Trying To Get Rid Of Something Is A Sign Of Ignorance

Trying to get rid of something is a sign of ignorance.

The process begins with the thought or feeling (of which one is unaware): “This is unbearable. I cannot bear it any longer.” Boredom is like that. So is deep hurt.

At the moment of apparent unbearability, fear and desire co-arise: the fear that it won’t go away, the desire for it to be gone–hopefully for good.

Hatred or ill will, arising after fear and desire, is born and is now directed at removing what is here.

On behalf of desire and utilizing the strength of ill will, effort–real muscle–kicks in.

But notice what actually happens. The more one tries to get rid of this something, the more this something momentarily wanes before waxing; or the more something similar arises in its place; or the more its temporary absence is met by false hope or wishful thinking born of temporary relief; or the more the mind is not at ease. Indeed, throughout the mind is not, is never at ease.

An entire life can be devoted to marshaling energies with the intention of getting rid of something–if not this thing, then that one. Can we not see that this entire approach is a mark of ignorance and this from first to last?

Let us instead learn an early lesson from meditation and from philosophy as a way of life. At this level of understanding, meditation just is being with whatever is arising while letting that phenomenon simply be. At which point, philosophy may come on the scene, inviting us to be with whatever is arising with a view to understanding–lovingly, gently, completely–this something on its own terms.

In this approach, we have no desire to get rid of this phenomenon. Instead, we are able to welcome it (meditation) and to understand it (philosophy) with our entire being. The paradox may not surprise you: without trying to get rid of something, with the peace that comes from welcoming and understanding, the phenomenon tends to fade away of its own accord.

Homo Economicus And Homo Psychologicus

If you’ve been reading this blog recently, no doubt you’ve noticed that I’ve shined a critical light on what I’m presently calling homo psychologicus. In one popular post, “Stop Confessing Your Vulnerabilities,” I discussed the prevalence of a certain secular confessional mode. In yesterday’s post, “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Mental Health,'” I sought to show that (a) the concept of mental health is what Gilbert Ryle once referred to as a “category mistake” and (b) there is no such ens (or thing/entity) called “mind” anyway.

Today I want to provide some context for these reflections.

Homo Economicus and Homo Psychologicus

Since 2017, I’ve been exploring the nature of Total Work. Here, in case you’re unfamiliar, is a very short version of that argument:

The Protestant Reformation had a huge role to play in the twenty-first century development of “meaningful work.”

I’m skeptical of homo economicus (i.e., of ‘economic man’) and I’m quite concerned about (a) the begging off of asking and answering Life Questions by appealing to (b) being a Worker and (c) caring about so-called “meaningful work.” In short, any earnest philosophical investigation will surely reveal that I am not a Worker, that meaning is not to be discovered through or created in work (for such is impossible), and that a work-centric system, together with ideological support, is what makes us think and feel otherwise.

Turn now to homo psychologicus (i.e., ‘psychological man’). Over the course of the twentieth century, we’ve experienced the slow colonization of our discourse by psychological categories (see Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch, and many others). These days we do not say, for instance, that a serial killer is evil; we mistakenly say that he is sick. We–that is, modern secular humanists; I’m using the “royal ‘we'” here–do not say that we wish for God’s will to be mine; we say, rather, that we wish to be well or to experience well-being. Nor do we say that we want to be good; we say that we want to be happy. Accordingly, we prefer (I hesitate to use words like value here) transient subjective experiences of “good feeling,” of pleasure, of “overall wellbeing.”

The therapeutic dispensation is very worrying. Just as Total Work disables the asking and seeking to answer Life Questions, so does the therapeutic. In this case, the latter reduces the realm of values (the good, the beautiful, the true, the sacred, the wise, and so on) to the realm of wellness (the functional, the healthy, the emotionally and cognitively stable, and so on). But the realm of wellness tells us nothing about how to live, about what is worth living for, about what we’d be willing to die for, about what is really real, about how to form just political communities, about whether the human is related to any superhuman powers (see Christian Smith, Religion: What It is, How It Works, and Why It Matters), about how to be virtuous, about how to become wise, and the like. It tells us nothing whatsoever about such matters; instead, it promises that we’ll be able to “cope” with the modern world in which we find ourselves.

My hypothesis is that homo economicus is linked to homo psychologicus (i.e., ‘psychological man’), though I don’t know how yet. The inquiry is just getting under way.

