Phil Borges: Viewing Mental Illness Through Other Lenses
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Apr 30, 2016
Devon: Introduction to Phil Borges and his "Viewing Mental Illness Through Other Lenses." Opened the call with the one minute of silence. Pavi then took over the call.
Pavi: The landscape is so vast and the definitions are so fuzzy that there's really no one answer, solution. So what comes to mind for me is these circles that I've had the privilege of sitting in at a wildlife sanctuary here in Half Moon Bay. It's a sanctuary where traumatized animals are taken care of but also children who've been traumatized, adults who have been abused or victims of unforgiving social structures come in and there's this meeting of injured creatures with injured creatures and you know and there's a space that's held often around the fire. You'll see these children, and some of you know John Malloy and Steve Carlin who are anchors of this work. They are magicians with these children. These are children, some of them have seen their parents being stabbed or stabbing someone. They've been victims of abuse themselves. They've gone through incredibly horrendous experiences. Even the strongest mind would have to break under it at some level. And you see what the process of holding space for people to speak their truth without judgement, without fear of criticism, without fear of labels, without fear of punishment. What that creates is a kind of healing that doesn't come from a medical degree. That doesn't come from an expensive technical infrastructure. It comes from the technology of an unconditional human heart. I think that's a force that acts in the world every day and keeps the world together in so many ways and yet sometimes we forget and sometimes in our haste to operationalize and create large-scale systems and solutions we sometimes leave behind the beating heart of it all. And I think so much of Phil's work returns us to that. Brings us back to some of those tried and tested, they are centuries, millenial old ways of healing ourselves and each other. And it's truly exciting to see what his explorations in this field are opening up. And more than one-size fits all solution, there's a conversation that is being generated that in itself is a healing force in the world.
Phil Borges is a dentist turned photographer, author, filmmaker and social change storyteller. For over 25 years he has been documenting indigenous and tribal cultures in some of the world's most remote and famously inaccessible areas. His boundless curiosity, deep compassion and humility have granted him unprecedented access to reticent communities. Phil uses his exceptional gift to serve as a channel that the rest of the world might understand the challenges these individuals and communities face along with the incredible resilience, spirit and wisdom they face them with. His breathtaking work has been featured on National Geographic and the Discovery channel as well as museums and galleries across the globe. Among his award winning books that cover key human rights issues are "Tibetan Portrait, Enduring Spirit," "Women Empowered," and "Tibet, Culture on the Edge." His programs "Stirring the Fire" highlights extraordinary women worldwide who are breaking through gender barriers and uplifting their communities. His on-line program "Building Bridges" connects youth world-wide through digital storytelling in order to enhance cross cultural understanding and foster a sense of global citizenship.
Phil's current project which has absorbed much of his time the last 4 years is an ambitious and timely documentary titled Crazywise It explores the relevance of shamanic traditional practices and beliefs to the modern world and a mental health system that's in crisis. We're deeply delighted to have him with us this morning. Thank you, Phil, for your generosity in being here with us and for your work in the world.
Phil: Well thank you, Pavi, for such a wonderful introduction and for such an insightful beginning statement that really summarizes a lot of what Crazywise is about. So thank you.
Pavi: I want to go back to your roots. It was very clear from your work and the kind of access you've been granted, that you have this global worldview and sensitivity and kind of an immediate empathic connection with people who've been misunderstood or marginalized or simply not seen. And I'm curious to know what forces or events or things happening in your childhood or years as a young adult that have helped to shape that ability or sensitivity in you.
Phil: It's hard to say but I've always been curious about people and I'm told I'm a good listener. I like to listen to the stories of people because I learn so much from them. And we talked a little bit yesterday about some of the events in my childhood that led up to this current project in terms of mental health.
Pavi: Yes maybe you could give us just a brief glimpse of your childhood years, formative years, and we can go from there.
Phil: Okay. Well if I pick out one of the strongest things from my childhood, one is right after my father died, I was 7 years old. We had an aunt who had suffered the loss of her husband and only son within weeks of each other which sent her into an institution. She had a mental breakdown. She came to live with us shortly after she got out of the institution. And that was right after my father had died so I was in this very vulnerable state unsure of what was happening. My mother was somewhat falling apart from the trauma of losing her husband. And so this aunt, Aunt Maude, came to live with us and at that point in time she had begun talking to spirits. She would call them into the room when she was in her room at night. She would bang on the walls and I heard her doing these chants and it was all very strange to me. Then she asked me on a couple of occasions if I wanted to see my Dad and that really frightened me. I was unsure of what death was and it was just this overwhelming, not only curiosity, but fear. So that was one of the big events that formed some of my path as I look back in retrospect.
