THE "SWEET SPOT" IN MENTAL HEALTH
There’s a “sweet spot” in mental health.
A lion’s share of the focus on mental health today is directed toward fixing problems.
That is, it’s focused on curing mental health difficulties after they’ve arisen.
Far fewer focus on prevention, or warding off problems from arising in the first place.
But a “sweet spot” approach – a kind of “psychological middle way” – can help along these lines.
It’s one of these strange things that’s hidden in plain sight.
It’s no secret, but few seem to talk about it.
It’s simple (almost too simple, it seems), but it can quickly clarify complex topics.
It’s incredibly practical, yet few seem to make use of it.
Psychological health can be a labyrinth.
A conscious effort to cultivate psychological fitness (inner strength, sanity, etc.) today can sometimes be like trying to navigate a labyrinth with bad maps, a broken compass, and with blindfolds on, at midnight, in the fog, while wearing roller skates.
The problem isn’t that we have no “maps” of the mind, heart, or soul. The problem is that these territories are still, in some ways, largely unexplored (at least by us).
This means our maps are often rough and incomplete, our instruments are often crude, and we’re often left guessing, groping in the dark, or winging it.
The problem isn’t lack of effort. Just the opposite. Floods of offers to help us navigate the labyrinth come from all sides – from rows of self-help books to life advice from corporate marketing departments. Some offer additional inaccurate or partial maps, buggy compasses, etc. Others try to provide turn-by-turn instructions which can result in massive complexity and confusion (some neo-Freudians, for example). Others offer simple answers (“just take these pills!”) which reduce complexity, but at a cost.
The below offers an alternative.
It’s not a panacea, but a simple “rule of thumb” that can apply to a wide range of problems and can simplify many complex situations.
It’s like a thread that can help us navigate inner labyrinths.
The basic idea goes something like this.
On almost any topic, we can define one extreme.
Beyond a certain point (the point of “X”), it becomes apparent that this is clearly wrong. We’ve obviously gone too far, and going further in this direction will only make things worse.
At this point, we often decide that “the answer” must lie in the opposite direction. So we go that way.
But beyond a certain point (“Y”) it becomes obvious that going further in this direction is clearly wrong as well.
The “sweet spot,” then, must lie somewhere in between X and Y.
Y <----------------- ( sweet spot ) -----------------> X
It’s that simple.
It’s “The Goldilocks Rule.” “Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right.”
It’s the “If” poem by Rudyard Kipling, as briefly explored here.
We could call it “betweenness” (a word coined by author Richard Rose).
A good way to find the best path, it seems, is often to triangulate.
First find one extreme. Then find the other extreme. At that point, it becomes clear: based on the current perspective, the best way appears to lie somewhere in the middle. Find the extremes, then find the betweenness.
This might seem painfully obvious at first.
But the intellectual insight is the easy part.
The trick lies in applying it to the real world.
Let’s look at one classic example: courage.
There’s lack of courage, or “cowardice.”
The idea that cowardice is an unsavory quality of character is universal.
That’s one extreme. Cowardice is clearly a bad thing.
So, then we can move in the opposite direction.
No fear! Laugh in the face of danger! I am fearlessness!
But beyond a certain point, this can lead to a different problem: recklessness.
Who needs stop lights? I’ll wrestle a grizzly with my bare hands! I’m not afraid to skydive without a parachute!
Recklessness is clearly wrong as well.
The “sweet spot,” then, must lie somewhere in between cowardice and recklessness – somewhere between “too little” courage and “too much.”
recklessness <--------- courage ---------> cowardice
Another example: how much confidence should we have?
There’s lack of confidence. (Call it “inferiority” or a sense of insignificance.)
There’s overconfidence. (Call it “hubris,” “narcissism,” or “someone thinking they’re the center of the universe.”)
There’s the sweet spot in between – “just the right amount” of confidence.
This basic pattern works in many other ways.
Clearly, this can be applied in many ways. This list could keep going for quite a while.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability
to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same
time and still retain the ability to function.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
This all probably seems like common sense.
To many, this is obvious when it’s explained clearly.
But again, the real trick lies in applying it.
That, and we also seem very able to ignore the obvious.
If all this was really common sense, then we probably wouldn’t have to keep rediscovering it, forgetting it, and rediscovering it again.
