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Much of modern psychology - and for that matter philosophy and even some science - consists of men wearing ties who co-opt concepts developed by mystics living millennia before Christ, then retroactively prove or at least lend credence to these hoary truths by means of fancy new gadgets (imaging studies, lab draws), and finally attach a catch-phrase and brand them as their own.

Physician David A. Kessler's theory of mind (or as journalists term it, his new way of looking at mental disorders) is the latest rendition of what is really thinly-disguised plagiarism. Highway robbery even. Not that the Eastern metaphysicians would mind. To the rishis of yore it would probably suffice that their genius was being shared with posterity, even if they hardly ever get credit and are never paid. Hell, maybe the author himself isn't even aware of the oversight.

Because really the individuals who composed the Vedas were doing it not for money but for love. Modern artists such as Prince could learn a lesson in selflessness. His epic battle with the likes of iTunes and YouTube had been widely publicized during the artist's latter life. Prince's argument: Why should Apple make tons of money over songs of his that were purchased on demand rather than pay him up front the way record labels used to back in the day? Maybe he was sensitive of his decades-long wane in popularity.

I used to think that rock stars played music well into old age mainly out of love for their art and as a tribute to their fans. That is until I read that many classic groups are forced back onto the road well into their 70s, even to reunite in their 50s and 60s after years of estrangement, to once again tour the world simply because they are strapped for cash. This was Quiet Riot, who are still at it ages after their lead singer Kevin DuBrow accidentally OD'd. I wonder if this is the phenomenon at work to explain the upcoming play dates for Guns N' Roses, whose Not in This Lifetime Tour kicks off around the summer solstice. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame greats responsible for such spectacular classics as "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Sweet Child 'O Mine" haven't played together in over 20 years. Largely because Axl Rose is known to be a stubborn prima donna. He comes by it honestly. Geniuses are often difficult to work with, and he has the musical chops to back up his tirades. I say whatever it takes to bring that great band back. I'm a fan. Rose will also be moonlighting as AC/DC's lead singer. He must really be low on funds.

Anyway Dr. Kessler dubs his new theory of the mind capture, which is also the name of his new book. It is quite catchy. He proposes one mechanism, which he calls the hijacking of attention, to explain mental afflictions ranging from addiction to psychosis. Just as the ancient sages knew, everything boils down to your awareness. Whatever grabs and holds your attention, captures it, if you will, holds power over you. Usually because you are not aware of attention-grabbing until you've already reacted emotionally to whatever it is that has caught your eye. Some people, Kessler uses the example of the fabulously successful writer David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008, cannot escape the vortex of their own minds. And many depressed individuals are plagued by a "continual focus on negative thoughts." With the attention narrowed to a needle-like point on self-destructive, self-defeating ruminations, the mind slowly devours itself. 

Wallace and other great thinkers make their names and careers off their mental capacity and artistry. They develop the mind to such a degree that it runs so hot it ultimately combusts. And in addition to epic novels and suicide notes we are left with sadness and regret and wondering what if they had lived! Or, what if instead of developing the mind to such a high degree these artists had contented themselves with living a life of quiet anonymity? Would they still be alive to speak about it today? Would we care what they had to say? Would someone who didn't live a life of the mind have anything to say? Perhaps not. Because the thoughtless realm is one without concepts and words to express them. 

Such a realm, if expressed on the page, would make for the world's shortest tale. Or a highly redundant one. Which is why most of the world's scriptures and philosophical treatises, and now modern psychotherapy, reiterates over and over again the simple truth that awareness is everything. But we are slow to learn this lesson of lessons. If understanding our nature were like riding a bike, we'd still be on training wheels at Keith Richards' age. Of course not all high achievers are basket cases. Though Richards sometimes sounds like one. Some stars do go on to live long happy lives, creating or not creating until they die of natural causes. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently inducted a new group of performers. It's delightful to tune in and watch how your childhood favorites have matured or not matured, or died. For every Hendrix who overdosed at 27, there is Prince who lived over twice as long, and the newly inducted Steve Miller who is happy as can be and still averaging more than a show a week well into his sixties. Though he is on his third wife. I have a new-found appreciation for "The Joker" after watching the man play. NWA still looks the same. Who'd have thought thug life could be so easy on the eyes?

