There is a perennial question directed toward those of us who see madness as having a spiritual dimension, and it goes something like this: “How can “psychotic” experiences that are both terrifying and debilitating be seen as at all spiritual? Isn’t it true that looking for spirituality within psychosis is just a case of “romanticizing madness?”
One way to answer this question is just to turn it around, and to point out how the usual psychiatric approach of seeing nothing at all positive in “psychotic” states acts to increase fear of madness, which in turn increases distress and disability. In other words, the usual approach goes to an extreme opposite of “romanticizing” madness, and instead “awfulizes” it. We can then explain that what we advocate for is simply a balanced view, or being open to noticing both what is negative and positive in experiences that go outside of usual cultural boundaries and are seen as “psychotic.”
But to fully address the question, I think we need to go deeper – very much deeper! What follows will be my take on how to make sense of some of the deepest issues of our existence which I believe play a pivotal role in key experiences such as those of trauma, psychosis (or madness), and spirituality.
In the conventional view, it is believed possible to make a clear distinction between bad or sick experiences, which might be labeled “psychosis,” and positive or growth oriented experiences that we might call spiritual. But the more we look for some clear “dividing line” between the two, the more it seems to be missing.
Instead it seems there is a realm of experience that is outside of our cultural norm, that we might call mystery, where people have experiences that are challenging, with a possibility of these experiences being seen as either bad or good, and of having results in terms of life outcomes that may be either bad or good in the conventional sense.
Mystery itself can be seen as both absence and presence. When we focus on its dark side, it is absolutely terrifying. But it does have another side, that can be seen as offering absolute security, and as having everything that we actually need.
When the Buddhists speak of the Void, they aren’t speaking of something negative, but rather about an ultimate reality that is paradoxical in nature. Looked at from a more human perspective, when we empty the mind in meditation, we find it is actually full (which I like to think is what being “mindful” is really about.) Because we come to the point where opposites come together, and are all present (and absent) at the same time.
In some Native American traditions, when the directions are called at the beginning of ceremony, the effect can also be to come together at this place where opposites coexist.
In the christian traditions, it is usually thought that God is a presence, not an absence. Rather, hell is where God is absent, and people go there when they refuse to recognize God or to live by principles consistent with God. Satan is always trying to tempt or trick people to do things that will lead them to hell. But a more mystical way of looking at this is to think of heaven, or being with God, as the same place as hell, or the place where God is absent. Hell is just being in that place and not recognizing that it is also heaven. One way of conveying this has been the story that hell is a fabulous dinner banquet, only the food can only be eaten with eating utensils, and all the utensils are so long that a person cannot fit them into his or her mouth, so everyone is frustrated and suffering. Heaven of course is exactly the same place, except that there the people feed each other. (The idea that we get to heaven by believing in God can be seen as the same notion: it’s not so much that believing takes us to a different place, as that it makes us see that the place we are is really a place that has presence, not just absence. I like this notion because it doesn’t paint God as so cruel as to send people to hell for not believing in “him” but rather says people convince themselves they are in hell by looking or believing a certain way, when they are also actually in heaven and were never sent away by God.)
In a sense, because God both is and isn’t, because mystery is both presence and absence, then theism and atheism are both true. It’s all in how you look at it. The terrifying absence is true, and the presence is true.
In physical science, there is also a recognition at the deepest level that absence and presence can be one. The big bang itself happened out of nothing. And matter and antimatter can mutually arise out of empty space. Uncertainty, another word for mystery, is basic at the most fundamental levels.
But in everyday life in our culture, we think we know things, we have security in our homes and relationships and jobs and bank accounts. We don’t think much about the Void, or the mystery, or our fundamental uncertainty about the ultimate meaning of each event. Instead, we have ways of looking at things and ways of acting with which we feel comfortable, and we see our ways and our stuff as the source of what is good, rather than our relationship with mystery. But our security in “things” also creates anxiety: what will be our fate if those things are taken away? We are like the proverbial rich men, who have difficulty finding the kingdom of heaven, because we are attached to our stuff and security.
