Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What is Insanity? Am I Sane?


The word sane comes from a root that means whole or complete. So then, sanity is wholeness or completeness. But there is the puzzle, what do we mean by wholeness? One man would say that wholeness arrives when all of my conflicts disappear, when I am no longer fragmented in my thinking and feeling. If that is true, then you cannot be whole until you have resolved all fragmentation. And some people today unconsciously or consciously pursue religion, therapy, money, success, love and other forms of assistance to arrive at that 'place' so they can be sane, complete and done with their myriad troubles and problems. On the surface this appears to have some logical plausibility; after all, fragmentation is the opposite of wholeness. Or is it?

The poet William Blake talked about having ‘double vision,’ which meant that he was able to see the mundane and the sacred in the same object or situation, that is, he had the ability to perceive a thing in at least two ways simultaneously. He wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Blake wrote of looking at the sun and seeing a ‘round thing somewhat like guinea’ (gold coin named after the gold mined in Guinea, West Africa), and simultaneously seeing “an Immeasurable Company of the Heavenly Host crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’”

Now some might argue that a man seeing angels singing praises to the biblical God in the sun ought to be committed to an insane asylum, or tolerated as long as he didn’t harm anyone. There is a kind of fragmentation in his vision. But keep in mind, Blake was not saying that was all he saw in the sun; he was quite capable of getting by in his daily activities in ‘normal’ life because he could also see the coin and use it appropriately. He might recognize the 'universe in a grain of sand,' but he also could see the sand as sand, pouring it out of his shoes if necessary or using it in concrete to pour a foundation for his home.

This seemingly fragmented ability to see the profane and sacred simultaneously alters our definition of sanity. If Blake is sane, it means that he is able to hold a single object (person or situation) as revealing more than one significance. Sanity then would be defined as having the ability to simultaneously see a single object, person or event in more than one way. That would mean that the insane person is the one who sees only one side. He sees either the profane sun as just a sun and nothing more, or he sees the sun as nothing more than a choir of divine angels. Most in our sensory dominated culture would agree that seeing the sun as only a choir of angels might qualify a man for the label of insanity, but seeing it as just the sun would be quite normal, in fact that is scientific. Really?

I read today that three internationally recognized business men have recently committed suicide because they lost millions of dollars in the current economic downturn. Psychologists say this is ‘normal’ during such times. One might argue that if these men had simultaneously been able to see their money as something other than mundane cash and bonds, they might still be alive. If they could have simultaneously seen their wealth as chains of bondage, impediments to character development, walls to keep them aloof from family and friends, etc., they would still be alive. Their inability to simultaneously see two significances in all things left them less than whole, and their insanity inspired their suicides. So who is insane?

Perhaps sanity is being able to see all events as both sacred and profane, or as some Eastern mystics put it, “neti, neti,” which means ‘not this, not this’. In other words, all things are united - so that the whole universe is "in a grain of sand" and we "hold infinity in our hand." To lose a fortune or gain a fortune, really the same thing ultimately.

In order to function in the world of time and space (maya), we must see the objects as serving a mundane function so we can use them to live on this planet in our flesh, but on another level, the sacred level (Brahman), one object or lack thereof is no different than the other. Both are true and each is necessary for this soul-making game we are playing.

If one were to compare the sanities of the East and West, one might suggest that the East has tended to err on the side of seeing things as primarily sacred (Brahman), and the West as seeing things as primarily mundane (maya). The Eastern propensity to sacralize the Universe has 'embraced and honored Nature' as we like to say in our New Age circles, but the Western tendency to 'mundanize' reality has brought us automobiles, computers and practically all of what we call modern technology. Each is a little insane in their own one sidedness, having something to learn from the other.

Most Westerners, abysmally ignorant of our own sacred historical brilliance, do not know that the reason the early Christian church argued so strenuously that Jesus’ nature was 100% Divine (sacred - Brahman) and 100% human (mundane - maya), as reflected in the Nicene Creed, was to retain the balance of what I am calling sanity. This ancient creed and revolutionary idea gave rise to what we moderns call *science and technology. If you are of the more agnostic or 'scientific' type, then substitute the analogy of light being 100% particles and 100% waves - 'sane light' is made of up of both.

Sanity is seeing beyond duality in the midst of duality. It is not synthesizing opposites or ‘transcending’ opposites as many mistakenly suppose. Sanity on this soul-making planet requires that we see the sensuous/material side and spiritual/immaterial side as not only co-existing, but as simultaneously co-equal. The mediating realm is Psyche, Soul or what Blake and other poets called Imagination, is a third eye or organ that can hold the tension of opposites and remain in process without getting off track. Ironically it is also getting off track and seeing that you are still on track, or being on track and seeing that you are also off track.

The true artist can see her painting or his song as more than one thing, always something mundane and something divine. This perspective is called Nirvana in the East – the experience of being able to live in a world of matter and spirit simultaneously, in a world of pain and pleasure simultaneously, and have no velcro (sticky) judgment about the normal and necessary fragmentations in life. This is not learned academically, but experienced; and this soul-making universe indicates that the experience does not come easily, unless it does.

* This theme is developed beautifully by former University of Washington Sociologist, Rodney Stark in his book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

sanity is harder to define than we think...