November 6, 2013
On a grey, chilly afternoon the park along the American River was empty except for me and the crinkle of autumn leaves blowing across the field. Then a shift in the wind brought an animated conversation. Entering a grove I saw a man engrossed in a lively talk with the tree canopy. His only visible company was an old bicycle with a few lumpy packs.
“Schizophrenic,” I thought. “And probably homeless.”
As I walked closer I noticed a white wire connecting his ear to a gadget in his hand. “Not schizophrenic,” I thought. “And probably not homeless if he can afford that kind of cell phone.” Twenty years ago talking to a tree with a wire in your ear would have been a sure sign of delusion. Today it’s a sign of normalcy.
I smiled and got to thinking about how we decide if someone is deluded. In deep meditation conventional reality can come unglued and the world may appear very different.
After his enlightenment, the first conversation the Buddha had was with a homeless yogi named Upaka. “What happened to you?” Upaka asked.
“I have awakened beyond any other living person,” the Buddha said. He spoke the simple truth and broke into verse to explain his accomplishment.
Upaka listened with a polite smile. When Siddhartha Gautama was done with the poetry, Upaka replied, “Whatever you say, brother,” and scooted away shaking his head. He thought the Buddha was a nut case. In fact, compared to the Buddha, the yogi was relatively deluded.
If the man with the wire in his ear had told me he was enlightened beyond everyone else and began to rap in cadence, I’d probably have judged him to be a nut case too.
So how do I measure my own sanity?
The Buddha might say the best measure is deep and genuine ease. When the mind is tight, we’re more likely to get stuck in our ideas, opinions, political perspectives, and personal points of view: we mistake our thoughts for reality. When the mind-heart is present and at ease, we take our opinions lightly, have a healthy sense of humor about ourselves, and are more present with what’s around us. That’s why the working title of my book, Buddha’s Map, had been “Easing Awake:” ease moves us toward clarity.
These ruminations followed me across the park and down a path through the woods. The terrain was familiar: I could traverse it without paying much attention.
Suddenly I realized I’d come a half-mile with only the faintest memory of how I’d gotten there. I’d barely noticed the foliage, the river, or even the path. That’s another definition of crazy: being out of touch with our surroundings. And I didn’t even have a wire putting voices in my ear.