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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Psyches & Serpents: Elevate Your Mental Pt. 2

You’ve got a body, right? You can put something good into that body and expect good results — and vice versa. A carrot can be good for your body. It can provide some positive utility. But it won’t elevate you out of the unhealthy habits that have you seeking refuge in the goodness of a carrot. To rise above these habits requires a change in mindset. You might think there’s a pill for that (there are many). But taking a pill for your mind is no better that taking a carrot for your body.

In my conclusion last week, I said that I’d have to stop being an amateur if I wanted true mental health. This is an idea that’s been recently imparted on me by Stephen Pressfield’s book Turning Pro. What is the opposite of an amateur? A professional. The idea of practice came from that same book as well. If you “need something to change your mind,” as David Byrne tells off of Fear of Music, you have to forget the inputs and focus on the mind itself, the equation. Bad habits change us all the time, but to change for the better requires two main ingredients: time and focus. This can be summed in another word: practice.

What follows is a story illustrating the above idea:

There was once a girl who was considered a great painter. One day, her friend came to visit. She said to the painter, “I’d like to commission you to paint me a picture of a fish.” “I can do that,” replied the painter. Later, the friend came by to ask, “Have you finished the painting I commissioned?” “It will take more time,” replied the painter. So the friend waited, but several months later she got the same answer. The friend would visit, but the response was always the same. It will take more time. The friend felt rejected and upset, but always she would suppress these feelings. It wasn’t worth losing a friendship like this to one painting.

After many years, the painter had finally managed to get a show of her own in the city where they lived. The friend was ecstatic, and she brought over her best bottle of wine to celebrate. Perhaps it was the wine, but the friend felt she had to express her feelings about the fish painting this time. But to her surprise, the painter said, “I’d like to make that painting of the fish for you now.” The friend was a little confused. Why now? the friend thought. The friends continued celebrating, but now the painter sat a few feet back, at her easel, lapsing into an occasional trance for several brush strokes. After a few minutes of this, she turned the easel around to reveal the most beautiful painting of a fish. The friend was speechless. It was a masterpiece. But there was a question on the friend’s lips, as well.

When she calmed down, she asked, “Tell me, if it only took a few minutes, why have you waited all these years?” “I haven’t been waiting,” was the painter’s reply. Then she went to a large closet nearby, opened the door, and out tumbled hundreds, perhaps thousands, of paintings and sketches – all of the same fish.

I’ve added a little to this old story, but the message is the same. Things take time and focus, they require practice. The painter had the patience and focus to put the work in, and eventually created the perfect masterpiece. But it took a long time. To get a little metaphorical, the friend is sort of like the outside world. She’s hurt, upset, unsympathetic even when she sees no result, no answers, nothing but time spent on practice. Thoreau probably had the same reaction from peers for the years he spent in the woods before publishing Walden. What was he doing in those woods? Practicing.

You eat to stop hunger, drink to quench thirst, take Aspirin for a headache, Lithium for Bipolar, Risperdal for Schizophrenia, Pristiq for Depression, Viagra for the bedroom, salvia for a fun night with friends, alcohol for a night out, LSD for a trip, etc. Even on the molecular level, pharmacists are researching inputs and outputs of cells to make new drugs. Unfortunately, this physical way of looking at things often focuses only on the x (Aspirin) and the y (No headache). It assumes the formula to be constant. But the formula changes. We change. Our psyche, our mind, our state-of-being – not just in this moment but each and every day – all change. They don’t stay the same any more than the variables do. They change. How does it change? Practice.

If you find work that you love, you can change the formula of your psyche. If you create new friendships, that can change your formula. If you make things right with your family, that can change your formula. If you love a new lover, that can change your formula. It goes on. Work, friendships, relationships, family, all of these things require practice. Things won’t really change that first day with your new friend or partner, though it can lead to some great emotions. Things won’t change your first day putting in work either, whether it’s with your new band or the IT department.

Practice can’t really be explained, other than to say It will take more focused time. Going from being an amateur to being a pro takes practice. This goes for anything. It goes for mental health. Anyone who has heard Macklemore is at least passingly familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. I haven’t yet put in my 10,000 hours toward an elevated mental state, but that’s the day I’m working toward. When that day comes, I won’t have to worry about pills anymore.

PAUL BEREZOVSKY can be reached at pbberezovsky@ucdavis.edu.


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