There’s No Such Thing As ‘Mental Health’


To speak of “mental health” is to make a category mistake. And it is to reify while substantializing a supposed ens, an alleged “thing” or “abstract something” when, in our direct experience, there is no such thing as mind. So, there’s no such thing as mental health and there’s no such thing as an entity called “mind.” Consequently, we should, in the very least, stop speaking of “mental health,” not the least because it’s obfuscating.

A Brief Story for Context

When I first moved to New York City in 2009, I came to care about a woman I met there. For some months, we had a delightful time together. After we got back from a trip to Central America, however, things quickly turned. We broke up. She feel into a deep sadness. She thought of killing herself.

Now during this process I didn’t think, “She’s bipolar, and she went from mania or hypomania (when I met her) to depression (around the time we broke up).” Nor did I think: “She’s having suicidal ideations.” No, quite simply I was there for her when she needed me. I wasn’t applying labels; I was instead showing concern as best I could.

I do not say that I was a moral saint, and that, frankly, is not the point of the story. I say only that starting with “not knowing” (Socrates) is often a condition of possibility for genuine care.

It’s these kind of stories, in any case, that animate my doubts about homo psychologicus and about the psychologization of our everyday discourses and of our ways of being.

I turn now to the argument.

Definitions: Doubts

To begin with, notice the lack of definitional clarity. (1) Here’s a standard definition of mental health from “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act.”

(2) And here’s a definition from an academic journal: “Mental health is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Definition (1) tells us nothing about what mental health is; it only suggests, in a spooky sense, that it “includes” A, B, and C and that it “does” this and that–namely, it is alleged to have “effects” on how we “think, feel, and act.” Definition (2) at least suggests that it’s a “state of well-being” and then goes on to specific what that entails yet that state of well-being surely can’t be identical to realizing talents, being productive (see, as usual, Total Work), and to “coping” with “modern society.” And where is there genuine community today? Such is a fiction at this stage in modern history.

Neither, however, really tells us, unequivocally, about what the essence of mental health is. What, truly, is it? This vagueness should give rise to doubts in us.

A Category Mistake

The body, of course, can get sick or can be injured. This we know and have no reason to doubt. But is mind (I worry about using “the” in front of mind because the definite pronoun implies that mind is a substance; more on this below) even subject to illness or injury?

“Yes, of course.” Be careful here: it’s not obvious that brain = mind, and trenchant disagreements in philosophy of mind should help us to see that physicalism, a way of reducing all that exists to the physical, may not be the correct doctrine.

If for the moment we assume that brain is not mind, then a brain injury is just that: a brain injury. While a brain injury will affect mental functioning (for there is a correlation between neural processes and mental states), I don’t see, a priori, why there’s any reason to say that mind is therefore “ill.” That is question begging!

But can mind be ill? That is, is it even subject to illness or to health? I don’t think so. To doubt this is not to doubt that there are some people who suffer, say, from schizophrenia–they do suffer! It is to doubt whether we do well to call such people “ill” or “sick.” Again, more question begging! Couldn’t we just as well say that someone who suffers from schizophrenia is experiencing a reality that is very unlike the one that many other people are experiencing? And isn’t it fair to say that seeing that someone is suffering “in some mental way” does not entail that said person is, ipso facto, sick? (If you are grieving, I don’t say that you are “mentally ill,” do I?)

I conclude that the very concepts of “mental health” and “mental illness” are category mistakes. What is more, we can get along just fine without thinking that there are these spooky “states” that correspond to “mental health” and “mental illness.” If you doubt what I’m saying, just go on and take an earnest look and see whether you can actually find something specific that corresponds to either. Go to your direct experience, not to the concepts you’ve inherited from the modern secular social order. What you find instead, I submit, is a flow of transient experiences of the kind described well by Buddhism and by other introspective practices.

Mind as Substance?

But even if the argument concerning category mistakes doesn’t convince you, consider this more basic one: there is no such “thing” as mind in the first place! And if there is no such “thing” as mind to begin with, then it immediately follows that there cannot be some attribute–health or illness–that can thus be attached to this non-thing. If there is no boat, then there certainly can’t be a mast that is the mast of this non-boat. Mind cannot be said to “possess” health or illness.

Ask yourself, “When I meditate, do I ever find (a) a container in which thoughts and feelings arise and/or (b) a theater in which thoughts and feelings appear?” Short answer: No!

