“I have lived on the lip of insanity,
wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door.
I’ve been knocking from the inside.”
Looking up the word “sanity,” I find a number of interesting definitions.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English language offers:
“Soundness of judgment or reason.”
Collins English Dictionary offers:
“Good sense or soundness of judgment.”
The consensus here, then, appears to be that sanity is a state in which the mind is able to make rational, healthy decisions. Before we consider the validity of that statement, let’s turn for a moment to the notion of “insanity,” something which I—for one—have feared deeply much of my adult life.
For “insanity,” the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English language offers:
In most criminal jurisdictions, a degree of mental malfunctioning sufficient to relieve the accused of legal responsibility for the act committed.
Collins English Dictionary offers:
“A defect of reason as a result of mental illness, such that a defendant does not know what he or she is doing or that it is wrong.”
Clearly, sanity, then, is an imprecise area. Those who fall within its legal parameters appear to be making judgments which, at the very least, do not endanger themselves or others. Those considered insane have crossed some dark threshold after which the bodies of the state feel it necessary to intercede.
With these basic facts on the table, let me ask you a question. Do you consider yourself entirely sane? Can you name five people, to pick a random number, whom you consider entirely sane?
We live in a polarized world. Health vs. disease, sane vs. insane, rich vs. poor. Us and them.
Personally, I have real trouble thinking of people I know well and making solid conclusions about whether or not they are entirely sane. The notion seems ridiculous, like asking if snow is entirely soft, or silk entirely smooth. We’re more complex than that, constantly changing and therefore, resisting reductive certainties that tend to place us in boxes is important.
What I do know is that human beings in general have a relationship with the thinking mind which is highly problematic, and possibly getting more problematic. While we live in thrall to it, identified so closely with its whims that it appear inseparable from our ‘selves,’ collective insanity may well remain the default position.
Over the years, I’ve also come to a very different understand of what sanity is.
My definition of sanity—paraphrased largely from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche—is really the degree to which any human being is in touch with the basic reality.
This means, by inference, the degree to which a human being has freed themselves from identification with their thoughts.
Let me illustrate this with an old favorite—the story of the man and his neighbor’s lawnmower.
A man wanted to borrow his neighbor’s lawnmower because his own had broken.
The man began worrying about his neighbor’s response to his request. Would the neighbor respond favorably or not?
So the man stepped out of his front door and headed to his neighbor’s house. “I wonder if he is in a good mood today?” he thought as he walked down the garden path.
When he got to his gate he mused, “I haven’t spoken to him for a while. He might think I’m being rude asking for help.” He walked along the sidewalk to his neighbor’s thinking about his imminent request all the time.
He started up his neighbor’s path toward his front door and began thinking, “What if he asks me for money? What if he asks me to do him a favor I can’t help with, what if I damage his lawnmower?” The closer he got to the door the more he worried about his request.
Approaching his neighbor’s door the man rang the bell, and yes, he was worrying as he did it he began thinking, “He’ll probably say no, I bet he’ll be off with me for asking, he’s going to be in a bad mood with me for disturbing him, why would he get mad at me for simply asking to borrow the lawn mower? He must be a miserable guy if feels like that about me! You know what—I’ll show him!”
His neighbor heard the door bell and opened the door, seeing his worried neighbor before him. Before he could say hello the man screamed, “You know what pal, I don’t need your lawn mower, you can stick it where the sun don’t shine!” and he walked off.
Ha ha, I love this one. Reading this story, we can all empathize with the predicament.
For much of our waking lives, most of us are filtering thousands of judgmental, often pejorative thoughts about the world we inhabit, reacting and anticipating, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.
Steven Pinker calls this our “anticipatory capability.” In a state of anxiety, our anticipatory capability becomes over sensitive. Instead of being able to sensibly speculate about what might happen next, we become overwhelmed by the huge number of possibilities we can imagine, and in particular we overemphasize the myriad of potential negative possibilities.
Recognizing Our Insanity
If sanity, therefore, equals a grounded embodiment of reality, without succumbing to the neurosis of the dualistic mind, insanity is that situation of being lost in thought, cringing and sighing with each inner comment that drifts across the screen of consciousness. The more we allow the thought stream to overlay the entirety of consciousness, the more we are no longer ‘here’: no longer seeing, smelling, touching, tasting, hearing. If we consider the mind a sixth sense, then insanity is to live as if it were the only one.
“To recognize one’s own insanity”, says Eckhart Tolle, “is, of course, the arising of sanity, the beginning of healing and transcendence.”
~ Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose
Piers Moore Ede is the author of Honey and Dust and All Kinds of Magic (available here: http://www.amazon.com/All-Kinds-Magic-Piers-Moore/dp/0747584826)
Editor: Elysha Anderson