The other one was I was living in east bay of San Francisco. Not a ghetto but a lower middle class neighborhood and most of my friends -- and this was when I was 10 or 11 -- were mostly juvenile delinquents. Fighting the authorities, it was just that type of a mindset. And so my mother in all her wisdom sent me to a family ranch in Utah. This was the mid-50s. At that point in time, the members of this ranch were my in-laws. My older sister had married into this family. They were living a subsistence lifestyle. They grew all their own food and just lived very close to the land. I absolutely fell in love with that lifestyle. I wanted to be a farmer. At that point I came home from that summer being away saying this is the life I want.
So I've always been attracted to people that live close to the land. I think that's one of the things that really set me off on this journey going into remote areas where people do that. They're hunter gatherers or they're growing all their own food, very small communities where there's a lot of connection. A lot of connection not only to their land but to their ancestors. I'll be with people when they're eating and they'll set aside some food for the ancestor’s spirits, they pray to the ancestor spirits, they put spirit energy in all of the environment -- spirits of the forest, the sky, the mountains, the animals. So I think that attraction to the people who are still living that type of lifestyle came from that early childhood experience.
Pavi: I remember hearing in one of your talks, you talk about how in modern culture we have moved away from that structural relationship focus they had not just with the land but with each other and the spirit realm. You talked a little bit about your own early relationship with the land and that being kind of foundational for you. Were there any key relationships that you feel -- I'm thinking of there are so many children who go through the experience of living in rough neighborhoods, of running with tough crowds, of not being in environments that are not necessarily wholesome. Who don't have that kind of opportunity to come out with a stronger, more resilient -- with their potential, kind of shining through. I wonder were there any people or key relationships in your life that helped? And ultimately it's a mystery how we end up where we are. But in terms of your own story.
Phil: When I was that age, and even to this age, 73, I wanted respect. I'd get it any way I could. And when I was a young kid, in the environment I was in, the individuals at my elementary school got more status and respect for going to juvenile hall than they did for getting good grades. That's the way it was there. If you're asking who helped me get out of that milieu of values, it was my mom. My mother moved to another community. She sent me to the ranch and I moved from San Lorenzo to Arenda, which is an upper middle class neighborhood. We were poor and she managed to do this and it was a real bold move on her part. It got me into a whole different set of people and social values. That was huge. But it was a hard transition from one set of values to another. All of a sudden I was thrown in with all these kids and their values were getting good grades and preparing themselves for college. I didn't even know how to do that. So my freshman year when I transferred to that school in Arenda and I was falling behind trying to be a tough guy in this new situation which didn't work in terms of getting status and respect. I was finally waking up to it. I remember a poignant time when my friends from my old neighborhood got a car and called me up and said, "Phil we're going to come out to see you." I said, "Thank heavens!" I'll see my old friends. I said to them, "The kids here are weird. They study all night." When they showed up they were all dressed in black, they had chains in the back of the car, they had been in gang fights. I just thought after they left, they had just spent the afternoon with me, I thought, "Whoa, I don't want to be there and I'm not in this new place, I was in this limbo."
The second thing that happened was I had a teacher at the new school and I was getting C's and D's in his class in algebra. Well, I was walking down the hall one day and he stepped out in front of me and stopped me and said, "Phil I see you coming to class and I see that you just spend 5 minutes doing your homework. And you're managing to answer a lot of the questions in class and do you know most of these students are spending an hour or two at home doing their homework? You would be amazed what would happen if you spent a little more time on this. You've got a gift." And he walked away. And I just sat there kind of stunned. And then I started performing for him and I learned how to get A's in other classes. So just that one little encounter turned me around in that new environment.
Pavi: That's such a special story. We all have that particular algebra teacher or that particular person who --- I had a teacher in second grade who pulled me out and said, "I don't think you should go to art class anymore, I think you should write stories." I don't know if I was a horrible art student but it really-- that idea that somebody sees something in you before you see it in yourself, that you have something special, that you belong. That story you just told touches on themes that are recurring now with ‘Crazywise.’ They're kind of threaded through all the work you have done.