This is quite simply because there is none! Minding just is thinking; minding is nothing but thinking; as such, minding is exhausted entirely in thinking. Minding just is feeling; minding is nothing but feeling; as such, minding is exhausted fully in feeling. And so on. A corollary is that minding occurs intermittently and therefore is subject to momentarily disappearance (as when Zen master Dogen says, “Mind and body drop off”).

It’s a mistake of Western philosophy (ens in Latin refers to “thing” or “thinghood” or “substance”) and of the English language to reify mind as we do. For when we do, we come to believe that mind = a container in which thoughts arise or that mind = a theater in which thoughts appear and through which they pass. But, in our own direct experience, we have absolutely no evidence to support this view. It is a phantasm.

Why This Discussion Matters

Why does this matter?

–First, because “a picture held us captive” (Wittgenstein): believing what is false does not allow us to readily examine our own experiences with a view to discovering the truth of the matter. What is really going on? Who am I, really?

–Second, because it’s become more and more common to state: “My mental health is suffering.” But that is unintelligible and it’s a dodge. It’s not your mental health that is suffering; it’s you who are suffering. Because mental health is not something you possess, it can’t be the subject of your inquiry (or the cause of your suffering).

–Third, because speaking and thinking in these terms secularizes life while presupposing the legitimacy of secularization: we can think only of “wellness,” “well-being,” and “functionality.” But what of God, truth, beauty, goodness, and holiness? What of eudaimonia (the good life)?

–Fourth, because “my mental health is suffering” distances the speaker first from himself and second from others: how can one get to know himself by beginning from such a starting point? How can one possibly get to know said speaker, in any emphatic way, when the inquiry into what that suffering is really about can’t even get under way? That statement is, in fact, a conversation stopper. The person is really implying: “I take myself to be a victim of some mysterious, spooky process, and I don’t really want to know what it is or why I’m really suffering, so I’m defaulting to soliciting your pity.”

And, fifth, because this language amounts to a cloud of obfuscation. It just doesn’t help in actual sensemaking.

The truth is that we don’t need secular concepts like “mental health” to accept that so and so is suffering or that I am suffering. In fact, such concepts may make us feel that John or Jane is actually quite other and therefore very separate from us. And that is sad.

How much simpler, and more straightforward, is it to say: “I am suffering. But I don’t know what my suffering really is, I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t, actually, know who or what I am. I do not know myself.” Starting here could bring one not only to genuine humility but also, if all goes well, to immense insight. And, all the while, it should solicit genuine compassion, not mere ersatz empathy, from us as well as deep admiration for her courage.

Jolted While In The Saddle

It’s not, in this instance, that you’ve been knocked off your horse. You are–this much is clear–still very much on your horse.

It’s rather that you’ve been jolted while in the saddle. And this is curious at the same time that it’s unsettling.

Don’t blame it on the horse. Observe that the horse, in this instance, is not spooked. The horse is fine.

Don’t even blame it ‘on yourself,’ though this turn within will take you closer to what’s happening.

No, realize that regardless of circumstances, no matter how well the horse is trotting, and notwithstanding your prior attempts to lead a calm and composed life, you are not at ease. Undeniably, the mind is not at peace.

You now see the second patriarch’s meaning when he said, “I am not at peace.” His meaning is yours.

This insight rattles you. For you start to see that all your practices, all the “psychotechnologies” you’ve engaged in hitherto while not for naught are nonetheless ultimately ineffectual. They won’t bring you home.

Understanding all this, ask yourself this question, “How could it be that such a minor, insignificant incident could have jolted, rattled, and stirred me so? I’m in the saddle, I’ve not fallen off, yet I’m rattled by this insignificant something. How could this be?”

You’re starting to see clearly that however quiet the mind is, it seems never to be totally at rest or at ease. The deeper you look into the matter, the subtler the disquiet, or dis-ease, revealed.

Will it never end? Will the mind never be truly still?

Again, “How could it be that such a minor, insignificant incident could have jolted, rattled, and stirred me so?”

Then you start to realize, in a more poignant, direct way, that mind is always in flux–excited one minute, angry the next, crestfallen in the afternoon, bubbly in the evening, and despondent by nightfall. And each day discloses the same painful truth, the unseemly marriage of anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (dis-ease).

I am not at ease. My mind is not at peace. Meanwhile, the horse is just fine. Meanwhile, moments before, I seemed to be going along just fine. What gives?

What is seen and felt cannot be unseen or unfelt. Your life-koan is right here for you: given this impossible situation, what can you do?