Ramblings

The Journey of the Mystic

 

As promised, here’s some more on Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill.

The book is a very ambitious effort, which is executed brilliantly and beautifully. Referencing the accounts, writings, and legends of famous Christian mystics, Underhill tries to bring some logical or orderly sense to the mystical process. There is a sort of lyrical quality to her writing, and a humble genius in her reasoning and exposition. The subject matter isn’t really something that lends itself to any definite or rigid bounds. The expression “the herding of cats” comes to mind. But Underhill displays incredible artistry and mastery in assembling these ill-fitting puzzle pieces. 

Originally published in 1911, it is considered by many to be a classic in its field.

She opens the book with the following:

The most highly developed branches of the human family have in common one peculiar characteristic. They tend to produce—sporadically it is true, and often in the teeth of adverse external circumstances—a curious and definite type of personality; a type which refuses to be satisfied with that which other men call experience, and is inclined, in the words of its enemies, to “deny the world in order that it may find reality.” We meet these persons in the east and the west; in the ancient, mediaeval, and modern worlds. Their one passion appears to be the prosecution of a certain spiritual and intangible quest: the finding of a “way out” or a “way back” to some desirable state in which alone they can satisfy their craving for absolute truth. This quest, for them, has constituted the whole meaning of life. They have made for it without effort sacrifices which have appeared enormous to other men: and it is an indirect testimony to its objective actuality, that whatever the place or period in which they have arisen, their aims, doctrines and methods have been substantially the same. Their experience, therefore, forms a body of evidence, curiously self-consistent and often mutually explanatory, which must be taken into account…

Hence, they should claim from us the same attention that we give to other explorers of countries in which we are not competent to adventure ourselves; for the mystics are the pioneers of the spiritual world, and we have no right to deny validity to their discoveries, merely because we lack the opportunity or the courage necessary to those who would prosecute such explorations for themselves.

Then after some explorations of the intersections of mysticism, philosophy, psychology, and theology, we get to the good stuff. Underhill sets out five general stages, or markers, that frame the mystical journey. A lot of these (the first three primarily) will be familiar to modern day spiritual travelers.

(1) The awakening of the Self to consciousness of Divine Reality. This experience, usually abrupt and well-marked, is accompanied by intense feelings of joy and exaltation.

 

(2) The Self, aware for the first time of Divine Beauty, realizes by contrast its own finiteness and imperfection, the manifold illusions in which it is immersed, the immense distance which separates it from the One. Its attempts to eliminate by discipline and mortification all that stands in the way of its progress towards union with God constitute Purgation: a state of pain and effort.

 

(3) When by Purgation the Self has become detached from the “things of sense,” and acquired those virtues which are the “ornaments of the spiritual marriage,” its joyful consciousness of the Transcendent Order returns in an enhanced form. Like the prisoners in Plato’s “Cave of Illusion,” it has awakened to knowledge of Reality, has struggled up the harsh and difficult path to the mouth of the cave. Now it looks upon the sun. This is Illumination: a state which includes in itself many of the stages of contemplation, “degrees of orison,” visions and adventures of the soul described by St. Teresa and other mystical writers. These form, as it were, a way within the Way: a moyen de parvenir, a training devised by experts which will strengthen and assist the mounting soul. They stand, so to speak, for education; whilst the Way proper represents organic growth. Illumination is the “contemplative state” par excellence. It forms, with the two preceding states, the “first mystic life.” Many mystics never go beyond it; and, on the other hand, many seers and artists not usually classed amongst them, have shared, to some extent, the experiences of the illuminated state. Illumination brings a certain apprehension of the Absolute, a sense of the Divine Presence: but not true union with it. It is a state of happiness.

 

(4) In the development of the great and strenuous seekers after God, this is followed—or sometimes intermittently accompanied—by the most terrible of all the experiences of the Mystic Way: the final and complete purification of the Self, which is called by some contemplatives the “mystic pain” or “mystic death,” by others the Purification of the Spirit or Dark Night of the Soul. The consciousness which had, in Illumination, sunned itself in the sense of the Divine Presence, now suffers under an equally intense sense of the Divine Absence: learning to dissociate the personal satisfaction of mystical vision from the reality of mystical life. As in Purgation the senses were cleansed and humbled, and the energies and interests of the Self were concentrated upon transcendental things: so now the purifying process is extended to the very centre of I-hood, the will. The human instinct for personal happiness must be killed. This is the “spiritual crucifixion” so often described by the mystics: the great desolation in which the soul seems abandoned by the Divine. The Self now surrenders itself, its individuality, and its will, completely. It desires nothing, asks nothing, is utterly passive, and is thus prepared for

