Return to Harmony

Healing the Madness of the Human Mind
Author: Steve Taylor

Imagine if you were an alien who had been sent to Earth to live with human beings, observe their behaviour and write a study about them - a bit like an anthropologist who goes into 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; 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, when we’re 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.

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.

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.

Or you might experience harmony of being when you’re watching your children play in the garden in summer. You look around at the sunlight splashing through the trees and the perfect blue sky above, and listen to your children’s laughter – and the scene seems so perfect that time seems to stand still. Or even when you’re driving down the motorway and are suddenly struck by the beauty of the evening sun, shining between the clouds and across the fields – just for a few moments, you feel lit up inside too, and a warm glow of well-being flows through your whole being.

Harmony-Generating Experiences

Spontaneous experiences of harmony like these are quite rare though. Usually harmony of being is linked to certain activities or situations. For example, there are some sports which often give rise to the state. Several joggers and long-distance runners have told me that running has a powerful psychological effect on them, making them feel very calm and alert, and more ‘grounded’. One colleague told me that he goes running every day because ‘It helps clear my mind, helps me get back to myself. It puts me back in tune with the world again, after all the hassles of work. All the work stuff fades from my mind and I just take pleasure from where I am, from the elements around me.’

Swimming can also give rise to harmony. Once, when I was talking to a group of students about meditation, a young woman said to me, ‘That’s what I do when I go swimming!’ She went on to say that: “When I’m swimming, I get into the rhythm of my movements and the gliding feeling of going through the water – I get so into it that I forget everything. I just feel the water against my skin and look up at the light shining on the water and the waves moving across the pool and it all looks perfect. When I get out of the water and get changed I feel happy and peaceful.”

More dangerous and demanding pursuits can generate harmony too, such as 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 thought-chatter, and the stillness and space relax us even further. As a result, our minds become quiet, and our ego-boundaries become softer, so that we transcend separateness and feel connected to our surroundings.

The beauty and grandeur of nature draws our attention away from thought-chatter, and the stillness and space relax us even further. As a result, our minds become quiet, and our ego-boundaries become softer, so that we transcend separateness and feel connected to our surroundings.

The Sources of Harmony

So why exactly is it that we become free of humania in these moments? What is it about meditation, sex, climbing or running which generates harmony of being?

The most important factor is that all of these activities provide a focus for the mind. There’s a steady stream of attention directed at a particular object, and this has the effect of quietening our thought-chatter. This is because our thought-chatter is fuelled by the attention we give to it. Every mechanism needs some fuel to keep running, and the crazy thought-churning machine inside our heads feeds off attention. As long as we listen to it, and allow ourselves to get immersed in it, it will run on forever. But when we focus our attention away from it for a period of time – perhaps a minimum of five minutes – it begins to fade away, in the same way that a car grinds to a halt when it runs out of petrol.

When the mind is quiet in this way, we become free of both the disturbance and negativity of thought-chatter. We feel a sense of inner stillness because there literally is stillness inside us. Our being becomes calm, like the still surface of a lake. And this also means that 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.

Every mechanism needs some fuel to keep running, and the crazy thought-churning machine inside our heads feeds off attention. As long as we listen to it, and allow ourselves to get immersed in it, it will run on forever.

The quietening of thought-chatter has the effect of softening the boundaries of the ego. To a large degree, the ego itself is sustained by thinking. Thinking is what the ego does; your thought-chatter is the sound of the ego talking to itself. Every thought reinforces the ego a little, in the same way that exercise strengthens a muscle.

In these moments, we become aware that, although the surface of our being is 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.

At this deeper level we also become aware of an energy which fills our being – a rich and densely powerful energy which seems to be the source of the well-being we feel. This is the radiance of consciousness, whose nature is well-being in the same way that wetness is the nature of water.

In these moments, the lack of discord inside us means that we’re free from the compulsion to do, and able to be. In fact, this ability to do nothing is one of the most pleasant aspects of harmony of being. 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 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 minds 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.)

At this deeper level we also become aware of an energy which fills our being – a rich and densely powerful energy which seems to be the source of the well-being we feel. This is the radiance of consciousness, whose nature is well-being in the same way that wetness is the nature of water.

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.

Steve Taylor is a lecturer in psychology and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality, including his latest book – on which this article is based – 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

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