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December 1994, Volume 2 Nr 4, Issue 16


The word insanity is used in everyday speech. Some behavior is judged as insane. Reporters editorialize about the insanity of war, the insane condition of our inner cities. Older movies describe an era where the people were routinely thrown into insane asylums. Today, much controversy surrounds the maneuvering of attorneys around the issue of whether or nor not the accused can stand trial on the grounds of insanity. Lawyers are often quick to invoke the insanity plea, saying a person is not liable for his actions due to insanity.


What exactly is this condition we call insanity? It is interesting to note that in the 1,131 page book, Principles and Practices of Psychiatric Nursing, Third Edition by Stuart and Sundeen, I was hard pressed to find the word insane or insanity. I found the terms chronic mental illness and mental disorder. The closest brush with the word "insanity" comes in the glossary under the phrase insanity defense. On page 1,096 the insanity defense is defined as "a legal defense proposing that a person who has committed an act that in a usual situation would be criminal should be held not guilty by reason of insanity." The italics of the word insanity reflect the quotes around the glossary text definition.

The medical establishment does not use the term insane or insanity as a diagnostic category. The term chronic mental illness is used in order to clarify and distinguish a group of individuals with special characteristics and difficulty associated with everyday life, difficult people-to-people relationships, and trouble dealing with activities of daily living, all over a long period of time. Our modern world is constantly redefining and relabeling. The deaf become hearing impaired. The shell-shocked become victims of post traumatic stress syndrome. Minimal brain dysfunction becomes attention deficit disorder, etc. The word insanity thus becomes more of a layman's term, being all but eliminated from the professional vocabulary. Still, the term insanity has a useful place.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines insanity as "a state of unsoundness or derangement of the mind..." Who can argue that at times all of us exhibit unsoundness of mind to one degree or another. While we may not be chronically mentally ill, we may nonetheless, be insane sometime. We may be in a state of mind where we are not conscious of what we are doing; when we are out of control. It is at these times that we make choices from an unsound mind. My reading of A Course In Miracles„ suggests that when we choose attack against a brother we are acting from an unsound mind. Insanity as attack on another is an attack on the self. Surely, no-one of sound mind would knowingly choose to attack the self.


According to the New Encyclopedia Brittanica, insanity is a legal term defined as "a condition of mental disorder or mental defect that relieves a person of criminal responsibility for his conduct. Tests of insanity used in law are not intended to be scientific definitions of mental disorder; rather, they are expected to identify persons whose incapacity is of such character and extent that criminal responsibility should be denied on grounds of social expediency or justice...Insanity is justified as an exemption from responsibility on the grounds that responsibility assumes capacity to make elementary moral distinctions and power to adjust behavior to the commands of the law." The implication of the definition is that if we eliminate the criminal act we take insanity out of the behavior. Insanity is a human construct. Often, a jury is given the task of determining whether someone is insane or not.

Decisions that determine whether our behavior is judged as insane or not are made either by the legal powers-that-be or by the self. The individual is left to consciously recognize his or her behavior and inner state of mind. Spirituality can be a motivation for taking responsibility for what we do, how we act, and what we feel moment-to-moment. Since the condition of insanity does not exist as a physical construct, we need not worry whether we are insane. We do need to be part of the world playing a constructive role.

All of Us

Although insanity does not exist, the paradox that we are all insane does. Could it be that the defining criteria that separates the insane from the chronically mentally ill or disordered is the degree and the longevity of the symptoms?

According to the paradigm I am pursuing, a rage is insanity. It is difficult to rage for long periods of time. Our physiology protects us from prolonged rage with exhaustion. During rage, we are of unsound mind. Often, we do not know what we are saying or even what we are doing. Once we stop raging, we recognize in retrospect that we were incapable of acting with sound decision nor reasonable interpersonal skill. Rage is intense. There are however, subtle decisions we make that come from unsoundness of mind: smoking (while recognizing the consequences as a slow suicide), drinking and driving (knowing that our senses are impaired), etc.

