Category Archives: the “understanding” series

understanding mental health

may is mental health month. it might be useful to think about what we’re talking about here.

what is mental health?

there are many definitions out there. years ago i wrote a paper about my definition but i can’t find that paper anymore. so why not try again. let’s see …

mental. health.


mental comes from the latin word mens, which means mind. there are more ideas about what “mind” is than we’ll ever have time to talk about here; i think we’re forced to come up with our own definition for this one, too. so what do i think is that thing called “mind”?

it’s the intangible stuff inside a person. wait, just inside a person? animals, too? do you think a dog has a mind? a parrot? a sharK? a bee? we’re just a few words into this and already we get entangled. so let’s just say that non-humans may have a mind, too, but for the purpose of this blog post, we’ll limit it to humans.

“the intangible stuff inside a person” is too vague. we have names for the stuff: emotion, heart, feelings, thinking, perceiving, consciousness, soul, dreams, desire … (what have i left out?). when we use the word “mental”, at one point or another, we touch on all of these. but how do we fit all of these under one hat? is the word “mental” that hat?

how about “the inner life”? is that more descriptive than “mental”?

now of course what happens in that inner life – desire, particularly – influences very much what we do. they call that “behaviour”. indeed, for a long time, psychology (meaning “the science [-logy] of the soul [psych-]”) was referred to as the “science of behaviour.” so we could say that “mental” is about behaviour, too.

is “mental”, then, about the whole human experience, minus the physical stuff? not really. our experience and use of our body is profoundly influenced by the intangible stuff. how our eyes, ears and noses perceive is mental; how we experience pain is mental; how we have sex and deal with a cold is mental. many would argue that healing, from anything from cancer to broken bones to pneumonia, is at least partly mental.

seen like this, “mental” is a good two-thirds of our experience.


let’s move on to “health” now, a concept even vaguer than “mental”, if that’s possible. “health” is related to “whole”. so presumbly, if we have health, we have wholeness. and already, we’re back to perception because our being is so complex, we’re not able to tell whether we are completely whole. all we can talk about are those aspects that are in our awareness. which depends on the mind again. some people, both my daughters for example, are extremely aware of the far reaches of their bodies. every bruise registers on the richter scale. does that mean they are less healthy than the football player who keeps going even with a broken arm? and then there’s the story that everyone has come across – the health nut who suddenly dies of cancer. one day, there is health, the next day the opposite.

health is also often mentioned in connection with “wellbeing”. this is not a bad concept, since it alludes more clearly to the perception of wellness in the moment. the runner who trots along vigorously experiences wellbeing one moment, but not the next. it takes away at least a bit of the absolute claim of “wholeness”. that has advantages and disadvantages, as we’ll see in a moment.

mental health

in physical health, there are certain crude measures that establish the (possible) existence of health, such as blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, a lung x-ray, oxygen uptake, etc. and while in mental health, we have a big tome that tells us about symptoms of mental illness (the DSM, or diagnostic and statistical manual), there is nothing that details symptoms of mental health. so again, everyone is left to their own devices. of course, one can take a few tests to see whether they are “normal” (for example, there is a myriad of stress tests and depression tests; there is also the emotional IQ, or EQ) but most of that is totally driven by the medical model of looking for the absence of illness.

the absence of mental illness is, in fact, what most people are after. while that’s not a bad idea, it has a number of ramifications. mental illness still carries a huge stigma so understandably, most people go out of their way to make sure that they don’t carry that stigma. however, not being “branded” by a psychiatric diagnosis is not the same as mental health. it just means you don’t have the sticker glued to you that screams, “mentally ill!” in many instances this means that people who could easily get help for a comparatively minor problem such as situational depression won’t get that help, which then in turn magnifies the problem.

the idea of the absence of mental illness also hinges on how you define mental illness. “i’m not crazy like my brother-in-law who’s spent the last 5 years in the psych ward” says the hyper anxious weekend binge drinker, happy in her “knowledge” that she’s not mentally ill. let’s say we don’t know whether in fact she is mentally ill – but it’s pretty clear that she is not enjoying good mental health. she also illustrates the disadvantage of the idea of “wellbeing” because once she’s had her fourth drink, she might very easily experiences a few hours of feeling very well. (interesting idea: we could perhaps make a difference between “wellfeeling”, a momentary illusion of wellness, and “wellbeing”, which might refer to something than runs a bit deeper.)

