Transcript #22 Charles Eisenstein: Mental Health and Interbeing
In this podcast I chat to Charles Eisenstein about mental health, wholeness and the deeper social, political and economic problems that lay behind the high levels of depression and anxiety in our culture today.
Marcus: While you are here I thought it would be great to get this opportunity to chat about mental health with you because you're someone that I was quite inspired by before I started this podcast on mental health.
I possibly use the term ‘mental health’ in a different way to other people. I think it is part of this holistic ecosystem that is not one thing. It's connected to so many different things in our lives. It's this idea of mental health that I think is often medicalised or separated out into something else, but I think it's part of a bigger whole. One of the ideas that I was really drawn to that you talk a lot about is the idea of separation. I was wondering if you could elaborate on or have ideas on how that separation relates to mental health in society. Does that make sense?
Charles: Yeah. It just seems like such a broad question that'll invite me to make a very theoretical answer.
Marcus: Well, how do you think we can tap it down into something less theoretical?
Charles: For one thing, what is mental health? You know, really ‘health’ means ‘wholeness’ and I think that might be a good entry point because then we can ask what is a whole human being. I think a whole human being is someone with a full complement of relationships, from distant relationships to very intimate relationships. Most human beings who have lived on this planet had very intimate relationships with the people around them and the natural world around them.
I remember reading, I think it must have been from a David Abraham book, this account of traveling with an indigenous person on the land and every single feature, every boulder, every hill, every stream had a story. It was woven into a tapestry of meaning that went back for many generations. So that's a kind of an intimacy. And to know what every plant is used for and the stories around that plant and to know the habits of every animal and the way that that animal relates with human beings.
So that's a kind of of intimacy, a kind of relationship and then also to know the people around you deeply, to know the people who grow your food and make your things, and to have these multidimensional relationships. So that would be a whole human being and you can see how in modern society we have none of that.
I'm staying at my brother's farm for the summer. We go there in the summer and there are so many beautiful bird song. I realised if I hear the bird song, there's probably not more than five, or at most 10 birds, that I can actually picture the bird. Most people would have been able to do that with hundreds of birds. So this whole world of nature, even at work, when I'm on a farm on land, even so, it's alien to me. So I feel a bit alone and don't have that sense of belonging in the world.
And the same thing for social relationships. You go to the store... do you know that person? Maybe you do a little bit if you go to the same store every day, but you don't know them nearly as well as you did your neighbour in a peasant village in England in say, 1300. In that situation you were intimate with so many people. So we don't have any of that and I think that is a lack of wholeness. Therefore a lack of health that comes out as all kinds of anxiety, insecurity and neurosis. Then we're given a pill to cure it or therapy, psychotherapy. There you are in a room with somebody and maybe that actually does provide a little bit of intimacy. You know, someone gets to know your story really well, but it's not really what you need. So you could say that mental illness is built into society as we know it and therefore to heal mental illness or to foster mental health is fundamentally a social, political, economic problem. It's not just how do we treat people better.
Marcus: I think that's interesting. I mean, one of the reasons I started doing this whole thing was because of my lived experience with depression and anxiety, that sort of thing and I found that my experience was very much that - go to the doctors, get prescribed medicine or talking therapy, both of which I think have a place, but like there's more to it. I mean I understand that the medical services are so overstretched in the UK and in lots of other countries, so they can't do more. So I wanted to explore more around what are the alternative things, and I think what came across through listening to many, many different stories, is that it seems to be this big spiritual crisis of being lost and being churned out of a system and then not really knowing what to do with that.
Charles: Right? Yeah. Like when you say, these things have their place what are you talking about. I'm not sure if we're talking about psychiatric medication or or talk therapy and stuff. If you take for granted the conditions that cause us to be miserable and insecure and anxious, if you take all that for granted as unchangeable, then you do need these things to keep society running.
A more revolutionary question is do we need to take these things for granted? How can we change them collectively? And then there's also, how can I change them even just in my own life? How can I create conditions where I feel more of a sense of belonging and stuff? To some extent that's impossible without changing the entire society, but to a larger extent that it is possible to foster more intimate connection with people and nature.
Like there are things that we can do that have been shown... even like garden therapy. Get people in the garden and a lot of the mental illness goes away. Get them into nature, get them into participation in some social project. Of course, if you're feeling really depressed, you probably don't even want to do that so something has to intervene to bring you from that universe of despair and depression into a universe of participation and connection. And I think that a good first step for a sane mental health system would be to intervene by changing conditions rather than by giving pills that allow conditions to be maintained.