I understand that you grew up within the Mormon tradition. At one point in your life you were going to church 9 times a week and as a 12 year old priest within the church you had to give a two and a half minute talk to the congregation. Can you share a little bit about the topic that you chose and the springboard into sharing what drew you into the human rights work and some of the causes that you drew you in early on?
Phil: My mother became very religious after my dad died. It was a good experience, quite frankly, because the Mormons take care of their own. So our family that was poor, they would always give me a job and took care of me that way. But as I got older I started questioning the dogma and one of the pieces of dogma that really bothered me, especially when I was in my teenage years of 16, was the priesthood. All males at 12 years old become a priest. You go through an ordination, so to speak, so it's one of the levels in the priesthood of the church. One of the dogmas in the church that really bothered me was that anyone of color could not hold the priesthood. It was for white males. The church was pure white people. There was one Hawaiian person who had that pigma disease where the pigma starts dissolving and part of your skin starts turning white. He actually stood in a testimony meeting that he thought it was due to the fact that he was becoming righteous in his life. I did a two and a half minute on that issue and how when I would ask the elders about that and where it came from and why, all the different answers I got made no sense. So that was the beginning of my break away from the church. The bishop came to me and told me that this was a very deep subject to take on in a two and a half minute speech. But anyway it was the beginning of the end for me in the Mormon Church, per se, in terms of going to church and I ended up going to Berkeley. My first year of college was spent at Brigham Young University and the dogma I was hearing just didn't make sense, I became a total atheist and got involved in the scientific method and was a physiology major at Berkeley. That was that episode.
Pavi: From there you went to Berkeley and it was the 60s and lots of tumultuous change and idealism and all kinds of things going on.
Phil: Very exciting time.
Pavi: And you studied at Berkeley ethnography?
Phil: No physiology.
Pavi: Okay and then you went into dentistry and had your own practice for 18 years and then quit cold turkey one day knowing your heart was somewhere else. And this was about the time you had a young child at home you had to support so you decided to go into photograhy and from that kind of jumping off the cliff, so to speak, and growing your wings on the way down. How did you end up doing the kind of work you're doing?
Phil: When I made that change, all I knew at that time was I had fallen in love with photography, once again. I did while I was in dental school but it came back to me when my son was born. All I knew is I was in love with photography. I got a teacher again by chance in the community college. I wanted to have access to a darkroom because I had taken the pictures of my son's birth in black and white and I needed to develop them somewhere. So I asked if I could use the darkroom in this community college and I got the answer that I had to take the teacher's class. I ended up with this inspirational teacher, Ron Zack, who still teaches up in Napa at a community college. I fell in love with photography and that's all I knew. I had been restless in my practice because I knew it wasn't fulfilling me the way I wanted it to. So when I found that I just decided yes that's the sign I have to make this change. I knew it was going to be uncomfortable. I did not want to be poor again. And I knew that was the only way I knew how to make a living. I had a new son and so when I quit I thought the only thing I needed to do then was learn how to make money with this new medium. So I started to try and do commercial photography. And it took me 3 or 4 years before I even got a job but during that time I could do my own work while I was waiting to get clients, I would do my own projects. And that really is what propelled my advance in photography was doing what was really close to my heart. From that work I started getting commercial work and got to the point where I was pretty successful at it. As I told you yesterday I ended up doing 50 covers of romance novels and illustrating them with photographs. Just after I'd done one of the last ones I asked myself was this really what I dropped out of dentistry for. And that's when I decided to do this project in Tibet. Do a story on the Tibetan people and what they were facing. And that project took off and put my images in galleries across the country and in Europe and the book did very well. And all of a sudden I didn't have to do commercial work anymore. And I started doing the work I ended up doing which centered around human rights issues that people, especially in the developing world, face.
Pavi: I'd like to go back to that visit to Tibet and that project. One of our mutual friends, Rajeesh Krishnan, sent me a quote from a Tibetan representative here in the U.S. who said, "At a time when so much is being said and written with little impact, his, Phil's images, speak for themselves and gain the understanding Tibet and the Tibetans need." I thought that was a powerful testimony because at that point you hadn't been anywhere in the east when you first went.
Phil: No I had not and that was my first trip. I just want to say that Rajeesh is one of my very best friends who has inspired me so many times with the work he's doing at the wildlfe sanctuary.