Depression might be another example of being insane. A depression can last weeks, months or even years. Depression is a common occurrence, as common an illness of the mind, as a cold is to the body. Depression becomes a chronic mental illness, when it lasts over a prolonged period of time. From personal experience, I can attest that during depression we are out of touch with the capabilities that afford us solace, comfort and a sense of ease, that all is generally well with us and the world. Again, in retrospect, once the depression has passed, the survivors recognize it as an unsoundness of mind.

Varying Paradigms

"Everyone knows examples of apparently irrational food habits. Chinese like dog meat but despise cow milk; we like cow milk but we won't eat dogs; some tribes in Brazil relish ants but despise venison. And so it goes around the world." Consider that some people love ham (the Pacific Melanesians) while others (Jews and Moslems) forbid that meat. The world views of insanity are as varied as its dietary contradictions. The world is full of contrasting paradigms and the modern age has brought them closer together.

Both rage and depression are chronological events, happening in time, lasting from minutes to years. There are many much briefer moments when we are insane. If we broaden our paradigm to include the writings found in A Course in Miracles,„ we define any attack of another as insane. Listening to the voice of the ego is an unsound activity.

We can broaden the notion of insanity, or narrow it, to fit any construct we wish. If we choose our behavior to be characteristic of a rigid idealism to which we adhere, and if we then compare that characteristic with the significant differences of others, then we become neurotic. We refine our insanity and redefine insanity according to whatever or whomever is doing the defining. All classifications of mental illness are inventions. The inventions vary with culture, nationality, personal perspective and even religion. One defines suicide differently if one believes that all life must be preserved at all costs.

Another example of a varying paradigm is suicide. Some see all suicide as insanity. Others see suicide as a heroic and honorable action. A kamikaze pilot's actions are the result of decision made by his mind based his paradigm. Choosing to die with honor for the glory of the fatherland does not seem to him a decision made by an unsound mind, but rather a noble expression of supreme sanity.

Suicide as insanity is a dichotomy born from upbringing, culture and personal perspective. Whether one sees cowardice or heroics depends upon one's operating frame of mind and the individual circumstance. JeanneE and I have acquaintances who were vibrant, talented and loving. At an advanced age, both terminally ill, this courageous couple took their own lives rather than prolong the inevitable and partake in a steadily decreasing quality of life due to cancer. To suggest that suicide in their case was insanity is to disparage their memory and presume one paradigm is somehow and in some way superior to another.

Most people do not consciously choose the paradigms they act upon. Paradigms are a product of environment, nature and nurture, self-interest, self-defense mechanisms and belief systems. The parameters by which we judge insanity are as insane as the insanity we purport to judge (which in effect might not be insanity at all).

Garth Wood in The Myth of Neurosis, Overcoming the Illness Excuse states that, "In dignifying the failure to lead a satisfactory life with the descriptive term 'neurosis', a new disease category is created with its own natural history, signs, symptoms and prognosis. This old philosophical mistake of the hypostasization of an abstraction, in which the existence of a real entity which that word describes, leads to the idea that there exist neuroses in the same way that there exist broken legs and heart murmurs. As soon as an illness has been promulgated, then practitioners must be found to administer cures and alleviate symptoms of a condition which it is believed descends upon patients like rheumatism or the flu." We label a human condition and then try to fix it.

Sanity Clause

In a previous issue I contended that spirituality may be defined as the moment to moment recognition of our internal state of affairs. We make no judgments when spiritually aware. We are conscious of where our head and our heart is at. We can make an effort at altering our spirituality to at least neutral spirits when engrossed in spiritual poverty.

I once asked my students, "Why are there so many mentally ill people at the North Pole?" The reply: "Because there's no sanity clause." There may not be such a human condition as insanity. Insanity may merely be a human label for an unacceptable condition. The question remains: unacceptable by whom?

Although the term running amok refers to frenzied, violent activity, consider the possibility that one might be given permission to safely let it out. Running amok may be sanctioned insanity or no insanity at all depending on whether a sanity clause is in effect or not. Some cultures allow for controlled venting or expressions of frustration in public. What they consider to be normal release from the trials and tribulations of everyday living we might consider insane. Imagine a time during our work day when we are allowed and encouraged to run around the block screaming our head off. Possibly, we might be given permission to demolish a predetermined image or object associated with our frustrations. Imagine punching a bag that resembles the boss, with the boss's blessing! I do not believe our society is ready to recognize or accept any behavior outside the bounds of collective self-repression or acceptance.

