Thursday, July 14, 2011

Having an Unconventional Mind

I keep searching for a way to describe those of us who have the advantage of creative, unconventional minds. I don't like being categorized as "mentally ill."  This being me is not "illness," and in fact, in Zen practice we aspire to leave labels lying discarded by the side of the path and just be in reality (like a frog).

Some of us have body/minds that can perceive intensely and transform reality in highly individual ways, mind/bodies that feel deeply, that fire many impulses, that can get carried away into their own creativity or stuck in emotional states.  What if you don't call these tendencies "sick"?  The film "A Beautiful Mind" didn't do enough, in my opinion, to emphasize the beauty of Nash's gifted creative mind. (I read that it also falsified the story - he didn't have visual hallucinations.) But the term is useful. Not an ordinary mind or an ordered mind, not a dis-ordered mind - a special, interesting mind.

It is certainly also true that the term "mental illness" is a code for "has scared other people."  I've often read that there is really very little violence among the beautiful minds; that's a media fiction.  Horrible crimes are done by sane people.

Most of the time, what scares people about the beautiful is our unconventionality.  Like our close cousins, the monkeys or the wolves, humans have rigid social structures. There are big ones, like governments with their encompassing laws, and the little ones in which we live and move in our neighborhoods, churches, workplaces. You can call these patterns of unspoken laws our "culture."  In mine, for instance, it is weird not to shave your legs.  If you're a woman, that is - it's gender-specific.

Overall, these zillions of unwritten laws are about giving a group of monkeys a sense of security, predictability.  But they can get too tight for comfort.

To have a beautiful mind is to be noticeably individual and to break some of these rules.  Often we don't quite get it, don't know the rules. Maybe we detect reality better than rules.  I know I do.  Once, for instance, I wore some plaid flannel pants to a women's group I belonged to.  One woman made reference to my pajama bottoms.  Hmmm.  What made them pajama bottoms? The catalog called them pants.  They had cuffs - surely pajamas don't have cuffs.  I had to guess it was the flannel; my friend thought there was a rule, flannel was only for shirts, and pajamas.  It bemused me.

Quite recently I was tempted by a loose, pretty sort of shift I thought would be comfortable in the heat.  Then I noticed it was in the nightwear department.  Whoops.  Wearing a nightgown out of doors is the kind of thing that is called "inappropriate behavior" in the wards and hospitals that specialize in keeping Beautiful Minds from upsetting other people.

Where was I?  It is kind of fun to go with this seed-scattering mind just now.  It is certainly high summer, goof-off time.  Recognize that.  We are connected with this universe quite intimately.  Even in our air-conditioning, there is summer outside, the kind of bright energy that makes some of us (me) want to go into a cave in the Himalayas this time of year. Dim, cool, quiet.  Be careful about exciting things and places in this weather, especially be cautious with alcohol, which enhances the element of fire, the element that usually gets you in trouble.

About how we label our minds. First, a very important point - maybe the most important:  your mind is not a noun sitting there like Grandma's rag rug (though there are certain similarities). It is a verb.  It dances, it moves in certain patterns.  When you die and the life energy that held you together flows back out into the universe, your mind will mostly be gone, I think.  Its life is in activity.

In the industry they are talking a lot these days about plasticity, meaning your mind can learn and change even when you are (gasp) old.  Or when you're young.  That is what Buddhist meditation is about, exactly.  It is about letting your real mind come forth, so to speak, discarding the rigid outer layers of what to think and not to think.  A great relief.  It gets called enlightenment, but it's really not that special.

And my mind is reminding me forcefully that I have to go take 12 pills, drink some juice with powdered calcium in it, get dressed, contemplate the schedule which today has me going to argue with a kidney surgeon.  There goes another morning, wasted staying alive.  Damn.
p.s. We waited two hours for the surgeon, but were calm, enjoyed the peace and quiet, conversed some, read a magazine.  Wasted time. The word is, When things are going well, the infections have stopped, you're not broken, so don't fix yourself.  So hey, wouldn't it be wonderful to go on for many years and never have another surgery?  Yes.


  1. There are times when it seems to me some people need labels so badly, or need to label things and others, so they can have a sense of belonging or adopt a new identity. I was looking at some DBT stuff the other day and realized much of it is derived from Buddhist teachings. I assume they admit to that, but who knows. My point is that the more the psych industry grows, the more people there are who are identifying as mentally ill. Just a thought.

    I would have loved your flannel pants. To me it is so nice to find good people who are different. In San Francisco a lot of people will wear their PJ bottoms all day and no one is concerned about it. I went to the store here one night in my flannel PJ's and a couple of women totally stared at me as if I'd come in naked. But difference is not readily acceptable here, and I think much of being free to be different depends on which culture we live in.

    You sound like you are feeling well mentally, emotionally, and physically. I hope that is indeed the case.

  2. Unfetterred?

    I had one of those nice ordinary minds once. It broke with PTSD. After the initial shock I decided that it was more like an egg-shell; something I needed to break out of. I demolished the rest of it systematically.

    Now my mind is a lot less fixed. On the upside I can sometimes relate to DSM IV but it's not a problem. On some days people think I'm a little mad. On some days they think I'm a little genius.

    Yesterday I went for a walk letting curiosity drive me. Enjoying the beauty that I find all around me.

    Being able to enjoy life seems to be a good thing. Not having to chase 'excitement' or 'entertainment' seems like a good thing.

    This mind seems less fragile, more fun, more alive.

    On some days I wonder if I'd want my old mind back but the answer always seem to come back as 'no'.

    Maybe what we think of as normal is frozen or broken.