From my earliest years I had been highly emotional, easily wounded and often upset. My temper would flare without warning, but I could also settle quickly into good cheer. My instability worsened under the stress of child abuse, and I suspect my stepmother enjoyed pushing me into emotional collapse–a sensitive child must be the perfect victim for a sadist.
By reasons of genetics and trauma, I entered adulthood accustomed to rapid and dramatic shifts in feeling. But in 2000 my moodiness rose to new heights. My lows became lower and my highs higher.
I presented twice for hospitalization. The first time I sought confinement as I became frightened by my growing determination to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. In fact, frightened isn’t the right word, because I knew very little fear. The cold and collected way in which I was arranging my end dismayed me and led me to seek help. After two weeks the doctors discharged me from the first hospital, and I left feeling much happier. A bit too happy, in fact. The powerful new antidepressant worked quickly to elevate my mood, first into mild giddiness and then, five days after discharge, into full blown manic psychosis.
Psychosis was the technical term for the experience, and I suppose it describes well enough what the psychiatrists saw in me. But from my side, it felt like a series of the most profound and mind-expanding experiences imaginable. I heard angels, saw God, and met Jesus. A lifetime of habitual atheism evaporated. My entire perspective on the mystery and meaning of life was transformed.
But this post isn’t about that. It’s not about visionary experiences, the relationship between insanity and grace, or even the power of psychiatric medications. It’s about how quickly life’s value can seem to change. During that period of time, while all I’d worked for disintegrated, my attitude shifted so frequently that it must have been bewildering for my wife to watch. One day I’d feel relieved to be free of the intense physical and emotional stress of being a surgeon. The next I’d despair at my bad luck in losing such a challenging and rewarding career.
I vacillated between feeling like the most worthless person on earth to believing myself blessed with knowledge known only to saints. I’d berate myself for myriad sins, then pride myself on my ability to see the heart of creation.
As all this went on, however, I wasn’t aware of my mind shifting very much at all. It was the world that seemed to change. It didn’t seem like my brain moved from its depressed state to its ecstatic one. Rather, the entire cosmos gyrated. One day it appeared to be hell and the next, heaven. One day the weather looked dismal, my future unfaceable, my past a disaster. The next everything glowed with preternatural radiance, my future looked limitless, and my past seemed like the perfect prelude to spiritual breakthrough.
Am I making this at all clear? Although I knew on some rational level that the problem resided in my nervous system, experientially the difficulty seemed to dwell in the outside world. It was as if the lenses through which I viewed the world changed from gray to rose when my mood flipped from low to high. I saw everything differently, but I felt like the same Will the whole time.
A similar process must explain why some people refuse to understand that they are in the throes of abnormal mentation. The person ranting at unseen tormenters believes himself in a hostile world; he doesn’t locate the problem in his own mind. When parents of young people suffering from schizophrenic conditions hear their children refuse to ‘admit’ their problems, they get frustrated and angry. But it isn’t stubbornness that makes this connection difficult. We simply cannot separate the world as it really is from the world as we experience it.
There is a deep point here about the human condition. Whatever it is that exists outside our brains, beyond our eyes, and past our skin, it is not the same thing we experience inside. We live in a reconstruction of the real world built from sensory input, memory, and conditioning. This is probably what the Hindus understood when they named the formed world Maya, or illusion. The cosmos may be real in material terms, but our experience of it is determined by far too many subjective and internal factors to be solid or reliable.
Consider this scene: two strangers sit on a wide, sandy beach on a warm day. They both feel the sunlight streaming onto their faces, and they both hear the surf’s watery heartbeat in equal measure. Imagine they both come from similar families and backgrounds. They don’t know each other, but they share like temperament and values. They are, in fact, nearly identical people. But just before sitting down, the person on the right learned that her beloved father died unexpectedly a few hours earlier. Do you think these two women are experiencing similar inner states? Everything surrounding them is the same, everything in their history is nearly so. But a potent bit of news has completely darkened the bereaved woman’s day. This time on the beach will ever live in her memory as a vertiginous epoch when her world felt upended, and a central pillar in her life gave way. The woman on the left may not think back on this beach scene at all.
This is the nature of human experience: wholly colored by interpretation and expectation; unfixed, unfixable, and and ever surprising. Catastrophe and delight waiting at every turn. Nothing reliable, everything mortal, and all beliefs vulnerable to contradiction. No wonder we go mad.
And no wonder the best path to sanity is to quit fighting. Only by letting the world have its way with us, by swimming with rather than against life’s currents, can we finally make progress toward stability. As an adolescent I spent much time bodysurfing off Southern California beaches. A lesson you learn early is to not fight a riptide, but let it take you where it will. Swim sideways to limit how far the current pulls you, but never confront the flow head-on. To do so is to invite exhaustion and possibly a watery death.
Life is exactly like those riptides, always tearing us away from what we thought was reliable ground. The gift of temporary insanity is that it teaches you that your mind determines the world, not the other way around. Sure, evolution, genetics, and upbringing may sculpt our inner processes, but after we are formed the internal shapes the external. This is why people get seduced by suicide. There is little thought given to the loved ones left behind. The mind is enthralled by the horrifying delusion that it can end a punishing world by ending itself; it thinks itself the Master of the Universe.
But no, the mind cannot destroy the cosmos, only the happiness of those nearby. But it can also, with proper motivation and instruction, reshape its own viewpoints so that life is finally understood to be magical, precious, and utterly mysterious, no matter what it brings. Our experience is an illusion, but it is one we create by our own thoughts and attitudes. Let us create a beautiful world. Let us be Masters of Mind.