Take a look at the above book cover. Judging by its art and title, “The Untethered Soul” by Michael Singer, would you read this book, with its soft pastels and radiant colt (unicorn, wtf?) galloping in the ocean’s mist? I probably wouldn’t, and didn’t (for a while anyway). I’d bet you wouldn’t either, especially if you’re a male. Our reasons are likely similar: the cover and title are too flowery, too new-agey, too lame. All of those visual elements suggest something on the part of the reader – an internal disorder, a spiritual need to attain a life as harmonious and blissful as a wild horse out for a beach run at dawn. And who wants to willingly face the reality of their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which this book obviously attempts to address? Most dudes wouldn’t be caught dead with this in their hands. Start googling a few things and you’ll have more reasons to avoid it (I did; I wish I hadn’t).
But here’s the thing: this book – which delves deep into thought lives and emphasizes the importance of controlled consciousness – is fantastic. I feel I’m better for reading it. To explain why is to meander into the perilous subject of Medicine, a field littered with pseudo professionals and self-anointed MDs. I am no doctor. That said, onward.
“Stigma” is a word that extends not just to mental illness but – in my opinion – mental health, too. Yes, we’ve come a long way from the days when a common bout of depression got you a lifetime sentence in places like the New York State Asylum for Idiots. Still, our trepidation in discussing mental health and thought management – let alone the moments when our minds go haywire – allows for confusion and misunderstanding, a potent recipe for retaining old ways of thinking. For men especially, it’s far more socially acceptable to entirely avoid discussing our inner workings. We are men after all, hardwired to wear the steel face of resolve even through overwhelming uncertainty and doubt. Reveal any part of the façade, and, by society’s traditional measure of a man (formed by syndicated television shows and beer commercials), you are a pussy. Or a faggot. Or both.
Leaving mental health to the margins, our culture tends to drive home the importance of bodily health instead. Muscle mass, cancer-fighting vitamins, flavor-of-the-week work-out regimens – these are easier and more socially palatable than the nuances and mystery of brain neurons. Our information and commentary streams reflect this tendency toward physical health. If we allow it, we can be assaulted daily with the latest, trendiest ways to mold our bodies into desirability. The glut of information is stupefying. Our education system, too, pounds home the importance of eating your veggies, getting ample exercise, and refraining from drugs and unprotected sex. And that’s all good, helpful advice. But emphasizing the fact that you are not your thoughts, that not everything you conjure up in that noggin of yours constitutes truth, that the thought patterns that affect our very physical health and push us toward harmful impulses, negative cycles, even addiction… that these things can be managed … this is for you to work out on your own. Sometimes painfully.
Which is fine (if not a terrible shame), except I’d bet most haven’t given their thoughts too much thought at all, and that creates a problem: If you or I never chose to assess the ways we have trained our minds to think, and if we never thought to ask, how the hell would we know what are good and bad mental habits? How can we be aware of something we don’t know? All each of us has is one, singular inner voice, chattering on and on in isolation. We have no other voice with which to compare it. I’m stuck with this inner, blabbering idiot. You are stuck with yours. You and I both lack a frame of reference for our respective inner voices. A context, more or less, is what “Untethered Soul” provides: Singer, an economist by trade, bypasses science and spiritually (for most of the book, anyway) and just straight-talks on consciousness, awareness and the critical difference between the two. By articulating his own experience, Singer pushes the reader toward their own self-assessment without condescending step-by-step guides and alliterative bulleted points. In other words, he asks you to politely ask yourselves some questions. Yea, the parts about “opening your heart” get a bit yoga-class, but my point is: So what? If nothing else, I’ve become a slightly better observer of my own thought life and more trusting in my capacity to bring order to this messy avalanche of daily inner chatter. I think we could all use a little help in this regard.
Singer has done us a service here by unpacking the oft-avoided subject of our thoughts and doing so without meddling too deeply into the how and the why our brains do what they do*. Sometimes, a simple conversation proves to be the best medicine. “Untethered Soul” reads like that, reaffirming – once again – that the most comforting words we can offer each other during our own private journeys and the seemingly unique battles we encounter along the way are “Me, too”.
* For a more neuroscience-based book, try the first half of “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius.