mental health and integration of experience

Addressing Anxiety and Depression by Understanding the Mind

Modern life presents individuals with many challenges, from processing vast amounts of information and over-exposure to technology, to long work hours and job uncertainty, and the struggle to create meaningful and lasting relationships in a highly individualized culture. That dealing with life’s challenges is becoming increasingly difficult is illustrated by the staggering statistics on the use of antidepressants in America. According to a report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of Americans using antidepressants has risen by 65% between 1999 and 2014, with one in eight individuals over the age of 12 reporting recent antidepressant use (Mundell, 2017). While antidepressants can be effective for treatment of acute depression, research shows that long-term use can have significant harmful effects. A review by Moraros, Nwankwo, & Patten (2017) pointed out that use of antidepressants was associated with a twofold increase in the odds of cognitive impairment or dementia. Medication may seem like an attractive treatment option due to a potential “quick fix” effect, however this approach is limited in that it treats a complex human condition by solely focusing on brain chemistry.

In search of a more holistic approach to mental health, individuals are increasingly embarking on spiritual journeys deep into the Amazon, seeking help from native healers and sacred plants. While psychiatric drugs focus only on brain chemistry, guided spiritual journeys focus on integration of experience as a healing modality. Although journeying into the Amazon may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is important to examine what factors are involved in the process of integration of experience, and how this process can contribute to safer, more profound, and long-term positive effects on mental health.

To explore the role of integration of experience in mental health, one can ask the following questions: What is the mind, and what is consciousness? Does the mind reside in the brain, or someplace else? What is the role of perception, and how does it affect the quality of experience? Finally, is life a random occurrence, or is there an underlying continuity in how life is experienced? One of the main objectives of the integral approach is not to challenge or deny the validity of any experience, but to find healthy ways to integrate even the most unusual experiences into the understanding of one’s total cosmology. By understanding the nature of the mind, one can learn to use life’s situations to restore beneficial aspects of the psyche and remove harmful influences. This requires an empirical approach, with emphasis on first-hand experience, and an ability to see life as a process, rather than a fixed state of being.

The Role of the Brain

Looking into the nature of the mind, it is evident that the brain has a significant part in mental functioning. The question is, does the brain have a fixed role, or is it changeable? In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge (2007) stated that the theory of the unchanging brain implies that impaired brain chemistry necessitates mental limitations and impairment for life. Doidge (2007) pointed out that “neurological nihilism had taken hold, and spread through our culture, even stunting our overall view of human nature” (p. xviii). The mind is seen as a machine, made of parts performing specific functions at particular locations in the brain. While there are beneficial aspects to mapping regions in the brain, neuroplasticity has shown that “we are all born with a far more adaptable, all-purpose, opportunistic brain than we have understood” (Doidge, 2007, p. 26). Joseph LeDoux (2002) claimed that, “Genes, environment, selection, instruction, and learning all contribute to the building of the brain and the shaping of the developing self by wiring synapses” (p. 96). The science of consciousness indicates that the self is developed not only through the function of the brain, but also through complex mind-body processes that undergo continuous changes as a person goes through life.

Dynamics of Consciousness

In the book Consciousness: An Introduction, Susan Blackmore (2004) pointed out two types of processes going on in the brain at any given time, with respect to memory, learning and decision-making. One type is a conscious process, which is “slow, effortful, controlled, flexible, requires working memory and is dependent on context”, and the other is an unconscious process, which is typically “fast, automatic, inflexible, effortless, and dependent on context” (p. 32). Only a fraction of information is processed at the conscious level, while much is processed unconsciously. According to Blackmore (2004), there is a causal paradox in the way information is processed, where consciousness does not seem to be necessary for processing of novel or complex information. Since conscious processing is not required, the unconscious mind can take over and fill-in any gaps in perception. Understanding the dynamics of consciousness is therefore an important first step in understanding the mind.

When looking into the nature of the mind, it is also helpful to explore where consciousness is located. How does one receive and process information about the world? There is evidence that emotions play an important role in how new information is received. In her book The Subtle Body: An Encyclopedia of Your Energetic Anatomy, Cyndi Dale (2009) pointed out that the heart is the major electromagnetic center of the body, its electromagnetic field being five thousand times stronger than that of the brain. Due to its electromagnetic power, the heart is the main receiver of information, and through the heart, the information is passed on to the brain and the rest of the body. According to Dale (2009), “energy flows constantly between the heart and the brain, assisting with emotional processing, sensory experience, memory and derivation of meaning from events, and reasoning” (p. 66). The information received and processed by the heart is in the form of emotions, or feelings, and not language-based thoughts. As such, it is non-linear and complex, richness of emotions being a contributing factor to the wholeness of one’s experience.

