Personality, Mental Health, & Conditioning

There is this misunderstanding that the spiritual life buffs all people into one personality type. When I talk of transcending the egoic personality—and go on to say that all personalities are egoic—what I mean is that “personality” is a conditioned feature in the human being. Ego and personality are two sides of the same coin, meaning that we confuse ourselves with our personal features. As far as most of us are concerned, we are our sense of humor; we are our fears; we are our various traits. There is no space between the identifiers and the sense of “I.”

The origin of the assumed identity (ego)  is as follows: We “make ourselves up” at a young age according to what is rewarded and punished by those around us. This reward-and-punishment process is generally carried out by those who were no more privy to the truth than we were. This understanding forms the basis for the logic of forgiveness for what we perceive to be the ways we were “unfairly” brought up, as well as the many injuries we endure and dole out as adults. To burn away this conditioned information within one’s consciousness is the aim of inner work: We seek to be restored to our innate nature in God rather than the various ways we have been taught to be. If you don’t like the word God, call it your true self—late into the journey these words are revealed as identical.

We enter the world in great fullness, alight with beauty, potential, and enthusiasm… yet the community, while well-intentioned, chops us down to size. We are taught well to temper ourselves and to back away from anything resembling extremity. Should extremity be expressed, it is quickly disapproved of, and in this way, we learn which parts of us are “okay” and which ought to live in shadow. Shadows do not disappear, though: They can only torment us with their supposed wretchedness, and in time they rear their heads in one way or another. The shadow parts are time bombs within us, and can only be defused through honest listening and love.

Ultimately it is the same soul we seek to strip down to, and I suppose this is where the notion of “spiritual people being all the same” comes from. What is missed is the fact that this greater soul expresses itself through each being in a different way: No one is special, but everyone is unique. It is as if the light gets “filtered” through our energies and comes spilling into the world based on individual virtue and flaw as well. The Perfect radiates through an imperfect lens of its own creation. The light is all the same, and the ego is the lampshade.

When the past loses its weight in the psyche and the mind touches that great zero, the personality built on past conditioning vanishes as well. The code is wiped clean from the chip that is the brain, and the relief from this code is incomparable. You become a great body of clear water with no bottom or surface, whereas before you were more like a mud puddle. You, as consciousness, are reborn while in the same physical body; this is the essence of being “born again” in the Christian sense. This rebirth can be, in a word, alarming.

The accompanying silence may feel sterile: When blaring thought has been a lifelong companion, the quiet seems hostile, an exaggerated version of how we often feel uncomfortable in external silence. You will seem different, because “you” are not “you” anymore. What I am speaking of here is the nature of a spiritual awakening, especially one that isn’t tried for. It will almost certainly leave you unsteady and confused for a period of time. Peace will visit you, and then you may ascend into madness. You will feel infinite and on fire and then be expected to go back to your desk job. There are no easy answers if you’re coming out of “standard mode” and into deep spiritual freedom; there is only one answer, it seems very hard, and I have said it before: Yield to the soul.

When people change too much too fast, it is perceived as “bad” to others. Just as we are attached to our own assumed identities, we are attached to other people’s as well. If one’s assumed identity is dropped or thinned, they may give off the sense that something is “off” or “wrong.” Watching someone else undergo the process of ego-annihilation can trigger immense discomfort. When you don’t want to play along anymore, you’re generally perceived as a nuisance, like an actor in a play who goes off-script or has a seat onstage while everyone is trying to keep on performing.

Society at large is generally nowhere near that great zero, and so it pummels forward, confused as to why you’re doing things differently. It will assign you negative labels and constantly try to coerce you into playing along again. You can do this if you so desire, the difference being that you know you are not the role anymore. Whether or not you try to show others they’re not their role either comes down to matter of fate; not every realized being becomes a teacher. The Buddha didn’t even particularly want to teach the dharma at first.

In time, you relearn everything. Yes, you lose some (or all) of the old personality, but gain the power to pick up whatever personality feels most suited to the moment. So we see that a spiritual person is not without personality; they are without a fixed personality, though beneath their flickering masks a steady “sameness” remains. This fluidity is their greatest strength, and a blinding joy is always near at hand.

In medical literature, “mania” is undivorceable from “bipolar disorder.” I admittedly recoil at the term “disorder,” as the word itself is a judgment. No matter how we try to overcome stigma, they very concept of a “mental disorder” says: Something is wrong. You are Not Normal and that is problematic. You cannot be trusted.

The following must be taken into consideration in any serious discussion on mental health: The mind that is considered “in order” in this world typically takes part in an overall process of unconscious destruction, is blissful only on rare occasions, full of mechanical reactions, and disinterested in challenging these qualities in itself. This mind is an amalgam of whatever its culture makes it to be. We have to ask: Does being without a diagnosis of mental illness alone mean that one is well? My answer is a clear No, not at all. It takes no education to know this, only a cursory glance at what it means to be a normal person.