During a politically active period in my life, proving that nuclear weapons existed in our community occupied much of JeanneE's and my time. I safely ran mentally amok as a way of dealing with the pressures of my activist leadership position. I occasionally called up the imagery of bull running loose in a fine China shop. I was the bull and my horns represented baseball bats. I never closely analyzed the vision. Possibly, the fine Lenox China and the Waterford crystal were some of the institutions and the policies that I opposed. I have moments where the sounds of busting glass are appealing.

I wonder whether this mental amok serves the same purpose as adventure movies, where the star character is applauded for fantasy destruction, vengeance and desolation, as catharsis. I suspect that a steady diet of so much letting go far surpasses momentary cathartic amokness. Yet we daily, in our television viewing, news reporting, movies, books and printed press, overwhelm ourselves with visions of people and institutions running amok. The difference between a society which has shadow-acknowledging, shadow-containing rituals which are consciously and regularly performed, and our United States society, is that our unacknowledged shadow, without sanctioned means of venting, will and does escape in astonishing violence, depression and ennui.

Vietnam produced numerous instances of individuals at home and overseas as well as soldiers running amok. During the late sixties and seventies, the evening news brought us the fruits of this daily madness. People distant from the front lines were desensitized. Soon, the death tolls were no longer seen as anguish. The misery and death were accepted as status quo. If people were encouraged to vent their feelings in safe and appropriate settings then maybe war would be less prevalent. (JeanneE mentioned ritualistically honoring the shadow in the November issue of Metaphoria.)


Although quite deliberate in design and implementation, examples of groups running amok in Vietnam, Bosnia and East Timor abound. Were the actions of American soldiers in Vietnam as depicted in the movie Apocalypse Now a matter of mental illness or a specific insanity for a specific time, place and circumstance? Or was it a reaction to being placed in an impossible situation?

Tropism suggests that the response to a stimulus is one of self-preservation or benefit. So, we are not surprised to see inner city gang violence amidst extreme poverty, hopelessness, urban blight and joblessness. We see rebellion to adult authority in the schools from youngsters who have been neglected and/or abused by the significant authority figures in control of their lives. These people are not insane. Faced with their personal insane situation (the stimulus) they behave (response) accordingly. Repeated stimulus and response programs the individual according to the dominant parameters of the prevalent paradigm in power. Those outside, people within a differing construct or paradigm, see the behavior as abhorrent, mental illness or insanity.

Ken Keyes Jr. says that a "Loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world. Everyone you meet is your mirror." We are in trouble when we have programmed ourselves into believing that the world is a hostile and unsafe place.

As a teacher, I often see underachievement, rebellion, disrespect, intolerance and lack of motivation in school. Whenever I think that I cannot understand why a student behaves in such a self-defeating manner, I try to place myself in the student's programming or world. He might have been kicked out of the house last night in the newest episode of rejection. She may be sexually abused. They may be living together as an extended group out of necessity to support themselves financially and emotionally. Possibly, no-one in that student's family cares about reading or education. What we determine is insane may be no more than our foreign response to the domestic response of a daily negative stimulus or difficult situation.

Teachers and others involved with daily relationships subject themselves to the possibility of emotional and psychological transference. In other words, those in charge take the place of those in charge outside the present power situation. Teachers, doctors, and other authority figures become the replacements for the troubled individual's main life character(s). The authority becomes the abhority due to similarity.

The Collective

Sheldon B. Kopp, in If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, writes, "There is tyranny inherent in the reciprocities of every system. Rules for a group always violate individual rights. Both slave and master are trapped and dehumanized (though the bulk of my sympathy goes readily to the more explicitly oppressed of the pair). It is, of course, necessary to have rules and procedures if we wish to accomplish large and complex tasks, but the question whether or not it is worth the cost must be perennially re-examined. Anarchy could never get a man to the moon, but it may become the only mode that can allow us to survive on the earth."