Pavi: What that must have been like. You were from the western world arriving in Tibet. What was your take-- the Tibetans have a very distinct history and then a very unusual-- I think by western standards, way of processing and holding and carrying what has happened to them and what continues to be their difficult legacy. I'm wondering how that struck you and how you interfaced with it?
Phil: It was quite profound actually. When I went over there the only thing I knew was I wanted to do this human rights story. I had learned about how their country had been invaded in 1959 and how the Dalai Lama had to escape and go into exile. So I knew it was a human rights story when I went over and I was preparing to tell that human rights story. But when I got there and I started interviewing these people, the people who had come over the Himalayas and escaped from China and Tibet into India where the Dalai Lama lives. You know interviewing individuals who had been in prison, like this monk, Palvin Gison, he had been in prison 33 years, beaten up, starved, most of his fellow monks died while he was there. I met him a couple of weeks after he got out of prison and he was this kind, gentler older man. He was only 62 but at the time he seemed older to me. And I just had a different view of what he would be. And after I had interviewed so many of these people that had gone through these issues and being tortured and imprisoned, and their demeanor and then going to a little talk the Dalai Lama gave to an audience in Dharamsala and he told the audience that they should treat their enemies as if they were precious jewels because the enemies are the ones who are going to help them deepen their patience and tolerance. I thought, whoa, this is a very, very different culture. The leader is not using fear and hatred to gain power like you see happening in our world today. Just a very different and refreshing way of looking at things that really made an impact on me and the way I framed the work I did for the Tibetan people.
Pavi: That's powerful. Before we transition to your current work, so much of the work you've done with the Tibetans, Stirring the Fire -- looking at women who have broken gender barriers, the human rights work; I think it's very common for well-intentioned compassionate people to enter that domain and in a way be fueled by anger and to develop that sense of the scale of the horrors and the suffering that people endure can harden them in some ways. And I wonder how has that process been for you? You've been to these communities, you've seen I'm sure incredible beauty as well as incredible suffering, how do you retain the balance and not tip into anger or despair?
Phil: Well I do tip into anger. I'm not there yet. I have things come up all the time that bother me. But I can say that I am more detached from it now. I look at it, I see what it is for what it is that I'm reacting and my reaction isn't helping matters at all. Having these inspirational people like Dalai Lama or the people I interviewed, or the people I meet in my everyday life that are doing things in a way that I think, whoa, yea, that's the way it should be done, that's the way it should be handled, I understand now. I can regroup and regain my composure and proceed in a more compassionate way. Or more effective way.
Pavi: It's a work in progress for all of us. When I look at your photographs, one thing that leaps out is how intimate they are. They're staggeringly beautiful. Combination of this unearthly quality and yet also be so much of the earth. I understand that you take these pictures very close to your subjects. Your camera and you yourself are inches away from them and yet what strikes me is how unguarded your subjects are, whether they're children or older women, men, they just look so natural, relaxed -- I don't know almost like they are by themselves. Can you speak a little bit about that. Because a camera is kind of an obtrusive thing. Even in an urban world, people do tend to get very self-conscious around being filmed. What's your experience been with that?
Phil: Well you know first of all I have a much easier job doing this with people that are remote and are not used to cameras. And their cultures are not so individualistic or individually driven. So the self-consciousness is a lot less first of all. They're not worried do I look too old, do I look too fat, is my nose too big or whatever. They are pretty much-- when I have the camera and I have a light as well. They were in awe of what was going on. I usually go into a place and I start with the kids. Kids are a lot more open than adults, almost always. Then the adults warm up to the process. Once they're in that space and I'm close to them with my camera, they are kind of in awe. They're not into self-conscious mode, they're into a open wondering about the whole process that's going on. That's part of it. I really tip my hat off to those who do wonderful portraiture in our culture where we're so much this hyper-individualistic, celebrity driven, competitive culture where we all have to be rich and beautiful, whatever. That's a much harder job.
Pavi: I think you're being very humble in what you've been able to do. But it is an interesting point you bring up. Right now we are right in the middle of one of our project's Kindspring is hosting a 21 day reverence challenge and each day we're inviting over 4600 people from 90 different countries who are participating and every day they are practicing an active reverence and I was thinking from your childhood, the break from the church, atheism, adopting the scientific lens and then being drawn into these cultures where reverence and spirit is so much a part of every moment almost, it's not something that's compartmentalized-- how have you processed that and how has that evolved the work that you're doing? Especially you've met these remarkable shamans and healers who are definitely in touch with something the most rational, scientific mind is kind of stumped the ability they have had. How have you worked with that? How has that changed your own understanding?