Marcus: Yeah, I would agree with that entirely. I think another thing that I see a lot of is the language, especially around this idea of mental health, is about sort of combating, getting over... it's a very conflict based language I think. Something I think I'm becoming more aware of through my experiences and talking to others is that maybe it's not a question of learning how to avoid all these things, but it's learning how to lean into the experience and how to actually navigate that rather than see it as a problem. If you have depression, maybe it's a symptom of some of the environment you're in. And how do you learn to listen to that and be with it rather than medicate it and hope it goes away? Because I didn't know if it's that simple but then there is a question around things like rights of passage and eldership which seems to spring up there. There's not really there. I don’t think in Western society there's an really that sort of a support system, especially for young people when they're growing up. Do you have any ideas around that, or thoughts on that?
Charles: Most of the support structures are there to help you become a functioning member of society as it is.
If society as it is needs to change and your purpose in this world is to help serve that change, then the support structures will not be your friend and we need alternative support structures that understand that society has gotten illness and to adjust you to that is to make you ill too. And in that viewpoint, depression could be a symptom of health. It could be a symptom of the souls rebellion because with depression it's a kind of a withdrawal from life. You just want to stay in your room and not do anything. You don't want to participate. So non participation is a good thing. I mean suppose you were in Nazi Germany and you got a job at the death camp and then start feeling depressed and it was like "Man, I don't want to go to work, you know", and then the psychiatrist comes and says, "Oh, the reason you don't want to go to work because you are depressed and here is some medicine to make you once again happy to go to work".
Actually your depression was healthy. Not that we live in such an extreme situation but in a way, the normal functioning of society is bringing incredible suffering to humans and other beings. So I think that it is kind of healthy to not want to participate in the life that's offered to us. So I think that that any approach to mental health that doesn't recognise that, that doesn't acknowledge that non participation could be a good thing and that sees health as being well adapted to the way things are... that's got a problem.
Marcus: I think that's probably my view as well, that actually, it just seems sometimes the sanest thing to come out with in this world is to be depressed... that's probably the wrong way of saying it, but this thing we class as insanity is actually a reflection of sanity in a world that is not very conducive all the time to humans really being able to flourish. I think it's a really interesting area to explore.
Charles: Yeah. So I do think we need kind of mentors and helpers to nourish that part of ourselves that says, ‘Yeah, actually the world is kind of insane and I'm not crazy for thinking so. And then what can I do about it? What am I called to do about it?’ To listen to that call requires courage and in my experience that requires help. It requires people to share what they've heard, what call they've heard and you're like, "Yeah, I've heard that too". And maybe this person has been on this path for a long time and is familiar with some of the territories and the setbacks and the challenges and then that person is qualified to mentor you also in living a life outside of the normal prescription. Helping you be strong when you can't be strong yourself. So a mentor can do that and a community can do that too. I think it's really important. I don't think we can be truly sane and effective without other people around us who are holding that field.
Marcus: I see that a lot when I'm talking to people. There's definitely this idea of the way that people think they should be living because all the signals around them or telling them that, but the way that they feel deep down is that they want to live or need to be living in and they're in conflict. I think that resonates with what you said there because there is that idea that without those sort of people that share your ideas or your understanding or at least recognise your experience in the world, then it's very hard to reconcile your inner feelings with a world that tells you that's not what you should do.
Charles: Right? And then add onto that economic difficulty because often when people listen to the call of their purpose in the world, it may not be something that is highly paid. In fact, it probably is something that won't get them a job at all. Or often is something that isn't going to make money in the normal economy. And so I think we need to have people with financial legacy... inheritors, or people who have made a lot of money and had a change of heart. We need them to essentially fund the artists and the change makers and the revolutionaries. I'm not talking about violent revolution. The people who are agents of change need to be supported not just with moral support but also with financial support. So people with money need to really take on creating social enterprises and projects that give meaningful work to people who want to serve this change.
It's not just about changing your attitude. The financial problems that people face when they have a transformation are real. Not universal. I'm not saying that you have transformation and you'll never make money again. I mean there are people already funding beautiful, beautiful things in the world and there are people willing to pay for things that inspire them. I don't want to paint too bleak picture, but there has to be a willingness among people to offer real tangible economic support in addition to mentorship and community and encouragement.
Marcus: I understand that. I make a podcast about mental health and it's not particularly lucrative business!
Charles: So I hope that you have some way for people to donate.
Marcus: I do I have a Patreon account. I think it's really interesting the idea which we were talking about earlier this morning about this idea of the capitalist system and mental health in general. I guess there's this pressure to always be doing more and to grow and to be doing something big and achieve more with your life and that it's not okay to be where you are. You have to be constantly striving. And I think that puts a lot of pressure on everyone and especially on individuals and especially on sensitive individuals.