None of the above is meant to suggest that causing harm to others is to be sanctioned or excused. On the contrary. However, making allowances for difficult life stimuli goes a long way in tempering response. Temperance through compassion conveys safety for part of the response and much of the situation. When I am successful in conveying the message that I care, it establishes a new present paradigm for mutually tolerable stimuli and response. They (and I) survive.

The same could be said for the dynamic of any group: clientele, audience, army, classroom or society. Hillman and Ventura, authors of We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, write, "We could say that something courses through the collective and is picked up and expressed in different mediums by different individuals, and that that expression constitutes a kind of subcollective around it, a style of music or a school of painting or a branch of science, to articulate back to the collective this impulse that came originally from or through the collective. This something, this impulse, this idea, isn't a will so much as a force - a force so strong that it's felt by a compulsion, as something they must express."

Such a collective force is expressed from time to time and it cannot be ignored. Revolutions take place because of revolting conditions. What we call insanity may be a revolt. If we ignore these calls for help or fail to see them for what they are, we run the risk of labeling them as insane. We then accept the ego's claim to the eliteness of our person paradigm.


Hillman further talks about protecting the self from insanity. He suggests we let the madness in, in order to keep from going off the deep end. Ventura makes reference to a Waylon Jennings song that goes, "I've always been crazy but it's kept me from going insane." The semantics of this verse run the risk of obscuring insanity as myth. We are all somewhat crazy, insane or both. It is a matter of degree and frequency that requires the leading paradigm to define individuals one way or the other. When the paradigm changes so does the list of individuals under classification.

The sad part is that insanity as revolt is repeated over and over again until the repetition becomes revolting. We cyclically reinforce that which we wish to eliminate from our lives. We fall into a rut, a funk, a depression. Ken Keyes, Jr. In The Handbook to Higher Consciousness suggests that we use a technique that we have been using all our lives to leave the revolt behind and begin reconstruction through reprogramming. "Consciousness Focusing is based on the fact that your emotional programming is established by whatever you tell yourself with strong feelings when you are in pain or suffering."

If we truly want freedom from the revolt, the insanity or the addiction, we need to calm our minds while we call up the emotion-backed situation and tell ourselves different messages than those we used to program the response in the first place. Here is where many of us fail. I see it often. Students walk around intensely chanting, "Life sucks!" We would rather stick with the familiarity of old patterns than try the new even though we think the new might work. To end the turbulence we must pursue the reprogramming. The Handbook to Higher Consciousness very explicitly states the steps to take when we are in revolt, insane, mentally ill, when we are "drowning in negative, separating emotions." Each of the following four steps have three or four very detailed instructions ranging from breathing techniques to specific incident visualization to taking responsibility for reprogramming. In brief they are:

Explore the suffering.
Pinpoint the addiction.
Select your reprogramming phrases.
Focus on reprogramming.

Of all the books I have read in the past two decades, two have had a profound impact on my life. They are The Handbook to Higher Consciousness which I have read over thirteen times, and A Course in Miracles. I read these and other books during difficult times. I read phrases, paragraphs and sections over and over again in an attempt to reprogram the addiction, the false beliefs. With a little insight we can recognize when we are in an unsound state of mind. It is at this critical time that we need help. That recognition is the first step toward and into a sound mind. The important step is the action.

Each of us has our valued writings, literature, family, friends, etc. Regardless of what route we take, what we read, what we decide, we require motivation. It is a lack of motivation that prevents us from moving forward. No-one can motivate another. The best we can do is change the conditions by which others choose to motivate themselves. We can choose for ourselves a vigilant mind. We can suggest as much to others.

We all feel separate, uncertain, unsound at times. Reading and studying the Handbook, A Course In Miracles„ or other wisdom literature suggests a desire to improve. The motivation is inherent in the act. We decide to accept the possibility that doing something improves what we now have. The reading then becomes the continuation of the motivation. The motivation fosters the continuation. Slowly, the realization that I am temporarily unhappy replaces the fear that I might be insane. The dysfunctional is replaced by the comfort of being part of the human condition and family. The myth cycle of the present operating paradigm is broken. New possibilities abound. We boldly go on with the pilgrimage of life.


We are not troubled by things, but by the opinions we have of things.


© 1994 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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