 

(5) Union: the true goal of the mystic quest. In this state the Absolute Life is not merely perceived and enjoyed by the Self, as in Illumination: but is one with it. This is the end towards which all the previous oscillations of consciousness have tended. It is a state of equilibrium, of purely spiritual life; characterized by peaceful joy, by enhanced powers, by intense certitude. To call this state, as some authorities do, by the name of Ecstasy, is inaccurate and confusing: since the term Ecstasy has long been used both by psychologists and ascetic writers to define that short and rapturous trance—a state with well-marked physical and psychical accompaniments—in which the contemplative, losing all consciousness of the phenomenal world, is caught up to a brief and immediate enjoyment of the Divine Vision. Ecstasies of this kind are often experienced by the mystic in Illumination, or even on his first conversion. They cannot therefore be regarded as exclusively characteristic of the Unitive Way. In some of the greatest mystics—St. Teresa is an example—the ecstatic trance seems to diminish rather than increase in frequency after the state of union has been attained: whilst others achieve the heights by a path which leaves on one side all abnormal phenomena.

Because each individual person is unique, so too are the mystical experiences and openings.

They are very heavily influenced by the individual person’s subconscious belief system, and his egoic patterns (his level of discipline and ability to self-motivate, his relationship to emotional pain and suffering, his resilience, courage and fortitude, his capacity for surrender vs resistance, and how he relates to authority, etc). Underlying religious beliefs also play a huge role in what a mystic will see or experience. (This is why the purgation of the spirit, the subject of my last post, step four in Underhill’s outline, is so important. Until all of these things are cleared out fully, one can’t be sure if he’s really seeing ultimate reality, or just a projection of his own mind.)

The journeys don’t necessarily follow any specific sequence. Some stages occur simultaneously, some go back and forth. The length, depth, and severity of the different stages varies enormously. One of the most often cited determining factors is each individual soul’s life plan – it is either destined for specific levels or it’s not. They either come by Grace, or they don’t. It’s not really negotiable. 

It’s also really really hard to pin things down and label them. Often because the experiences can’t be articulated with words (they happen in a section of consciousness that doesn’t involve language), and the descriptions are so subjective, that being one and the same, two different accounts don’t seem to resemble each other at all. It takes a certain level of experience to understand what you’re seeing and to assemble these things together.

It’s human nature to want to know where one is on the path; to judge himself, or to know if he’s succeeding or failing. But it’s the nature of the spiritual path to be extremely murky without any solid roadmaps. It’s about getting comfortable with being lost. The entire point is to learn how to walk, one step at a time, without a plan, and without judging the progress. It is a development of faith and trust in intuitive guidance, moment by moment, while learning to let go and surrender in the present. This is a lot harder than it sounds. It took me several years to really develop this ability, and I still struggle with it on occasion. 

The rest of the book then goes on to expound on these different stages. (I’m still only about half way through it – it’s too dense to get through quickly). If there’s any more stuff worth sharing later I’ll do another post.

 

For further reading, the book is available here for free. 

 

Dark Night of the Soul: Purgation of Spirit

 

After months of darkness without any sense of guidance, I have finally come across a most comforting piece of mystical literature: Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. It shouldn’t be comforting; it’s rather horrifying reading. But I’m comforted to find it. (There’s also a tiny bit too much religious emphasis for my taste, but he is a Christian mystic, so naturally that will be his framework).

For all of this time I’ve been operating on faith and intuition alone; trusting the inner knowing that kept telling me it’s all ok. And just now, when I feel most exhausted (the last two days have been really difficult), I am synchronistically lead to this book.

It turns out that everything I’ve been going through is perfectly “normal,” as these things go on the mystic path. It is in fact a blessing, if one cares to see it that way.

Lots of spiritual seekers go through a Dark Night experience (sometimes multiple times). St. John distinguishes this common “purgation of the senses,” in all its permutations, from what I’m going through (which is a much rarer and more advanced stage of development) called “purgation of the spirit.” It can last for a long time, but it’s said to be the precursor to Divine union (the final stage of mystical development).

It is a small, but much needed, feeling of relief to find some ground and context for this process. Every time I find writing like this, which resonate so deeply, tears come flooding out from the depths of my soul.