I want to be very clear, because the way mental illness is understood is inaccurate and harmful and there is no sign of this turning around: The individuals who have historically defined “mental illness” have merely been of the acceptable societal conditioning, which is to say they are also not in touch with Reality. They are not sane, just crazy in the normal way.

It is tremendously frustrating to see this from the inside of such an episode: The whole world is backwards and your doctor’s the one who’s insane, but everyone is saying they are worried and that you must take these drugs. Your care is entrusted to people who know far less about you than you do. They force you to alter your consciousness, down to where you become once again malleable enough to accept what they say: You have an illness, you have an illness.

Not only that, but the rules are different in the mental hospital: Strangers are allowed to touch and grab you if they feel such treatment is merited, and there is no regard for the trauma this might instill and/or re-ignite within an individual. I was threatened that I’d be forcibly given a shot of antipsychotics if I did not swallow the pills willingly. You are constantly watched, but expected not to be paranoid or upset by this. Though there have been improvements, being a “mental patient” gives the staff license to laugh at and violate you, and sometimes they do, always underneath the condescending narrative that the whole production is “for your own good.” Many are completely unaware of the severe fragility and sensitivity of those they are trying to treat: We know you do not know us or what we’ve seen. It is infuriating, and even worse: All external manifestations of this fury are used as further ammunition to affirm the individual’s sickness.

Of course I am only presenting my side of the events, and I assign no blame anywhere. In all unjust events, people are merely responding to their conditioning; it is unconscious and therefore forgivable. Yes, people arrive in psychiatric wards due to instability, but often the hospital makes us less stable. When one’s condition is worsened by that which is supposed to “help,” we have to question what we’re doing.

Let us cast aside this idea that some are mentally ill and others are not. As far as I can tell, there are three categories we fit into:

  1. Those whose conditioning fits the society well enough. These people are deemed mentally healthy.
  2. Those whose conditioning does not match the society’s expectations, and/or who are seeking to expand beyond all this conditioning and find themselves. These people are deemed ill or strange, either formally or informally.

Both parties suffer, though one is generally more aware of their suffering, perhaps because the suffering is louder or because they’re paying more attention to it. Either way the effect is the same.

There exists the small third category of unconditioned human beings, and these people have always existed. To me, unconditioned humans are the only sane people the world has ever seen: They are full humans without culture or context. They may impact culture but take none of it on themselves. They can slip into any crowd and find a shared humanity over trivialities such as dress and social customs, without ever compromising the truth of their beings.

There is no way of knowing how many sane human beings have existed or do exist at present. When religions speculate on this, they are only doing guesswork; there are no fixed laws about “how many” can be realized at any given time. These people do not boast about their sanity. Indeed any time I declare myself “healed” or highlight my own “progress,” I am actually still indulging the remaining ego. We see it there, hungry, looking for crumbs of pride or validation in some way. It wants to show how “it gets it.” In seeing this we must smile and again recommit ourselves to the work: The wish to be completely free must trump all of our wishes to be seen as advanced, wise, and good.

– Lish

Empaths & Addiction

Tomorrow would’ve been my father’s 65th birthday, but he fatally overdosed on methadone when I was 17. He passed along his addictions and disposition to me, and I feel that in some way I atone for his life by living mine in this way now. If I do not follow in his footsteps and instead run in the opposite direction, his life was not a waste—though of course it is true that no life is ever “a waste.” That very notion is heavy with judgment, and I do not judge him or anyone else for the times they have fallen. I dedicate this post to him.

I said in this post that addiction is not a disease on its own, and I want to clarify that statement.

Obviously addiction is a serious condition that requires intervention as soon as possible. As far as I’m concerned, anyone struggling with any addiction (even if it’s just a “small” problem) would serve the world best by dropping everything and prioritizing their recovery now. Of course that would require us to live in a society where we took care of one another, one where people could unashamedly take a much-needed break from money-work and focus on their wellness. That is not where we live. Why is this? Unconsciousness, particularly the belief that we as “certain individuals” are “more deserving” of services and a happy life than other human beings. Also, we’d need effective treatment modalities that meet people where they’re at rather than trying to force a one-size-fits-all approach to addiction, but that’s another topic.

Why do the richest people not share more of their money? Ego and unconsciousness. Why does our society not have sane healthcare and rehabilitation policies? Ego and unconsciousness. This is always the root of that which we call greed, selfishness, and evil: The spell of the ego, the hypnosis that convinces us to act like we are not all of the same exact fabric. The only long-term strategy to lift ourselves out of this haze is to become like “carriers” for consciousness, to dispel darkness in this way. It is out of this internal process that external changes are born. The egoic human mind is what requires overturning first and foremost: Without pulling this ignorance up at its root, we are still doomed to self-destruction, no matter how democratically it is carried out.

