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Distinguishing Mysticism from Psychosis: Is That the Wrong Idea?

Quite awhile ago I received, via Twitter, a link to an article that purports to distinguish between mysticism and psychosis, written by a psychiatrist.  I started to write a blog post in response, then I got sidetracked, but the recent discussion on this blog has inspired me to come back to it.

The article asks some very legitimate questions, such as, would the well known mystics of the past have been treated for psychosis if they showed up in the present?  And the article has a very good description of some of the common factors in psychosis and in mystical experience.  Despite that however, I think the article is really flawed in its attempt to make a definite distinction between mysticism and psychosis, when in reality people’s experience is on a continuum, and people usually experience a mix of “spiritual truth” and delusion.

For example, anyone familiar with the story of the prophet Ezekiel knows that people could be both mystical and way over the top as far as exhibiting behavior that psychiatrists would lable psychotic.  (Rossa Forbes recently touched on  this in one of her comments.

I think it is much more helpful to notice that there are very helpful ways of being mystical, and ways that lead to more trouble, rather than trying to establish any categorical distinction between mysticism and psychosis.  With that perspective, we can help people who are having “mixed” experiences sort out what may be really valid in their experience from what may be a mistake or some kind of loss of balance, without having to label them as “sick” or invalidating them.  Of course, if we admit we don’t have the final word on what is sick or not, then we can’t play the role of “all-knowing experts” and tell other people how to live their lives.  And facing uncertainty like that can be hard to do.

In my own mystical/psychotic journey, I found that facing uncertainty can be critical in healing.  In fact, once I realized I was actually uncertain about everything, and that there was really no way at all to have certainty, I started to be comfortable in the world in a way that I never was before.  Maybe the key thing was that I could now forgive myself for just having to guess, and for appearing to be wrong at times (because after all when I appeared wrong I might really be right, and vice versa, there was no final answer.)

Anyone who is curious about my perspective at this time in my life can check out a paper I wrote at the time on the impossibility of having any certainty, or the impossibility of even knowing if one’s estimates of what was probable were correct.  Obviously, this is not the way most of us usually think, but around the time I wrote this paper it’s sort of like I took a look down at the foundations of all our knowledge, found nothing but air, and then realized that’s all there has ever been, so why not go on with living?  With a little more humility, and a better sense of humor.  I still don’t think I’ve fully made sense of this perspective, but I think there’s a lot to it.

You can find that paper at this link.  It has everything in it from an analysis of the flaws in probability theory to speculations on how God might try to discern whether or not he or she was psychotic, and/or how a psychotic person might try to discern whether or not he or she was God.  It was written in the early 1980’s…..

11 comments… add one
  • I agree with you that it isn’t helpful to distinguish between mysticism and “psychosis like the article tries to do. Actually, I find some of the distinctions plain incorrect. For instance, it is suggested that a mystic is someone who actively has sought out the experience, while a “psychotic” person has not. This is certainly not true for each and every mystic in history. Far from.

    Also, it doesn’t seem to me to be a valid distinction that the mystic’s experiences only last for a short time, and that s/he otherwise would be a well-functioning member of society. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name, but some time ago I read about a mystic, a woman, who, almost during all of her life, used to simply walk into churches, and interrupt any ongoing service, talking aloud about her revelations. Nobody took offence since she was regarded a mystic, not a nuisance. Imagine something along those lines happening today. For me there’s no doubt the person would be labelled “psychotic”, and the cops would be called to pick her up and take her to the nearest ER. Another example is Dag Hammarskjöld, who certainly was “well-functioning” at work, but who also is reported to have been a very private (“withdrawn”) person, and not always easy to be around. He had very little empathy and “loving kindness” for people who didn’t live up to his, extremely high, expectations.

    The consequence of “psychosis”vs. that of a mystical experience mentioned in the article as “the most important difference”, and “often the only way to truly differentiate between the two”, doesn’t seem to me to be the necessary consequence of “psychosis” as such, but only of a “psychotic” experience that is not understood and overcome, because, as you write in your previous post, “no one helps the person sort out what might be valuable in the experience”. IMO, it is clearly backwards to say that just because someone would need a little help from others to understand their experience, the experience itself isn’t a mystical one, but a “psychotic”, sick, and meaningless one, that can’t be understood.

  • Marian, you write about this clearly and well. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

    It’s kind of funny that someone would think that mystics are always someone who made a conscious decision to go seeking out another perspective. That’s certainly not Joseph Campbell’s understanding, as he writes about how people get called to go on the “hero’s journey”:

    Campbell: “This first stage of the mythological journey – which we have designated the ‘call to adventure’ – signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight. The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father’s city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon. The adventure may begin as a mere blunder … or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man. Examples might be multiplied, ad infinitum, from every corner of the world.” [1]


  • I am currently looking at this very thing as a potential topic for my thesis. Ron, could you direct me to some possible sources for info?
    thanks so much for posting it.

  • well, I’ve been having a similar dilemma and strange experiences/ illness in the last few years (diagnosed as narcolepsy but with many ting that don’t fit the profile). I am now thinking that the distinction should be made between the suffering of any kind and well-being, health. Trying to figure out a “science of the human soul” is ironically the craziest thing ever in my opinion. We could never understand what happens inside the spirit and soul of another person (we don’t even understand our own being) unless we know that person really well and we love him/her dearly. Once we do love them than it’s love that cures everything. We don’t care how the negative side is called; called ilussion, fear, loneliness, blockage, nevrosis, depression, shame, guilt…’s always a lack of true love. Love the person who is in pain or who is lost in a dellusion, love him/her, care for him/her, pray for him/her. Be there and do whatever you can. We need truth, lots of dignity, love, acceptance, respect, freedom.

  • I understand that some people may have transcendent experiences, that are interpreted as ‘mystical’. This may be a positive thing – as long as you’re not someone whose “mysticism” makes you suicidal.
    (I knew a person who had experienced ‘messages from god’ followed by the desire to “cross over” – by stepping out in front of traffic. Luckily that person did not follow through.)

    Please be careful.

    • There is no question that some experiences may be both mystical in some sense, and dangerous! They don’t always come in tidy packages – sometimes experiences are both helpful in some ways, and dangerous, in the sense one can go too far with them. But I think we are most likely to be able to help people if we help people sort out what may be helpful or unhelpful or dangerous in their beliefs and experiences, rather than just tell them their entire experience is an “illness” and needs to be abolished or suppressed.