Below are some of the excerpts from the book describing this Purgation of Spirit.

It’s probably important to note here that these thoughts and feelings arise from deep deep within. And no amount of will power or control has any effect on them. Meaning, you can’t just think happy thoughts and feel better. None of the spiritual or meditative practices work. Even witness or observer consciousness works only in short bursts. The weight of this is deeper and heavier than any form of depression I’ve ever experienced. It turns you inside out, and there’s nowhere to turn, and no way to make it stop.

The only way through it is with ever-deepening surrender, constant awareness/inquiry work, and wisdom (which are the healing techniques I mentioned a few posts ago). With the proper spiritual training, watching this unfold within, you can see its logic and design. There is a definite pattern and progression, and the results can be profoundly felt. There is a truly divinely magnificent intelligence at work.

It took me a while to stop freaking out and trust it. Then the deeper understanding emerged and I got the hang of it. Now it’s just a matter of getting through it.

 

  • THIS dark night is an inflowing of God into the soul, which purges it from its ignorances and imperfections, habitual natural and spiritual, and which is called by contemplatives infused contemplation, or mystical theology. Herein God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in perfection of love without its doing anything, or understanding of what manner is this infused contemplation. Inasmuch as it is the loving wisdom of God, God produces striking effects in the soul for, by purging and illumining it, He prepares it for the union of love with God. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • [B]ecause the light and wisdom of this contemplation is most bright and pure, and the soul which it assails is dark and impure, it follows that the soul suffers great pain when it receives it in itself,… And when the soul suffers the direct assault of this Divine light, its pain, which results from its impurity, is immense; because, when this pure light assails the soul, in order to expel its impurity, the soul feels itself to be so impure and miserable that it believes God to be against it, and thinks that it has set itself up against God. This causes it sore grief and pain, because it now believes that God has cast it away… For, by means of this pure light, the soul now sees its impurity clearly (although darkly), and knows clearly that it is unworthy of God or of any creature. And what gives it most pain is that it thinks that it will never be worthy and that its good things are all over for it. This is caused by the profound immersion of its spirit in the knowledge and realization of its evils and miseries; for this Divine and dark light now reveals them all to the eye, that it may see clearly how in its own strength it can never have aught else. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • [Another] way in which the soul suffers pain is by reason of its weakness, natural, moral and spiritual; for, when this Divine contemplation assails the soul with a certain force, in order to strengthen it and subdue it, it suffers such pain in its weakness that it nearly swoons away. This is especially so at certain times when it is assailed with somewhat greater force; for sense and spirit, as if beneath some immense and dark load, are in such great pain and agony that the soul would find advantage and relief in death. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • Beneath the power of this oppression and weight the soul feels itself so far from being favoured that it thinks, and correctly so, that even that wherein it was wont to find some help has vanished with everything else, and that there is none who has pity upon it. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • THE third kind of suffering and pain that the soul endures in this state results from the fact that two other extremes meet here in one, namely, the Divine and the human. The Divine is this purgative contemplation, and the human is the subject—that is, the soul. The Divine assails the soul in order to renew it and thus to make it Divine; and, stripping it of the habitual affections and attachments of the old man, to which it is very closely united, knit together and conformed, destroys and consumes its spiritual substance, and absorbs it in deep and profound darkness. As a result of this, the soul feels itself to be perishing and melting away, in the presence and sight of its miseries, in a cruel spiritual death, even as if it had been swallowed by a beast and felt itself being devoured in the darkness of its belly, suffering such anguish as was endured by Jonas in the belly of that beast of the sea. For in this sepulchre of dark death it must needs abide until the spiritual resurrection which it hopes for. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • A description of this suffering and pain, although in truth it transcends all description, is given by David, when he says: ‘The lamentations of death compassed me about; the pains of hell surrounded me; I cried in my tribulation.’ But what the sorrowful soul feels most in this condition is its clear perception, as it thinks, that God has abandoned it, and, in His abhorrence of it, has flung it into darkness; it is a grave and piteous grief for it to believe that God has forsaken it… It feels, too, that all creatures have forsaken it, and that it is contemned by them, particularly by its friends. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • For indeed, when this purgative contemplation is most severe, the soul feels very keenly the shadow of death and the lamentations of death and the pains of hell, which consist in its feeling itself to be without God, and chastised and cast out, and unworthy of Him; and it feels that He is wroth with it. All this is felt by the soul in this condition—yea, and more, for it believes that it is so with it for ever. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • The fourth kind of pain is caused in the soul by another excellence of this dark contemplation, which is its majesty and greatness, from which arises in the soul a consciousness of the other extreme which is in itself—namely, that of the deepest poverty and wretchedness: this is one of the chiefest pains that it suffers in this purgation. For it feels within itself a profound emptiness and impoverishment of three kinds of good, which are ordained for the pleasure of the soul which are the temporal, the natural and the spiritual; and finds itself set in the midst of the evils contrary to these, namely, miseries of imperfection, aridity and emptiness of the apprehensions of the faculties and abandonment of the spirit in darkness. Inasmuch as God here purges the soul according to the substance of its sense and spirit, and according to the interior and exterior faculties, the soul must needs be in all its parts reduced to a state of emptiness, poverty and abandonment and must be left dry and empty and in darkness. For the sensual part is purified in aridity, the faculties are purified in the emptiness of their perceptions and the spirit is purified in thick darkness. All this God brings to pass by means of this dark contemplation; wherein the soul not only suffers this emptiness and the suspension of these natural supports and perceptions, which is a most afflictive suffering (as if a man were suspended or held in the air so that he could not breathe), but likewise He is purging the soul, annihilating it, emptying it or consuming in it (even as fire consumes the mouldiness and the rust of metal) all the affections and imperfect habits which it has contracted in its whole life. Since these are deeply rooted in the substance of the soul, it is wont to suffer great undoings and inward torment, besides the said poverty and emptiness, natural and spiritual… Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • Wherefore, because the soul is purified in this furnace like gold in a crucible, as says the Wise Man, it is conscious of this complete undoing of itself in its very substance, together with the direst poverty, wherein it is, as it were, nearing its end, … Here God greatly humbles the soul in order that He may afterwards greatly exalt it; and if He ordained not that, when these feelings arise within the soul, they should speedily be stilled, it would die in a very short space; but there are only occasional periods when it is conscious of their greatest intensity. At times, however, they are so keen that the soul seems to be seeing hell and perdition opened. Of such are they that in truth go down alive into hell, being purged here on earth in the same manner as there, since this purgation is that which would have to be accomplished there. And thus the soul that passes through this either enters not that place at all, or tarries there but for a very short time; for one hour of purgation here is more profitable than are many there. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