The Unconscious Mind

Information received in the form of emotions is often processed unconsciously, and the psyche can have a difficult time with full integration of feelings. In his book The Divided Mind: The Epidemic of Mindbody Disorders, Dr. John Sarno (2006) proposed that unconscious, painful and threatening emotions, such as rage, sadness and anger, can create debilitating physical pains in the body. These emotions are inside an individual but are not consciously recognized. Dr. Sarno (2006) stated that the psyche often converts difficult emotions into physical pain, in order to prevent it from entering consciousness: “Though it is likely that the major purpose of the pain is to prevent the escape of rage into consciousness, we emphasize that the psyche is also desirous of preventing the person from feeling the emotional pain and sadness that are such common legacies of childhood” (p. 140). Since the role of pain in psychosomatic disorders is to prevent feelings from coming out, the way to address the pain effectively is to change the brain’s program of thinking about things that are causing this mind-body pattern. The process includes deliberately bringing painful emotions into consciousness, listing all the things that may be contributing to feelings of rage, sadness, or anger, and deeply focusing on emotional aspects of importance in one’s life (Sarno, 2006). Dr. Sarno’s work shows that, by connecting with sensations in the physical body, one can access the information regarding possible emotional blocks operating deep in the unconscious mind.

Other than blocking emotional pain, what other functions does the unconscious mind have? In the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, Timothy Wilson (2002) explained that the unconscious mind has a role of organizing and interpreting the information that is received through the senses, so that it can be brought to awareness. Wilson (2002) defined the unconscious as “mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgements, feelings or behavior” (p. 23). Wilson (2002) claimed that the unconscious mind is necessary for human life, stating that “we couldn’t be conscious without an unconscious mind, just as what we see on a screen of a computer could not exist without the sophisticated system of hardware and software operating inside the box” (p. 20). Without the unconscious mind, one would likely not be able to survive or navigate through the world. Wilson (2002) introduced the term adaptive unconscious, suggesting that nonconscious thinking is an evolutionary adaptation: “The ability to size up our environments, disambiguate them, interpret them, and initiate behaviour quickly and nonconsciously confers a survival advantage” (p. 23). Qualities of the adaptive unconscious include habitual learning or the ability to detect patterns and create memories, as well as selective attention or the ability to filter through information and classify, sort, and select what is relevant for further processing. The adaptive unconscious is also concerned with interpretations and quick judgements about the motives and intentions of other people, generation of gut feelings based on prior experiences, and habitual goal-setting (Wilson, 2002). While conscious states can only be directly observed in oneself, the adaptive unconscious cannot be effectively examined only by looking inward. It requires looking at one’s behavior and how others are reacting to it. Wilson (2002) believed that, to obtain insight into unconscious processes, individuals need to be biographers of their own lives, and recognize manifestations of unconscious dynamics in the physical world.

The Role of Perception

Perception plays a significant role in how an individual interprets events that occur in his or her life. The unconscious mind tends to fill-in the gaps in the information that is being perceived, based on established mental and emotional patterns. To see something as it truly is, one needs to direct full attention to it, bringing it to conscious awareness. According to Susan Blackmore (2004), correct perception is based on mastering the sensorimotor contingencies, and entails embodied or enactive cognition. Blackmore (2004) stated that “seeing, attending, and experiencing are all kinds of action” (p. 100). Perception, therefore, is an act of an individual’s creative engagement with the world, shaping and forming experiences according to the quality of one’s awareness.

Altered states of consciousness can provide insight into the potential richness of perception. In his book Doors of Perception, Aldoux Huxley (1954) described the attributes of perception, stating that “The mind does its perceiving in terms of intensity of existence, profundity of significance, and relationship with a pattern” (p. 20). Huxley (1954) described his experience with altered states of consciousness as a change in perception, as seeing things as infinitely important and inter-connected. He described this new state of the mind as one without distractions, where nothing perceived reminded him of the past, and everything was “novel and amazing” (p. 97). Numerous distractions of modern life could be having a negative effect on human perception, making it devoid of intensity, significance, and meaningful connections.

Studies involving drugs that induce altered states of consciousness show that removing distractions and increasing intensity of experience can be profound in restoring a quality of life and building meaningful relationships. In the article Making a Medicine out of MDMA, Ben Sessa and David Nutt (2015) pointed out that “MDMA appears to enhance the quality of social interactions, and thereby improve relationships” (p. 4). Use of MDMA in therapy for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder contributed to improved bonding and increased levels of empathy and compassion between participants. Other research by Sessa (2017) pointed out that MDMA therapy was ideally suited to allow patients to explore and address painful memories without being overwhelmed by negative effects. A systemic review of clinical trials on anti-depressive effects of Ayahuasca, psilocybin and LSD, published in the Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology (Santos, Osorio, & Crippa, 2016), suggested that therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs may be useful in treatment of anxiety and mood disorders. The review suggested that altered state of consciousness created a “disruption or interruption of the repetitive, rigid, and pathological pattern of negative and compulsive thoughts… contributing to mental flexibility and changes in perspective, values, and behavior” (p. 203). Some of the reported effects included “highly meaningful and spiritually significant experiences with sustained positive changes in attitudes, mood, personality, and behavior”, as well as “intense emotional experiences with mystic-like features, with observed long-term beneficial changes in perspectives, attitudes, values, and quality of life” (p. 204).

