By Andrew Herskovits
I once had a disturbed young man come to a meditation class I was teaching in Edinburgh. As we’d gathered and during the meditation instruction I’d noticed that he was unusually intense and that he had noticeably poor personal hygiene, but in most ways he seemed like a fairly typical young man.
In the discussion following, however, his conversation started to veer off into more bizarre areas. He’d had “cosmic” experiences during the meditation session — experiences whose details I no longer recall but which sounded very off-balance. His girlfriend was apparently an Iranian princess. He was being shadowed by various security forces. Later still, as we were winding up and preparing to leave, and he was able to talk to me more or less alone, his conversation became more delusional still. He had developed special powers through his spiritual practice and could make things happen in the world around him. As we talked a housefly smacked noisily into the glass door we were standing beside. “See!” he said, excitedly. “I made that happen.”
He was obviously ill and suffering, and I experienced that pang of knowing that there was little or nothing I could do to help.
I’m no mental health professional, but his behaviors reminded me of what little I knew about schizophrenia and so I suggested as kindly as I could that he might be misinterpreting his experiences and that he might want to talk to a doctor about what was going on. He was clearly having problems with his mental health, but here’s the thing: according to the Buddha, so were the rest of us. “All worldlings are mad,” he said.
“Worldling” is a translation of “putthujana,” which is simply anyone who isn’t enlightened. That’s me, and you. The Buddha had his own ideas about what constitutes mental health, and by his definition anyone who isn’t well on the way to Enlightenment is insane. Quite how literally he meant it when he said “All worldlings are mad” is hard to say, but when he looked at ordinary people like us going about their daily business he saw a world out of balance — and a world that by necessity is out of balance, because it is composed of those same off-kilter individuals.
He had a term for this imbalance, which was viparyasa in Sanskrit, although the less-well-known Pali equivalent vipallasa is a bit easier on the tongue and the eye. Vipallasa means “inversion,” “perversion,” or “derangement.” Specifically, in using this term the Buddha was talking about the ways in which we misunderstand the world we live in, and the ways in which we misunderstand ourselves. Just at the young man at my meditation class was constantly misinterpreting what was happening (“See! I made that happen”) so too do the rest of us live in a virtual reality of delusion, confusion, and distortion.
What’s more, we largely share the same delusions, which means that we don’t even realize that our minds are disturbed. And thus, as Krishnamurti suggests, it’s possible to think that we’re spiritually and mentally healthy because we share our mistaken values and understandings with those around us. Collectively, our ill minds create a society that is itself ill, and we consider ourselves healthy because we see our values reflected in our fellow worldlings.
When I think of the vipallasas in modern life I’m overwhelmed by examples, but the one that springs most to mind is to materialism. We keep thinking that the answer to our sense of existential dissatisfaction is to buy more stuff: more stuff, and better stuff. I guess I notice this most with gadgets, but for other people it’s houses, furniture, shoes, clothes, or cars — none of which I care about at all. I get a new gadget — the shiny MacBook Pro I’m writing this article on, for example — and I feel a sense of pleasure just looking at it. It’s better, faster, prettier than any computer I’ve had before. But then what happens over time? Newer, better, faster, prettier computers come on the market, and I start comparing my machine unfavorably with them. My gadget starts to look a bit old-fashioned (after only six months!), less cool, less capable. It feels less fast. And I’m no longer so happy with it. I now start to hanker after something new.
And I’ve been through all this craziness before. (Don’t they say that insanity is doing the same time over and over and expecting a different result?) Even knowing that I’m on a materialistic treadmill doesn’t entirely blunt the craving for a new computer, although to give myself credit I live without a television and rarely make impulse purchases. But on some level I really believe that the answer to the discomfort of my cravings will arrive in a box carried by a UPS truck.
I work with these cravings in my meditation and in my daily life, because the Buddha suggested that there was a better answer to the problem of craving. His advice was that we need to look deeply at our craving itself, and to realize the many levels of delusion that come packaged with it. The new gadget (or pair of shoes, or that lovely sweater, or sexy car) doesn’t contain a magical ingredient that will make us happy. The object of our craving is impermanent and therefore incapable of giving lasting satisfaction.
Our craving itself is impermanent! We can watch cravings arise and pass. As we watch them come and go, choosing not to act on them, they begin to develop an unreal appearance. As we start increasingly to see through them we no longer take them so seriously, and they become weaker and less frequent. And in the end we come to see what the Buddha himself saw, which is that the answer to the problem of our cravings is not acquiring the object of our cravings but letting go of craving itself.
It’s through abandoning craving that we will finally find peace, that we’ll come back to our senses, stop seeing things in a distorted way, and find true health and wellbeing. And having done that, to whatever degree, we can look around at the imbalance that surrounds us — really seeing it — and then compassionately reach out to others so that we can help them bring about their own healing.