has this thinking out loud helped? let’s try on this definition/description:

mental health is authentically felt wellbeing in all aspects of one’s inner life and behaviour.

i would love to hear about YOUR ideas!

understanding meaning

recently, i have had numerous little conversation bits on twitter about meaning and meaning making. rather than expound on my ideas here, i’d like to invite you to reflect on the questions below and/or the words of others who have thought about the topic. maybe you’ll come up with your own questions. maybe we can begin a conversation.

  • have you ever wondered, “what is the meaning of life?” if so, what specifically are you talking/thinking about or perhaps hoping for when you ask that question?
  • what does it signify when someone says, “his death was meaningless”?
  • “meaningful” is another word. i just saw that i used it in at least 20 entries. do you use that word? what are you trying to express with it?
  • does a tree have meaning?
  • how does the concept of “meaning” fit into your approach to spirituality? to creativity?
  • when you look at the thoughts on meaning and meaning making below, could we have used other words/ideas/concepts instead of “meaning”?

here are some things other people have said:

meaning-making is a bridge from the negative emotion caused by negative life events to positive emotion through cognitive restructuring. (by mary-frances o’connor in a paper making meaning of life events: theory, evidence, and research directions for an alternative model.)

stephen downes, a fellow canadian, has an interesting article on the topic. an excerpt:

in the roughest sense, ‘meaning making’ is the placing of perceptions or information within the context of a perspective, point of view, or world view. in other words, the ‘making meaning’ of something is to show or to understand how that something assists or contributes to one’s understanding of the world.

beyond that rough outline, the topic of ‘making meaning’ is fraught with dispute and conflicting accounts of ‘meaning’.

the term ‘meaning’ is of semantic origin. the word ‘meaning’ traditionally applied to words. the idea of ‘meaning’ is that one thing – the word, or the ‘sign’ – stands for, or represents, something else – the ‘signification’ …

but the meaning of a word (or sentence) may extend beyond what the words directly refer to. frege captures this idea by distinguishing between ‘sense’ and ‘reference’. other writers speak of the distinction between ‘denotation’ (ie., what a word ‘denotes’, or refers to) and ‘connotation’ (ie., what a word makes you think about, or what a word is associated with). such a distinction is necessary to understand metaphor. ‘the early bird captures the worm’ is either meaningless or [possibly] false when understood strictly by reference, but understood as a metaphor, may well be true.

in either case, there is presumed to be a strong correlation between what a word means and the state of affairs in the world. the idea is that, without a corresponding state of affairs, a word is, literally, meaningless. this opens the way, substantially, to a way of understanding the world, by understanding how we describe the world.

then, interestingly, there is something on a mental health site in new zealand that talks about creativity (interesting because i’m interested in both topics)

meaning-making is the construction of ‘comprehension’ from an individual’s experience. this may be the discovery of completely new core constructs or the reframing of current ideas. it requires an engagement with people, places, ideas or things, to create an ‘internal’ space in which an energetic information exchange can occur. this is what enables the individual to grasp an understanding of the unity between their ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds. in the ‘space’ that creative process provides, one recognises themselves as this is reflected back by the image/word/sound they have made, and so comprehension expands.

futuredirected looks at it this way:

perhaps what we are really looking for is completion ” the recognition that the universe is exactly as it should be. there’s nothing wrong with it. we created this way, and if it should have been created some other way, we would have created it that way. but we didn’t. we created it this way.

when you are complete with life, and always already complete, then you are free from the burden of surviving. you have the freedom to create intentionally. your life as you now know it will end, but in its ending there would be no sorrow or tragedy. you would have had a life well lived and it will have been lived completely. new life would appear in your wake. the world you created would go on, always in the context of you. only by giving up the need to survive, in favor of being complete can one attain true survival.

life has no innate meaning, but it does have purpose, and the purpose of life is completion. this isn’t the answer. it’s not even the truth. it is simply a place to stand.

