From East to West: Toward Holistic Well-Being

But the modern perspective on the mind, often described as “dualistic,” in that there is a profound split between the physical and mental realities, is not universally held. The dualistic view is historically a Western perspective, not based on objective evidence as much as cultural tradition. “I think therefore I am,” as Descartes famously wrote, sums up the notion that the self exists with the mind, in a mysterious and intangible realm. And this perspective informs much of our approach to dealing with mental illness.

In the East, however, the mind-body relationship has traditionally been thought of very differently. Mind and body are intimately linked by a system of energy — long studied and practiced — that has predictable and verifiable effects on both mental and physical health. In the same way that Western science has provided profound understanding of the physical body, Eastern practices provide profound insights into the nature of the mind in relation to the body. By combining the best of both fields of study we may be able to greatly improve our care for the mentally ill. But doing so will involve rethinking the nature of the mind itself.

One of the great insights of Eastern energy practices is that the mind is not “me,” but rather it is a thing that I have — much in the same way that I have a body. Therefore it can be said that — the mind is not me, it is mine. To a Westerner, this cryptic statement is often confusing: “How could I not be my mind? I feel like I am my mind … ” But through energy practices that build awareness we begin to see that there is a “me,” which is separate from the thoughts and emotions, and which can observe these mental phenomena.

It is this insight into the nature of the mind — I am not my mind, but it is mine — that has the potential to revolutionize mental health care in the Western world. The mind-body energy system explains mental disturbances as being caused by energetic blockages or imbalances. The treatments for these blockages can be anything from massage, acupuncture, and herbs, to exercise, breathing, and meditation, and much more. Eastern practices of energy healing and exercise provide useful avenues towards the compassionate treatment of mental illness, and they mesh surprisingly well with modern Western medical techniques.

The next step in our evolution as compassionate, responsible, and enlightened beings is to realize that the mind is much more closely connected to the body than we previously thought. In dealing with mental illness, “disidentification” with the mind provides the space we need to better understand and support healing. Strangely, our dualistic perspective, in which the mind is separate and intangible, has created a great attachment to mental processes.

And this attachment means that, while intellectually we promote the idea of equality, in practice we are not all seen as equal due to age, illness, and education. Mental illness naturally elicits a sense of contempt — if I am my mind, and you are your mind — then your illness of the mind naturally makes you somehow less of a person.

But there is hope. In the same way that we know that our value as human beings is not based upon the health of our physical bodies, so too it is not based on the condition of our minds. By taking a step back from analysis and emotion, understanding that energetically — the mind is not me, but mine — we become capable of seeing deeper into who we really are and how that self relates to the mind.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2017 issue.

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