My coach, Michael Neill, told me about a woman he had spoken to who had been in Nepal at the time of a major earthquake. She told him that she had had a sudden revelation that although she was in grave physical danger, the situation had no bearing on her psychological well-being. In that moment, she realised that however terrified she was, she was OK, she could do what was possible to help people. She saved the lives of many as a result.
This story had me wondering what it is we mean exactly by that phrase ‘psychological well-being’.
I used to think that it meant being calm or happy or in control of my thoughts. Which meant that I spent most of my life chasing this elusive ‘psychological well-being’ in course after course and book after book. Because the fact was that I was often not happy. I was often in a state of absolute terror at the thought of speaking in public or getting something wrong. I was often lying awake at night as my mind whirled through all the stupid things I had said that day and all the ways I might have offended people.
What I see now is that ‘psychological well-being’ is so fundamental and far-reaching that it matters not a jot whether we are happy or sad in any given moment, calm or fearful, sleeping like a baby or awake for hours.
We are so much more than that.
Let’s consider the components of our experience of life:
- The power of thought – through which we experience life
- The power of consciousness that brings the thoughts alive and which also gives us the ability to see that they are just thoughts
- An intelligence that makes thought and consciousness possible and which guides us to do certain useful things like breathe, eat, drink, find wifi and so on.
If we are alive and conscious, then we have all three. If we have all three we have psychological well-being. The only difference is that some of us (like me for years) don’t realise we have it so we spend our time trying to fix ourself or fix our thoughts or fix the things in the world that we think are upsetting us. And no matter how far into the illusion of our thoughts we have retreated, as long as we are alive there is always the potential for a new perspective or different thought.
It is in the thinking there is something wrong with us and the trying to fix it that we suffer. We add in struggle and complexity to our mental life. We label some thoughts as acceptable and some that we have to try to annihilate. We add in thought about the future and the past that we see as fixed and true. We add in a state that we expect of our mental life that is impossible to maintain. On top of all this we add in self blame. This suffering isn’t pleasant. It can be deeply, deeply unpleasant, but it still doesn’t affect our psychological well-being.
How can this be?
The suffering is a function of a misunderstanding of how our mind works.
The suffering is not a symptom of a dysfunctional mind.
I suffer because I believe that I have to fix my feelings or my thoughts or I have to change the world so it stops causing these thoughts and feelings. The suffering therefore comes from an innocent misunderstanding. It is not that there is something wrong with my mind or me or the world.
Thoughts flow through my mind, my consciousness brings some of them alive and lets others go unnoticed. This creates a certain ‘reality’ for me. The less time I spend worrying about my thoughts and feelings the more freedom I have with this ‘reality’ and the more attention I can give to what simply makes sense for me to do.
The more clearly I see this, the less I suffer. But whether I am suffering or not, I am psychologically healthy.
We can improve our awareness of our psychological well-being, we cannot improve our well-being as that is beyond improvement, that is put in place by an intelligence way beyond our reach. It is a perfect system for experiencing life. There is nothing to change in it, there is just more to understand.
And it is with the awareness of this that the intensity of the suffering starts to wane. When we see the fruitlessness of trying to correct our experience we can back off. When we see that feelings come and go without our intervention, we can let them be. When we see that our mind does great exactly as it is, then we can just allow it to get on with it.
We can notice the stream of thoughts and know it is just thoughts. We can notice the feelings and know they are just feelings. We can notice the fresh ideas and the intelligence prompting us and we can see how useful it is to have our own inner guide.
And this awareness and this noticing of this unchanging, constant, reliable psychological well-being will come and go.
And that’s perfect too.