Are Psychological Problems For Real? – OpEd


Are we talking about problems in the mind or is there something called a psychological problem that is for real in the way you feel the presence of a table or a chair? What would a problem in the mind look like? I am late for a class – that certainly is a problem on my mind. I need to respond to a few urgent emails – that too is something on my mind. There are problems of a more pressing kind such as a doctor’s appointment that need immediate attention. Problems exist. But, does every problem qualify for a psychological problem? Or, more importantly, is there something called a psychological problem as opposed to a non-psychological problem? Logically, if there is a psychological problem there must be a non-psychological problem as well which does not exist in the mind, but, which, interestingly I need to bear in mind. What does a non-psychological problem look like and how is it different from a psychological problem? This is not merely juggling with words or thoughts but something that needs to be carefully understood rather than for one to blindly submit to the notion that psychological problems are with us in the way our shadows are a part of who we are.

Perhaps, we need to come up with an image of what the mind looks like before we start wondering whether the problem is in the mind or on the mind. If the mind is in the shape of a box or a wardrobe the problem is an object in the box or a piece of clothing both of which can be removed at will. That however is not how we think of a psychological problem. A psychological problem sticks in a way that an object or a shirt does not and needs more than an act of the will for it to go away. In fact, psychological problems stay in a way that non-psychological problems do not. Therefore, the box or a wardrobe image for the mind does not work. Assuming that one characteristic of a psychological problem is that it is sticky and no amount of willing or choosing helps in making it go – does that make it real? Something that can be made to go is a non-psychological problem that can be taken out of a box or a wardrobe and be discarded without much effort. The assumption is that psychological problems are there to stay and need a more insidious approach as if battling a dangerous and a clever enemy armed to the teeth. The terrain is complicated and the treachery of the enemy is a given. The moment you are close enough to destroying it, a psychological problem changes its shape and becomes something else. You cannot put it down the way you pin down a giant and hold him in chains. The problems connected to the mind like ghosts are insubstantial. You cannot pin down air and water. Neither can you pin down something that straitjackets you in the mind. It is there mocking all your efforts. Contempt and disdain are its weapons. Nothing can humiliate your soul or make you feel like a completely worthless person than a nagging psychological problem.

But, are they real? And, if so, what makes them so? Why is it that something sticking to the mind seems so much more real than what sticks to the body which perhaps could be detached with relative ease? Are psychological problems real only because there is a feeling of something sticking and it lingers on like the smell of carcass in the nostrils of the imagination? Is something real simply because it stays or does it need a little more than that for it to be real? I am not disputing the fact that there is something bothering us. I am disputing whether we should be calling it a psychological problem or not. This is not about terminology which I leave to academics who are entertained by labels. This is about addressing a problem and seeing whether attaching the word “psychological” is not an overstatement that has acquired an existence of its own without any reference to the nature of the problem. Psychological problems for inexplicable reasons have become the order of the day and depression or the feeling that one is trapped in a tower on an island in the middle of an ocean ends up being self-explanatory asking for no further evidence. 

My attempt is not to show through argument that there is nothing like a psychological problem except in the mind. My attempt, rather, is to demonstrate that whatever we call a psychological problem has no substantial basis in reality. A practical attitude to the world around oneself is enough to dispel the notion that psychological problems exist as in having an autonomous life somewhere deep in the consciousness and are therefore beyond one’s power to deal with them. I am not opposed to psychological problems. I am opposed to the idea that a psychological problem, which in one of its sinister avatars would be depression, is a parallel force working against individual choice. A serious rethink is imperative in order to throw the bath water out and ensure that the baby is not getting used to the idea of the bathtub as the world. People get used to bathtubs; the bathtub gives a feeling of belonging; the bathtub is where you can be yourself; the analogy of a bathtub for a psychological problem works perfectly well. Everyone has a bathtub in which he or she can languish without having to come out of it. The bathtub is not just a mindset. It turns into a way of life from which there is no escape.

My argument is that psychological problems acquire their sense of reality from the conviction that they exist rather than any objective evidence to justify their presence. It doesn’t mean people don’t have problems. It also doesn’t mean that people should not have problems. It certainly doesn’t mean that people are imagining when they say that they have problems. On the contrary, I think that problems are real and to the extent that they are indeed out there, they give us the motivation to combat them on a daily basis. Most people don’t like the idea of a problem as being simply a problem. That would be rather simple. It is humiliating to think that I just have problems. That is what everyone else has. That ruins the pleasant sensation of my bathtub being more special than theirs. I am not just a creature with problems. I have problems in my head. I have a life going on in my brain. When I say that I have a problem I want you to know that there is a world happening inside me with a logic of its own. There are battlefields and warzones. Every instant of the day from dawn to twilight I am subjected to violence from which I ingeniously am attempting to crawl out. But, there are unsuccessful days. Their number seems to be growing with time. I abandon the mind to its own wits. I have no role to play in what the brain does to itself. I know for a fact that there is a knot in my chest. It is not a product of my imagination. It is protesting against my inertia every moment of the day. I neither sleep nor am I fully awake. I need to be distracted. That is the only thing that might perhaps work in my favor: a distraction that promises the satisfaction of forgetting.