Of course depression is not always a function of fame or creativity or genius, although being successful does make it easier to develop destructive habits, since drugs and alcohol are more accessible if you have money and a throng of hangers-on. Or at least the drugs are cleaner than if you're some sorry sack at a crack house. But if you're a star and get strung out and die, fame makes it more likely the world will know your sad story than back alley Sally's, whoever she may be. But many average individuals are habitually sad. Comedians, the average Joes and Janes of the world who get to be on stage for weeks or years, often base their whole routines on how pointless life is and how empty they feel. Louis C.K. is a prime example. He makes the French pessimist Sartre seem like a rosy-hued optimist and manages to make everyone crack up, which Sartre's black books never do. Extracting a joke from life's cruelest episodes, now that's genius. But back to the average person who may or may not seek a shoulder to cry on for life's many setbacks and screw-ups. For these, meditation is prescribed more and more often, and taking a time-out has proven to be more effective even than medication, making variations on chanting OM first-lane therapy in many a doctor's office. Though drug companies don't want you to know.

Of course meditation often goes by other names, so as not to scare off the hillbillies who don't buy into that hippie crap. These days mindfulness is often used. Sounds less sappy at minus one syllable. Using an EEG (which measures the electrical activity of the brain) scientists are now able to view the processes of attention and emotion as they travel the brain, down to the millisecond. What they have discovered, and what the rishis of prehistory knew, was that when we are confronted by a stimulus, say an attractive member of the opposite sex or a rat in our kitchen cabinet, our attention goes through several stages. First we attend to the stimulus (like it or not). Then the brain appraises the stimulus, the way a dog would sniff something out. Then it renders a judgment, which finally sets off an emotional response. The whole phenomenon is called capture if Kessler's phrase catches on, and it happens almost instantly. So that often before we are even aware of attending to something we have already been emotionally impacted. 

The depressed person, whose attention is often inwardly directed, is trapped in the emotional response phase. Thoughts emerge one after the next, and they are anxiety-provoking and make the thinker perpetually sad. And yet the sad person often does not even know why he feels the way he does because he is not aware of the thought process underlying the emotional reaction. In other words, he is unaware of the attention and appraisal and judgement parts of the equation. The way a person screams in pain and rubs a welt that has formed on his arm without knowing what bit him or whether he was bit or is just having an allergic reaction (and fittingly, allergies are more common these days). If you showed him the bee and helped him stay calm, he could avoid future stings. And how thoughts can sting! Especially the persistent ones that treat your self-worth. Sure it may help to know that the thought echoes what a parent said before you were old enough to remember. But just attending to the thought disarms it, so no proverbial welt.

That is, through mindfulness, or simple being aware, you can intervene in the appraisal process early on, notes psychology professor Kirk Brown of the Virginia Commonwealth University. You can notice when something, whether thought or hot bod, grabs your attention as quickly as 200 milliseconds in. By watching yourself watch the thought or thing you can effortlessly change the way you attend to the stimulus. You can view things passively, calmly, with quiet equanimity. Which are all ways of saying with peace. The power is yours. This nonreactive witnessing in turn alters your appraisal, judgment and emotional response. Peace is self-perpetuating too. You'll still avoid the speeding car or introduce yourself to the lovely person, you just won't be so damn nervous.

The trick to managing sadness is not in blunting your emotional response, which is what psychotropics like Prozac seek to do. This is way too down stream and can ruin your sex life too. The best means of assuring mental health is to address the problem at its roots. And meditation, mindfulness, directing your awareness, being present in the moment, witnessing without reacting, call it what you will, is the first resort and important whether you are sage, shrink, rock star or "little old me." 

You don't have to bang your head to get out of your head, though it is a catchy tune. And you don't need a cave or solitary retreat to engage in attention watching. Do it in the car, on the run, at parties or when you are boiling beans. Just be sure they don't overcook. And if you're really paying attention to your surroundings within and without, you'll hear the timer go off.

It is not enough to do as the rishis did and turn away from the world. For you are still left with mental impressions, and these can haunt to no end. But you can simplify your life, dispense with the riffraff, abandon the clutter, the unnecessary engagements, and slow down. By doing so you are at liberty to go about your day deliberately, attending to thoughts and things as they arise with the full scope of your awareness. And then you'll see just how bright a place the world can really be.


  1. This was a fascinating read. I think I would like to read Dr. Kessler's book. I've been depressed for many years. Therapy & meds have done little to nothing to combat it.


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