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…