When we encounter trauma, or when illness or drugs or isolation or some form of impoverishment takes us away from what we usually rely on, then we can be taken out of our “security” and be thrust into mystery. Trauma, as someone put it, “throws us into the hands of the Living God.” But when we are traumatized, we generally aren’t in a trusting mood, so we don’t easily notice that we have entered into something that can be seen positively. Instead, we are more likely to be seeing where we are at as hellish, we notice the absence, not the possibility. Or we are so scared of the mystery, of the uncertainty, that we try to fill it in and make it be something, which results in believing things are solidly there when others don’t see them. Or we see the positive side of mystery but we see it as ourselves personally and get grandiose and try to own it, which sets us up for big falls. The mental states that result are problematic and scary, so they get called psychotic. But with just a slight shift of attention, we could see that we are not just in absence but also in presence, that the state of mystery or uncertainty itself can become our security, or as Jesus was said to have put it, “the stone that the builders rejected” can become the “cornerstone.”
When one recognizes that one lost everything one thought one depended on, but that everything is still OK and that all the potential of the universe, all the potential that ever existed, is still out there, and in there, then one realizes that there is a “safety net” so to speak, that is the Void or mystery or God or just the nature of energy. This recognition can be incredibly healing, it can give one a source of security and strength that goes beyond anything in our conventional sense of reality.
I heard Paul Gilbert relate a Buddhist story that conveys this concept: the story is of two waves rushing to a rocky shore; a big one and the small one. The big one is alarmed and warns the small one that their end is nigh, there are rocks ahead and foam everywhere -it’s all very frightening! The little wave says not to worry, that all will be well. But the big wave insists that it is the one seeing things realistically, while the little wave simply can’t actually see far enough ahead. The little wave replies “do not worry, you are more than a wave — you are water!””
It is the role of healers to help evoke that shift in attention, so people can reframe the mystery of who we are beyond our conventional forms, the basic uncertainties of our existence, as something that can be acceptable and even a source of security. Unfortunately, we mostly don’t have healers like that, instead those who are reeling from trauma and then from encounters with the terrifying side of mystery encounter “professionals” who tell them it is just an illness, and that they should take drugs to deaden themselves down so they don’t see mystery anymore. This sometimes stops the process of reacting badly to the mystery, but it also prevents the healing, it prevents the shift to learning to find security in the mystery, to learning to look at mystery in a spiritual or balanced way rather than a scared or psychotic way.
Incidentally, a lot of self harm can be understood as an attempt to leave behind worldly reassurances, which are feeling desperately insecure anyway, to go to the place of mystery where we are somehow OK even though we have lost what we usually think we rely on. In many religious or mystical traditions, it is common to see people depriving themselves of food, of human company, of sex, etc., and even causing self harm by activities like flogging oneself, as a way to show oneself it is possible to find a deeper security in the absence of conventional forms of security. I think many people cut themselves or do other self harm to get that same positive feeling, though they may not recognize it as a spiritual experience. I don’t think it’s necessary though to do such things to have a spiritual experience, it only seems necessary when we are holding on too desperately to things which in our lives are very insecure.
I had my own experience with trauma in childhood, and then a journey deep into mystery in my young adulthood. Even though I often floundered with this, at times being grandiose, at other times terrified, I found things to read and also people to relate to who helped me find my way through the experience, and so never got officially defined as “mentally ill” by the psychiatric system. (This was despite the fact that many people I knew, and I myself, saw what I was going through as a kind of madness; I personally saw it as a productive sort of madness, which R. D. Laing and others inspired me to believe was possible.) Because I came through this successfully without professional help, I could look back and define the experience as just spiritual, or just positive. But I know it was more than that: it was really beyond negative or positive, it was an encounter with something that goes beyond our definitions of negative or positive.
When people go through a “mad” period and then emerge strong and coherent, there is a great tendency to deny that there ever was a time of being “mad”. The problem with this is that we as a culture then create a false view of mystery, which makes it less likely that when other people do encounter it, that they will be able to trust their process and find the constructive side, it makes it less likely that people will be able to heal. Instead, mystery itself becomes seen as something to avoid at all costs, while we pretend that everything worth anything is contained within the cultural map. People who find themselves off that map feel truly hopeless, and don’t have a clue that there is also something to be found in that wild place.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s tell the truth about these kinds of experiences, and demand that those who are having trouble with such experiences be given access to people who have some understanding of how to relate to them, rather than just being exposed to often futile and destructive efforts to suppress them. Thanks to all of you who support real healing around these issues!