It is human misery and not pleasure which contains the secret of divine wisdom.
Following my brief spell of insanity two and a half years ago, when I was discharged from hospital, I returned home to my flat and my mother stayed with me. She had dropped everything to fly over from the USA in order to be with me, and she was enduring it with tremendous fortitude: the crisis, the disruption, the ignominy of my plight. She was really wonderful – patient and supportive – and I understand and am grateful for how deeply fortunate I am to have had her and others in my life to help me.
It is interesting to me (and unsurprising, actually) how she coped with the weirdness of my situation. With brisk determination, she grabbed onto normality, familiarity, the reassuring focus on practicalities and routine. Within days she had prescribed her own best remedy: why don’t we go get you some new housewares, honey? It always feels good to freshen things up at home. Some new table linen will help you to feel better, don’t you think? (Good call, Mom. 3 hours in Ikea will soothe my troubled mind, for sure.)
Letting her take me shopping was the least I could do, to help her hang onto her own touchstones. She wanted me back from the land of craziness, back in her world – the real world. Dutifully back I came, surrendering to the crushing intense weight of the mundane. I stopped reading, stopped writing, stopped thinking and fretting about existence and purpose and my moral relevance or lack thereof. I bought housewares. I focused completely on the day-to-day and the minute-to-minute. And that was okay.
Like a traveller returned from a strange land, I found that my experiences were meaningless to those who hadn’t ventured so far away from home. When I made any reference to what had happened to me, it was met with the discord of unease, a polite shift toward safer ground. My desire to sift through the contents of my hallucinations was met with discussions about prescriptions and wellness plans.
Please don’t get me wrong: medication and wellness plans helped immensely too, in the long run. They helped me to regain my equilibrium, and rejoin my fellows here in what we tacitly agree is the real world. I have no desire to live in the throes of insanity, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t ever happen to me again. But at the same time, I don’t want to deny or ignore what I experienced, or dismiss the insights that it offered me. It was a hell of an experience – I assure you – but I learned so much; how can I just set that aside?
My trip was typical: it was bound up in religious and spiritual imagery and metaphor. I believed I was damned. I believed I was saved. I believed I was living through the second coming. I believed I’d been left behind. I believed I was alone. I believed I was evil. I believed I was sacred. I believed that everything I did had significance. I believed that nothing I did had significance. I believed I was being punished. I believed I was punishing everyone else. I felt terrified, guilt-ridden and full of regret at the constant petty ugliness of my character and the countless mistakes and hurts I had caused throughout my life.
Believed is really not the right word. It was all too fluid and surreal to be contained in something so fixed as a belief. It was more that these were my realities, transient realities that rushed through me and past me like views from a train.
Yet in the middle of all this horrific negativity, let me tell you: there was a spell of bliss, which even now feels more relevant and real to me than much of the more common evidence I’ve collected throughout life. There was this spell of bliss, during which it seemed a layer of obtuseness had been lifted, and I had become aware of and sensitive to my connection with everything else – everything and everyone in my immediate vicinity, everything and everyone beyond me, and throughout me on into the universe. It was a physical sensation, a matter of physical perception, like suddenly being granted a sixth sense or hearing a pitch of sound that had been previously out of range. Everything flowed from everything else, and every moment, every movement, everything, was infused with meaning and goodness and a vivid buzz of serenity. Nothing could be wrong because everything was connected.
Am I rambling now, raving like a prophet in the desert? Well, you decide. It makes no difference to me whether you take in or understand or care about what I’m describing. It’s just a story I’m sharing with you, about something that happened to me. And rambling it may be, but all the same: it did happen to me.
Now. Was I insane? Yes, I was insane: clinically psychotic. And?
Was it a taste of spiritual enlightenment? Yes, that too. For me, it was. It changed my understanding of spiritual traditions, from a rational and conceptual approach to an irrational love for something beyond my understanding; from a backlash against organised religion, to a benign willingness to consider the wisdom there, beneath all the crap of dogma and doctrine and culture and history and human interference. It’s the difference between imagining a place that you’ve read or heard about, and imagining a place from the memory of your visit. It’s not even that one perception is better than the other; really, it’s just information. And it hasn’t transformed me that much, like some sort of pilgrimage into beatitude: I can still be a real jerk.
It’s valuable information, though: it has made me realise how precious it is to be here, alive and conscious and feeling and connected.
Here’s why I’ve been revisiting this bit of my past. I’ve been handed a few leads recently, all of which have set me pondering, and reminiscing. I’ll just set them out here for now. I expect to dig into them further – but I’ll leave that to another post.
In the shamanic view, mental illness signals “the birth of a healer,” [whereby] mental disorders are spiritual emergencies, spiritual crises, and need to be regarded as such to aid the healer in being born. What those in the West view as mental illness, the Dagara people regard as “good news from the other world.”
Ragged Online presents an excerpt from a book exploring the psychiatric pharmaceutical industry, and its use of spiritual metaphor in promotional marketing.
An American anthropologist has published the results of research she conducted with people who hear voices, finding that those in the USA are significantly more likely to experience this as a negative or threatening intrusion, than those in India or Ghana.
Why the difference? Luhrmann offered an explanation: Europeans and Americans tend to see themselves as individuals motivated by a sense of self identity, whereas outside the West, people imagine the mind and self interwoven with others and defined through relationships.
This residential conference will delve into issues of mental health, community and culture. (And I’ll be going to it!)
During the weekend we will explore and develop new integrations of psychology, creativity and activism for turbulent times. The gathering will be a forum for inquiry and deep conversation to question cultural assumptions.