Psychosis or spiritual experience?

Mary in SC who wrote this wonderful blog post on healing a psychosis in her youth with the help of Carl Jung’s and Joseph Campbell’s writings, has shared another piece that she wrote for a yahoo group that discusses the intersection of psychosis and spirituality. Mary has a doctorate in psychology as well as having personal experience in such healing.

The below question was asked in the yahoo group:

From Carl Jung’s Red Book

What is the link between psychosis and spirituality? One or two people have spoken of being admitted to a psych unit and of being relieved to be there. In what way was this a spiritual experience? I can think of a number of ways to describe this , but “spiritual”?  I can see that one might see psychosis as a form of altered consciousness or heightened awareness- although I’m not sure of what- but how does one square this with so much of the trauma associated with florid psychotic features?

Mary’s response:

You have asked the $64 question indeed. Congratulations for having the courage to do it! Many people I think follow the converging paths of psychosis and spirituality up to where they both disappear in the clouds, but never quite allow their thoughts to go all the way up. Thus the question remains for the most part not only unanswered, but unasked.

We might start with the idea that spirituality really has two aspects. One aspect is that of the faithful who believe in the literal meaning of their religion, practice its rituals, and revere its god/gods, icons and traditions. The other aspect is the esoteric or “hidden” aspect realized by a select few who have the essential, primordial and universal experience that underlies all religions; that one transcendent Reality underlies existence itself, and the experience of one’s identity with it can mark the beginning of a more conscious and compassionate way of life. This experience, it is said, underlies all religions in all cultures throughout history.

It is with this second aspect, of course, that the question of a link between psychosis and spirituality arises. Philosopher Ken Wilber puts the problem like this:

“Are the mystics and sages insane? Because they all tell variationson the same story, don’t they? The story of awakening one morning and discovering you are one with the All, in a timeless and eternal and infinite fashion. Yes, maybe they are crazy, these divine fools. Maybe they are mumbling idiots in the face of the Abyss. Maybe they need a nice, understanding therapist. Yes, I’m sure that would help. But then, I wonder. Maybe the evolutionary sequence really is from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit, each transcending and including, each with a greater depth and greater consciousness and wider embrace. And in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, just maybe, an individual’s consciousness does indeed touch infinity-a total embrace of the entire Kosmos-a Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. It’s at least plausible. And tell me: is that story, sung by mystics and sages the world over, any crazier than the scientific materialism story, which is that the entire sequence is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing? Listen very carefully: just which of those two stories actually sounds totally insane?” – Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, 42-3

This still doesn’t answer your question about the trauma so often associated with psychosis. But if you look at the lives and carefully read the words of great mystics — for example St. John of the Cross, Simone Weil, Mother Teresa, Gopi Krishna — you will find trauma and suffering aplenty. I think it’s our prettified view of spirituality, rather than the real thing, that is responsible for the notion that altered consciousness and heightened awareness are always lovely and pleasurable experiences. In fact, they can be quite like the experiences your patients have.

A great deal depends on the experiencer and what resources he/she brings to the experience. When I had my own experience, I had the great good fortune of having recently read a book by C.G. Jung. He described precisely what I was going through, and said it was a necessary prelude to Individuation, or becoming a complete person aware of both the conscious and unconscious aspects of one’s personality. This gave me the insight to endure the terrifying process without coming under the care of a psychiatrist — and getting myself diagnosed as psychotic or schizophrenic. Others are not so fortunate. They interpret their experiences in the ways you are familiar with, and often end up severely traumatized by “treatment” or permanently medicated, or both. And yet both they and I had the same basic experience.

But even after being “treated” in such a fashion, many people do persist in trying to understand the real meaning of their experience and ultimately find it beneficial, again blurring the distinction between spirituality and psychosis. Here are some anonymous comments found on the internet, for example:

“Now after the years I can only say that my psychoses triggered a spiritual development. Through the years I developed with meditation through a severe kundalini experience from pre-rational to post-rational stages (not only states) of consciousness. So I’m actually glad I’ve had those psychotic breaks because after all they have been really transformative.”


“I can only say that my personal experience with psychosis and manic depression brought me on a spiritual path. I had the feeling to have had experienced an altered state (which I couldn’t explain that way because I didn’t know it was possible to have natural altered states, except with psychedelic drugs, for instance).”


“Psychosis can really be a trigger for later spiritual development if you’re able to strengthen your ego boundaries, and work an building a strong and healthy personality. After all I’m still on a low dose of antipsychotic drugs just for safety reasons, but I’m doing better than ever before and am studying again as a graduate student.”

In his book Anatomy of an Illness: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (2010), Robert Whitaker describes World Health Organization studies comparing rates of recovery in “developed” countries (US and Europe) vs. “undeveloped” countries (India, Nigeria and Colombia). In the “undeveloped” countries, he said, “nearly two-thirds of the patients had good outcomes, and slightly more than one-third had become chronically ill. In the rich countries, only 37 percent of the patients had good outcomes, and 59 percent became chronically ill. . . . in Agra, India, where patients arguably fared the best, only 3 percent of the patients were kept on an antipsychotic. Medication usage was highest in Moscow, and that city had the highest percent of patients who were constantly ill. In this cross-cultural study, the best outcomes were clearly associated with low medication use.”

So perhaps there are better ways to deal with psychosis than medicating it out of existence. I think many patients know this, but most of their professional caretakers are still stuck in their medical model of “brain disease,” which is after all so much easier and more profitable than doing real therapy. The best solution for the foreseeable future may be for “patients” to learn to keep their mouths shut and take over their own treatment.

For stories of healing and recovery through a psychotic process see here. 

And more here: Spiritual emergency: one way of interpreting activity of the psyche that is often labeled psychotic


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