Sunday, July 06, 2008

Personal Self-awareness Good For Mental Health, Says Friar Jamison

Friar Christopher Jamison, abbot of Worth Abbey and star of the BBC documentary series The Monastery told the Royal College of Psychiatrists' Annual Meeting this week that religion can act as a "cure for the soul" be helping people become more self-aware, and through the realization that their inner states have an impact on the world around them.

From Medical News Today:
Friar Jamison said that, while psychiatry had made "immense" strides in improving the cure of minds, hearts and bodies, there is still a "cure of souls" that is specific to religion. This cure lay in the development of self awareness, a lack of which was bad for mental health, he said. A more self-aware Britain would be a mentally healthier one.

Friar Jamison, author of Finding Sanctuary, said individuality and the belief that something was good, so long as it did no harm to others, was central to the idea of modernity and that this was fatal for wellbeing.

Self-awareness, on the other hand, was being attentive to how we relate to ourselves and the outside world. "It involves understanding how my outlook affects the way I see the world and how it affects the world itself," he said. "This self-aware life does not accept that there is a private world of introspection and a public world of actions."

Without self-awareness, the inner life of human beings will lead them to do wrong. "Legislation and policing alone will not prevent public harm to others nor will telling people that harm to others is bad," he said.

He said children need to be taught self-awareness at an early age so that it became part of their lives. "If we want to protect the environment, then ask people to contain their greed. If we want to reduce violence, then help people to contain their anger. We have to enable each person to live out the discipline of self-awareness, not only for personal happiness, but also for society's happiness."

Friar Jamison said the great religions of the world offer the disciplines of prayer, actions and thought and are a "unique respository of wisdom for wellbeing". "If we rubbish religion we are in danger of sweeping away this tradition and making it unacceptable to ordinary people, while having no effect on violent and bigoted religious disciples," he said.

Friar Jamison recalled being asked to see a psychiatrist in distress. Life held no joy for him and his life seemed to be pointless and the future bleak. He came to Worth, talked to Friar Jamison and found great solace. "We came to realise that beyond the depression there lay the wider issue of hope. This was not so much finding religion but rather finding the visceral experience of hope. From hope started to flow a renewed sense of love, love of family and love of life itself."

The Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Imperial College, London, 1 - 4 July 2008
I think Friar Jamison has a point -- but it's partial. Religion, at least as practiced by most people on this side of the pond, tends to encourage the opposite of self-awareness. People read their holy book, take it literally and never look for or at the deeper meaning.

Obviously this isn't true for everyone, but it seems to be a rather sizable majority.

For religion to be a "cure for the soul," people need to think beyond the literal reading and engage in some form of practice, whether it be charity and volunteerism, or centering prayer, or meditation -- anything to help people move outside of self-interest.

On the other hand, we certainly do not need religion for this, which is where I disagree with the good Friar. Any form of meditative practice, combined with mindfulness practice of some sort, and with some kind of inter-personal work, can provide all the meaning we need in life. But I totally agree that self-awareness is a big piece of that as well, especially shadow work.