Phil: Well again that's a work in progress. But I must say I am very much more open to the world of spirit, I guess you would say, or maybe I can't even say that. I am much more open to the mystery of life as a mystery and comfortable with it being as a mystery. I have had, I could give you anecdotes of things that have happened with the shaman and their ability to predict, I have no way of explaining it, but it really caught my attention. Also on a rational level I see how their beliefs, their metaphors serve the human condition so much more than our reductionist, scientific views do.
Pavi: Do you have an example of that? Of how their metaphors---
Phil: One of the things that I witnessed that's in our movie Crazywise was a shaman named Mangatui down in the Amazon jungle go into a trance and shape shift. Where he essentially becomes the energy or the spirit of the jaguar. At that point in time I was hosting this program for the Discovery channel, and we were filming him in his hammock as he was growling and going through this trance-like state and taking on this energy. At the time of filming, I thought I don't know about this, is this a performance, what's really going on here? But as I've grown to think about it later, he was essentially becoming part of the environment, becoming part of the environment separate from his bodily self, the thing we think we are. But he was expanding that to the environment. Whenever I think of spirituality for me what it means is building connections to everyone and everything around you. That was a method of building those connections for his tribe as they all gathered around him as he was doing this shape shifting. That's a ritual, that's a metaphor that is a connecting one. When I look at some of our religions, and I don't want to come down on the Mormon church, one of the things, there was a lot of good about it and there were issues. One of the issues was that this was the only true church. Over and over again I heard that. We have the fullness of the truth. Some religions only have partial truth. That's a separating metaphor. That's a separating narrative. Whenever you hear that stuff, wait a minute, hold on, that's ego speaking. So I look for the metaphors and beliefs that connect --- those are the ones I'm drawn to. And I see a lot of that in the indigenous world. And I also want to say that I don't want to over romanticize these people because they're human beings and they're going through a similar process as we are in the modern world. We're all struggling with our egos and our sense of separation, our sense of self-righteousness and it's no different for them. But they do have these guidelines that are helpful that we can learn from them.
Pavi: That's a beautiful way to frame it and that definition you gave us for spirituality I'm going to hold on to that. I've never heard it framed that way before but it hits a deep chord. We're not going into all the anecdotes and I know there are talks that people can watch on-line where you speak about meeting the Dalai Lama's oracle, meeting these shamans in Kenya and remote areas in Pakistan and India, people who over and over again pointed you to that mystery of there are other ways of knowing, there are other ways of understanding in dramatic context where you couldn't brush by it. What I'd like to segue way into is one of your TED talks from a couple years ago that deals with the themes of your film Crazywise. The film hasn't come out yet, it's still in the future, but this talk has almost half a million views. And the discussion it's generated that it's so clear that you've hit a chord or a nerve or both in the cultural context in what's happening now. Did that surprise you this kind of surge of interest in your film and what do you think it's about? Can you set kind of a stage for us? Why is this a crucial and timely issue that we need to be talking more about?
Phil: I've done now three TED talks on the subject of shamanism and more and more brought mental health into it. I must say I've been so nervous in all those talks because when you start talking about this there's so much controversy and language is such a mine field using the term "mental illness" will alienate a lot of people or recovery even. So it's always a challenge to do it just right in 18 minutes.
But so why is it so important right now? Why is it coming up? Well what I've learned and in this film I'm kind of this every man because I have no background in mental health other than my aunt that I originally spoke about; I have not really been touched by the issue in my adult life with family or friends. This subject kind of came to me and chose me. And as I've been involved in it over the last 4 years, first of all I'm shocked to see the crisis we're in, in terms of mental health. The rates of people going into prison with a mental illness are incredible. Fifty-six percent of our prison population has quote unquote a mental illness. A large portion of our homeless population, I've heard figures all the way from 50% to 30%. And the number of people going on disability insurance for mental health care is, literally, if you worked the numbers on it, will bankrupt the country. Eleven hundred people go on it a day and they estimate those are young people that in today's dollars would be 3 million dollars apiece in payment over their lifetime. If you do the math on that you realize that it's unsustainable. So there's a crisis going on and the rates of depression are rising. And this is despite the fact that we have a narrative driving the treatment and research that is just not working. In fact I've come to believe it's harmful. And so I think the reason there's an interest in it that we are definitely in a crisis.