I told you it was horrifying… It goes on like this for many more chapters, in case you’d like to read further. It’s available for free online here.

 

Mysticism and the higher self

 

I’m working my way through a new book – Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, by Evelyn Underhill. (It’s an old book, just newly discovered by me). It’s wonderful, and deserves a much more thorough treatment than a single quote (I’ll work on a larger post). In the meantime, I wanted to share this one excerpt, because it’s so close to my heart that I cried when I found it.

Thus St. Catherine of Siena spent three years in hermit-like seclusion in the little room which we still see in her house in the Via Benincasa, entirely cut off from the ordinary life of her family. “Within her own house,” says her legend, “she found the desert; and a solitude in the midst of people.” There Catherine endured many mortifications, was visited by ecstasies and visions: passed, in fact, through the states of Purgation and Illumination, which existed in her case side by side.

This life of solitude was brought to an abrupt end by the experience which is symbolized in the vision of the Mystic Marriage, and the Voice which then said to her, “Now will I wed thy soul, which shall ever be conjoined and united to Me!” Catherine, who had during her long retreat enjoyed illumination to a high degree, now entered upon the Unitive State, in which the whole of her public life was passed. Its effect was immediately noticeable. She abandoned her solitude, joined in the family life, went out into the city to serve the poor and sick, attracted and taught disciples, converted sinners, and began that career of varied and boundless activity which has made her name one of the greatest in the history of the fourteenth century.

Nor does this mean that she ceased to live the sort of life which is characteristic of mystical consciousness: to experience direct contact with the Transcendental World, to gaze into “the Abyss of Love Divine.” On the contrary, her practical genius for affairs, her immense power of ruling men, drew its strength from the long series of visions and ecstasies which accompanied and supported her labours in the world. She “descended into the valley of lilies to make herself more fruitful,” says her legend. The conscious vehicle of some “power not herself,” she spoke and acted with an authority which might have seemed strange enough in an uneducated daughter of the people, were it not justified by the fact that all who came into contact with her submitted to its influence.

