The disease of stigma and the power of discernment

A reflection on the power of mindfulness and compassion in unravelling the complex nature of stigma around mental health

A few months ago my performance group was asked to participate in The Launch, a powerful and energizing event to mark the forming of the Community Coalition 4 Mental Health. I was thrilled to be involved, and even more so by evening’s end after seeing firsthand the tremendous amount of effort, organization, talent and love that was put into its creation.

The message we heard over and over again that night was that this was a human issue—in fact a human rights issue—and that everyone deserves safe, accessible mental health care. As the last notes of the evening’s final song faded and everyone was gathered on stage for the finale, the words “end stigma” rose up in a chant amongst the performers and the audience. On my way home those words, my experiences of the evening and the refrain of Amelia Curran’s This Video—unveiled that evening—“Everything is going to be alright”, all began to gestate in my head.

And with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador launching its first Stigma Awareness Week this week, the issue has been brought back into focus for me.

“We are not our thoughts”

I drum and sing with a First Nations group and consider myself an ally. My spirituality is very aligned with First Nations teachings but my primary practice is Buddhism. Shamatha, or mindfulness meditation, is a big part of that. I’ve learned a few things on this journey that I think are a big part of this challenge we are facing — the challenge being to confront the stigma around persons finding themselves in need of mental health services and the pervasive and damaging way the problem has infected our healthcare system and government such that the care available is too often inadequate or insufficient.

We are not our thoughts.

To be perfectly clear, you are not your thoughts. The unique, powerful and intelligent being that you are is not your brain. Our brains are tools. Like livers or lungs or kidneys, brains are processors. The liver, lungs and kidneys process food and oxygen, cleanse and refresh our blood and—hopefully—remove waste from our system so that we don’t go toxic and die. Our brain serves a similar function. It processes information from our environment, from all our sense perceptions, combines them with our memories of past experiences and puts this all together so that we learn how to survive and hopefully not die.

I’m simplifying, of course, but this is what the basic brain function is beyond the fundamental tasks of making sure we keep breathing and generally keep all the other systems going. As human beings—relatively intelligent animals—we have developed all kinds of technology, vast and beautiful cultures with diverse languages and philosophies. Pretty spectacular stuff. But the brain, at the heart of it all just wants us to stay alive, so it assess our environment (our culture, our family, our physical and emotional surroundings) and guides us to act, think and behave so that we are taken care of, can assimilate comfortably into that environment and hopefully thrive so that we are able to have families and continue the human race.

This can be referred to as social conditioning, and it habituates our thought patterns and reactions. For the most part we go through our day on automatic pilot, never questioning the assumptions and thoughts we are having on a continual basis.

Upgrading our own internal software

If this all sounds a little far fetched, or if you’re feeling a bit defensive in response, I’m not surprised. I once felt the same way. But if you think about all the things we do automatically on a regular basis—all the skills we have learned from infancy until now that we can do without thinking—it’s really a reminder of how marvellous and fantastic this organ is. Our brain has stored all this information — how to walk, the complexities of our language, meaning to all the input from our sense organs, sight, sound and touch, how to drive. We use all of this just to get from our house to work in the morning, taking for granted it took us years to accumulate all this knowledge and fine tune it to the point where it is fluid and effortless.

The brain is an amazing machine that has allowed us to do some pretty extraordinary things. But it is a machine. It’s our truly personal computer.

If we spend gads of money each year making sure our laptops, phones and iPads are updated with the latest apps and software, why don’t we give ourselves an upgrade occasionally? When we live our lives based on the worldview our families and society have taught us, live in the past of old trauma, unconsciously assimilate the views of pop culture or listen to too much gossip, we are effectively allowing our brains to run on outdated apps and malware.

If our government policy and social structures are broken, we need to realize that we are the elements that create that system, and that until we update our collective operating systems, nothing is not going to change.