Pavi: Kind of sets the tone for diving in deeper. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how Crazywise started and where it's come to now. What are the things you've come to see are the core messages of the film, what you'd like to see people take away?
Phil: It started with my work with the indigenous world when I began to meet the individuals that went into trance-like states to serve as the healers or the clairvoyants, they call them seers or predicters, of their community. I started interviewing the people that do this. I found that most of them were selected in their youth by having a crisis of some sort. Once in a while it was a physical crisis or sickness, but more often than not, it was a mental, emotional crisis. Many talked of seeing visions, having these intense dreams, hearing voices, feeling very frightened, some felt they were dying. Typically the ones I talked to that became these healers and seers were taken aside by an elder, usually an older shaman, and told that this was a sign they had special sensitivities. And these sensitivities could be very valuable to the community and they had to go through this initiation. They could not ignore what was happening to them. They could look at it as a calling and they had to answer this calling. And if they didn't they could continue to be sick and they could eventually die from this calling if they did not answer it. So they would enter an initiation period and usually be guided and mentored by this elder who at one time had themselves, he or she, had gone through the same thing and been mentored by somebody before. This was handed down. Just that way of framing that experience was really interesting because I knew how it was framed in our culture where we believed that such an experience is a disease of the brain and the narrative we hold around it right now is a disease of the brain, the biomedical narrative and we don't have a cure for it. We have these medications that can stabilize the person mainly by tranquilizing the person. Most of the medications are heavy tranquilizers. But there's no cure and it's sort of a lifelong sentence. So I've just come to see after, not only after meeting these shaman that had that story but also during the process of doing Crazywise, meeting a lot of people that label themselves people with lived experiences, people who have lived through one of these crises and are now leading very functional lives. When asked what helped them and what didn't. They'll say number one is the way my condition was framed or the fact that what helped me was when I finally realized that this was an experience I could learn from. That there was meaning in this experience. When I had somebody that was supporting me while I was going through this dark night of the soul, that made all the difference. So it was having it framed properly so you don't get this self-fulfilling narrative that condemns the person to a lifetime of illness; it was getting the support where they were helped to find the meaning of what they were going through; find out what those symptoms were telling them rather than just suppressing the symptoms and then give them a purpose for their life. You can be a very valuable person for this community. And if you take a look at the people that go through these experiences and you start talking to them, they are very, very creative, exceptionally bright individuals, they think outside the box. Many of them, including the main character in our film, have what looks like a spiritual experience. The definition I used earlier where Adam said the first time I felt at one with the universe, where I was it, it was me; that many of the sages refer to it as an "aha" moment. Many of these people going through these breaks have that experience and then if they're not supported in the correct way, told it's an illness. You can imagine you're 20 years old, you're vulnerable, maybe you're away at school, maybe you've had a love relationship go bad, things aren't going well, you're away from home for the first time and your brain goes off into another reality to protect your psyche to protect itself. Then you're told by an expert in a white coat after being strapped down or injected with a drug and you're in an altered state of consciousness, you're told that your brain is broken and diseased and your whole identity has changed. Just like the teacher that came up to me in the hallway, he changed my identity around my belief in myself as being a good student.
Devon: Thank you, Pavi and Phil, and incredible insights so far. What you're mentioning here, Phil, the medical research and the treatments helping people with symptoms while the root causes are not solved. And here we're in the middle of crisis where the rate at which people are claiming disability insurance and medical treatments are so unsustainable, how do you reframe them in a positive and nurturing way?
Mindy is reflecting on what the challenging experiences can teach you. I think the most important words are when properly guided. If the person having the break is not open to guidance, then guidance from communities is impossible. Could trained guides help? It's possible. I think it might be tricky. I would be open to learning other approaches and views from indigenous cultures.
Phil do you have a story around that? What can we learn from an indigenous culture that can help us here?
Phil: First of all what I've learned from them the importance of being connected, the importance of community and not only the community of people, but the community of environment. And the world of ancestors. The world that came before us and the world that's coming after us. Being connected to that whole flow of life, that's a healthy state for the human psyche. The thing that our current biomedical treatment narrative or paradigm, what it does, it unfortunately labels the individual with labels that are very stigmatizing, they "other" the person. There are the mentally ill over there and there's us normal here. The myth of normal. One in five people will have an episode like this according to the National Institute of Mental Health so it's very normal. It isn't that abnormal. It's a very normal reaction to circumstance. That "othering" is something we have to learn to avoid.