That said, this basic dynamic seems to be baked into the universe.
Much of our technology and basic understanding of the world relies on it.
Magnetism works through a basic principle where opposite poles attract and similar poles repel.
Electricity works through a series of either positive or negative charges in electrons.
Computers work through binary code, which, at its most basic level, is composed of ones and zeros.
Light is typically understood as sometimes a wave, sometimes a particle.
And so on. The interactions between various forces or polarities – and the tension, courtship, marriage, divorce, or all-out battle between them – seem able to either create or destroy. And we seem to exist somewhere in the middle, between them. Our place often seems to be fixed somewhere between reason and passion, knowledge and ignorance, order and chaos, mind and heart, body and soul, the ideal and the real, the physical and the immaterial, the finite and the infinite, as several individuals have noticed.
But if this is really so fundamental, wouldn’t we have figured this out long ago?
Yes. And we did.
“The Sweet Spot” has been around for thousands of years.
The ancient Greeks knew about this several thousand years ago, as just one example. Aristotle described “The Golden Mean,” where excellence of character is described as “balance,” and described the example used above of courage vs. recklessness. The Temple at Delphi had the words “Nothing in excess” inscribed. As Plato described, Socrates said that a man must know "how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible."
Taoism famously described the Tao (or Dao), the Yin and Yang, and the complementary interplay and interdependence of opposites.
Moses Maimonides: “The right way is the mean in each group of dispositions common to humanity; namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes in its class, not being nearer to the one than to the other."
Al-Ghazali: "What is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes."
Hinduism also described this basic dynamic thousands of years ago. For example: "Yoga is a harmony. Not for him who eats too much, or for him who eats too little; not for him who sleeps too little, or for him who sleeps too much. A harmony in eating and resting in sleeping and keeping awake: a perfection in whatever one does. This is the Yoga that gives peace from all pain.” (The Bhagavad Gita, 6:16-17) A classic saying from Advaita Vedanta is “Not this, not that.”
Christian thought has an extensive tradition along these lines. To name just a few, Thomas Aquinas describes that “moral virtue observes the mean,” and that “evil consists in…exceeding the measure or…falling short of it.” (from Summa Theologiae, Prima Secundae Partis, Question 64). Jacques Maritain also makes use of this basic idea to explain the history of philosophy, as oscillating between extremes on various topics while the correct answer lies somewhere in the center.
Confucius describes the “Doctrine of the Mean.” In the Analects of Confucius: “The Master [Confucius] said, ‘The virtue embodied in the doctrine of the Mean is of the highest order. But it has long been rare among people.’” (Book VI, verse 29, Burton Watson translation.)
Symbols that have persisted across eons often reflect this visually. The crucifix, the mandala, the wheel, the flower, the Uroborus, the Yin/Yang, and others seem to portray a unity of opposites.
Humans simply seems to live at an intersection of opposing forces, in the inner eye of an inner hurricane. Part of our potential – and our task – is to reconcile those forces. When we’re above to navigate these potential dilemmas successfully, we’re no longer torn by conflict, and even more, we grow. (This is explored more here).
So, all of this can point us toward psychological health.
A few contemporary thinkers have explored this in some depth.
Abraham Maslow and Carl Jung are just two.
Maslow said that he had found:
“…a rare capacity to resolve value dichotomies” in his study of self-actualizing individuals. (Motivation and Personality)
“The age-old opposition between heart and head…was seen to disappear where they became synergic rather than antagonistic…the dichotomy between selfishness and unselfishness disappears…Our subjects are simultaneously very spiritual, and very pagan and sensual. Duty cannot be contrasted with pleasure nor work with play when duty is pleasure…Similar findings have been reached for kindness-ruthlessness, concreteness-abstractness, acceptance-rebellion, self-society, adjustment-maladjustment…serious-humorous, Dionysian-Apollonian, introverted-extraverted, intense-casual…mystic-realistic, active-passive, masculine-feminine, lust-love, and Eros-Agape…[all] coalesce into an organismic unity and into a non-Aristolean interpenetration…and a thousand serious philosophical dilemmas are discovered to have more than two horns, or paradoxically, no horns at all.”