My experience backstage at The Launch brought this issue to the forefront for me. In my tradition we talk about these experiences as something that wakes us up, makes us look at the world with fresh eyes and encourages us to look more closely at our view and where it came from.

As a practitioner we train to watch our thoughts, so while it still happens that I sometimes think, say or do something unconsciously, much of the time I’m paying attention to what arises in my mind. After some time I’ve become familiar with some of my patterns.

As we waited backstage—all of us in a line practicing the order of events for the finale—I had lots of time to observe. Lots of time to see the judgements that arose each time someone got up to the mic to speak. Even when I fundamentally agreed with what action the person was calling for in our community I still saw negative judgements pop up in my head. My ego was up and running at top speed, mentally annotating who was better than me, who I thought myself to be better than, which ideas were useful, which were not — making assumptions about people all over the place. At an event where we were looking for unity and asking for the end of stigma around mental health, while encouraging the community to be non-judgemental, here I was judging up a storm and putting myself up on a pedestal at the same time.

 If we spend gads of money each year making sure our laptops, phones and iPads are updated with the latest apps and software, why don’t we give ourselves an upgrade occasionally?

Lucky for me I didn’t end up in a spiral of self-loathing looking at all this arise in my mind. It reminded me that I was still a human being, still fallible and, more importantly, it woke me up to how strong some of these old ideas were and forced me look closer at where they came from.

And then it hit me.

If not everyone has this information—if so many people are still identifying with their thoughts, thinking those thoughts are who they are—then stigma around mental health is never going to change. At best it will cause guilt, shame and defensiveness, making us wonder why we secretly think these things even though we know it shouldn’t be that way, thereby perpetuating a sense of ‘other’. At worst, it will perpetuate ongoing prejudice and influence policies that condescend people who need help, further marginalizing them because they can’t be valued as equal human beings.

But if my thoughts are not me, who am I? I’m not entirely qualified to tell you who you are but I’ve come to the conclusion—and I’m not alone here—that the being that is you, your spirit, your own unique intelligence, is not in the brain, or entirely of it.

Many Eastern cultures, including Tibetan Buddhists, believe the house of our spirit is located in the area of the heart, and it’s the intelligence that enables us to practice discernment. Scientific research has continually struggled with defining consciousness and there are still questions as to whether the mind is entirely dependant on the brain. Wherever it resides, it is that felt sense within us that if we learn to listen allows us to awaken our inherent wisdom.

I’m taking some time to make this distinction between our brain and its thoughts versus our basic intelligence and wisdom because it’s within this difference that the problem with stigma and judgement arises.

So what was happening here and why is it relevant to our discussion? Let’s go back to the primary function of the brain: Survival. Remember that survival in terms of the human race (not the time to discuss our environmental record) is not just physical, but social too, and results in habitual social conditioning. Our brains are assessing the situation all the time and are records of our past experiences. These already-programmed responses are not just triggering thoughts, either — they trigger emotions, tied right into our limbic system, making our reaction feel important and real. We are also much more likely to remember and respond with actions that have resulted in our survival and positive social feedback in the past. A relevant discussion of this phenomenon can be read here.

So let’s explore this…

Wherever you are right now, take a moment to close your eyes.

Take a breath.

When you open your eyes take a look at the space around you.

If you are in public, notice the people around you and what thoughts arise as you look at them.

If you are at home by yourself, notice your room, what you’re wearing, notice what thoughts arise about yourself.

Were there positive or negative thoughts? Did you feel drawn to or repulsed by anything? Did you feel comfortable in your space or did you feel judgement about something? Did you find yourself being attracted to someone interesting or critical of the other people in your office or the cafe? Maybe a little of each?

Take a moment now to pause and reflect on the automatic assessments you made about your environment. Bring your critical intelligence into action. Notice what your heart and gut has to say. Perhaps your initial reaction to someone’s outfit was critical, but with a more unbiased view you were able to see the inherent practicality of what they were wearing for the weather. Or vice versa.

Brain: “Gee that guy in the corner is looking pretty skeety, I hope he doesn’t get in line behind me.”