I think the most important thing is what Pavi spoke about at the beginning of this program...listening with an ear to understand, not to judge. The person in this state where the mind has done what it has needed to do. I say the mind, but I will use the word psyche interchangeably -- what the psyche has chosen to do to protect itself is to go into another reality. So the person could be claiming to be Jesus, or be from Mars, or the CIA is after them if they've been put into deep fear. But listening and trying to understand what these voices, or what these beliefs are indicating, that is one of the most important things. And, of course, if the person has been frightened enough, typically what happens, especially the young people when it happens while they're away at school, they are taken in a cop car or an ambulance to an emergency room, strapped down in the back room until the psychiatrist can get there and inject them with a mind-altering drug. If you can get to the person before they're put into another state of fear then that's ideal. But if you can't and they are just really acting out, maybe they haven't slept in a week, then, of course, some of these medications can get them to a place where they can start to be supported in other ways is very valuable. So medications do have a place. It's the chronic belief that they have to be on these medications for the rest of their life. And the over prescription of these medications. The fact that we are pathologizing normal human experience now. If you look at the list of disorders in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders written by the American Psychiatric Association, those lists of disorders have grown by 300% since it was first published in 1952. So you're getting things like sibling rivalry disorder and there's a medication for that. Or disruptive mood disorder, there's a medication for that. All these young kids being put on these medications to handle what used to be "boys will be boys" or normal grieving. If you lose your spouse after 40 years of marriage and go into grief that lasts longer than a couple weeks, severe depression disorder.
Devon: You touched on patience, listening, taking time to understand; and all these things have so much power in themselves it's good to tap into them. We have a beautiful reflection from Rumi: When I run after what I think I want, my days are full of stress and anxiety. If I sit in my own place of patience, what I need flows to me and without any pain.
There's one more question Phil from Karen and the question is "How does someone who is struggling with a mental condition come to a place of saying it's a gift actually?"
Phil: Well to come to a place where you look at it as a gift ties it a little back to what you just read from Rumi. If you get to a place where you see what this stress is saying. The stress and depression are symptoms. What's underneath those symptoms? It isn't always easy to find that answer but it's worth trying to look for that answer. The problem with looking at it as a disease of the brain is you are turning over all the responsibility to medical experts and scientists. Mental health is a responsibility not only of the individual but of the community that surrounds them. And we have given away that responsibility. I say if you're struggling, and we all struggle with one form of it or another. I'm struggling with an issue with individuals I'm working with on the film. And sometimes I have to say what is this struggle about, why I am struggling with this, what does this tell me, why does this push my buttons? Finding help in doing that is important and I know it isn't always easy but the fact that we're being led to believe that we're going to find a magic bullet that we're going to one day be able to turn off a certain gene sequence, or take a certain pill without any side effects and then our lives will be perfect. That's going down a rabbit hole that’s not going to bear fruit in my opinion.
Devon: Reflection from Kate: Such an important topic. I've had extreme social anxiety since I was a child but was always told I was just too sensitive, took things too seriously, was weak, wasn't strong enough, etc. I wasn't properly diagnosed until 50 with moderate PTSD due to events in childhood and growing up years. Appropriate medication and lots of wonderful therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy plus unending support from loving husband has given me a wonderful life. So grateful for all of this help and know even though it took a long time to get better, I am at 67 now, still a work in progress. Some things still need healing and it's harder to get appropriate help after 65 but I now have strategies and wisdoms that I have not always had. I know that I will be okay. My faith has helped me a great deal.
Phil: Spiritual beliefs are so important. Well who isn't a work in progress? We're all in that work. The fact that she has a loving husband, has that support, As you read that I was wondering if she has realized what a special, even with the pain that it brings her, what a special gift her extra sensitivity is. Being sensitive is having more information come in than the average individual on a certain level. I can't smell what my dog smells. What she feels is more than what the average individual feels can be put to use. And that would be one of the things that I would wonder, if she's found enough support that she hasn't gone into this deep despair and disability what this sensitivity can lead to if it isn't supported in the right way. I think it's so important what one therapist said to me, and he'd been in the business 40 years, he said, “My practice took a whole different shift when I stopped looking for the diagnosis, the label, the problem and started looking for the person's strengths.” What were the strengths of this individual that made them unique? That make them fulfill a role that many of us can't fulfill because we don't have their sensitivities. Look for your strengths.
