Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have reported having experiences in their minds (not tied to sensory perception of what others see as physical reality) that seem to be coming from somewhere other than their own mind.
How people conceptualize these experiences has varied over time. Such “visitors” within one’s own mind or personal sense of reality might be understood as spirits, ancestors, gods, demons, or in more modern times, the government intruding via technology.
Psychiatrists of course are not fond of any of these explanations. They insist that people interpret everything they experience in their mind that is not based on physical sensation as being their own mind, as being sourced in themselves. When people report experiencing things otherwise, they are routinely diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. As psychiatric critic Thomas Szaz pointed out, what is asserted by psychiatry seems to be that “If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.”
I recently started reflecting more on this subject when I encountered a recent article by Eric Coates, The Day I Became Schizophrenic. In the article, Eric explains that he understands the word “schizophrenia” to indicate that one has ”a mind that you share with some sort of outside presence.” He relates many of his experiences he has with such presences, such as voices that dictate to him poems and a novel that, it seems to him, he has no role in composing. He also reports finding a lot of value in this experience.
Anyway, that got me thinking. For example, I reflected that we tend to recognize what is our own mind or our “self” by noticing the familiar patterns of thinking and feeling that we identify as ourselves.
But this creates an interesting situation. If we do suddenly find a new way of thinking or feeling, some really new perspective, it is not going to feel like “us.” In fact this new way of thinking or feeling may feel alien to us, or even, perhaps, actively opposed to the patterns that we have identified with.
But any kind of creativity requires stretching in some sense beyond what we previously have known as our self – because what we previously thought of as our self hadn’t previously done or said what is now being created.
That’s why I think many writers find the process of writing is often more like being dictated to, by some kind of awareness or entity that is other than their self, at least at times. Eric’s process seems especially that way, but creativity in general seems to have this aspect.
My favorite songwriter, the late Leonard Cohen, has written about the sense of not being the writer of his own work, for example as in the following lyrics from “Going Home”:
“I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit
“But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
“He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube”
We often think of creativity as a conscious achievement, but really much creativity comes from “somewhere else.” For example, I know nothing about making music, yet in my dreams I have sometimes heard very impressive music that did not seem to be anything I have heard while awake. Something or someone composed this music, but it certainly wasn’t anything in my mind of which I am consciously aware!
Getting back to Eric’s assertion that schizophrenia means having a mind that one shares with others: I don’t quite agree. Instead, I agree with psychiatrist Russel Razzique when he says the function of the mental health system should be to help people with any distress they may be having while also recognizing and helping them make use of anything that might be of spiritual or creative value in that experience. If they find a way to do this, then it no longer makes sense to consider them as a person with a mental health problem.
That is, our job should be helping people navigate the rocky parts of experiences of outside presences in our mind, without framing everything about those experiences as pathology.
Last year I put together an online course “Addressing Spiritual Issues within Treatment for Psychosis and Bipolar” https://www.udemy.com/course/spiritual-issues-psychosis-and-bipolar/ which is my attempt to convey this kind of message to the mental health field….