Susannah Deane: Mind, Body, Spirits: Ti-betan Notions of the ‘Subtle Body’ and its Implications for the Causation and Treatment of Mental Illness

​Mi 30/11/2022



Integral to Tibetan understandings of mind and body, and humans’ relation to the wider world, are two key concepts. Firstly, the notion of loong – ‘wind’ energy which circulates through the body as a key component of the ‘subtle body’ system – is fundamental to Tibetan understandings on mind-body structure and functioning, particularly in relation to the mind and consciousness. Secondly, the relationship between humans and the wide variety of spirits and deities seen to populate the landscape is important in understanding Tibetan notions of health and good fortune. Both are predicated on an understanding of a rather ‘porous’ boundary between the self and the outer world, and within this, Buddhism provides not only a way to manage these local spirits and deities, but also designs practices which utilise this subtle body system to manipulate the mind and body towards enlightenment.

All of these factors become key when we explore Tibetan notions of mental health and illness. Where spirits and deities may be implicated in the causation of madness and other illnesses and misfortunes, they can also be controlled by skilled Buddhist practitioners, who may even utilise them in their Tantric practices in their pursuit of enlightenment. Equally, while the manipulation of bodily wind currents forms an integral part of Tantric practitioners’ Buddhist practices, unintended disruptions in their flow – including as a result of conducting such practices incorrectly – is seen to have implications for an individual’s mental health. This paper explores the diverse understandings of causation and treatment of ‘madness’ and other mental health difficulties which result from these Tibetan notions of mind, body, and spirits.