I've been reading Aleister Crowley's lectures on yoga this week, as well as some of his other writings on meditation. He's pretty on-target vis-a-vis the things I learned from my guru about meditation. Some things I don't agree with (e.g. if a dog interrupts your meditation, shoot the dog), though I'm pretty sure Crowley revised such ideas later in his life. It is impossible in this century (or even in his) to meditate without distraction. If the distractions don't come from the outside, they come from the inside. I do recall a later Crowley anecdote, where he complained about the noise of London while trying to meditate, but then realized it was the perfect training ground. Anyone can be still when everything around them is still. Being still amid chaos is really the point.
I have great admiration for Crowley's writings, while still thinking he's a touch "insane". He certainly did things that most "normal" people would not think about doing or pursuing. But is that a negative?
Monday's Colbert Report episode featured Nassir Ghaemi, author of "A First Rate Madness". Ghaemi is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University, and the premise of his book is that those with mental illnesses may actually make better leaders, especially in times of crisis. Those in mania, for instance, have a rush of ideas coming to them, and are likely to come up with more creative solutions to problems. Those who are depressed tend to be more compassionate to others, and have an empathy for suffering. They also have a more realistic view of the world.
If you've seen the extremes of manic-depression, you know it is definitely an imbalance, and definitely a difficulty for the person living with it, and those close to them, especially if untreated. But it is clear that characteristics of the illness are vital to human advancement. I start to wonder about our whole mechanism for measuring psychological norms when I think about this.
Psychological norms seem to represent a group of perceptions accepted by a majority of people. These norms may not be any more "right" or "wrong" than other viewpoints, but they are treated like the "facts of reality". Most "normal" people have no grasp on the scope and magnitude of reality. This is clearer with every new article I read on quantum mechanics. The universe is much more complex and mind-blowing than our perception of it. Our brain acts as a filter, so that we're only processing so much information at a time. The person with the mental illness---schizophrenia, manic depression, temporal lobe epilepsy to name some obvious examples--often takes in much more of reality than we're used to, and hence perceives things in ways that seem "crazy" to us at times. The medication they take is designed to provide them with filters, so that they can function in "normal" society. We use the term "delusional" to describe them, and assume they are hallucinating because we don't experience what they experience. It's really those who are "normal" who are delusional, because they really don't have the big picture.
In order for society as a whole to have the "big picture", we'd have to throw away our current yardstick for measuring "normative" and do something entirely different. It's hard to say if this will ever happen, though the trends throughout history would be against it. Mysticism and esotericism are the "mental illness" of religion, in a way--they seek to go beyond the "normative" dogmas and doctrines of organized religion, and therefore are viewed as "deviant". But to discount either would mean that religion is just what hardcore atheists say it is--nothing more than a means of keeping people "in their place". If reality isn't bigger than what we experience daily with our five senses, then it would be a lot of bunk. Even science tells us that there is more to reality than we experience empirically.
In a certain sense, it is all a lot of bunk. But that "bunk" makes up our existence. We tell stories, and these stories guide us through life. Most of them are false, but it really doesn't matter. In the end, there isn't any "thing" or goal you can look to, even if you are a religious person. This is why the Buddhist says we move from knowing to unknowing--and then back to knowing that we don't know. That's really the only "truth". I think insanity lies more with "normal" people who are too afraid to question their stories. We cling to the most absurd things out of fear. Not fear of "God's punishment" necessarily, but fear that our life will lose meaning and that we will face the unknown by ourselves and be swallowed up. But--if we don't question and change our stories, we never actually go through the human process of growing and maturing, and we become unable to live with others in the world. Like it or not, this is where we are, and this is the game we're playing. I prefer to look at it as a game--you want to do your best, but you don't want to take it too seriously.