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From Madness to Mastery: Gaining Competence with Altered States

Is madness good for something?  If so, there’s something wrong with the medical conceptualization of it as simply an “illness.”  That’s probably why anyone who tries to identify anything good about “psychosis” or “schizophrenia” quickly finds themselves accused of “romanticizing” madness.

Of course, a lot of what happens in madness, or psychosis, for many people, is indeed quite terrible.  Both subjectively and objectively, lives can fall apart, and often do not come back together again.

But psychosis is not always so terrible, and for many, experiences labeled psychotic by mental health professionals have an appeal, an appeal that may be felt both at the time of the experience and even afterward, once the person has “recovered.”  Is this appeal itself just an illusion caused by the “mental illness” or is there something to it?

Because if there is something positive about psychosis, then perhaps what we really need is a balanced view, somewhere between “romanticizing” it as being all good, and “awfulizing” it as being all bad.

One metaphor for a more nuanced view might be found by considering the case of people who get lost in the wilderness. 

Some who get lost in this way may have gone out into the wilderness by accident, or perhaps they were driven out into the wilderness as they fled acts of violence, and they want nothing more than to be helped to get out of the wilderness and back to everyday life.  In other words, that group sees nothing positive in the wilderness experience.

Others may have set out into the wilderness whilst seeking for something, or maybe like the former group they just randomly went there or were driven by violence, but once in the wilderness they sense there is something of value there, and even though they may have gotten lost at times, they want more than just to be “rescued”:  they now want to learn how to travel in the wilderness, and perhaps how to use their travels and what they find there to benefit those in everyday life.

When people are just stuck somewhere in the wilderness, they may find themselves to be quite miserable, with their lives at risk.  Yet the same space they are stuck in may be awesome in other respects, there may be qualities of that space that are missing in everyday “civilized” spaces, qualities that are worth taking a long journey to find.  So it makes sense that for many, just “recovering” or “being rescued” to the point of being able to get back to civilization feels very inadequate:  they may find themselves instead aspiring to become competent in spending time in the wilderness and in traveling freely between the wilderness and civilization.

Can we say the same about the altered or extreme states that get called “psychosis” or even “madness”?  Is it possible to achieve mastery of altered or extreme states, rather than simply being a victim of them?  Is it possible that a given person’s ability to go into extreme states might be a “feature and not a defect,” even if the process of learning to use the “feature” may be fraught with peril?

With the release of Crazywise this year, there’s likely to be lots of discussion about the hypothesis that young people falling into “psychosis” are exactly those who would have been seen, within indigenous societies, as being those people called to the life of a shaman.  Shamans of course were those who learned to voluntarily travel into altered states for the benefit of their tribe (and of course, they also learned how to return, rather than becoming lost and needing rescued!)

I recently had the opportunity to interact with a man, Ingo Lambrecht, who has received both extensive shamanic training, and training as a psychologist in working with “psychosis.”  He stated that he sees no clear dividing line between states that suggest a spiritual or shamanic calling, and those that are just “trouble,” and he agreed with me that a key difference might be between those who are motivated to find value in and to master their altered states, and those who just want to get back to “normal” states as soon as they can!

Of course, without the right kind of help, or at least a lot of luck and perseverance, people can’t do either of the above, and may just stay lost.

One key point Ingo makes is that in order to enter altered or trance states that are useful, shamans and others have to do something to destabilize their more “normal” states.  So it’s important to recognize that while psychiatry and the mental health system usually focus on the goal of “stability,” there may be important places we can only go if we are willing at times to sacrifice a conventional stability in the interests of finding something else.  (Just as, there are also important places we can only go if we are willing to sacrifice for a while our connection to the comforts of civilization!)

Anyway, some of you might want to view the talk by Ingo, titled “Shamanic Spiritual Emergencies: The Dialectic of Distress and Spirituality” linked to below.  It’s a fascinating presentation!

If you do watch the video, you will notice that Ingo himself firmly believes in lots of things psychiatrists believes are delusions.  He believes that he himself and others like him have “magical” abilities to do things like see and speak with the spirits of ancestors, or to find hidden objects (and he describes being tested in his ability to do this as part of his shamanic training.)

I don’t have the abilities that Ingo reports, and I never watched him pass his shamanic tests, so I can’t vouch for all his claims.  But I have had my own experience of finding benefit from altered or extreme states, and I’ve met many others who have done so as well.

The benefit people find is not always framed as “spiritual” –  Don’t Pity Me: Psychosis Gave Me Mad Skills by Rai Waddingham is a nice summary of some more down to earth benefits that might come out of experiencing and working through such states!  So there is really quite a wide spectrum of possible benefit.

The “mad” in our society typically suffer from discrimination and social exclusion, much of which is based on the sense they have nothing (but trouble) to offer the rest of us.  Conversely, the “sane” typically suffer from smugness, a mistaken sense that conventional “normality” is an adequate response to the world, and an inability to understand or imagine what might go beyond that.  Seeing possible value as well as risk in altered states, and the possibility of people mastering these states even after periods of at first being a victim of them, provides a possible way to transcend both forms of suffering.  Let’s hope that as we move forward, more people will become informed about, and move forward with, this alternative.

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  • I hope to hear some reactions from people who have watched the video……

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