and here something that i think is quite representative of the place of “meaning” in buddhism – in this case, the meaning of sitting meditation (zazen)

our normal western minds would say, “ok, let me just try to figure this thing out, let me try to figure out what the meaning of this “looking at a wall” has for my life, let me just figure out the significance of this and then i will know its meaning. so let me just think about this for awhile.”


sit down! shut up! look at the wall!

finally, here are all the different interpretations of “meaning” on wikipedia.

ok, now over to you!

understanding acceptance

last month we had a conversation about acceptance, and i’d like to continue it.

evan said, “i think changing the world can be valuable, too.”

maybe there is no either/or between acceptance and making changes.

to accept comes from the latin, meaning to receive (as in “UPS delivered a parcel for you, and i accepted it”.) if we agree with that meaning, acceptance is about the past. changing the world (or ourselves, or our marriage, etc.) is about the future.

there is absolutely nothing we can do about the past (assuming, as i will for now, that we use the concepts of past, present and future in the ordinary, linear sense). the sun did shine five minutes ago, and i my father did die on august 21.

acceptance does not equate liking or condoning. i don’t have to like the fact that there was a time when i smoked two packs a day. and there is also no point in berating myself for having harmed myself that way, or in lying about it. yes, i used to smoke, sometimes a lot. yes, it made my hand shaky and my friends rolled their eyes when i absolutely had to go out to buy a pack at 11:30 at night. it’s not pretty but i accept it – that’s what the reality of it was. so there’s a strong connection between honesty and acceptance.

acceptance is not the same as fatalism. that relates to the idea that acceptance is about the past not the future. for example: “it used to be okay for teachers to beat students. that was a fact, and we can’t change it. it’s NOT ok for them to keep doing it.”

a common trap that we fall into in our thinking is when we jump without reflection between what is and what should (ought) be. in philosophy, that has been referred to as the “is/ought” problem (for those of you interested in the more intricate points of why this is referred to as a problem rather than a logical fallacy, see the meatyard). just because i say that yes, teachers used to beat students, and yes, i used to smoke (the “is”) does not mean that teachers ought to beat students and people ought to smoke.

from a logical point of view, that makes sense but emotionally it’s not that easy. in teaching, childraising, training, psychotherapy and other such tasks we rely heavily on modelling. we want people to look at what is and infer from it what they ought to do. we don’t swear in front of our 2-year-olds, and we encourage university students to read biographies – that’s modelling.

i believe the trick lies in the reflection. we can go from is to ought. but let’s not jump.

let’s accept what is, the reality we see right in front of us, as unfiltered as possible.

then stop. breathe. ask yourself the question: “inasmuch as i can, should i support and nurture a repetition of this reality, or should and can i do something to change it?”

if you can and want to do something about it, do something.

if not, don’t fret.

that’s acceptance, too.

understanding parents

a few semi random musings on parents …

through my parents, a lot of challenges came my way. but through them, i also learned how to build the tools to overcome those challenges. for example, creativity was highly encouraged.

parents irrevocably shape most of the way we view the world. some of that can be changed. we can add to it. we can move the furniture of our world view around. we can accept the limitations of our worldview and strategize around them. but the basic neural pathways that our parents influenced in our first years cannot be completely changed.

parents are people, first and foremost. as adults, we need to acknowledge that. it’s hard to do that, both intellectually and emotionally. it’s much easier to comprehend intellectually. our parents muddle through their lives, they understand only a fraction of what’s going on inside and outside of themselves, most of their mistakes are honest mistakes, they are sexual beings, they want to feel useful, they want to feel loved – just like everyone else. on an emotional, subconscious level, it’s difficult to grasp that they are not particularly powerful, that they can’t read our minds, that looking after us is not their primary task.

if parents don’t look after themselves emotionally, they have a hard time looking after and appreciating the emotional needs of their children, whatever their age may be. yet 99% of all parenting books are about the feeding and caring of the child. a parent who never understood, when you were a child, how to feed and care for themselves as parents, may have a hard time understanding your needs as an adult.

