Humania: The Madness of the Human Mind

Is insanity our normal state? Do we all suffer from a psychological disorder?

Posted May 12, 2012

Since European peoples began exploring and colonising the world in the 16th century, they have curiously observed ‘indigenous’ peoples and written accounts of their cultures. Modern anthropologists still frequently travel to remote corners of the world to observe and document tribes who haven’t yet been touched by globalisation, and still follow traditional lifestyles.

But what about the other way round? What have indigenous peoples made of the ‘developed’ peoples who have studied them, and whose culture has conquered theirs? Or to put it more abstractly, if a member of a remote tribe wrote an anthropological study of us, what would it say?

In 1932, the psychologist Carl Jung met a Native American chief, Mountain Lake, in New Mexico. When Jung asked him what he thought of the European people who had conquered his country, he gave a damning assessment: ‘The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.’

Other indigenous peoples have shared Mountain Lake’s bemusement. Many believed that the Europeans’ lust for possessions was a kind of madness. As the Sioux chief Sitting Bull said, ‘The love of possession is a disease with them…They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own and fence their neighbors away.’

In a similar way, many were shocked by the Europeans’ lack of connection to – and lack of reverence for – nature. As one of the most acute observers of the differences between the European and Indian worldviews, Chief Luther Standing Bear, wrote: ‘Indian faith sought the harmony of man with his surroundings; the other sought the dominance of surroundings…For [the Indian] the world was full of beauty, for [the White man] it was a place of sin and ugliness to be endured until he went to another world.’

In other words, indigenous peoples seem to think that there is something wrong us, even that we are mad. An indigenous anthropologist who studied our history would find a massive amount of further evidence for this too: thousands of years of constant warfare, massive inequalities of wealth and power, the brutal oppression of women, of other classes and castes, endless brutality, violence and greed – and then, in recent decades, the suicidal destruction of our planet’s life support systems. He or she would also look at the massive inequalities which blight the world today, where the three richest people in the world are wealthier than the 48 poorest countries combined, and where almost 800 million people are undernourished while millions of others are obese because they have too much food.

What could be more insane than this?

Our Psychological Disorder

Why do we suffer from the constant restlessness and unease which Mountain Lake spoke of? Why is it that many of us are driven to accumulate more and more wealth, status and success, without any evidence that they provide us with contentment and fulfilment? Why is that, when we achieve our goals, we often only feel a short period of satisfaction, before restlessness emerges again, filling us with a desire to achieve even more?

In my new book Back to Sanity, I suggest that there really is something wrong with our minds. We suffer from a basic psychological disorder, which is the source of our dysfunctional behaviour, both as individuals and as a species. We’re all slightly mad – only because the madness is so intrinsic to us, we’re not aware of it. I call this disorder ‘humania,’ as in ‘human madness.’ (I sometimes refer to it as ‘ego-madness’ too, since the disorder is the result of the malfunctioning and the mal-development of the ego. By the ego I mean our sense of being an ‘I’ within our own mental space, the ‘self-system’ which gives us a sense of being an individual, with our thoughts and experiences.)

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines a psychological or mental disorder as a “clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern [which] is associated with present distress...or with a significant increased risk of suffering." Humania is too omnipresent and taken for granted to be seen as clinically significant (especially since psychiatrists suffer from it too), but it’s certainly the cause of distress and suffering. It means that the normal state of our minds is one of discord. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that ‘Life is suffering,’ and this suffering begins in our minds. This inner suffering – or psychological discord, as I refer to it – is so normal to us that we don’t realise it’s there, like a background noise that you’re so used to you don’t hear anymore. But it has massive consequences. It means that we have to keep our attention focused outside ourselves, and fill our lives with constant activity and distraction, like addicts who need a constant supply of a drug. It makes it impossible for us to find contentment. It causes discord in our relationships. It impels us to search for well-being and fulfilment outside ourselves, in wealth, success and power. It’s even responsible – for reasons which I’ll explain later – for much of the conflict, oppression and brutality which has filled human history.

But despite its devastating effects, the condition is neither deep-rooted nor permanent. In fact it only exists on a superficial layer of the mind. We all regularly have moments when our normal psychological discord fades away and we experience a sense of ease, well-being and harmony. In these moments we’re free of the pressure to keep busy and the need for stimulation and acquisition – we rest at ease within ourselves and within the present moment.

These moments of ‘harmony of being’ – as I refer to them – usually happen when we’re quiet and relaxed and there’s stillness around us e.g. when we’re walking through the countryside, working quietly with our hands, listening to or playing music, after meditation, yoga or sex. The normal incessant chattering of our minds fades away, and rather than feeling separate, we feel a natural flow of connection between ourselves and our surroundings or other people. In these moments, we become – temporarily, at least – sane.

I think it’s possible for us to become permanently sane too – but that must be the topic of a future blog.

Steve Taylor is a psychology lecturer and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. Eckhart Tolle has described his work as 'an important contribution to the global shift in consciousness happening at the present time.' His new book is Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of Our Minds. His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com. 

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