(sourced from Maps of the Mind, Charles Hampden-Turner, 150)
(Quick: the above quote – “more than two horns, or paradoxically, no horns at all” – hints that there is even more to all this, if we decide to explore deeper. “Betweenness” doesn’t assert that every argument should result in a compromise. This isn’t meant to reduce everything in life down to slippery relativism. In an argument, for example, sometimes one person can be entirely right, and another entire wrong (hat tip to Homer Simpson), and the ideal resolution isn’t always a compromise. Some dilemmas are false, and some problems are “solved” by realizing that the problem was formulated incorrectly. All to say, this entire approach works well when it’s properly used, but there are also limits and multiple layers here.)
Carl Jung described what he called “the coniunctio.”
He explained that the Self itself “functions as a union of opposites,” or as he described in more detail:
“The ego keeps its integrity only if it does not identify with one of the opposites, and if it understands how to hold the balance between them. This is possible only if it remains conscious of both at once.” (The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, CW 8, par 42)
He described “the transcendent function”:
“A psychic function that arises from the tension between consciousness and the unconscious and supports their union.” (Sharp, 1991)
He described the ‘transcendent function’ as joining of the opposing tendencies of conscious and unconscious that would produce a synthesis…in order to release compensatory contents of the unconscious.
He also described it as “The function which mediates opposites…it facilitates a transition from one psychological attitude or condition to another. The transcendent function represents a linkage between real and imaginary, or rational and irrational data, thus bridging the gulf between consciousness and the unconscious. ‘It is a natural process’, Jung writes, ‘a manifestation of the energy that springs from the tension of opposites…” (CW 7, para. 121, p. 150), here.
As Sharp further described the exact dynamic, “When there is full parity of the opposites, attested by the ego's absolute participation in both, this necessarily leads to a suspension of the will, for the will can no longer operate when every motive has an equally strong countermotive. Since life cannot tolerate a standstill, a damming up of vital energy results, and this would lead to an insupportable condition did not the tension of opposites produce a new, uniting function that transcends them.” (Sourced here)
This also parallels discoveries from many other explorers.
Several thinkers from many different approaches have achieved the same essential insight, and have tried to share it.
“…life is an imbalance that is constantly being rebalanced.”
- Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov
“One key, one solution to the mysteries of human condition, one solution to the old knots of fate, freedom and foreknowledge, exists, the propounding, namely, of the double consciousness. A man must ride alternately on the horses of his private and his public nature, as the equestrians in the circus throw themselves nimbly from horse to horse, or plant one foot on the back of one, and the other foot on the back of the other.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
(As an unknown author commented on the above: “A stunningly accurate description of what Jung called the transcendent function (and the alchemists the Third Thing): hold both poles of a conflict in awareness and their very polarization will bring forth from unconsciousness a reconciling symbol that integrates the conflict on a higher level. A modern answer to an ancient dilemma inherent in being human.”)
“Truth is always paradoxical.”
- Henry David Thoreau
“He who confronts the paradoxical exposes himself to reality.”
- Friedrich Durrenmatt
“Man from his vantage point can see Reality only in contradictions. And the more faithful he is to his perception of the contradiction, the more he is open to what there is for him to know.”
- Alfred Kazin
“Character is measured by the number of things someone can hold in their head at the same time and act on them all intelligently.”
- Richard Rose
...and this dynamic itself - echoing Jung - can point us toward something profound that we often intuitively sense.
"Everything leads us to believe that there exists a certain point of the intelligence at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future . . . cease to be perceived as opposites."
- Andre Breton
This approach can help us make sense of the world. As author D. T. Suzuki said:
“That almost all religious literature is filled with contradictions, absurdities, paradoxes, and impossibilities, and demands to believe them, to accept them, as revealed truths, is due to the fact that religious knowledge is based on the working of Prajna. Once this viewpoint of Prajna is gained, all the essential irrationalities found in religion become intelligible.” (The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind, 1972, p56)
The applications here are wide and deep.
“Betweenness” is extremely simple, yet its uses can seem nearly infinite.
But it isn’t something we need to “try to do,” like a technique or practice we need to adopt to become psychologically healthy.
It’s something we are doing already.
Maybe the challenge is to recognize this, become more fully conscious of it as a skill, and practice it.
And maybe, while we’re navigating labyrinths, we can glimpse a bird’s-eye view of it all.