That last sentence, the conscious vehicle of some power not herself, which commands authority with those who hear it, is precisely the experience of the higher self coming through… (I wrote about my own experience of this in the last post).

Here’s another story on this subject.

Some time ago, I was working closely with someone who had this happen to him as well; his consciousness opened to the expression of his higher self. It was a very brief experience, lasting just a few minutes, but it was intense and profound for both of us.

The person didn’t say or do anything of significance, but the energy of the room shifted so dramatically that it was impossible to mistake for anything else. I was standing with my back to him, about 20 feet between us, when it happened. Feeling something strange, I turned around and was almost knocked off my feet. A huge wave of energy came washing over me, engulfing me completely. Seemingly out of nowhere, I suddenly felt really really small, and in the presence of something vast and incredibly powerful. For those few minutes, this person’s entire demeanor shifted. It was like he became someone entirely different (all the same characteristics I wrote about last time – direct, stoic, very loving and kind, and yet extremely fierce).

The presence of the higher self in human expression produces a deep sense of reverence in the atmosphere of the room – not for the person, but for him as the conduit of this sacred force. It is unmistakably divine; in the sense that it produces those very same feelings of humility and insignificance that other experiences of divinity produce. It’s truly breathtaking when it happens. There is no doubt that those who encountered St. Catherine when that power moved through her would have been completely taken over by it.

As I wrote last time, there aren’t many clear descriptions of this experience in the writing of the mystics (or there are, and I just haven’t found them yet). So finding these tiny allusions in the histories brings about huge feelings of comfort and a sense of belonging within me. I’ll begin sharing them more when I find them.

 

Forgiveness and boundaries

 

One of the most misunderstood and misapplied concepts is that of forgiveness.

The practice of forgiveness is an internal emotional and psychological journey that is fundamental to any sort of healing (whether spiritual or secular). It is something that you do for yourself, within yourself. In your own heart, so to speak. Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person, and it does not mean reconciling, or “getting back together,” or having any sort of relationship with the other person.

People often hold on to their anger and pain saying “no, I will never forgive this. What he did is unforgiveable.” This mindset, although very common, is both faulty thinking and it stands in the way of the victim’s own peace and inner tranquility. In reality, the painful thing has already happened; it’s done and gone. But by holding on to the anger and the pain in this way, we re-hurt and re-traumatize ourselves every time we remember it.

This becomes somewhat self-harmful and self-abusive. The anger and pain eat at us from within, each time we think of that person or the experience. And we use that pain and anger to punish the other person in our minds and sometimes in reality. (There is a vague sort of feeling of “I need this anger to keep me safe, otherwise he will hurt me again;” which is a false belief masking fear and a lack of assertiveness). This is why the practice of forgiveness is so important. It untangles all of these false beliefs and fear-based mechanisms that keep us from love, compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships.  

I’ve also often heard forgiveness being conflated with weakness; which is also inaccurate. Forgiveness doesn’t mean becoming a doormat or condoning any sort of hurtful behavior. Actually going through the process gives you incredible inner strength and courage to confront injustice in the right way, and hold people accountable.

Forgiveness also doesn’t mean just turning the other cheek or just ignoring our feelings. Forgiveness means I love myself too much to continue carrying this awful painful burden. I will do the inner work to release myself, to release them, and I make a decision that is going to create more peace and less emotional pain in my life.

The process of forgiveness is about sorting out our own truth from the painful interpretations we make by default in our minds. It is an undoing of the self-judgments that lie at the root of most emotional pain. It is an investigation into the self-blame that the experience generated, and a transformation of that pain with love and compassion. It is then a turning to look at the other with the eyes of truth and compassion. Listening completely to our own anger and then transforming that anger with wisdom and understanding. It means making inquiries into the false motivations we have automatically assigned to them. And creating space for new loving interpretations.

By working on forgiveness we are releasing ourselves from the pain and suffering in our own mind, and coming to internal peace, as it relates to that person or experience. Also, in my view, learning how to forgive properly is the only way to build healthy relationships. Without a solid framework for forgiveness within, there can be no real repair after a conflict, and the relationship becomes a minefield of resentment. 

There is an ocean of difference however between forgiving someone (inside our hearts), and allowing that person to remain a part of our lives. The former is healing and necessary, the latter is not.

