The descent experience: metaphor for serious illness

 by Sheila Joshi

Why are we sick? There are many levels of reality at which we can answer that question – the political, the economic, the biochemical, the psychological. And then there’s the mystical.

The Descent Experience

Since the beginning of time, humanity has described a particular kind of experience that many people have had, but many have not had. It involves terrible suffering. It lasts a very long time. During much of it, there is no help or relief that can be had. Eventually, it draws to an end, culminating in a return to life, often with additional gifts.

It has been called The Descent Experience, and the oldest known recorded version of a descent myth was written by the Sumerians on clay tablets in the third millenium BCE. In this version, the goddess Inanna (also known as Ishtar) has to visit the Underworld. There, she is destroyed physically and psychologically in the most gruesome way. It’s bad, no one will help; it goes on for awhile. Finally, Enki, the god of wisdom, comes to her rescue in an artful way, deals are made, she is reconstituted, and returns to the world.

Maybe 1000 years later, the ancient Greeks wrote their own descent myth about Persephone, who is abducted, raped, and held captive by Hades, king of the Underworld. It’s bad, no one will help; it goes on awhile. Finally, her mother Demeter pressures her father Zeus into negotiating her release. Deals are made, she has to spend part of every year in the Underworld, but is allowed to return to the world.

The Dark Night of the Soul

This is a spiritual term used most commonly in Christianity. The Dark Night of the Soul was most classically described by the 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. He described the step-by-step journey that a human soul undergoes in evolving from worldliness to a union with the Divine.

The journey is harrowing. It involves great pain, annihilation, and the loss of everything familiar. It’s bad, there is no help; it goes on awhile.

This is because, only by purging oneself of old habits, old tastes and attachments, and limited understanding, can one be clear and sensitive enough to perceive the Divine level of reality. He compares it to how your palate must be cleansed and healthy in order to even taste the most delicate, subtle tastes.

According to St. John of the Cross, the Divine is sending out illumination the whole time during the dark night to tempt the soul in the right direction and foment yearning for the Divine. But the soul is so off track, it can barely perceive Divine light or love until it has been purged further.

Eventually, critical mass is reached, and the soul is healed enough to not only feel strong yearning for the Divine, but to be assertive about pursuing Divine love and grabbing it and holding on.

The Hero’s Journey

In the mid-twentieth century, the mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he described a classic mythological story line that can be found in all times and all places.

It has several consistent components – the hero is minding his / her own business and initially resists the call to some kind of otherworldly journey. But the transition to an out of this world experience begins anyway, and there are many trials and ordeals. It’s bad. It goes on awhile. According to Campbell, there is no *apparent* help, but, in fact, there is occult help going on the whole time. There is soul-searching, and purification, and even death – temporary death, or partial death.

There is some kind of breakthrough; special wisdom or power is achieved. Campbell underscores the fact that, once this happens, the hero might even resist returning to the everyday world. But, once again, occult help guides the hero on the return journey and over the threshold of regular reality, which s/he crosses while retaining his / her special acquisition.

C.G. Jung – The Red Book

In 2009, the heirs of Carl Jung allowed his account of his descent experience to be published for the first time. Over the course of many years, from about 1914 to 1930, Jung wrote and drew about his own frightening falling apart, during which he confronted the darkness in himself and in the world (including WWI). He wrote and drew in order to save himself. It was bad, there was no help. It went on a long time. Eventually, he found help from beings he encountered in his mind who may have been parts of himself, archetypes, and/or spirits of the dead.

Years later, he said that his most important ideas, the ones he worked on for the rest of his life, and that we remember him for, all came out of this period.

In the Fall of 2010, Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., psychologist and Buddhist monk, spoke at one of The Red Book Dialogues in San Francisco. In discussing Jung’s descent, and descent experiences in general, he said your worst fears are the gateway to your enlightenment. You must face them, you must suffer, yet you must not get lost in the experience either. You stay present to your fears, you wait, you listen. It can take a long time. If you can trust the desert, at some point, it rains. Then, you find out what your gift, your contribution to the world is, “some new extraordinary wholeness appears and that’s who you really are.”

So what have we here?

These narratives are metaphors that describe a certain kind of human experience which has been traversed throughout history, even though Western psychotropic toxins were only invented a few seconds ago. The recovery from psych med neuro damage follows the classic pattern of the descent experience.

We can take these stories as comforting attempts to make the best of a bad deal. They may even provide a bit of a road map or some guidance. Maybe it also helps to know we aren’t the only ones who have had a bad time of it. At this level, these stories are aids to handling the psychological response to misfortune. This is a good thing.

Some of us might also want to take these stories as attempts to describe an underlying reality that humanity is still groping to understand – the transpersonal, psychic, mystical level. Nearly all of them have a magical, metaphysical or spiritual element that can be taken not just as metaphor, but as a glimpse of a level of reality that is there all the time but that we generally don’t allow ourselves to access because of social conditioning.

The descent experience involves a dismantling of the body, mind, and spirit that is suggestive of neurological rewiring, and the consensus is that it often yields increased psychic abilities or spiritual insight at the end.

Something about the descent experience allows people finally to see things that were there all along but that they hadn’t been able to see before.

This article was first printed at SurvivingAntidepressants.org. Sheila Joshi, the author and a  clinical psychologist, is recovering from severe neurological damage from prescription antidepressants. She has a blog here. She leads a site and forum on antidepressant withdrawal here. The other day I posted another article by Joshi, Psychiatric drug withdrawal, kundalini and shamanic initiatory illness

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