It has been shown that the practice of meditation can induce altered states of consciousness by way of focused attention and cessation of thought (Blackmore, 2004). Meditative attention has the effect of “deautomatization”, countering the automatized and dull perceptions created by too much focus on thoughts and abstractions with direct experience (p. 434). According to Blackmore (2004), meditation can create a sense of nonduality and inter-connectedness of all life: “Ultimately, in alert and mindful awareness, the differences between self and other, mind and contents, simply drop away. This is known as realizing nonduality.” (p. 436).

The Self

Blackmore (2004) outlined two theories of the Self. The ego theory claims that there is a single, continuous Self who has experiences and is the author of one’s actions and decisions, while the bundle theory denies that there is a continuously existing entity underlying experience, and that actions and decisions happen independently of a single agent. According to William James, “central to the concept of personal identity is the feeling of unity and continuity of oneself” (Blackmore, 2004, p. 120). It is the Self, therefore, that holds experiences together. Research on multiple personality and dissociative disorders indicates that consciousness has an ability for fragmentation, or dissociation (Blackmore, 2004). Fragmentation and dissociation often occur due to the absence of a healthy ego, or the psyche’s inability to integrate experiences in a healthy way.

Alexander Lowen (1967) described an individual in a dissociative state as being in denial of reality and out of touch with the body, where the ego “has disintegrated to the point where it can be compared to a state of anarchy in which one does not know what is going on and is terrified because of it” (p. 57). In his book On Becoming a Person, psychologist Carl Rogers (1961) explained that an individual discovers him or herself through experience and emotion, stating that “When a person has experienced all the emotions which organismically arise in him, and has experienced them in a knowing and open manner, then he has experienced himself, in all the richness that exists within himself. He has become what he is” (p. 113). Rogers (1961) pointed out that the real Self is something which is “comfortably discovered in one’s experiences, not something imposed upon it” (p. 114). The process of becoming a person requires an openness to experience, as “the increasing ability to be open to new experience makes one far more realistic in dealing with new people, new situations, and new problems” (p. 115). The process also requires trust in one’s being, an internal locus of evaluation and control of decisions, and a willingness to be involved a creative process, as opposed to trying to achieve a state where all problems are solved, and no work is to be done. It appears that viewing life as a process, rather than a fixed state, is the key to enabling healthy integration of experience.

According to the scientist David Bohm, there is an implicate order facilitating the process of human life, connecting the mind with the body and the universe:

In the implicate order we have to say that the mind enfolds the matter in general and therefore the body in particular. Similarly, the body enfolds not only the mind but also in some sense the entire material universe… As a human being takes part in this process of totality, he is fundamentally changed in the very activity... To fail to take this into account must inevitably lead one to serious and sustained confusion in all that one does. (Nichol, 2003, p. 116-117)

Acknowledging the implicate order underlying all things is a crucial factor in mental health, facilitating the discovery of the Self through life’s experiences. Without it, the mind can suffer from dissociation, denying the validity of experience and fragmenting the Self, thereby preventing learning and integration necessary for long-term mental health.


Trying to understand the mind simply by studying the brain reduces human experience to the level of physical or material reality. While symptoms of depression and anxiety such as sadness, excessive worry, and lack of satisfaction are related to brain chemistry, the neural processes in the brain are instigated by various experiences throughout one’s lifetime. The ability to process and integrate experiences is therefore of crucial importance for mental health. To be present and attentive as events are occurring, to learn from situations, to see the inter-connectedness of all life, and to act as an agent of positive change, are all important factors in healthy integration of experience. After all, a healthy mind is not manifested as a fixed, perfect picture of a brain scan, but as a reflection of one’s dynamic and growing relationship with the world.

Science and spirituality can meet in the sacred realm of the personal, first-hand knowledge of the process of becoming through human experience. A fully integrated person is a creative person, open to life, new experiences, and trusting in his or her ability to be in the world. According to Carl Rogers (1961), the process of becoming a person is a not an easy task. If done right, however, it can lead to the good life:

This process is not for the faint-hearted. It involves a courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. Yet the deeply exciting thing about human beings is that when the individual is inwardly free, he chooses as the good life this process of becoming. (p. 196)


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