We all know the importance of physical immunity, the body’s ability to resist disease and ward off invaders. But what is psychological immunity? It is the ability of the mind to resist disease, ward off emotional toxins, and endure the pendulum swing of gain and loss, joy and sorrow, attraction and repulsion. If your psychological immunity is strong, you also have mental stamina, which is associated with steady concentration and having no memory loss with age.
Medicine has been slow to recognize that non-physical immunity exists. The focus has been on the physical pathogens like bacteria and viruses that abound in the external world. But over a century ago Freud wrote about the “psychopathology of everyday life,” from which everyone needs protecting. Mental pathogens are invisible but potent, beginning with the universal experience of negative emotions like fear, anger, hatred, greed, and jealousy.
We can become emotionally toxic and infect others the way a viral contagion spreads. The psychological version of an epidemic occurs in scenes of mob violence, widespread racism, and the virulence of us-versus-them thinking. A society rife with misinformation and hate speech can find itself more helpless than facing a physical pandemic—no one needs reminding at this point.
The elements of psychological immunity, unlike physical immunity, are ours to choose; the major elements are
- Emotional resilience, the ability to bounce back from difficult situations like a divorce or the death of someone close.
- Self-reliance, the freedom to be oneself despite external influences.
- Emotional honesty, the ability to feel the emotions that actually arise, without fear or denial.
- Detachment, which places a distance between your sense of self and the turmoil around you.
- Emotional intelligence, the capacity to foresee how emotions will work out in a given situation.
These are all qualities of consciousness, which society is currently not set up to address with the importance they require. Millions of people have security systems installed to protect their homes while living in a state of emotional insecurity, self-doubt, and denial—this leaves aside the growing epidemic of anxiety and depression that has netted drug companies billions of dollars over the past few decades.
The unfortunate result is that psychological immunity is far rarer than a strong immune system physically. Trying to improve each element of psychological immunity, however, isn’t likely to work. The human mind is too complex, and we are too hidden from our deeper awareness, for some innovative breakthrough therapy to work.
But the world’s wisdom traditions cut through this complexity and denial by stating, very simply, that consciousness itself contains everything needed. Below the level of constant mental activity, which is the breeding ground for psychological toxicity, self-awareness is quiet, calm, undisturbed, stable, and immune from external pressures. This level of awareness isn’t separate from you at this moment. You experience it as your sense of self.
Your sense of self has been with you since birth. It silently tells you that you exist and are here. Nothing more is needed except to identify this experience, which is basic in every moment of our lives, and to give your allegiance to it. The stronger your sense of your inner self, the more immunity you will have in any situation in which the mind engages.
How psychologically immune are you? A simple test for where you stand at this moment is the following: Your psychological immunity is equal to your power of attention, that is, how long you can sustain your attention on a task or topic in an observant manner, letting it reveal to you what it is, not reacting with your mind’s conditioning, your personal opinions, or second-hand beliefs.
By this measure, countless people are training themselves to deliberately weaken their psychological immunity. In order to fit in, they conform to social norms, fall in line with a certain political angle, and devote endless hours to distractions that require nothing but passive participation. None of these, however, improves the psychological immunity everyone can find through expanded awareness.
For psychological immunity, we need a meditative mind, which is nothing more exotic than feeling completely awake. Besides deep peace and quiet, the meditative mind has a quality that constantly attracts our notice: bliss. If self-awareness was like a blank sheet of paper, no one would seek it except as an escape from life’s vicissitudes. But bliss is by definition charming, enjoyable, and captivating.
When you find yourself deeply affected by music, art, a loving gesture, compassion, sympathy, the innocence of children, or the beauty in Nature, you are in a state of meditative mind. Such moments are actually quite effortless and natural, and we would experience them as more than mere glimpses of bliss if we hadn’t conditioned ourselves to jump at the bidding of the active mind.
When you cultivate the meditative mind, there is always present your sense of inner contentment and a subtle sensation of bliss. In such a state you are continually aware, not quick to react and remaining centered, even while confronting external demands, pressures, and obstacles. Still less are you susceptible to emotional toxicity in any form, coming from other people or your own bad memories and wounds from the past.
Today most people’s power of attention is measured in mere seconds because they are constantly bombarded with stress and chaotic stimuli, overstimulated, a state neuroscience refers to as “sympathetic nervous system overload.” which has currently reached epidemic proportions.
The cure is to go beyond the captivation of the conditioned mind and its ceaseless demands. The mind naturally sustains long periods of attention by being awake-in-itself. That is the basis of Dharana in yoga practice, concentration aiming at a one-pointed mind. Attention is the foundation for deeper meditation. Truth (Satya) also emerges as a quality of the meditative mind—it is not a point of view but a state of awareness, an ability to see things as they are, from which springs non-judgment, compassion and grace.
Yoga teaches that your own inner Self is greater than the entire world and does not rely on any external approval to rest content in its own nature. Yoga teaches the steps to take on this path of waking up. Do not compare yourself with anyone. Do not seek anything from the outside to fulfill yourself. Contact your inner Being, which looks on the human world and all its turbulence like a passing wave on the infinite sea.
Whether this message inspires you spiritually or not, at the core of our present troubles is the need to find consolation and a refuge from turmoil. Nothing is more practical than psychological immunity, which everyone needs and should know about for wellness to be truly complete and enduring.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission
Dr. David Frawley (Acharya Vamadeva Shastri) is a Vedic teacher and educator who is the author of over fifty books in several Vedic and Yogic fields published worldwide over the past forty years. He is the founder and director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, which offers on-line courses and publications on Ayurveda, Yoga, Vedanta, mantra and meditation. He is involved in important research into ancient Vedic Sanskrit texts and is a well known modern exponent of Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma. He has a rare D.Litt in Yoga and Ayurveda and is a recipient of the prestigious Padma Bhushan award, India’s third highest civilian award for “distinguished service of a high order.” His work is highly respected in traditional circles in India, as well as influential in the West, where he is involved withmany Vedic and Yogic schools, ashrams and associations. He is one of the main global exponents of Ayurveda for both physical and psychological wellbeing.