Mental Health and the Classics

Though I’m very sorry to hear about this “bump in your road”, I’m not really sure what to recommend in the way of helpful reading. I’m probably a poor person to ask, in fact, since my own greatest solace in moments of crisis tends to come mainly from what one might call “generic” reminders of the primacy of the Absolute rather than from specific solutions designed to address a given problem at hand. If I’d been diagnosed with the serious disease you describe, and if I were looking for something to keep me “mentally healthy”, I would simply return to the traditional authorities and classic texts.

I would reread, for example, Plato’s “prison dialogues” and of course the Apology. I would meditate on some of Ramana Maharshi’s talks, focusing on the question, “Who am I?”. I would submit myself to the difficult and demanding dialectic of Nagarjuna. I would study the Mystical Theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, endeavoring with his help to prescind from all categories. And I would doubtless give special attention to Boethius, a sage who’s much too often neglected but whose Consolation of Philosophy has seen many of my former students through critical moments in their lives (including, in one tragic case, a father’s murder).

I’m just not a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” sort of person!—to allude to what people tell me is a popular series of books, with titles now including such irresistible gems as “Chicken Soup for the Chocolate Lover’s Soul” as well as a “Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul”. Lord, have mercy! No, the classics for me. As C. S. Lewis once noted, “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.” Lewis then proposes a strategy for study with which I fully concur: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

This seems to me an especially valuable rule when it comes to dealing effectively with the sufferings of life. The solution to suffering is, of course, detachment—the nirodha of the Buddhists, which undercuts the tanha that in turn causes dukkha—and sometimes the first step in this process is to detach ourselves from the contemporary moment and present place with which we unconsciously but habitually identify ourselves. Entering into the mind of masters who lived in past times and perhaps distant places can help provide us with the impetus we need for moving, finally, beyond time and space altogether—provided of course their words are joined with our prayers.

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