Crazy Train

First off, tonight May 5, 2012, Zero Defex is playing at the Stone Tavern, 110 E. Main St, Kent, Ohio. There are six bands on the bill and the show starts at nine pm. So go!

Anonymous in the comments section of my previous post said:
The serious question then – does being enlightened give you any insight – from a theoretical perspective, not how to fix it – or what mental illness is? Or more broadly, do eastern spiritual leaders have something to say about this more than similar edicts about booze or sex?

This is a very good question. It’s also an important one because a lot of people assume that an “enlightened” eastern spiritual master does have that kind of insight and are willing to follow their advise on the subject.

I can’t answer for all spiritual masters. And I don’t want to get into what it might mean to “master” any given form of spirituality. Nor do I even want to poke at what the term “enlightened” means right now. But still, I can answer for myself based on my experience. And I honestly feel that my experience is universal for others in my position.

Anyway. What insight do I have into what mental illness is?

I feel like I understand what that thing we label “mental illness” is in ways that neither I nor anyone else could possibly understand without decades of meditation. But that doesn’t mean I know how to treat it or cure it or even deal with it when it confronts me on the street. That is an entirely different sort of problem.

One thing I understand is that the condition we call “normal” also probably ought to be labeled “mental illness.” And I expect that in the future this will become clear. People will look back at us in the early 21st century and marvel at the fact that almost the entire world was what they will call “mentally ill.” Though perhaps their term for it will be different.

I feel that when we call someone “mentally ill” all we’re really saying most of the time is that the person in question is unable to function in what we call “normal society.” Of course there are different degrees of this. If a person’s inability to function creates a danger to society, society has a right and duty to protect itself from that person. If that person isn’t dangerous but is unable to look after himself, that’s another matter. There are millions of degrees to the problem of mental illness. But at its core it’s still the same problem.

One important thing to bear in mind is that none of us can deal with “normal society” all the time. I know I sure can’t. Some people solve this problem by inventing sub-societies that protect them from the larger society, yet still manage to function with it. A monastery would be an example of one such place. It’s a place of shelter from the wider more pervasive mental illness, a place one hopes is a bit less mentally ill. But even the best of these still have their own sorts of dysfunctions.

When I was at Tassajara last year there was one day when I simply had to hide in my room for about 24 hours because I could not deal with the relatively sane sub-society I had voluntarily committed myself to. I told people I was sick. But I wasn’t. This sort of thing happens all the time. Nearly everyone who goes to a monastery — even a good one  — has this happen at some point.

The easy answer that Anonymous is looking for is that all mental illness comes from a mistaken identification of the ego as one’s true and fundamental self. But that’s such a cliché I wonder if it has any value at all anymore. Be that as it may, it’s true that nearly everyone identifies her ego as her true self. But I think most people, whether they know it or not, have some basic intuition that this is not really the way it is. To the extent that they can put this false sense of identity aside, they can function with others and form a reasonable society.

An insight into the deeper origin of mental illness doesn’t help a person be able to treat mental illness. This is because even if I understand that you are stuck in believing that your ego-structure is really you, I do not know the details of the stories that you tell yourself and I do not know the extent to which you are prepared to go to defend the false reality you believe in. Some people will kill to defend theirs. I like to stay well clear of those people.

One may, in fact, believe in their own ego-self so deeply that their belief has caused the very chemical structure of their brain and body to be altered to the extent that it’s impossible to function in “normal” society without the help of chemicals. It may go so deep that one seems to have been born with this condition. Or that one seems to have had events in one’s past that forced this upon the person. This doesn’t mean their past is unreal nor the bad things that were done to them were unreal in the conventional sense.

Remember you’re reading the words of a Buddhist who believes that even normal conventional notions of what constitutes reality are false. That’s an important point. It’s the position a lot of the supposedly more enlightened spiritual masters often are too “enlightened” to really understand or convey clearly.

And I am using the word “belief” in a way most people don’t. There are aspects of life that are related to what we commonly call “belief” or “habit” that go much much deeper than the way we usually think belief and habit operate.

Also, we all have the same problem. The habit of falsely identifying with the ego self doesn’t simply vanish just because you’ve noticed you’re doing it. Noticing this habit is just the first step. But since most people don’t even get to this first step, it’s a significant one.

So yes, from a theoretical perspective many eastern spiritual masters or leaders or whatever may have some insight into the origin of mental illness. But merely explaining what that insight is may be deeply problematic. Because even mental health professionals are mentally ill in the sense that they are what we falsely call “normal.” They’re not, by and large, ready to even understand what these eastern spiritual guys are talking about, let alone put it into practice. They haven’t done enough meditation to be able to grasp what’s being talked about.

