Recently, we experienced another tragic event: a mass stabbing at a Pittsburg-area high school. Just one week prior it was yet another mass shooting at Fort Hood. And before that a long line of devastating and preventable tragedies of the kind that are seemingly becoming more common by the day. The Navy Yard, Aurora, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine: once names that simply brought to mind placid locations across our great nation that, sadly now, conjure devastating memories of unspeakable heartbreak.
In the midst of all of this, a national dialogue has again begun to emerge. It's one that, given the questionable mental stability of a great many of the shooters in these events, involves discussions revolving around our nation's attitudes and policies regarding mental health.
~ Are we doing enough to treat the mentally ill?
~ How can we better screen people for mental illness?
~ How can we keep guns out of the hands of those with histories of mental instability?
And so on …
But here's a question I've yet to hear: “What can we do to prevent mental illness to begin with?”
Seems logical. And truthfully, if we were dealing with an epidemic of flu, obesity, or some other physical malady, prevention would be at the top of this list. But strangely, our culture's attitudes and habits relating to mental health differ significantly from those toward physical health.
In the realm of the physical, it's universally recognized (albeit not always practiced), that if you want a healthy body, you've got to do preventive maintenance: brush your teeth, eat reasonably healthy food, exercise, get enough rest. Day in and day out we engage in a host of chores designed to help enhance the well-being and longevity of our physical selves.
In other words, we understand that physical fitness is a precursor to physical health. Yet, in matters relating to our mental and emotional selves, we find a different story.
Developing habits to nourish and exercise our mental and emotional selves is not something regularly considered by most Americans. On the contrary, most of our effort aimed at attending to our mental and emotional needs is more about coddling than fitness. Feeling stressed? Grab a beer with friends. Sadness got you down? Go see the latest blockbuster movie. Anxious about work? How about a round of golf?
Rather than increasing our mental capacity, we medicate ourselves. We engage in activities to make us feel better in the short run, but without really addressing the root problem which revolves around an insufficient ability to absorb and cope with life's difficulties. It's like addressing your weight gain by removing all the mirrors in the house. Sure it may make you temporarily feel better, but what does it do to solve the problem?
The truth is it's an approach that all too often produces what can only be described as free-range, feral minds.
Mental Fitness Defined
To be clear, in this context Mental Fitness does not refer to the development of knowledge or even mental acuity. This is an important point. Many of the mental activities we undertake to develop our minds have very little to do with Mental Fitness, as referred to here. Examples of activities that DO NOT dramatically increase our Mental Fitness levels include:
~ Digesting data as part of the learning process
~ Exercising one's cognitive facility to make the mind more nimble
~ Participating in activities that soothe and nurture the agitated mind and emotions
This is not to say that these activities are not worthy and valuable, for they obviously are vital in our development as productive and happy human beings. Even so, for the most part, they are not helping to increase our ability to synthesize a reliably ease-filled experience in the most challenging of circumstances. And cultivating that ease-filled experience is heart of Mental Fitness.
The key to the understanding Mental Fitness is the notion of capacity. Mental Fitness is the measure of one's capacity to weather life's challenges without being thrown unduly off balance. It's the capacity to withstand a layoff, to bear a health diagnosis, or to end a financial challenge with grace, élan, and a sense of confident calm.
We all know people like this, who never seem to be ruffled. A layoff? No problem. IRS audit? Fine. A traffic accident? No biggie. While everyone around them is sent into tailspins, these folks stay calm, cool, and collected no matter what life throws at them. So what is it about these people that makes them so well-equipped to cope artfully with life's challenges?
You guessed it: they have a level of mental fitness that allows them to artfully ride out such things. The greater your mental fitness level, the greater your mental and emotional capacity, and the greater your capacity for living happily-despite the curve balls life throws your way.
Clearly, this immunity to being buffeted by life's ups and downs seems to be more naturally developed in some people than others. And it's true, some people seem to be born with a natural ability to artfully weather life's challenges-that is to say, they are endowed with a higher than average Mental Fitness level. But-and this is crucial-this in no way is to say that one's Mental Fitness level is fixed.
Again, we can take clues from the physical realm. For the same is true of our innate physical fitness levels. Some of us are natural born athletes, others are anything but. Despite the fact that we humans come in shapes and sizes and physical abilities, no matter what one's natural level of physical fitness is, we ALL can benefit from exercising our physical selves-and improve our physical fitness and live healthier, happier lives.
And so it goes with Mental Fitness.
This means that we are not victims of our natural level of mental fitness, nor of our circumstances. Remember, the greater our Mental Fitness, the easier we can remain undisturbed by the inevitable difficulties that life throws our way. So it paves the way for more happiness and contentment-in good times and bad.
And just as importantly, developing ourselves in this regard can serve as an important component in the health of our communities. Physical fitness aids to stave off physical illness. Mental Fitness aids to stave off mental illness. It's a simple means to enhance the well-being of us all.
With this understanding, the problem becomes one of increasing our mental fitness – our capacity to remain mentally and emotionally undisturbed in more and varied circumstances, especially in situations that have historically thrown us off balance.
How do I increase my Mental Fitness?
So, this all begs the question: “How do we increase our Mental Fitness level?” Surprisingly, it's more simple and straightforward than you might think, and truly is not all that different from the way we build more physical fitness!
Think about it. To build our physical capacity, for example your capacity to lift weight, you physically challenge yourself. To lift more weight, you need to lift more weight. Strength builds as you carefully lift just a bit more weight than you're comfortable with. If you can easily lift 80 pounds, lift 85; once you can lift 85 without difficulty, move up to 90; and so on. You're expanding your capacity for weight lifting by always lifting just a bit more than is comfortable and by staying with the burn.
The same principle applies when you're working to expand your mental and emotional capacity. Here, too, the invitation remains the same: do a bit more than is comfortable and stay with the burn. But for the expansion of our mental and emotional capacity, rather than needing physical weight to provide the resistance needed for growth, we need difficulty or challenge.
Here's the thing: life's challenges, the ones that typically throw us into a tizzy, are for our Mental Fitness, like the weight is to our physical fitness. They are challenges that can be used to increase our capacity to calmly weather life's challenges-but only if we see the opportunities for what they are.
I confess. There is much more nuance to effectively increasing our mental fitness levels than is presented in this simplistic explanation. Neverheless, the promise remains sound. And this I know from experience.
You see, helping people cultivate optimal mental and emotional fitness is my life's work. Over the years I've seen thousands of thousands of people forge lives of great equanimity and fulfillment even amid torrents of discrimination and challenges. My chosen tools are drawn from the ancient wisdom of yoga (tapping the less-known mental and emotional aspects of the practice beyond my yoga postures and breath), but that is only to say that that is the only tool that can be used to this end .
Is this orientation toward Mental Fitness a silver bullet? Will it end mental illness and completely stave off future killings and other such tragedies? Not by a long shot. For the truth is that Mental Fitness can not completely eradicate mental illness any more than physical fitness can totally end physical illness.
We will always have a need for treatment modalities, facilities, and trained professionals to address the needs of those who have slid into mental illness. Just as we do for those who are physically ill.
But if we could take steps to reduce the incidence of such illness even 5 or 10 or 20 percent, would not it be worth it?