I have heard this expression in many forms. Philosophers and religious texts often come to this idea, to live “in the world, but not of it.” So common is this idea that it seems to me to be part of the human condition, expressed not as an isolated cultural tradition but a universal feeling expressed through many cultural traditions.
It’s a common theme and narrative device and follows almost any discussion of altered states of consciousness. The language varies, some call it rapture, others enlightenment, others call it truth. One of my favorites is in the William Blake poem ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
When you experience such a profound awareness, some would say the most profound, what are you suppose to do afterwards? In a quiet meditative state, alone in the woods or meditating in an ashram, this all seems quite easy.
Give Thoreau his Walden and Huxley his mescaline and profundity seems natural.
But without the Walden, without the drugs, outside of meditation, outside of the temples, churches, and mosques, what is one to do? Separating oneself from the insane world can often reveal paths to truth, but how do you live those truths and still live in the insane world?
It’s easy to look around and see the horribleness of war, poverty, corruption, greed, and the rest of the evils discussed daily. A natural question then, how do you live in this world, with all it’s problems, while maintaining awareness of that transcendent state? That is, how do we keep the perceptions cleansed, how do we experience heaven, how are we to be aware of nirvana, how are we to be aware of bliss while living in the world?
How are you to be happy while also aware of the suffering around you?
Like many problems, perhaps examining the question can shed light on a solution. What do we mean by an “insane world”? Some would say, look around, the world is not a happy place, suffering is everywhere! Religions tend to agree, Buddhism starts with suffering and inquires into the nature of suffering, Scientology blames disembodied aliens, and Christianity blames your great-great-…-great-grandmother for eating an apple.
But what is this other world, the non-insane world? It seems a place of calm existential freedom, a place of enlightenment. It seems very different than the office buildings, schools, markets and highways of human civilization. How does one function in human civilization while maintaining that calm blissful freedom of enlightenment? Is such a thing possible?
Do others cross back and forth between the sane and insane worlds? Imagine an oak tree. How does an oak tree live in an insane world? I guess it would be an oak tree and it will live and die as oak trees do in any world. But oak trees do not plunge themselves into outer space or into inhospitable environments. Even if we’re just dressing in warm clothes or bringing sunscreen to the beach, we’re giving ourselves the life support needed to live in an inhospitable environment. Can we live sanely by adapting, with a bit of life support, to the insane world?
I suppose we’ll need more than a jacket and sunscreen to live sanely in an insane world. There is nourishment and also toxicity within human civilization, can we prejudice ourselves with facts of what is nourishing and what is toxic and successfully navigate human civilization the same way we navigate any inhospitable environment? If so, what is toxic and what is nourishing in human civilization?
At first glance, that which is most nourishing in human civilization is also the most toxic, we depend vastly on cooperation with other people. There is cooperation and there is competition. Are these things separate? And if so, can you have one without the other? If so, is there any advantage to a situation that is competitive but not cooperative? Let’s look at this closely, is there competition with no cooperation that is nourishing and not toxic? Competition separates you from others, it creates division and where there is division there is conflict. This conflict is competition, competition is always conflict. Is there a nourishing form of this conflict that is separate from cooperation, i.e., where there is no cooperation only pure competition? Such a thing is hard to imagine, we cooperate by speaking the same language, by adhering to cooperative social conventions. There may be competition in who most successfully cooperates. But to cooperate fully there can be no conflict, in fact, pure competition erodes and destroys cooperation– it will create a barrier, a division that brings conflict.
Humans are both cooperative and competitive, this is true from observation — but the strength of our survival is in the cooperation and less the competition. We cooperate to survive, which is itself a competition, a division between that which survives and that which does not. But this is a fact, this is something we can discriminate and make prejudiced decisions. We are the product of all that has survived, and we cooperate to survive, we cooperate so that we can compete to survive. It is a struggle, and like all struggles it is easily perceived but complicated in its nuanced perceptions.
Whether or not we call it insane, this world is exactly as it has been shaped by all that came before us, we are the offspring of those that shaped this world. And now we shape the world.
It seems that the insane world and the sane world are the same place– that there are many patterns and perceptions of existence, some more nourishing and some more toxic towards the specific world you would shape. But shaping the world is the inevitable outcome of your existence, your mind and body are a dependent piece of the world as it will inevitably become.
What to do now is a simple question, with a simple answer: anything you can; do what you want, do what you are told, or do as you will– there are many perceptions and none of them are any less nourishing or less toxic than another. Find the strategies based on the facts and not the perceptions, and take with you that which is most nourishing so that you have sustenance when in a toxic environment.
In the insane world, and what we mean by that is the world filled with suffering and attachment, how do you live sanely? Often times the toxic world is only toxic to your delusion of self. Does this mean the nourishing world is only nourishing to your delusion of self? Yes, and be more careful here, anything that builds the self is violent and divisive. Nourishment, true nourishment, is to the body and mind, not to the delusions of self and ego that are themselves toxic to the body and mind.
Knowing what is nourishing and what is toxic is a decision based on fact about your body and mind, not about perceptions and ego.
The ego is toxic, nourishment cannot exist while an ego is present– the ego seeks its own nourishment, nourish the body and mind as you would water a plant and place it near to a window. Do not nourish the plants’ illusion that it is not a plant. Maybe the plant fancies itself in the image of god, and that it has a direct link to god, or that it has an eternal soul; nourishing the plants eternal soul isn’t helping it get proper soil, water, and sunlight– things the egotistic plant probably takes for granted.
That is how you live sanely in an insane world– do so without ego, without delusions of self, do so with cooperation, and do so freely, with total freedom in mind and body.
There is a beautiful perfection in this world, and in that perfection there is order, there is unity, and there is a harmonious balance– only in the illusionary divisions is there violence and insanity. Remove the violence and insanity by seeing through the divisive illusions.
Living sanely is to realize that the world is not insane, and the world need not be saved, it is in no need of salvation. Change is inevitable, and the world is exactly as it has been shaped and it will become exactly as it will be shaped. And your hands are one of the many that shape this world.