Whether we allow someone to remain in our lives and hearts after a hurt has occurred, is a delicate consideration. It often will depend on the subjective magnitude of the pain we experienced and whether trust has been broken. Probably the most important factor is whether the other person has the capacity to genuinely apologize in a heartfelt way, giving some assurance that the hurt will not happen again. But this decision, whether to continue a relationship or not, has nothing to do with forgiveness. This is a question of boundary setting and self-respect.

The internal process of forgiveness comes first, and is independent of this second aspect.

Boundaries are incredibly important; and setting them is an area people struggle with a lot. Sometimes boundaries are simple “this hurt me. please don’t do this again.” And other times much more complex: “Out of self-love and self-respect, I cannot allow you to continue this sort of behavior as it relates to me. You are free to do what you please, but I don’t wish to continue interacting with you.” It takes an incredible amount of inter-personal courage and self-love to carry these out properly. It sounds really obvious and simple, and yet I have met very very few people who really possess these skills. 

We all have different levels of tolerance for pain and different capacities for forgiveness. I’ve seen lots of situations where people (me included) continuously ignore hurtful words and actions of others, under the guise of forgiveness. The deeper truth is that they (we) are really just too afraid to stand up for ourselves. (It has taken me a lot of work and courage to really begin standing up for my vulnerable feelings… It gets easier with practice.)

But forgiveness cannot be used to justify silence in the face of a transgression. If the hurts continue to be inflicted, at some point forgiveness no longer works. One cannot withstand constant hurtful words or actions, without the dynamic becoming self-abusive. Forgiveness cannot be used (or misused rather) as an avoidance technique when confrontation is too scary.

Setting boundaries, standing up for yourself, and voicing hurt feelings honestly are all required acts of self-love. The complicated part is that they are to be done without anger or resentment. (If they are being done with anger, from a negative emotional state, it’s not boundary setting but rather a form of punishment. The distinction is very important).

We must first do the work to reach a state of peace (internally) and compassion for the other person, and then we set the boundary peacefully and with kindness. (This doesn’t apply of course in emergency situations when harm is imminent. I feel this is so obvious that I don’t need to say it, but I suppose I do).

Setting boundaries also has nothing to do with the other person. You cannot change who they are, or what they do. But we must find the courage to see them with honest eyes. We must be willing to acknowledge how they make us feel, really and deeply. And if we don’t want to be treated a certain way, we are in control of your own lives, actions, and behavior. There is nothing wrong with removing ourselves from dynamics (whether temporarily or permanently) that we find hurtful.

Putting our own vulnerable feelings first is not selfishness; it is the ultimate self-love.  

 

Gone swimming; mysticism and schizophrenia

 

I read an account recently of a man diagnosed with schizophrenia. He described a sort of break with “reality,” that allowed him to see deeper truths. Sitting on a bus with a friend, he described it like a veil suddenly being pulled back to reveal his friend as evil. He described paranoid persecutory delusions and altered states of consciousness. He described seemingly terrifying physical sensations, and overwhelming emotional swings. He described being overtaken by an outside force (not voices, but the sensation that something else was in control). And while he was grateful for finally getting a diagnosis and medication, he said that it’s a daily struggle for him. He senses a constant presence of this other reality which he is working hard to fight against, so that he could be “normal.” It was heartbreaking to read. Not because of what’s happening to him, but because there is no one to guide, explain, or help him through it. What’s happening to him is not a mental illness, it’s a spiritual emergence. It is a sacred awakening. But rather than having someone to honor the experience and show him the proper way to manage it, he is being pathologized. The mental health professionals that are providing his care are trying to make him “normal.” They are trying to stop the symptoms, using all sorts of medications and therapies, to fight something they don’t understand. And the reason they don’t understand it is because they are unwilling to listen, unwilling to allow for the possibility that there is something western medical science cannot yet explain.

Joseph Campbell is quoted as saying this famous line: “The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”

This statement is more profound than most people realize. The answer to many (not all, but many) schizophrenic cases is spiritual education. That is to say, self-awareness and the spiritual healing processes. This is what the mystic understands that the schizophrenic doesn’t.

The experiences of mystical openings and schizophrenia are really really similar. The difference between the mystic and the schizophrenic is context; spiritual context. The mystic understands that the mental/psychological disintegration is part of the healing process. He leans into it, and through spiritual work, moves through it. Or more accurately, allows it to move through him. He can observe it within him and work with it, without descending into terror. The mystic observes his thoughts and feelings, without acting on them, and curiously investigates them. He brings awareness, love, wisdom, and compassion into the depths of his being. He is delighted in the emotional upswells, because he knows that each one of them is an opportunity for further healing and discovery. It’s not always delightful (it is in fact extremely painful at times), but there is a logic to it. A divine pattern, if you will.

