I have the honour of having a conversation with Eric Maisel. Eric is the author of more than 50 books and is widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach. His most famous books include Fearless Creating (1995), The Van Gogh’s Blues (2002), Coaching the Artist Within (2005), and The Atheist’s Way (2009). In this article, we discuss what it means to live an authentic life, why the idea of mental illness as a construct, and more specifically, what depression, anxiety and mania mean. Finally, I asked Eric what it means to be resilient.
This article is largely based on a recorded conversation with Eric Maisel, plus my own research. It is not meant as medical or professional advice.
WHAT DOES LIVING AUTHENTICALLY MEAN?
Sometimes in life, we don’t make changes we know we need to make or make decisions that are true to us because there are consequences to change. For example, if the change is to change professions, you may be looking at poverty. If the change is to change relationships, you may be looking at loneliness.
Shifting our beliefs also comes with a kind of pain. After having adopted a system to belief for years, changing your system of thoughts can be disconcerting.
This is why a lot of people delay following the path of their truth until midlife. Then suddenly they have a crisis where everything they have believed all their life are overturned.
The idea of authentic living is a central theme of the work of existentialists philosophers such as Satre and Camus.
To use existential language, people can ‘act in bad faith’— a synonym for “inauthenticity.”
We act in ‘bad faith’ when we don’t do the ‘next right thing’ for us. This ‘right thing’ is different from person to person. It may be something moral, but it really means what is most appropriate for that person at that point in time.
For you, the next right thing might be taking a shower or it could be anything under the sun.
The key here is to identify what right things are for you and then doing them. Bad faith means knowing what it thing is and then not doing it— For safety reasons, for survival reasons, for selfish reasons, etc.
As an example, if Eisenhower the day before D-Day decided to do something else, that would be an act of bad faith.
We all understand that about Eisenhower. But we don’t tend to understand that about ourselves.
We underestimate how far we would go to feel safe in life. For example, a lot of people claim to be wanting to be writing a memoir. They claim to have been writing it for the last 10 years, but actually, they don’t feel safe enough to do that. They don’t actually want to reveal the things that need to be revealed in an honest memoir, so they’re stuck there, announcing that they’re working on a memoir but not actually working on it.
This kind of tension goes on all the time in people’s lives. Everyone understands that it’s correct to whistleblow and that it’s dangerous to whistleblow. That it’s right to be anti-authoritarian and that’s it’s dangerous to be anti-authoritarian. Most people come down on the side of safety for obvious enough reasons.
But ultimately, this does not serve us.
To live a truly fulfilling life, it is essential that we honour authentic living.
DOES DEPRESSION OR ANXIETY EXIST?
Another big part of Eric’s work is about reframing mental illnesses.
In his book Rethinking Depression, Eric holds that depression as a mental disorder does not exist.
Depression is not usually a biological illness— In medicine, for something to be something diagnosed, there has to be some underlying biological illness. Depression, however, is usually ‘diagnosed’ based on self- reported symptoms.
A certain kind of transaction goes on between a sufferer and the mental health professional: People go in and say they are depressed because they become accustomed to using that language. In response, the clinician hands out some medicines.
The person might be despairing or sad or grieving or having a reasonable human emotion, rather than a biological problem.
If you hate your job, or have trouble with your wife, that is not a mental disorder. You may be demoralised, disappointed, but not necessarily depressed.
The same goes for anxiety. There is nothing ‘neurotic’ about anxiety. There is nothing irrational about being afraid to go on stage in front of 2,000 people and your whole career hanging on the balance by how well you play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. And there is nothing neurotic about wanting to feel safe.
WHAT IS EXISTENTIAL DEPRESSION?
Existential depression isn’t depression either, but we have to use this term because it’s a typical cachet. It should be existential despair, which is what it was called traditionally.
Existential despair is that state of being where you stop believing that you or your efforts matter, that your place is not important in the universe.
The complete solution to existential despair is to make meaning in life. we have to do this work ourselves. We have to actively invest in the idea that we matter and that our efforts matter.
You need to create your list of life purpose choices— the six or seven or eight things that you find important. Some examples may be relationships, activism, service, creativity. After you make you list, you look at it— if one avenue is not producing meaning because society is not allowing, is not providing successes there or not allowing you to pursue it, then you can look at other things on the list and go there and see if you can coax meaning into existence there.
WHAT ABOUT MANIA?
Here is a quote: “As a smart person whose brain races faster and harder than the next person’s, you can’t accomplish something like stopping your racing mind from worrying. Doesn’t mean you have a disorder, that you are a failure.”
Mania has never been intelligently talked about. At first, it was a separate mental disorder. Then it got folded into bipolar disorder in a mysterious way.
If you use your brain to solve problems and to navigate your way through the world, you’re setting it in motion. You’re saying, “Go, brain. Go.” That means your asking it to start racing. You’re asking it to start working. Human brains have certain ways of racing and those ways have names like “obsessions” and “manias”, but setting your brain in motion is entirely sensible.
It is even desirable. In fact, there should be ideas like ‘productive obsessions’,’ mediated manias’, namely that you’re going almost a little too fast, but you’re still in control.
You can mediate your obsessions and manias. For example, you can have “ceremonial bridges” to mark the in and out of your racing state. You can drop in a useful thought in a deep breath. For example, you can say a useful phrase like, “On the exhale I’m completely stopping.”” I return with strength,” or some way of stopping the race. In other words, you want to inaugurate the racing in some way.
These are useful concepts for people who are intense, gifted, creative.
WHAT IS RESILIENCE?
The definition of resilience is: to not have just to do things repetitiously, but to have an ability to take one step to the side and actually see what’s going on. This is about a deepening of presence, and that allows us to see reality with more clarity.
In other words, resilience is having the ability to take a pause, to take a side step.It might just be a split second, but to have a moment to decide at that moment what you actually want to do and how you want to respond is a strength.
Dr. Eric Maisel is the author of more than 50 books. His interests include creativity, the creative life, and the profession of creativity coaching, which he founded; issues of life purpose and meaning; mental health and critical psychology (also known as critical psychiatry and anti-psychiatry); and parenting in a “mental disorder” age.
Dr. Maisel’s most recent books include Unleashing the Artist Within (Dover, 2019), Helping Parents of Diagnosed, Distressed and Different Children (Routledge, 2019), A Writer’s Paris (Dover reprint, 2019), Helping Survivors of Authoritarian Parents, Siblings and Partners (Routledge, 2018), Ten Zen Seconds (Dover reprint, 2018), 60 Innovative Cognitive Strategies for the Bright, The Sensitive and the Creative (Routledge, 2018) and The Magic of Sleep Thinking (Dover reprint, 2018). Please see our Publications section for more information on Dr. Maisel’s books.
Dr. Maisel writes the “Rethinking Mental Health” blog for Psychology Today and is a regular contributor to Mad in America, where he founded and edited its parent resources section. Among his favorite things are leading Deep Writing workshops around the world (in places like Paris, London, Rome, Dublin, Prague, New York and San Francisco), working with individual creativity coaching clients, and producing interesting and useful programs (like his Life Purpose Boot Camp Self-Paced Instructor Training).
Dr. Maisel divides his time between Walnut Creek, California, where he lives, and Belmont, California, where he babysits his grandkids a lot.