Friday, June 20, 2008

Insanity Versus Revelation

When I was in college, I took a course in Eastern Religion, taught by a distinguished scholar. I'd already done a substantial amount of reading on the topic, and had dabbled in meditation and yoga since childhood, so I listened keenly as the professor described the absolute non-linearity of saints in traditions like Zen. Those guys never made any logical sense. One might easily reach the impression that mystical roads lead only to mushy-headedness. After all, an ascetic who experiences powerful revelation after years spent meditating in some Himalayan cave might just as well be deemed to have gone bonkers.

I sat down with the professor and asked him whether enlightenment might just be a manifestation of mental illness. The professor explained how he'd spent time in Japan with Zen masters who'd left him utterly convinced that they'd found potent truth and not merely gone Cocoa for Cocoa Puffs. They were non-linear, yes, but they palpably possessed all their marbles. But it was all empirical. He mostly danced around the question, arguing against the meaningfulness of the sanity/insanity dichotomy, and stressing the great discipline required of spiritual adepts (not a compelling point; obsessive-compulsives, for example, certainly don't lack discipline!).

This question of spiritual insight versus delusion bemused me for years, and no one could resolve it to my satisfaction. But here's how to draw the distinction: the insane are never happy and peaceful. Whereas those who regularly (and correctly) practice meditation are. That's the simple difference.

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