Charles: Right. Yeah. It's a whole setup where you get social acceptance for living a certain life and showing certain results. And we're trained so that social acceptance becomes part of our self acceptance. So if you're not achieving success as has been defined for you, then there's that voice that's like, "Oh yeah, you know, I'm a failure. My life is a waste. I'm not good enough". That's a psychological pressure that torments people. Even if another part of them knows that, "Yeah, I'm doing the right thing. This is important. Even though I'm not making a lot of money, even though I'm not looking like a success. I know this is important." But then there's that other voice saying, "No, you're not wasting your time. Your father was much more successful. You don't even have life insurance. You know, you don't even have investments. You're totally, rah, rah, rah...". There's a conflict and that I think is definitely a source of anxiety. And it's this psychic drain that prevents us from being fully healthy. It's this programming that most of us carry.
Marcus: I think you just tapped into the two voices inside my head. I'm sure they're in everyone's head.
Charles: "Yeah, I mean, look at you! You know, how old are you? 35, 40 right. And all you have is this podcast. What have you done in your life? Where's your degree? Like, look at so and so they're the chief counsel for this corporation and this one's working in the government and you haven't achieved anything, right?" There's that voice.
Marcus: There is that voice, but it's one I'm getting better at... not repressing, just listening to it and putting it to the side. Probably by all the metrics that I would have used to a base success on or that maybe society does base success on... well, I'm pretty much a failure in that sense but I know right now that I feel more in tune and more aligned to what I want to be doing or need to be doing. I don't even know what it is. I feel that I am doing what I need to be right now and I'm happy for that to change when it needs to change but it's very difficult to change those metrics. I'm 32 so I've had all these years and years of programming into one way of thinking and that was very sort of rational and science based. I think that's pretty much just a typical result of the education system I went through. I think it's a big process of unlearning and unlearning and unlearning and then trying to build back from a more open foundation.
Charles: Yeah. And hopefully you can pass your unlearning down to the next generation. If you ever have a family or even when you interact with young people, maybe they won't have to do as much deprogramming and they'll be able to start... I feel like that's kind of true of my kids. I spent many years deprogramming from the cultural programs that had been instilled inside of me about what a successful worthy life looks like. And finally after I did enough unlearning and enough deprogramming, I was able to turn toward what I'm here to do. So I feel like my kids are maybe able to start at a much younger age and not have to go through those years and decades of self struggle.
Marcus: How do you do that with them?
Charles: For one thing, avoiding sending them to normal schools and if they do end up in a normal school, then to make sure that I don't become the ally of the school that wants to attach their self esteem to their academic performance. I remember one interaction I had with Matthew's school where he wasn't doing his homework and basically the teacher called me and they're basically like, "You're going to have to make sure he does his homework". Like asking me to pressure him to do that. Now how do you pressure a child? Usually it's through the giving and withholding of approval. And the way you signal approval is with punishments and stuff. And so basically, wanting me to become an ally in programming him to do the program, to seek the rewards that the system gives him, to reinforce the association of good school performance with being a good person. So if you can avoid doing that with young people and instead validate their reluctance. I was like, "Yeah, I wouldn't do that homework either. What a waste of time. What are you really interested in?” So then he doesn't have that baggage when he grows up.
Marcus: I think that's sounds amazing. It's a very important thing to do.
Charles: Whereas my parents, bless their hearts, they really thought that I would be in trouble in life, I wouldn't have a good life, if I didn't do my homework and get good grades and so they'd given me a lot of pressure to do that and I ended up torturing myself a lot because I didn't want to do the work and I’d procrastinate and think "What's wrong with me?" and I would have this inner struggle to fight myself in order to be worthy and worthy of approval. I'm worthy of good things in life. I had to fight myself. So I think that inner struggle is part of what we call mental illness. That generates so much internal tension that something breaks in some people.
Marcus: So what was the change for you that helped you move past that or are you not past it?
Charles: In lot of ways I'm now past that. I mean, gosh, I’m 50 now so I hope I would have gotten over some of it by now and some of it still comes up. But I think part of it was my growing understanding of the deep wrongness in the way that the world is right now. Just understanding the way that the world system functions and part of it was direct experience that showed me that the reality and that the explanation of the world that I've been given was wrong. It was way, way too narrow and limited. Through kind of spiritual experiences, psychedelic experiences, things like that, these shook me loose from the reality story that I heard and had been indoctrinated with.
And also maybe encountering people who lived in a different way. People who I deeply admired who didn't buy in to that system of rewards. Who didn't care about success in that way. And also seeing that the people who did achieve that success weren't really happy. It didn't do them any good in the end. It didn't stop them from having divorce, from having depression, from being addicted. The rewards looked empty and that's a crisis for a lot of people. The emptiness of the rewards of success is revealed to you, but there's no replacement. So there's a period of being lost. And that's when the best medicine is something that gives you a view of another kind of success or another kind of wellbeing. Somebody can come in and model it, or you can have a spiritual experience or something. The old story has to begin to break down, I think, before the light from outside that story can pierce through.
