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Mental Well-being and the role of thoughts

In the past 25+ years, since I have been practicing as a mental health professional, I have been searching for mental wellness. It occurred to me that perhaps we have been looking in the wrong places for mental well-being. If we pause to reflect, we will notice that we have optimum mental well-being when deep in sleep. Difficulties with sleep is one of the main problem reported by most people who have a mental illness. People who are depressed cannot stay asleep or find themselves sleeping too much. People with anxiety have trouble falling asleep. People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have trouble with nightmares and poor quality of sleep. So sleep problems are universal and are a frequent accompaniment of psychological stress and mental illness. As noted earlier, the sleep state is also a state in which we feel the most bliss and sense of mental well-being. So it dawned on me that perhaps we should understand the sleep state better and see if we can “bring” those qualities we experience in the sleep state into the waking state?

One of the main characteristic features of the deep-sleep (dreamless sleep) state is the lack of thinking. Both dream states and waking states are characterized by thinking. It is through thinking that dreams come into existence – this is true for both dreams in the sleeping state and day-dreams. Also, during the waking state, we are constantly engaged in thinking. Thinking leads to the formation of concepts. Concepts lead to beliefs. Belief is another central factor associated with mental illness. If you take any mental illness, at its center, there is a belief or a set of beliefs: for ex., a person with a diagnosis of phobia may be convinced that a spider can kill him, whereas, in reality, a very few species of spiders can carry poisons that can kill a human being. A person with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may believe that her actions or thoughts may have harmed or may harm someone close to her. She engages in compulsive behaviors to ward off her anxiety-causing beliefs. Mental health professionals have so far focused on the thinking state to find remedies for illnesses. They have been fairly successful with the many forms of psychological and pharmacological therapies. They have helped a large number of patients suffering from their illnesses. However, my interest in enhancing mental well-being has led me to look at the “thoughtless state” manifested every day (night) in our deep sleep. Everyone desires a restful night’s sleep and will go to any length to secure a good night’s sleep. Yet we do not understand the sleep state very well.

So, how can we bring the state of mental well-being we all experience in a deep sleep to the waking state? It seems that we need to understand our thinking process deeply, especially how we attach to our thoughts – we may find a key there to solve our problem. You may have noticed that thoughts are not a problem unless and until we believe them. I am not suggesting that thinking is unnecessary or “bad” – in fact, thinking is a very useful tool we humans possess and, if used correctly, will serve us well. If we pause to look at our thinking, we will notice that 99% of our thinking is useless, repetitive, harmful, stressful, painful, scary, dangerous, or otherwise useless. We seem to be at the mercy of our ever-spinning thoughts. We have tried meditating and medicating our thoughts away. We engage in various risky behaviors to temporarily get relief from our thoughts. Some of these strategies that distract us will work for a while, and then we are trapped again by our thoughts. Thoughts are relentless. Has not that been your experience so far? Some of us try to substitute our “bad” thoughts with good thoughts. Most of us have done this for years. In the end, we all fail.

After all, what are thoughts? We cannot see them, smell them, taste them, touch them, or hear them. Yet we are convinced they exist. Isn’t the only proof that a thought ever existed, another thought? Why do we take them to be real? What are thoughts made of? We are ready to kill for our beliefs or our convictions. We use thoughts to attack others and ourselves. Why? Why do we rely on them so much even after they have failed us – again and again?

To be continued…