Those that get labeled “addicts” are often intelligent, sensitive people. Not long ago, I told a friend that sometimes I feel like “the dials on me are cranked all the way up”: I mean the dials for absorbing emotions, noticing others’ needs, frustration, and impatience, as well as picking up on their underlying anxiety. These things strike a chord because they also live in me, but they are heightened in group settings. I’m sure that many of you understand this: Some people call it being a Highly Sensitive Person, or just being an empath. As an empath, daily life means taking a lot in on an energetic level, and that’s just one piece of it. Being an empath is a strength, not a weakness, but it can make life more painful.

Then there’s the intellectual part, which looks around and recognizes that the jig is just about up on civilization as we know it. We see the swarms of desperate human beings, the thirsty, the hungry, and those who will be cooked by the heat of the sun due to our current mode of living. We see the last of the snow leopards, the toxic air, the end of rainforests. I confess that I’ve sobbed at the thought of a caterpillar being run over by a car (it was a rough day). Even if it is not in direct view, we can intuit what is coming, and it’s not great, to put it mildly.

If you really see what may very well happen—what is happening—it is not an option to “spin” these images. Also, this isn’t merely a negative view I am taking: These things are just as much a part of our world as beauty is, and to turn a blind eye to either is to live in delusion. In those moments when I’ve been crippled by the sheer magnitude of suffering we’ve created, said beauty is cold comfort. We are doing our damndest to stamp beauty and biodiversity out as fast as possible for no reason other than collective insanity.

When you feel these things as part of your own being—not to mention whatever personal history you’re trying to renegotiate—it is natural to want to deaden these feelings. (It doesn’t help that booze is fashionable and totally normal in our culture.) We have no escape from a world that is infuriating and saddening—unless we choose suicide, which also occurs at a higher rate for addicts. The second-best option is to escape from the mind. We are not encouraged to speak out, to discover our light, or call bullshit on all of these systems. If we do, it tends to feel ineffective and slow, like we are still missing something (indeed because we are.). Growth is an uphill battle. On top of all this, we still have to eat food and make rent, and the things we have to do to survive can be emotionally taxing in their own right. In such a bind, what else is there to do but get wasted?

Non-addicts look at addiction and think it is irrational. But to an addict, engaging in addiction makes perfect sense. Quite frankly, I don’t understand how billions of people manage to not get drunk or high most nights of the week. I also don’t understand how billions of people aren’t losing their minds. What world are they living in that feels at all tolerable? How do they not rush to become numb as the apocalypse unfolds? (In any case, they do numb, only in a much less life-disrupting way.)

As Glennon Doyle says, what we call “the mentally ill” are like the canaries of the world. We are the ones trying to warn others of what is going on here, but we don’t yet know how to do it. All we represent is an exaggerated version of what lives in others, and that is also why mental illness is often regarded with such extreme fear. And here is something I have said and will continue to say: If some individuals are mentally ill, it is because we are collectively mentally ill. The statistic for “mental illness” in the US stands at 20%. What does this say about our culture at large? To make mental illness and addiction “some people’s” problem—to assume that there is something unique about “our” constitution that is problematic, ignoring the larger mechanisms in this stage of human existence—is shortsighted and honestly ridiculous.

The human species is like one organism that is itself ill. The most perceptive cells simply take on this illness at a higher, more obvious rate. Paradoxically, I also believe those who get labeled “ill” in this way are closer to health and sanity than those who aren’t as energetically privy to what’s happening on Earth: If you notice the presence of poison before it actually kills you, you’re one step ahead of those who don’t notice it at all.

There is also a predictable progression of the illness of conditioning that strangely involves going deeper into it before you recover. In this sense I am talking about the spiritual process, which we are all undergoing, though to varying degrees: All of your neuroses, attachments, and fears will be intensified for some time. The mind and ego pitch an intense fit at seeing their numbered days. But then, at last, one day you’re finally in the clear. I also suspect that this temporary intensification is what’s to come on a much more widespread human scale, though I hope to be wrong about this.

Back to what I mean when I say “addiction is not a disease on its own:” The precise definition of words like “disease” doesn’t concern me; everyone is always using these kinds of words differently anyway. However, there is one condition—one kind of mindset—that makes us susceptible to all other disorders and afflictions: It is the one that dreams our lowercase-s selves to be ultimately real. In this state, we feel powerless and threatened regularly. We actually mistake ourselves for the substances which temporarily stop the pain. When the mind is ignorant of the Self, it attaches strongly to anything that soothes it. Freeing ourselves from this dream is the greatest thing we can do to heal, and it is the only way to dwell in deep happiness that does not depend on anything else.

Recovery is to reenter that state of purity (the Self) which is always with you. This alone can alleviate suffering; it changes everything in ways that are as-yet inconceivable. There are practices we can take up to abide in this space, but it also goes a long way to simply be reminded that it—you, in your innate perfection—really do exist.  

– Lish