‘Mental illness” and Conciousness : a personal study

This is a letter from Hugh, please read when you have time :
My short answer to your question about consciousness: Listening to various visionaries and business executives talk about technology and the Internet a few weeks ago reminded me of my earlier – and very different – trip to India when I was looking at the different ways people in India and my own country view mental illness.
We can talk about cultural differences, religious differences, different approaches to science or technology but at the heart there is a fundamental difference in how people view consciousness. In fact, I think it is the fundamental difference shaping our lives and our world.
I want to be careful to avoid broadbrush caricatures: but in the so-called “West” (see my (longer) description below, if you’re so inclined) consciousness seems to be a means to an end, that is: out of consciousness we strive to derive meaning. But in my limited experience in India, contradictions crowd in and jostle side-by-side because consciousness is the end; consciousness is the experience itself. (Joseph Campbell makes an interesting distinction between this sense of (and search for) “meaning” and that of “experience.”)
A theologian here in Chicago talks about pre-Modern thinking before the intellectual rush of (and addiction to) “knowing” was dissected from the sweet savor of “being”. So many in the West seem to fear existing in the chaos that your own email address refers to – and for them it’s a state of profound fear. (And yes, “state” is an intended pun.) To have being and knowing be one-in-the-same seems not only inconceivable, but frightening.
Which leads to my second apology: I know you’re a very busy man but to further explain my own, earlier experience:
My last visit to India was part of my personal research into a program I was working on regarding the stigma of mental illness: www.openthedoors.com. The director of the program and I captured the work done in 20 countries in book form for psychiatrists: http://www.amazon.com/Reducing-Stigma-Mental-Illness-Association/dp/0521549434/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1259333016&sr=8-1
But as I say, my trip to India was personal. During the course of my research, I had met a truly remarkable man from Chandigarh. His name is Dr. Narendra Wig and he has done some astonishing work in helping those with mental illness in many countries. I noticed that during the meeting with doctors from other countries he would speak to issues about the need to address spiritual concerns for some patients.
At one of the meals, I asked him about his take on the connection between mental health and spirituality. A broad smile crossed his face: “Oh, I am so glad you asked that question.” And for the next hour, he discussed issues of the human mind in ways I did not hear “Western” doctors speak of. (Even the distinction between “brain” and “mind” is so often glossed over as incidental when in fact I think it’s a critical, fundamental touchstone for understanding.)
At one point he said: “You see, in India even an atheist can be a spiritual person.” While intellectually, I understood what he meant, it wasn’t until I accepted his invitation to come to India on my own that I came to learn a bit more. I visited him in Chandigarh and he took me on a tour of the psychiatric ward of the local hospital where he is revered and his work continues to inspire others…..

…….My journey also took me south to Bangalore. I visited a mental hospital there where the director proudly gave me a tour of the three temples in the facility. Most dramatic, however, was the trip I took to a clinic in the forests of Biligiriranga Hills. There, doctors are building bridges with the traditional healers whom I was able to interview as well. While traditional healers still sat with the locals who would travel miles to discuss their problems and have their fortunes told – they understood that some among those who came to them were suffering from more chronic illnesses. (Most heartbreaking was a man who brought his mother in; she said virtually nothing during the interview. The young man though talked about how hard things were in the family, because his mother kept taking food and leaving it outside the back door for her mother who had passed away several years before. Food was dear for the entire family and he couldn’t abide the waste. (And one got the sense of a bit of shame too.) The doctor listened patiently and then asked the mother about the food. For the first time she looked up and said with such conviction and pain I can still hear: “But if I don’t feed her, she will starve.”)
As you probably know several WHO studies conducted over the last few decades have found higher rates of “recovery” from mental illness in rural communities. Theories range from greater acceptance of those who might otherwise be stigmatized in an urban environment to the nature of the work itself. (For example, where the sheer sensory overload of working a front counter in a fast food restaurant can be so much more overwhelming to someone than being able to help till a field or load produce in a rural setting.)
In my own country, the stigma of mental illness takes the form of de facto institutionalization in prisons.
Here is what astonished me: when I went to interview people in the U.S. and Europe about their mental illness, they were invariably alone. Every single person I spoke to in India was accompanied by a family member. I do NOT proclaim this as some kind of value judgment. (There are positives and negatives in both scenarios (e.g. family members who felt they could not get married because of the stigma of a “mad” brother or sister.)) What I am saying is that it speaks to how one talks of their place in the community, in the world, in the universe.
And so, almost 10 years later, when I return to India and hear people discussing the different points of view about the Internet – the speakers I hear from India are talking about a more communal experience about its possibilities for transforming how we interrelate; while those (by and large) from the West talk about “the individual experience” and monetizing that experience to as many people as possible.
In closing this altogether-too-long ramble, let me say I have not spent enough time in India to speak intelligently on this subject. Mine are emotional responses and knee jerk reactions which make me want a longer, deeper experience. Looking back – as I was reflecting on this – I realize, with a smile, that it was after returning from India the first time that I enrolled for my Master’s Degree in Theology. Once again, my own, Western response to the tug of God, the inexorable undertow of Consciousness.
Thank you for directing me to your blog. It will be good fuel for thought, good music for dancing. I hope you enjoy the book which I hope makes its way to you shortly.

