long, gentle, deep breathing leads to cognitive-affective-somatic contentment and restfulness. You may have noticed when you feel agitated, if you put your attention on how breath is and gently slow in-breath and out-breath, anxiety and agitation subside.
Adding awareness or what is called “relaxed attention” on breath in a focused way calms the body-mind system. When we stay with breath long enough, calm leads to interest in the mind, and joyfulness in the heart and body. Eventually, the excitement gives way to a contentment, which arises from the direct experience of the mind knowing its own radiance and clarity. This is what the Buddha famously taught in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (find more information in my textbook on Buddhist psychology for clinicians.)
If radiance and clarity is the true nature of mind, why do we not experience these qualities of mind all the time? Primarily this is due to the presence of habitual thought-generated mental hindrances, such as craving, aversion, laziness/inertia, restlessness, and doubt, which grip conceptual mind and prevent it from realizing its own empty, luminous essence.
In concentration meditation we learn to stop feeding the hindrances by starving them. We train the mind to stay present with an object like breath, which naturally leads to calm, clear, and contented states of mind. Continually choosing over and over again, to turn away from distressful states of mind and turn toward the experience of breath eventually gives us the confidence, to turn the mind toward the hindrances, and stay present with these distressful states of mind to engage in the inquiry of vipassana meditation practice. You can learn more about this on the Groundless Ground Podcast Episode with Buddhist teacher Shaila Catherine.
If you think meditation alone will ‘cure’ the deleterious characteristics of humanness, like anger, violence, greed, hatred, fear and bias… think again. These qualities arise from an experientially shared, all-pervasive perceptual feeling of separateness—I am inside, everyone else is outside.
Cutting through that misapprehension requires both conceptual training and contemplative practices for cultivating cognitive-affective quiescence and profound insights into what is known in Buddhist philosophy as the Three Marks of Existence—impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. Most clinical and non-clinical applications of mindfulness teach meditation devoid of information about the way in which humans misapprehend the Three Marks of Existence, and how this mistaken perception becomes the proximate cause of all forms of human suffering.
Let me be absolutely clear. Noticing 1) how thoughts come and go; 2) how much time we mentally spend in the past and future; 3) cultivating compassion; 4) and that basic physical pain is worsened by mental anguish about painful stimuli—all these insights will decrease cognitive-affective symptoms, which makes them appropriate Western psychological interventions. However, when ‘Buddhist-derived’ mindfulness meditation practices are offered as a means to attain happiness and/or reduce distress, those meditators remain largely unaware of the root causes of their suffering.
The main reason Buddhist psychology does not view symptom relief as an end goal is because non-suffering is ultimately an outcome of the fearless pursuit of non-delusion. That pursuit includes the recognition of and liberation from two basic causes of human suffering—our deluded belief in a substantive, separate self; and our deluded belief that happiness is conditioned upon comfort, certainty and security.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that perceptual distortion is called, innate reification, which is viewed as largely unconscious; functioning at a very basic level of cognitive processing. The pervasive and assumptive nature of innate reification is a primary obstacle to direct realization of how all perceptual phenomena (including the self) interdependently co-arise moment-to-moment. Separate self-existence is illusory. But that illusion makes harming doable—particularly the false perception that harming another does not simultaneously also harm the harmer. Imagine how different the world would be if all human beings recognized how intimately connected they are to all other beings through their thoughts, words and deeds.
Because this profound insight into reality is not a predetermined outcome of meditative practice, it must be pointed out directly. Clear conceptual understanding proceeds and fortifies accurate perception of reality. Experiencing the Three Marks of Existence and cutting through the perceptual distortion of innate reification requires both concentration meditation and analytical meditation practices. Just practicing mindfulness and compassion is not enough. Concentration meditation alone is not enough. Conceptual understanding is not enough. Going beyond antidotes requires all of these together.
It seems dis-ease predominates the world stage at this time. Whether it is whiplash from 2.5 years of pandemic, the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine, or mounting climate disruption catastrophes, an air of dread permeates the current world mental health landscape.
In 2014 I coined the phrase genuine mental health and set out in a rather dense textbook to explicate what that might be and how to facilitate it in psychotherapy. I still hold to the premise that human minds are innately capable of humility, wisdom, compassion, and great insight. And I remain committed to offering patients targeted, clinically-appropriate contemplative practices for cultivating these states and building states into traits.
Eight years later the landscape of mental health interventions seems more murky, sensationalized, and as Yaden, Potash and Griffiths recently described in JAMA Psychiatry more subject to hype-cycles. Psychedelics and cannabis are big medical business now and clinical research on effectiveness is slower than business-led exaggerated claims of efficacy. Substances are remarkably unpredictable in how a given human will react. And with the growing number of cannabis-induced psychosis reports (that industry refuses to address) I remain skeptical of the long-term transformative capacity of these methods.
And it’s not just the interventions, diagnoses as well have expanded to include almost any form of human suffering—particularly PTSD or trauma. Difficult or painful human experience is not by definition traumatic. Prior disposition and level of cognitive-affective-physical disorganization in a receiver’s system usually determines if a given painful experience will be traumatic or not. A great example is discussed in my previous blog post on overcoupling. Humans are a tremendously adaptive and resilient species by nature. Most of us can withstand high levels of challenge and some of us greet it with joy and anticipation!
My prescription for World Mental Health Day is a plea for each of us to take up the mantle of humane, respectful conduct and communication in all of our interactions with others—regardless of whether they are friend, foe or stranger. Kindness is not enough. Holding in thought, word and deed a commitment to non-harming is critical in a world of increasing global disturbance.
Equally important is the compassionate recognition that every human has their own form of human suffering; me included. None of us is perfect. Reflecting on our own imperfection and recognizing the power every one of us has to awaken to genuine mental health, will rescue our world from its current path of intensified suffering and harm.