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…..