2357 Story: The Mysterious Mark of Sanity


Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells the story of a king who discovered that his entire supply of grain had been contaminated by a strange fungus. The grain looked the same and tasted the same as normal grain. There was no way of knowing anything was different, except for one little problem. Anyone who ate this grain lost all contact with true reality. In simple terms, when a person ate this grain, he or she became deranged.

The king and his advisor were the only ones who knew about this problem. They discussed their options. They were rapidly running out of uncontaminated grain and there were no alternatives to feed the nation. In two more days they would be out of regular grain and they would have to open the contaminated storehouse, or all the people of the kingdom would starve. A new grain supply would not be ready for almost a year, and there was no assurance that it could remain uncontaminated.

At first they thought that they would give the grain to the people, but would not eat it themselves so that at least two people in the kingdom would maintain their sanity. Then the king realized that he would not be able to govern the masses if he did not understand what people were thinking. So he suggested that he should eat the grain, but his advisor should stay sane.

Then the advisor realized that it would be impossible to give advice to the king if he was seeing true reality but the king was not. They understood that in order to rule a kingdom of people with a different reality, they both had to eat the contaminated grain so that they could see things like everyone else. The only hope for the future of the people was the possibility that someone would be able to realize that the reality they were experiencing was not the true reality.

So the king and his advisor put out an edict to the people that everyone was required by law to put a mark on their foreheads, and every morning when they saw that mark in the mirror they were to ask themselves, "What does this mark mean?" Their hope was that people would wonder why everyone was obliged to ask themselves this question and eventually, at some point in the future, this mark would lead his nation to the realization that their reality was illusory. 

This is where the story ends. We never find out what happened because in fact we are still living the story. We have a mysterious mark within us that continually has us asking the question, "Is this real? Is this the way life is supposed to be?"

Rebbe Nachman's story is a wonderful spiritual metaphor. On the fast track of modern life, our natural priorities to attain wisdom and connect with the truth of this existence have been eroded by the demands of the outer world. The nervousness and breathlessness that accompanies our constant need for more time has become an illness of epidemic proportion during the last half of the twentieth century. Not many people yet realize the severity of this affliction. I used to refer to it as the "time demon," but now the world has become infected with what I call TDS, pronounced 'tedious,' which stands for Time Deficiency Syndrome.

A major symptom of this dis-ease is our sense of priority. Whenever work encroaches upon personal relationships and the relationships take a back seat, this is TDS. Tens of millions of marriages and family relations suffer because so many people have their priorities confused.

Another symptom is the 'quick fix.' Pharmaceutical companies have become rich because we seek instant relief for aching bodies and depressed minds. It is far simpler to take a pain killer than to work with the stress causing the disease.

  Perhaps the most prevalent symptom of TDS is a sense of angst and purposelessness. One woman told me that she felt as if she were drowning in a sea of commitments and responsibilities. There was so much to do and so little time to do it. She could feel herself strangulating, blacking out, going numb, and she was terrified. As a mother, she was a chauffeur, cook, cleaning woman, accountant, washerwoman and slave; she rarely had time to look inside, to feel herself, and life had lost most of its meaning. 

Even though she had a beautiful home, three children, and a husband who was a good provider, she had no sense of joy. From the outside, her life looked wonderful. Inside, it was worse than a nightmare. She could not point to anything specific; it was not like the daily soap operas. She trusted her husband and loved him. It was simply the fact that she had no time to nurture herself, to feed her soul, and she was dying of spiritual malnutrition.

The disease of insufficient time is a malady that eventually leads to self-destruction. When the soul is starved, the body begins to exhibit many unhealthy signs. We are more easily irritated, and we tend to engage in mind-numbing activities. We drink more caffeine to stay awake, and ingest more soporifics to get to sleep. We constantly think about utilizing our time well and we often try to do three or four things at once. This attempt at "efficiency" comes at a price; we sometimes have to become ill just to get time off to be with ourselves.

Although our life expectancy is increasing, the real question is whether or not the quality of our lives is improving. Does our affluence assure us of deeper connections with the meaning of life? Do we have a higher caliber of relationship with our families? Are we more integrated with nature? Are we genuinely happy?

Some would say that the contaminated grain that we have been ingesting for a long time is called desire. We are acquisitive; we want more of everything: status, fame, fortune and possessions. We are never satisfied with what we have. Others would say that the grain is power. We want to control things, to be in a position of superiority, to lord over others. 

Whatever name we give it, most would agree that this grain is food for the ego rather than the soul; it is food that nurtures our sense of separateness. The more separate we feel, the more we are driven by desire, power, and other motivations that distinguish us from the rest of humanity. In this continuous search for distinction, our priorities shift to meet the requirements of a reality dominated by a materialistic world. 

Thus we surrender time--the time to sit quietly by a pond and reflect, or the time to absorb ourselves in deeply meaningful activities. We get nervous when there is nothing to do, and we try to fill up every spare moment with activity. Our desires push us onward, while our famished and neglected souls plead with us to stop, reflect, and bring quality into our lives.

We are human vessels that hold the light of awareness to the extent that we are able to contain it. Every move we make that is harmful to ourselves or others creates new leaks in our vessel. Most people have vessels that are so leaky that they can only contain a small fraction of their potential light of awareness. 

Yet, even though it is a fraction of our potential, the light that each of us has within is the source of our yearning to be connected with the Divine. This light does not have a name. A scientist cannot locate where it dwells. But this yearning for truth is an essential part of our make-up. In the story of Rebbe Nachman, this yearning is the sign on our foreheads, the sign of sanity. 

One of the most important secrets of mystical teaching is hidden in this yearning. While the intrinsic nature of yearning is to acquire something, get somewhere, or accomplish a goal, the message of our eternal yearning is that there is nothing to get and nowhere to go. The yearning itself holds a secret; its own existence is an answer rather than a question. Our delusion is the belief that this yearning is mine or yours; the teaching however is that it is one of the most important ways we experience the presence of God. In a way, it would be more accurate to say that this is God yearning through the soul for the truth of creation-ing to be realized. In the modern idiom we would say that the medium is the message. Our sanity, our connection with true reality is in the yearning itself. 

But yearning to be with God is not sufficient. Jewish mystics learned long ago that we must involve ourselves in activities that heal our leaky vessels, closing the cracks one at a time so that our inner lights will become brighter and brighter over time. By minimizing our harmful acts and directing ourselves to actions, words, and thoughts that raise holy sparks, we gain enormous insight into the nature of our relationship with God.  

We can read about possibilities for the future, we can talk about great teachers, we can think about wonderful wisdom teachings. If, however, we do not begin to accept the responsibility of bringing a new consciousness to humankind, it will continue to elude us. It is up to us to work toward higher awareness right now in whatever way we can. 

The process of putting a high priority on raising our own consciousness and that of the world is called "the work of the chariot.”  The mystical chariot in Judaism is a vehicle to higher awareness.  The mystical chariot is the key to the attainment of a world consciousness that is far beyond the level at which we live in these days.