Marcus: Yesterday you said something about, when you are lost the seeds of the future are already there to guide you.
Charles: We get glimpses, by grace, of what life could be and who we could be in that life and those then provide some guidance because once you have that experience, then the old reality seems all the more intolerable because you've seen something else. No one can tell you that, "Oh, this is all there is".
Marcus: But there's not often words or the vocabulary to explain that. Or maybe you don't need to explain it. Maybe that's going full circle back to the support networks of people that actually you don't need to explain that to because they already know.
Charles: Yeah. Especially the first encounter that is like, "Yes, here it is! What is 'it'? I really can't say, but it just feels like a strong invitation into who I will be" and those are such precious experiences and if you've had one of those experiences or anyone who might be listening to our conversation. Even to bring that experience into presence, to call it up, to remember how you felt at that moment and just to do honour to that experience, that will exercise an effect too. That was real what you saw. It could've been something you saw through another person who demonstrated some kind of courage or generosity or kindness or power that called to you.
Charles: Or just an experience you had that was outside the normal bounds of what you thought was real and that called you into a new being. And maybe you didn't listen to that call or you couldn't. Maybe you weren't ready? Maybe that call is something that persists over years and comes again and again in different forms. So it's not like you're a failure if you didn't immediately totally transform your life. That's not the requirement. But what is helpful is to recognise the preciousness of that and to accept the gift of it and to, as I said, do an honour. So yeah, I mean I would even like to ask us right now to take a minute to bring to mind one of those people or experiences and just to do it honour. To be like, "Yeah, that happened, that person existed, exists”.
Marcus: So, should we do that? And then I think we've been talking before this for a long time as well, so maybe it'd be a nice place to end with that, just a moment to reflect.
Charles: Let's do a moment and then ask me one more thing.
Marcus: That's pressure! Yeah. Okay. Let's do it.
Marcus: Okay here's the one more thing. I guess it'd be it be useful just for some people listening, because I think there's often people that are sort of in quite, what they might describe as a dark place, and I don't know if you've any sort of... advice is the wrong word, but … are their small steps that people can take when they are in that wilderness?
Charles: So obviously anybody who's in that place who's listening to this is already listening to this. So I'm actually not going to offer small steps. You probably already know the small steps, but for some reason you can't take them. You're not taking them or you're not ready to take them. And I would ask you to consider that the pace of your transition out of the dark state has its own intelligence and that when the moment comes to take these steps, you will be ready and you will do them. That if you've withdrawn into a cave, that maybe there's a deep wisdom operating there. That you've gone through a process and the very fact that you're listening to this right now means that that process is at a transition point. So it's not about what can you do to get out of this. It's about recognising that this time of darkness is reaching its end. And you can feel grateful for that and you can feel the ring of truth in my words. That this isn't something that is up to you to do. It's an initiation that's happened to you. It's a process that has taken you through itself.
And a change is coming and you can trust that. It's not that it just happens without your participation. It's that you come into a new willingness to participate. You come into a readiness and a responsiveness, and this isn't something either that you have to make yourself do. Instead, I would ask you to give a little bit of attention right now to the feeling of readiness that is growing in you and offer it some trust and say “Thank you readiness because you are going to push me with a feeling of excitement and rightness at the moment when the time to take these small steps comes and I will recognise that moment and I will trust my feeling of readiness, my desire to participate in this life that perhaps I've withdrawn into darkness as a necessity to transition out of a wrong life. And I thank my soul for guiding me to do this".
So this is a kind of an invitation into self trust that again is not something that you have to accomplish. I hope this isn't too complicated. It's something that you can feel. It's already there. Like a deep knowing, a deep trust through all the darkness, like there's some little speck of knowledge that says "I'm not a fuck up", that, "I am whole", that "I am wise", that "This is who am. I am life. I am life, taking the form that life takes in the circumstances that I was put into. I am just as much life as that tree over there. Or the tree that is growing up all twisted and gnarled because it was in rocky soil and shadow and against a cliff or whatever and it knew what to do. It knew how to grow in that rocky soil and maybe I was in rocky soil too. I am life. I know how to grow just as much as any other living being".
And so I guess what I'm asking right now is to touch that knowledge and accept that that's all you need to do. Touch that knowledge and it begins to work you.
Even if you don't believe it. Even if you think that you won't take those steps, there's that knowledge that you will.
That you are life.
Thanks for reading! It takes me ages and ages and ages to type out these transcripts and put all the love and care I can into creating the podcast, if you have found this useful then please do think about supporting my work by visiting my Patreon page. Thanks again, Marcus x