Anonymous in the comments section of my previous post said:
The serious question then - does being enlightened give you any insight - from a theoretical perspective, not how to fix it - or what mental illness is? Or more broadly, do eastern spiritual leaders have something to say about this more than similar edicts about booze or sex?
This is a very good question. It's also an important one because a lot of people assume that an "enlightened" eastern spiritual master does have that kind of insight and are willing to follow their advise on the subject.
I can't answer for all spiritual masters. And I don't want to get into what it might mean to "master" any given form of spirituality. Nor do I even want to poke at what the term "enlightened" means right now. But still, I can answer for myself based on my experience. And I honestly feel that my experience is universal for others in my position.
Anyway. What insight do I have into what mental illness is?
I feel like I understand what that thing we label "mental illness" is in ways that neither I nor anyone else could possibly understand without decades of meditation. But that doesn't mean I know how to treat it or cure it or even deal with it when it confronts me on the street. That is an entirely different sort of problem.
One thing I understand is that the condition we call "normal" also probably ought to be labeled "mental illness." And I expect that in the future this will become clear. People will look back at us in the early 21st century and marvel at the fact that almost the entire world was what they will call "mentally ill." Though perhaps their term for it will be different.
I feel that when we call someone "mentally ill" all we're really saying most of the time is that the person in question is unable to function in what we call "normal society." Of course there are different degrees of this. If a person's inability to function creates a danger to society, society has a right and duty to protect itself from that person. If that person isn't dangerous but is unable to look after himself, that's another matter. There are millions of degrees to the problem of mental illness. But at its core it's still the same problem.
One important thing to bear in mind is that none of us can deal with "normal society" all the time. I know I sure can't. Some people solve this problem by inventing sub-societies that protect them from the larger society, yet still manage to function with it. A monastery would be an example of one such place. It's a place of shelter from the wider more pervasive mental illness, a place one hopes is a bit less mentally ill. But even the best of these still have their own sorts of dysfunctions.
When I was at Tassajara last year there was one day when I simply had to hide in my room for about 24 hours because I could not deal with the relatively sane sub-society I had voluntarily committed myself to. I told people I was sick. But I wasn't. This sort of thing happens all the time. Nearly everyone who goes to a monastery — even a good one — has this happen at some point.
The easy answer that Anonymous is looking for is that all mental illness comes from a mistaken identification of the ego as one's true and fundamental self. But that's such a cliché I wonder if it has any value at all anymore. Be that as it may, it's true that nearly everyone identifies her ego as her true self. But I think most people, whether they know it or not, have some basic intuition that this is not really the way it is. To the extent that they can put this false sense of identity aside, they can function with others and form a reasonable society.
An insight into the deeper origin of mental illness doesn't help a person be able to treat mental illness. This is because even if I understand that you are stuck in believing that your ego-structure is really you, I do not know the details of the stories that you tell yourself and I do not know the extent to which you are prepared to go to defend the false reality you believe in. Some people will kill to defend theirs. I like to stay well clear of those people.
One may, in fact, believe in their own ego-self so deeply that their belief has caused the very chemical structure of their brain and body to be altered to the extent that it's impossible to function in "normal" society without the help of chemicals. It may go so deep that one seems to have been born with this condition. Or that one seems to have had events in one's past that forced this upon the person. This doesn't mean their past is unreal nor the bad things that were done to them were unreal in the conventional sense.
Remember you're reading the words of a Buddhist who believes that even normal conventional notions of what constitutes reality are false. That's an important point. It's the position a lot of the supposedly more enlightened spiritual masters often are too "enlightened" to really understand or convey clearly.
And I am using the word "belief" in a way most people don't. There are aspects of life that are related to what we commonly call "belief" or "habit" that go much much deeper than the way we usually think belief and habit operate.
Also, we all have the same problem. The habit of falsely identifying with the ego self doesn't simply vanish just because you've noticed you're doing it. Noticing this habit is just the first step. But since most people don't even get to this first step, it's a significant one.
So yes, from a theoretical perspective many eastern spiritual masters or leaders or whatever may have some insight into the origin of mental illness. But merely explaining what that insight is may be deeply problematic. Because even mental health professionals are mentally ill in the sense that they are what we falsely call "normal." They're not, by and large, ready to even understand what these eastern spiritual guys are talking about, let alone put it into practice. They haven't done enough meditation to be able to grasp what's being talked about.
But that's OK. It's their job to try and deal with the concrete problems of mental illness. It's just that when these folks talk about mindfulness or even meditation many of them don't really get what they're dealing with. For one thing, they tend to seriously underestimate the real power of this stuff. They often seem to think it's just a way to make you calm down a little.
Here's a photo to show you what I had to deal with while writing this. Crum knows he's being obnoxiously cute. I'm sure of it.