The schizophrenic on the other hand, without a sense of what’s happening to him, without love, support, and proper education or guidance, sinks. He doesn’t see the logic. He feels completely out of control. He believes his thoughts. He acts on his seemingly irrational feelings (which are completely rational in a spiritual perspective). He is told that he’s sick, and broken; he is medicated, and given up on; because our society doesn’t know where to begin to help him. Our mental health models don’t allow for the spiritual context.

But with spiritual context comes understanding, growth, acceptance, and healing. There is a way through it. There is a way to “heal” these symptoms. But it takes a different sort of therapy. It takes a radical shift away from what it currently being practiced.

The “evil” this man observed in his friend is in fact there; but it’s a mis-perception to call it evil. What this man saw in his friend on the bus is the friend’s egoic nature; which, to the lay-person, would certainly appear as evil. A mystic has this same capacity to see into people, and to observe their intense selfishness, their ego-driven words and actions masquerading as love, friendship, and normal relating. The mystic understands this; he understands why this is so, and accepts the reality of it. The schizophrenic is horrified by it. (It is rather horrifying to have this capacity to see inside of people… I’m still learning how to interact in a quasi-normal fashion despite what I can see).

Paranoid delusions, or persecutory delusions, the fear that “they are out to get you” is nothing more than a present day reflection of childhood fear. Sometimes it’s even past life issues that are being digested out. These episodes need to be properly attended to, not labelled and discounted. The person needs to be spiritually guided back to the source of these feelings, so that with awareness and wisdom and compassion these emotions can be properly released. If this is done properly the fear and paranoia subsides.

The experience of being overtaken by an invisible force from within would likely send anyone over the edge. But the mystic understands that this is the divine will moving through him. He becomes a channel for it, and feels relatively safe in surrendering to it. Those with awakened kundalini often report wondering if they’ve been possessed by something demonic. It can feel that way at times. Whether it’s kundalini, or spirit, or the emergence of the higher self (temporarily or permanently), it’s not a pleasant experience exactly. But spiritual forces never ever intend to harm. They are supremely loving (even if rather stoic or ruthlessly honest). (This is not the experience of hearing angry or hostile voices, or being instructed to carry out harmful acts – which also have a spiritual explanation and can be reckoned with and worked through.)

Similarly, altered states of consciousness can be terrifying. The mystic understands that what he sees in these states is a reflection of his own subconscious – his own wounding is being reflected for him to see and attend to. He knows how to navigate through these states because he gets the bigger picture. The schizophrenic is just terrified by it, and without proper names or descriptions or language to explain it, he becomes isolated in that terror. There aren’t words in existence that can describe the experience of higher states of consciousness. Lots of poets and ancient mystics have tried to use metaphors for what it feels like, but as far as I have read, none of them can convey the feeling of it to a person that’s never felt it. To the mystic it is a wondrous state. To the schizophrenic, sitting in a psychiatrist’s office trying to rationally explain what he feels, it’s devastating. To him, these states are an ever-present, uncontrollable, and very scary symptom of his illness.

There are countless examples here of the mistaken conceptualization and mistreatment of “schizophrenic” symptoms. I want to be clear – I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water. I don’t discount that mental illness exists; it certainly does. I also don’t discount psychiatric treatments or the need for pharmaceutical intervention; sometimes it is necessary and helpful. But the current state of western mental health care categorically lumps everything together as disease and dysfunction. It doesn’t allow for the spiritual context (as the new DSM-V leaves out the spiritual emergence classification entirely). And as a result these people are not receiving the kind of care they desperately need.

There is a lot of wonderfully courageous work being done in the mental health arena to shed light and understanding into the darkness. Revolutionary psychiatrists, therapists, and spiritual teachers, as well as those with lived experience, are coming together to make the shift to more integrative and compassionate understanding. But there is still a lot to be done. I don’t know how to bridge the gap between the needs for large scale systematic care and the truths of what I see. I am one person, with an idiosyncratic perspective, without any formal credentialing in this area – no one is going to take me seriously. And yet, I am hopeful that over time, the more that people like me write, and speak, and share their experiences and understanding, the more our larger systems can take heed and evolve.

I’m cautiously hopeful…