But that’s OK. It’s their job to try and deal with the concrete problems of mental illness. It’s just that when these folks talk about mindfulness or even meditation many of them don’t really get what they’re dealing with. For one thing, they tend to seriously underestimate the real power of this stuff. They often seem to think it’s just a way to make you calm down a little.

Here’s a photo to show you what I had to deal with while writing this. Crum knows he’s being obnoxiously cute. I’m sure of it.

108 Responses

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  1. Mysterion
    Mysterion May 8, 2012 at 8:10 am |

    I think it's easier than that.

    A chef wanna-be tries to cut carrots into even slices with effort.

    A chef, regardless of training or lack thereof, just cuts the carrots and sometimes the slices are even but mostly they are not.

    A satori wanna be looks for something extra, a runner's kick, out of Zazen.

    The satori is that Zazen is Zazen and, like the carrot slices, the experience is forever uneven. The real kick is that there is no apparent kick.

    After years of practice, I have achieved the ability to take Shiro to Peets, sit next to the most banal conversation on earth, sip coffee or tea, say nothing, and just mindfully [pun] scratch Shiro's ears.

  2. gniz
    gniz May 8, 2012 at 9:07 am |

    Broken Yogi, I agreed with most of your two posts about mental illness.

    I didn't fully agree with what you said regarding Brad's statement that in the future all of us now might be thought of as mentally ill.

    I took it this way… Although I am normally functioning in a societal sense, I can see how much of my thinking is just…insane. Babbling thoughts, and then me believing my thoughts–the constant mood changes, blaming others for my problems, arguing with people on the internet, getting angry at Mysterion.

    You see how wars start over less. People hating other people because they are gay or because they like George Bush or whatever the case.

    I feel that Brad's point was that in a more emotionally and psychologically evolved future time, they might look back at our current era as being filled with emotionally "sick" people. Our sickness is our disturbed thinking, our inability to see clearly, to take responsibility for our lives and our own happiness and not constantly blame others.

    That's how I took it and I agree with it if that's how Brad meant it. Since he didn't get that specific, I can't say for sure.

  3. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi May 8, 2012 at 10:52 am |


    Point taken. But even using your own analogy, we are just talking about stupidity, not mental illness. I will grant you that many of the things we do are stupid, but that doesn't make them a form of mental illness.

    For example, Aristotle believed that frogs were spontaneously generated from mud. It now seems like a crazy idea, given what we know now, but I don't think anyone would conclude from that, that Aristotle was insane. He used reason and logic and a very functional philosophical position to come to that conclusion. He was wrong, and there were flaws in his thinking, but not due to insanity. He wasn't even stupid, just thinking in a flawed way.

    Similarly, we could say that enlightenment mere means "using the mind correctly". I don't want to be more specific than that, because I'm not sure I know how enlightened people use the mind (Ramana Maharshi used to say that the way to make the mind strong was to not use it at all). But there's a difference between not knowing how to use the mind or think properly, and being mentally ill, which is a condition in which you can't do either of these, because of some disorder in the brain and body itself.

    So your guy who is trying to pole vault his way to enlightenment isn't mentally ill, he's just using his faculties wrongly. If you point out to him what he's doing wrong, he could actually change his method and do things right, or at least better. Which means he's teachable. But a mentally ill person isn't teachable, or is at least less so, the way a guy with maimed legs can't be taught to pole vault, or it would have to be in a highly modified way.

    THe guy who wrote to you in a previous thread about his mental problems is somewhere in between. He's conscious enough of his mental illness to try to work around it, but he's not going to pretend it's something that spiritual practice is going to magically heal. He'll do what he can within the limits he has to work with. And you could teach him within those limits also. So it depends on how debilitating the illness is, and whether one is suffering an "episode". A guy with bi-polar could be teachable, but probably not while having a manic episode. One has to at least stabilize the illness to the point where the mind has some basic functional strength from which to work.

  4. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi May 8, 2012 at 11:15 am |


    I don't think that we view previous generations as "insane" simply because they considered certain ways of doing and thinking acceptable or normative that we don't see that way now. And likewise, I don't think future generations will literally consider us to be suffering from mental illness just because we are undoubtedly wrong about so many other things.