parents make big mistakes. miss-takes. they honestly think that grounding you was a good idea when you kept coming home after midnight. little did they know that being cooped up in your room was one of the major things that contributed to your depression. how were they supposed to know? so much of human development is a mystery; there are just so many forks in the road, all day long. yes, there could have been more communication; perhaps much more communication, and that’s maybe how they could have known. but the truth is that we live in a culture where honest, in-depth, loving, peaceful communication is not supported, and we all get swept up in that culture – some more, some less.

kids drive parents crazy. even the best parent pulls out their hair when little lance or teenage tom or college colleen whine, play blaring headbanger music and leave jam on the counter for the 1,482,487th time. because wanting to pull out your hair is a fabulous memory anchor, most parents find it hard to forget those lovely character traits and still interact with you as if you whined all day long, even when you’re 42 and have become a university professor specializing in rational communication.

forgiving your parents is a tricky thing. you need to figure out for yourself what you mean by forgiving. is it acting as if the thing (the incest, the yelling, the stony silence) never happened? is it behaving civilly, without engaging in behaviours of the past? is it stopping punishing your parents? is it creating your own little truth and reconciliation roundtable? something else completely? whatever it is, i recommend to put off forgiving them until you actually mean it. in the meantime, behave like an adult.

understanding understanding

after reading this morning that BC philosopher and counsel to psychologists sydney banks had died, i thought i’d write a bit about him.  alas, i cannot find in myself any interest in his work.  he talked about the three principles of mind, thought and consciousness. if there’s a sydney banks fan among you out there, please feel free to enthuse and educate me!

instead, i decided to play a “follow the link” game on wikipedia.  i started at “psychology” and the game landed me at “understanding” (not so different from what banks talks about after all, is it?).  want to understand understanding?  here is the article.  material to talk about for quite a while.

understanding (also called intellection) is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, situation, or message whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object.

an understanding is the limit of a conceptualisation. to understand something is to have conceptualised it to a given measure.

  1. one understands the weather if one is able to predict and to give an explanation of some of its features, etc.
  2. a psychiatrist understands another person’s anxieties if he/she knows that person’s anxieties, their causes, and can give useful advice on how to cope with the anxiety.
  3. a person understands a command if he/she knows who gave it, what is expected by the issuer, and whether the command is legitimate, and whether one understands the speaker (see 4).
  4. one understands a reasoning, an argument, or a language if one can consciously reproduce the information content conveyed by the message.
  5. one understands a mathematical concept if one can solve problems using it, especially problems that are not similar to what one has seen before.

is understanding definable?

it is difficult to define understanding. if we use the term concept as above, the question then arises as to what is a concept? is it an abstract thing? is it a brain pattern or a rule? whatever definition is proposed, we can still ask how it is that we understand the thing that is featured in the definition: we can never satisfactorily define a concept, still less use it to explain understanding.

it may be more convenient to use an operational or behavioural definition, that is, to say that somebody who reacts appropriately to x understands x. for example, one understands swahili if one correctly obeys commands given in that language. this approach, however, may not provide an adequate definition. a computer can easily be programmed to react appropriately to commands, but there is a disagreement as to whether or not the computer understands the language (see the chinese room argument).

according to the independent socionics researcher rostislav persion:

in the cognitive model presented by MBTI, the process of introverted thinking (TI) is thought to represent understanding through cause and effect relationships or correlations. one can construct a model of a system by observing correlations between all the relevant properties (e.g. the output of a nand gate relative to its inputs). this allows the person to generate truths about the system and then to apply the model to demonstrate his or her understanding. a mechanic for example may randomly, or algorithmically probe the inputs and outputs of a black box to understand the internal components through the use of induction. 

INTP, ISTP, ESTP and ENTP and all use TI and are usually the best of the 16 types at understanding their material environment in a bottom-up manner. these types may enjoy mechanics and digital electronics because of the 1 to 1 correlation between cause and effect relationships in these fields.

understanding is not limited to these types however as other types demonstrate an identical process, although in other planes of reality; ie. social, theological and aesthetic. a potential reason for the association of understanding with the former personality types is due to a social phenomenon for asymmetrical distribution of gratification.