Misch: I just wonder if you have an explanation of something that happened to me many years ago. I was going through a life crisis and I was in a great state of fear and anxiety. And I wanted to help someone but I was in such a state I didn't think I'd be able to so I didn't turn to my friends or to doctors. Instead I went out and I sat in my back yard, it was a sunny day, and I looked up at the sky and said, "I need help, I can't do this by myself." And this sounds really strange in a way to some, but right away at that moment from the tips of my toes to the top of my head an energy filled my body, a rush like every chakra was opened and from that moment on the fear and anxiety was replaced with peace and I felt great love towards everyone involved in this frightening situation. So I know it was happening at the universal life force energy. Is there any other explanation that you might have for what happened?
Phil: It sounds wonderful. I think you've explained it very well. A couple things come to mind -- you surrendered, you didn't try to fight the symptoms; you just surrendered to what was happening. You connected yourself to nature in a very spiritual way in the backyard looking up in the sky like that and you had a faith that you could be answered. I think that probably helped a lot, don't you?
Misch: Yea I just felt we can turn to the universe and ask for help and I don't know if some people believe it's angels coming to their aide or ancestors. I only know that we can ask for help out there and it can come. And sometimes it can come immediately. That was before my association with Kindsprings and that's what brought me into loving everyone. Sometimes you do need medication and help from doctors but sometimes you can ask for help out there.
Phil: And the fact that you believed you could get it.
Misch: Well I didn't really know if I was going to get it, to be honest, Phil, I just knew I needed help and I was scared as hell and so I went out and asked and was grateful for what happened. And thanks for giving your insights into it too.
Phil: Well at least you were open to the possibility of getting help that way. I would imagine if you hadn't been, if you had been so frightened or the fear had been added to by medical experts or someone who had a different view of this it could have gone a different direction.
Misch: Yes so I would encourage anyone who's going through something that's frightening, go out into nature and ask for help.
Phil: Yea we have heard that from many of the people we've interviewed. Going out in the back yard and gardening; getting your hands in the soil. One of the things we looked into was going down to Brazil and how mediums worked in the psychiatric hospital. Even though Brazil is a first world country they have 13,000 spiritual centers where people believe in the energy can be transferred much like it was to you. And these people that have the sensitivity are volunteering without pay. Even though they don't have the metrics of measurement of how much this improves the outcome for these people in the hospital, the measurement that seems most effective to me is they are the most popular psychiatric hospitals in Brazil. The 50 hospitals using people that do things like pray for the patients, they do passes with their hands transferring loving energy to the patient; all that stuff that doesn't lend itself to the scientific method; they seem to be working in that this is the place most patients, most individuals, having heavy mental emotional crisis want to go.
Misch: I hope we get more of that here in the states.
Devon: The question is ethically if a person knows who has experienced a form of mental condition, is it appropriate to claim disability insurance?
Phil: One of our main subjects in our film is struggling with this right now. Again these breaks can lead to a disabled identity. So the main character in our film is right now deciding whether he wants to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance. All the time knowing that's a label he'll carry the rest of his life. How disempowering will that label be for him? So he's struggling with that. He wants to believe that he can be functional again, start to contribute and lead a fulfilling life of contribution. But we live in a very material world where we need resources to survive so that is the problem; that is the dilemma. You're taking on an identity when you go and seek the disability insurance. Not to say that isn't necessary in certain cases, but that is the down side of it.
Devon: One of my biggest take aways that I'm going to put on my desk is that quote "spirituality to me is building connections to everything and everyone around me." That is so beautifully put especially when I think of all the individualism being promoted so strongly in the perimeter around us. We are so enamored in celebrating personal success and drive and milestones that we sometimes lose that power we all have collective around us and so thank you for doing that. Phil we always like to ask all our callers, "How can we all of us, Service Space volunteers and the community, can help you in your beautiful and touching endeavors?"
Phil: Oh boy, well definitely spread the news about our film Crazywise -- on social media or otherwise. We've been blogging with the expert interviews and excerpts from the film the last two or three years and it's at Crazywisefilm.com. Just get the word out about the film and our message if it has resonated. We're working on it feverishly now to finish it and make sure our message is clear. We're also still raising funds to finish the film and we have a donate button on the film website.
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