The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Summer 2016 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Smoley, Richard, "From the Editor's Desk" Quest 104.3 (Summer 2016): pg. 90-91

Richard SmoleyMaybe, as the New Thought people claim, all healing is mind healing. Even setting that aside, the main health problem in the U.S. today is probably that of mental health. You can go to the Internet and look up the astonishing statistics on anxiety and depression, causes of suffering for tens of millions of people. When you realize that in many cases, crime, drug abuse, and homelessness are also mental health problems, the picture looks even grimmer.

So what is causing this pandemic?

I doubt that there is one single answer. But one thing occurs to me that is often overlooked.

You’ve heard of the placebo effect: you take some totally innocuous substance, you’re told it will heal you, and you get better. If this works (and a lot of evidence says it does), the opposite should also be true. You take some totally innocuous substance, you’re told it will harm you, and it does.

This is known as the nocebo effect. For more about it, read Be Careful What You Pray For . . . You Just Might Get It, by Larry Dossey, M.D. Dossey had originally entitled the book Toxic Prayer, but this made the publisher too squeamish and had to be renamed.

The point is that if thoughts are things, they can work for ill as well as for good. What, then, are we to make of the constant suggestions that everything is bad for you?

These days diet soda seems to be a favorite culprit. On my Facebook feed recently, someone mentioned that he was drinking a diet soda. Someone else, “You gotta give that up, man. That stuff is a killer.”

No doubt there is some truth to these claims, although at the age of nearly sixty, I doubt that I will suffer terribly many health effects from the three or four cans of the stuff I drink per week. Rather it’s the cumulative effect of such messages that I have in mind. I suspect that this relentless assault of them goes far toward creating a milieu of anxiety.

I focus on health here because these are the most paradoxical messages, telling you that you need to think positively while telling you at the same time that everything is killing you at every step. But of course I could make the same point about conflicting messages of all kinds—about politics, social issues, economics, the environment, and the rest.

Practically all of these messages seem to be based on this premise: if you don’t create panic and hysteria about this problem, nobody will do anything. The system must be changed, they say. No doubt. But if it is changed by people who are suffering from the very disorders that the system causes, the outcome will be no better and probably worse. The worst state of mind for taking effective action is one of panic and hysteria.

This mood, which lies almost everywhere in the background of public discourse, is bound to cause anxiety and depression in many people. I doubt that this is the only cause of mental illness, but I believe it is part of the picture.

Thus we return to an issue that has occupied me a great deal lately. How do I maintain my inner balance in the face of an imbalanced world?

One commonly mentioned solution is to go on a media fast. Avoid the TV shows and magazines and websites that are barraging you with negative information. I certainly think that’s a good idea. I myself find TV news particularly poisonous. So I don’t watch it. At the health club I choose the treadmill that’s farthest from the screens tuned to news networks.

Of course, this tactic is not completely feasible in an age when you find electronic media flashing at you in doctors’ waiting rooms, elevators, and even at the gas pump. Besides, if you take it too far, it could have the opposite effect: making you more susceptible to—and upset by—these messages at times when you can’t avoid them.

One helpful approach is countersuggestion. When you find yourself confronted by some image or idea that makes you fearful, counter it with some affirmation like “I deny the power of this to hurt me.” Or this one, from A Course in Miracles: “I am not the victim of the world I see.” If you start working with this, you will soon find affirmations that work especially well for you, and these are the ones to use.

Still another practice is one that could, somewhat vaguely, be called centering yourself. It is very easy today to become mentally top-heavy and thus fall prey to all sorts of noxious thoughts (your own and others’). Often centering yourself will bring this process to a halt. It usually involves some conscious attention to the sensation of the body or the breath. People who are centered in this way frequently have some sense of “I” in the area of the heart or the solar plexus. Expanding your attention to your surroundings—or farther, if you like—can also advance this process. Recently a friend wrote to me and said that he begins his meditations by saying, “I extend my senses to the front, to my left, to my right, behind, above my head, and under my feet.” There are any number of variations.

I imagine that most readers of this magazine have a fairly good idea of how to center themselves and can do it easily enough once they remember to do it. The task, or the first part of the task, is remembering.

Richard Smoley