All psychological problems do not end in a depression. We cannot however think of a depression whose origins are not in a psychological problem. Yes, it is true that psychological problems are how we think about a problem. Psychological problems are how we state a problem; the kind of language we use when we talk about a problem. Why drag the poor mind and make it victim of a certain kind of a language! Why don’t I just let the mind do what it is doing and handle the problem the way I would handle a piece of luggage at the ticketing counter in an airport, with the same degree of casualness. Problems exist; that is what life is all about; that is where we get to encounter people; that is how we need to get adjusted to the idea that we are not defined by our problems but rather how we are able to make it on a daily basis in spite of them or because of them. The problem therefore is not the mind or in the mind whatever that is supposed to indicate. It is the body. The body is alone. It is not just alone but also lonely. The body has nothing to do. Having nothing to do the body has designed a conspiracy theory in which the mind is the chief instigator. Everything I do is to conceal my body’s aloneness from the mind. I want the mind to be under occupation. I cannot bear the thought of the mind patronizing the body. Not just anybody. My own body. What happens to my body’s self-esteem lying on the street like a dog groaning after being hit by a speeding truck! Alone and despised – that is the story of my body. The body decides to control the mind. To fight it while using the resources of the imagination to stretch the limits to which I am willing to take this battle against myself. Depression has its poetic moments. I am elated by the thought that there is music to my pain. My pain is the answer to time. My pain is how I know that the world is full of sorrows. No point in throwing out the bath water. Rather, get rid of the baby. It will be one stretch of water from the shore to the horizon with the sun in my soul disappearing into the dusk like a bird losing its form with the coming of the dark. 

There are surely people in this world whose languages have no notion of the mind and consequently do not have to cope with psychological problems the way we have to. Can we conceive of a body without the mind in it? Would that be the end of psychiatry as a discipline dealing with psychological issues and disorders? Why endow the individual with a mind and not just see him or her as a body with feelings and a consciousness? If you looked at everyone you meet on the street as bodies with feelings and a consciousness that gives them a sense of identity, I am certain we would be a little more compassionate to the suffering of other beings as living creatures that experienced pain that often is revealed in their faces. It would be harder for us to embark on meaningless wars and bear resentments spanning entire lifetimes. It would be easier to note that these bodies like our own bodies wake up in the morning not feeling particularly well at the thought of having to face the rest of the day. You don’t need to be looking at somebody’s mind in order to arrive at a feeling of empathy. You don’t have to explore their motives or look for the mind hiding in a closet somewhere safe, not allowing the body to display any of the feelings of vulnerability.

Bodies are vulnerable in a way that minds are not which is why sometimes they feel the need to control the latter. A body knows what it means to be a body. The mind assumes that it is unique and beyond the body. The body declares the need for the company of another body. The mind pretends it does not want another person and can be alone with itself. The body is willing to understand, forgive and accept. The mind is bitter and has no intention of coming out of the bitterness. The body has nothing to hide. It is naked as truth always is. The mind cannot bear the truth about itself as a mere extension of the body. A role reversal has taken place. The body is no more in control. It is the mind all the way. The body has lost its authority over the mind. The era of the subjugation of the body has just begun. Foolish body. Imperious mind. How do I get out of the bathtub trapped in a futile battle where there is no hope and what is left is despair with the sweet scent of burnt out candles!

What is the meaning of my life! Where do I go from here! Why is my suffering so much more real than that of others! What are these stomach cramps, headaches, heartburns and back pains all about but symptoms of the problems devouring me from within! How can I ever try to rationalize that my psychological problems are unreal as the dust and imaginary as the shapes we attribute to clouds! At this point as I write this piece, is my heart not breaking that the woman I love is ready to leave me! What is the meaning of the heartbreak! What is the meaning of the love and the betrayal! Betrayal is aesthetics because the body is displayed as an object longing for freedom while caught in the servitude of its own making. My life is a story of betrayal. I never gave the body a moment of peace. I betrayed myself in order to keep the body busy. 

I am not digressing from the question I asked myself: whether psychological problems are for real. My answer is crystal clear: psychological problems are real to the extent that your mind is real. If you accept the fact that whatever you call the mind is a notion of the mind it is equally clear that you have to liberate the mind from the notion of a mind. My body is not an embodiment of the mind. My body is plain common sense. I need to free it from possessions especially the ownership of the mind. Nothing is more destructive as thoughts that turn into owners with rights of their own. Aestheticized betrayal provides visual pleasure in a work of art. The same cannot be said of life. Remember: people are bodies and bodies need empathy. They need pity. Only a body can bring out the noblest of feelings. Are psychological problems for real? No. They’re not. Why should they be!

