Radio4 Thought for the Day

Thought for the Day – 22/01/2014 – Akhandadhi Das

Good morning. In an interview this week, deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg said that it was “just plain wrong” to treat mental illness as the “poor cousin” of physical health. I don’t take that as blame of the NHS – but rather an effort to balance up the priority that we, as a society, should give to all forms of mental health problems.

The great yoga exponent, B K S Iyengar commented that: “Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit” And, there are numerous references throughout Hindu texts about the equal importance of caring for both Tan – which is body; and Manah, the mind.

In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote that the mind “can make a heaven of hell” and “a hell of heaven.” Hindu texts agree and warn of the immense power of the mind to cause us both amazing joy and unbearable pain. The charity, Time for Change, reports that most sufferers feel that the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health is as bad or worse than the illness itself. But these texts suggest that no one is immune from mental distress – so where’s the justification for any stigma?

The Bhagavad-gita claims that the mind can be our best friend, but also our worst enemy. This indicates a distinctive feature of the Hindu model for understanding mental issues. There is a separation between the mind as contrary companion; and me, as the knower of the mind. Illness is therefore something that happens to my mind – not to me. A useful analogy is a computer. The computer hardware equates to the brain; whereas the mind is like the software. You can’t see or touch it directly; but it’s producing everything we, the operator, see on the screen.

Just as some computer problems stem from hardware malfunction, so some mental disorders have neurological and chemical causes – and need to be treated accordingly. But often, computer problems are related to software. These are equally real and troublesome, but require a different approach. And, for the mind, this calls on the soft sciences of psychiatry and psychology.

In ancient times, Indian sages developed yoga and meditation to keep the mind and body in fit condition. I think these processes inspire empathy – for they help us experience how happiness and well-being are as much, if not more, related to the health of the mind as they are of the body.

The Gita suggests that the mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong; and more difficult to control than the wind. Mental health illness just isn’t as easy as many physical ailments to cure or even to care for – but, I believe, we must try equally hard.

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