in the field of engineering, engineers probe or study the inputs and outputs of components to understand their functionality. these components are then combined based on their functionality (similar to computer programming) to create a larger, more complex system. this is the reason why engineers attempt to subdivide ideas as deep as possible to obtain the lowest level of knowledge. this makes their models more detailed and flexible. it may be useful to know the formulas that govern an ideal gas, but to visualise the gas as being made up of small moving particles, which are in turn made up of even smaller particles, is true understanding.

people who are understanding (through the use of TI) usually value objects and people based on usefulness, as opposed to the people who use extroverted thinking (TE) who view people or things as having a worth. in order to test one’s understanding it is necessary to present a question that forces the individual to demonstrate the possession of a model, derived from observable examples of that model’s production or potential production (in the case that such a model did not exist beforehand).

rote memorization can present an illusion of understanding, however when other questions are presented with modified attributes within the query, the individual cannot create a solution due to a lack of a deeper representation of reality.

another significant point of view holds that knowledge is the simple awareness of bits of information. understanding is the awareness of the connection between the individual pieces of this information. it is understanding which allows knowledge to be put to use. therefore, understanding represents a deeper level than simple knowledge.

the concepts of comprehension, thought and understanding are also used in the short science fiction story understand by ted chiang.

religious perspectives

in catholicism and anglicanism, understanding is one of the seven gifts of the holy spirit.

related topics:

understanding guilt: is it useful?

what is guilt? we usually think that guilt is a feeling. however, it is not a primary emotion like fear or happiness, sadness or even shame. it is more complex. when joe feels guilt over having forgotten his and mary’s wedding anniversary, a number of things happen.

  • he needs to have a basic concept of right and wrong. e.g., hurting people is wrong.
  • he becomes aware that he has done something that hurt someone (i.e. forgetting the anniversary hurts mary’s feelings; it makes her wonder whether their marriage is all that important to him)
  • at that point an almost physical shock can set in, which is probably the reason why we call guilt a feeling. this is because
  • the awareness of having hurt someone brings shame (“i shouldn’t have done that; it is unacceptable in my community/culture) and/or compassion (“i don’t’ want her to hurt”)

now the question is, where does all of this lead? there are numerous possibilities. among the more ideal scenarios are

  • apologizing
  • promises of restitution or restoration (“i’ll make it up to you; let’s go to whistler next weekend and celebrate”)
  • resolve (“this won’t happen again”)
  • action – they actually do go to whistler, and/or he puts the event into his day timer for next year, in big red letters

these are all ways that show responsibility. but sometimes guilt also leads to

  • procrastination – “i feel awful right now, let’s wait until i feel better”
  • aggression and isolation – research has shown people can turn against or drop people towards whom they feel beholden or guilty. somehow we see them as a source of our guilty discomfort, so there can be a subconscious drive to fight or flee them
  • a mistaken idea of absolution. by receiving the “punishment” of feeling guilty, it seems as if we’ve already done our part.

where does that all leave us? it seems to me that “feeling guilty” is really not such a useful activity because even in the positive scenario we can re-script it. next time you feel guilty, why don’t you imagine you can throw out most of it and just keep these:

  • your values of what’s right and what’s wrong
  • an awareness of how your actions and omissions impact others
  • compassion for anyone you might have impacted negatively
  • ask for forgiveness where possible (including from yourself!)
  • make restoration
  • do what you can to prevent a similar occurrence from repeating

isn’t that much cleaner and simpler?

(please continue on to part 2 of this reflection on guilt, inspired by the comment below)

understanding expectations

the other day someone said that i was a picky eater. this was after telling them that i can’t have any dairy products in the morning – it gives me bad cramps. i was hurt that i was called picky and defended myself by saying that it wasn’t that i was rejecting their food, or having a sense of entitlement or something … and then it occurred to me: what’s wrong with feeling entitled to eat in a healthy way? what’s wrong with that kind of expectation?

some people say that expectations are Continue reading

understanding learning

a few years ago, i put together this list of definitions to answer the question:

what is learning?

acquisition of knowledge
· gain some understanding that we have been able to commit to memory
· a seal of approval on particular thoughts and feelings that we want to stay with us in the future
· knowledge acquisition or gathering
· reading what others have written
· learning is mastery of practical questions of life
· classical conditioning
· a relatively permanent change in behavior that occurs as a result of experience

process / systems
· learning isn’t simply a memory that Continue reading