Gut: “Wow, that outfit is an ingenious combination of Sally Ann finds — I wonder if that guy has got enough money for food today.”

Was there a difference between your initial mental assessment and your considered, more objective view?

Now realize that your brain is constantly making these assessments. You need to know: Am I safe? Are there any threats in your immediate environment? Is the situation stable or likely to change? Are the other people here safe? (Then social needs arise.) Am I conforming to social norms or to the ideal me I have in my brain? Can I succeed in this environment? Am I more or less important than the people in this room? (We all do this to some extent.) Is there anyone here I know? We assess this without thinking, most of the time. The view is fixed without our consciously deciding. Take a moment to process your views in your environment. Whatever your conclusions, sit with it and explore how these ideas apply to how we operate in our day to day life.

"What is the condition for non-judgement? This is tricky and a puzzle I’m still working on. But it is linked to fear. The more genuine confidence we have, the less we worry about basic needs, the more we can have positive loving relationships (especially with ourselves), and the less these fear-based thoughts will arise. But not even this will change the nature of those thoughts if we don’t take some action." Photo courtesy Erin Piatt.
“What is the condition for non-judgement? This is tricky and a puzzle I’m still working on. But it is linked to fear. The more genuine confidence we have, the less we worry about basic needs, the more we can have positive loving relationships (especially with ourselves), and the less these fear-based thoughts will arise. But not even this will change the nature of those thoughts if we don’t take some action.” Photo courtesy Erin Piatt.

Come back to the concept of our brain as a tool and realize that it holds everything we have heard about mental health. It holds the tone and memory of how we perceived these things. I remember my grandmother, for example, telling me that crying is something that we did alone in our room, not something we showed to anyone else. This coloured my perception for years—other input reinforcing it—so that not only did I not feel showing emotion was not allowable, I harshly judged anyone else’s open emotion as weakness. Until I woke up and saw that pattern, that judgement happening, I was unable to be compassionate to myself or anyone else who was experiencing strong emotion.

What is the condition for non-judgement? This is tricky and a puzzle I’m still working on. But it is linked to fear. The more genuine confidence we have, the less we worry about basic needs, the more we can have positive loving relationships (especially with ourselves), and the less these fear-based thoughts will arise. But not even this will change the nature of those thoughts if we don’t take some action.

Mindfulness practice allows us to strengthen our awareness and nourishes what we call the gap — a gap being the moment of awareness between perception and response. For many of us, no gap exists — we go through our lives like ping pong balls being bounced from one reaction to the next, feeling little control over the whole situation. For me, on a stressful day that gap can come after I’ve already reacted poorly to the situation. Then that gap allows me to recognize the problem and hopefully move forward in a more constructive and positive way. Cultivating this gap enables us to not only avoid tactless or reactionary mistakes, but also to act with discernment, utilizing our inherent wisdom and moving forward with intentional reasoned action. In the context of this conversation, the gap allows us to recognize that we’re having judgemental thoughts and gives us an opportunity to cultivate some compassion for another as well as ourselves.

This compassion is key to the unravelling of stigma. We need compassion to sit with and understand the nature of our humanity such that putting ourselves above another because we are relatively stable in our lives (or beneath if we are struggling) is not effective to building equality in our society.

We also need compassion for ourselves when we struggle. Allowing for vulnerability without judgement toward ourselves allows for vulnerability in others. We need to drop the idea that we need to be strong all the time. In fact, the idea of what strong is in our society is fundamentally flawed.

If we can focus on cultivating an appreciation for the full range of human emotion and see the strength and courage in someone who publicly allows some measure of healthy vulnerability, we can begin to see mental health differently. We can begin to understand and accept how one might feel when they are struggling, but also see that struggle is a part of being human, and therefore deserving of adequate support.

The storylines in our head are flawed. Stigma is fed by our unexamined acceptance of an outdated cultural lie.

It’s time for an update.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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