It is good to be scattered. The feeling is fun in fact when you know that you have stopped making attempts to control yourself and actually let go. If life is the foreground death must be the background. My body needs the presence of another body in its magnetic field in order to communicate how it feels about the world. What I appear to others is my life. What I am to myself is as close as I get to my mortality. Does another body need me as much as I need it! There is an aura surrounding the body. Any body including the most shapeless one! It is the aura that we seek when we love another person. The integrity or individuality of the other person is the aura he or she brings into the conversation. A certain light is shed in the way I look at things. I dream of that light when I ecstatically rejoice at the sight of the person I love. That’s a dreamer I am talking about. I want a psychological problem to take the shape of a dream because that is the only way I can comprehend and come to terms with it. Give something a dream-like quality and you learn to feel with its dreaminess. Intrinsic to time is a dream; time makes us dreamers; we dream of a time outside time, a time other than time, a time before the world began and a time when the world will come to an end. It doesn’t seem like a problem cooked in the communal kitchens of the mind. It looks like a dream to me. A dream in which I experience a different sense of time and space. I have no control over the dream if it is happening to me. I can shape the movement and direction of a dream if I am conscious at the same time of the fact that I am dreaming. We need more and more of daydreaming to resolve those mind-games that we play with ourselves. Those imaginary knots can be cut with the butter knife of a daydream. Daydreams are the oasis that gives us respite from the scorching heat of psychological problems that plague the ground of our souls.

I refuse to theorize psychological problems. I refuse to have anything to do with what concerns the mind. I am keener on finding a solution to a bruise on the skin of a person. I feel the bruise. What can be seen has a solution. What cannot be seen has to be treated with the polite indifference of sheep crossing the road. The mind has the quality of air and we need to have a fresh mind just as fresh air can revive the spirits. The mind is the home of thoughts and disturbing thoughts indicate a disturbed mind. A disturbed mind in turn is the source of problems of any and every kind. Air is real in the same way as water, earth and sunlight. But, the human person does not live by air alone. Nor by water. Nor earth. Not even sunlight. He or she lives by every word that adds to the meaningfulness of one’s existence in relation to the world outside oneself. The mind creates the problems that the mind refuses to let me believe are no more real than a notion of the mind itself. I believe in the existence of air just as I believe in space. I therefore like the idea of mind as space. Space is infinite like the mind and nothing that is infinite can be a source of problems that are finite. 

The moment a problem is associated with the mind it insidiously begins to multiply itself. It is this multiplication of forms that needs to be arrested at all costs. Associating a problem with the mind gives it this sense of infiniteness which is unnecessary and dispensable. Reality is social and finite. We operate as individuals within a space that does not involve more than a few people at any given point in time. Usually it is one or two people in any normal situation. The hundreds we encounter online are like us doing hundreds of other things apart from sitting before the online versions of the others. Reality is largely offline; we need to eat and use the restroom, both offline activities and look for love and friendship; you can’t make love online; I mean, the pleasure of being with another person who can say ‘no’ to you but chooses to say ‘yes,’ that is the joy of loving and being loved, both of which involve enormous effort on either side. The world we miss is the world where we relate to people as individuals. Nobody misses loneliness though once in a way we value being alone by ourselves without desperately seeking for company. A psychological reality even if taken as an idea is an offshoot of a social reality. Translated into simpler terms, it just means people. Every encounter with another person contains within it the possibility of betrayal, failure, rejection and embarrassment. It also contains within it friendship, company, the building of trust and a sense of belonging that comes with the feeling of being wanted for who you are. We cannot say we want one of the possibilities without experiencing the other. The choice unfortunately will depend to a large extent on the nature of the relationship. Merely wanting one or the other makes no significant difference. 

The struggle to be oneself is in fact a struggle to make sense of our relations with others. The nature of the struggle involves both the body and the mind. A psychological problem in the process can be as real or as unreal as a non-psychological problem, if something like the latter at all exists. The very terms psychological in opposition to non-psychological are profoundly insipid; essentially they say nothing except that we have issues with ourselves as much as with others. If I am being simplistic it is because I cannot think of any other way of reducing the pointless exercise in stretching the mind to breaking point except by dismantling the underlying logic behind spurious oppositions that do not stand the test of reality. There are no perfect societies, no perfect worlds, no perfect people. Once we remove the word “perfect” from our vocabulary we see the truth dawning that our problems are as old as the journey that began somewhere in Africa when a group of individuals decided to come out and explore the rest of the earth.  

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is an independent scholar from Hyderabad, India.

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