18 thoughts on “‘Mental illness” and Conciousness : a personal study

  1. Too much of sophisticated language and a complex description style made me loose interest in studying the entire column. Made half way thru though now. Will try to finish the remaining half later.

  2. Mr Kapur
    Zee News has been trying to contact you for a few months now for a short interview, but to no avail. We need to put across a few questions to you on your noble venture at the Rohtang Pass about climate change. I am sure you could give your five minutes for this cause to us on phone or on email. Please help.
    Shashank Chouhan
    Zee News Ltd

  3. a very interesting piece. i agree with Hugh in that there can be no universally applicable analysis and cure for madness/ mental illness/ unreason or however one chooses to call this different mental state which, to a great extent is a social/cultural construct.Its discursive structures are rooted in cultual practices and beliefs. So both diagnosis and remedy must be customised.
    there is a malayalam film ‘manichithrathazhu’ which, in a crude and commercial way , attempts to reconcile the western and indigenous discourse on a particular mental disorder.
    regarding an atheist being spirtual, it is a highly acceptable situation in India. i guess Buddha is the greatest example. While one cannot place that greatest and the most sophisticated of all spritual leaders in the category of ‘atheist'(he never denied the existence of GOd), it is true that his teachings and philosophy were not rooted in the God concept. His was a type of intellectual spirtuality that was too sophistcated for his times.
    ‘ And for the next hour, he discussed issues of the human mind in ways I did not hear “Western” doctors speak of’ – the burden of his discourse would be interesting.

  4. these are powerful thoughts and you’ve made a compelling argument for differences in the perception of consciousness itself.
    my late father was a dedicated physician in Kuala Lumpur and he used to marvel at the sight of a young family crowding into his cramped clinic, anxiously asking and concerned about their aged parent, “their determination to see good care provided, even at great financial distress to themselves.”
    he concluded “the family in Asia transmits table ethical and cultural values, is a reliable source of succor in adversity and provides loving care to the disabled and handicapped on the tiniest of resources.”
    you have elevated this observation into an awareness of consciousness, thank you, Hugh, for sharing this with us.

  5. Sorry for a rudimentary question, but can we have a theological definition of “consciousness”? Theologists? Hugh?

  6. Sunita,
    I’m not sure what the opposite of a rudimentary question is, but your question about defining consciousness is far from rudimentary.
    A wonderful book by Susan Blackmore called “Conversations on Consciousness” brings together 20 different philosophers and scientists to discuss the topic.
    As far as theological definitions: I like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s discussion in his Phenomenon of Man: calling it “the Within of things.” (which to my reading, sounds very much like the Tao as Lao Tzu writes of it in the Tao Te Ching.)
    A reciprocal part of process of evolution, he wrote, was a process of unification, what he called Involution (which some (like Wired magazine) have seen in a corollary of the development of the Web and “a planetary, Net-based consciousness.)
    I’m not so sure it is Net-based alone; Teilhard de Chardin a Jesuit priest and paleontologist saw this consciousness as part of matter itself. In his theological reflections in the Divine Milieu he prays:
    May the race of human beings, grown to fuller consciousness and greater strength, become grouped into rich and happy organisms in which life shall be put to better use and bring a hundredfold return.