    People like to throw these words around casually, and call people "crazy" or "insane" when they hold what we consider the wrong political views or religious attitudes. But we don't usually mean that in the same way we refer to mental illness. We might consider slavery to be "insane", but obviously the people who engaged in it were quite sane and rational, just immoral, selfish, and brutal. As mentioned above, Aristotle wasn't insane because he had this "crazy" idea about where frogs came from, he just didn't quite grasp the value of empiricism. If it had been explained and demonstrated to him sufficiently, he would probably have embraced it, which a crazy person couldn't do.

    So yeah, there is an evolution of thinking and emoting and morals and how we relate to one another. But that evolution is within the spectrum of a basic range of decent mental and capability, not one that goes from literal insanity to sanity. Athletes can run faster and stronger and better than athletes in the past, due to better food, training, sports medicine and science, etc., not because previous athletes were physically ill and now they are recovering from illness. They were all very healthy athletes, they just weren't as developed as they are now.

    So while you can certainly see much development in our society, most of that is among the mentally healthy, including the ability to recognize and treat mental illness. Even the ability to recognize sociopathy is an important step in the right direction. One can certainly say that many of the biggest social problems in the past have been caused by our inability to recognize sociopathic individuals and behavior, including recognizing all the factors (such as childhood abuse) that go into creating such psychologically deformed individuals. And becoming more aware of all that helps to alleviate a lot of problems in the world.

    As for the problems you feel you have in using the mind properly, well this is true, but it's not a form of mental illness. It's just a sign that our development hasn't reached perfection. Falling short of perfection isn't mental illness. As Brad says, some of the solutions are very simple, like just walking to the bathroom rather than pole-vaulting. E-MC2 is a very simple equation too, but it takes a highly developed mind to come up with. So the simplest solution may not actually be all that easy to see. That doesn't mean that Newton was insane because his equations weren't as accurate as Einstein's. They were highly advanced for his time, and what he had to work with. I'm sure one day Einstein's work will be modified by a better theory. And so it goes.

  5. gniz
    gniz May 8, 2012 at 1:23 pm |

    Mostly agree with you. I think Brad could have been said to be using hyperbole. I would equate it to when someone looks back at how doctors treated patients in the middle ages and we say their practices were "barbaric."

    You could also just say, "less developed" or in the earlier stages of understanding the human body, medicine, etc.

    Or when they used to give a lobotomy to difficult mental patients because they didn't understand other ways of dealing with the mentally ill.

    I am saying that in the future, the way we behave and think and act could easily be viewed not just a barbaric, but possibly even "insane" to those future generations.

    Are we mentally ill in the literal fashion you describe? No. But we could be seen as sick or very poorly developed to future generations.

    Anyway, I do think we're splitting hairs a little as I mostly agree with what you've said.

  6. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi May 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm |

    Gniz, yes, there's a difference between the colloquial and the literal use of the word "insane".

    Mixing the two categories is what I criticized Brad for. I think he understands the difference. He's using the colloquial version.

    The problem comes when people use the fuzziness of the colloquial to suggest there's no such thing as genuine mental illness.

    Another way of approaching this from a spiritual angle, however, is to look at our spiritual connection to the mind and body from the perspective of reincarnation. In many such models, our deeper awareness is actually coming from beyond the physical, but from our subtle body, and "interfacing" with the physical body and brain. One of my theories of mental illness is that when the spiritual connection between the subtle mind and the physical brain is strained or undeveloped, it creates a stress and distortion in the brain itself, which can induce mental illness. The brain can also have built in problems that make it difficult to interface properly with. Hence it's a two way communication problem, that stems from and/or results in various biochemical problems in the brain's ability to function, and our deeper mind's ability to stay in functional communication with the body. Sometimes, things just get away from us. Sometimes whole lifetimes do.

  7. radiosteve
    radiosteve May 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm |

    As someone diagnosed as Bipolar, I can say that my meditation practice has helped me tremendously. Being able to recognize when my Bipolar has kicked in and is driving my mood allows me to be step back and (try) to let the moods go. I understand that these are temporary states, that have no real substance on their own. I can choose to allow myself to slip into euphoria or depression, or see it for what it is and deal with it. (That works better on some days than others!)

    Also, I love this sentence:

    "Remember you're reading the words of a Buddhist who believes that even normal conventional notions of what constitutes reality are false."

    I have tried to explain that to people when I discuss their beliefs, but not with such clearness. Thanks for that!

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm |

    Hey Brad I noticed you didn't respond or didn't see on the previous post about the commenter euthanizing their dog. I too was wondering how that works with the buddhist precepts and all. Thanks!

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