By Steve Taylor (Article from Watkins’ Mind Body Spirit magazine, issue 31, August (Autumn, 2012)
Imagine if you were an alien who had been sent to the Earth to live with human beings, to observe their behaviour and write a study about them–a bit like an anthropologist who goes to the forest to study a remote tribe. What would the alien anthropologist make of the human race? What conclusions would it come to?
It would probably be puzzled by the fact that human beings are filled with a restlessness which makes us feel uneasy when we’re not occupied, and makes it impossible for us just to ‘be.’ They would be puzzled that we spend so much time oppressed by anxieties, worries and other negative emotions, and by our drive to accumulate more and more wealth, status and success, even though these don’t bring any contentment. And looking back over human history, they would be amazed at the endless catalogue of warfare and conflict, together with the incredible inequality and oppression of most human societies.
The alien would probably conclude that there is something wrong with human beings, even that we suffer from a kind of psychological disorder. In my new book Back to Sanity, I suggest that this really is the case. In the book, I call this disorder ‘humania’, and explain how it leads to the madness of materialism, status-seeking and distraction, as well as to other pathological types of behaviour such as dogmatic religion, warfare and environmental destruction.
However, I believe that human beings also have the capacity to be truly sane. Humania is really only a kind of shadow over our minds, which frequently falls away.
Harmony of Being
From time to time, we all have experiences of what I call ‘harmony of being’, when restlessness and discontent fade away, and we’re filled with a sense of ease, well-being and harmony. We become free of pressure to keep busy and the need for stimulation and acquisition, and rest at ease within ourselves and within the present moment. These moments usually occur when we’re quiet and relaxed and there’s stillness around us – for example, walking through the countryside, working quietly with our hands, listening to or playing music, or after meditation, yoga or sex. The chattering of our minds fades away and we feel a natural flow of connection between ourselves and our surroundings or other people. In these moments, we become – temporarily, at least – sane. Our minds become quiet and still, free of cognitive discord, and we lose our normal sense of separateness and incompleteness.
Sometimes these experiences of harmony seem to come out of nowhere, for no apparent reason. You might experience harmony for a brief moment when you wake up in the morning after a good night’s sleep – just for a few seconds, before your thoughts start chattering away about the day ahead, your mind is empty and still, and you’re filled with a strange sense of well-being and wholeness. Or another morning, when you wake up early, go downstairs and sit at the breakfast table. There’s quietness and stillness around you, and you feel quiet and still inside too, a glow of contentment spreading through you. You look through the window at your garden, just beginning to reveal itself in the dim light, and you’re suddenly struck by how beautiful it is. You feel as if you’re seeing it in a different way to normal, seeing flowers and plants that you don’t normally notice, and the whole garden seems so still and yet at the same time so wild and alive.
You might experience harmony while running or swimming, or with more dangerous and demanding pursuits like climbing, flying or diving. Activities like these require so much concentration that they help us to forget the niggling concerns of daily life. The demands of the present – to make the next manoeuvre or avoid a potential danger – focus the mind so much that thought-chatter fades away and the future and the past cease to exist. As a result, climbers or pilots sometimes experience a sense of wholeness and contentment, becoming intensely aware of the beauty of their surroundings, and even feeling a sense of oneness with them.
Contact with nature is a major source of harmony too, and one of the main reasons why so many of us love the countryside. The beauty and grandeur of nature draws our attention away from our thought-chatter, and the stillness and space relax us even further. Our ego-boundaries become softer, so that we transcend separateness and feel connected to our surroundings.
The Sources of Harmony
Harmony occurs when our whole being is quiet and calm, like the still surface of a lake. We feel that stillness inside us, and the super-critical person inside our heads – who’s always criticising our behaviour and reminding of the things we should feel bad about in the past and worry about in the future – disappears. There’s no one to make us feel guilty, to make us worry about the future, or bitter about the past.
In these moments, we become aware that, although the surface of our being is sometimes filled with disturbance and negativity, beneath that there is a deep reservoir of stillness and well-being. The surface of our being is like a rough sea which sweeps you to and fro and makes you feel disoriented and anxious. But if you wear diving equipment and go beneath the surface, you’re suddenly in the midst of endless silence and stillness.
In these moments, the lack of discord inside us means that we’re free from the compulsion to do, and able to be. We can sit down at the table or walk around the house and be content just to be here. There’s no impulse to turn on the television or the radio, to reach for a magazine or to check your e-mail or to phone a friend for a chat.
One of the most striking things about this state is how natural it feels. There’s a sense of coming home, returning to a state which is our natural birthright, as if we’re experiencing our being as it originally was, before our minds became infected with humania.
Permanent Harmony and Sanity?
These moments of sanity don’t have to be fleeting. It’s possible for us to become permanently sane. In fact, this is the basic aim of all spiritual traditions, and all spiritual practices: to transcend discord and attain a state of inner harmony. When harmony becomes a permanent state, it’s what we call ‘enlightenment’ – a state in which the madness of the human mind is truly healed. In Back to Sanity, I propose an eight-stage path of self-development leading to a permanent state of harmony, including practices such as ‘transcending negative thought patterns,’ ‘Healing the mind through quietness and stillness’ as well as traditional practices such as service and meditation.
Once we transcend humania, life ceases to be painful and dissatisfying, and becomes a glorious adventure, full of joy and wonder. And if a large enough number of human beings could transcend the condition, the world would be a different place too. Ultimately, we can only transcend conflict in the world by healing it in our own being. We can only create peace in the world by creating peace in ourselves.
BACK TO SANITY: Healing the Madness of our Minds by Steve Taylor, published by Hay House, paperback (256 pages). Available here from Watkins Books.
Steve Taylor is a lecturer in psychology and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality, including his new book Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of our Minds. Eckhart Tolle has described Steve’s work as ‘an important contribution to the shift in consciousness which is happening on our planet.’ Steve’s website is www.stevenmtaylor.co.uk