  7. Kavitha and Sunita, My apologies. I was reading the attribution line ABOVE and responded to the wrong person!

  8. Hugh,
    Based on your opening line, I’m presuming your response was intended to address my [non-rudimentary] question. Your reading recommendations soon to find their way to my Amazon ‘Wish List’ 🙂
    If I may add, I doubt limitations of my intellect has allowed me to grasp some of the subtleties in your original note. Several questions bubbled up:
    When we think of ‘well-being’ (material, physical, physiological, intellectual, emotional…), does consciousness serve better as a ‘means to an end’ (western) or ‘an end in itself’ (eastern) ? Assuming eastern and western philosophies have their respective share of pros and cons (for lack of a better word), as a theologist(?), raised and trained in the West, and someone who has visited India, and made some observations around consciousness (though you claim is not an ‘intelligent’ one), do you think the fundamental difference in how the world views consciousness deserves to be resolved? Is one approach better than the other? Is that even a valid question? How can the notion of “knowing” and “being” be brought to co-exist within the context of our myriad (sometimes conflicting) roles in our everyday lives, that seem to tug for both? It’s the never-ending conundrum of practicality, isn’t it? Can ‘practicality’ be re-defined so the means and the end, and the means to the end don’t seem so disparate. But becomes so interwined. Like our breath. It just exists in the very DNA of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of all that we think, and do.
    Not sure if this serves as food for thought, or music for dancing…I suppose I’m stuck in a whirlpool of questions. Good luck deciphering! And feel free to ignore the muddle:-)
    And now for a more straightforward one – could you elaborate on the distinction between “brain” and “mind” that’s so often glossed over as incidental?

  9. Shekhar, why are there so few films that do not stereotype mental illness. Only good Hindi film in recent memory on this is ‘Mainey Gandhi ko nahin maara’. Given the place the films occupy in Indian society, a good film can go a long way. I believe ‘Taarey Jamin per’ would have rescued millions of kids from the torture of their own parents.

  10. Kavitha, For me, the brain is an organ in the body as the eye or liver are. Just as an eye might be occluded by an injury or cataract, so too the operation of our brains can be altered by chemicals or viruses.
    Again (for me) while many may associate the inputs and sensory operation of their brains with their identity, I think “mind” is a much more complicated affair, our personal sense of consciousness with a lower-case “c”. (Which gets back to my earlier reference to Gregory Bateson who wondered where the “mind” of a blind person (or any of us) ends — at the tips of his/her fingers, or the tip of the cane.)
    (Recently, Carl Jung’s personal “Red Book” was published and it is a fascinating personal account of his own struggles to come to term with dreams and what he called “active imagination” that tapped into something outside of himself, and certainly outside of the six-pound mass of meat we call our brain.)

  11. hugh, thanks much for the brain vs. mind elaboration and further feeders to Amazon…your choice to ‘ignore the muddle’ was a wise one 🙂

  12. Great article!Its really very important information that you have given in this post.Mental illness is characterized by a profound and persistent feeling of sadness or despair and/or a loss of interest in things that once were pleasurable.I will keep visiting this site very often for more such articles.Thanks for sharing.

  13. Hi Shekhar,
    I have come across a very emotional true incident in the life of a family. Wanted to share the same with you with an intention of carrying this to the masses. Need your help on this.
    Please write back on my personal email id so that i can provide details.

  14. Before we had the words “mental illness,” what did we have? I have come to believe that most, but not all, mental illness as defined by psychiatrists and other men and women is spiritual illness or corruption. I believe that our soul is comprised of our mind, will and emotions, while our spirit can be either good or bad. Any comments?

  15. Mental illness is not just depression, of which “a profound and persistent feeling of sadness or despair and/or a loss of interest in things that once were pleasurable” are some of the signs. In many years past these signs, or symptoms, were simply called “mood swings,” or just plain feelings of being down in the dumps. In my opinion, psychiatrists-to-be jumped on the band wagon and saw a good (paying) thing. They proceeded to get “educated,” hung shingles and called themselves professionals in the treatment of mental illness. I do believe that psychotropic medication is sometimes necessary. But I believe that such drugs should be considered as band-aids and should be coupled with LPC therapy. I believe that God does not want people to be addicted to any medication, especially when a real relationship with Him is the better answer to woes.

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