I first heard the term “basic sanity” from my meditation teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Rinpoche had been abbot in a monastery in Tibet until the Chinese occupation forced him to escape. A highly realized teacher, he traveled to England and studied comparative religion and psychology at Oxford University and arrived in America in the early 1970’s. Because he was fluent in the English language, he was one of the first Tibetan teachers who could speak to western students directly, without a translator. He had a keen insight into western mind and a rare gift in understanding western students of the time. After the tumultuous sixties so many of my generation were exploring outside of the mainstream culture. We were questioning everything, down to the very fabric of the reality we lived in. Many were increasingly drawn to follow a spiritual path, and the market was overflowing with books, teachers, and all kinds of trips.
Our teacher clearly instructed us that a true spiritual path involved an unmasking; a peeling away of the layers that covered our inherent wakefulness. One must diligently guard against the trap of self-deception, as ego was always looking for self-congratulations. It was not about becoming more of anything; rather it was about stripping away the veils of illusion which obscured what was inherently brilliant and awake. This path was not about religion, beliefs, dogma or rules. This path was about being real; it was about touching our authenticity as human beings; about becoming awake. To study in this way was to begin a practical course of self-discovery and a rigorous personal exercise in spiritual awakening.
This Eastern model of psychology differed from the western model in significant ways. Rather than being based on a model of psychopathology, the model was about sanity and wellness. It was explained that different styles of energy had both a neurotic aspect and a wisdom aspect. Our work was to transform neurosis, or confusion, into wisdom by working with the energy of mind. From this perspective there is nothing to get rid of. In fact, the whole notion of getting rid of anything is faulty, since if we push something down in one place it will pop up someplace else. We must work with the energy and by doing this we become able to transform it. In meditation practice, as we create a space between habitual thoughts and the mind begins to settle, we become more intimately aware of the nature of our own minds. Through this awareness we can begin to develop insight. Its like maturing and gradually learning how to take responsibility for the content of our own minds. We get to see that we can slow the mind down and experience a little gap; a breath of fresh air; something other than the habitual unconsciousness we usually are living in. And through this we become more able to be present in the moment.
Cultivating basic sanity is like creating a foundation through discipline, mindfulness, and breathing that can be returned to again and again. First you hear that it is possible to do this and then, if you are motivated, you develop the discipline and courage necessary to take this journey. It is indeed a warrior’s journey, for it will require fearlessness, or the ability to continue to walk forward even though you experience fear. When we really understand something we don’t need theory anymore; we can say it in whatever language the situation calls for. It is not about religion; it is about awareness. The Eastern traditions talk about “enlightenment.” In the Naropa psychology program they talked about “brilliant sanity”. It is only our perspective that has to change to understand that we live in a sacred world.
There is a place inside of all of us that is inherently sane and unconditionally wise and awake. It is the essence of our humanness and it is where peace and true happiness is to be found. If we can practice returning the mind to this foundation we will no longer be driven by our hopes, our fears, and our habitual patterns. It will allow us to continue in our spiritual development and also serve as a refuge when life is challenging.