Mental health goes back to over 2,000 years ago

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Philosophy is not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t mean to be rude but that’s true. Nevertheless, it is an integral part of one’s life. At least, it should be. There is an old story Thales of Miletus who was a Greek philosopher. His friends used to make jokes saying, Those who can, do, others philosophize.” To someone like me who keeps philosophy at the top (other than science and writing) it seems quite offensive. Surprisingly, as the story goes Thales took the words of his friend seriously and made huge amounts of money. Looks like, philosophy does pay off.

Seneca, a stoic from Spain was born over 2,000 years ago. He was a terrific philosopher who made huge contributions to the stoic philosophy. He was the son of Seneca, the Elder. Seneca got his education from Rome and in spite of belonging to a wealthy family he left no stone unturned in imparting his wisdom. He had written a letter in his famous book “Letters from a stoic” where he talked about the importance of mental health. I was a bit surprised when I read that letter because it was hard for me to believe how possibly someone could be talking about such a delicate yet crucial subject such a long time ago. Yet he did. It’s all out there.

There are some key lines in that particular letter Seneca wrote. The excerpts are a clear indication to his efforts of prioritizing mental health. In other words, an attempt to maintain equality between physical and mental health.

  1. “The greater load, moreover, on the body is crushing to the spirit and renders it less active. So keep the body within bounds as much as you can and make room for the spirit.”

I am a skeptic when it comes to ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. I believe what I haven’t explored and what I don’t understand yet should not be talked about. So, for my peace of mind and to avoid any sort of confusion for the readers I am going to attribute ‘spirit’ as human mind or simply human brain. Seneca has wisely separated the human body and human mind thereby separating two types of health: physical health and mental health. Seneca is not wrong in stating the importance of making some time for our mental recoveries. We are exerting ourselves physically ignoring the mental variable from the equation. Believing hand fracture is a problem while depressed mood for more than 3 weeks just a phase of life is nothing but an invitation to crushing our mental health by all means. If we are merely focused on recovering physically and not mentally or emotionally then everything is going to take a toll on us. That is why we must be careful enough about prioritizing not just our physical bodies but mental bodies too.

2. “There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time. There is running, swinging heights about and jumping. Pick out any of these for ease and straightforwardness. But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon. Exercise it day and night.”

Being physically healthy is the need of an hour because we are living in societies plagued with health problems like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, etc. Even Seneca around 2,000 years ago talked about moving our physical bodies to remain active and healthy. He suggested running, jumping, swinging heights out of many other exercises. But he was also very particular about practicing mental exercises. He said ‘return from body to mind very soon’. We may think mental clarity can be compromised with. I think it is the biggest mistakes of one’s life. We cannot move far if our minds are over flowing with baggage. So, in a way I believe if we are physically exerting ourselves once in a day to grow our muscles stronger, we should also exert ourselves mentally to grow our mental muscles.

3. The mind has to be given some time off, but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed till it goes to pieces.”

Occasional breaks from our busy schedules are very important. After all, there is a limit to everything. Seneca argues in his letter that we must always make time to refresh mentally because we can’t function to the best of our abilities if our emotional reserves are constantly depleting. At the same time, he is very careful about not letting that leisure time increase too much that we become lazy and sloppy. Relaxation is crucial and it is highly needed but too much relaxation is not good. Too much relaxation torn us apart into pieces and then more efforts are required to put those pieces back together.

4. “The life of folly is empty of gratitude, full of anxiety: it is focused wholly on the future.”

I am an ardent believer of practicing gratitude regularly. Even Seneca agrees. He says that life is no good if it has no place for gratitude. People who aren’t grateful for big and small things in life can never manage to stay content. Such people are always focused on building their future. They think future is the answer to everything. They are wrong. Present moments matter more. If we are present in the moment it does not mean that we become completely ignorant towards our future goals and make no plans. It means taking things one step at a time. Be active for your future. But don’t ruminate on it. It is not unhealthy.

History and philosophy have a lot to teach us. We just need to open our minds to let wisdom enter.

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