This touchiness may be due to the assumption that if something is in the mind, then it is not real. Perhaps if we have a problem which we are told is due to , say, some kind of bacterial infection, we may be reassured that we are not imagining we are ill, that we are not making it up. But if we are told that we have a problem whose origin may lie in the mind, suddenly we may feel on the spot. Is there really anything wrong with us? Are we just imagining it? Are we malingering? Suddenly we are assailed with such uncertainty that we can even doubt our actual experience. Am I really in pain? Am I really so tired?
(Similarly it is not uncommon to come across people suffering from mental health issues such as depression who have found comfort and reassurance in the idea that there is a physical root of their problem in an imbalance of certain neurochemicals in the brain. In fact this is an idea which is far from being conclusively proven, but perhaps it might be diplomatic, and even therapeutic, not to point this out!)
But this all begs the question, why should something in the mind be unreal? And come to that, what is the mind anyway? These days it is indeed fashionable to believe that the mind is reducible to various neurochemical and electrical events in the brain. This is the direction that science, and even western medicine, is moving in. Personally I don’t buy this at all, but it is clear that if you do hold this way of looking at the mind, you would interpret the idea that your health issue lay in your mind as really meaning that it lay in the brain, and that it did in fact therefore have a physical origin. In fact you would presumably believe that every aspect of your experience likewise really comes down to physical events happening in the brain. So it would be impossible for you, at least if you were going to be consistent, to take umbrage with any suggestion that an illness you had might have a mental or psychological origin.
But if like me you are not inclined to such a reductionist view of the mind, that still does not mean that you should equate ‘in the mind’ with unreal. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) we don’t make a rigid distinction between mind and body; they are not two separate things, but rather two aspects of the same kind of thing (That ‘kind of thing’ is called Qi). The body is a less refined, as it were more condensed aspect, and the mind a more refined and less substantial aspect. In this view, there is no question of the mind being unreal; it is just more subtle.
Anyhow, it is clear from a cursory look at our experience that mind and body are closely interwoven. If I feel afraid, for instance, I might say the fear is in my mind, but I have a tight feeling also in my abdomen perhaps, or a sinking feeling, or something similar. My face may be a bit pale. If the fear is extreme, my body may shake and I may perspire freely. I might even, apparently, become incontinent! Is this something in the mind having a knock on effect on the body, or is the fear actually in the body? Is it possible to be afraid and for the body not to be affected? Even with just a slightly raised heartbeat for instance? Can we really separate the feeling of fear from its physical manifestations? Can we really separate the mind from the body, or the body from the mind?
Or consider the case of pain. If my knee hurts, the pain is in my knee. Or is it? If I am otherwise happy, the sun is shining and I have just won the lottery, my knee may hurt less. If its grey, wet and cold and I find my lottery ticket was invalid, my knee hurts more. You might say that it is not that it hurts less in the former instance, and more in the latter, but that it just bothers me less or bothers me more. But my actual experience is that the amount of pain varies with my mood. Pain is a complex thing, affected not just by some physical damage to my knee, but by a number of other factors, some of which lie in the mind. That’s why things like mindfulness and meditation can be useful tools in any pain management strategy.
So it seems that the more we think about it, the less certain we can be that the mind is separate from the body. And consequently is it not possible that the mind has a role in quite a lot of illnesses which we might think are physical, from irritable bowel syndrome to heart failure?
Another reason we may baulk at this idea is the suggestion that if the cause of an illness lies, at least to some degree, in the mind, is that we may conclude this makes us responsible for being ill. It is not just something unfortunate that happened to happen to us, like a bacterial infection or car crash. It is our fault. (Mind you, car crashes and bacterial infections can be our fault!) But again surely we can question this. Are we any more or less responsible for our mind than for our body? Clearly there are many people who have mental or psychological problems which are obviously not their fault – think of someone who suffered an abusive childhood and suffers later on from anxiety and panic attacks; no one is going to say that is their fault. Or think of a soldier who has been in some terrible situations in a war zone and who later suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Is that his fault? Surely not. So similarly just because there might be something in our mind which is causing or contributing to a physical illness, that does not mean we are to blame. Our mind is not, after all, an isolated entity over which we have sole control, unaffected by the world around us. And since Freud and Jung we have been accustomed to the idea that there are large regions of our minds of which we are only dimly conscious, at best.
In TCM one of the main causes of illness is thought to be emotional imbalance. If we are always angry, for instance, or habitually fearful, or imprisoned by grief, eventually we may become ill. But it would be unkind in the extreme to say that this was our fault; often our emotions seem to have a life of their own, and sometimes a life of which we are only dimly aware. The person who is always angry may not realise he is so; he may rather have come to believe that the problem lies with all those infuriating people he has the misfortune to be associated with! The person who is habitually afraid my not know they are afraid; their responses seem to them to be normal and appropriate. These may be slightly extreme examples, but to some extent or other we are all like this.
So I would suggest that if we have some kind of physical illness, it is not impossible that some of the things causing that illness may lie in our mind. That does not mean the illness is not real, or that we are somehow at fault and to blame for it. It does perhaps present an opportunity to become more aware. To the extent that some hidden emotional habit is contributing to our illness, learning to become gradually more aware of that habit and its effect on our life and energy offers a way of healing. But in this we are no different, no more to blame, than anyone else – we all have such blind spots, such emotional biases which we are only vaguely aware of, parts of ourselves that lie in shadow. Sometimes it takes an illness to start to shine some light. To reject, out of hand, the possibility that an illness may have something of its origin in our mind may be to miss a big opportunity.